An exhaustive history of my music and why I desperately needed a reboot

Courtesy TL;DR [because 12,000 words is a lot to read]:  I’ve had a dramatic shift in perspective leading to a reboot in my life as a musician, songwriter, and composer — now making music under a new moniker.

Grab yourself a beverage — we’re going to be here awhile… well, I am at least.  You, on the other hand may not have the fortitude to stick this one out unless you really would like the compendium on my history as a musician, singer, and songwriter — and as an added bonus my most recent personal reboot concerning creating my own music.  But maybe I’m just exaggerating about how lengthy this blog entry will be …..nah, I’m not.  I’m going to make this compendium on my music history so complete it will come with lengthy footnotes detailing different seasons in my life as a musician and artist.  Think of it as the Silmarillion to my Lord of the Rings.

Just to be clear, I’m leaving out pretty much all of my childhood — while piano lessons and playing trumpet in band were *cough* instrumental *cough* [are you sure you want to stick this out? I’m feeling saucy and won’t be able to restrain myself from further shenanigans.]… oh yeah, piano lessons and trumpet… yeah, we’re just going to skip that because it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.

So let’s get this started — I have a lot to get through here including a clear case of regret for staying up too late over the course of a few evenings and an obligatory trip to Caribou in the morning.  Oh, and one more thing — if you consider yourself an Evangelical Christian, try not to get too upset if I make a few disparaging remarks against anonymously held people or events in my history.  Try not to take it too personal.

Marked by failure

I’ve been plugged into music for most of my life since my childhood — started playing guitar when I graduated high school1  and simply could not put the guitar down.  I was pretty well obsessed.  From a relatively early age, I had the dream like most musicians — to become a rock star and make a career out of my music.  It wasn’t the fame that I craved, it was being able to make music, play and share it with an audience, and make a respectable living at it.  I wanted to go all the way and be like some of my musical heroes — Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Steve Perry.  It was my dream to one day open for U2 [as they say, dream big].

Like most musicians, I had a lot of crappy jobs and didn’t make much money, because let’s face it, there’s not a lot of money or in success when you’re starting out. But that didn’t stop me, I had grand aspirations and big dreams and wasn’t going to let a few setbacks like money hold me back.  Band after band after band after band I tried valiantly to get my music out there, played and sang my heart out, spent late waking hours working on new material, and tried hard to get some other musicians to willingly come along with me on my journey.  Every single band bombed hard one way or another — broken up by life, relationships, shifting priorities, and unmet expectations (*cough* video game music *cough*).

I also spent nearly fifteen years trying to go somewhere with my aspirations as a solo musician performing under the pseudonym Michael Miles6 .  Through all that time, I had performed at dozens of coffee shops, bars, and venues, released ten full-length CDs and digital albums, and tried desperately to make it on my own.  Since I couldn’t get a handful of schmucks to commit to the long haul with me, I was determined to do it on my own despite all the setbacks along the way.  At one point, I even had a pastor tell me, “God wants you to stop this selfish solo music pursuit and direct all of your talent towards your place in the church as our worship leader.7  Talk about a mind job.  I spent over a decade recovering from the abuse and manipulation to divert my talents and passions away from my true heart’s desire and towards the direction what one man wanted out of me for the sake of his flock of followers. His violation completely disrupted how I felt about making music, where my priorities should be, and why.

I don’t blame that evangelical pastor for my failings, he was only acting out of his self-interest, his narrowly limited world view, and an inability to let me make up my own mind and had to use God and his position of authority to forcefully influence my thoughts and decisions concerning the “will of God.”  What a crock.

I take ownership, though, for how desperately I sought approval from him (and others like him along my path in life) and not being strong enough to think for myself.  I was too willing to roll over and comply with the decree from a man taking up that space in the pulpit and laying down the law of God for my life.  And I paid the price for it.

This breakdown in trust with this pastoral figure set me out on a path that eventually led to me leaving behind Christianity altogether, coming to the rational conclusion that there is no deity (let alone a plan or will for my life created by said deity), and from a musical perspective a breakdown in what motivated me to create music in the first place.  Because my music had become so intertwined with my life as an evangelical and my role as a music director and  worship leader for a few different evangelical churches, when I left that world, music became a complicated subject for me, littered with fragments from things I no longer believed, abuses that I had suffered, and ideas that no longer made logical sense to me.

At one point I stopped writing songs with lyrics altogether and started spending my time as a solo musician composing and recording instrumental acoustic improv pieces.  It was originally a motivation to try and return to music after leaving the church and figure things out, doing daily music exercises with the intent of creating a new instrumental on a daily basis.  But still woven into my worldview as a musician was this hope and dream to make it with my music —  to become successful in music sales, to build up an decent sized following of fans, and to make it my career.  But from the onset I was bound for failure because my expectations were set in all the wrong places and all the wrong priorities.

Feeling defeated after only selling a handful of digital sales on my last full-length release “Six by Six” in 2011 [I gave away more complimentary digital downloads than I sold], later that year I hung it up and stopped making music altogether.  I was tired of the self-promotion and efforts resulting in no album sales, tired of getting sympathetic votes of confidence or encouragement from friends and family that sort of had a social obligation to show support, and tired of not being discovered and embraced for the music that I had created.  So I quit.

My guitar collected dust for over seven years [briefly resurrected in 2013 for a few songs, but was short-lived] and all tangible expressions of past musical efforts were just a painful reminder that dreams only come true for the really lucky people.  It wasn’t self-pity that I felt, lest you think that’s the direction that I’m headed here — no, it was the painful realization that not everything works out, and not everything goes according to your plan, and ultimately while there are some that will always support you to their grave, there are a lot of people that won’t give a rat’s ass about what it is that you do.  It’s harsh, but it’s true.  I know this because logic tells me, that if people really cared about the music I made, they’d actually put money where their mouth was and buy the album for their music collection.  But I have proof in the form of spreadsheets and data from all of my digital sales, and let’s just say that there was no Return on Investment.

