A couple of years ago, Mike Billings decided to change his tune. Billings, a staple of the Bangor area music scene since the late 1990s, needed to recharge his creative batteries. So he went underground. Literally.
Starting in late 2009, Billings hunkered down in his basement studio at Main Street Music Studios in Bangor, and started writing and recording. No more hosting open mic events. Fewer live gigs with any of his bands, be they his reggae group, the Red Stripes, or Big Time, his funk-rock band. For a full year, the guitarist, vocalist and songwriter focused almost solely on his music.
“I was so busy with everything else I was doing, between open mics and gigs and lobstering,” said Billings, 36, who lobster fishes off Deer Isle-Stonington when he’s not making music. “I had no time to actually make new music, and I was just itching to get it out and start writing and have the time to commit to that.”
This past spring Billings released “The Loved Ones,” his first album of all new material in more than five years. It showcases a reinvigorated musician with a revamped outlook on all the music he loves: funk, rock, blues and even a little hip-hop. It’s well-composed and well-played, with clean, sparkling production buoyed by an ever-present funky beat. It’s Mike Billings, after all. He can’t help but get funky.
“Being in Main Street Music Studios with this awesome kind of co-op vibe with all these great musicians around, it just inspires you,” said Billings. “So even though I recorded a lot of the album on my own, I had some amazing musicians come in and work with me. Josh Mooers played keyboards, John Patterson played some trumpet, and Andy Clifford, who’s the man behind Main Street Music Studios, played some drums.”
That powerful new creativity can be heard in songs like “Aliana Bop,” which features Billings half-singing, half-rapping over Herbie Hancock-inspired guitar and keyboard beats. The hard-driving “Junkclassic” features distorted guitars and double-tracked vocals, while “Shiva” takes a slower, groovier tack, with a psychedelic soul-funk vibe bringing to mind Steely Dan or even later period Frank Zappa.
“I’ve been trying to manage all my influences, because it goes off in all kinds of tangents, from the stuff I grew up on, like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn and Rush, to Stevie Wonder and Jeff Buckley and all that jazz and blues I love,” he said. “I started listening to Peter Gabriel, and he really kind of combines all kind of elements into a cohesive whole. That inspired me a lot. I don’t want to have to say, ‘Here’s my blues song, here’s my funk song’ and on and on. I wanted it to all sound good together.”
One thing has stayed the same though: Billings is one hell of a guitarist. He’s always been good, but after all these years, he has reached a place where it starts to sound effortless — even if “The Loved Ones” is the result of a year of painstaking studio work.
“I have to stop myself from messing around with every song all the time. Once I’ve recorded one, I always want to go back to stuff I did six months ago and make it as good as the stuff I recorded yesterday. I’m always learning,” he said.
With the expansion of Bangor’s music scene and the options for bands and artists to play live, you’d think Billings, who for a few years was the standard bearer for Bangor area music and the guy to know if you wanted to play live, would be right in the thick of it. But that’s not really the case at the moment. Though he’s still playing occasional reggae gigs, he’s mostly hanging back and taking in all the bands that play downtown. When he finds the right people to play his new songs with, rest assured — people will know about it.
“It’s awesome to just look around [and] see what people are doing. I’m just soaking it all in. Five years ago, this was not happening [in Bangor],” said Billings. “I’ll get my new stuff out in front of people soon. I want to get serious about it, and tour and stuff. I’m just kind of biding my time.”
You can listen to Mike Billings’ “The Loved Ones” on his Soundcloud page, or download it on Amazon.com or on iTunes. He will play with his reggae group, the Red Stripes, at Ipanema Bar & Grill in downtown Bangor at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20.