1. So Mike. The first thing I’d like to ask about is the Vagabond Cafe. How did you come to own this place?
The space in which the cafe currently resides was previously an apartment. Early in the spring of 2009, Aly and I conceived the plan of a cafe much like those that dotted the West Village of the 1960′s and 1970′s; a concept for which the neighborhood was famous but had long-since disappeared. Aly was keen on the place being a restaurant venue where everything was home-made from old family recipes. I was, as a local musician myself, particular about it being a music venue. Aly developed a foundation for the menu and I developed the same foundation for a musician family that would be welcomed in a venue that catered foremost to the artist community. Even though Aly focused on the food, she also has a music background and, likewise, even though I am more immersed in the music, I have a food and hospitality background. Our talents, therefore, could be melded into a combined dream without either one of us totally taking over any one specific aspect of the cafe. The look and feel of the decor was easy as we both had the same lived-in living room feel in mind. The place was really a dream venue; a place we created exactly how we’d want it to be if we were patrons and/or performers. The space itself presented itself at a time in the economy where we could afford to build exactly what we wanted in the neighborhood we wanted to do it in. In any other time, I’m not so sure we could have done it. We may have had to settle for a different and less inspiring neighborhood. Either way, with the hardwood floors and exposed brick, it already felt like home before we ever even grabbed the first hammer and paintbrush. Thus, we spent a half-year writing up the business plan (which would go on to of course include beer, wine and coffee in addition to our menu), another year building out the space (for which we did most of the work ourselves) and were open by the end of the 2011 summer. If that all sounds perfect, trust me it wasn’t. We ran into every conceivable bureaucratic roadblock one could imagine. It was a nightmare for awhile, but we both stayed focused on the positives and kept at it until the doors opened. We said, regardless of whether we’re open for a day or a decade, this place is a success as long as we can open the doors. Obviously, we did.
2. How would you describe the vibe of the cafe?
The vibe of the cafe is exactly like our little kitschy slogan says, “Your living room away from home.” The place was really conceived as a comforting place where people would feel welcomed and at home; part of a family. A place where we knew you, wanted to know more about you and get to know you and give you exactly the experience you wanted on a personal level. From a food perspective, we wanted to keep the prices down and yet still provide real quality. Thus, everything is home-made right down to the salad dressing. We thought this would give the feeling of being at Grandma’s house on a Sunday. As for the music, we wanted to continue a long tradition of the West Village where the music itself (or any artistic performance) was prized above everything else. A place where we could create a real, honest music family. Not just a community, but a spot where artists could meet, write, fall in love, and perform. A place I’d want as a performer. No cover charges and great, talented acts every night. Not only does a performer deserve the right to play in front of a welcoming, attentive, appreciative crowd, but a crowd also deserves the right to experience amazing New York City talent for free.
3. Every Wednesday at 7pm, you host open mic nights at the cafe, and on Fridays and Saturdays you feature local acts. Tell me a little about how that all got started.
I had been playing the local music scene, most often in the West Village, for approximately 6 years. I had networked and become great friends with many of the talented musicians in the area, across all genres, long before Aly and I ever even met, let alone thought up the cafe. I was also running an extremely successful open mic in Connecticut at the time and performing there as well, learning what to do and what not to do. When the idea hit to open the cafe, the pieces were already sort of in place to have a fairly stable group of talented and professional players to perform there. In a way, I cheated… The groundwork had been laid by years of really “getting out there” and sweating through the scene itself. I don’t want to sound like it was awful or anything. It was the best experience of my life getting to know these people. I wouldn’t trade a single one of them for the world. Not only are they true artists in every sense of the word, but they are also true friends. They have all been nothing but supportive of us and of each other and have been integral in developing the music family we have at Vagabond. Without them, I simply could not do it. One can build the perfect place with the perfect vibe, but one can’t force a feeling or a community. In short, you can’t MAKE people come. They have to come because they want to; because they like it. That said, the open mic and live music began immediately upon opening. I wanted all of my favorite performers to play there right away. I think I booked out the entire first three months in a few days. The initial outpouring of support was overwhelming as was the support for the Wednesday open mic night. The list is overflowing every week with amazing talent. We do a lottery sing-up at 6:30 and the list is already over-full before we start at 7. Most weeks, I have to give my spot to another player so I can fit more people in. If I could go all night, I would, but there are neighborhood noise rules… too bad. We chose Wednesday so as not to compete with any other major singer/songwriter open mics in the city. We wanted players to be able to play every one of them every week. As such, we are closed on Mondays because the other major open mic in the neighborhood is around the corner at Caffe Vivaldi on Jones street. Ishrat, the owner there, has not only developed an amazing musician scene of his own, but has also been incredibly supportive of us throughout the entire process. Thus, he and I both can be sure that everyone goes to his place on Mondays and to mine on Wednesdays. We’re not trying to be noble here, just fair and supportive. Thursday night is reserved for Jazz and “off” performances such as poetry, comedy, folks in from out of town for a day or two… things like that. Friday and Saturday booked acts are procured by me once I have heard someone’s live performance. It never has anything to do with “popularity” or “draw” at our venue. I only book the music I like and/or appreciate. Simple as that. I hope we have provided a place for musicians and artists to come and feel welcomed and at home as well as a place where patrons can come and enjoy great art.