Stoicism and the dichotomy of control

Lately I’ve been immersing myself in ancient philosophy from Stoics like Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius to try and get a hold of my emotions and curb the effects of seasonal depression and the intense anger I felt in this current political environment we find ourselves in.  Among many of the principles and practices embraced by Stoicism, one stood out in particular:  the dichotomy of control.  The dichotomy of control is a practice to place everything under the evaluative test: do I or do I not have control over this thing, or this situation, or this person or what they’re doing?  Epictetus shared an analogy of this in his Discourses:

“It’s something like going on an ocean voyage. What can I do? Pick the captain, the boat, the date, and the best time to sail. But then a storm hits. Well, it’s no longer my business; I have done everything I could. It’s somebody else’s problem now – namely the captain’s. But then the boat actually begins to sink. What are my options? I do the only thing I am in a position to do, drown – but fearlessly, without bawling or crying out to God, because I know that what is born must also die.” (Epictetus, Discourses II, 5, 10-12)

He embraces two things:  one, that there are a select few things that are directly under his control and he makes the best possible choices with what information is available to him.  And two, even if (or likely when) things go awry and his very life is abruptly coming to an end, he embraces what’s out of his control without fear, and with great courage.

The ancient Stoics talk a lot about practicing or rehearsing calamity — being mindfully prepared for the worst outcomes and facing those situations with courage, contentment, and peace.  Seneca said:

“Fate leads the willing and carries the unwilling”

I spent a considerable amount of my waking hours this past month thinking on this, about all that has been out of my control, and the few things that are actually in my control — coming to a place of clarity.  I also spent a good deal of time throwing my musical conquests (failures) in this introspective courtroom, putting it toe-to-toe with what Seneca and Epictetus would say if I approached them two thousand years ago.

First I think they would have accused me of being soft and catering too much to the fickle demands of the public arena, they’d verbally flog me for outlandish expectations about the fate of my musical ambitions, and they’d probably also sum it all up, “and how did that work out for you?”   I think they’d be harsh — but not in a cruel manner or a with malicious intent.  Instead I think they’d be extremely motivated by two things:  memento mori (remember you’re going to die) and the quote from Marcus Aurelius:  Life is short— “the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.”

You’re going to die, kid.  Pick yourself up (no one’s going to do it for you), get in the game,  work daily on becoming a better version of you, and do things for the common good.

One morning I went on a hike at one of my favorite nature centers — it was quiet, all was completely still, and I had the entire network of trails to myself. Instead of immersing myself in my music, I shut off the tunes and spent time going line by line through all my expectations that I had for myself concerning music, all the things that went right, all the things that went wrong, all that I could control, and all that I could not.  It wasn’t really that much of a surprise, but upon inspection my list of controlables was dramatically shorter than all that was outside of control.

I couldn’t control how people responded to my music, what people would “like” it and share, who would buy my albums, how far I was able to progress in a career in music, and a whole host of other facets of life as a musician and songwriter.  In a phrase, once the music left my computer, everything else was almost entirely out of my control.  About all that I figured I had control over amounted to how much I practiced as a musician, the amount of time and energy I poured into my songs and the recording process, the quality of the presentation, and to a limited extent where I was able to distribute it and make it available.  But even with a number of my albums on iTunes,  Spotify, Google Play, and a large array of more obscure e-tailers, what happened beyond the distribution of my music was entirely out of my control.

It’s true that I could spend money on advertising, perhaps hire a public relations firm, and work all the available avenues out there to increase the visibility — but in the end, there comes a point where I still don’t have control over what a person will and will not listen to, let alone buy.

After an exhaustive mental inventory, it was clear what I could control — and understanding that with clarity did something absolutely remarkable. Truthfully and without an overly emotional response, I felt immense release from all the failings with my musical ambitions, all the things that went wrong, all the people that hurt me in one way or another, and all the unhealthy or unrealistic expectations that I had held at one time.

If almost in the same breath, I felt a resurgence and a strong compelling desire to make music again — but this time just for me and because it once brought pure joy to me and I wanted to have that that same feeling once again that I had when I was 18, completely infatuated and obsessed with making music because it was a blank canvas and there were things that I had been compelled to put onto that canvas.

Control – Alt – Delete

It was clear — crystal clear that I had to sit down, take a mental inventory of only the things I could focus on and control, and decide what exactly it was I wanted to do with it.  So with the help of a close and trusted friend, I shared some of these thoughts and things I had been processing and decided that I need to keep making instrumental music — I’m pretty good at it, it makes me feel good inside, it gives me peace, and I don’t have to follow the same rules that most bands and solo artists feel that they have to follow — verses, chorus, a bridge, fit the song into a three-minute format, radio friendly, and a lot of other formulaic nonsense.

I determined first that my main motivator was simply to make music for myself because it brings me joy and delight. I also flat out decided that how other people responded was entirely irrelevant.  It didn’t matter if people bought my music, listened to it, supported me, or shared it with their friends.  While there’s a few that will likely do those things, I know with absolute certainty that a great number of people will not.  And if the comments section has taught us anything, there’s plenty of tactless mean people out there, too, that have absolutely nothing good to say because as the Buddhists would say, “they’re in pain” and that is the only way they know to deal with the pain — lash out at the world and put anyone and everyone down.

After spending time journaling about this and contemplating what I was going to do, I threw together a few sentences to help remind myself why I was going to composing and recording music again, and this is more or less what I wrote:

It’s embedded into my DNA to make music that makes me feel good, helps me to find peace, comforts me in tough times, energizes me to be a better version of me, and helps me live a focused life.  I may not make much money from my music, but I will still create, express myself musically, and live my life fully.  If others respond with joy or gratitude towards what I’ve created, then that is the icing on the cake. But my happiness and fulfillment will not be determined by other people, how they respond, and how many units I sell.  I am creating music for me and what I want out of it; and in a selfless twist, sharing it freely and offering opportunities for people to give back or say thank you.  That is why I am making music again.

Stolace

Because of my long history with music and the assorted issues I had with it, I decided that I needed a fresh start, a break from all that I’d done before, and operate under a different performing nomenclature — and let’s be honest, I was also tired of sharing a mixed up discography on Spotify with banjo player Michael J. Miles.  He’s a great banjo artist, but digital music services seem to have a hard time distinguishing the difference between “Michael Miles” and “Michael J Miles”.

I guess I can’t blame them.

