How would you describe the Revivalists’ music in three words?
Michael: Fun rock-and-roll. (Laughs). That’s us in three words!
What is the earliest music memory that made you have that “I want to do that” moment?
Michael: My dad was a choir director at a church, so we grew up with instruments around the house and a big Steinway grand piano. I used to just bang on it and learned to play the typical kid piano songs – “Heart & Soul,” “Chopsticks,” all that. One day my uncle, who is an actual pianist, came over and started playing the Peanuts’ Theme song. I was like, “Oh! Teach me how to play that!” His reaction was more like, “Uh, well it might take you learning a few other things first,” (laughs), so I started taking piano lessons and singing in choir.
I always knew I loved music and it was a great way to express myself, be loud, get attention (laughs), but it wasn’t until I was doing it as a career that I realized I would actually get to be able to do this as a career. It’s such a hard thing to be a working musician and to do it solely for business, as your main form of income, is difficult. A lot of people try, some people figure it out and are happy with it, some people do it and realize it’s not for them. I’m lucky that I found myself in a band full of great guys, and that we’re all doing it for a living.
Speaking of that band full of great guys, tell us a bit about how you came to be part of the Revivalists.
Michael: I knew all the guys for years through college connections and the general New Orleans music scene, we’d book each other’s bands on shows and share bills together, that kind of thing. I ended up playing trumpet on one of their records, and then then played keyboards and trumpet on another record. When that record came out, they asked me to come play on the songs I’d recorded with them at a show. We started the set at a small venue, on a small stage, and played through the songs I was on… and then I realized as we got to the middle of the set, and it was time for me to step off on the songs I wasn’t playing, that I couldn’t get off the stage! I was boxed in and had to stay up there, so I ended up playing on the whole set. (Laughs). And, after doing that show, it just kept going from there.
The band has been around for about 10 years, and I came along about 7 or 8 years ago, depending on how you view the timeline, and it’s been full steam since then. (Laughs).
In reflection of both your musical role in the Revivalists and as an independent music maker, how has your music grown or changed over time?
Michael: There are a lot of ways to make music and a lot of reasons to make music. Some of the music I made was because I was really angry about something and that was the one way I could express it. I’ve made music because I was really happy about something and wanted to express that, or I’ve made music just because making music with particular people in a particular moment was really fun. There are a lot of reasons to make music and points and periods when you’re making more music for one reason than another. I think all of those reasons are valid, all of the time. And it always changes!
We have a lot of people in the band and everyone writes, to some extent, so we play a lot of songs that are written for a lot of different reasons. When we go in to the studio, we just try to make it sound as good as possible and express the reason, the feeling behind whatever that person wrote. When we play live, we try to convey whatever that reason or feeling is, and help the audience participate in that as best as we can.
Tell us more about that audience participation piece that the Revivalists seem to hold as crucial in the band’s music-making process.
Michael: We all are New Orleans transplants, we met here, we developed as musicians here, we learned a lot from the New Orleans music community. One of the amazing things that New Orleans bands tend to do – especially the funk and brass bands - is involve everyone in the show. It’s a time to party for everyone in the room, a time for dancing and singing along. It’s not “sit still and listen to what I have to say” type of music; it’s a “join us in having a good time and letting your stress out” music. And that’s what we really strive to do - create a community in music.
Allen Toussaint once stated, “Music is everything to me short of breathing. Music also has a role to life you up-not to be escapist but to take you out of misery.” With that said, how has music supported you in challenging times?
Michael: There are many points in my life where I was going through something difficult and writing music gave me a cathartic way to release those emotions that I was holding onto. When you can take what you have inside you and put it into a song, even if that’s as a listener, it helps to kind of let it go out of you.
When you hear the phrase “Music for the Mind,” what does it mean to you on first impression?
Michael: I feel like all music is for the mind, and the body, and the soul! There is a lot of stuff we all go through as human beings that can be rough. We’re not immune to anxiety, sadness, all these things we’ve created in society that lead to challenges. The Revivalists, as a band, have been playing for so long and our music has reached so many people that we get people telling us that our songs helped through their own rough times. That is incredibly rewarding, and also humbling, to realize that something you did and externalized as piece of music has related to someone who, maybe 5 years later, goes through a completely different issues in maybe a more intense way than what you experienced, and it still helped them to feel like they could get through that challenge.
