Mike iLL spent much of the ’90s playing a hybrid of hip-hop and hard rock. In many ways, his early stuff is as different from what he does now as Shakespeare is from Survivor.
You see, iLL is a member of the changeling tribe that traces its roots to the coffeehouse stages of New York, where solo singer/songwriters who eschewed the traditions of mellow folkies decided to head in a different direction. These musicians grew up under the explosive force of the punk movement, where the focus was on emotion and power over virtuoso playing. Eventually, a more guttural kind of folksinger emerged from the chaos, one who maintained the vulnerability of the lone performer — albeit with a much rawer and more emotive stage presence.
This genre became “antifolk,” and its first stars went by names like Michelle Shocked and Roger Manning.
Mike iLL has become a convert to this still-evolving movement, though he notes: “It’s really more of a scene than a style. Musically we all sound different from each other; it’s not like bluegrass or jazz or something where there’s a defined language and style. Not yet, anyway.”
While performing with his band, the Sweet Lizard Illtet, iLL gained notice as a torchbearer in the revitalized punk movement of the early ’90s, touring with Lollapalooza in 1992. Determined to continually improve and rejuvenate his sound, iLL and his group soon began to infuse more influences into their songs.
“Back then, we were very focused on stylistic innovation, like putting together hip-hop and hard rock, and getting really into industrial and tribal stuff. We were also very aggressive.” Still, even after five albums and another stint on Lollapalooza in 1997 (this time as Illness), iLL craved something else. And thus began his solo career.
iLL is the first to admit that his latest sound bears little resemblance to his earlier stuff: “I’m traveling solo with just guitar and voice. The intent behind the music is the same, in terms of experimentation and innovation, but sonically it’s less dense, and intellectually more mature, [with] more of a sense of humor, maybe.”
What comes out of iLL’s performances today is darkly funny, cynical stuff filtered through an emotional folksinger’s heart. The end product is something that makes the energy and gut feelings so commonly attributed to punk accessible to a more intimate audience. As for the antifolk label, iLL embraces it, in a grudging way: “It just means I’m a punk who listens to folk and blues, but I’m also influenced by hard stuff.”
An example of his dichotomy is that iLL has created much blastingly harsh music yet laments the dying interest in classic jazz and blues. A severely underattended jazz festival he visited recently left him thinking, “If people don’t get this [music], then what does it really [matter] what they think of mine?”
A strange amalgam of attitudes and influences is reflected in iLL’s songs; one moment he’s the hip-hop master playing unplugged, the next a brokenhearted blues man, the next a lovesick crooner. His guitar playing is equally varied, evincing more complexity than one might expect on some pieces.
But iLL’s real musical strength is his expressive style, which cuts through the genre barrier and actually makes one want to listen close, lest one miss some piece of hard-won wisdom. One major reason he connects well with his audiences is that his lyrics often translate as stories or character sketches (unfortunately, not many of them are suitable for print here).
Some critics malign iLL’s work as confused, self-indulgent — but the performer seems to take such criticism in stride, even from those closest to him:
“Last week, my girlfriend said my first solo CD sucks,” he reveals.
One empirically good thing that resides in iLL’s songs is an obvious embedded wish to reach people. His latest project is a prime example. More than just a bunch of songs, the Antifolk Road Manual (Mutiny Zoo Records, 2000) is a multimedia exploration of the mind behind the music, featuring a 20-track CD (complete with two computer-playable videos) tucked inside a bound collection of lyric sheets that’s interspersed with a road diary, graphic photos and poems.
The total effect? You will know more than you ever wanted to know about Mike iLL — much more.
If iLL has but one talent that makes his show worth seeing, it’s that everything he does seems to be pure heart. His may be a bloody, laugh-at-the-pain kind of heart, but it is wholly genuine nonetheless. To his credit, iLL professes a soft spot for Asheville concertgoers. While primarily accustomed to big-city crowds, he nevertheless made a point of returning to Vincent’s Ear for his “Hot Sleazy Summer Tour” because, “You learn so much about yourself as a performer when you have an enlightened audience.”
Overall, the only thing iLL dislikes about playing solo is the occasional jerk with a Skynyrd fixation:
“Yelling out ‘Freebird’ at a show isn’t funny,” he lectures, “even if you don’t mean it.”