I spent time thinking about the changes I wanted to see, the effect I hoped to invoke in myself and those that listen, and what really motivated me in the first place.  This idea of finding peace and solace felt like an anchor for me and kept coming back to it, that it was super important to evoke this idea of solace, of peace.  At one point I thought, hey, what about the name Consolas?  It combines the words console and solas is Spanish for “alone” — finding consolation and comfort in yourself….I like that.   It wasn’t until after compulsively ordering a domain name that involved the word “Consolas” that it dawned on me that it’s also the name of a prominent Microsoft font. Yeah, I don’t want to be sued.

Next.

A day or two later I was thinking about all the things I like about Scandinavian music and culture, and the almost stoic nature of my grandmother who was of Swedish descent. I also thought about how much she had endured immigrating here to America and the challenges that she faced and wondering where she drew her strength and her sense of comfort from.  Then it kinda hit me — what about combining the word Stoicism or Stoic with the word solace?  Like finding comfort in Stoicism or finding stoic solace — that really seemed to resonate internally, particularly with how an exploration into ancient Stoic philosophy led to resolution for all that went wrong with my music in the past.  Works for me.  And that’s how STØLACE was born.

Why the goofy Ø?  That’s where the whole Scandinavian thing comes in — it’s really all just an artistic liberty I’ve taken.  In the end, Stolace (with or without the ø) will suffice.

So what am I going to do now that I’ve got an idea and a name for this?

I’ve got a pretty clear set of goals in mind and an overall objective — to make acoustic instrumental music that helps one find peace, comfort, and focus.  Of course by “one” I mean myself, for that’s really my intended audience and the only audience I know for certain I’ll have — me, along with a few close friends and family members.  But even then I really have waffled on sharing this with family and friends.

If there’s one thing that I just have a hard time accepting, it’s the kudos and accolades from friends and family — it just feels too obligatory.  Like because they’re my mom or dad, or because they’ve been a friend of mine for so long, or because we we once played music together, there’s this unwritten expectation that they have to “like” it on Facebook or show some level of baseline support.  Maybe it’s not the case, but I just don’t care for socially-pressured shows of support — it intangibly feels like it comes from a place of  obligation — “I’m saying good job, this sounds great because we’re friends or neighbors, and for me not to do it makes me look like I don’t care.”  When I’d rather hear or read, “You know, I listened to it and enjoyed this particular facet of that song” or “Yeah, it’s not really my thing but I listened anyway and think you really did an amazing job pulling that together” or even “It was good, but…” and followed up with a practical and edifying critique — like more attention to the EQing or wanting to see something different with the mix, or some other helpful critique.

That’s why I’ve really held back with sharing this on Facebook and with family and friends — I don’t want pity or obligatory support.  I’d rather it be voluntary and with no sense of obligation, unless that obligation was “this is how this song made me feel and I really feel obliged to tell you about it” — that kind of obligatory.

But in the end, that’s also another area that I cannot control — I can’t control how my family and relatives will respond (although I have a pretty good idea who will respond and how), and how friends will receive it, especially those that really only know me for other things like making beer or some other context completely removed from making music. So I might as well share it anyway and just get on with making music for me.

There was a Chinese proverb that I heard on a podcast today that was quite fitting:

A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbors exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild mares back to the farm as well. The neighbors shouted out, “Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the mares and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

It simplifies things dramatically, making music that appeals to me and is for me — I’m not pandering for the approval of others.  And if confronted with the temptation of “maybe someday I might actually get great exposure and a super positive response to what I create”, the answer is simple for me:  Maybe so, maybe not.  We’ll see.

Here’s a few videos of songs that I’ve been working on as of late.  If you enjoyed them, consider subscribing to the Stolace Youtube channel to stay in the know of when I crank out more new music.  At the rate that I’ve been going, though, I will probably have my first full-length album done in over seven years.

 

Footnotes — supplemental history about the role music played in my life over the years

1. An obsession is born

When I graduated high school, I was given a guitar as a graduation gift by the youth director at the Lutheran Church we went to when I was growing up.  It was a pretty generous gift as far as graduation gifts go — a gently used Yamaha acoustic (entry level, so probably a $100+ value) as opposed to $20 cash and a card that I never would really read.

That very afternoon I was given the guitar, I ran out to the closest music store near me and bought a few self-guided lesson books and absolutely devoured them.  Not able to put the guitar down, I played day and night, every single day, for no less than three or four hours a day — taking a cue from Bryan Adams, playing ’til my fingers bled.  I only wish I would have taken the full cue, though — should have known, we’d never get far.

I digress.

Enter college — my obsession with playing my guitar continued, playing as my schedule would allow and writing song after song.  They weren’t great, mind you, but they were my own, I was obsessed with writing, and I couldn’t stop writing and playing — and that was a good thing.

I remember having one of those crappy all-in-one stereos with the dual tape decks, a turntable (records… not CDs)…because I’m old, and of course the stereo tuner.  Well this console also had a microphone input, too, along with the ability to dub from tape to tape.  I won’t be shy about my genius here — I figured out that if I pressed both the source selector buttons for “microphone” and “cassette dubbing” at the same time, I could effectively record both sources at the same time onto the cassette.

*ding*

A lightbulb went off in my head and I figured that I could lay down my first “track” by recording from the microphone, would then take that tape recording and put it into the “play” deck.  I’d then take a second cassette, put it in the record deck, engage both record source buttons and begin recording.  It would simultaneously record my microphone audio and the cassette audio.  BOOM — poor man’s multitracker.

I think I recorded five or six full-length cassettes with this method.  They weren’t great and they were definitely lo-fi in quality — for every time you dub from source to tape, you get added hiss every time and quickly degrade the quality of your recording.  So at best, I might sneak in up to four “tracks” on a single tape.

I remember making copies of some of my tapes and giving them to friends in college and feeling a lot of satisfaction in sharing my music with other people.  It wasn’t great — in fact objectively it kinda sucked, but it was pretty damn good for only having been playing guitar for a year — and with poor quality equipment.

