- November 2013 -
HAVE A BEER WITH PAT MCKILLEN
Meet Pat McKillen, a Chicago-based singer-songwriter whose 2013 release, The Red Headed Enemy, is carving out new space in the folk scene. Pat's cover of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" was recently featured in The New York Times, and earlier this year, fans got a taste of his new record when he played an original song before the celebrity judges of America's Got Talent.
We had some beers with Pat last week before his Valslist.com living room show and chatted about his creative process, the meaning behind his album title and why he looks forward to playing in more intimate settings.
The Show: November 23, 2013 // Valslist.com show
Drink of Choice: Hop Slayer Double IPA from Wild Onion Brewing Co. (The Onion Pub) // Maker’s Mark Old Fashioned
Kristen: How did you get into music in the first place?
Pat McKillen: It was definitely a mistake. I was an athlete growing up—I played baseball and hockey—but I was always, always singing, and not because I was ever in chorus or sang in church. I don’t have one of those stories. I was in 8th grade and I had advisory with these two guys—one was a bassist and one was a guitarist—and they just liked to rock out. At the time, they didn’t have a singer and they were like, “Do you want to be our singer?” I was like, “I don’t sing…I hum…But I do have a karaoke box.” So, I brought that thinking I would be able to use it for band practice. We were a “rock-‘n’-roll” band. I was this pre-pubescent fourteen-year-old trying to scream my way through “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Chop Suey!” by System of a Down. We did three or four Metallica songs, but our biggest hit was “When I Come Around” by Green Day. I would just plug my nose and it helped me sing like Billie Joe Armstrong. More than anything, that’s when I started to feel comfortable performing. I loved being on-stage. Then, my freshman year of high school I got cut from the hockey team and my dad was like, “Well, you’ve gotta do something else,” so I started playing guitar. I was a big Dave Matthews Band fan—one of my first CDs was Under the Table and Dreaming—and that was kind of what kicked me off. That’s why I chose acoustic and that’s where it all started. I really wrote some terrible, terrible songs for a while there. I’m still writing breakup songs to this day, but the breakup songs from earlier on are just so, so embarrassing to look back on.
Kristen: And when did Pat McKillen as a singer-songwriter take form?
Pat: There was a pretty defining moment. I played with the band I was just talking about throughout high school. We wrote some decent original music but we never had great recordings, and then we all went separate ways when high school ended. Two went to Michigan, one went to Purdue and I went to Notre Dame. I never really considered how much or how little I would keep playing. I’m not sure what got me out. I was just playing in my dorm room in college; then I started doing these open mics, which happened every Thursday in the basement of the student union. People would play once a month or once every other month, but I would go every single Thursday. That’s when I started thinking about songwriting more seriously.
Kristen: You mentioned breakups as an inspiration for your songwriting. What else influences you?
Pat: It’s a lot of breakups, man…[laughs] I do really like writing on relationships in general, and that goes beyond girls. In most of the songs on my new album, The Red Headed Enemy, there’s what I would call the “Saturday Night” me and the “Sunday Morning” me. That’s the relationship with myself. But I also touch on relationships with friends…
Kristen: When I first listened to your record, you mentioned there was a track on there about your grandfather and your relationship with him.
Pat: Yeah, my great-grandfather…it was a tribute to him. The whole album starts with a tape recording from an interview I did with him for a history class in middle school. There’s a song dedicated to him. There’s a song about friend who struggles with drugs and how that feels…I tell a lot of people if they want to get to know me to just listen to my music. The most common thing I hear is, “You’re really hard to read.” But it’s for a reason, you know.
Kristen: So, you’re just like, ”Go listen to my music. That’s all you need to know.”
Pat: Exactly. Someone asked me what the song “Pholk & Phollies” was about. I was like, “Did you listen?” I thought it was the most explicit song I’ve ever written.
Kristen: You played that song in front of a live audience and celebrity judges on the reality show America’s Got Talent. Tell me about that experience.
Pat: Doing the show was a great opportunity for exposure. Everyone you talk to will tell you that the music industry is totally different than it used to be. The old access points and entryways are totally blocked and the new ones are totally do-it-yourself. The market is really saturated. Yes, America’s Got Talent is a reality T.V. show—and reality T.V. is bullshit—but they found some songs of mine online and contacted me to see if I would audition. I’m a starving artist, so who am I to say, “No, I won’t come to your audition?” I went to the first audition and made it through. I played my Carly Rae Jepsen cover and they put me through to the Executive Producers. I played that one again and it was a total different experience. They were all stone-faced, like “Are you done?” and one said, “Do you want to play something else?” I had thought about other songs I could play but didn’t plan on actually doing it, so at the time the only song that came to mind was “Pholk & Phollies,” so I played it…Most of these reality T.V. shows are based on covers and that’s great…but the opportunity to play a song of my own and for them to actually air at least a portion of the footage was unbelievable.
Kristen: I was with you the night you found out about it airing, and I remember laughing because you were getting tons of new Twitter followers. A lot of people found out about your music that way. To me, it’s less about getting to the end of that show or making it through and more about the exposure it’s getting you, especially when you’re playing your original music.
Pat: Absolutely. The whole battle today is exposure versus actually getting paid for what you do. All musicians—in addition to writers, artists, anyone who freelances—are probably a little too eager to get exposure in lieu of payment, but I think that’s good, because if one project leads to something else, then it’s worth it.
Kristen: And everything about that performance was true to who you are as a person as an artist. You weren’t trying to pull anything to get through to the next round.
