Interview with Mickey Wilson

When you listen to a piece of music, there are times when you can simply feel the immensity of the back story. This was certainly the case when I discovered and listened to Mickey Wilson‘s album “Press Start“—I just knew I had to contact him. Fortunately, the gregarious and friendly composer kindly gave me the opportunity to speak with him, where he shared an epic story about his unusual guitar lessons, troubling legal issues, and immense disappointment, yet through it all, he still holds a fierce determination, positive outlook, and strong spirit.

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Photo by Stephen Nitz

Thanks for doing this interview! How did music first come into your life? Have you had any formal training?

Mickey: Music has always been a part of our family. Growing up in the city of Chicago, my parents were hard core rockers. They loved classic rock, and I was raised with that. They would always listen to 97.9 The Loop, and we would just jam out to everything. My parents were always so loud—they would jam out to David Bowie, Queen, Creedence Clearwater Revival… They’d just crank it up all the time. As a kid, I was just around all of that. It wasn’t until I was about 9 or 10 years old that I really started getting into metal. My cousin first played Metallica for me. That became the big staple for music for me. I’m like, “I want to play like Kirk Hammet—I want to play guitar!”

I was about 11 at this time, when I started playing guitar. My next door neighbor—in Lake in the Hills, which is a suburb of Chicago—was a guitar player, and I had known that for quite some time. So I went over there one day and I asked him like hey, can you show me how to play some guitar, just like teach me a few things? And they were just about to move, so I only had two days with the guy. He showed me a few things, and he was really patient, a nice guy. I really owe it to him. And he was showing me what to do, how to play, how to learn some chords. He even had some music books, like tab books, from some of his favorite artists that I liked too, like Megadeth, Metallica… He had a bunch of that. And he let me borrow them, and that night—the first night that he was showing me—he let me borrow his acoustic guitar. So I was just playing around on the acoustic guitar. I didn’t even go to sleep that day, and I had school the next morning. So my mom was yelling at me, but I couldn’t stop. So next morning, I gave him the guitar back, and a few days later they had moved.

And now my dad… I was telling him I really wanted a guitar. And he was like “Well, now I gotta get the kid a guitar, because this is all he’s talking about.” I was brand new, and I was picking up really quickly, which was odd, that I got really fixated on that. And so he took me to a guitar store, and I’m starting to play this stupid thing, and he’s like I gotta buy you a guitar.

And the week after, I went to my grandma’s house in Plano, IL. I was there for a week, and the guitar all I could think about. My cousin had a little mini guitar that I was playing on. And they had a music shop in the area, so we went over there. I bought some picks, and I had my Metallica tab booklet with me, and I started playing “Nothing Else Matters”. That was the first song I ever played. Not the best, of course, probably like the first 30 seconds of the song. But it was awesome.

It was really inspiring for me that this guy next door to me really taught me just a few things. You know, I didn’t have any formal training—he taught me the fundamentals, the absolute bare basics that you can in a few hours. And I took that and ran with it. I read a lot of the books, and that was when the Internet was just coming out. There were already sites for tabs, so I was reading that, and just playing it. So that’s really how it started off with the guitar. So I’m, at the core, a guitarist.

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“It was really inspiring for me that this guy next door to me really taught me just a few things. You know, I didn’t have any formal training—he taught me the fundamentals, the absolute bare basics that you can in a few hours. And I took that and ran with it. I read a lot of the books, and … there were already sites for tabs. … So I’m, at the core, a guitarist.” (Photo/video by Mickey Wilson)

And so I had been playing guitar ever since then. I started a band when I was around 20 years old, called Arcane Framework. And we played shows around town pretty well—we were getting really into the scene. I think the biggest thing for us—we had only played a few shows at the time—by our third show, we already played with Pop Evil. And our fourth show was Cherri Bomb, which is actually from California. And then that was it, and I left that band to start up an instrumental band called Depth of All Things. We actually got onto Pandora, so we have a Pandora station. But literally right after that is when we moved out to California. That was the end of 2013, so beginning of 2014 we were out in California.

So obviously I didn’t have the band anymore, I couldn’t bring them with me. We kinda had a big falling out because I was moving. And nobody in the band had any money to support recording. I was paying for everything. So I’m like this is just perfect then, I’m going out to California. My dad had just passed away from lung cancer, so I’m like I just want to leave, I can’t wait to go! So I was told hey we could go to California, for my fiancée’s job, so I’m like let’s do it!

