The Nonconformists – Mike & Joe Poetically Expand Folk Rock Boundaries on ‘What About You?’

Mike & Joe blend folk and rock influences on their latest album, “What About You?” Photo by Brandon Fecteau

As modern beat poets, Mike & Joe distinctly carve new pathways to folk rock.

The Detroit-Ann Arbor first-cousin duo of Mike Benoit and Joe Provenzano etches experimental elements of dreamy psych pop soundscapes, rich retro textures and deep mystical lyricism into traditional harmonized folk rock on their second and latest album, What About You?

“Our little tagline is ‘folk rock and beyond,’ and there’s a lot of folk rock on that first record, but when you get to the second record, you hear my crazy ass solos on ‘One Trick Pony?’ We’re able to do that because we trust each other so much as songwriters, and through doing that, we arrive at what we feel is an original, seamless collaboration that’s something special,” said Provenzano, co-lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist.

“If that trust and expansive, multi-genre appreciation didn’t exist in both of us, then it would be extremely stifling to our collaborative process, so that’s why we just trust each other and rock on.”

Throughout What About You?, Mike & Joe rock beyond typical folk genre boundaries and jam into new territories draped in jazzy prog, baroque pop and singer-songwriter sensibilities. They seamlessly weave a broad spectrum of folk and rock influences, including The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, Fleet Foxes, Father John Misty and My Morning Jacket, into 10 captivating, nonconformist tracks.

“They were making this music that was informed by their own enthusiastic study of history and filtering it through their own modern, original minds. It was like finding out this whole army of like-minded people existed, and they were acting, and they were doing so with power. It’s the extra torch-bearing, energizing thing that made us demand even more of ourselves and feel even more of a kindred association with those acts,” Provenzano said.

Provenzano and Benoit share this kindred association thematically through several internal struggles – heartbreak, inauthenticity, disillusionment, desensitization of violence and self-doubt – while externally chronicling their creative growth as songwriters, lyricists and musicians. Track by track, they share different emotional challenges, unearth hidden meanings and reflect poignantly on their newfound growth on What About You?

 ‘What About You?’ – Poet Laureates and Beat Bards

“What About You?” album artwork by Visoth Kakvei

That growth begins on “Water’s Under the Bridge,” a romantic psych pop track filled with twirling synths, humming bass, soft cymbals, vivid organ and buoyant sax. Mike & Joe beautifully respond in Jim James and Fleet Foxes-esque harmonies, “From neglect of a paintbrush/Our colors, babe, they’ve been fading fast/Remember singing a love song, yeah/But you know that’s in the past!”

“Threaded through all of what we do is our mission and purpose as songwriters and how we fly by the seat of our enthusiasm, and we want to continue to give back in the way that we feel like we’ve been given to, and as long as that theory aligns with what we do, we trust that it will work,” said Provenzano, who recorded What About You? with Benoit at Paisley Sound studio.

Mike & Joe eloquently weave their creative theory through the jazzy, poppy folk anti-gun violence anthem – “What Do We Know About the Gunman?” – with vibrant, high-pitched electric guitars, swift acoustic strums, delicate drums and velvety sax.

The duo beautifully harmonizes, “But I don’t mean to slander my soldiers at the front/Just a friendly reminder: our groans are breath wasted/All these passing distractions are stopping our work from getting done/And this divisive and mercurial path breeds hatred.”

“It’s stuff at the forefront of our minds that’s current in the world today and also stuff that sits in the back on the dusted shelves. You’re like, ‘Man, I gotta get that out,’ because when you write something about a personal experience it heals the wound,” said Benoit, co-lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist.

Mike & Joe also intersperse their personal reflections with snippets of audio clips featuring influential Beat Generation author William S. Burroughs in 1974 and Beat Generation scholar and literary critic John Tytell in 1979. Provenzano accessed the audio clips through Ann Arbor-based Third Mind Books, which is currently curating Tytell’s archive.

“The whole aspect of gun control is one major part of it. The other major part of is how the media projects these things and how it becomes a self-propagating cycle,” said Provenzano, who’s a big fan of Beat Generation authors.

“Burroughs used to talk about ‘cutting the word lines,’ which he meant by severing the hypnotizing authority of newspapers, magazines, radio and television. As modern citizens, we’re subject to the crazy image haze that blunts our receptivity and dulls our senses to these very serious matters.”

Next, the duo broadens their jazzy, poppy folk on the vintage-fueled “Chevron Rose,” which blends pounding drums, humming retro synths, delicate cymbals, vibrant piano, quiet flute, light percussion and fluid sax.

As well-versed lyrical poets, Mike & Joe add high, fuzzy harmonies while serenading their quirky female protagonist, “Chevron rose/Tartan toes/Gingham clothes – and it never shows!/The game she chose/Hang-spill show lows/Then she goes: Nobody knows!”

Another What About You? gem includes “One Trick Pony?” as a retro folky pop track uncovering a deceptive lover. While she’s being ousted, deep swirling piano, intermittent bright electric guitar strums, heavy drum taps, whistling synths and thumping bass seamlessly envelope Mike &Joe in a protective barrier.

The duo also add neighing horses and gusty winds to surround their dreamy harmonies, “Just thinking/All the nights I sat, we spent/And now I get what’s in your goddamn head!/You’d better look and shout the siren song.”

“You’d be amazed at all the little things we have in the background on a synth solo. We’ll meld all these different sounds together, and it will sound like one synth solo, but it’s like four different synths with different tones and things. It morphs into its own thing,” Benoit said.

From Sun Tribe to Mike & Joe

Mike & Joe quickly morphed into a folky duo after departing the Detroit psych rock jam quartet Sun Tribe in late 2018. Together, they used previously recorded demos and retro instrumentation (think xylophones, organs and Mellotrons) to produce tracks for their folk rock debut, While I’m Still a Stranger to the World and You.

“I still love the songwriting, and I think we did as good a job recording it as we could have done for the knowledge that we had. Mike helped us make a lot of good strides when it came to an engineering perspective because the studio is at his house, and he spent a lot of extra time figuring out how to make the second album be of a higher fidelity,” Provenzano said.

Mike & Joe developed an initial love of music while growing up in Sterling Heights. The first cousins and musical partners started playing guitar at age 12, developed a deep appreciation for The Beatles and discovered the early psych rock sounds of The Chocolate Watchband and Strawberry Alarm Clock at local record shows.

In high school, they expanded their instrumental palate, studied the compositional prowess of Brian Wilson and tinkered with eclectic vocal and instrumental arrangements. They also formed Sun Tribe as an improvisational creative outlet for experimenting with different styles of psych rock.

“When we got a little older, that’s when we decided the songwriting aspect was more important to us than the jam side of things,” Benoit said.

Since putting their “jam” days aside, Mike & Joe have released two full-length studio albums and written a batch of new material, including tracks for a female-fronted psych rock side project called The Surrettes and a psych rock Christmas album featuring original holiday songs.

“We just dropped a super high-quality record, and we’d rather not have our next release be the most humble lo-fi thing in the world. Instead, we’re engineering a massive promotional campaign for two, being monastic and improving our playing,” Provenzano said.

“When we’re able to heroically rise again and be ready to record, we’ll be so energized and so much better that we’ll be just full speed ahead doing really amazing things.”

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