It’s amazing to take stock of the sheer number of artists recording music today – some influenced by Muddy Waters, others by the King, and others still who find inspiration in musicians three generations removed from the decade in which rock ‘n roll began. Michael Lemmo is a guitarist, singer and songwriter who seems to be influenced by it all: we’re talking everything from Led Zeppelin and Van Halen through Katy Perry and 50 Cent. His new record Outta Line, released on April 12, 2017, has ties to disco, rock and pop – three genres that don’t always get along. This genre hierarchy is one of the reasons Lemmo attributes to rock’s relative unpopularity and recent lack of growth. “It shuts your mind off to just rock. No rap, no hip-hop, no pop, no Taylor Swift, no Katy Perry. You’ve got to be willing to play ball.” He’s quick to add a reminder about some of rock ‘n roll’s best-known artists: “Nirvana were pop stars, Jimi Hendrix was a pop star. It was just a different time.”
Lemmo’s band, called “Lemmo,” is a four-piece rock outfit with a shifting cast that’s currently based in Los Angeles. Lemmo himself is a member of the Brotherhood of the Guitar, an alliance of young guitarists that the rock ‘n roll photographer Robert Knight launched in the early 2000s as a way to encourage and assist young musicians trying to break into the industry. One thing about Michael Lemmo – if you have the chance to see him perform in person, take it. His recorded music is crafted carefully, thoughtfully; but to see him perform is to see his talent unleashed as his songs develop into skilled solos and musical conversations with his bandmates.
Though he’s been performing since he was 12 years old, Lemmo’s first EP, The Marquis, was self-released in February 2016. Two of the EP’s tracks, “Alright” and “La Cienega,” have recently climbed radio charts in Los Angeles, with “Alright” reaching #1 on the Radio Indie Alliance’s Top 10 chart in March of this year. Lemmo now follows that first effort with Outta Line, an eight-track record that deviates from The Marquis’s ethereal rocker vibe and settles into another of its lead singer’s favorite musical eras: 1980s dance pop. Though Outta Line features a couple of tracks that have undeniable rock roots (“London,” “Outta Line”), it shows listeners what can happen when an artist inspired by the music of old opens his ears and mind to the pop hits that saturate today’s entertainment.
Not that Lemmo has any genre destination in mind: he’s considering recording an acoustic album next, but he seems open to all possibilities. “I like to think that good music will rise,” he told Blues Rock Review a few hours before he was set to take the stage at Harvard and Stone in Los Angeles for Outta Line’s official release party. Sitting in a coffee shop a few blocks away from the venue, Lemmo was calm, confident, and very sure that music creation and performance is what his life is meant for.
“La Cienega” is one of two especially popular tracks off your debut EP. What’s the story behind that song?
Honestly, I was in a period where I was watching too many Angelina Jolie movies. I had this idea of a woman you can’t control where, in the end, her heart is good. She has good intentions; that’s where the lines come from. It’s a mixed character that I had in mind. I imagined this whole character, a special person I was dreaming of at the time.
What’s your songwriting process like?
It usually starts with a riff. I went to Berklee, the college of music in Boston. I got a full-ride for guitar, so most things start with guitar. Usually I never write lyrics down; I just scat. I say whatever comes to mind and realize later what the words really mean. “La Cienega” was a prime example of something where I wrote it the way it’s written, and later I started realizing what it’s about.
I got the name from a Ryan Adams song called “La Cienega Just Smiled.” It just fit. I didn’t even know what it was. Ironically, “La Cienega” took on a new meaning because of the first street me and the band landed on in California. It was funny; maybe I didn’t know this existed, maybe I didn’t know the street was even here. But it makes a lot of sense. It’s like an American Dream kind of thing. We recorded at the Sunset Marquis – the back end is on La Cienega. It had an iconic feeling. It felt like a Tom Petty “Free Fallin’” kind of vibe: driving a car, letting things go. It’s like a dreamer mentality, and that street tied into it once I realized that’s where I was.
The first EP has that kind of dreamy quality. How would you describe your sound? It reminds me of something, but I’m not sure what.
That’s the thing we keep getting. We just got a couple of reviews from the UK. The UK in general is really big on our sound. They were saying the same thing: it sounds like you’ve heard it before, but you’re not sure where. It seems to be a theme. I’m not going to say this about myself, but they were saying that some of their favorite artists have this thing where you feel like you’re already familiar with [their music]. I like to think that’s a pulse I’m hitting on.
“Breaking My Heart” is on that record; it’s a super vibe song. But it’s funny, because then it goes to “Up All Night” and “Alright,” which are super rockers. We try to show the whole gauntlet. Lemmo really is a band, it’s just been changing so much around me lately. I write everything – pretty much. There’re little snippets of input: our original bass player played on both records, but he’s not in the band right now. I miss him, and I hope that works out at some point.