It was interesting. I got down there, and I actually met the CEO of the game company I was working at—he was actually a customer of mine. So I started talking about music stuff, and he’s like oh, what kind of music do you do? He was interested, and he heard some of my music and he’s like wow this is really good. And so after a lot of that, and supporting their game studio, at Play Station Experience… I was helping out their booth, and I ended up becoming part of their team doing music for the game soundtracks. And we were working on a lot of games at one time. They were working on way too much for one studio—five games at a time with a group of six guys. It was tough. It was new to me, because I had never done soundtracks before, but it was something I always wanted to do.

The more and more I played shows with my bands, the more and more I just wanted to be by myself, in a sense. I didn’t want to just be a lead guitarist anymore—I wanted to do more. I started thinking about Trent Reznor, and how he’s a multi-instrumentalist, he can do so many things. I didn’t want to bound by that—I wanted to do more! And nobody else wanted to try and go that route, and get music into movies or games. And that’s something I always wanted to do, so it was really cool for me to do that.

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“I couldn’t bring [the band] with me. … I just want[ed] to leave, I can’t wait to go! … The more and more I played shows with my bands, the more and more I just wanted to be by myself, in a sense. I didn’t want to just be a lead guitarist anymore—I wanted to do more. … Nobody else wanted to try and go that route, and get music into movies or games. And that’s something I always wanted to do, so it was really cool for me to do that.” (Photo by Mickey Wilson)

Basically, long story short, I mean it was pretty dramatic… But working at that game studio… I had done of the soundtracks for them, and I think the biggest mistake is I didn’t get a contract up front. That’s the one thing I can say to every composer, anyone who’s working with a company: get your contract up front. Because he kept saying “Oh, I’ll get your contract later, I’ll get it later.” He was telling this to all their guys, and I started thinking something was up.

Sure enough, right when we’re about to move back to Chicago, he says “Upload everything to Dropbox, I’ll give you contract right after.” I said, “Absolutely not!” So there starts the legal battle. I’m starting to get sued because I’m being told “This music is ours!” And I’m saying “No, it’s not! I never signed a ‘work for hire’.” And so I won that battle.

Good!!

Mickey: Very quickly, very easily. I hired a lawyer out of Chicago, he was a super lawyer hired to represent a few big artists as well. I just figured if I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna get the best, just to seal the deal and be done with it. I didn’t have time to be messing with this, I just moved back to Chicago… And I was really devastated. Imagine, you think you’ve got it. You can work from Chicago remotely… I was starting to do more and more work from home. In the studio, I got the work ethic down—something I didn’t have before. And once I had that down, we learned that I was able to work remotely more easily. I can do everything from home now. That’s where I learned I could still do this in Chicago. But once I was being told I’d be cut down to only five hours a week, getting paid hourly, it was pretty devastating.

Everything I had done for… The one game in particular, my favorite game, it was called Source. The game was, in my eyes… I thought it had so much potential. I thought it was going to go where we had all imagined. It just didn’t turn out that way, unfortunately. The studio was working on way too much at one time. We didn’t have enough people.

We have clips on my website, under Videos, of the game, with my music and sound effects featured in it—a trailer that was on IGN and GameSpot. People were interested, it looked cool. But that type of caliber… We went from Unity 4, to Unreal Engine. And doing something that like requires way more of a workload. We would’ve needed at least 50 to 100 very experienced people to do that game the way that he wanted, the James Cameron-style video game. Ultra-vivid and realistic…

And it was supposed to be a very audio-visual experience: the music really went hand in hand with the game. And you know, I was really excited to have that game, I really wanted to play it. Our whole plan was to come back to Chicago, the game gets released, and we have a party out here with our friends and family to play the game and have a good time. People were really excited to play this thing. It’s just sad, it looks like it’s not going to happen anymore. From what I was told from somebody who used to work there, it looks like when this legal battle happened, they shut down their studio for a month and a half. Once he came back, the studio opened, he started telling everybody they could work like ten hours a week if they want to, and they all left and went other places. So I don’t know what’s gonna happen with those games. It definitely won’t have my music anymore—it’s not their music, and they weren’t willing to buy it at that point. They weren’t willing to give me a contract, which is really upsetting that that’s how some things are done, by some people… It was sad. I really liked working there. I enjoyed my time with the CEO, he was a really cool guy, we got along really well… And then things change, once you start to see people’s true colors, unfortunately.

