Interview: Mike Viola Talks New Album, Adam Schlesinger, and a DEWEY COX Musical

Viola also talks about why you can't find his rendition of 'All My Only Dreams' from 'That Thing You Do' anywhere.

By: Dec. 11, 2020

Interview: Mike Viola Talks New Album, Adam Schlesinger, and a DEWEY COX Musical

The Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Mike Viola will release his latest studio album, "Godmuffin," on December 11th.

BroadwayWorld had the opportunity to speak to Viola about his new release, his early career, his songwriting inspirations (some very famous playwrights!), his relationship with the late Adam Schlesinger, his involvement with "That Thing You Do!," and the possibility of a stage musical adaptation of "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story."

Check out the whole interview below!

"Hang On Mike" was foundational for me, personally, so the "Superkid" sequel song on "Godmuffin" was super exciting to me. What inspired revisiting that narrative?

So, the first "Superkid" was me looking back at my fifteen year old self and just reconstructing - just by going straight for what I remember and letting the story unfold through the details rather than having this idea for a song and then filling in details. I went the other way with it. I found my way into the song with the details, like, oh, yeah, my brother was my roadie! My mother made all my clothes! I remember that.

And so, with "Superkid II," I have a daughter who is the age I was in the original "Superkid," right? And what I'm realizing as I watch her grow, and I feel her, and I see her peeling away from her parents - which is what she's supposed to do, you know? And I just realize how this time of life for her is so fertile and so uncertain, and scary, and exciting, and all those things at the same time. And I can see her forming into who she's gonna be. And it got me thinking a lot about assessing where I'm at now. So, instead of looking back at the fifteen year old me, I am looking at myself right now, you know? But somehow - it's very convoluted - going back with ALL THAT information I gleaned from looking back, and then really applying it to the present, because I have a daughter who's also playing with that conceptual time warp.

But the song's not complicated at all! It's basically just stating - what most of my songs do, just stating how things are, and finding whatever story is in the details themselves. And it's a long song, which is really fun, and I'm gonna make a video and have my daughter star as me, which she doesn't want to do, but I was like, "I'll give you a thousand dollars."

She wants to do it, but not really. So I don't know. We'll see if I get there.

That'll be a great time capsule for her.

That's what I told her! I said, you know - because I do the weirdest s-. I'm a funny dad, and she'll just be like, "what are you doing?!"

I don't groom my kids to be musicians, or groom them to be anything, I just encourage them to find their own passion. They're both VERY musically inclined, but that's not their passion.

Just thinking about your lyrics and the songs that you write - I've noticed, and you just mentioned it, that a lot of them are retrospective and a lot of them just sort of tell it how it is. Are they always true stories? Where do your lyrics come from?

They are true stories. They didn't used to be.

When I was really learning how to write songs, it came naturally to me as a kid, because I was just aping what I heard on the radio, and I wasn't talented enough to write a song that sounded like what I heard on the radio, like Rush, or Foreigner, or something. But I ate what I was served, and it was corporate rock radio when I was growing up. But I couldn't sound like those bands, so I sounded like this bastardized version of it, and it was pretty original and unique! And you can do that when you're really young, you can just keep doing that, but, eventually, you have to learn the craft, I think - at least I did.

And I started reading plays and short stories in my twenties, which was strange because nobody around me was an actor, and I didn't got to college. And it was sort of discouraged, growing up. It's like that Bill Hicks skit, he goes into a diner somewhere on tour and somebody asks him, "What are you reading for?" Not, "What are you reading?" "What are you reading FOR?"

I got a lot of that growing up. I was a big reader - I think because my mom liked to read a lot. I used to write songs like they were short stories, and I was really into that. I was big into Sam Shepard, who wrote plays and also these great short stories, and Tennessee Williams - his short stories are awesome - and he used to do that thing where he'd write every day, no matter how hungover he was. And he was usually hungover, apparently.

So I got into the practice of writing every day. Even if it's bad, you just show up.

So I did that in my twenties, and they were all songs about characters. I'd invent characters. And this was the time when I met Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingswood. I met Chris first. They were writing songs, and they got into this idea that I had of writing songs about characters, and they were like, "What the hell is this six minute song about this guy who kills his girlfriend in a movie theater?" I was like, "I don't know, I was reading Dostoevsky," I think it was.

And they went to Williams College, they were so smart, and they were surrounded by likeminded, intellectual, but musical people. So, we ran into each other in Boston sometime in the late '80s. And they started writing way more songs, because they just wanted to do it always. And Adam was just born to do that - born to do what he did.

So, eventually, it happened with "Hang On Mike," really. I was really tired. I made a record called "Play With Your Head." It's not very good, but there's a great song on that record called "You Belong to Me Now," and it was my one shot, actually, at like. Okay, Mike has a song that really feels like him. It arrived in a very natural way. I produced it. Nobody else told me how to make it sound. People at Columbia, which was the label working the record. They were like, "This is really good. Let's give it a little bit more money, let's do a video, let's promote this."