 

2. I was Captive and anything but Free

Mid-way through my second year of college, I had this hair-brained idea to take a year off from school to travel with a Lutheran youth band program called “Captive Free”.  It was effectively a traveling religious band that toured around from church to church performing music and putting together youth programs.   I won’t make too many disparaging remarks about Youth Encounter and their ambitions for throwing together a half dozen complete strangers, all college-aged, cram them into a van with a trailer, and send them from church to church to perform in front of people, interact with the kids, and other churchy stuff like that. But their interesting idea was a recipe for inevitable conflict, and I seemed to get hit with the brunt of it.

I’ll be honest, there were some moments that I still look back fondly on — and it’s at this moment that I’m left in a funk actually trying to remember them….  ….oh yeah… One host family I stayed with let me dub a bunch of their CDs and make some mixtapes for myself to take on the road with me since I didn’t have much room to bring a bunch of my tapes and CDs…but I did have room for a few mix tapes. This same host family treated me like royalty and made me feel like I was home away from home — a wonderful home-cooked meal, great conversations, and a fantastic mental break from touring and traveling every day.  Also on my list of fond memories, Luddington, Michigan will always have a soft spot in my heart with its roaring waves, beautiful beaches, and some of the pleasant people we met there.  I also made a few friends along the way that wrote me now and then, whose letters helped keep me sane on the road.

Sticking a bunch of late teens and early twenty-somethings all together in a cramped van, polarizing personalities and viewpoints — it was a recipe for a hell of a lot of conflict day-in day-out.  We started out getting along fine, when we set off in September of 1992, making our way around the midwest to various churches, schools, and youth conventions — and as each day passed, our interrelationships decayed with growing conflict.  Three of my teammates hated my guts and made a point of reminding me of that fact — two were jealous of me and insisted that I was just there to try and take the limelight for myself.

I was reminded almost daily by them all the things that I was doing wrong, or how they couldn’t stand me, or how I needed to change.  With all this going on around me, I fell into a pretty bad depression with cries for help leaking out into our “team newsletters” that we sent out to headquarters to be copied and distributed to family and sponsors.  Cryptic notes or doodles that I would draw on my update page.  I was desperate for help but had no one to turn to —  I was in over my head, most of my band mates hated me for weird reasons, and I had no allies to stand with me and defend me.

Just three months into the tour when December rolled around, our regional director began hearing about all the rumblings in our band, the absurd complaints against me, and the yelling matches that began happening in our rehearsals.  Well he held an intervention where everyone could air their grievances against me (and all I could do was just sit and take it, maybe try and explain what I was feeling or how they got it all wrong).  But it was all too late — instead of trying to get everyone to chill out and figure out how to help us all get along, the director made up his mind, pulled me off the team, sent me home with little closure, and told me to get counseling because of my history with depression.

Thanks for that.

Why is it important to share this story in the context of everything that will follow?  Partly to show how institutional religion began to play a roll in my music, and partly to also show how I really didn’t have much by way of real guidance or support on understanding how to have healthy expectations and to set proper priorities and operate out of right motives.

My expectation with this traveling band was that we were going to get to put on a ton of concerts for a lot of kids, have a great deal of fun, and share the religious beliefs that we held with those that we met and played for along the way.  I had pretty decent motives for as best as I can recall despite being a dumb 20 year old (that rubbed people the wrong way). It was pretty apparent that others often mistook my genuine enthusiasm for singing/playing guitar for this need to be in the spotlight and the center of attention.

I left Captive Free (West Great Lakes), went home depressed and despondent, and had to put the pieces back together and figure out what to do next with my life.  Unfortunately college was out of the question — an increase in my dad’s salary changed the scope of our financial aid and made it financially difficult to return and had no vocal encouragement from my parents to return.  I think they were also pretty happy not to have that financial burden anymore, too.

 

3. Let me tell you a story that involves an Allegory

After that awful falling out with Lutheran Youth Encounter, I started working a few odd jobs, trying to figure out what to do with my life — and through all that still kept up with my music.  I continued to write my own music and sought out different opportunities to play, including attending The New Union musician fellowship (a sort of open mic jam session for christians) and met my now best mate Jamison.  He played bass, I played guitar and sang, and made a cool connection there.

I was also simultaneously volunteering my time at two different Lutheran churches doing music for one of their services and for the other’s young adult program, and met a variety of interesting people in both of those contexts.

In early 1993 I landed a really odd job because of my experience in college with theatre and my music background — directing a 4H musical program.  It really didn’t pay much and there was no longevity either — $500 to come up with a musical with choreography, a simple set, and ready to present both at the Ramsey County Fair and a few performances at the Minnesota State Fair.  Well, I needed a band to help me perform the songs I chose for the musical — convenient that I had just met a bass player, and I also knew a drummer from one of the churches I helped out at.  Both musicians were happy to oblige my request for help with my musical.

We rehearsed a bunch of songs together, performed at the musicals, and had a really great time doing it — everything felt right and pretty serendipitous.  So we did what all free musicians would do, start a band.  Allegory was born.

We played a number of shows at different churches, a bunch of shows at the New Union, and one very muddy festival on the top of a flatbed trailer.  We put out two different cassette tapes — one full-length called “The Life of Brian” and the other an E.P. called “Lawn Boy” recorded at Holy Cow Productions with Brian Ricke at the mixing console.  We had a bunch of great opportunities, like opening for White Cross (when we really should have been opening for Hoi Polloi), doing well in the band tournament, and even getting an offer to come tour with a smaller-time Christian band called Starflyer 59.  The band rep that called left a seven-digit phone number but never bothered to share the area code — I’m pretty sure I exhausted every area code that was printed in the phone book (and racked up a pretty big long distance bill in doing so), only to never connect up with the offer.

In the end, we had a good run that only lasted a year and a half — ending in competing priorities, differing expectations, and changes that we were all going through personally.  I was still determined, though, to make it.  Allegory had a really good shot at becoming a touring band, certainly the next band it’d pan out.  It just had to.

 

4. A raging bull in the China Shop

In the last four or five months that I had with Allegory, I was asked to audition for a band in the west metro called China Shop — they had a bunch of songs, some pretty talented musicians, and a great Seattle sound type vibe going for them… and they needed a lead singer.  With tons of time on my hands, I got the gig and was managing two band rehearsals a week and even played in the New Union band tournament in 1995 with two bands.  What a rush that was.