4. I’m aware that all the food you serve is homemade. Who cooks it?
Most of the food is cooked by Aly based off of many old family recipes as well as a few of our own. People are often surprised when they see a real roast beef or turkey come out of the oven. People just don’t expect that from a little cafe with an inexpensive menu. It makes us feel good. We said, before we opened, if we can’t do the food home-made, we aren’t going to do it all. It’s either quality or nothing. In my humble opinion, think she should be highly commended for her amazing skill at even the simple things like gravy and bacon. She really makes it an art.
5. In addition to your amazing support for local musicians, you’re also a musician yourself. How long have you been playing?
I picked up my first guitar 24 years ago, but I didn’t really write songs until about 2001 or 2002. I’m self-taught which means I do everything wrong. I was really just trying to be a shredder back then, but I started writing songs in England with a friend of mine there and it started as a joke, really. Soon, though, it developed into something more serious when a few of my friends told me stop messing around and write some real stuff. They were very supportive right from the onset and it really drove me to thinking, “hey, maybe I can actually do this for real.” As i mentioned earlier, I was living in Connecticut and developing my fan base there, but I was also coming in and out of the city once every week or so to either play shows or hit the open mic circuit. I finished my first real full-length album in 2005 and my second in 2008. I am almost through writing a third and have already begun to record portions of it. I really love music. Not only is it a creative and emotional outlet, but it has allowed me to develop amazing friendships across the country and in New York and it has also allowed me to live a dream of having my own venue. My initial hope as a musician was to be able to fill a room of about 30 or 40 people who weren’t my family and have a real CD with a bar code on it and everything and have it in at least one real store. It’s kind of laughable to remember that, now, looking back. I have, with the support of extremely dedicated fans and family, been able to accomplish so much more beyond those initial wild hopes. I am truly thankful for all I’ve been able to experience through music. I really always, at the end of the day, hope that people like and can connect to what I write and play. That said, I write and perform primarily for myself from my real experiences and even though I’m pretty pop-ish at times, the songs are heart-felt and never fake. It’s funny, even though one of my initial intentions was to open a venue for me to be able to play whenever I wanted to, in the nearly two years the Vagabond Cafe has been open, I’ve really only played one real gig there. I just prefer to see my friends play every night so I can enjoy good music and learn from them how to be a better musician.
6. Who or what do you think has influenced your sound the most?
There’s a combination, really, of influences for me. My main singing and songwriting influence has and always will be Stevie Wonder. I was brought up on soul and jazz. It’s what my mom had on vinyl and I’d spin the crap out of those records and really dig into them. Stevie was the one I latched on to early on. As for my guitar playing, I’ve progressed through many styles in 24 years. I really began with an awe of Eddie Van Halen and his style and innovation on the instrument. This taught me the intricacies of the guitar and the technical aspects of what I could accomplish on the instrument if I had limitless time and talent (of which I have neither). I moved, very quickly, on to the blues guys like B.B. King; the guys who kill with one note. This is where I really began to develop my style. That said, however, when I really began to write my own songs, I moved back to my early influences of my mother’s jazz records, most specifically George Benson. Thus, my influences are kind of all over the place, but they oddly fit together in a sound that seems to suit me.
