By Ashley Zimmerman
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Every high school has its attention-hungry oddballs, and those clowns dancing on tables for a laugh certainly have to go somewhere after graduation, right? Well, Boca High Class of 2004, your oddball lives in Delray Beach. Now a 24-year-old musician, Mike Mineo still can't blend in or sit still or resist contorting his face into cartoonish grimaces while wagging his dark eyeballs in an attempt to express 18 emotions at once — but he sure can play guitar.
The Van Morrison- and Frank Zappa-obsessed songwriter, whose background in high school musical theater and near-constant wandering as an adult inform his prolific musical output, is ready to prove his skills. On April 9, Mineo will release Eccentricity, an 18-track album that he and producer Brent Williams have worked on for the past year and a half. A six-piece band, complete with tuba and sax, will bring the album's huge sound to life at Funky Buddha Lounge in Boca Raton this Friday at 10 p.m.
Mineo, who has stayed spiritually centered by crisscrossing the country haphazardly since he graduated from high school, is finally starting to sit still and focus on his career. With the help of Williams, a 30-year-old Full Sail University graduate and former A&R rep, he hopes to get his music, which they call "avant-garde pop," on the radio. An August tour to coincide with this radio campaign is in the works.
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Such a structured existence is a far cry from the old Mineo, who jumped into his van after graduation and drove off into the sunset on a tour that "really had no objective." For two months, the wandering songbird held down a weekly gig at the casual, beachfront watering hole Kahuna Bar & Grill in Deerfield Beach. He still plays a Friday-night gig at the Lodge in Boca Raton. Regarding his residencies, Mineo jokes, "I'm a baller, buying name-brand cheese and stuff."
Minutes before a recent 10 p.m. set at Kahuna's, the lean, dark-haired Mineo slaps his Taylor acoustic guitar down onto the table of a booth and starts to string it. "Where's the tool?" he asks himself, then says, without blinking, "I am the tool."
His treatment of his guitar is jarring to the observer, but he doesn't find it so. "It's my guitar," he says dismissively when asked about it. "It's got nicks and cracks and bloodstains from Montana."
Yes, bloodstains. Yes, Montana. In the spring of 2006, Mineo, who plays acoustic guitar without a pick so that he can "articulate bass lines," apparently soiled his instrument during a pretty wild gig. "When I started playing, people went apeshit," he says. "I was playing so hard that I cut my finger and didn't even know it. Mountain men were freaking out, and mountain women dragged me home. I let a few of them."
Is he joking or not? Everything that Mineo says begs a question, but by the time you've asked it, his mind has moved on.
Mineo jumps on stage and squirms through his set. He's accompanied by trumpet player Jason Rozner, who toots along through the Mineo original "Where Did You Go?" and a beautiful cover of Van Morrison's "Moondance." Rozner gives up keeping pace, however, when Mineo launches into a fast-paced, high-pitched song about how guys in bars are more likely to get into a fight than into a woman that concludes with a Violent Femmes-style freak-out.
Moving on, he says the next song is about a "bromance," which draws a giggle from Williams. Is he giggling because his musical partnership with Mineo could be described as a bromance? No.
"He's making it up as he goes along," says Williams. "This isn't a song."
Despite the laughs, Williams is serious about Mineo's talent: "He acts immature, but his songs are profound."
As the producer of Eccentricity and manager of the label NeverNothing Records, which he started explicitly for Mineo, Williams is in deep with the artist he's fostered since they met a few years ago during an open-mic night at Koffeeoke, a coffee shop in Delray Beach. "I was drawn to his raw talent. I felt the same thing that a lot of people feel when they see him, like 'What the fuck are you doing here?' "
Williams rents a five-bedroom house in Delray Beach, and two bedrooms are set aside for his studio. Mineo also sleeps in one of the rooms, an arrangement that has afforded them the opportunity to take their time.
"We got to work on each song over the last year and a half," Williams says. "We just let things grow and took our time so that we could do it exactly the way that we wanted to."
Their process certainly was meticulous. Three songs feature string arrangements written by cellist Oksana Pankiv. "Doing the string quartet on the album took a few months," Williams says. "We went to Stetson University in Deland to record strings. We had free rein of the place. They had a piano and a harpsichord, and Mike jumped on the harpsichord and played it like he'd been playing it his entire life."
"The track 'Eccentricity' wasn't working for us either," Williams adds. "We decided that we needed a pedal steel guitar. I had to farm it out to a guy in Iowa, but that sound brings it all together."
"Eccentricity," the title track, addresses people who rub Mineo the wrong way with the sort of eccentric antics that he can't buy into. It also poses a question about its subjects that people might wonder about him as well: "Is this deep or just eccentric?"
The track also references Shakespeare's character Hamlet, one of the most impenetrable madmen in Western literature. As is the case with Hamlet, it's uncertain how much of Mineo's curious behavior is evidence of keen perception and how much is just plain oddness. His recordings, for the most part, are less peculiar than his person. But for occasional maniacal laughter on a few songs, the album mostly presents profound awareness and a positive message.
"Ain't no problems right here, my dear," is how Eccentricity's big, brassy opening track, "Believe," begins lyrically. Mineo goes on to encourage people to worry less about their problems and "just believe." "Where Did You Go?" plods along like a playful elephant, with Bill Muter's tuba setting a New Orleans-style tone. Instead of whining about a departed lover, the song confronts her with an appeal to be reasonable: "Where did you go?/Why won't you just acknowledge one thing that I did/Before you go and blow it all up in your head?"
Eccentricity's tracks cover a range of genres: jazzy lounge song "Lucky Coin," the soulful "Easy Livin'," country-influenced "Eccentricity," the Broadway-caliber drama in "Old Shoes," and the folk-flavored polka of "Movin' to France."
Upon finishing the album three months ago, Mineo and Williams realized that they would have to put off mastering and duplicating it because they didn't have the money to move forward.
Three days after they'd made that decision, Mineo says his old high school pal who used to dance on tables with him, Alex McGhee (currently a firefighter in Iraq), came through in an unexpected way. "I haven't seen him in years, and he Facebook-messaged me out of the blue and wrote, 'I got $5,000 with your name on it. I'm in a position to help out.' " With that money, they mastered the album and printed 1,000 copies. Now they're ready to present Eccentricity this Friday, at Funky Buddha Lounge.
"Brent came up with the title for the nonconformist style of art," Mineo says of Eccentricity. "My songwriting has an unconventional style. I like to do stuff that's on the border of what you can understand, something on the edge of consciousness, so that if you're listening, you expand. I also look at avant-garde pop as an expression for the approach we are taking: We're not pushing the songs to conform, but we are pushing them for radio. We want to be as successful as possible without compromising the artistic vision."