I really liked the music a lot — it reminded me a little of Stone Temple Pilots.  We recorded a short E.P. at Holy Cow Productions again with Brian Ricke and were pretty proud of what we produced for no budget, Brian’s generosity and time, and for being a new band. But I should’ve known, we’d never get far. 

I wasn’t standing on your mama’s porch, but it was clear to me that we couldn’t come together on a lot of things, I was in an entirely different place philosophically from the rest of the band, and eventually left China Shop.  I think we only had performed a few shows at the Union and that was it.  Still, it was a pretty awesome band and wished I had kept at it, even if just because it was fun.

Part of my driving decision to leave the band was because at the time I had been involved with this whacked non-denominational church, with a pretty extreme pastor and ideology that was a bit off the deep end.  It was sitting under that pastor that made me question my involvement with band members that didn’t share the same beliefs or levels of conviction, seeing them through a lens that portrayed them as sinful, lesser, and would bring me down spiritually — which is all hogwash, but I bought it hook, line, and sinker.

I’d eventually leave that church because I started seeing it for what it was, and after objectively seeing some of the bullshit for what it was.  I recall one time going up for healing, it not happening, and at one point being told that I didn’t have enough faith to receive the healing.  There was a lot of that kind of bullshit going on at that church that eventually added up, and left me with no choice but to leave and move on with my life.

 

5. That’s great kid, but you have a lot of Miles to Go

After leaving that crazy church I went back to being involved more with one of the bigger Lutheran churches in town.  There I had met a few other musicians and singers at the young adults program that I met and began playing regularly with there at the church.  Because we enjoyed playing music together so much, forming a band seemed an inevitable foregone conclusion.

We played a handful of gigs around town at a couple churches, a lot of coffee shops, and had a pretty good time doing it.  One performance really stands out to me when we played at a place called The Coffee Barn (used to be in the Sun Ray Shopping Center) and we packed the place out with friends, fans, and supporters.  It felt pretty awesome.  I also managed to hold onto a copy of some of the songs tracked from that show as well, one of which is immortalized on a hidden track in my album “Through” that I released as a solo artist.

Speaking of solo artist, I really cannot remember for the life of me why we stopped playing music together as a band — either I blocked it out of my memory because it was so traumatic, or it was likely just some innocuous reason like life taking us all down different paths.  It was from that point on that I wanted to keep moving forward and did so as a solo artist — and with the help of my friend Jamison (and his ex) sitting in my living room on Rose Avenue in Saint Paul, we came up with the perfect stage name in light of the end of Miles to Go:  Michael Miles.

 

6. Michael who? Michael Miles? I thought your last name was Tangen

I’ll be honest, I never liked the last name Tangen, I still don’t.  It’s nasal sounding to me, and it is more often mispronounced than not by complete strangers and telemarketers.  I often have wanted to go back to the name my ancestors bore:  Jacobsen — I like it.  It’s common, no one would ever mispronounce it, and it sounds appealing to me.  Not to mention, I had a foreign exchange student from Norway once tell me that I was pronouncing my last name wrong — it’s not  TĀNE-gen (hard G), but rather TUN-yen.  But do you really think Americans are going to get that right?  Yeah, I didn’t think so.

There was also the added contingency plan, that if I ever got famous, I didn’t want people to find out where I lived with my real name, I wanted them to know me by my stage name, my pseudonym.  Add to that it only contributed to the whole motif of being on a life journey, and that sort of imagery has always appealed to me.

So Michael Miles it was, starting sometime around 1997 I believe.

michaelmiles1Not long after that period of time I still remained connected with my old time friend Brian Ricke and he helped me graciously with another album — an all solo acoustic album with just me and my guitar. It was masterfully recorded, sounded great, and was something that I was pretty proud of.  Some time in 1998-99 we completed the recording and my first solo album Through was born.

Because I had limited means, I sat on my master copy of “Through” for a little over a year until I saw an opening opportunity with the then newly launched mp3.com (remember that site?) which allowed users to upload their mp3s and sell CDs on demand.  It was perfect for small-time artists like me that needed a low-cost, low-risk way of reproducing albums.

A few years later (2003) a better outlet would present itself — CD Baby, which offered low-run duplication services, credit card swipers for using at your shows, and digital downloads through online services like iTunes.  That opened up the world for me, feeling like I now had a greater chance at realizing my dream to do full-time music as my career and make it happen.

I performed at dozens of coffee shops and bars in the Twin Cities, even played a few venues up in the Duluth area with my drummer/percussionist friend Jim Orvis.  I didn’t make much money at it — tips weren’t great (maybe coming home with $50 or less), sales weren’t too stellar, and I had a very difficult time getting anywhere with my music.  But that wasn’t going to stop me.

I was persistent and tried very hard — following up with an EP with a more “urbanized” approach to acoustic music (loops and samples woven in with the music) in 2003, kept working different coffee shop and bar angles, and for a brief moment in time had a duo act with Jim Orvis called “Two Mile Stretch” (the sojourning theme yet again presents itself), but it was short-lived and didn’t have a whole lot to show for in the end.  Jim wanted to do other things with his time, and my life was steadily becoming more complicated, partially because of my issues with the church and one pastor in particular.

michaelmiles3Soon after the release of that sampler and the re-release of “Through”, I would go on to record two other albums, but as an added twist were all instrumental albums.  My first instrumental album was entitled “Tranquility” and was all recorded live with a Boomerang live phrase sampling pedalboard.  It effectively let me lay down rhythm parts and then go back over them playing melody lines over these looping phrases.  Not long after the release of “Tranquility” I released another instrumental album called “Mystique“.  Neither album was really that polished and quite frankly was rushed through the tracking and mixing process.  But the one thing I do appreciate about those two albums is that they’re honest, distinctly human, and also the start of a new genre of musical expression for me.  But before I talk much further about all that, we have a few hard phases in life to cover first.

This next part gets a little hard to talk about and frankly doesn’t paint institutional religion or evangelical pastors in a very positive light — so if you’re easily offended by critiques against christianity and persons in leadership, just skip this next section altogether.  You don’t need to read it and get upset by something I will say (and mean with every ounce of my being).

