Jeff Pearlman

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Michael Eisenstein

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Melissa Etheridge's lead guitarist talks riffs, ska, Reigning Monarchs, Letters to Cleo and, from Boston to Los Angeles, a lifetime of sweet music. POSTED December 4, 2013

yeah

I love guitarists.

I love Eddie Van Halen and I love Ace Frehley and I love Jeff Beck and I love Jimmy Page and I love Slash and I love Tommy Shaw. My all-time favorite group (well, duo) is Hall and Oates—and I’m the one guy who thinks Oates is the heart and soul of the outfit.

Again, I love guitarists.

They’re just … cool. And, generally, understated. They’re not the lead singer (bright spotlight), but they’re not the drummer (darkness). Without them, the show doesn’t go on. And yet … one might think the show could go on.

I’m babbling. Today’s Quaz features the exceptional Michael Eisenstein, best known as the former Letters to Cleo guitarist, now working as both Melissa Etheridge’s lead guitarist and as one of two men leading the Reigning Monarchs, a group that performs, in his words, “surf-ska punkabilly to gothic modern loungecore.” Here, Michael talks licks and musical survival; the impact drug addiction has on a family and the impact great music has made on his life.

One can follow Michael on Twitter here, and find the Reigning Monarchs’ website here.

Michael Eisenstein, welcome to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Mike, I was going through some old clips, and I found an article about Letters to Cleo in the July 9, 1995 Boston Globe. In it was a sentence that read, “Aurora Gory Alice,” the band’s 1993 album, has sold more than 116,000 copies, fueled by the peppy single “Here and Now,” which got invaluable exposure on the soundtrack of TV’s “Melrose Place.” And I thought to myself—Jesus Christ, that’s such nonsense. Meaning, you had this great song on this great album, and it took a stupid, inane, dumb-ass, disposable TV show to give you the boost you needed. I guess I’m wondering: How have you put up with this crap for so many years? Working in a business (music) that’s so fickle and awkward and often rewarding of surface nonsense over genuine substance? Or, ahem, am I just way off on this one? 

MICHAEL EISENSTEIN: It’s not a job for the faint of heart. You pay a ton of dues and hopefully are good enough to end up in the position to end up on a soundtrack like that. Our song wasn’t randomly picked to the the single, it was good. The question becomes, “Can you parlay that break into a career?” Some bands go on to have multiple hits, a few have a series of huge records. In our case, we released a few more singles that didn’t do as well as the one before and we eventually got dropped and broke up. But we spent a lot of time touring and recording at a fairly high level from 1992 to 1999, and everyone came out of that band knowing what they were doing. As a result, four out of the five members of what I consider the “classic lineup” have cool, multifaceted careers in the music business today.

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 5.56.33 PMJ.P.: I know you’re from Wayne, N.J. I know you were in Cleo. I know you’re a killer guitarist. But what was your life path from there to here? What led you to music? When did you realize this was what you wanted to do?

M.E.: My mother was a classical pianist as a child and teen (whose career ended with a hand injury) and as a result I grew up with a Steinway in the house. I loved playing that thing until I started taking lessons at age 9. My older brother was a drummer and I used to mess around on his drums a little and liked that but then I started playing the electric guitars his bandmates were leaving in our basement and I got hooked. I was 13 and got my own guitar for my 14th birthday. My next-door neighbor happened to be one of the best guitarists in town and I started taking lessons from him and got serious right away. Within two years, I was dedicated and working toward a career in music.

J.P.: I loved Letters to Cleo. I truly did. But, while your band was certainly big compared to most, it never supersonic blew up, in the way of a No Doubt or Pearl Jam or Nirvana or … whoever. I often ask good-but-not-legendary baseball players to explain the differences between themselves and, say, Ken Griffey, Jr. But I’ve never asked a musician. So, Mike, what’s the difference between Letters to Cleo and—for the sake of comparison—a No Doubt? Why did they explode, and you guys merely popped?