With the new record, I was trying to go disco, dance. I was really into the ‘80s and disco. But I love rock music. Usually those two don’t get along, but I felt like, you know what? I don’t care. I like both of these. So I went with it.
Has music always been part of your life?
Whole life. My mom had a guitar from her grandfather. My mom had eight brothers and sisters – they wanted them to be the Partridge Family or the Brady Bunch, all playing instruments. I started playing ice hockey and all this stuff when I was younger, Boy Scouts and all of that. I kept saying to my mom, “I want to play guitar.” When I was about 6 or 7, they got me church lessons, and I was like, “Wait – I want to play rock ‘n roll. This isn’t what I thought it would be.” I wanted to play like Eddie Van Halen.
So I stopped for a bit, and then at 11 years old I got my first electric guitar and I started learning Nirvana, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, you name it – all rock ‘n roll history. I would say 11 is when it got serious. It was weird, because it came really quickly. By 12, I was already playing Ozzy [Osbourne] solos, Randy Rhoads, “Eruption.”
I have footage of me playing with these old rockers, and I’m like 12 years old. I was so small that the sound of the speakers would literally rumble my body to a point where I told my dad right before we started, “I don’t feel good. I think I’m going to throw up.” It was so loud that it would rumble your chest. But it’s always been there. There’re pictures of me at 2, 3 years old with a button guitar, and at 5 years old with a different button guitar, then finally it turned into strings.
Were your parents supportive of your decision to pursue a career in music?
My parents are the most supportive people I could ever imagine. I’m grateful.
I understand that you’re a member of Robert Knight’s organization for young guitar players, the Brotherhood of the Guitar. How did you connect with Robert?
I was right outside of Philadelphia. My dad was upstairs and I was in the basement. He goes, “Mike, turn on the station. There’s a kid that’s just like you.” And it was Tyler Bryant, who was Robert’s golden boy. My dad’s like, “This kid’s just like you! He’s rock ‘n roll, he can play, he’s young.” I went straight to my room without even telling my dad, I emailed [Robert], and within 10 or 15 minutes he got back to me. He saw a video of me performing at the Bitter End. He was like, “Wow, you’re great – I want to meet you.” I went straight to New York the next week to meet him and he gave me some advice. Eventually, we met out here in L.A. He was a big part of hooking me up with the Sunset Marquis. He really helped me step it up. Once I met Robert, it was like, you’re not the only one, and you need to prove yourself. I was open to that challenge.
Your song “Alright” is doing well on charts around L.A., particularly with the Radio Indie Alliance. What’s it like to see a song doing well more than a year after you released it?
Warner Brothers put it out on a compilation called Music for Relief, which was run by Linkin Park. It’s wild; you have to be willing to let it settle. One of the best quotes I’ve heard is, “A good song is a good song.” I always believed in “Alright,” and I always believed in “La Cienega.” They were the top two from [The Marquis]. I didn’t know what was going to happen. It makes sense to me that it’s happening now.
It’s still fresh, it still feels part of our sound. It’s not for everybody, but for us it’s an iconic song for what we do. We’re going to keep pushing it. But yeah – it feels great. It feels just as great as if it picked up right away, maybe even better because I’ve been waiting.
What about your new EP, Outta Line – which songs are your favorites?
I thought “London” was really cool. I just thought it was a great groove. It’s maybe not a Top 40 or a pop hit, but it’s a statement. It was me expanding into many things I’ve liked over time. But the big songs off the record are “These Types of Girls,” I just think that has a nice mix of disco and rock. It’s modern, it’s fun. Then “Lay There,” which is a song I’ve had for a long time. The title song, “Outta Line,” really survives in the end. It’s almost the brother or sister of “Alright” in terms of this record. It’s a rocker, straight up right from the start – no bullshit. You might not like it, take it or leave it, but you’ll know in the first 30 seconds. It’s also a reflection of my current state, all the things I’ve been doing wrong.
It’s really hard playing original music. You’re throwing yourself out there. I took a year and a half on this record, just trying to throw it out to people to say “yes” or “no.” In the last two years, I got a little carried away with the nightlife. One of the big lines in the chorus is, “Maybe I’m just running away.” That song is iconic for me, in terms of explaining a situation I ended up in. It’s really hard to just throw yourself out there. “Outta Line” was a sign of me having a hard time dealing with that.
I was speaking with an artist earlier this week about frustrations they’ve faced within the music industry, which I’m sure you can relate to after years working in the industry yourself.
