When I first met Michael Flannery, he was a local rock star, and that’s no hyperbole. In 2000, he was one half of an act that was, albeit briefly, about as popular an attraction as a band on the Jersey club circuit ever could be. I’ve seen the Feelies at Maxwell’s many times, Bob Mould to ring in the new year, Yo La Tengo, the Bongos, all the state heroes. The most crowded I ever saw that room was for Little T & One-Track Mike. There were kids on top of kids on top of kids on those risers for those shows. Many of them had just graduated from Rutgers. Little T & One-Track Mike — Tim Sullivan and Michael Flannery — had, too.
I was very lucky to be on some of those bills. I have no idea what those crowds thought of me or my combo, and a part of me doesn’t want to know. They were there for the headliner, and I was happy to be along for the ride; those were, to cop a phrase from Craig Finn, some massive nights. What was important, at least to me, was that Little T & One-Track Mike themselves appreciated what we were doing, and were always supportive. For those who were too young or who just don’t recall, the duo (who usually performed with a band) did something not unlike what Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have been up to for the past decade and a half. Tim was the very earnest, very witty, mostly-PG rapper, and Mike was the producer/multi-instrumentalist who pulled from all sorts of music and generally kept things sunny. The live show was an absolute blast, and anybody who claims otherwise wasn’t in the room.
Before anybody really knew what was happening, the label scouts were out, and Little T & One Track Mike were snapped up by Atlantic Records and sent to conquer America. There was a tour with OutKast, a guest verse from Slick Rick, a video on MTV; I wasn’t really conscious of any of that, as I was busy playing Planescape: Torment or miniature golfing or something. Somebody involved in that scene — it might have been Andy Gesner, now that I think of it — called me to say that Little T & One-Track Mike might ask me to join their crew on synthesizer. This terrified me. My dirty little secret then, which was not widely known around town, was that I didn’t want to be a rock star. I wanted to cling to Hudson County, and Maxwell’s, and the moment, like a drowning man with a life preserver.
Shortly after that — and I remember this like it was yesterday — I got a call from Mike. I decided to take the initiative and demur. I believe I made up some garbage about pressing things I had to attend to. He laughed and cut me off.
“Man,” he said, “we’re not calling because we want you to join our band. We’re calling because we want you to be our friend.”
This was straightforward. I respected it. I’m sure I felt pretty stupid, but that was nothing new. Anyway, Little T & One-Track Mike went the way most major label acts do, and everybody returned to the New Jersey metropolitan area, as I like to call it. Little T changed his name to Tim Fite, signed on with ANTI-, and cut a series of really good folk/rap records; my favorite is Over The Counter Culture, which came out in 2007 and still makes me laugh when I think about it ten years later. Mike continued producing music for other acts and made a bunch of acclaimed children’s records with his brother. But he never put out an album of his own. Until now.
There are twelve songs on Try Your Hardest, the Mr. Flannery & His Feelings album; I’m on most of them. On Thursday night, we’re going to attempt to play the album in its entirety, which’ll be a stretch for me, as I’m going to try to cover piano parts that I have no business attempting to play. But like a tabby cat, I enjoy stretching. I’m grateful to Mike for letting me scribble MS2000 parts all over his songs, I’m pleased he asked me and my combo to warm up the crowd at Pianos for him (I’m on at 8, and then the main event happens at 9; Maia from Kid In The Attic is doing a solo thing at 10.) Practices for this show have sounded really good, and Mike has been able to call on people he’s met during a life in showbiz to give him a hand, including — and I am dead serious here — the former singer of Chic, who’s going to be duetting with him on a song called “Full Grown And Ready.” No kidding. She sounds great!, and yeah, you didn’t need me to tell you that. If you ever want to feel really self-conscious about your playing, here’s a surefire way to do it: get a member of Chic in the room. That ought to confirm your suspicion that you’re no Omar Hakim.
But no, I’m never surprised by the people Mike pulls through the practice door, because making personal connections happen between artists is what he’s always been about. If he wants to be your friend, there’s nothing cagy about it — he’ll come out and say so. And while that’s served him well over the years and earned him a deep reservoir of good will, I’m not ashamed to say that it’s served me even better. Every single person I’ve met through Mike has been creative, sweet, humble, intelligent, and altogether worth knowing; I’m not sure where I fit into all of that, but heck, there’s got to be a black sheep in every bunch. Mike introduced me to the designer of the Almanac site (that’s Chris Littler, who sings for the Chamber Band), the woman who drew most of the cartoons on the city pages (that’s Ula Bloom, whose images continue to inspire me), the drummer who cut the basic tracks for many of these new songs, including the goofy kinda-hair-metal number we uploaded yesterday (that’s Eric Tait, whose studio, The Farm, is a wonderful place to hang out and make music); his wife Katherine, who has rapidly become one of my favorite people, and even his mom and dad, who are Jersey artists, too. (Mike’s mother painted the album cover; his father is a psych-rocker and guitar-builder.) I’ve got a tendency to withdraw and write and play games and spin Tropicalia records at home all day; it’s a pleasant way to spend time, but ultimately, it isn’t very good for me or the world around me. I thank Mike for dusting me off and airing me out.
Much of the recording for Try Your Hardest was done in a little room at Bass Hit Studios on 26th Street in Manhattan. That’s the same place where I wrote the songs that became the Almanac project, many of them on the same red guitar that Mike is going to play at Pianos tomorrow night. I’d rented time in that room from Mike after running into him at the Grove Street PATH Station; I’d told him then and there about an ill-defined musical project I wanted to do that was better left undone. But Mike was willing to take it seriously, and he helped me re-focus and discipline my thinking so that it could take the shape of songs again. That was a fortunate meeting for me: I’m pretty confident I wouldn’t have gone on a writing streak without the encouragement and the studio resources. In fact I’ve grown so accustomed to coming away from an encounter with Mike with an opportunity in my bag that I fear I might start taking it for granted. I doubt I’m the only one. Tomorrow night, everybody gets in on the action. It ought to be something to see.