(Photo by Kat Tuohy)
Michael "Popeye" Vogelsang was the frontman and primary songwriter for 90's Revelation Records heroes Farside, before stepping back from music and immersing himself in the world of TV and video game voiceover work. Popeye V. came roaring back a couple of years ago with the tuneful and incendiary Your Favorite Trainwreck, and he was kind enough to catch up via email and dig into his past, touching on everything from Farside's demise (and why they'll never reunite), his work on the Skyrim game, and what keeps him motivated.
It’s obvious from a songwriting standpoint that you put a lot of craft into your work, while still managing to capture what Dylan called “that thin, wild mercury”. What is your songwriting process like? Do you start with a riff and build from there or do the lyrics come first?
First of all, thank you for the kind words! Every time I write a song I always want it to be the best song I’ve ever written. That doesn’t mean that I succeed, but I think it’s important to approach songwriting that way. As for my writing process, I don’t really have a “usual way” of doing things. Sometimes it’ll be a guitar riff that pops into my head that gets it started, and sometimes it’ll be a vocal melody that I’ll build around. Other times it could be a line or two of lyrics that I’ll think of which gets the ball rolling. I really enjoy trying to switch it up with each song because it makes it more challenging to me, and the challenge of it is part of the enjoyment. Also, I’m afraid of falling into a habitual way of doing things. I don’t want to feel like I’m doing the same thing over and over again.
Farside called it quits after 1999’s “The Monroe Doctrine”, an album that significantly expanded the band’s musical vocabulary (your solo cover of “Blue Highway” being one of its most sterling examples). Why call it a day when you did?
When we started writing songs for The Monroe Doctrine we had the mindset that it would be our last album. After it came out we did an east coast tour and after that we kept it going for a while, and even considered trying to make the band into a full-time thing. But, after some time passed and after weighing the options, it just didn’t work out. At that point, we were all very involved in other aspects of our personal lives and we started to feel like we were phoning it in a little. It just seemed kind of silly to keep it going if we wouldn’t be able to be fully committed to the band.
Knowing that you intended “The Monroe Doctrine” as your final recorded statement with the band, ending it with “Blue Highway” (a cover, done solo and acoustically) seems even more profound.
Recording that song was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing. Our engineer/producer Jim Monroe played me that song in the studio after a long night of recording - I think because he was tired of listening to all of the noise we were making and he wanted to chill out a little. I already liked Graham Parker but I had never heard Blue Highway before, and it really hit a nerve with me because it's such a well-written song. We had a short conversation about recording it for The Monroe Doctrine, and that was that. I had wanted to put an acoustic song at the end of the album but I didn't have anything new to record, so we went with Blue Highway. I honestly never thought that anyone would take notice of it. It's been really incredible that, after all these years, lots of people still compliment me about it.
You have so far resisted the urge to reunite Farside…is the past best left there? You clearly still enjoy playing the songs.
We get approached about reunion shows now and then but none of us want to do it. Just like you said, we all just want to leave the band where we left it. There isn’t any bad blood between us but doing a reunion would seem kind of pathetic to us. Farside was one of the greatest experiences of our lives and we don’t want to take the chance of spoiling the memories. I’ve been enjoying the few acoustic shows I’ve done over the last year but I try not to do too many of them. It’s been really fun to do a little traveling and connect with so many people who supported Farside. But at the same time, I don’t want to feel like I’m beating a dead horse, so I try not to play those songs too often.
You spent a lot of time away from music before coming back with Your Favorite Trainwreck – was it an intentional sabbatical? What brought you back? The YFT album was, quite honestly, one of the finest of 2012.
After Farside broke up I wanted to take a break for a little while. I had some things going on in my personal life that I thought were more important than playing music so I didn’t touch a guitar for about three years. And, to be honest, I didn’t really miss it that much. I was hoping to get back into music sooner than I did but I think I needed someone to slap me across the face to inspire me to start writing and playing again. Jeff Caudill asked me to play guitar in his solo band and I also played with The Aquabats for a short while, so both of those things got my enthusiasm up. I’m very happy to hear that you like the Your Favorite Trainwreck album so much!
You and Jeff Caudill have been working together in various roles and combinations for years now. What about that relationship is so fruitful artistically for you?
