Virginia has been the breeding ground of some of music’s hottest acts. Amongst those artists is the diverse Alternative crew, Identity VA. Recently, Lou Perrington caught up with Identity VA front man Mike McKinley to discuss IDVA’s success, line-up changes and the future of the group.
Peace, Mike how are you doing today?
I’m Doing well. I’m glad to be off of work finally.
Your group Identity VA is based out of Richmond Virginia. Please share with the reader how the group was formed.
MMc: The idea of IDENTiTY VA formed in my head around summer 2004. I was making Hip-Hop beats under the production name MCK for a group called Nite Skool, consisting of the emcees Nikatine (myspace.com/niteskool) and Artis (artisrapworld.com). We were beginning to get quite a bit of interest in our music, but the group disbanded (briefly) just as doors started opening for us. I was devastated and left on my own. I decided that I wanted to return to my first musical love; Rock and Roll. I started writing some songs and teaching myself to sing. After a week or two I recorded a demo at my friend Justin Tanner’s apartment, right around the corner from mine in Oregon Hill. I told him that I was interested in starting a band, and asked if he knew any drummers. He then introduced me to a his long-time friend, Chris Salyer. Chris and I recorded demos and practiced several times a week for the better part of a year. When we finally decided to start doing shows Chris called his childhood friend, Randy Allen, to play bass. Our first show was on Friday May 13, 2005. That is when IDENTiTY was born. We went through several bass players over the years including Steve Owen, Geeh, and Chas Apless. I met them all through Craigslist or musician wanted ads. We were forced to change the name to IDENTiTY VA in late 2008 due to legal reasons. In Spring 2009 Evan Recinos joined on bass. Evan and I met through mutual friends at Virginia Commonwealth University. Chris Salyer quit the band soon after Evan’s arrival. Now Evan and I do acoustic shows and play with fill in drummers when necessary. We are in the process of searching for a permanent drummer.
One thing that stands out is the logo you guys use. For those who are unfamiliar with the logo, it is a hand with a human eye in the middle of the palm. What’s the meaning of the logo, and who through of the idea?
MMc: The logo was my idea. It came before the name. I drew it on Photoshop. The logo is just the eye, but I added it to an open palm for the album cover. I chose the human eye because it is said to be the window to the soul. If you want to know if someone is lying to you, you look them dead in the eyes while they are speaking. It is a simile for honesty and integrity, which is what I want our music to be, and believe it is. It is a symbol for gaining knowledge through observation and self-reflection, which goes hand and hand with our lyrical content. The business minded side of me gained inspiration from the most successful, and easily recognizable logo of all time, the CBS eye. As for placing the logo in a human palm, I got the idea after seeing a photo of a Movement for Democratic Change rally in Zimbabwe. I’m not political, and don’t want my music to be, but the image of a sea of people holding out their open palms struck a chord with me. Plus I have always liked the image of an eyeball in someone’s palm. It is mysterious, strange, and has an heir of mysticallity to it. That’s how I want my art to be. Not too easy. I want you to have to dig for a deeper meaning. Everyone has their own deeper meaning, and interpretation to find in it.
As an Alternative Indie band you guys had a lot of success performing in the Mid Atlantic and Mid Western areas of the United States. Which states did you cover specifically, and what was the over all experienced gained from it all?
MMc: We primarily play in Virginia, Maryland, and DC. However, we have played in North Carolina, Ohio and Louisiana as well. We have had a lot of good times traveling, meeting new fans, new musicians, and new people in general. It is great to go someplace you have never been before and play to a crowd of strangers who have never heard your songs. It is the only way to get an honest critique of your music and live show. These people don’t care about offending you. If they don’t like it they have no reason to pretend to like they do. At the same time they have no reason to hold back if they do like it. It is a great feeling to have a crowd of total strangers get completely into your music. It makes it all worth while when they come up to you after the show, compliment your music, ask to buy a CD, and/or want to join the mailing list, see you play again, etc. Playing new places is also a great way to build connections and network.
Many groups have come and gone. Many don’t last due to conflicting issues with in the group. How do you guys keep it all together?
MMc: Many previous members haven’t been able to. We have had a revolving door of bass players and now drummers. As far as guitar and bass are concerned, I believe this line up is permanent. I would certainly like it to be. Love of the music and dedication is what holds it together. It takes a very rare kind of person to stick it out through all the crap you have to go through to be successful in this business. Everybody thinks they want it, but when it comes down to making some real choices and taking the big gambles necessary for success, most people simply don’t have the heart. I try to find musicians with the skill, drive, and ambition to make something better of their talent and themselves. Life has pulled some in other directions, some lost drive, [and] others just never had what it takes to begin with. Evan and I are the strongest string/vocal line up this band has ever had, and we are both very dedicated to the cause. We plan on taking the sound in a bit darker and edgier direction. We just need to find a drummer who fits the band well enough to join us on this journey for the long run.
Many artists and groups have found it difficult to balance an addictive melody, and intellectual lyrics. Identity, on the other hand seems to have found that perfect balance. How difficult was it to find that balance and how do you maintain it?
MMc: It comes with years of practice. Both melody and lyrics come naturally to me, but the more I practice and study them, the more I understand them. Although I have always been able to write both melody and lyrics, it has taken years of daily practice to refine it to what it is now. I have listened to and played music obsessively, as well as studied books and interviews on the subject. I am nowhere near done learning or developing yet.
