Back in the summer of 2008, I had the chance to chat with Mike Rosenberg (of Brighton band Passenger) for the now-defunct music blog, PopWreckoning. As we sat on a park bench in New York’s Lower East Side amidst the chaos of screaming children and a four piece creole jazz band playing their hearts out on a nearby street corner, we discussed the DIY nature of busking, the intimacy of writing partnerships, and the importance of lyrics. Mike was touring for Wicked Man’s Rest at the time. I caught a couple of his shows then, but lost track of things over the years. I was thrilled to discover (in Cambodia, no less) that his new album, All the Little Lights, has gotten much acclaim. Interview below.
Mike Rosenberg (Passenger) plays a CMJ showcase at Webster Hall, New York City, 10/24/08
Me: What was the origin of the band name Passenger?
Mike Rosenberg: I think it kind of started with my writing, this sort of observational theme, telling stories within our songs. And the idea is kind of maybe someone sitting in a passenger seat of a car and watching the world go by and everyone has a story to tell, whether it be an old alcoholic man or a stray dog or a stalker.
Me: Who are your influences?
MR: I grew up listening to a lot of Neil Young, Van Morrison, and Graham Parsons. People like that. I listen to Beirut, Iron and Wine, Calexico, Bonnie Prince Billy, all sorts of things. I’ve gotten into hip hop, as well.
Me: I could tell you were into hip hop with Wicked Man’s Rest.
MR: I think the way I write my lyrics sometimes, yeah. Especially the newer stuff that’s coming out on the second album has got much more of that kind of feel to it.
Me: You’re already working on a second album?
MR: It’s written. This came out a year ago in the UK. So yeah, there’s much more of that to come.
Me: “Wicked Man’s Rest” samples Allen Ginsberg performing “A Supermarket in California.” Where’d that come from?
MR: The guy I write songs with, Andrew [Phillips], did his master’s in English, specifically in American poetry. I think it really works. It’s such a confused song and that sort of consumeristic panic really mixes in nicely, I think.
Me: How are the audiences here receiving your stuff in comparison to back home?
MR: Generally, really well. The reaction over here has been great. I think, in America, I might be wrong, but it kinda feels like there’s a long tradition of this kind of music. You know, acoustic guitars and harmonies and lyrics. People really care about lyrics here. A lot of people have been asking me about the lyrics, which is really great because I care about lyrics. And so much music today, it doesn’t seem to be a priority at all. And I just think words put to music is such a powerful thing and if you have the opportunity to do that, don’t waste it just by writing stuff that rhymes. So I’m really thankful for people actually taking the time to concentrate on what I’m saying. I think that’s been a bit of a difference. I think England’s a really difficult market because it’s small and very trend-driven. And if you haven’t got the right jeans and the right haircut, it’s a bit of a problem, to be honest. I think there’s an element to every scene like that, but there seems to be a gap in the market here.
Me: So you’re doing a busking tour. Where did that idea come from?
MR: We’ve been busking for the last six months or so. I think it just came from the weather getting better. Just the idea of not sitting on your ass and hoping it’ll happen. Being able to do something yourself. Not relying on an agent and a whole team of people, which you need to do the gigs and to do loads of stuff, but actually busking, you can book a bus ticket and you can book a youth hostel and bring your guitar and an amp. It’s not hard. We started doing that in England and we’ve been all over the place. Up in Scotland and Manchester, along the south coast. It’s been so much fun. You meet so many people. It’s such a personal way of getting your music across. And we’ve sold over a thousand CDs doing it. It’s just a really human thing to do. Playing music, you can become quite adrift from what you’re doing. It really brings you back down to earth and makes you realize what you want from music.
Me: I was under the impression that it was just you and Andrew at first, but now it’s a five piece?
MR: Well, it’s a long story. Me and Andrew write the songs. He was in the live band for awhile. He’s got two small kids, so we actually changed the band about eight months ago when we started traveling and got three new members. Now I travel around with Steven a lot. He’s the guitarist. So it’s cool. I still do all the recording and writing with Andrew, but the live band’s kind of a separate thing now. It works. He’s [Andrew] a bit older—he’s like 43—so it’s like, when I’m 43, I don’t want to be lugging amps out of some basement in Williamsburg, I want to be home with my kids watching them grow up.
Me: I’m assuming that Andrew did all the producing. The album has this ethereal feel about it. Is that him or the pair of you? How does the songwriting dynamic work between the two of you?
MR: He’s done loads of music for film and documentaries and TV. That’s been his main line of work for the last twenty years, so there’s definitely that sort of cinematic, big feel about it. As far as the writing goes, the lyrics are pretty much all mine. Most of the production ideas are his and we work on the music together. Sometimes I come to him with a song and we rearrange it and work on it. I’ve been writing with him for about five years and it’s amazing to have someone you totally trust, not just musically, but generally. You trust their taste and opinion in everything. He’s heard hundreds of my songs and knows when I’m taking shortcuts or could do a bit better or have rushed it or whatever. It’s amazing to have that.
Me: He can tell you straight out and it’s not gonna upset you.
MR: Yeah. Writing partnerships are such a…writing is such a personal thing. It’s cliché to say it, but it’s the most real part of you, and to share that wholeheartedly with someone is an amazing feeling. It’s really, really good.
Me: I don’t know if you have any formal training in writing, but one of the mantras repeated in creative writing classes is: “Show, don’t tell.” Your songs definitely give concrete visuals. How did that come about?
MR: I don’t know. I’m rubbish at spelling. I’m dyslexic, I think. I’ve not been good at school. I just started writing songs when I was fourteen and they were really bad. You just learn over time what you do uniquely and you learn to focus in on that so it doesn’t sound generic and so it’s something unique and really honest. I think that’s what really annoys me about music and that’s why I don’t like a certain band, when I don’t think it’s honest. I think it’s kind of put on and contrived. I can’t stand that. It’s boring.
Me: So, I’ve been listening. I tried to make relevant comparisons because everyone likes to do that, and I failed. How does it feel—is it scary to be peddling a new brand of pop music?
MR: No, it’s really exciting. I’m really happy you said that, because when I get asked what kind of music we do, I still haven’t got an answer. I’ve been doing it for years and I still can’t say, “Oh, it’s like this.” Which is sometimes problematic because people can’t just put it in a box and, “Oh, right it’s this and I like this.” Do you know what I mean? Sometimes I’ve been frustrated by it, but ultimately I’m delighted that it’s different and unique. I think it affects people and I think, even if you don’t like the music, I think people can see that it’s different. Hopefully. Some people just think we sound like James Blunt. I think it’s a really lazy comparison.
Me: What are you listening to right now?
MR: I just got the Fleet Foxes album, which I like a lot; Bon Iver; Bonnie Prince Billy’s new album, which is okay.
Me: Last question: if you were headlining your dream tour, who would be supporting you?
MR: Alive or dead? I don’t know why, but Otis Redding, although everyone would see him and just be disgusted by us.