In my experience, I didn’t really get far off the ground. I mean… In this industry, you never have your one big break. If you think you’re going to, it’s probably too good to be true. And so you have to work on smaller projects, until you can work up to where you want to be. So now I’ve been doing that, I’m working on a feature film—it’s gonna be at select theaters in Chicago. I’ve been working on that one…

Yeah… It’s just kind of unfortunate. That’s actually what turned into my album “Press Start”. I didn’t want to just give all that music up. I don’t know if you heard any of it.

Yeah, I listened to the whole thing!

Mickey: Oh cool, thanks! It was basically the entire soundtrack from that game, except I took a few more months—after I moved back and all that happened—to really master it and turn it into more of an album, and in a sense use it as a portfolio. It serves multiple purposes. On its own, it’s kinda hard to imagine it as music, so I had to try and turn it into that. But a lot of people have said it’s really good background music—they really enjoy listening to it while they’re working, which totally makes sense. But that’s what kinda cool, it’s turned into a concept album. I really would’ve loved it to be in the game, absolutely, but hey sometimes you just gotta work with it. I wanted to get similar art, so I hired Mario Nevado—he’s one of the most famous illustrators out there for surreal art. He even does artwork for Adobe—the people who make the program he uses, he does art for them. He did their 25 Years of Photoshop.

Wow, how did you get in contact with him!?

Mickey: You know, I don’t know how I first heard about him. But I know it was a few years back. I think I was looking at him to do artwork for one of my old bands’ albums. I’m not sure if I heard about him from reddit or not, but I always had him bookmarked. And I had always thought, I’m gonna use Mario Nevado. I’m gonna have him do something. And finally I’m like, now I have a use! And four years later, I’m like how did I even heard about this guy? I can’t remember! Really nice guy, though. He lives in Barcelona, Spain, I believe. So a lot of the pictures he took, he actually took from the shoreline, and then added things over it to make it look really cool. So he did a fantastic job for that—he really captured the feel of the game that I wanted, which is exactly what the music was.

I mean, the game only had one level done—I did the entire soundtrack for a game that wasn’t even done yet.

Wow!!

Mickey: I had to imagine these levels. I was being told what they would be like, and I had to just do things just by imagining them. So the artwork was basically that—what I thought the game would’ve looked like. The creature you see on the front is a mix of some of the bosses we were supposed to have in the game. So if you see the spider legs… A lava monster, fire… And then we were talking about the final boss being like an evil spirit, kind of like the Eye of Sauron from Lord of the Rings. That’s why it definitely has that feel—I’m a big Lord of the Rings fan in general.

So that’s why I made this weird-looking creature. It was just a symbol for me. Those were the three fundamental things we were supposed to have in the game. It was supposed to be really interesting. I’m glad I was able to put a lot of that feel into the album.

Yeah, definitely.

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“[Mario Nevado] really captured the feel of the game that I wanted, which is exactly what the music was. I mean, the game only had one level done—I did the entire soundtrack for a game that wasn’t even done yet. … So the artwork was basically that—what I thought the game would’ve looked like. The creature on the front is a mix of some of the bosses we were supposed to have in the game. … It was supposed to be really interesting. I’m glad I was able to put a lot of that feel into the album.” (Artwork by Mario Nevado)

Mickey: It’s helped a lot, I’ve gotten a lot of emails and a lot of things in the works because of this album. I even got featured on cdbaby.com, and I’m still in there. They thought it was an interesting concept, and I think that’ll really help with my music career, picking up more video game projects. Ideally, I’d like to do more video game music. I’d never really seen myself doing anything for movies. It was possible: I did have an opportunity to do the soundtrack for the 2017 Power Rangers film. But I don’t know, I had just moved back from Chicago, and it didn’t get much further than that. That project would’ve been too big for me anyway—I had kinda just started. Getting an entire orchestra together, and stuff like that… It would’ve taken some time. I’d like to work on some indie games.

One other cool thing, since what happened with “Press Start”, is I met a customer who actually plays basketball with Ed Boon, the creator of Mortal Kombat, out here in Chicago. And after talking with this guy for a little bit, I gave him my album, and he listened to it and loved it, so he passed it on to Ed Boon, who passed it down to their audio team. Now what that means, I don’t know. Supposedly they loved it. But what’s gonna happen with that, I don’t know. People have already been established—they’re a very big studio. I saw they had some sound effects positions open—doing sound design work is okay, but I want to do music more.

