“I want to be a rock star, and if that does not work out, a lawyer.” This was Mike Mead’s inevitable response when he was a kid, growing up in Brookfield, Illinois, to the inevitable question, “what are you going to do when you grow up?” He could not articulate any connection; but he was clear that it would be one or the other
Now a sturdy 24-year old with a ready smile that dimples his cheeks, Mead is handsome in face, and looks like a running back—6’2” or so, with wide shoulders and a chest that fills out his shirt. He is eager to cooperate and focuses hard on the questions, a slightly quizzical expression on his face almost each time he starts to answer a question. He wants to make sure he understands the question and its motivation so he can answer precisely. He answers short questions with short answers, carefully crafted, his training to “think like a lawyer” showing. For the most part, he speaks in complete sentences with only an occasional “uh,” or “you know.” He answers briefly and then waits for the interviewer to make notes, take a bite of lunch and ask the next question.
His parents owned Rick’s Bar and Café in Chicago, named after his father and influenced by the bar of the same name in the movie Casa Blanca, so Mike was not without role models for his creativity. He remembers listening to classic rock in his father’s car and—with less enthusiasm—country music in his mother’s car.
His grandmother had an old acoustic guitar, which she let Mike strum when he was 10 or 11. When he was in the 6th grade, his parents responded to months of pestering and gave him an electric guitar for Christmas. They encouraged his musical explorations, focused initially on Guns and Roses and Metallica, until his mother read the lyrics to a Metallica song on a CD liner and took the CD away from him. Still he and Mike Carillo, a friend from down the block who also had a guitar, worked together to learn Metallica songs.
By the time he entered RiversideBrookfieldHigh School, Mead had formed a band, “Sustained Feedback,” with his friends Fred Krubel (guitar), Matt Henkle (drums) and Rob Lewis (bass). Their first public gig was as a local Brookfield coffee shop, where they played for an hour-and-a-half to a packed house of relatives and high-school fans. Encouraged by the response, they began to play local venues regularly. Matt and Mike were focused on the business aspects, while Fred just wanted to play. Then Rob moved and was replaced by John von Rentzell. “John was a bassist and also a singer; he was very creative, and expanded our songwriting horizons,” Mead recalls.
The band won its high-school battle of the bands contest two years in a row and, before long, was invited to play at "Riley's Rock House" in Aurora. “By then, we had found our style; we migrated from heavy metal--just cranking up the distortion and playing power chords-- to a more melodic vibe by the sophomore year of high school.
“We were playing all over the place and starting to meet a lot of other musicians--other bands, like Deals Gone Bad and Tractor Boy-- at the local guitar store. They were helpful to us; they sort of took us under their wings.
“It started out more on the fun side, but we found that we were a great team; we thought we really could go somewhere--that we could really make something out of it. We were at our peak in our junior and senior years.
“We returned to Riley's Rock House to play a show--to reminisce. That actually was my favorite show.”
But the reminiscence started out as a disaster.
“It was in Aurora and none of our fans really came out. It was on a weekday night, with school the next day. There were just a couple of guys helping us out. And all these other really heavy metal bands were on the bill. The crowd and the bands were into their scene--long hair, tattoos, piercings, the screaming music.
“We were up there and our style was entirely different. We started playing and the reaction was horrible. Look at these guys. People were turning their backs to us and didn't want to have anything to do with it. I think we only had a four-song set there. By the second song, we had the crown interested. We started playing more and by the end, everyone was in the front. So basically we won over a hostile crowd.
“We were excited; we had some great music that we had written; I thought we had some great potential.” After graduating from high school, Mike himself decided to attend ElmhurstCollege, so he could stay close to the band. Things were humming, as Sustained Feedback was invited to perform at the Congress Theater.
But then, Mike Mead’s rock star dream lost out to law between high school and college. The other band members were horrified when drummer Matt Henkle decided to start college at NorthernIllinoisUniversity because it was so far away.
“We grew apart. It just slipped away.
“There was no one to blame it on. It was a combination of things. There was a personality conflict between John and Fred; and that impaired our ability to work together.I was a bit angry at first. But as time went on, I realized that this was bound to happen. We didn't have what we had before. I transferred to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana to major in political science. Fred was set up to go to Europe for a year. Matt was at Northern.
“But we had something good for five years. Then, that was it. Music became more of a hobby after I was in college.”
Mead moved relatively seamlessly from being a music producer to being a music consumer.
Now, Mead is well on his way to a successful legal career—he’s a champ at various law-school litigation exercises, including multiple trial simulation competitions—and exudes an attractive confidence and competence with his legal knowledge when asked to play the role of a judge in a basic civil procedure class. He no longer aspires to be a rock star, though he seems puzzled as to the moment when that dream was abandoned. He wants to be a good lawyer and he will be. But music is part of who he wants to be.
He is always listening to music except when he is studying. The week of the interview, he was listening to Radiohead, Dispatch, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Incubus.
“I have a collection of CDs, including those from local bands. I particularly like Buddy Nuisance and TractorBay, the now-defunct group that befriended us in the early days.”
Now, he uses most of his scarce spare time to discover new music made by others.While he listens to music on the radio some two or so hours per day and admits that music played on the radio influences his discovery of new musicians, he also is disdainful of the corporate control of what appears on the radio.
He is goes to local indie venues as often as he can, not more than two or three times during the semester, but then four or five times during Chicago-Kent’s winter break. He uses word of mouth to discover new bands or the serendipity of who appears on the bill for someone he has gone to see. That’s the way he discovered Buddy Nuisance, the only current local indie band he mentioned by name. He spends little time browsing for new music on the Internet, although he uses MySpace and other websitesto check out music from bands that he had heard of.
If an unknown group wanted to attract his attention, it could give out flyers in a club or demo CDs. “If I got a demo with one song, I would listen to it, and if I liked it, I would search out more of that group’s music,” Mead says, before rushing off to a moot court competition practice argument.
He is entirely uninterested in information or pictures about the musicians; it’s the music he cares about, not the personalities of those making it. “I don’t experience the idol identification that some people do with the celebrities,” he says. The personality or appearance of musicians has never been important to him. He does not remember becoming particularly attached to any bands in a psychological sense.Giving his quizzical look in response to the question, “did you every follow a band around the country?” he responds, “well, I never had the chance. I guess that would have been fun, but I never did it.”
“Music is something I will always do, “Mike Mead reflects. I am always sitting down with a group and I am always looking for someone to collaborate with. My roommate now was actually the drummer in the band. He plays guitar also, so a lot of nights we'll sit down and make music. My girlfriend and I are writing some new songs. It makes you more of a musician to collaborate and make great music; that matters more than whether you play shows or make records. In the back of my mind, after I get my career in order, make some money, get a family, then I will play some shows. Now I am focused on other things and I kind of put that on hold. But once I get some time .. I'll get back to it. It's part of who I am.”