The last time MAGNET touched base with Mike Viola for a proper interview, he’d just shed his Candy Butchers shell and was promoting his 2005 solo album, Just Before Dark. In the ensuing 15 years, the Massachusetts native has found a permanent home in Los Angeles and busied himself as a creative collaborator, guitarist and producer, working with Ryan Adams, Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco, Jenny Lewis, Mandy Moore and others. He’s also been working for the Verve Label Group, nurturing the young careers of Grammy-nominated artists J.S. Ondara and Madison Cunningham, among others.
“It never dawned on me that A&R would be something I’d like, but I’ve been doing it for four years now,” says Viola. “Where art and commerce meet is a very tricky, slippery slope, and I’m fascinated by it.”
Most recently, Viola has been weathering the pandemic like the rest of us. In particular, he’s had to process the COVID-related death of Fountains Of Wayne co-founder Adam Schlesinger in March. The two were former roommates and kindred spirits in New York, and Viola sang on the Schlesinger-penned title track to That Thing You Do!, the Oscar-nominated 1996 Tom Hanks film. His close friend’s illness and passing provided Viola with the jolt that led to the completion of his new solo release, Godmuffin (Good Morning Monkey/Grand Phony), due December 11.
“It just seemed like he’d be the guy to pull out of it,” says Viola of his old friend. “Then he got this treatment he started to respond to, and it was like, ‘Yeah, of course. By the end of the week, he’s going to be texting us. Fuckin’ Adam.’ But it kept dragging on, and I was so sad for him, his kids and his family. It just hit me that I could be making music. That’s what we both loved to do more than anything.”
Godmuffin’s warmth, intimacy and playfulness are at least partly derived from the recording process. All of it was written, played and recorded by Viola at his home studio and mixed on a vintage Auditronics console (think Big Star) with zero digital editing.
“It’s definitely not a perfect-sounding record, and that’s the contract I make with myself when I do this stuff,” says Viola. “I grew up in the ’80s, where all you did was punch in instead of just playing it over again. Then indie rock happened. In the spirit of that, I have an eight-track reel-to-reel Otari MX-5050 half-inch tape machine, which is what all those SST records were done on.”
Viola concedes that the bittersweet throwback vibe of songs like “We May Never Be This Young Again” has some modest transformative aspirations. “The overriding idea is that time is a construct,” he says. “The past is right here, and it’s available to me. It’s not nostalgia—it’s the sights and sounds and tactile elements of my formative years. You can look through everything, and it’s a mess, but you can access that stuff. I think that comes with age.”
The lyric video benefits from candid clips of Viola and his Candy Butchers mate, Todd Foulsham, back in the day. “All the footage is from when we were in this shitty ’80s band, and we were just sitting around drinking beers,” he says. “Lyric videos can be not very purposeful, and I thought it would be fun to make one that was a bit of a creative outlet for me. It expresses something—though I’m not really sure what it is.”