So a lot of good things have come from “Press Start”. It really showcases me as an artist and a composer, and it’s good to see the direction it’s heading in, and I’ve picked up a few projects from this, so we’ll see where that goes. I’m excited.

Yeah, nice. Wow, you’ve answered almost all of my questions! (laughs)

Mickey: Oh! (laughs) I didn’t mean to ramble on… But I’ve been asked these questions from so many people already, so it’s built into me now. That was actually the best way I’ve put it, trying to sum it all up. I could go on for hours, but I don’t want to do that to you. There’s so much that’s gone into what’s happened over the last few years, and where it’s headed.

But if there’s any new composers or musicians out there, the best thing I can say is, like John Carpenter once told me in a Facebook message, you have to establish yourself as an industry professional if you want to get work. And how do you do that? Well, somewhere, somehow. You’re never going to get that one break. Rarely, if anybody does. You have to pick up these smaller projects. Recently, I worked on some soundtracks for student films out in University of California. Stuff like that. That’s where it gets picked up. Doing these interviews with you—amazing. And then people start to hear about it.

You have to showcase your music, you have to get something. And sometimes you have to do things for free in this industry to get there, unfortunately. Yes, we are musical artists, we should get paid for everything. Unfortunately, there’s so much saturation in this industry right now, and sometimes you have to do some things for free just to see if you’re worth it, and see if you have it in you. You have to really open up your creativity. Every day, I wonder, do I have it in me today to get this done? You just have to do whatever you can to just really open up. You can’t really fixate on anything, you just have to go with the flow and enjoy what you’re doing.

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“If there’s any new composers or musicians out there, the best thing I can say is … You have to establish yourself as an industrial professional if you want to get work. And how do you do that? Well, somewhere, somehow. You’re never going to get that one break. Rarely, if anybody does. You have to pick up these smaller projects. … You have to showcase your music, you have to get something. … You can’t really fixate on anything, you just have to go with the flow and enjoy what you’re doing.” (Photo by Mickey Wilson)

Right… Definitely.

Mickey: I’m excited to see where this goes from now. No idea! (laughs)

Yup, there’s no way to know! (laughs)

Mickey: Right, exactly. What did you think of “Press Start”? I’m curious.

It was great! I listened to it, and then contacted you. I don’t remember anything in particular, but I guess I was really interested to see what it was for. I mean, now I know! But I was just thinking wow this is really diverse… I could definitely feel that there was something behind it.

Mickey: Yeah, definitely. Nobody just makes a video game-style, cinematic, electronic, rock album out of nowhere. That was kind of weird; I kind of started up a new genre in general. I’d love to do a “Press Start 2” at some point. I really would, it’d be awesome. It turned into something different. Listening to this album reminded me a lot of Pink Floyd, if they came back, with a heavy electronic, cinematic feel. It kinda got me thinking, well do I just keep doing this kind of stuff? Which I probably will, with a second one going. But I’ve just gotta really get the first one out there. I’m gonna be having my own booth at Lake County Comic Con, out here.

Believe it or not, after that I had gotten another contact submission of my website—like you had submitted through—from the owner of the Chicago Pop Culture Convention, which is a big deal. They’re huge! I asked how they heard about me, and he said his entertainment director specifically requested me to come. So now I’ll be able to get the word out there, sell these albums, and talk to people about the art behind it and story behind it. I feel like if more people knew about what this album really was, I’d get a big following. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get that out there. And that’s what’s great with talking to you!

Yeah, could I ask some more abstract questions?

Mickey: Absolutely, go for it!

So what was the very first composition you did? Like first thing you ever wrote?

Mickey: Good call… So that would be… Probably my first band, with Arcane Framework. That’s the first thing I can remember that was actually published. A lot of those songs in that band were songs that I had written over the years, from when I started playing at 11 years old. When I started Arcane Framework, I sought the lead singer, I sought the drummer, and I got them both together, and I started playing some of those riffs, and it changed a little bit, of course. But that’s what turned into songs. “Another Life” was a really awesome song. There was definitely a lot of potential with that band. A lot of the songs that I had written and messed around with was also in that band, too.

Okay, cool. What’s your compositional process like?

Mickey: Usually, if I just want to jam out on the guitar, I’ll jam something and mess around with it and mold it enough until I’m like “Oh yeah, this sounds cool. I’ll remember this one.” until I can use it for something. Lately I’ve had to just record it, just so I can remember it, even with an iPhone or something.

Yeah, I do that too. (laughs) So what sorts of activities and hobbies do you like to do outside of video games and music?

