I don't think Mad Happy have a commercial bone in their bodies, but they love their gig and they love to perform. They play a lot of out of the way places where more well known bands would never bother to venture.
Tom Tom Club Chris Franz remains highly selective about where he bestows his praise, so when he champions a band like Mad Happy its well worth taking note.
They have punk rock values, Chris tells Skrufff, they don't really think in terms of a career, they just get it on.
In fact, the former Talking Head drummer likes the New York duo so much, he recently produced a number of tracks on their new album Renegade Geeks (with the help of his Tom Tom Club partner and fellow ex-Talking Header Tina Weymouth). And like Chris and Tina, Mad Happy duo Mike Ill and Rivka are partners both as musicians and in life.
When we decided to marry it was very important to me that it be legal, because it isn't recognized by my family, and because in a medical situation your next of kin play an important role, says Rivka.
It's the same reason I care about the gay marriage issue. When we aren't well we need people who love us around not the folks who want to save our souls.
Rivkas family values stem from a background thats dysfunctional to the extent where she remains almost entirely estranged from her family and almost the entire culture she grew up, New Yorks Hassidic community in Brooklyn.
In general I don't feel anything but hatred when I walk through Borough Park, if I can avoid it I do, she explains.
There is nothing left there for me. I was left unprotected by every establishment my family was involved in. It isn't just religion, I told the big secrets. And blaming the victim is what religious folks are best at. I have one friend left from those days. Everyone I know today I met through the people I met in Washington Square Park at age16, wandering through New York City alone looking for music.
Nowadays making their own music, the pair specialise in writing electro-tinged hip hop flavoured tracks that tell tales of serial wiggas and the broke middle class demographic? as well as renegade geeks, a label they cheerfully apply to themselves.
Renegade geeks fits a lot of people, that song is really about a larger group
of people on the edges of society, which include geeks, says Mike. We were both insecure, wimpy outcasts as kids, and often still feel that way, probably everyone does at different times, on different levels.
Whatever social group your looking at there'll always be some form of the geek, Rivka agrees, Where I come from we were called nebs so even though I was an outcast I still belonged somewhere. So for me this title is a tribute to that part of my history- plus the fact that I escaped it to find myself among geeky escapees from all sorts of places.
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): How much thought and time goes into your lyrics and titles?
Mad Happy (Mike)Im not sure how many hours exactly; some pieces just kind of fall out. Icicle Man and Shoulda Dissed You are songs that came in about three spurts over the course of a couple of weeks whereas Serial Wigga has had many lyrical incarnations. The first two verses and chorus of Wild and Bold pretty much fell out when I woke up from dreaming my best friend, Zef Noi$e was playing the song; the last verse we developed in a night or two while we were in the studio with Chris and Tina. The verses for File 2 the Metal and Loaded Up were put together slowly and carefully based on the chorus and/or bridge parts, which were developed based on the riff or melody. Often I'll make up words just as a way to remember a rhythm and/or melody. We probably did around 20 hours of active lyric writing for each of those two tracks, not counting the usual daily living-with-thinking-out-and-infinitely-looping-it-through-the-head which is pretty constant (sometimes leading to careless driving and shit).
Mad Happy (Rivka): We spend long hours working out lyrics, att least it's been that way for the last two years or so. Not as much time though on the titles. I'm very critical so even if a perfect song just falls off my fingertips, there'll still be those words or lines that make me realize that I want to express more or less of something. When I'm listening to a song it's always the words that move me, so I spend a lot of energy on the words, in an effort to be understood. And besides I really enjoy assembling anything just as much as I enjoy the moments of inspiration.
Skrufff: Whats the vision and goal for Mad Happy: what do aim to achieve through the band?
Mad Happy (Mike): We aim to write and perform songs that will attract thousands and thousands of ears, develop our following grass-roots/ DIY-style. We dig playing with bands and DJs of many different musical styles, we trying to make music for, and from, now. We plan to continue meeting folks, learning about life, and developing the universal vocabulary.
Skrufff: How did you first connect with Chris and Tina?