 

7. The abuser and the abused

*deep breaths*

I hesitate to divulge all the things that I felt were not only wrong, but deeply hurt me as a human being and took a very long time to recover from. But this post is all about how this moment in time had played a roll in my musicianship. So I’m going to try and keep things objective and focused without deviating into all-out church/pastor bashing.

Originally invited to serve at this particular evangelical non-denominational church as a young adult “pastor” (even though I hadn’t had any sort of degree or ordination), it became pretty clear to the pastor [we’ll call him John for the sake of anonymity], that I was better off serving in his church as a worship leader, and later on as a music director.

John had a very charismatic personality, the kind that was able to smile with his eyes while telling you all the ways you’ve fallen short from god and all that you need to surrender over to god.  He had a way of getting in your head and convincing you to do something or to believe something.  As a person who was quite vulnerable in that I was in desperate need of approval and wanted to belong and be important or valued, I don’t think it took much effort for him to get me to give my everything to his vision for the church.

In many ways, he had become a father-like figure to me — assuming this role of mentor, pastor, and “spiritual father”.  He had even gone so far as to confront two other men in the church that attempted to try and mentor me, pulling them aside, and telling them that he didn’t want them mentoring me and that he’d be assuming that role.  (I learned this after the fact from one of the men, who had left the church not long after that encounter with John.)

For the most part things were “great” for a few years there,  until the early 2000s when I also had shown signs of my ambition to really go somewhere with my music.  I was a successful worship leader for his church, the newly appointed music/worship director, was directing the music for our annual Christmas play, and had even been writing music for our worship services, maintaining their website, and a whole host of other things.  I don’t know why (well, I do, but I just like to say it) it is that John was threatened by my ambitions as a singer, songwriter, and musician.  How do I know he was threatened?

We had gone down to a fall leadership retreat, where all the heads of various ministries or departments in the church came together to pray, worship, sit through John’s visionary lectures, and pray some more.  But one evening in particular at the retreat center, we had just finished a worship session that broke out into prayer, and John started going one by one, “prophesying” over everyone there.  This was a pretty common thing at this church — he heard a lot of “words from the lord” for his people.  Pretty convenient when you’re the leader of an organization and want to direct the focus of your people.

When he came to me, I started trembling inside and both fearing and anticipating what god was going to say through him — and you know what John said?

I just feel really strongly that the Lord is calling you to give up your music career ambitions, to give it all up, and to focus all your efforts for my [“god’s”] glory within our church.

Wait, what?  Did he just?  He did, didn’t he.

I was literally stunned and shell-shocked and felt like a line had been crossed and things were getting personal.  Now apparently John had heard this “word from the lord” that my core desires — to write, record, and perform my music for the world at large — were not godly desires, in fact they were contrary to the now-apparent “will of the lord” because this was his word for me.

I was furious inside but didn’t let it show.  My logic started to kick in and question this — thinking to myself, “well if god gave me this desire to begin with, why would he just up and change his mind and say, nah, I want you to spend all your time and energy at this one church instead.”  It just didn’t feel right at all.

This wasn’t the only time I had seen and heard John make these kind of comments or assertions of what god’s will was for his congregation and his leaders.  As I gave myself permission to actually doubt and question what was going on (for the first time in my life), I started to see things for as they really were — one man running his church like a CEO might run a corporation, and through a variety of means manipulating and pressuring his leaders to fall in line with his vision.

Over the years that I was there, people were asked to leave because their vision didn’t align with his, or because he had it in his mind that someone else would be a better fit in that role, or some other highly manipulative situation.  My last year at this church was leading up to colossal burnout — I was working my job 30 hours a week, 30-40 hours at the church (and only getting paid for 10-15 hours/week), PLUS directing the music for the upcoming Christmas pageant. At one point midway through all the rehearsals, I was alone in the hall and broke down into tears — things were falling apart for me, the curtain was being drawn back seeing John for the kind of man that he really was, and also seeing how few in that church really wanted to talk with or hangout with me because I was me (but instead hounded me week-in week-out for all the things they wanted me to do or help them with or do for them).

The program ended, Christmas had passed, and I told John that I was done — I said I wanted a sabbatical, but what I really meant is that I want out, I’m done.  I can’t do this anymore.

John was such a controlling person, that he went so far as to try to control the manner of my leaving, the terms on which I left, and even what I told others.  I was trying to get out of this life-sucking environment, and he still kept manipulating and controlling up to the very moment that I stopped functioning as a leader.

I continued to attend that church for about four to six months after stepping down, and it very quickly became apparent how much I was being used and how little people actually cared for the people that were serving them in leadership.  No one would ask to hang out with me, grab a coffee and talk, or ask how I was feeling or how I was doing.  Now that I was no longer important, people just sort of forgot about me and I became a face in the crowd as if I were like any other visitor that got ignored.

Of course if you asked anyone at this church if this were the case, they’d have this shocked expression on their face and be caught in this state of disbelief — what? We’d never do that to Michael, we love him!  Then why did I suffer this burnout alone? Why did I have to struggle with my identity and purpose imploding on me, alone?  And why was it that I only ever got polite half-smiles from other members in the hallway but never approached to see if I was really OK?

But what would the Stoics say about all this, what would Seneca have said to me if he were here today and witnessed all this go down?  Well for starters, he’d first have me focusing on only the things that I could control — me, my attitude, my opinions about things, what I spent my time on, where I directed all my energy, what I believed, and a lot of other things that had nothing to do with John, the church, and all the people who quickly forgot me.

I’m pretty sure that Seneca would have chastised me for giving the church so much of my time, completely imbalanced and on a one-way course for burnout.  I’m sure he would have also admonished me for being so desperate for approval and complicite with John’s manipulation and abuse of authority, and admonish me to take a stand for myself.  He might have even told me to stop hanging out at this place, associating with people that are only going to bring me down and not lift me up.  And I’m quite certain that he would have said “get a second opinion” when John delivered that highly manipulative “word from the lord” at the leadership retreat.