M.E.: There were some business mistakes and turnover at the label, which are typical problems. The main thing was we had a lead singer who not only didn’t want to be a star, but more or less viewed commercial success as selling out. The band has to want it.

J.P.: As you know, Quaz No. 121 featured Kay Hanley, your Cleo bandmate and ex-wife. I absolutely loved Kay’s honesty, especially about addiction and family/career/friend loss. However, I do think too often the focus is solely on the addict, and not on those impacted. Mike, you were/are with Kay for more than two decades. You have two children. What is it like watching someone you love fall prey to addiction? How did it impact you?

M.E.: It’s the worst. It’s not so much about “watching the person you love fall prey”—it’s about how you get dragged into their addiction and its behaviors and become part of it. You might not be an alcoholic/addict, but that’s the world you find yourself living in. Their downward spiral doesn’t exist in a vacuum, they’re grabbing onto anything close and dragging it down with them, at least in my case. The biggest impact was that I very suddenly found myself a single parent of two and having to come to grips with the fact that that might be the scenario for a very long time. Losing your best friend sucks, too.

J.P.: You tour with Melissa Etheridge. Which is amazing and cool and sweet and impressive. I’m wondering what it’s like to be part of “the band.” Meaning, you get introduced once per night, but generally fade into the background—an essential musician, but not the guy the audience came to see. Was that ever something you had to adjust to? Is it ideal? Neither? Both?

M.E.: Well, this isn’t a new role for me. From 1998-2001, as Cleo was petering out, I recorded and toured with Nina Gordon from Veruca Salt. Even though she was also from a rock band background, I got comfortable with being a “hired gun” pretty quickly. And most of my gigs since, whether touring or local, have been sideman jobs. Learn the parts that someone else played, match the guitar sounds to the record, show up and play. It’s rewarding in a different way and a lot less pressure.

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 5.56.08 PMJ.P.: So you and Greg Behrendt are the front guys of the Reigning Monarchs, a group that performs, in your words, “surf-ska punkabilly to gothic modern loungecore.” I listened to a bunch of your songs, and really dug it. Kinda reminded me of a mix between 1960s beach movies and Cake. Question is—why? You’re 40-something years old. You have a sweet gig. Is the goal to make lots of money? To be played on pop radio? To tour and become famous? Just for funky kicks? What’s the motivation?

M.E.: It began as a production job, then became a fun but infrequent local gig with friends but evolved into my primary creative outlet. I love to play the guitar, I love arranging songs and producing records. I’m in the fortunate position that my career and hobby overlap a lot. The band breaks even now and hopefully with this record we’ll see some profits but it’s not meant to be a career for either of us. If the goal was to make money or get on the radio, instrumental rock would not be my vehicle.  Of course, in the unlikely event that it became a moneymaker I would be thrilled and happy to focus on that as my job.

J.P.: Like you, I have two kids. I travel for work every so often—perhaps one week away every three months. As a touring musician, you must be away all the time. How do you manage? Do you ever feel guilty, like your kids might be missing out, or you might be missing out? What are the complications that accompany being a dad guitar player?

M.E.: When the kids were little, it was really hard. Especially right after Henry (my younger) was born. He got very sick as an infant and at one point I had to leave town to go on the road while he was still in the hospital. It was shortly thereafter that we moved to L.A. with the goal of getting off the road and doing more writing and producing. Now that they’re older, it’s been nice to get back out there. We miss each other but we have a lot of technology that makes it easier.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Absolute lowest?

M.E.: I’d have to say the greatest moment was when I walked out of my day job and started an unlikely run as a professional musician. The lowest is hard to say. There have been a few periods where things dried up for a while and I wasn’t playing or writing and I tend to get depressed when that happens. If you’re looking for an anecdote, a couple years ago I played with Katharine McPhee at the Greek Theatre here in L.A. I had to pack up my gear and leave right away to get to a poorly booked Reigning Monarchs show at this little dump on the Sunset Strip. There was a lot of bad information and I arrived to find out that we were only getting a 10-minute set. It almost broke Reigning Monarchsup the band. That stands out for going from the high to the low within a couple of hours.

