Dapper and sweaty in his Canadian tuxedo, Mike Farrell is embraced by a storm of positivity from each person, young and old, that he greets through the crowds of St. Catherine’s annual SCENE Festival. Although he is one man, he’s representative of a collective.
Nearly a year since his self-titled debut, Farrell evolved International Zombies of Love into an expansive, synthetic calvacade of joyful rebellion last month on his sophomore record, ‘You Heard This Wish’. The result is a refreshing dose of positivity found in life’s loneliest corners and an experience that is uniquely its own, in a world of daft formulaic sound.
Between his outdoor acoustic set from the Pistonhead half-pipe stage and his late-night slot at the cozy Detour bar, Farrell took a moment aside to reflect with A Music Blog, Yea?.
IZOL: My wallet is back there somewhere, I can’t find it. I don’t know where it is.
AMBY: How important is your wallet to you?
IZOL: Well, I gotta cancel everything but I just got rid of the money, just a couple of cards.
AMBY: With that blazer and everything, the weather is sweltering, do you have to commit to a character or a role? Is there a certain responsibility there?
IZOL: I think so, a little bit. I don’t know. It’s the way I dress, which is kind of crazy. But yeah, it’s a show right? I want to separate a little bit. Stage, performer and us to show the audience that I’m not just coming up in my berkenstocks and sandals to do a show. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
AMBY: Where did that idea come from?
IZOL: I’ve worn a blazer. It’s kind of a weird thing. Even when I had this rock band called the Pariahs, we’d been around forever like we were around for twenty years. Even then, I was crazy street rock and we played around all around and played with bands like The Ramones and I was always wearing the beat-up blazer then. So it was like I had this one blazer that I never washed after fifteen years. It was tattered and torn to the point where reviewers were commenting on what I was wearing right away. It’s funny. It was like I was covered in swamp sludge or something. But I don’t know, I kind of dig that. It’s a bit part of the project, I wanted it to be different, like you said and take people a bit off guard and the heritage of the act is kind of everything I grew up on from my dad’s campfire songs right on through.
AMBY: Tell me a little bit about those campfire nights with your father. He grew up in Illinois right?
IZOL: Yeah, I grew up in upstate New York for a little bit and then moved to be a Toronto boy after that. Dual citizenship, which is a pain. It’s good, but they’re after you’re taxes now. So yeah, very musical family with my mom playing piano and stuff with my dad really influenced me big time. On his Gibson jumbo country western slugging out old campfire classics. He was playing Eagles and America. He got a hearse back in the fifties with his buddies and set it all up, so they could sleep in it and travel all around.
AMBY: Would you travel with him on the road?
IZOL: No, no. He didn’t know me then. These are stories that I loved of him and his country guitar. I learned from him. He had a folk band at our Catholic church, but it was like a cool band. I think those were smoking grass in the seventies, you know. They’d have stand up bass, a couple of banjos and that sort of stuff. Early on, basically I was in a band that performed once a week every Sunday and jammed every week, rehearsed and my dad got me into that very early.
AMBY: For some people, they use music to escape from restraints of religion. But for you, it was embraced to build off from?
IZOL: I did it for the music. No religion. But later on I just did it so that I could watch the cute Catholic girls come up for communion. Hold on while I strum my guitar. [WINKS] But then I went to school and all of that, discovered pop in the seventies and the early eighties with all of that diversity. Everything from ‘I Believe in Miracles’ or Starship would mix in with Gary Wright’s ‘Love is Alive’.
AMBY: Or ‘Dream Weaver’!
IZOL: Exactly! All of those keyboard sounds. I liked that. Then I got into punk and I was sort of a punk rocker for fifteen or twenty years. Sort of street rock like Iggy Pop or something.
AMBY: When was the moment where you decided that you wanted to go back to this son of campfire songs and pop music coming back?
IZOL: Well you’ve heard it, I call it modern mongrel music. To be honest, I love rock’n’roll but I was getting sick of the idiom. It is a very constraining idiom. Especially what we were doing with two guitars, a bass and I was the front guy with a few hundred people going crazy with beer.
AMBY: What did it take to break out of that mould?
IZOL: While I was on that rock’n’roll train, I was also doing stuff with Ron Sexsmith. I played on stages with him. In the nineties, you know those hard wood things that Hayden would do? I’d play on that with guys like Greg Keeler, Sexmith and Hayden. That was more singer-songwritery stuff, still good stuff. I did that while I was a crazy street rocker. I sort of had enough of it.
AMBY: Did it take your long distance relationship with your partner to give a more narrowed perspective, ironically enough?
IZOL: That’s right. Oh, you read up on it all. That’s cool. Yeah, it’s true. Then I got the baby grand piano and started playing around on that. Yeah, partner is away in Amsterdam and I have all this time on my hands to start recording intimate bedroom jams. Then I started getting this stoned out trippy stuff on top of it, got invited to a couple of festivals and played a couple of shows, came up with a name off of a joke online and off I go. So where I’m at right now is where I feel this is a very honest representation of where I’m at musically for sure. I also like the dexterity of the project too because I could do solo and it is kind of interesting. I travel with two configurations of a duo and I do a trio, which is really representative of the full album sound.
AMBY: Do you find that this brings out an entirely different audience than the Pariahs did for those twenty odd years?
IZOL: Oh yeah, for sure. And I’m playing different venues. I love Darryl Fine in Toronto and the Bovine and everything like that, but that crowd is not going to be as much into the project.
AMBY: Do you think you could still be doing that right now?
IZOL: The rock’n’roll? Oh yeah! Fuck yeah, man! Of course. We’ve got this album, The Pariahs still have this album in the can that Ian Blurton mixed, actually and it has been sitting there, ready to go. But by that time things were falling apart, but one day I’ll be ready to unleash it. I’m feeling that with this project, it went off into synth land for the second album, because I kind of by proxy had this synth that I’m now playing with on stage. But I get a feeling now, when I’m playing with a full band that it is getting like rock’n’roll more. There’s a little more grit to it. It’s coming back.
AMBY: Is it kind of like it has been a rediscovery of music for you? Sort of like you pressed the reset button?
IZOL: It feels like that. Yeah, it totally does. I’m not jaded about it, not that I was before. I just sort of wanted to do something new. I love the dexterity that I can do anything. Even in a big set with the trio, I’ll bring it down to me on the acoustic and introduce the synth again and we’ll go crazy.
AMBY: Do you think visually when you’re writing?
IZOL: I sort of feel it, but it’s funny. If I’m really into the mode I can kind of feel like what it looks like on stage. I can sort of tell by the audience what I’m looking like. It’s kind of weird.
AMBY: How do you go from an audience with that fucking adrenaline, pushing it through with you to having a few couples sitting on the grass and taking it in?
IZOL: It depends. It’s good just to play. You usually impress some people. I usually find that when I’m playing something like this, I have half a dozen people come up to me afterward and one guy bought an album. Stuff like that is cool, when I know it registered with somebody. No, it’s different for sure. I look forward to bigger crowds, I go over well with them.
AMBY: You talk about the Pariahs album being on the shelf, then there’s this project. Do you feel like you could have done your album, buried it away for nobody to hear and be totally satisfied with the product?
IZOL: With this? With the IZOL? No way, man. I’m always all about showy. Art for me is to share. It doesn’t fulfil what I need, unless I am sharing it with other people. Some other artists are fine, they can do their own art and are happy with it never being shown in the gallery or something like that. Not me, I have to be live for sure.
Thank you International Zombies of Love, for giving us your answers!
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Interview by Colton Eddy | @coltondaniel