This is perhaps the longest interview you'll see here, because it spans not one but two musical groups and a city Ye Olde Podcaster loves from a distance. (I've never felt at home anywhere I've lived these 35 years, but spending a week in Baltimore, I felt closer to "at home" than in most other places where I've spent much more time. Maybe that's why they call it Charm City.)
Lisa Mathews and Mikel Gehl are the founders of Baltimore-based children's music band Milkshake, and before that they were part of the Baltimore band Love Riot. Milkshake's videos show up on children's television, and Love Riot's music was featured on a number of TV shows in the 1990s; the band appeared as themselves in an episode of the Baltimore-based TV series Homicide: Life on the Street.
They recently took time out of their days as parents and working musicians to tag-team this Q&A, which I sent Lisa's way through Facebook. It's presented here with much respect and deepest thanks.
Did you grow up in the Baltimore area, or did you come in there from elsewhere?
Lisa: I'm from New York City. I came down to Baltimore to play music when my bandmate Mikel Gehl put an ad in the Village Voice, looking for a lead singer for his band. I answered because I thought it would be fun to visit my mom, who was living in Maryland, and sing in a band.
And how do you feel Baltimore shapes the art you create?
Lisa: Living in Baltimore has helped me focus on the music. New York is a wonderful city, full of distractions that made it easy to avoid actually getting work done, at least for me. I'm not the most disciplined musician.
It's also easier to live here. You can rent an entire house for the price of a closet in NYC.
How old were you when you started singing and playing music?
Lisa: I think I was singing since I was a kid. I always wanted to be a singer -- even my Barbie dolls were singers.
What was your first instrument?
Lisa: Guitar ... or maybe kazoo. I also played cello in high school. Hope to get back to that some day.
When people from outside Baltimore think of the city, chances are pretty good they think of crime, due to David Simon's TV work (Homicide, The Corner, The Wire). The city has its issues, but there are other cities more dangerous -- Gary, Ind., Detroit, Memphis and Flint, Mich., all spring to mind, and per capita, my current location of Jackson, Tenn., ranks very high in violent crime. What's the Baltimore YOU see that you wish the rest of America saw, the Baltimore that keeps you there?
Lisa: A very friendly big small town, with lots of unique quirks. It's not just the accent, hon. We have different areas making up Baltimore: Pigtown (where they actually have pig races); Hampden (where you can still see teased hair); Fells Point (pirates and ghosts mingle with the college kids hanging at the bars on weekends).
I think the more colorful director John Waters is more reflective of the charm in Charm City. Dave Simon only shows one side that isn't really unique to Baltimore. Barry Levinson is another director who has made some great films inspired by his Baltimore experience. Obviously, perspective is everything.
Are there any charities you support as an artist?
Lisa: Any charity that truly helps kids in need, and encourages kids to be all they can be. And any great pro-environment charity.
What's the quintessential Baltimore experience, the location or food or whatever that a visitor must experience to really get a feel for the city?
Mikel: For me, the quintessential Baltimore experience would be a bike ride around Lake Montebello. It is far enough away from the tourist areas to show you what the city is really about, people of many different backgrounds coming together to find a little peace and beauty in an unexpected place.
Make sure you check out the castle spires of nearby City College, where many of our mayors attended. But for a stunning view you can't beat the pier in Fells Point. It's where I proposed!
What's the first album you remember buying?
Lisa: Linda Ronstadt's Hasten Down the Wind.
What was the first concert you ever attended?
Lisa: Beach Boys.
What are you listening to these days, is there a TV show you're hooked on, and what's the last good book you read?
Lisa: I'm listening to Black Keys, Weezer, OK Go, Foo Fighters, Bird and the Bee, Feist, Yo-Yo Ma ...
I don't watch much TV, nowadays. In fact, the last time I was really hooked on a show was West Wing.
I'm reading two books right now: my friend Louis Maistros' The Sound of Building Coffins and World Changing: A User's Guide for the 21st Century, edited by Alex Steffen.
How long was Love Riot together, and how many albums did you release?
Mikel: Love Riot put in almost seven years. We recorded several cassette-only releases that are largely unavailable. Our two full-length CDs were Maybe She Will and Heaven Can Wait.
We also had two EP-length CDs; one (Killing Time) featured the music used in Homicide. The other, So Much For Love, was limited in distribution since the band was on hiatus while Lisa had her child.
Do you remember how the name came about?