Pat: Yeah, I didn’t have some extravagant story, but I’m also not going to make something up. I’m not going to dress outlandish or be someone that’s not me.
Kristen: I feel like there’s a lot of that now. Bands or artists feel the need to dress a certain way or have a story or an image that “defines” them. I understand it from a publicity standpoint, but at the same time, it’s so much more refreshing when you see someone who’s honestly doing what they do.
Pat: I think that’s my favorite part about what I do. I’m not trying to be something at all…and maybe to a fault. Maybe I should be trying a little harder. I did get this new haircut the other day, but then I got bullied walking by a Lincoln Park Elementary School. I was walking somewhere with a buddy and this little girl at recess is standing there with her friend and picks me out—the ginger, she sees all of my vulnerabilities—and goes, “You look like Justin Bieber.” I go, “Oh, thank you.” She goes, “That’s not a good thing!”
Kristen: I think Justin Bieber has great hair. Speaking of hair, tell me the story behind your album name, The Red Headed Enemy.
Pat: There was a B-side song that didn’t make the cut for the album that was called The Red Headed Enemy. The song looks at my relationship with myself and some of the interior struggles between Saturday-night-to-Sunday-morning me. You know, you go out too much or sometimes you don’t understand the things you do relationship-wise. And that’s where the artwork stems from, too. There are two faces. It’s an examination of myself as a two-sided individual. There’s “Mr. Right” and “Mr. Left.” “Mr. Right” is more reflective and sorrowful than “Mr. Left.”
Kristen: I think everyone has that duality to some extent. Let’s talk about the creative process behind the album.
Pat: Before this album, there were a lot of songs I had started in college or wrote in the time shortly thereafter, and there wasn’t really an emphasis on lyrics. I feel like I’ve developed a lot more lyrically since that time. With The Red Headed Enemy, the emphasis was on saying more. It’s kind of a concept album in that duality way that we just discussed. I focused a lot more on writing, on lyrics. Every song takes me to the place I was when I wrote it, and I think that’s really cool. It’s a lot of songs—fourteen total—and it’s a collection of moments spanning the past year-and-a-half. They all sort of cropped up and I was done with most of them by 2012. So, I started recording. I do everything on my own and I’m maybe a little “old school” in that way. I use some software to build it up, but most of the tracks are sampled from something that I physically played. For example, there’s a lot of percussion of me smacking sticks on a desk. That’s what I enjoyed about creating this album. I don’t think it’s that experimental to the average listener, but it was really experimental in the fact that I was finding unique sounds for each track. Once I write a song, I generally have an idea of how I want them to sound when I put all the pieces together. I’d like to say that’s one of my strengths—being able to visualize where a song is going to go, even if I start with just the bones of the song, whether it’s guitar or lyrics.
Kristen: So, you’re playing a living room show today at Val Haller’s home, the founder of Valslist.com and a New York Times contributor.
Pat: Yeah, I’m really excited about it. Val has been a great supporter. I played a show here two years ago and opened for Zach Heckendorf who is obviously a great artist, super talented. He was eighteen-years-old at the time and came out and just shredded it. What Val does with her site is really cool. It’s hard to stay up-to-date with music as it is, and then add in the fact that the do-it-yourself nature of the industry is making it ever-expanding and it gets even harder. Val does a great job with “Music Match,” pairing or comparing older bands and artists with new up-and-comers. But I really like playing rooms like this. Most of the time I’m playing bars, it’s noisy and I do a lot of covers. I mean, I still contend that being able to play live is a good opportunity, no matter the setting, because I can always learn something. I’m able to see what hits with an audience and what doesn’t. Even the bar gigs are a learning experience for me. But here, Val has signs in the room that say, “Quiet, please,” which is awesome. Especially with the songs I’ll be playing today, the lyrics are the most important part, so when I’m playing in a room where they’re actually being heard, it’s an incredible experience. I’m thankful for that for sure.
Kristen: What’s the least rock-‘n’-roll thing you’ve done in the past year?
Pat: [Laughs] Going on America’s Got Talent and getting dissed by Howie Mandel on national television. I may send Howard Stern my album. I’m not sure if he was just complimenting me to play the two sides of the coin, but when I auditioned for the celebrity judges, he told me he had a dream the night before that the next Bob Dylan or Arlo Guthrie was going to come on the show and that was me. I was like, “Don’t put that on me!” But that was really cool.
Kristen: What’s something that has helped you continue on with your career as a singer-songwriter?
Pat: The support of my parents is something I think about a lot. As a lot of artists do, I’m taking a definite turn off the beaten path. I was a finance major in college and there was definitely a way I could have gone, and I could have or should have had people telling me I was wrong in my decision. But my circle, my group—my parents, especially—were supportive. I think there was a certain doubt they had back when I was writing those shitty girlfriend break-up songs. But there was a turning point when I actually started to put out songs, and they saw the effort that went into it. It was those looks of confidence and assurance from the people closest to me that kept me going.
Kristen: What’s next?
Pat: Well, there’s some nice momentum going and playing in front of more people, playing more rooms like this, is really important to me. What’s next is tough as a solo artist. At some point I want to find a band, but I want it to be organic. A band is probably my worst nightmare because it’s like a having a girlfriend… but three of them, and my commitment issues aren’t exactly conducive to that. But I’d like to find some people who like making the same kind of music and get the same rush performing for people. I just want to continue playing for anyone and everyone, and we’ll see where it goes.