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Open Mike Eagle on the Importance of Dive Bars and Embracing Failure

April 16, 2019

By Phillip Mlynar, April 16, 2019

On a spring afternoon in Brooklyn, Open Mike Eagle (or, more formally, Michael W. Eagle II) has finished sound check for a sold out show at Rough Trade and is strolling the couple of blocks to a nearby bar. Once settled inside the Kent Ale House, the Chicago-raised but now Los Angeles-based art rap pioneer and comedian orders a Narragansett.

It’s been a banner couple of years for Mike. His 2017 release Brick Body Kids Still Daydream became his breakthrough album, a critically-acclaimed concept project based on the Robert Taylor Houses situated on Chicago’s South Side. When the public housing complex was blitzed to the ground in 2007, it effectively erased the stories and history of nearly 30,000 residents. On the record, Mike reanimates the houses and uses them as a way to comment on a wider cycle of belonging and displacement. Branching further into the mainstream, Mike has spread his booksmart talents into the comedy world, with a soon-to-launch Comedy Central TV show “The New Negroes.” It’s a venture pitched as “a socially aware stand-up and music series,” and one of the first guests includes the Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man being persuaded “into doing some stuff he was uncomfortable with.” Rounding out his talents, Mike is also dabbling with a side career as a professional wrestler.

Battling the bar’s puzzling afternoon playlist of high octane ‘90s Eurodance tracks like “The Rhythm Of The Night,” I spoke to Mike about the challenges of writing concept-based albums, the potential horrors of the college tour circuit, and the importance of neighborhood bars.

On Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, you mention a bar called O’Doyle’s and talk about how it was a sanctuary for the community, but then it suddenly closes.
Yeah, the place was actually in Astoria in New York City. I used to go there a lot when I was younger—there were comics I used to hang out with when I was in New York and we'd go to bars. This one night we were going to this spot we used to always go to all the time, Hell Gate Social, and it was closed. It fucked us up. We can't go to the place? It gave me this little tinge of displacement and that whole album's about displacement, so I thought it fit in there.

Local bars are important to a community, especially socially. I have another song called "Dive Bar Support Group" and it's about people who depend on each other—they're codependent and meet at the bar because they don't want to go home. I live in LA, one of the most expensive cities in the country, but there's lots of really cheap dive bars if you know where to look. I have a feeling the people who own those places aren't trying to cater to a new hip clientele. People get together to commiserate, to celebrate, to drink.

So, is the O’Doyle’s bar on the album an amalgam for a few bars?
It's that. It stood for a few different places. I feel free to take any creative license. To me, there's a certain way to approach a song where we're making it very clear it's autobiographical and if I'm doing that I'm not gonna take creative license, but if I'm just telling a story from the first person, I don't think it has to be real at all. In fact, I think it's more interesting creatively if I'm allowed to create whatever I want to paint. If anything, I've become more autobiographical. I’m trying to make myself a little more personal in my music.

Do you find that difficult? Is there a defense mechanism involved?
That is exactly what's happening. I don't really want to be all the way vulnerable and I talk around a lot of stuff in my music—I’ll talk around trauma and stuff. I'm trying to be more direct, but I'm fuckin' terrified of it.

So you get there, this is it: folding table, we're outside, and there's the two speakers on the pole. Okay, let's get this over with.”

You have a Comedy Central show launching soon. How have you found writing for TV rather than writing songs?
It's been challenging for me because I'm not used to collaborating on that level. I'm not used to a room full of creatives having to agree on everything. My process is very internal and I answer to no one. But it's the difference in stakes. My stakes are lower, like, I make rap music in kind of a niche market and the infusions of cash I get from record labels are not large and nobody's losing a job if my album doesn't perform. But it's different with TV. It's my first time doing anything creative with a corporation. We were given a lot of license to do anything we could explain, as long as we had a clear precise reason. The issue with us wouldn't be trying to do something for a silly reason, but we'd be trying to do too much in too little time, like make some grand statement in a piece of dialog that's going to be 40 seconds after cutting. We'd get a little lofty sometimes.

