Twangin'!

Mike Ireland: Learning how to Live

Interview by Jeff Wall

I am on record as hating string sections in Country Music. They ought to be made illegal along with light shows and pyrotechnics at concerts. When I received a copy of Mike Ireland and Holler's debut disc on SubPop, I was warned that it had strings on it. After ample moral fortification I loaded it in the disc player and punched play. I just keep playing it over and over and over. Hard Core Honky Tonk Country Music. Dark stuff with feeling behind it.

Ireland is the lead singer and bass player for the band. Trying to play bass and sing at the same time will cause serious hurt to a mere mortal, but Ireland pulls it off. The disc is a powerful collection of music. But just wait until you see him live, like I did at Twangfest. That bass lays down a deep soul grove like you wouldn't believe. The drummer was hitting the snare so hard it sounded like a gunshot. And Ireland is pouring his heart and soul out to the crowd. Each song is like a 3 minute therapy session for him where he pulls his pain out for all to see.

After seeing Mike Ireland live, I'm ready to throw a sleeping bag into the truck and follow them around the country. I had forgotten how truly powerful music can be. "Country music today seems like they have turned away from the soul-type groove," says Ireland. "All that Southern Rock and 70s country had almost a soul feel to the rhythm section. Nowadays everything has a mechanical rhythm to it." Every beat is exactly the same." Talking about what makes his music different, he says, "I bet if you held a metronome on those tracks you'd probably be able to detect me speeding up and falling back."

But when he does it, it works. It brings life to the music. "If the song is making me dig in more and play faster into a chorus, the the song damn well needs to be played faster into the chorus. Live, the music takes you. In the studio it's different, but live, if the song wants to go somewhere, it's got to go there."

Mike Ireland started playing music in Columbia, Missouri. While attending college there, he met up with singer-songwriter Rich Smith. "We were in a band called And How, together for about five years. Then we formed the Starkweathers. And How was the first band I ever played bass in. I was actually studying the saxophone." And How was a local band that would play country, college clternative, and anything in between. The Starkweathers were one of the first Alt-Country bands.

The Starkweathers started getting attention from record labels. SubPop was very interested and was talking record contract.Then suddenly, the Starkweathers broke up. "I found out that my best friend and band mate had been having an affair with my wife. So I lost my band, lost my best friend, lost my marriage. It was a pretty devastating time of my life." Ireland spent a few months in therapy and then started writing songs.

"When I started writing stuff in the wake of the Starkweathers breaking up. The songs that came out seemed more and more Hard Country. I was sending these really rough demos off to the guy at at SubPop." SubPop is a Seattle based label that specialized in Grunge and Punk. With an artist roster like Nirvana and the Jesus and Mary Chain, how did a hard core country act end up with a record deal?" "Luck, just dumb luck. They had been very interested in The Starkweathers and when we split up, they signed me without ever hearing any of my songs. I was only writing and singing about 25% of the material in the Starkweathers. Then here I am with a record deal. I have no material, no band, no experience at being the front person. It was just complete dumb luck. They was very interested in what this might end up sounding like. And as the songs got more and more country I was afraid somebody was going to call me up and tell me the deal was off."

Normally losing your wife, best friend and your band would cause you to end up bitter. But not Mike Ireland. He has shaken off the demons and hit the road. "I am a happy man. I have a wonderful woman in my life. I am dating a woman in Boston right now and I'm very much in love with her. I would think that I would be more gun shy about that, but there's two ways to go with it. Either you decide you can't trust anyone and you shut yourself off from the world, or you realize that anyone could do this and your only response to this kind of thing is that you have to trust everybody, And people will always have the option of letting you down and hurting you. But they always have that option anyway. I think if anything, It's made me more likely to trust people than to not trust them."

Ireland plays country music with passion. His disc, Learning How to Live, should be sent to every label head in Nashville with a sticker on it that says "This is what Country Music should sound like." Ireland laughs and says in his humble way, "They'll write you back and say 'no it's not.' But I appreciate that. That's nice that people like it."

The band is busy touring. Later on in the year they will be opening up for Buck Owens in New York City on his birthday. "We are lucky, lucky, lucky people. It will be an honor and it will be a humbling experience to play with Buck Owens. I'll probably be too nervous to play. I'll just stand there and stare at him." Somehow I seriously doubt that. Buck's going to have to dig deep to match the energy that Mike Ireland and Holler put out.

A great record, a new love, and a new grip on life make Ireland truly lucky indeed. "We're going to be doing a lot of touring, We love playing for people. I still haven't gotten to the point where I have regrets about the record. I made the record that I wanted to make. Life is good." Mike Ireland has truly learned how to live.



Copyright 1997-1998 by Jeff Wall

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