And they promoted it, but I just could never get off the ground competing with, like, Third Eye Blind and the Spin Doctors. I just couldn't compete! And Fountains of Wayne had done great with their first record, and it was so hard for me to be like, wait, these are my friends! What am I doing wrong? I just couldn't figure it out.

So I went into a deep, deep, deep depression. And I started doing those horrible things to myself, and really finding myself in terrible places, and I just couldn't get out. Everyone around me thought I was - because I always wore a brave face - everyone thought I really knew how to party. People were like, "Oh, you've got a real high tolerance," and, it's like, "Well, actually, no, I don't. I've been practicing."

Right around that time, I told my manager, "I quit. I don't want to do this anymore. I can't compete." Then The Strokes came up, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I'm like, "You know what? This is a 20-year-old person's game. I'm in my thirties now, and I don't want to do this anymore. I don't think the music industry really wants me." And he was like, "Just give me one more record for Columbia. Just give me one more. I promise. I'll give you zero advice. No one will come to visit you." No one came to visit me, anyway. I was pretty much on my own. But he'd be like, "You can do whatever you want."

And so I started writing for "Hang On Mike," and remembering how "You Belong to Me Now" arrived. It arrived very naturally. I wasn't thinking, "I wanna write a song that's gonna compete with blah blah blah," but, you know, as a young musician, at least back then, you were always competing. It wasn't how it is now where you can kind of do what you want and as long as you're a hustler and an entrepreneur, you can actually make a living, you know? Back then, you really couldn't do that.

Anyhow, around that time, I started to only - I never recorded my ideas. If I had an idea, I would just let it linger, and if I could remember it, then it proved to me it was a good idea.

Now, granted, this is also a time where I'm doing a lot of drugs, and forgetting a lot of s-. So, for songs like "Hang on Mike" or "Painkillers," for that song to be able to have survived the quagmire that my memory had become is pretty miraculous. And that record really did surface out of pure will. Like, my subconscious is telling me, "Mike, you have to do all this stuff. You have to do it this way, and you have to take care of yourself." It's literally, like, a study in going with the flow, and stream of consciousness.

And, you know, that was my last record for them. And it didn't do well at all. But people found it, and more importantly, I'm really proud of that record because I felt like I was with it on the journey. And it wasn't a think-y record.

That's the thing. Adam Schlesinger and I became really close again recently. And I think it was him who said, "You write heart music. I write head music." I think it was in the context of like, we were writing a song together, and he's like, "This needs a little bit of your heart."

And that's kinda true. That's just how I've done it. It's been slow, but beautiful.

Speaking of Adam Schlesinger, can you tell me your favorite story about him?

[Adam Schlesinger was an Emmy and Grammy-winning songwriter most famous for his work with the band Fountains of Wayne (including writing their biggest hit, "Stacy's Mom"). He also wrote music for hit films like That Thing You Do!, Music & Lyrics, and Josie and the Pussycats, along with co-writing many of the songs from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. He died from complications of COVID-19 in April at age 52.]

Well, there's a lot of great stories. The thing about Adam is that he was like Julie the Cruise Director from "The Love Boat." He just had the itinerary of your whole week in his head, and he wasn't - people who didn't know him misconstrued that for, like, "he was a manipulator. And he used people." No. It was the opposite.

He just wanted to be in a band with everybody he met. He loved camaraderie, he loved the business. He wasn't afraid of the business, and I always was. I'm not now. Actually, I'm, like, deep inside the belly of THE WHALE of the business. Which is fine, and very cool and interesting!

But he was just fearless with all that. And he was super f-ing smart. When I say "smart," I just mean, like, he has a comedian's sense of timing. Just really quick like that, and so much.

So, one particular moment. I can tell you because I'm the heart guy, I can tell you one of my favorite, cherished moments.

After my wife died, I moved in with Adam and slept on a futon. His parents lived in Montclair, New Jersey. And we could drive out there when it was really hot to go swimming. And it was me, Adam, Chris, and our friend Becky. Maybe one other person.

We went out to Montclair to swim at his parents' pool in the house he grew up him. And his parents are very busy people. Back then, they totally were.

And the house was super lived-in. Like, beautiful, old, New Jersey mansion style place. And I remember roaming around his house in my bathing suit, just kind of being snoopy. But not being weird. I was probably like, "Where's your room, dude?" And he showed me, and he had all these old XTC records and s-, and some cheesy drum set, and then I was walking down the stairs and I saw this piece of childhood art.

And it was his art from when he was a little kid. And he blew past me to do something and I stayed there on the stairs and I took this thing in. And it was basically a parade, and it was everybody cheering, "Adam!" Because he was the best musician - most famous musician in the world. And he probably drew that when he was, like, five. It's what he always wanted.

And it was like, "Hooray! Adam's coming home!" And all these music notes and s- like that, and people cheering him on. And I made fun of him when I want downstairs, I'm, like, "That f-ing picture's hilarious." And he's like, "Ohhhhh noooo." But it really just launched itself. And every time something would happen - like, when he would be nominated for a Grammy, or the Emmy that he won - I texted him, like, "Hooray, Adam! Come home!!!"

