“I was a scrawny, dopey kid—the worst athlete on the face of the planet,” says Wakey!Wakey! frontman Mike Grubbs. “You know tee ball? I got to first base one time.”
Good thing Grubbs had a burgundy baby grand to wail on instead, the centerpiece of a Partridge-like music room that also housed a French horn, clarinet, violin and autoharp. Grubbs started climbing scales and chords here when he was 5. Back then, his mother—a longtime piano teacher and choir director—would ask the kids to sight read songs before they could even think of eating cereal. And homework, why, that was something you did simply to score more bench time.
“For every subject done,” he says, “I could play the piano for an hour. It was almost like video games for me.” The games got a bit more complicated in high school, as Grubbs stumbled upon the songbooks of Billy Joel and Elton John. Not to mention the arena-ready anthems of Led Zeppelin. That unholy trinity, combined with the three B’s—Bach, Beethoven and Brahms—was enough to steer Grubbs away from the church music he was forced to focus on from an early age.
“One of my main influences now is the fact that I didn’t have someone teach me proper jazz or rock playing,” explains Grubbs. “I had no idea how to put a song together; no one telling me, ‘Hey, you should check out Gershwin,’ but it was all so fascinating to me. So I found my own style by experimenting with what works and what doesn’t.”
Before Grubbs could tap his true voice through a string of buzz-stirring Wakey!Wakey! releases on Family Records (two live LPs, a free collection of covers and last spring’s War Sweater EP), the following dues were paid: a totally ‘90s bar gig aimed at pint-slamming college kids; a rock band best described by its beard quotient and Black Crowes nods (Satellite Kid); and two touring musicals (Brigadoon, Camelot). “I’m a tall, skinny straight guy who can sing,” says Grubbs. “That’s basically gold in the musical theater business because there’s none of us.”
Speaking of standing out, Wakey!Wakey! made their presence known over the past couple years by finding a perfect balance between crowd-pleasing pop and art-damaged indie rock. It’s something Grubbs learned from New York’s anti-folk scene and its founding father, Lach. (The Lower East Side icon mentored Grubbs, which isn’t a surprise—Lach shunned the piano the second he heard the Sex Pistols.) “To come from such a repressed musical environment and then hear someone like Regina Spektor perform with such abandon—shouting and hitting her stool with a drum stick—was priceless.”
Nowadays, Grubbs is the crazy one, slapping his piano around and singing like his life depends on it while conducting a rich backdrop of sweeping strings, heavenly harmonies, and enough delicate details to make Wakey!Wakey!’s first proper LP feel like an Oscar-nominated film soundtrack. Which is ironic to say the least. After all, One Tree Hill creator Mark Schwahn loved a Wakey!Wakey! set so much he tapped their sun-stroked “War Sweater” track for season 6’s finale and recruited Grubbs for a recurring role. That’d be the tale of a bartender/musician named, err, Grubbs—a strangely familiar life story hinted at in such standout Wakey!Wakey! songs as “Almost Everything,” “Twenty-Two,” and “Got It All Wrong.”
“We set out to make an album this time,” explains Grubbs. “I realize that’s not where people say this business is headed these days, but there’s something about translating a year’s worth of experience into ten songs and letting that tell the story. I feel lucky to have the chance to do that on my own terms.”