Mikel: "Love Riot" was the name of a short book/manual my brother-in-law Bill had written about relationships. He thought it would make a good band name, and we agreed.
Looking back, what would you say were some of your main musical influences?
Mikel: We listened to the same records everyone else did: Beatles, Roxy Music, Jane Siberry, Tom Petty. But really, I loved our Baltimore bands. Last Picture Show, disappear fear, Boister, Tommy Keene were all bands we gigged with and saw over and over, and I dug them all.
What Love Riot song (or two or three) really stand out for you now?
Mikel: Your songs are like kids; you better love them all. OK, if I had to pick faves, I'd say "Long Way Home," "Killing Time" and "Lost In You." For an encore, "So Much For Love."
Lisa: "Standing By You," "Maybe She Will" and "Tango," although I'm happy to say I love most of the Love Riot songs still.
How did the band come to appear in the Homicide episode "The Subway," and how was that experience?
Lisa: Luck, I guess. We met one of the writers of the series at a party, and he listened to a CD I sent him, and the rest is history. He really loved the music.
Filming "The Subway" was a great experience. We got to play ourselves, and learned how difficult it was to hurry up and wait on a set. Especially one at 3 a.m. in a hot subway.
It was fun recording the TV version of "Killing Time." The producers wanted it to sound authentic, like we were really busking in a subway. So we recorded it on the set of the Police Headquarters when no one was there. Weirdly cool.
It was great meeting the actors, and hanging out with David Simon, playing the blues to pass the time. It's fun to look back -- we were still in Love Riot and kidless, Vincent D'Onofrio was grudgingly doing the episode for TV when he really wanted to just do movies (now he's found success on a Law & Order), David Simon hadn't written The Wire yet.
The video for "God's Enemies" is one I've now featured on both my podcasts' blogs, and it's still as stirring as the first time I saw it. For those who haven't seen it, what were you trying to communicate with that song and video?
Lisa: I wrote that song while I was working at an outreach center housed at a church in Bolton Hill. It wasn't an easy job. Even though I was hired to write grants and everything else paper-wise, I found myself caught up in some very sad lives.
The song was inspired by one of them -- a veteran who was doused with Agent Orange in Vietnam, then basically ignored by his country. And after countless conversations with this man, that song just wrote itself. He would wonder out loud how his country determines who are the enemies we fight in God's name. And how, after fighting such a wreckless, worthless war, his life could be so miserable because he loved and fought for his country.
I would hope people who watch that video or listen to that song understand it's not anti-American. But sending human beings into war without good reason, purpose and planning is. Human beings are not squares in a Risk game, or little green plastic figures. If a president sends them to war, take care. And then take care of them if they are lucky enough to return home. I think to do anything less is un-American. And yet, it seems to keep happening.
Are there any other Love Riot videos floating around out there?
Lisa: Yes. But they're too awful to see!
How many TV shows ended up featuring your music? I know you were on Homicide a few times, and I seem to recall reading that maybe some of the soaps used your music as well. Did you see those shows, and if so, how did it feel to hear your voice on a nationally televised program?
Lisa: Yes, countless soap operas, Providence, some MTV shows, a few others. A couple of movies.
I remember the first time we found out we were going to be on Homicide. We made a big to-do about it to fans, and were so excited. Love Riot was on the road, and we raced to our hotel room and blasted the TV. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case, the song was buried in the mix during a bar scene!
We were disappointed. At least until we got the royalty check!
But, yes, it always feels good, and some placements have been exceptionally perfect. It's nice to see Milkshake's music also getting TV placements, most recently on the Gilmore Girls and MTV's Sweet Sixteen Party.
You and Mikel have gone on to make music for kids as Milkshake, a move that I understand was partly a result of your both becoming parents. What's become of the other Love Riot members?
Lisa: They have also become parents. It's all quite a wonderful thing. A few members have played on Milkshake CDs.
Where could readers/listeners find Love Riot music today?
Lisa: Amazon, CD Baby and used record stores. Maybe She Will is out of print, but you can still get it on Amazon.
Do any of the Love Riot songs find their way into Milkshake gigs, or do you keep those parts of your musical canon completely separate?
Lisa: We actually re-wrote a pretty song called "One Wish Away" that never made it onto a Love Riot CD, but we did play live. It's beautiful.
Perhaps when we've run out of ideas, we'll mine some old Love Riot stuff. But I don't think that's going to happen. There's too much to write about when it comes to kids and childhood in general.