Mad Happy (Mike):We met Chris and Tina through turntablist, Kid Ginseng, who was also playing with them. They (especially Tina) fell in love with us and we asked if they'd produce some stuff. They totally hooked it up at their studio, Cock Island.
We're really grateful. Basically they were just like, you guys are perfect. Chill out and do your thing. We'll capture it. Nice.
Mad Happy (Rivka): Working with Chris and Tina was great, they aren't intrusive which is perfect for rebellious folks like us. I learned a lot about art and music history.
Skrufff: playing 200 live shows a year plus releasing music on small labels is usually tough financially- how easy is it to sustain Mad Happy on a day to day basis, do you have back up jobs?)
Mad Happy (Mike)We work our asses off. Hard. When we're not booking shows, promoting or driving, we're writing, performing, cooking or socializing and seeing friends bands play. There's barely even time to read a book or watch TV. I do some web site development (design, programming and marketing) and Rivka still has some of her hair clients she sees in NYC every couple of months or so. Mostly it's touring that keeps food in our stomachs.
Skrufff: 8 years together is a long time for any couple: how do you solve disagreements: what areas cause the most contention?
Mad Happy (Mike)What keeps us together is the determination to keep it working; commitment. That's the whole origination of our act - developing an expression we can do full-time and still be together. Most of the contentious elements are common couple issues: how we deal with money, how we deal with friends and family. Performance, writing and production-wise, I pull towards the chaotic, punk, underground, stylized in-your-face elements (wanna-be bad-ass that I am) and Rivka pulls for beauty and direct communication. I'm always getting bored and wanting to change shit around and Rivka has to keep it in check.
: your biog goes into great detail about your unconventional family backgrounds: how do you families view your current relationship- and way of life?
Mad Happy (Mike): My mother is super-supportive and my father tries. They worry about the financial insecurity, not to mention depression and shit, but they're glad Im not strung out on dope and crack and shit. We have our thing pretty together, all things considered. I think my parents bum a little that we're not having kids. It's a whole different trip with Rivkas parents.
Mad Happy (Rivka): A few religious siblings try, these days, to be supportive though it's kind of hollow after they kicked me out of the family for five years. In terms of how the community treats me I don't give them a chance, I really have zero communication with anyone from the community. On the bright side I have a sister and two brothers who really make up my family, they are awesome.
Juliet (Jacques Lu Cont singer) told us recently that she went right off the rails after leaving her fundamentalist Christian environment aged 18: how much did you do the same Rivka?
Mad Happy (Rivka): There were a lot of factors involved but for me my depressed feelings always lead me back to the fact that my mother doesn't love me. It was hard to leave the religion but that really happened during ages of twelve to fifteen. Sure I was a little nuts then but facing it and allowing myself to really be with it would have meant my parents could institutionalize me. So i didn't really let it out until I was legal and out of their house. For a while I became unable to be alone. It felt really pathetic. being alone meant crying and screaming at the walls until I was hoarse and exhausted.
The actual loss of faith was hard because as a child I prayed so hard to be able to survive. So when I stopped believing I had to power myself on the belief that I would make it out. You see, it isn't just extreme religion I survived, some people grow up in that and don't have any reason to leave. In my case there was physical and sexual abuse playing a role. So going off the deep end had a lot more to do with that than losing my faith.
Skrufff: What do you make of Americas current cultural climate- seems like Puritanism and fundamentalism are in the ascendancy; what effect is this having on arts?
Mad Happy (Mike): well there certainly ain't no Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart selling on major labels these days. I guess pop music has always been pretty safe and mediocre, at least in this country. Probably economics will have the strongest effect, as there's always artists telling the liberal/left hand/goddess stories, it's largely a matter of how much money is floating around to support it. There's a thriving underground scene here of people doing stuff like what were doing, but everyone's broke and struggling and therefore have to spend more time making ends meet and less doing art, performing or travelling to communicate it.
It gets frustrating when artists with relatively safe, conservative, materialistic messages are seen as wild, underground and cutting edge. There's definitely a lot of materialism and homophobia in Rock, Pop and Hip-Hop, R & B here. But every now and then some light shines through.
Renegade Geeks is out now on Mutiny Zoo Records.
Jonty Skrufff (Skrufff.com)