7. Do you currently have any projects underway, or anything on the horizon?
Well, like you might expect, I’m always working on stuff (however hair-brained the projects might be), but I am in the process of my third album (both writing as well as recording) and I am finally getting to put together a live band so that I can enjoy the performance community in New York City in a different way. Obviously, opening the cafe and focusing on its success has been my musical priority over the past three years, but I think I’m finally in a place to put new attention on my own personal music again. As for the band, the bassist is someone I’ve worked with for many years on many different projects. He may be the most talented and versatile musician I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and working with. He and I have a great chemistry musically and we’ve really been able to do some cool stuff together over the decade or so that I’ve known him. The drummer is someone whom I’ve met more recently. He is an amazing songwriter in his own right and a great guy. I’m really looking forward to working with him. For the album, I’m hoping to have as many of the local independent musicians I’ve become friends with over the years on it as additional vocalists, horn sections and piano players. I really want this project to be a snapshot of everything great in my little musical life. I’m very excited about the direction of the project. I will stretching my legs into some previously unexplored musical ground. As a matter of fact, I’m just finishing one of the songs right now, today.
8. I’ve heard you live, and I’ve heard some of your recordings. I have a feeling I already know the answer to this, but do you prefer live shows or recording sessions? And why? I’ve also noticed a slight difference in your style between the two. Is that intentional?
As you probably suspect, I much prefer live performance. I vowed to myself early on that I’d leave everything I had on stage every time I played, whether it be to 1 person or a thousand. I think I lose about five pounds every time I play a show… I’m a bit of a sweater. Additionally, there is nothing like the chemistry between a musician and the crowd. That energy can never be replicated on a recording. An audience really gets to know the raw person behind a song when they can see it being performed. Because of how I write and what I write about, this is crucial to me. That all said, I really hate the spotlight. If I thought I could get away with playing in the dark, I probably would. I really just play because I love to play and I hope that comes across to the audience.
Also, as you mention, my style is intentionally different when I play live in comparison to my recordings. I have always felt that each audience deserves a personal experience from a performer, especially when they pay to see them. I recognize and appreciate that it is often a sacrifice for people to go out and get to a venue to support a live performance. They deserve to get the best I have to give every time. Also, it gets nice and personal live. An audience can better understand the stories behind the songs. Also, if they wanted to hear exactly what was on the record, they could have just stayed home and popped it into their computer.
9. I’ve noticed a lot of great banter between you and various performers at Open Mic night. How did you come to know all of them? Was it just through their trips to the cafe, or did you have a prior relationship?
Ha ha, yes. As I mentioned earlier, many of the musicians who play at The Vagabond are long-time friends as well as long-time area performers. Although, we have been extremely lucky in that we have drawn a bit of new crowd of musicians to the space and I’ve been lucky enough to get to know and befriend many of them quite well. On any given Wednesday, I would say I know at least half of the room very well. The banter and camaraderie just fits our style and familial vibe. It keeps things light-hearted and welcoming; supportive. It should sort of always feel like I’m throwing a party for my close friends every week and new people whom I’ve never met can become part of the experience the join the dysfunctional family that is The Vagabond Cafe community.
10. Speaking of relationships, you and your wife are co-owners of the Vagabond. What’s that like? And for our more sentimental readers, would you mind telling us how you met?
Ah, yes. Aly and I really love working together and we especially love the fact that the place is our shared dream. Like any other relationship, there are stresses, especially as a result of being together both at home as well as at work. That said, we made a vow to each other very early on that our relationship would come first, no matter what went down at the cafe; no matter how stressed out or frustrated we became. I can honestly say that not only have we stuck to that philosophy, but we have grown into a much stronger couple as a result of the cafe. We realize that we can make it through anything together, even the most difficult times. We weren’t married when we first opened the cafe, but we’ve gotten married since. That must say something. We haven’t killed each other yet and we still wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. Ha ha.
As for how we met, Aly and I were both working at a cafe in Connecticut. She was running the food side of the business at night and I was running most of the music, there. We really got together as friends at first, helping each other after we had both just ended respective long and serious relationships. So, we really built a friendship based on honesty and trust early on; a real solid foundation that progressed naturally into a romantic relationship. We shared a common dream of opening the Vagabond Cafe, which helped solidify our future together and I proposed to her here in New York City, last April, on the 3rd anniversary of our first date (which, incidentally was one of our only nights off together on a weekend) and we were married this past November.
11. Do you have any final words about the Vagabond or about your own music?
Really, I would just like to thank the local community and the musicians and artists of the city for all of the amazing support they’ve given us at the Vagabond as well as to me and my own music over the almost three years we’ve been here. Our dream could not have been a successful reality without all of them. We hope everyone continues to love all that goes on there as much as Aly and I do.