I don’t hate John — he wasn’t an evil guy, and I know that he had decent intentions, but I think his aspirations for his church and the vision he wanted to see fulfilled led him down this path of blindly abusing his position of authority to manipulate people to fall in line, to do something in line with his own vision.  I was severely pissed off at him for a very long time, and it took me nearly a decade to shake it off and to move on with my life.

What I was unable to shake, though, was how his “word from the lord” affected me musically.  His manipulative words haunted me and became twisted and felt more oppressive as time went on, like there was this constant inner argument or debate going on between this “word from the lord” and what I felt was my right path.

It might seem pretty insignificant to an outsider when you read my story, but the reality is that it was an extremely traumatic event for me, one that he never apologized for and stuck to his guns, saying that it was the lord calling me to lay down my music and give it up to be his worship leader and just his worship leader.  Because I held him in such high esteem and also held this personal vision for my life (as a performer/songwriter) as a very high priority as well, it was like being told by someone extremely important to you that you could no longer do this thing you were born to do, that is central to who you are as a person.

That’s why it was devastating for me and traumatic on a level that took years to understand, face head-on, and eventually find my own personal healing for all that happened. News flash: that healing had nothing to do with god or religion.

Now that I’ve got nearly 15 years between me and that event, it only remains a time of regret for me — regret that I wasted so many years in the church, regret that I placed so much trust in these pastoral leaders, and regret that not once did I have anyone to help me see that I was far too desperate for the approval of those that I served under. The only silver lining in that entire experience is that it’s there that I met my wife, and because of our marriage we had the two most amazing kids on planet Earth and love them with all my being.

But I digress. The next phase of my musical ambitions had me in the middle of a personal quest to figure out what to believe with a band that I had extremely high hopes for.

 

8. Yeah, that one album bombed and didn’t have that big of a Crash Effect

Around 2006, I was asked to play with my friend Jamison again and a common drummer friend of ours to play a song at a Sunday service that he was involved with.  I was in between churches at the time and still trying to figure out what exactly I believed and where I fit in, and long story short it ended up in one of those serendipitous moments again when musicians meet up, feel good about that brief collaboration together, and decide to take it further.

We found another guitarist to join us, making us a four-piece, but eventually Jamison left the band and was eventually replaced by another bass player.  I was extremely excited about our music — it was energetic, it has a social justice component to it, and it was gritty and edgy, like if you mixed Neil Young with Audioslave, Pearl Jam, or U2.  Right from the onset, I had very specific expectations laid out for all the band members so that they knew what this was all about right off the bat.  I communicated what the real intent of the music was, what we were going to do with our profits, being a vehicle for social justice, and being a change agent out there in the world with our music.

Tirelessly we worked on song after song, built up a really solid repertoire of music, and had enough to serve as an opening act in the local bar scene.  We started playing a few shows here and there and also began work on a four-song EP called “Bomb: The Radio Singles” that we had intended to distribute to radio stations and colleges in an effort to start working on promoting the band and getting gigs outside the bar scene and onto the campuses.

Momentum was building and you could feel it and see it in different ways.  At one point, we were even contacted out of the blue from a magazine in the  UK to be added in as a highlight in one of their issues.  Things were clicking pretty rapidly, and we had only been together for less than five or six months at that point.

crasheffectFebruary rolled around and our EPs were on their way, excited to really get things rolling and working overtime to drum up a tour to start building up our fanbase.  The day our EPs arrived (all ten boxes of them), I brought a box or two to our rehearsal that night, which is when our bass player and lead guitarist (who clearly look like they had been colluding over something) sat me down and said that they were leaving the band for two reasons:  1) they said they weren’t getting enough creative input  [a problem that I informed them is fixable, but they seemed to dismiss because they’d already made up their minds], and 2) they wanted to make video game music.

Wait, what?

…I should have known, we’d never get far…

Piss off, Bryan Adams. No one asked you.

Well that was it.  I was left with a thousand CDs in my possession, half a band, and left to try and figure out what next.  We tried auditioning a bass player that never worked out, and we also tried to make it work as a two-person deal, but he was no Jim Orvis and it just didn’t work out.  Later that spring we just said, fuck it and closed up shop while both of us cursed out the bass player under our breath repeatedly, hoping that he’d come down with some some sort of ailment that’d prevent him from holding his bass guitar ever again.  I kid, but we were legitimately really angry with him.

Of all the bands I’d been in, this was the one that showed real potential to go somewhere. We had clear vision, we had focus, we had pretty good material, and we had a great deal of potential. But fuck me, video game music?  I’m pretty sure it was just a cop-out, throwaway excuse for “we’re bored because this isn’t math rock.”

Years later the lead guitarist did come and apologize to me for leaving the band and admitted that he was pretty well manipulated by the bass player into leaving the band along with him.

Legitimately a lot of things there that were out of my control, hearkening back to some of the Stoic philosophy concepts that I’ve been reading as of late.  I really could have benefited from those things — understanding what I could control, perhaps the most valuable idea in this situation.

Eventually — and it took quite a few years — I was able to let the whole thing go.  My daughter went with me into the garage one summer afternoon, helped me un-shrinkwrap a ton of the CDs to prep them all for recycling, and recycled most of the CDs knowing that I was never going to distribute them as intended.  I played the CD for my kids and they were mildly amused by the fact that this is our dad??? Yep, your dad was in a rock band.  A few of them actually.

 

Final parting thoughts and post-mortem on my time as Michael Miles

9.  So what else happened with all that anyway?

If you’re still with me at this point (and have endured over ten thousand words), then you deserve a medal.  If you’re someone that I know and are local here in the cities, I’ll buy you a beer for making it this far.  You deserve it.

Let’s put some context in this final footnote — it’s January 2011, four years since I have put my hand to anything musical.  Still pissed off about Crash Effect and our asshat bass player (coincidentally, asshats make as much of a ruckus and noise as a hi-hat but are far cheaper and don’t require a beating to make noise), I was frustrated about making music.  Life had completely changed for me — I was still going through a lot of religious-related turmoil (leading up to my inevitable decision to ditch Christianity and religion altogether in favor of atheism), we had just had our second child, and I was struggling to find my purpose in life (apart from that as father and husband).

I had no more musical outlet — no church to play for (that ship had sailed/sunk and would never sail again), no real feasible opportunity or vocal support to get out there and start performing again, and no community of musicians around me either.  I was really all on my own from that standpoint.