Jeff and I have always been on the same page musically. Our influences may not be exactly the same and we may not always agree on certain musical details, but we manage to make it work because we’re both open to each other’s input. We’ve built up a lot of trust and respect for each other over the years so collaborating on things is really easy for us. When it comes to music, we’re kind of like an old, married couple that finishes each other’s sentences.
You have been primarily involved as a voice actor the past few years – how did you realize that talent and come to that as a career? Does it scratch a different creative itch than songwriting and being in a band?
Several people had been telling me for a long time that I have a good voice, and simultaneously I had grown to really dislike my job as a magazine editor, so I eventually got off my ass and started taking voiceover classes and immediately loved it. After a while I got an agent and started booking jobs, and fortunately I’ve been able to keep doing it for the last several years. There is usually a lot of creativity involved so it definitely scratches a creative itch. But that being said, it’s not quite the same as writing and playing music. I love doing both but it’s a different kind of madness between the two. I will admit that working at home as a voice actor is a lot more comfortable than living on the road at this stage in my life.
One of your most familiar voice roles was as Farkas in the Skyrim video game – how did you get involved with that and what was the experience like?
I've worked on a lot of video games and I can honestly say that it's probably the most fun thing I get to do as a voice actor. I don't play video games, so Skyrim was really just another audition to me. But after I booked the job I did a little research and was floored by what a hugely popular franchise it is. With a big game like Skyrim I had to do four different recording sessions and they each lasted about four hours. (I did about 1,500 vocal cues.) You do a lot of yelling and screaming but you have to stand as still as possible so the audio will be consistent, so by the end of the day your legs are pretty sore from having to stand in one place for so long. The best part of doing video games is when your character dies. The director will quickly give you a bunch of different ways to die like, "Now you're being stabbed in the throat. Now you're falling off a cliff. Now you're drowning. Now you've been slashed across the chest with a sword." You really get to play around and it makes me feel like a little kid.
What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to? Who inspires you musically?
The Clash was the band that changed everything for me when I was about 10 years old. Their first album rocked me to my core. I was too young to fully comprehend everything that they were singing about, but there was something about their energy that made me want to go deeper into that rabbit hole. I’m happy to say that I never regretted it and never looked back. The other standout for me is Elvis Costello. I’ve always respected how much variation he could put into an album. And, let’s be honest, that dude’s got some style! I still listen to both of them of a very regular basis.
How has life as a recording and touring musician changed for you as you have gotten older? Are expectations (yours and others) different for you than when you were first signed?
I never thought that Farside would be a huge, successful band and I was just happy to have an opportunity to make some music, do some traveling and make some new friends. (I was very excited and flattered that we got to sign with Revelation!) Still, I was always appreciative of the people that supported us and I felt like if I ever acted like a rock star, it would just be insulting. I think I’ve always kept my expectations moderate because I didn’t want to be disappointed if things didn’t go well. At this stage in my life I really don’t think about touring and making money. I’m more interested in simply doing something that I can be proud of.
If you were to give advice to folks starting out as songwriters today, what would it be?
Do whatever you can when you have the opportunity to do it. You can find another job. You can find another place to live. If your relationships don’t last then they weren’t worth it in the first place. You’ll be surprised how things tend to work themselves out. There were a lot of opportunities that I passed on during the Farside era, and even though I don’t regret the decisions I made at the time, I now realize that the universe probably wouldn’t have collapsed if I had simply said, “Fuck it!” and taken more of those chances.
What’s on your artistic “bucket list”?
I've never really had a bucket list, either as an artist or as a person in general. I guess I don't think that far ahead. Working on this acoustic ep was something that Jordan Cooper from Revelation Records suggested, so that was the impetus for that. Otherwise I may not have thought of doing it. Often times I need someone to suggest something that seems challenging or scary for me to do it, almost like a dare. I've been so incredibly fortunate over the years to have had so many opportunities as a musician, so maybe I already feel satisfied enough to not need a bucket list. At the same time, things have a way of popping up that make me want to try something new now and then.
What’s on tap for you next? Any chance of a solo album or a Your Favorite Trainwreck follow-up?
I’m very slowly working on an acoustic ep at the moment. It’s driving me a little crazy because I’ve never done this before and I’m getting a little obsessive about it, but so far I’m happy with the way it’s going. Currently, Your Favorite Trainwreck is on a bit of a hiatus because everyone is involved with other projects, but we still keep in touch with each other and hopefully we’ll make another drunken album soon.