It just reminded me of that little kid. And - going back to "Superkid," it's like that stuff in those formative years. And I'm so lucky I have two little girls. I can just watch them grow, and see how significant every little teeny thing.

The minutiae in our lives is so much more important than the big swaths of things. When people are like, "Oh, I'm so sorry your wife died." And it's like, "Yeah, that is really, really tragic." But all the minutiae - all the collateral things in my life really add up and make me who I am. It's the slow, aggrandizement, you know? And the slow attrition. Those two things. The giving and taking away - it's the slow stuff.

So, part of me feels like I was standing at Gold-Diggers, which is this club in L.A., and I was with Adam, and it was Valentine's Day of this year. Like, a month and a half, or something, before he died. It's crazy.

And Adam and I were standing there after my set, and he was just, like, befuddled. He was like, "Man, it's like you're making such significant music to this weird little bubble around you. I cannot figure you out after all these years." He's like, "People here just love your music so much. And I do, too. I'm one of those people. But it's so wild, man. Why are you so hard to reach? You're, like, under a rock, under a rock." Adam would describe - actually, he's like, "My songs are like cardboard boxes that people can put their s- in. Your songs are like invisible skyscrapers that only a few people can see, but they love them."

I'm like, "I think that's a little derogatory, but okay." [Laughs].

You wrote music for "Walk Hard" and "Get Him To The Greek" - has there ever been any talk about moving either or both of these stories to the stage?

I mean, it's my dream for Dewey Cox to be on Broadway. John Reilly, man. He and I became friends doing that. We spend every Christmas together. We constantly talk about reviving Dewey, and me and Dan Bern are still writing Dewey Cox songs. Mostly Dan, because he's such an animal. I'll be like, "Dude, I have this idea," and he'll send it to me and I'll finish it.

There's been talk about it, and there's a lot of hope. I think Walk Hard would translate incredibly well.

I'm waiting for it, so whenever you guys get around to it.

Yeah! I think more so that one, because, like, the songs take you on a journey through music history. I feel like that would be a real component, like, the long throw of music history inside the couple hours of a Broadway musical. I think that would totally work.

It would be so theatrical!


My last question is a question I've had for probably half my life. In "That Thing You Do!," [Viola sang the title song from the hit music movie], it's you singing "All My Only Dreams," but on the soundtrack, it's someone else. Does that full recording exist anywhere? I've looked for it forever!

It's a funny, funny, funny, wacky thing. Again, I was really angry, because my wife had died. I was a very angry young man in my late twenties. So, when I went to do "That Thing You Do!," and I went to Hollywood - I'm a really nice person, but when I don't want to do something, and someone's trying to get me to do it, especially back then, I'd get really mad.

I do have opinions that are very strong, but, you can hear it in my voice. I'm not pushy.

Not at all!

If someone's like, "Do you like this song?" I'm gonna tell you!

I was brought there to sing "That Thing You Do," and I had no idea they wanted me to do all these other songs. Nobody told me anything - or, you know, they probably did, and I didn't even listen. In fact, they sent me the script, and I threw it away. I didn't read it. I was like, "Why do I have to read this stupid script?"

Meanwhile, I'm a huge Tom Hanks fan! I grew up with that guy, you know, like, "Bosom Buddies" and stuff. I LOVE Tom Hanks. So, I was just like, yeah, I'll do this song, and then meet some people, and then I'll go home.

And I get to the studio and they have me doing a bunch of other s-. And I was like, "Oh, man." And then, the song "All My Only Dreams" - which, to be quite frank, I just didn't think it was a good song. So I didn't want to sing it!

I was questioning the song, and the songwriter was in the room, and he was so mad at me. And I was like, "I'm sorry, man! I'm really sorry, but I don't like this." And he's like, "Tom Hanks gave me the title." Because I didn't understand the title! I was like, "It doesn't mean anything! It's stupid!"

And so I said I don't want to sing it. And Don Was, who was producing, was like, "I mean, Mike doesn't want to sing it, I'm not gonna force him to sing it." And then Garry Goetzman, who was the producer, took me on a long walk around the building and was like, "What can we do? We need you to sing this song." I'm like, "Well, I'll sing it for the movie, but it's not gonna be on any soundtrack anywhere."

So they had to drop a whole contract. And it was literally because I just didn't think it was a good song. I was like, "What if that song is, like, popular? I don't want to be known as the person who sings it." With "That Thing You Do," I'm not, like, flying the flag high that I'm the guy that sang that, but I'm not ashamed of it. I think it's really great! That's the story!

I'll tell you this - they're reissuing "That Thing You Do!," the soundtrack, on vinyl for the first time. That's coming out. And I was interviewed for the liner notes, and the guy asked if I had a version of me singing this.

I know where it exists. It exists on the master tape, you know - I recorded it and it was on tape! But I don't have it.

"Godmuffin" will be released on December 11th, via Good Morning Monkey / Grand Phony. Follow Mike on Instagram for more updates.

Check out the brand new music video for "Drug Rug" here, featuring actress and singer Mandy Moore:

Photo Credit: Silvia Grav