INTERVIEW Mike Simonetti

Shortly after the release of his album, ‘Solipsism’ – a culmination of older tracks from what he considered his most creatively accelerated years – Mike Simonetti sits and chats with Torture the Artist from the comfort of his own home in New Jersey. Caught up in his routine of typical and not-so-typical activities, the DJ / Producer / Label Owner and most importantly, father, lets us in with no filter, and takes on some deep-drilling questions about the past, present and future. As the New Jersey native reminisces about the past, we catch a glimpse of the NYC underground during some of its most defining years, and get a sneak peek into the joy of fatherhood as he talks about the present. An influential and longstanding presence in the erratic New York house music scene, Mike skips the glitz and glamor of the industry and gets to the nitty gritty on the struggles as well as the real perks of being an artist, label owner, DJ/Producer in this day and age.

Torture the Artist: Hello Mike, where you are sitting at the moment and what you have planned for the rest of your day? Also, let’s pick a track of yours that would resonate most with the mood you wish to answer the following questions with.

Mike Simonetti: I am sitting at the kitchen table while my son does his homework next to me. For the rest of the day – I have to make sure the homework is done, check it and get dinner started and all that stuff. Song-wise… man, I don’t know. Uh, maybe ‘Love’ because my kids are at home, sitting with me.

MikeSimonetti_4_BW by Gemma Hamilton
Picture by Gemma Hamilton

Torture the Artist: We’ve read up a bit about you and bumped into you in some local NYC underground parties, and intel has it you are from New Jersey. Can you tell us a little bit about your hometown and how it was like growing up in it?

Mike Simonetti: I grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, which is right across the river from Manhattan, but there is no subway or public transportation, so you’re sorta stuck there. To get to NYC you would have to take a 45 minute bus ride to the PATH train, so it would end up taking about an hour and a half when it’s really only a 15 minute drive… Growing up was your typical 1980s/1990s lifestyle. I was a punk rock/skater and I was constantly looking over my shoulder and dodging the jocks andguidos,trying not to get into fights or jumped because I looked different.In Bayonne at that time, there was a group of 10 hardcore kids and about 15 metal heads and we all hung out together and watched each others’ backs the best we could. I grew up playing baseball and basketball, so I was in good standing with a lot of the jock types, but I still got into a lot of fights. Other than that, I skated a lot, went to shows, and all that stuff.

Torture the Artist: At that time was there a particular music scene in Bayonne or were you very much more immersed in New York’s?

Mike Simonetti: There was no music scene in Bayonne. We went to NYC for that.  I was a metal head (and still am) and around 1987 I got into hardcore through metal, basically by reading the thanks lists on the back of metal records. Whatever bands they mentioned, I would track down. And all the trash metal bands listened to hardcore. By the late 1980s I was immersed in the CBGB’s hardcore scene. I would go to the hardcore matinees every Sunday. That’s how it all started. I was lucky I lived so close to NYC, otherwise I’d be fucked.

Torture the Artist: When did you start to realize your lifetime love affair with music? Did you start off and remain in the realm of house or had you tried to venture into other genres?

Mike Simonetti: I always felt that way since the first time I bought my first cassette. One of the first tapes I owned was Joan Jett’s ‘I Love Rock N Roll’. I listened to it all the time. Same with Def Leppard. I’ve always been into music. I would tape songs off the radio and listen to them over and over. Though, I didn’t get into house music until the late 1980s.

Torture the Artist: The depth and complexity of your music reflect a high level of personal and artistic introspect, which makes us curious about young Michael. What did you wish to grow up to be at the age of 5? Do you ever think of how life could’ve been if you stuck with these ambitions?

Mike Simonetti: When I was 5, I wanted to be a baseball player. I was decent at sports but as I got older, I knew it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t a young Derek Jeter or anything. My father pushed me in that direction because he was old school and to him, that’s what boys did, they played baseball.

Torture the Artist: What’s a hidden talent you have that is not music related?

Mike Simonetti: I am pretty good at sports. I’m not a super jock, but I can hold my own in basketball, baseball, and (American) football.

