Brother Ray

Ray and Mike share a brew, Red Bank, 2002
Ray and Mike share a brew, Red Bank, 2002

On May 28, Ray Ashley passed away after a long battle with cancer. You can read his obituary and explore some of his music and writing by clicking his name above. I’ll remember him as a good friend, a masterful musician, and an inspirational influence on my own musicianship.

In early 1993, I worked in a record store with a fellow named Jan who played guitar. He invited me over one day to listen to him jam with some new friends, bassist Ray and drummer Joe.  I ran into Ray and Joe later that Spring at a Phish show, where I was shocked to learn that Joe worked with my Mom!

Over the next few years Ray and I forged a friendship from our common love of adventurous music. Ray introduced me to God Street Wine and his own creative compositions, while I in turn hooked him up with thE otheR waY and turned him on to my hero, J J Johnson. As was his way, Ray immersed himself in these new discoveries, playing bass with the former and transcribing a dozen songs by the latter.

I had the honor of collaborating with Ray and Joe on a project called the 9-Volt Smoke Detectors, an eerily prescient name as our first and only gig was nearly thwarted by an electrical fire. Ray and I would later play a few gigs as a duo – Ray on Warr Guitar and me on the congas he sold me, which I still play to this day. These were my first public performances since graduating college in 1992, and I credit Ray with rekindling my creative spark.

Ray is gone, but he will be remembered through his music, which bears his personality throughout. Technically proficient yet passionate, structured but open to improvisation, lyrically hopeful with a hint of sly wit. His songs painted pictures of a better world.

Mike and Ray at the Downtown Cafe, 1999
Mike and Ray at the Downtown Cafe, 1999

My Percussive Perspective (or Where do I get off?)

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about who I am as a musician, and what can I offer the world that no one else can. This blog will be an outlet for ideas, advice, reminiscences and eventually, you know, actual music recordings and maybe even videos. But before I go shooting off at the mouth, I’d like to tell you what I think gives me the right. My musical path has been unusual but deeply satisfying. I think most high school band geeks eventually settle on one of three fates: Pursue their training further in college, give up entirely when the real world beckons, or find a happy medium and join a rock band. Somehow I managed to fulfill all three of these destinies.

I got my Bachelor of Music from DePauw University in 1992. Music Business was my major and trombone was my axe. My college years revolved around performing in any ensemble I could: Concert and Marching Band, Choir, Jazz Band, Brass Quintet and eventually, as my playing improved, the DePauw Symphony. These were top-notch groups with great players, many of whom went on to sing or play professionally. It was there in Greencastle, Indiana where I honed my ability to listen to my fellow musicians, to read and react. These ensemble skills are the bedrock of my musicianship, much moreso than actual talent. In fact, by the time I graduated, I had accepted the fact I lacked the chops to ever be a professional trombone player.

In my final semester, just for the hell of it, I took drum lessons and discovered that my true calling was rhythm. I’ll never forget the look of astonishment on the face of Pat Reynolds, my band director, when he heard my first drum jury. After years of hearing me struggle through uninspiring trombone juries, his expectations must have been pretty low. Making such a positive impression on him from behind the drum kit was a thrilling affirmation.

My development as a musician was put on hold for several years after college as I tried to focus on the Business part of my degree. I tried to stay close to the music world with jobs in music retail and entertainment marketing, but was very disheartened by the commodification of art. I began to harbor a deep resentment of radio and MTV, trying to feed me what their demographic analysis told them I should want, and an even deeper appreciation for art created outside of that bubble. Phish became a religious experience for me, having grown from a college curiosity to a national phenomenon with little influence from the machine.

Before long I was once again surrounding myself with musical people. Only now they were not music students but working folks who were finding the time to create something special. While they may not have had the same discipline as me, they more than made up for it with passion, talent and creativity. For a few years I lived and breathed music that relatively few people had ever heard, soaking up inspiration from bootlegs of Phish and God Street Wine concerts, and seeing bands I had befriended like thE otheR waY, Three Hour Detour, Kid With Man Head and Burning Bus. All without playing a single note or beat.

I bought my first congas, which I still play today, from Ray Ashley in 1996. Before leaving New Jersey four years later, I collaborated with friends on a few short-lived rock bands, the 9-Volt Smoke Detectors and Go Banana! Soon after arriving in Oregon I was introduced to Scott Hewitt (by a mutual Jersey friend, naturally.) I accepted his invitation to play with some friends in his backyard, and the musician in me was reborn.

Seven years later, Mystic Canyon still brings me much joy and satisfaction, combining the discipline of my formal education with my passion for the creativity of my friends and my love of music that has thrived outside of the commercial influence of the music industry. The lessons I’ve learned in this band are as profound as any I learned in college, and will be the subject of future posts. I just figured, when you read them, you’d like to know where I’m coming from.