Mickey: Yeah! Well… Outside of video games and music… What else is there!? (laughs) So, riding a bike, now. I just like to ride around town and get some exercise in. I used to skateboard, but that’s kind of old for me now. I just ride around on my bike. What else… I like to watch a lot of movies, a lot of new TV shows as well, specifically Game of Thrones. Fear the Walking Dead is amazing, I like that a lot better than the actual Walking Dead. And Preacher, the first episode blew me away.

I’m a coffee enthusiast! So I can make Starbucks iced coffee from home, and it tastes exactly like it. I know what they put into their iced coffee blend now, and it’s an eighth of the cost, cause I make it at home. You have to have coffee to stay up and do this stuff. I play with my dog, she’s a black lab and border collie mix. She’s a crazy animal, but a great dog. I hang out with my fiancée… When we do get a chance to hang out, we’ll go to an arcade emporium, have a good time out there.

Cool, okay. So now I have a list of rapid-fire questions. Give short answers as quickly as possible!

Mickey: Yeah, go for it!

Favorite video game protagonist!

Mickey: Link.

Favorite arcade game!

Mickey: Pacman!

Favorite video game series!

Mickey: Doom!

Favorite character theme!

Mickey: Sonic the Hedgehog!

Favorite time signature!

Mickey: 4/4. You can do a lot with it!

Favorite Pokémon!

Mickey: Charizard. Always has been.

If you could live in any video game world for a week, which one would you choose?

Mickey: Sonic the Hedgehog. That’s always been my favorite.

If you could befriend any video game antagonist, which one would it be?

Mickey: Well, probably would be Robotnik.

(laughs) Okay, end of rapid-fire questions!

Mickey: (laughs) Those were awesome. So ridiculous!

Okay, so you mentioned some of your future plans. Do you have anything else that you wanted to talk about that you’re working on now?

Mickey: Yeah! I really wanted to talk about something that’s been happening with this feature film. I’m doing the soundtrack for this film called “Drinking Games”. I have a few weeks to do a bunch of songs for them. This movie, I think is gonna be really cool. They’re trying to get this movie into festivals in the area, we’re gonna have a premiere at a theater somewhere out here. I really believe in this project with these guys. I’ve been working hard at it, and hopefully it’ll pay off. Everyone’s kinda doing everything for free right now, until we get distribution on it. Maybe on Netflix, or Xfinity, or get it into Sundance… That’s up to them. We’ll see how it goes!

One of the things that kinda got cut short… I was trying to work on making tutorials for Logic Pro X. I wanted to start up a YouTube series and give something back to the community. I had one done before I got this phone call about this movie. I want to keep doing these tutorials, so I think once this soundtrack is done, right at the end of June, I’m gonna start working on these tutorials again. So anybody who wants to learn how to record an instrument through Logic Pro, more on the composition side, I’ll be working on those tutorials. So pretty much that, and really pushing this album “Press Start”, getting it out there. Going to these events, and getting my name out there as a composer and sound designer, and see where that goes… I’m so new to this whole thing. It’s awesome, cause I feel like I fit right in somehow. And I really enjoy doing it. I miss doing it full time—I want to do it full time again.

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“I was trying to work on making tutorials for Logic Pro X. I wanted to start up a YouTube series and give something back to the community. … So anybody who wants to learn how to record an instrument through Logic Pro X, more on the composition side, I’ll be working on those tutorials.” (Photo by Mickey Wilson)

Awesome! Well those are all the questions I have! Any final thoughts?

Mickey: No, thank you so much! I was excited when I got your email. Every time I get a contact form submission, I know it’s not a bot, and I’m like ooh! What is this? Who is that!?

A real person! (laughs)

Mickey: Yeah I know, seriously! It’s always good. And it was you, and I was like oh this is cool! And I checked out your website. A lot of other cool composers on your website too, I don’t know if you stay in touch with any of those guys.

Yeah, I do!

Mickey: Oh you do? Awesome! I love building my community. I really enjoy the music composer community. They seem to be the most down to earth. And they’re so helpful. And I like to be helpful too. So anyone that has any questions or needs some help, send them my way as well. Your website is awesome, I really think it’s definitely gonna kick off.

Thank you!

Mickey: It’s very rare to find an enthusiast of video game music, in general. We know everybody likes it, but not a lot of people really devote their time to it. So definitely keep going with it, cause it’s awesome!

Thank you so much!!!

Check out Mickey Wilson’s music on soundcloud, and his website.

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