How long has Milkshake been together, and how did you build the band?
Lisa: Milkshake began in 2002, after I had my daughter, Jesse, and Mikel and his wife had their song, Eric. The music made sense, and it was a very definite and perfect evolution. We didn't want to write about unrequited love, heartbreak and all the other stuff Love Riot was concerned with, simply because we were no longer in that frame of mind.
When you have a child, the world view really does change up a bit. And we found ourselves with a whole new palette of things to write about.
And how'd you arrive at that name?
Lisa: MILKSHAKE is an anagram for Lisa and Mikel, although you have to borrow an "h." It also turned out to be a perfect name for a band for kids.
True, we wish Kellis never wrote that song "My Milkshake Brings All..." because it messes with our YouTube and other online presence. But we're not about to change it now.
(Trivia note: Ye Olde Podcaster was blissfully unaware of that song for a full year or longer after it came out and has still never, to his recollection, heard the original, though he's heard Brian Ibbott play at least one cover of it on the podcast Coverville.)
As I write this, I've just finished listening to an episode of the On the Media podcast in which there was a discussion about Newberry Prize-winning children's literature, and they discussed the controversies surrounding some books that include themes that could be emotionally disturbing (death, child abuse) or language that might not show up on a TV-Y program. Have you ever had any of this sort of soul-searching in regards to subject matter as you've written music for Milkshake?
Lisa: It's funny you bring this up. I was just chatting with Cord Neal, Milkshake's bass player, about the need for artists to self-monitor what they write and talk about. In our conversation, it was mostly about language and not using profanity around children.
Although Cord and I share very different political beliefs, we do find some gray areas where we agree, and we both thought there was a distinct responsibility to take care in what was discussed, when and before what audience. I think places like Facebook can be terrible for artists who don't feel this responsibility.
As for our music, I remember wondering if there was really a need for a Kids Music genre in the first place. Aren't the Beatles fine for everyone, after all?
But I answered my question when I was driving with Jesse one day, blasting Green Day's American Idiot CD. We both loved the energy, heads bopping. But every once in a while, I would catch a word or phrase that made me cringe. I didn't want her young ears to hear it, and hoped she couldn't make it out.
I quickly put on Queens of the Stone Age, only to have to find another CD for the same reason. Weezer? Well, when she asked for "Hash Pipe" again, it was pretty obvious. My rock music really needed some monitoring, and not only for language, but for subject matter.
So I realized the answer was "YES!" Kids need music they can call their own -- music that is about stuff they care about. And that stuff is very different from what adults care about, in some bar at 1 a.m.
Now, the whole fascinating thing about Milkshake when it comes to this is that we started the entity, we had a plan to release a CD every two or three years, which would reflect the growth of our children. So each CD has become a little more complex as our children become older.
It's a strange and probably finite experiment in a way. The next CD may well be the last CD that can be called a kid record. Unlike the simple subjects of counting and ABC's and eating breakfast, we're writing songs about accomplishing through work and practice, enemies and best friends, traveling and seeing the world, boredom and the need for something new.
It is interesting to think that if we release a fifth CD a few years from now, it might be full of love songs, or perhaps a final statement full of lullabies. Kinda coming full-circle in some crazy way in either scenario. Time will tell, I guess.
What would you say are some of Milkshake's musical influences?
Lisa: The Beatles. Ramones. Sesame Street. Julie Andrews. Any great music with a great melody.
Where have Milkshake's music videos appeared, and where have you performed?
Lisa: Our videos are shown on Noggin, PBS KIDS and a cartoon on Discovery Kids called ToddWorld.
Milkshake performs all over the place. In fact, we find ourselves amazed as we perform at some venues we only dreamed of playing in in our adult rock bands ... places like the Roseland Ballroom, Highline Ballroom and Symphony Space in NYC, beautiful arts centers across the country; wonderful festivals and pavilions ... we've even performed at a Club Med in Ixtapa, Mexico. It's all very fun and gratifying.
Where can readers/listeners check out and buy Milkshake's music?
Lisa: Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon, CD Baby, iTunes, toy stores, our Web site ... pretty easy to find.
And finally, a burning question of our times: Who's your favorite Muppet?
Lisa: Kermit. If he were alive today, he might find it a bit easier being green.
Lisa pretty well answered where you can find their music. Find iTunes links below.
Love Riot - Heaven Can Wait
Milkshake - Play!
Milkshake - Bottle of Sunshine
Milkshake - Happy Songs