Rooftop Screamers – Next Level (Q&A, and more …)

Rooftop Screamers is the name of the studio project for Portland-based drummer and songwriter Mike Collins.

The latest record is called Next Level and on this, a variety of musicians and singers participate, such as Ken Stringfellow, Tim Smith, Dan Reed, Earl Slick and Keith Slettedahl.

Mike explains to Sweet Sweet Music how Next Level came about.

You work every song with, for example, a different singer. How do you determine who to do which number with?

I’ve been asked in the past if I have a certain singer in mind when I’m first writing and recording a song, or if I set out to purposely write a song for a particular voice. 

I would have to say no. I usually don’t determine who’s going to sing the song until the song starts to take shape in the studio. That’s when I start to ask myself the question of who’s voice do I hear for this particular track. Whether it seems more suited for a male or female voice.  Or, whether the song calls for a singer with a deeper voice, maybe a whiskey tenor with a little bit of rasp to their voice, or a cleaner-sounding voice. Once I determine the style of voice that would be best for the song is when I start to think about who that person might be. Does someone in my inner musical circle fit the bill, or perhaps a singer I’m a fan of but have never worked with.

One example would be the song “Shifting Tides”. To me, that song has an 80’s or 90’s new romantic/British vibe. Especially the melodies. Bands like Tears for Fears, Simple Minds, The Fixx, etc. I had seen an interview with Cy Curnin (of The Fixx) on YouTube. As I was watching the interview, I had an aha moment and thought to myself, he would be perfect! We are Facebook friends, so I reached out to him, told him about myself and Rooftop Screamers. And as luck would have it, he said yes! He said something to the effect that he loved the energy behind the song.

Another example is the song “Tearin’ It Down”. That song has a very bluesy vibe to it. So I knew it needed some soul and some grit. And in my mind, I heard a female voice in the style of Janis Joplin or Beth Hart. Luckily, I knew someone that fit that style and in my opinion, is every bit as good as Janis or Beth, and that was Dilana. I’ve played drums for Dilana off and on for several years and have wanted to have her on a Rooftop Screamers song ever since I started the project. “Tearin’ It Down” was the perfect song for her bluesy, soulful, and passionate vocals. It’s worth mentioning that that song also features Earl Slick (who I also used to play with) on guitar, keyboardist Danny Peyronel from the legendary British rock band UFO and Kelly LeMieux (Paul Gilbert/ BuckCherry) on bass. A dream team if you will. 🙂

And is there a fixed method by which the songs are created?

From their inception, the songs typically begin with me sitting on the couch strumming my guitar and usually, by accident, coming up with an interesting chord progression. That automatically inspires a melody and maybe a few words. From there I start to craft the idea into a song by figuring out where the song wants to go. Once I have a decent skeleton of the song, I take it into my little home studio and start to record a basic guitar part, followed by drums, bass, and keyboards.

I tend to write lyrics last, so to get a template for the vocal part, I record myself singing syllables with nonsensical words and/or vocal sounds. Once I get a decent demo of the song, I take it into a much more professional studio and use the demo as a guide to record a new drum track. Since I’m a novice on the other instruments, I then have other musicians that I know come in to record guitar, bass, keyboards, and so on. Sometimes my keyboard or guitar parts make the final recording if there’s a certain vibe to them. And a lot of times, the other musicians and singers are in a different part of the country or in another country altogether. So that’s when we do file sharing back n forth. I will give some basic direction on how I hear the instrumentation, but ultimately let the musician or singer put their stamp on it.

“Next Level” is your new record. The title probably also has a figurative meaning?

With the “Rooftop” being the highest point of a building, I thought Next Level was a humorous and metaphorical way of saying; but wait, there’s more!  And I truly feel like this album is a step up in terms of the songs and the production from the previous one. More focused. 

I think “Buckle Up” is great. When do you know you have something special in your hands?

Thank you! Yeah, Buckle Up is a stand-out track to me. And that song was written fairly quickly. I tend to think the best songs are written with the least amount of effort. Not to say that you don’t craft and refine it along the way. But songs that take a while and are labored over tend to lose their original spark. On the flip side of that, I’ve had songs that I started years ago that I finished years later and they end up being some of my favorites. An example would be having an idea for a verse, but the chorus doesn’t come to me right away. Sometimes those go on the shelf until the day inspiration hits and the rest of the song reveals itself. It’s a strange process and I try to get out of the way of it and just let the song intuitively guide me where it wants to go. And I gotta say that Tim Smith did an incredible job singing the song. His voice was perfect for it.

There is a very nice video clip for “Buckle Up”. You make beautiful clips more often. How important are the video clips?

I think in this day and age, having a visual representation of a song is important. Especially during the last year during the pandemic when there hasn’t been an opportunity to see bands play live. Videos offer some entertainment and fill that void. In the case of Rooftop Screamers, it isn’t an actual band and there isn’t a core group of musicians that comprise the project to do a performance style videos with. Therefore, I and a couple of people I’ve hired have created some lyric videos and some narrative style videos using animation and stock footage. Video editing is something I’ve played around with over the years and during the pandemic I’ve had more time to get creative and dig a little deeper into that process. In the case of Buckle Up, I found an amazing video and animation artist from Italy named Lapo Terelli. He did an awesome job creating the video which has a strong influence from the abstract cut-out artwork of Terry Gilliam.

Will “Next Level” also be released on CD or vinyl?

Vinyl, no. CDs, yes.

With Rooftop Screamers not being a band, making CDs (or vinyl) isn’t that economical as the opportunity to sell them at shows doesn’t exist. And, these days, most people are buying their music digitally online. However, there’s something to be said about having physical products and in many cases, new releases aren’t reviewed by bloggers and critics unless you have a physical product. So I’m doing a short run of a hundred or so CDs for that purpose. And to give to friends. Plus it’s cool to display the artwork and liner notes on CD/vinyl.

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