Oh yeah. Many frustrations. You see people – and I don’t want this to come off the wrong way – but you see people who don’t really know what they’re doing. Some of them don’t even want it; their parents want it for them. And they’re further than you. That can be frustrating.
I think it also has a lot to do with image, age – I mean, I’m 27 years old. To some people in this business, I’m old, which is crazy. I remember watching this Jeff Buckley interview, and he said, “I like artists who are older because they have more to say,” more life experience. I feel like I had the talent stored to do it younger, but where I’m at in my head, I’m more confident to do it now. I feel like more of an established artist, able to tell people how I really feel. If they don’t agree with it, or if they do agree with it, both are okay. When I was 19, 20, if somebody said they did or didn’t like something, that would be law for me. Not anymore. I know what I want. I know what I like. That’s the biggest change.
I like to think that the good stuff will rise to the top, at some point. The most that I’ve found is to be resilient. Just keep going. That’s what I found with “Alright,” now that “Alright” is picking up. The kind of music I’m doing isn’t exactly trending right now. When that happens, you need to be open to the aspect of time. You need to be willing to let it settle in, let people sit with it. If you know you’ve got something, just keep going with it. Let people catch up with you.
Is making music your solitary job, or do you have another occupation that helps pay the bills?
Music is my only thing. What I do most of the time is play guitar on records. I work for Hollywood Records, Disney, and they have a producer who records tracks for the Jonas Brothers, Demi Lovato, Rihanna, lots of pop. Most of those people are not writing their songs; they need the tracks built. I’m the guitar guy on those tracks, so I’ll build a Nile Rodgers feel, or whatever they want. I make my money that way. I make money through gigs too, but I’d say my primary job is still music, playing guitar. I’m fortunate that way, very lucky so far.
Do you ever get ideas for songs while you’re playing for Hollywood Records?
All the time. Most times, I get creative ideas while playing somebody else’s guitar. Some people say that a new guitar has five songs in it. I actually believe that. With every guitar I’ve bought, I write at least five, six tunes on it. So I’ll go to friends’ houses, or I’ll be at a session, and I’ll be like, “Oh man, I know how to make this mine,” or, “I know how to make this, in my mind, better.” I keep learning. It opens up my mind. I think one of the problems with rock music today is that it shuts your mind off to just rock. No rap, no hip hop, no pop, no Taylor Swift, no Katy Perry. I love it all. I don’t know why; I just do. Of course there are some songs where I’m like, “Nah, not so much.” But I think that’s kind of killing rock music. You’ve got to be willing to play ball. I think what’s happening out there right now, that’s the ball game. There’s a reason why people like it. Nirvana were pop stars, Jimi Hendrix was a pop star. It was just a different time.
Is there a memory that stands out in your mind, either as a performer or as a music fan, that’s particularly memorable or impactful for you?
There are two that pop into mind right away. One, when I met Eddie Van Halen when I was 14 years old. He was dating my friend’s mom in Holland, Pennsylvania, which is really funny because that’s a nowhere town outside of Philadelphia. It was this weird Twilight Zone thing: I used to cry over him. Literally cry. Like, “Dad, they have all these Led Zeppelin posters, they have all these Beatles posters, and I went to the mall today and there’s no Van Halen!” And all of a sudden, I met him. He was so nice to me; he just wanted to hang out. For two hours I got to hang out with my idol.
Another experience was playing the 50th anniversary at Sunset Marquis. That’s one of my favorite places and it always will be. It stands for something in Los Angeles, which is a rock ‘n roll town in general. You’ve got the Chateau Marmont, which is like the actors’ place. I’ve seen everybody at the Sunset Marquis. I’ve seen Jimmy Page, Billy Idol, Black Sabbath, Ozzy. To play that 50th anniversary just made me feel like this was real.
Now that Outta Line is out, what’s next for Lemmo?
I’m expecting some of these tunes, just like “Alright,” will maybe pick up a little later; we’ll see. The songs “Ashley” and “Outta Line” are already on the radio and doing pretty well on the charts. I’m thinking a lot about my next record already. The first one’s ethereal and has some rock tunes. This one’s kind of disco, dance, ‘80s. For the next record, I was thinking about doing something acoustic. Bringing it back to its roots, back to the things I’ve had my whole life: songs I have that I know are solid. Electric guitar is one of my favorite things, but I want to show that acoustic is, too. I already have five songs in queue that I’ve been playing or mentioning to the guys.
But I really hope to tour this record, see where it goes. I like to think that good music will rise, and I like to think that I have good music. Like I said, it’s not a trending style of music, so you have to be open and give it some time.
Interview by Meghan Roos