MEET: Mike Noga
“The nicest guy in rock 'n’ roll” was the descriptor being bandied around in the lead-up to our interview with Mike Noga. “Invariably charming” was slathered on top, by way of our first introduction. Adjectives that are all pretty spot-on but say nothing of his ability to pen and play a damn good tune. Which he sure can.
These days the former drummer of The Drones stands front and centre stage, having set off into a solo singer/songwriter career. Following on from 2004's Folk Songs and 2011's The Balladeer Hunter, last year he released ‘KING’ a concept album based on Georg Buchner’s unfinished 1836 play ‘Woyzeck’. Which is a dry sentence that gives no indication of the rollicking tunes and the darkness continued therein. Or that the grouting between those tracks is narration by Noah Taylor. Noah 'Game of Thrones' Taylor. Read on for what’s next for Mike Noga and what’s just been. And yes, he's a real nice guy to boot.
Where are you and what are you up to today?
I'm back in Melbourne today after spending the last few weeks in the land of the overly polite, overly weight, loud-talkers. The US of A.
I love visiting that big, dumb country. I took myself off on a little holiday to New York City after a hectic year of non-stop gigging, but of course couldn't resist sneaking in a show while I was there. Turns out I have fans in America! Whodathunkit??!
Fortunately I was just struck down with a bout of food poisoning upon my return. The perfect way to shed those extra kilos after three weeks of consuming nothing but burritos, pizza and beer, kids.
You played our Jameson x YH Caskmates launch in Melbourne recently. Did you survive ok??
Haha. I did indeed. It was a blast. Although the kindly and handsome folk of Young Henry's did their darndest to derail my professionalism with their generous hospitality, I escaped relatively unscathed. It was a fantastic night. And the collab between YH and Jameson is extremely delicious. (No, I'm not being paid to say that).
So, King - Why a concept album? (Can we say concept album?)
We most certainly CAN say concept album. For too long that term has been a dirty word(s). I'm bringing it back into fashion.
I was living in London a couple of years back and was asked to write some music for immersive theatre company Punchdrunk while I was there. They were staging their take on 'Woyzeck' at the time. From that session came one of the first songs on 'KING' called 'Don't Fall to the Ground' which I wrote from the perspective of the two main characters, Jack and Mary... and from there it just seemed logical to continue down that path and see where their story took me. Before I knew it I had a concept album on my hands.
How different was the process for you of writing this compared with previous albums?
It was totally different to my previous albums which have always been quite personal. Because I was writing a "story" as such with this one I had a set of rules or guidelines imposed on the songwriting... I need a "sad" song here... or an "angry" song there... to fit with the narrative. So in a round about way the guidelines were actually really freeing. I was no longer thinking about myself. It was all about Jack and Mary. And I absolutely loved it. I can't see myself going back to biographical songwriting again. At least not for a while.
King is based on Georg Buchner’s unfinished 1836 play ‘Woyzeck’. Many others have finished/adapted the play. What do you think it is about the work that continues to spark with people?
Yeah, lots of other people have had a crack at putting their own ending on it. I think a big part of the attraction of adapting this piece is exactly that... you're free to finish it however you see fit. Also the story itself is one full of murder, jealousy and insanity with a healthy dose of drugs and commentary on governmental systems and the quashing of the working class. What's not to like?!
And how was working with "national treasure" Noah Taylor? [those quotation marks belong to me - not sure if he officially qualifies as a national treasure!]
Noah is a gentleman and a scholar. We've met a few times over the years and when it became apparent throughout the recording process that it might be handy to have a "narrator" on album to guide the listener through the story, he was the first person I thought of. He has that beautiful, somewhat menacing Australian accent that sounds like it could be from another time. He was perfect for the role. Thank god he said yes. He was nice enough to take some time out from filming Game of Thrones to throw down some lines for me...as you do.
How does the album work live?
We've been playing it with the full band, from start to finish. It kinda works best that way. We've done the odd gig where we've handed out a playbill and also had the narration in between the songs so the audience can follow the story as well. Very hoity-toity for a bunch of rock n rollers.
Are you playing in any bands as well these days or is it solo all the way?
At the moment I'm just focusing on my solo career. I've done the odd drumming gig for some friends here and there which I'd love to do more of. I have a tentative side project with Mick Turner from Dirty Three and Joel Silbersher from God / Hoss. But that one is yet to surface into the public eye.
Was there a coin-drop moment for you in your life/childhood where you thought ‘yes this is what I wanna do!’ [re: music]?
There was never one, key moment. It's just something I always did. Growing up in Hobart, Tasmania in the 90's really allowed a kid to explore whatever the hell they wanted to do musically as there were no radio stations or record labels to try and impress... just your peers. It was a really good environment to find your feet as a musician and song writer.
As soon as I hit 18 I made the inevitable move to Melbourne and the rest is history. It hasn't always been the easiest road, but what has been lacking in financial benefits has certainly been made up for in life experiences.
And what’s next for you?
I'm writing two new albums as we speak. The first is the follow up to 'KING'. I wanted to approach the next album from the character Mary's point of view. 'KING' is a pretty masculine album in many ways. I thought it might be interesting to continue Mary's story and see how she ended up amongst all the turmoil at the end of 'KING'.
The second is just a flat out, no frills rock and roll album that you can dance to with my band. That one's gonna be fun. Hopefully they'll both be out early next year. And I'm playing a couple of final shows for the year in Victoria including myself and my band's Xmas party show on Dec 16th at the Grace Darling, Melbourne with lots of special guests.
What’s the first gig you ever went to?
Jimmy Barnes. 'Soul Deep Tour' Derwent Entertainment Centre, Hobart. Shut Up.
And the last?
My buddies Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett. Beacon Theatre, New York. Only slightly more hip than Barnsey's Soul Deep. They were brilliant. I felt so proud to know them. I may have got a little teary.
See Mike Noga play:
Friday 15th December - solo show at Major Tom's, Kyneton.
Saturday 16th December - Mike Noga Band Xmas Party with special guests. Grace Darling Hotel, Melbourne.