“We released an album and I didn’t think anyone would buy it. I thought I’d have a nice set of coasters,” frontman Michael Grubbs of the Brooklyn-based band, Wakey!Wakey! said half-jokingly as I sat with him backstage at The Frequency before his show Wednesday night. “I never imagined playing in front of anyone. I thought that I was writing music for myself.” Yet, a venue filled with dedicated, dancing and lyric-belting fans proved Grubbs’ initial presumptions of his career trajectory to be wrong.
Positioning himself behind a vibrant red keyboard, topped with a Beanie Baby tiger known as “the tour mascot,” Grubbs fervently launched into the first tune of the night, “Almost Everything,” which served as the title track on the band’s 2010 release and as a featured song on the Season Seven finale of “One Tree Hill.” It was in that moment that the roars of the exceptionally enthusiastic crowd began echoing through the room, carrying on nonstop throughout the entire night.
After concluding the first song, Grubbs and band continued the set with a series of other songs off their older albums, such as the well-known “Dance So Good,” “War Sweater” and “Brooklyn,” which all exemplified the versatility and splendor of the band’s sound. It’s a sound that can almost be classified as its own genre on behalf of its unique background, which brings together Grubb’s classical piano skills and his fondness of alternative rock.
Naturally, the sound made for a truly significant performance in many more aspects than one. Audiences could admire both impeccable instrumental training—with Grubbs’ fingers dance down the black and white of the keyboard—as well the powerful yet soothing vocals that conveyed a vibe of utter passion.
Although I didn’t think it was possible, he conveyed an even greater sense of passion in the performance of his new music from the upcoming album Salvation, which, as he stated, only the tour’s audience had been able to preview. The new music exhibited an indefinable “something” that affected me on a deep level.
The cherry on top of a night of astounding musical performance and passion was the amiability and intimacy that Grubbs created during the set, despite being separated from the audience by a stage. At one point, he even stopped for a few minutes mid-performance in order to say “hi” from the stage, via video chat, to a man’s daughter in Utah who is a big fan.
I got a chance to hang out and chat with Grubbs in hopes of better understanding his unique style, his overnight rise to fame because of a beloved TV series and the dynamics behind his upcoming new album. As we sat backstage, it was clear his humbleness extended beyond the stage – he was just as approachable in person.
BH: What is it that inspired your sound, which is more or less a mélange of adult alternative and classical?
MG: I was actually raised as a classical pianist, so that’s where the classical aspect comes into play. But whenever I’m going to make an album, I think of [what I interpret as] the coolest music in the world and I try to create that music. So when I made my first album, Almost Everything, I was in Brooklyn and surrounded by bands like Beirut, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors and generally some of what I think are the coolest bands in the world. I said to myself, “Wow, I want to sound like that.” That was my original influence. But since then I’ve been able to tour the world, work in bigger studios, collaborate with so many other different types of artists, and see so many different types of things that have caused my taste to change a little bit.
BH: You’re signed to an independent label called Family Records. What is your favorite part about being signed to an independent label rather than a major label?
MG: As far as being with an indie label versus being with a major label, there are a ton advantages in that you have so much more freedom. As an artist, you can really be an artist. You have creative control. The other great thing is, with the constant possibility of upstreaming to a major label, we’ve had so much time under an indie label. It has established a sense of control and an audience that likes what we do.
BH: What is your favorite song A) that you have ever written? B) to play live?
MG: Anything that I’m in the process of writing is always my favorite song. Just because you get really connected to a song while you are working on it. Specifically, there is a song on my new album called “All It Takes Is A Little Love.” It’s one of the better songs I’ve ever written. I love it. It feels very classic to me. As far as playing live, it’s very hard to say. There is one called “Light Outside.” That was our single off our first album. It’s always very exciting. People really connect to that song and get very excited. We close the show with it and everyone is always screaming the words back at us. It’s just a lot of fun.
BH: Speaking of your “big break,” I know that came about via “One Tree Hill.” You were then given a reoccurring role, basically playing yourself, a bartender and musician. How did you stumble upon that opportunity?
MG: I was singing at an open mic in Brooklyn at a place called Bar 4 that unfortunately no longer exists. I played two songs and Mark Schwahn [the director of "One Tree Hill"] was there. A friend of his had brought him to see my play and he liked it. Then it became this weird thing where every time he came to New York, he would call me up and be like, “We’re in New York. Do you want to come hang out with us?” I wasn’t too familiar with the show. In fact, I didn’t even own a TV at the time. I worked at a bar on the Lower East Side, and one day he came in with the whole cast and they just lined up the bar. I said, “Hey, what do you guys want to drink?” It was a very overwhelming bar with a lot going on, so they were all very shy in their responses. So I just said, “OK, I got this. I’m just going to make you guys drinks, and you’re going to love them.” That’s the development of my character. That’s how I became the bartender/musician on “One Tree Hill.”
BH: Your featured music and your character on that show ultimately gave you the exposure that caused your career as a musician to skyrocket. What was that experience like for you?
MG: The experience of being on the show was amazing because I’ve been a struggling artist in New York for a decade. I’ve been playing in bars with no one coming. I was almost ready to quit music when my song “War Sweater” first premiered on the show. I was so close to quitting. Then suddenly, we had fans everywhere. We played Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan, I remember getting out on the stage and the audience went insane. I would get stopped in the streets. I’ve even gotten chased by groups of fans. It was very weird. I got to quit my day job. The show was sending limousines to pick me up at my house and fly me first-class around the country. It was pretty wild.
BH: What’s next for you? Are there any new projects in the works?
MG: We have an album called Salvation, which is something I’ve been working to get out for about two years now. It’s really hard to make music at the level that I am at, because we get the joy of working with massive companies, but we aren’t their primary concern. So release dates are constantly changing and things are always shifting. So it’s been a struggle to get this music out. But it should be coming out around May 28. I see Salvation as a collection of 11 of the best songs that I have ever written in my life in one little collection. I’m so proud of it and so excited to put it out. It is everything to me right now. So I’m excited about this next chapter in my career, where it can, once again, become solely about the music. Because it was fun to be an actor, but I’m a musician when it comes to the end of the day.