Torture the Artist: Can you remember your first gig as a DJ? Where did you play and how were the vibes? Did you fall right in love with the New York nightlife or did it take some time to warm up to it?

Mike Simonetti: I don’t remember my first gig actually. But yes, I did fall in love with the New York City nightlife immediately. It was an instant attraction, I loved it. From then on, I always ended up at the clubs.

MikeSimonetti_3_BW by Gemma Hamilton.jpg
Picture by Gemma Hamilton

Torture the Artist: Since most of the artists we have had on our channel are from Europe, can you share some scoop with our readers about the underground music scene you not only played part in but help shape. How was New York in the 90’s – any particular memories or events that stick with you til this very day.

Mike Simonetti: NY in the 1990s was a wild place. In the early 1990s, as the nightlife scene was falling apart and clubs were closing because of violence and drugs, a lot of underground places were popping up. By the mid 1990s house music was more underground. Places like Shelter and Twilo were still going strong. Also around then hip hop was becoming really big. But by the mid 1990s I wasn’t going to nightclubs as much because of the violence. I was more into hardcore. I started my label Troubleman in 1993. Around 1990 CBGB was becoming super violent as well and a bunch of people started doing shows at ABCNORIO. That became the place I spent the most time at in the early 1990s. I started by doing a fanzine in 1991 and the label grew out of that. Most of my memories are of going to shows at ABCNORIO and starting the label. By the late 1990s Troubleman was really big and it sorta grew out of control.

Torture the Artist: You’ve had an eventful career so far (and counting!) as a DJ, Producer, label owner – which is one of the most decisive and momentous years as an artist? And in your personal life?

Mike Simonetti: I think I feel most at home making music. I’m not a good business person, I ran Troubleman into the ground. I think I’m an OK A&R person, I am good at finding artists but not on the business side. I wouldn’t be able to make music if it wasn’t so easy because of computers. I’m not what you would call a real musician.

I take a lot of my production cues from rap producers.

Torture the Artist: Who are among your greatest artistic influences? Which artist would you take into your studio and whose studio would you run into in a heartbeat.

Mike Simonetti: Jeez…there are a lot. Ian Mackaye/Dischord records was my greatest influence, even to this day- especially when it comes to artistic integrity. As far as producers, definitely my all time favorites are probably DJ Premier and RZA. I take a lot of my production cues from rap producers, because I grew up around it, being in NYC. I like Prince Paul, EL-P, DJ Shadow (first album only) and Pete Rock a lot as well. From the rock world, Kevin Shields, Rick Rubin, George Martin, Jeff Lynne, Phil Spector. Also, Bobby Konders. Quincy Jones, Brian Eno… I would love to sit with Kevin Shields in a studio. That would be cool.

Torture the Artist: You’ve produced and DJ’ed as Mike Simonetti, but you are also part of quite a successful and unique duo – Pale Blue. First, how do you balance doing both for both. Both projects have their own character and the differentiation makes sense, but there’s a certain essence that connect them. When conceptualizing an idea of a new track, do you have a particular thought process whether to go solo or get Liz on board?

Mike Simonetti: I tend to have it in mind who I’m writing for. I write for Liz, I send her songs through email and she does a demo and then she will redo the vocals, and send the stems…

I’m not a science geek, that’s for sure, but I am definitely a Carl Sagan geek.

Torture the Artist: How did Pale Blue come about? There seems to be plenty of film/science references – would you consider yourself a film buff, science geek or both.

Mike Simonetti: I’m not a science geek, that’s for sure, but I am definitely a Carl Sagan geek. I’ve always been obsessed with space and the universe… since I was a little kid. Pale Blue came about by accident. I was asked to remix Liz’s old indie dance band called Silver Hands. I loved her voice so I asked her to sing on a song, and I kept sending her songs and Pale Blue came about that way.

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Picture by Gemma Hamilton

Torture the Artist: When did you decide to start your own label 2MR, and what made you do it? Name your favorite release on the label and an artist you would sign again?

