Michael Leon released his solo, eponymous debut in late 2014. A fixture in the Birmingham scene for nearly 20 years, he’s been part of several bands that established the local scene, including Shame Idols and 13 Ghosts. Now on his own, he takes time to reflect on all of it with Weld before his set at The Nick on Friday.
Weld: What was the Birmingham scene like in the ‘90s when you began playing music here? Where did you find gigs?
Michael Leon: There was a club called 312. The first band that I played with and several other people that were around my age at the time — that was kind of the starting point. It really wasn’t around but maybe two or three years. That’s where me and a lot of people ended up meeting each other at. It was the only club that would, not only would they give you a Friday or Saturday night show — whether they knew you or not, you may end up jumping on a bill with someone that had a following — but they were the only club that paid 100 percent of whatever the door made. So, if you had two bands playing and you packed out the club, each band may walk out with $1000 each, which is unheard of these days. It was just the place where a lot of people met each other. It’s where I met Damon Johnson, who went on to form Brother Cane.
Of course The Nick — it’s always been around. Several of those places have been around since the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. That’s where we’d catch a lot of shows at. The early-mid ‘90s at The Nick and the shows at Zydeco, as well. There was a lot of stuff. Not just the whole grunge scene, but the indie and punk rock scene. It was an exciting time for the Birmingham music scene, not just being in a band and playing in clubs, but going to see other people play whether they were national, traveling acts or local artists.
Weld: At some point, you begin taking yourselves seriously and became 13 Ghosts. That band was one of the first bands that really created a scene in Birmingham. How did that band form?
ML: 13 Ghosts came together around late ’98 or ‘99. Me and Brad Armstrong and Buzz Russell started out playing at Club 312 in the early ‘90s. We had been friends for a long time. Brad had gone off to New York for school after he finished high school. Me and Buzz and Brad’s cousin — we had another band that was sort of a punk/pop band.
Tragically, our bass player committed suicide. Brad came to town, and it came to fruition because we were grieving our friend, and it was our way of picking ourselves back up and playing music again. We had not played with each other in a few years and that kind of brought us back together. It was going to be our own personal project that we wouldn’t even put out. The first record that we did has still never seen the light of day. It was about him, personally, and it was a personal journal for ourselves.
But we realized that we still really enjoyed playing with each other, and we started playing together again.
Weld: When did that band dissolve?
ML: I left the band in 2002. We were about halfway through the recording of Cicada, which was the breakthrough record, and I ended up moving to Austin. Since then, we’ve all kissed and made up, but we were having some conflicts of interest in which direction we wanted the band to go. Jason Lucia came in and finished the record on drums and stayed with them until they disbanded. Buzz left, and I think Brad felt like it ran its course. I’d say 13 Ghosts has been disbanded for at least three years. Brad has moved back to New York and he’s working on solo material. He’s not done, but it was time to go in a new direction.
Weld: You drummed for 13 Ghosts and you’re singing on your solo release. Were these songs something that you had been working on for a long time, or was it all a brand new thing?
ML: I would say maybe a couple of the songs weren’t completed, but a couple of them definitely came from demos or ideas that I had for a while. When I decided to write and record the record, I brought those back out. Some things were written on the spot and came together pretty quickly.
Weld: What separates what you’re putting out as a solo act from 13 Ghosts or any of the other projects that you have been a part of? What makes this record a Michael Leon record?
ML: That’s a good question. I think there are certain influences that you can pick from the previous bands I’ve been in. There was a song that I wrote while I was in the Shame Idols that didn’t end up making that record, and I ended up reworking it and recording it. So, that’s definitely one that will stick out to some people as more of a Shame Idols kind of thing. And a couple of slower [songs] probably remind me more of 13 Ghosts stuff. Stuff that Buzz wrote. Our voices were more similar than mine and Brad’s voices, so it was easier for me to write that way.
And there’s other stuff that comes from influences — Elliott Smith or Big Star, The Beatles or The Zombies. Bands like that. Guided by Voices. I threw them all in a pot and stirred them and saw what it would conjure up.
Weld: What was the best night you ever had at Bottletree?
ML: I’ve seen so many of my friends posting memories on Facebook recently. That’s a tough one. If I had to pick something recently, I’d pick the reunion of the Black Pill with Twinside. GT opened up that show. There’s just so many.
Anytime The Melvins or Sebadoh came to town, I didn’t miss any of those shows. The J Mascis show last year was really cool.
Weld: This show will be at The Nick, one of the oldest venues in town. How important was The Nick to the scene?
ML: The Nick — it’s always been a great steppingstone for a lot of bands. It still is. Coming from a small town like Monroe, when I first moved here, it’s the CBGB of the South. When me and Brad and Buzz and Thomas first came and got our first gig at The Nick, we came home to our parents and said, “We got a gig at The Nick!” like we had made it. My parents were talking about it over the holidays: “We finally went to this place he kept talking about called The Nick. There’s mop buckets catching water leaking from the roof, and we thought it was supposed to be this fabulous place.” [Laughs]
It’s just a great dive bar. And it’s had so many historic shows, locally and nationally. Some of my fondest memories was Verbena playing there. The Ticks just had a reunion there. I still think the place is, and can be, just as viable as it has been in the past.
Weld: Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?
ML: All my favorites are British! And I can’t say Rush because they’re Canadian. Okay. Jimi Hendrix. Grand Funk Railroad. And it can’t go without saying —and I saw them three times — Nirvana. I’m glad I was that age when that happened. Big Star. And Elliott Smith.
Michael Leon opens for The Dirty Lungs at The Nick on Friday. The show begins at 10 p.m. $6. For more information, visit thenickrocks.com.