All music is for the mind, and is for everyone.
As a band, how have the Revivalists navigated setbacks and challenges – and maybe used music to do so?
Michael: Being in a group of 8 people for as long as we’ve been together, it’s like family. Sometimes you fight with family, you’re super mad and frustrated with them, and then other times it’s lots of happiness and fun. Through it all you’re still family. We don’t always agree, but we always take care of each other. That’s something that has helped us be a band for this long (Revivalists were established as a band in 2007).
Touring can be really rough sometimes. You’re not sleeping well, not eating well, you’re away from the support structures you have at home, and it can be trying. Sometimes what gets me back on track is just starting to play the (music) set. Then it’s like, “Ah, I remember why I’m here. Because this feels really good to do right now!” It feels good to be giving something to someone, to the audience, and to the rest of the people on stage that you’re supporting through your part.
I urge other musicians to support other people in the bands or entities they play with, and for people in general to just check-in on each other. Just take care of the people around you, that’s the long and short of it.
What are some resources you, and the band, rely on to manage your mental health outside of music?
Michael: I think it’s important to recognize that we all go through mental health issues and that it’s something we have to take care of just like we brush our teeth and go to the dentist. We need to take care of our minds. That means helping other people around us and taking care of them, but it also means knowing that you should go and talk to someone, whether it’s professional help or otherwise.
I get professional mental health help, other people in the band get professional mental health help, and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s something everybody should do and something I hope everyone will be able to afford or have for free one day. And of course, if you can’t afford it, there are ways to get that help, so it’s important to feel okay to ask about that.
Other things that work for various members in the band, especially during tour time, is taking a bit of time for a walk, finding space to be alone – even if that’s being alone in a coffeeshop full of people, getting a minute to just rest and process. We spend a lot of time around people in close quarters at all times, and without that alone time, it can be a bit maddening and anxiety-provoking. But, oppositely, being at home and off-tour can be a bit jarring for a touring musician and lead to some reclusiveness, so forcing yourself to go to a social event, connect with friends and family you don’t see often, or go sit in that coffeeshop and this time, instead of alienating into your own bubble, observe the people around you and take space in that existence, is super important.
Thank you for all our insight and openness thus far! Let’s throw a fun one into the mix: You’re singing karaoke on an off-night – what’s your go-to song?
Michael: I like to flex a little bit at karaoke! (Laughs). I usually go with Queen, and if I have a buddy, I’ll do “Under Pressure” because of the Bowie-Mercury duet thing. And if I don’t have a buddy, I’ll do “Bicycle Race” or “Killer Queen.” Actually, as a band, we sometimes do karaoke after shows if the show ends early enough, and we have a lot of fun with that. We don’t have a group karaoke song, but it’s a good way to unwind after the show together.
To end our interview, do you have any last thoughts you’d like to share for our interview?
Michael: Our most recent album is called “Take Good Care” and the songs on it are about the many things we’ve been through independently and as a band. The reason we ended up with that title was mainly driven from a lyric on the record, and the thought that taking good care is something we all need. Without our communities, we wouldn’t be where we are right now both professionally and as people. It’s important to be there for other people and to help create a sense of community, by taking good care.
I also think it’s important to know that anything you’re feeling or going through is something you can get help on. Whether that means a friend is going to be the best person to help and take care of you, or your partner, or a professional, it’s important to remember that whatever you’re going through does not portray a lack of something you “must” or “should” possess.
I know a lot of people feel that, and me, too, sometimes, feeling like “Why can’t I get through this? There must be something wrong with me. I must lack some property or trait that is stopping me from being a whole person.” But everyone goes through challenges, darkness, and it’s important to seek help to do it in a way that is healthy and purposeful. We should all offer help and ask for help, whenever the need is there.
The Revivalists are a New Orleans-bred Rock n’ Roll band with a well-marked history of major national tours, acclaimed recordings, awards and accolade, and a passion for integrating the audience into their congregation of song. Fresh from releasing their latest full-length album, “Take Good Care,” you can listen and learn more about the band at:
Official Website: https://www.therevivalists.com/
All photos by Jose Cotto for the Brett Thomas Doussan (BTD) Foundation.