Somewhere along the line I decided that I had to do something, so I resurrected my old stage name Michael Miles and decided to do an experiment.  I decided to give myself an exercise — make music every day for a month, and that was it.  Just make music.  There really wasn’t that big of a motive to do much with it beyond that.  And as an added twist (albeit a short-lived one), my first two days at it were recorded on a “multitrack recorder” app on my iPhone.  How completely absurd to record music that way.  But I did it anyway.

a1379790294_16What I called “sketches” (much like an artist might sketch something out before making a full-on painting or rendering), started out as short minute, minute-and-change long sketches and eventually became compiled into a 31-song volume of improvisational pieces that I just developed along the way. They weren’t particularly jaw-dropping, but there was this certain je ne sais quoi about them that inspired me to want to make more, and was enough to prime the pump and get me making music again for the first time in four years.  The sketches ranged from quiet meditative pieces, to silly and absurd instrumentals, to pretty creative uses of found sounds like “Sketch #7” that involved using a sample of me walking through the Capitol complex and using that as a rhythmic element.

a1002614243_16January ended and I kept up the daily discipline of making acoustic improv sketches on a nightly basis for 90 days, which then led to a more focused effort to take fifteen of my favorite sketches and arrange them into a full-length release called “Six by Six“.  It was pretty well polished, demonstrated what I could do with limited means and limited space, and was probably one of my best efforts as a solo musician in terms of quality, creativity, and longevity.  I still enjoy going back and listening to it now and then.

You might ask (or probably not) “what’s the deal with the cardboard box?”  Well, I was limited quite literally to a small six foot by six foot space in our tiny house that we lived in at the time, and didn’t have the luxury of a recording studio, a place to set up drums, loads of mics, and a full spread of recording gear.  All I had was a corner desk, a chair, a single mic, and some unconventional percussion to help create the rhythm tracks.  It really is pretty remarkable when you consider it for what it is and how it was made.  It was objectively my best work to-date.

As I mentioned way early on, I didn’t sell hardly any units at all — in fact, I gave away more complimentary copies than I actually sold, and that really got under my skin.  I tried not to let it bother me, but I really didn’t have a framework for dealing with thwarted expectations and dreams that never became realized.   It was enough to kind of bother me, even as I decided to move on and keep on recording — creating volume four and five of my improv acoustic sketches.  Life did get pretty hectic with two kids, two and under, along with trying to move out and into a bigger home, and my music ambitions would drift off from desperate ambition to a memory I once held out hope for.

I did record three improv sketches two years later, but that didn’t count in my mind — I never stuck with it, and for me my music ambitions were dead.  People said they missed my music, but I had a hard time believing that was the case [remember my issue going back to the church where people soon didn’t care much about me after stepping down from leadership — this also fed into how I felt about where I ranked with my friends and family, that I was just a means to their end]. I honestly held the belief that people only said they liked my music because they felt that social pressure to say that they did, to show a rudimentary level of support as to fulfill some sort of contractual social obligation.  To some extent I still wrestle with that, thinking deep down that when people compliment me on my music, that they do so because they feel like they have to and not because they really do enjoy my music and feel that I should be complimented because of it.

At one point four years ago, I did attempt to reboot my music ambitions, but it was still the same old motivations — wanting to make a career out of it, desperate for it to be liked and accepted by others, and always rooted in placing too much weight or value in the opinions of others.  I really didn’t find a joy in making music though, because it was held down by the weight of all that I’ve dumped out here in this blog entry over the past 11,000+ words.  I had forgotten what it was like to make music because I felt like I was born to make music, because it brings me joy, because it was a part of who I was — regardless of how others received it.

But somehow, time spent reading and meditating on Stoic philosophy managed to help me face down two decades of demons, reset all my priorities, and discover the simple joy, delight, and peace found in making music again — and not because I’m so desperate for you to hear it or for you to approve of it, but because I love it and it brings me joy.

I’ll be honest — that shit still creeps in on me now and then, this feeling like I need your approval, to be liked, and to hear the accolades from those that hear my stuff.  Marcus Aurelius wrote,

“What is to be prized? An audience clapping? No. No more than the clacking of their tongues. Which is all that public praise amounts to–a clacking of tongues.”

For him, the adoration of men meant nothing to him and was not to be prized or held in high regard or value.  Marcus had also gone on to write,

“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.”

I think he would even go on to say that the real prizes to seek out are wisdom, knowledge, and a well-lived virtuous life.  For you can’t really control how others will respond (positively or otherwise), and you cannot count on the applause and favor of the public to make you feel fulfilled and alive — because it will eventually fade and end altogether.  And in my life, I’d take it one step further, that part of that well-lived life means packing it all in there — being an excellent husband and father, a loyal and devoted friend, an artist dedicated to making excellent music, and taking every opportunity to live the most out of life.  We will die, it’s inevitable — reminded of that fact by the quote from the Stoics memento mori. It’s that motivation that is really kicking me into overdrive and wanting to make the very most out of my life.

I applaud you if you actually made it through nearly all twelve thousands words of this blog post.  I don’t think I’ve written anything this exhaustive in a very long time, an entry that really took a few days to complete.  But now you know what has led me to this point — clearly more than you needed to know and then some.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jamison says:

    Just remember to keep coming back to these motivations. If things are different this time and you get some recognition, keep coming back to this to keep the motivations pure. It will be very easy to slip back in to old thinking, and then you’ll be right back where you don’t want to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. michael says:

      Yep, and that’s exactly what I intend to do — that’s one of the reasons that I wrote that three or four sentence statement about why I’m doing this and what it is that motivates me to do this.

      I know that the temptation will always be there to seek out the approval of others, it’s a part of my idle nature and my default “factory setting”. But I feel that if I make this three or four sentence mantra a part of my daily mindfulness and stoic practices, I think I’ll be in much better shape than I was in all my other attempts. I know I won’t be perfect, I know that at times I’m going to be leaning in hard on the approval of others and how much stuff is liked/commented/shared, only because I am prone to fail. But I’m mindful about it now and have a means to at least try and keep myself in check daily.

      Liked by 1 person

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