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 5.56.24 PMJ.P.: You recently Tweeted, “Every now and then I dislike a song so much i Shazam it just to know who is responsible. Congratulations, 30 Seconds to Mars.” This might sound dumb, but I’m always reluctant to slam the abilities of other authors, because I know how friggin’ hard and torturous this can be. Do you not feel that way with music? What, specifically, makes you hear a song and think/say, “Jesus Christ, that fucking blows?”

M.E.: The negative tweet is something that I rarely do and am not big on. I even contemplated deleting that tweet but it got quite a lot of likes, favorites and re-tweets so I left it up. I would never do it to an up and coming artist but I think you get a little leeway with millionaire celebrities.

J.P.: What’s the difference between a good guitarist and a great friggin’ guitarist? What are the attributes that make exceptional? And, along those lines, how would you rank yourself?

M.E.: A good guitarist can be someone who writes and plays great parts within a band, has mastered one specific genre but maybe doesn’t have a particularly unique sound or voice, or a solid ‘jack of all trades’ guy who can play just about anything pretty well. And just to clarify, by “good” I’m talking about very, very good professionals. Guys whom most people would call amazing. The greats are the guys you can recognize instantly. Stylists who bring their own thing to the instrument. Sometimes it’s an innovator like Hendrix, a virtuoso like Pat Metheny or just a unique combination of influences and approach like Joey Santiago or Andy Summers. I rank myself as good.

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 12.08.02 AMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH MICHAEL EISENSTEIN:

A couple of years ago Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley allowed guys not named Ace Frehley and Peter Criss to wear Ace Frehley and Peter Criss makeup. Good business decision, or disloyal greedy bullshit?: I don’t like Kiss, at all. If someone cares which guy is wearing which makeup, I’m not the guy to complain to.

• Five greatest guitarists of your lifetime?: I’ll just list my favorites: John Scofield, Mike Campbell, Eddie Van Halen, Bill Frisell, George Harrison.

• Best joke you know?: Q: What’s the difference between a drummer and a pepperoni pizza? A: A pepperoni pizza can feed a family of four.

• One question you’d ask Ed Jurak were he here right now?: Did you ever beat up Mike Watt in High School?

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Chico Walker, placemats, pottery making, Dodger Stadium, UB40, Boston Phoenix, Matt Dillon, Orange is the New Black, Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, Craigslist, Vin Diesel, Tanya Tucker: Dodger Stadium, Orange is the New Black, Boston Phoenix, Craigslist, UB40, Pottery, Wrath of Kahn, Matt Dillon, Chico Walker, Placemats, Tanya Tucker (does anyone else remember a band called Canya Fucker?) Vin Diesel.

• How many times a year do you listen to a Letters to Cleo song?: Some years zero, sometime a bunch if we’re going to play. I might revisit something, usually for reference once or twice in a year. I like it, though.

• Best and worst musical venues in America?: My favorite is The Fillmore in San Francisco and least favorite was this place in Baltimore called Fletcher’s that is no longer around. Any musician who ever loaded into that place can tell you why.

• Why does a singer screaming, “Hello [Fill in a town name]!” make such an impact on people?: Because people like acknowledgement and most people like where they live.

• Would you rather tour with Ashley Simpson for five-straight years or slice off one of your nipples?: I’ll take Ashley “best nosejob in the history of plastic surgery” Simpson.

This is my all-time favorite song. Give me your breakdown, please: Vocals are so loud I can’t hear the guitars very well. It all seems kind of noodle-y, I’m over a minute in and I haven’t latched on to a theme in the music or lyrics. And here comes the radical dynamic shift, full band entry. Good drummer. Not sure I’ll remember much about that later today.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life