Sweet Salvation: On His New Album, Wakey! Wakey!'s Michael Grubbs Taps into His Gospel Roots

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Michael Grubbs, front man of the indie rock band Wakey! Wakey!, started playing the piano when he was only 5 years old. Little did he realize that he'd wind up as a musician.

"Music was literally a language in my household," he says. "People have a playroom in their house for the kids. We had a piano room. My parents were music ministers at various different churches and there would be some new piano or organ that they had to carry to church or wherever they were doing stuff. There were all these different interesting synthesizers and electric pianos. That was the way we communicated. My parents never touched a drop of alcohol. Some families like to go out and get drunk together. We would sing something in four-part harmony and, as nerdy and weird as it is, it worked for us."

When Grubbs went to college, he originally wanted to study theater.

"For me, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams talked about things that were taboo," he says. "I wanted to be an actor. My mom told me that they wouldn't help me pay for college unless I studied music in some way or shape or form. Instead of doing the Arthur Miller plays and stuff I thought to be cool, I was doing Camelot and Brigadoon and classical touring musicals. I learned how to be in front of audiences. It was so key to my development but it wasn't what I wanted to be doing at the time. It was super fun. I got to travel all over the States, which was mind blowing."

After moving to New York, he started his first band and tried to tap into the anti-folk movement that was so popular at the time.

"When I moved to New York I had the chance to reinvent myself and find who I wanted to be and how I wanted to live my life," he says. "A lot of it was trying to find where the music scene was. There weren't a plethora of websites. I was reading the Village Voice and trying to figure out where to go see music. I found this place called the Sidewalk Café. There were no rules. I remember seeing Regina Spektor just get up and sing a song while she played one line on a piano and beat on a chair with a drumstick. I thought, 'Wow. You can do whatever you want.' That was a formative part of my career."

He would put together Wakey! Wakey! in 2007. On the band's new album, Salvation, his gospel background shows up in the band's music. It's apparent right from the opening notes of "All It Takes Is a Little Love." A song such as "Through the Night" features guttural vocals but benefits from cooing backing vocals and an infectious synthesizer riff; the retro-sounding "Stop the World" has a good bouncy beat to it as well. Even when Grubbs gets all touchy feely on the sparse "I Like You," the song works because he takes such a direct approach and sounds so fricking giddy.

"After touring for four years and playing to people who were super depressed or maybe reliving sad moments from their lives, I knew that one thing that was important was to do something where people could have fun," says Grubbs. "That didn't mean losing artistic integrity. Joyous moments can be really intense as well. It's about finding those moments and throwing a big awesome party."

Not that the songs have religious undertones.

"I was raised in a very religious household," Grubbs admits. "I grew up immersed in that world. I have so much respect for it and I'm glad I came from there. It gave me a great basis as a human being to strive to be a good person. To me, also, another part of growing up was finding my own understanding of that world and culture. It's led to a much broader definition of things that people think of as Christian ideals. Salvation is much broader than the classic definition. I don't want to sound disrespectful. There might be a religious undertone but it's not what people expect."

With its bouncy synths, "Stop the World" could be an '80s song and shows off Grubbs' love for '80s music.

"There are a lot of '80s-type songs on this album," he says. "That's just what I think sounds cool. Maybe because I'm a child of the '80s. Really famous huge producers like Dr. Luke and Max Martin have said that '80s songs are some of the best-written songs. I completely agree. For me, songwriting is about architecture, and I love the way the songs are built. Maybe I was celebrating that time or a part of my childhood. When I walk around Brooklyn, those are the songs I hear. It's my choice as an artist to make something I think sounds really cool."

Known for his role as "Grubbs" on the TV show One Tree Hill, Grubbs says the show provided a great chance for him to give his music more exposure.

"The life experience of being on the show was so incredible," he says. "It's something I look back on so fondly. When I got on that show, I had been a bartender in New York for 10 years. I went on one vacation during that time. I had been working so hard and spinning my wheels. I was having fun and loved my life, but it was hard. Once they put me on a first-class flight and then two months later I was getting chased down the street by fans screaming, 'You're the piano guy! You're the piano guy!' It was so exciting and so much fun. The other great thing besides the international fan base is that I got some great friends. They're so sweet and so supportive. They come to the shows and tweet nice things about me. When they come to New York or L.A., it's a great party. We all have these extraordinary life experiences so when we come together and tell stories, it gets pretty good."

Now that One Tree Hill has ended, Grubbs says he's "100 percent devoted to the band" and not looking for more acting gigs.

"The One Tree Hill thing was such a fluke," he says. "Someone saw me playing piano in the bar. It's not something I could recreate. If an opportunity came around that was good for the music, then I would consider it. My first love is writing songs and being a musician. That's what I was built for."

Wakey! Wakey!, Ben Fields, Luke Wesley

7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 21, House of Blues Cambridge Room, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $12, houseofblues.com.

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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