Do you think that since Brick Body Kids, people expect more of you as an artist?
I do think that's part of it and I've been able to see that on this tour—the response to Brick Body Kids is the one that resonated, one that people are pointing to. I think the concept was pretty easy to wrap your head around at first, which is always a thing I struggle with it. The log line was there: it's a rap album about the Robert Taylor Homes. I struggle with that because pretty much all of my projects are concept projects, but how clearly can I explain the project? I've been doing this for a while, man, I put out my first album in 2010, so I think that concept also met up with me improving as a songwriter, as a beat chooser, as a recording artist. I think I'm able to execute my ideas better now.

You’re on tour at the moment. What’s the most bizarre place you’ve played?
I do a lot of college shows and those are a real gamble every time. One of the recent ones I did, the venue was a patio to one of the buildings and they had just put a table and an air-quotes 'sound system.' The thing about college shows that’s challenging in and of itself is you have children running things, you know what I mean? They're learning! And I'm trying to be a professional! So you get there, this is it: folding table, we're outside, and there's the two speakers on the pole. Okay, let's get this over with. A storm starts brewing and we don't have any cover. They decide to take the show into the student union, into the basement where people are studying. They erect the table and the soundsystem and are like, “Here you go!”

Did you go ahead and play the show?
Yeah, I played! They paid me a lot of money! But I think everybody involved is worse off from that evening: It cost me at least a month of my life, plus the psychological contortions I had to do to make it through that, plus grades probably suffered, and I'm sure the kids who threw that show will never throw another one. Something happened in that show that never happens: At the midpoint of my performance there were 30 kids in this room. By the time I was done, there were like seven. I just noted, ‘this is terrible’. I have to be very present to it 'cause I need to learn the things and experience the experiences. I don't think I've properly cried it out, you know what I mean, 'cause that was like a year and a half ago. It's good for me to remember.

As we were walking here I was thinking, 'I have to take stock,' 'cause when you have a sold out show in Brooklyn, in this big nice room, it's like, yeah, the work is headed somewhere, we're laying the groundwork for things that are successful. But the college shows are off the beaten path in a way and very insulated from the world—there’s no accountability really from the student programming committees about how that money is spent, so they don't give a shit if nobody shows up and it's not promoted. Believe me, the reason you do it is because they pay you a lot, a lot more than the market rate, but it costs you the experience of doing a terrible show.

If you saw a patio table now, would it set you off?
Not quite... I haven't ascribed my trauma on to patio furniture in general.

I can tell a terrible bar—the first way you know you're in a terrible bar is the floor is sticky. If you walk in and your feet feel sticky, leave, because it's all gonna go downhill.”

Did drinking feature in your own college experience?
Well, I started drinking a lot of beer in college, because I was a vagrant and I didn't have any money. I used to drink a lot of malt liquor, real awful shit. It's so bad. There was this shit called—I forget the name of it—but it was this tall can of malt liquor that was like 10% alcohol and it tasted like battery acid. This was the early 2000s. I think my alcohol drinking was such that I couldn't really handle hard drinks then, so we were all about trying beers and ciders and working out how to slowly get drunk. But now, when I grab a beer, I like an amber ale like Fat Tire.

What sort of bar do you usually wind up in when you’re touring?
I think I've seen every type of bar. I can tell a terrible bar—the first way you know you're in a terrible bar is the floor is sticky. If you walk in and your feet feel sticky, leave, because it's all gonna go downhill. Usually, that's also a sign they're not mopping it properly. It's just a bad sign. I do a lot of rap shows in places where the bartenders have prejudged what kind of show this is going to be based on it being a rap show. The bar may have switched its offerings for the night, ‘Oh, is it Crown Royal night? Alright! Sure!’ Or, like, if you tip the bartender, they look at you shocked, like that kind of thing.

But it's interesting, because I go to a lot of bars and people don't talk to me. My only guess is that people don't talk to me because they don't know what to make of me. Like, I think I look like something they don't understand. Also, my face is probably in my phone, because I'm not expecting anyone to talk to me, so I'm probably not giving the most inviting vibe. There’s something a little sad about seeing so many people staring at phones while sitting at the bar. I miss seeing more people reading books in bars.

Photo by Kim Newmoney

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