Nearly everyday I come closer and closer to hopefully one day fully understanding both, as well as reaching my full potential.
One of the biggest media outlets today is the television. From my understanding, Identity VA has performed live on television before. Take us back to the very first moments when you found out that the group was going to be on television.
MMc: I don’t remember much about the moments I found out about the taped TV performances. Those aren’t as exciting. However, I remember when I found out about our first live performance on CBS News in Richmond, VA. I read the email and got so excited. I immediately called my band mates and told them the good news. I didn’t sleep the night before we recorded. I was too excited to sleep, and fairly nervous. I usually don’t get nervous before playing live. That one got to me though.
Identity VA has had a few number one singles on the Alternative charts, which must have been a great feeling. Which songs were they, and how long did you guys keep the top spot within your grasp?
MMc: It was a positive thing. It’s good to know that people enjoy our songs enough to want to hear them again and again. It was a nice burst of positive reinforcement. As for how long the songs held the top spot. I don’t know. I didn’t follow it. It doesn’t really matter to me unless one of them completely demolished all standing records, which I doubt. It was cool that we beat out Radiohead for a while, on one Internet chart at least.
As for songs that hit the top spot we had quite a few. I don’t remember how many. “Snowy Day In April” and “Clint Boss” I know for sure hit #1, but there were five or so others, maybe more. I don’t remember. Nearly all of the songs you can hear on numberonemusic.com/identityva have cracked the top 10.
Fish Swim in Schools is an eclectic collection that boasts some very interesting song titles like the song “Ota Benga “. For those who don’t know, Ota Benga was brought from the Belgian Congo in 1904, and was a human exhibit in The Bronx Zoo (Milner, 1990). Can you explain the reasoning behind choosing this name for your song?
MMc: I was reading about him at the time and thought it was about the most tragic life story I had ever heard. That guy had a terrible life. So many horrible things happened to him. It helped me to realize how blessed my life really is. I believe everybody gets depressed or dislikes their lives at some point, but reading a true, tragic story like that really puts things in perspective. I wrote the music with that in mind. I started out writing lyrics about him. Then some about him, some about me. Then writing with me as him. Then comparing our lives. I ended up writing a three-verse song with the first two verses about me and the third about him. I eventually dropped the third verse, but kept the name. Now it is a song about me, named after him. I wanted to keep his name so that more people would research him. I think it is a little told story that needs to be heard.
With the issues surrounding a lot of conspiracy theorists on the possible events on 2012, and the group also having a track titled 2012, what are your feelings, or ideas behind these possible events?
MMc: I personally don’t think the year 2012 is anything to get worked up about. It will probably be just another year. Every year (sometimes more often) some group or culture thinks the world is going to end on a certain day and it never does. If the world ends, then it ends. There’s nothing we can do about it either way so I choose not to concern myself with such things. I will not let some remote possibility like that interfere with my life. I named to song 2012 because it is a title that sparks interest in the song, as well as makes people think.
The group’s latest album is titled “Fish Swim in Schools”. What is the meaning behind choosing that name for the LP?
MMc: It is a comment on how most people don’t seem to think for themselves. They feel comfortable in a herd mentality, like a school of fish. They blindly follow whatever the media tells them to follow seemingly because everyone else does. If you can convince the leaders or leaders to move in a certain direction, they all move in that direction, and if you have a big enough net you can catch them all. At the same time the fish that strays from the school will surly be eaten or die of starvation without the protection and guidance of the school. The album title is basically saying think for yourself. Be a leader and be creative just don’t lose touch with society. Whether you control the group or follow it, you need it all the same. The title hopefully conjures thoughts of group manipulation, marketing strategy, and a desire for independence and creativity.
Knucklehead Guitar Strings sponsors the group. What was your reaction when the group first found out about the sponsorship?
MMc: They found us on MySpace. They sent us a message saying they were interested in us, and asked if we would be interested in being sponsored by them. I replied that we were, and they sent us a contract. We looked over it, signed it, and mailed it back to them. Now they sponsor us.
Do you guys have any live shows coming up?
MMc: We just played the Songwriters Association of Washington’s Young Artist Showcase in Northern Virginia, outside DC. We plan on working with them and booking more shows in the near future. At the moment we are focused on writing and recording new material.
How can your fans or fellow artists looking to collaborate with you reach you?
MMc: Email: email@example.com or MySpace: www.myspace.com/identitymusic
Is there anything you want to say that hasn’t been talked about?
MMc: Yes. It’s time to bring real songwriting and real art back to pop music. It’s time to bring real emotion back to pop music. People need to quit making every song sound the same as the next persons, and start writing songs about something other than fucking, drinking, their wardrobe, and going to the club. Those are all fine things, but there are thousands of more interesting subjects that need to be addressed. Stagnation breeds stagnation, and our art reflects our culture. Stale art makes stale people. Make something fresh! Also WE NEED A DRUMMER. If you think you fit the bill and live in or around Richmond, VA or DC hit us up. And If you are an Urban Pop artist looking for songs contact myself or Nikatine. We have formed an Urban Pop song writing team under the name Nite Skool.