Mike Simonetti: I started it after I left Italians Do It Better, another label I started and owned for almost 10 years. I had a Pale Blue LP ready for release, but I left IDIB, so I sent it to Mike from Captured Tracks. He told me he wanted to release it, but I didn’t think it was a good fit for an indie label. So he said ‘I’ll give you a label’. That’s how it started. Adam who runs 2MR with me, also works at CT as the accountant. I don’t have a ‚favorite’ release, but the Pale Blue LP is 2MR 001 so it holds a special place in my heart.

I tend to make better music in the mornings right after I wake up. It’s weird because I am a night person.

Torture the Artist: How much time do you spend DJing, in the studio and running a label? Oh and a family too! Are you happy with that ratio right now? Would you rather a consistent balance or prefer to carry along on a day to day basis.

Mike Simonetti: I am currently without a booking agent, so I haven’t been DJing as much as I used to. I used to be overseas every weekend. So I am home a lot, which is fine by me because I like being here with the kids. I write music whenever I feel like it. There’s no real set time or anything. But I tend to make better music in the mornings right after I wake up. It’s weird because I am a night person, but I write better in the mornings. If anyone wants to book me, let me know – I’m here!

Torture the Artist: To preserve a career for more than two decades in an underground music scene that is not as stable as across the Atlantic, is quite an achievement. How do you manage to keep propelling yourself forward through time? Do you give yourself timelines or deadlines, or just let it flow?

Mike Simonetti: I let it flow. DJing overseas helps a lot, as well as just releasing good music.

Torture the Artist: Any tips for fellow artists on how to motivate yourself during the lulls?

Mike Simonetti: I wish I knew, because I get the lulls all the time and it can be very depressing.  I just try not to think about it, but it can be hard.

What if I’m the only one who exists and the world around me is something I made up.

Torture the Artist: You chose to name your upcoming album Solipsism, how do you relate to this particular theory ‘that only one’s own mind is sure to exist.’

Mike Simonetti: It’s something that I’ve always been interested in. When I was young I would have these weird flashes in my head like ‘What if I’m the only one who exists and the world around me is something I made up’ I would obsess over it. It would freak me out. Isolation, loneliness, detachment.. We have all felt this way before..

Torture the Artist: Solipsism ‘contains works from 2006-2013, eight years which you personally deemed ‘most creatively accelerated’ how distant are you to your state of mind during these years. Is there a track of yours from outside this time period which can also fit the theme of the album?

Mike Simonetti: That was when I finally figured out how to make music for myself.  I was finally comfortable and I was pumping out ideas, trying to keep the Italians Do It Better identity as well as my own voice. I was in a different mind state then. Those songs were for a film that was scrapped.

Torture the Artist: Which track in the upcoming album do you feel most attached to and which track did you find it most difficult to complete for whatever reason.

Mike Simonetti: I didn’t really have a hard time with any of these songs. I really like ‘The Edge’, because it incorporates classic French poetry and a vocal, and it is very dark. It was written after the Jersey Shore was destroyed by the hurricane.

Many people move to LA to try to be something they are not.

Torture the Artist: On side A of the bonus LP is ‘Acceptance’. You started off’Solipsism’in ‘The Edge’ and conclude with a ‘Requiem’ – does completing this 24:25 minute track convey some form of closure, and with what? You complement ‘Acceptance’with Los Angeles, should we expect you to move to the West Coast soon?

Mike Simonetti: Hell no. I would never live in LA. That place is only good for short visits. ‘Los Angeles. is sort of a shit take on certain people in my life moving to LA to make it big. Many people move to LA to try to be something they are not. As is ‘Acceptance, I never wear a mask. It’s safe to say I wear my heart on my sleeve and I don’t like to hold back. Musically I’m the same way.

Torture the Artist: List the last 5 songs you played on Soundcloud.

Mike Simonetti: I am working on a video project for Conde Nast, so the last 5 things I listened to were drafts I uploaded for them. Not very exciting this time, I’m afraid.

Torture the Artist: Can we expect more collaborations in the near future?

Mike Simonetti: I just finished a Pale Blue song called ‘DIVE’. It is the saddest song we have ever written. Liz really dug deep for this one. I played it out last weekend and a few people came up to me and said they felt like crying. Not your ideal track for 3:30 AM, I guess…

Interview by Marie J. Floro