It all started with a bet.
John Michael Rouchell was having lunch with a friend who, midconversation, told him that he was the laziest songwriter he’d ever met and bet Rouchell that he could not write a song a day for an entire year. “You know, you’re probably right,” Rouchell said, “but I could probably write a song a week.” And that’s exactly what he set out to do.
On January 1, 2008, Rouchell embarked on a yearlong journey of writing, recording and releasing 52 songs in 52 weeks under the moniker MyNameIsJohnMichael (MNIJM). Although he did not know it at the time, this ambitious project would evolve into the explosive indie-pop band of the same name.
“What I started to formulate in my own head was that in the music industry today, anyone can make a record. If you’ve got a laptop and instruments, you can make a record. It’s that easy.” With this in mind, Rouchell knew that his challenge would be to create something that would make him stand out from the crowd. He began thinking about how to give himself a competitive advantage—“not necessarily competitive advantage like, ‘Oh, I’m better than you in this way,’ but something different,” Rouchell explains. “A way of making people stop and think ‘Oh, that’s interesting. That’s not just another kid making another record.’”
Rouchell looked for inspiration wherever he could find it, and began following the careers of Lil Wayne and various hip-hop artists. He was struck by the sheer quantity of songs that these artists were writing and releasing. As the world watched Lil Wayne rise to prominence, Rouchell experienced an ‘ah-ha’ moment. “I was like, wow, this dude is from New Orleans, and granted he’s been doing it for a long time, but obviously the thing that made him cut through the masses is the fact that he just works harder than everybody else and puts out more content.”
Drawing inspiration from Lil Wayne’s prolific approach to creating music, Rouchell launched the fan-driven website MyNameIsJohnMichael.com.
“Hi everyone. My name is John Michael.” These are Rouchell’s first words on his video blog that documented his experience as he created 52 songs in 52 weeks. “I’m here to do this for you,” he continued. From the beginning, Rouchell entrusted the success—or potential failure—of the 52 to his fans, allowing them to vote and choose the 12 songs that would become his record at the end of the year.
“Ultimately, there are two sides to the coin,” Rouchell says. “You’re an artist, but you’re an entertainer, too. I never want people to not be pleased when they leave a show or listen to the record. I want to satisfy people.”
When Rouchell began working on the 52 in 52, he had just returned home to New Orleans after a two-year stint on the road and was searching for something new. “In a lot of ways, I thought that bands were inherently a negative situation,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m never going to be in a band again, I just can’t do it.’ The idealism of the 52 originally was ‘I’m just gonna have a bunch of friends come play on this shit and whatever happens, happens. I don’t care.’”
Rouchell’s ideas of collaboration began to change when drummer Eric Rogers—formerly of Antenna Inn—began sitting in with Rouchell in week three. “With Eric it was like, yeah, come play on this track. And eventually he was playing on a lot of tracks, and we were hanging out and jamming and stuff, having a good time.”
As the sound of the 52 expanded, so did the band. “I thought that my voice and a trumpet would be really interesting together,” Rouchell mused, so he asked multiinstrumentalist Cory Schultz, Rogers’ former bandmate, to come play on the standout track “Every Night of the Year.”
One night at the Saturn Bar in the Bywater, Rouchell and Rogers approached glasses-clad bassist Joe Bourgeois and Big Rock Candy Mountain frontman Michael Girardot and asked, “Do you guys want to start a band out of this?” Thus, the original five-piece MyNameIsJohnMichael was born.
Shortly thereafter, Schultz was bartending when a champagne flute ripped into his thumb. The guys quickly recruited multiinstrumentalist Leo DeJesus, lead singer in City Life at the time, to fill in while Schultz recuperated. “He was a great friend of ours, and we admired his work,” Rouchell explains. “When Corey came back he was like, ‘Look, we should make this a six-piece band and just do something new and different and reframe it. That’s how it became six of us, and it’s been like that ever since,” says Rouchell, adding that the band’s newest member, Richard Dubourg (Rhodes, organ, guitar and harmonies) cemented MNIJM’s current composition when he replaced Giradot.
Despite his initial hesitation with forming a band, Rouchell embraced the transformation from experimental project to band. “We ended up putting together what I think is a really great band—of great friends too. I came to learn that the band thing isn’t inherently bad due to it being a band, but it can be bad due to the people. Get-the-right-people-on-the-bus-and-the-wrong-people-off sort of thing.”
MNIJM’s first record, The People that Come and Go was released late March 2009. Rogers says that working on the record “was a completely different experience than any other record that I had ever done because we had a year of pre-production on all of the songs that were on it.” The songs on The People that Come and Go are influenced by each of the band members, continues Rogers, “when it came time to really make them the best they could be on the record, it was a very collaborative effort and it was so much fun to work with all these guys.” In April 2008, less than four months after the birth of MNIJM, the band played their first show at Carrollton Station, opening for Theresa Andersson, but it wasn’t camaraderie alone that created growth for the band. MNIJM is built on the concept of hard work. “Ever since we all got together, that’s kinda been the thing,” says Rouchell. “I set the standard of being a complete workaholic psychopath. These guys knew what they were getting into when they started playing with me. The thing is, they loved it. And they all still do. We all still do, we love to play music. We love to work on our craft and work on our art.”
The band also gained momentum from their online fan base, maintaining a blog that they update weekly—if not more often—addressing their fans as “lovers” and keeping them informed. Rouchell says that keeping in constant contact with fans is part of what you’re supposed to do as an artist. “I feel like we owe it to them,” he stresses.
In their former projects, each of the band members had filled a leadership void. “We were all leaders in the other projects out of necessity,” DeJesus says. “I don’t think any of us were leaders because of ego or the need to be in charge, or because we were control freaks or anything. When we come together, we mix pretty well because none of us feel that we always have to be in control.” Rouchell says that their former positions had “an emphasis on pulling, not guiding.” The collaborative process that MNIJM employs today is much more effective. “By the time we all got together to play, we all looked at each other, and were like, oh wow, if we all put our heads together, we could do something really great. We all have that work ethic that we want to work harder than everybody else,” says Rouchell.
That extends to their live performances, where Rouchell’s tightly constructed pop songs open up and take on a Springsteen-like grandeur. During the set, the band is in constant motion, and at the Best of the Beat this year, they left the stage to perform “The One” in the audience. ”A number of us took musical theater classes or actually performed theater or musical theater in high school and lower grades,” Rogers says. “I think when we got together and decided to perform this stuff live, it wasn’t just going up onstage and playing these songs; it was performing these songs. A lot of bands, not just locally, but worldwide, struggle with having an amazing record but a poor live show, and that was half the battle. Even if you have a great record, you have to sell that onstage. When people see you have an amazing show that has all this blocking and all this dramatic effect that you would see in a musical or a play, that just makes people want to hear you outside of the venue. I think that when we decided to put this band together, creating an amazing live show was first priority. Even before we recorded the record, we had the live show put together.”
Rogers likens MNIJM’s elements of performance to a theatrical production. “When we tour, we play a pretty similar set every night because it’s like doing a play on tour as a Broadway cast. It’s the same blocking. It’s always really well thought out, but still very spontaneous at the same time.”
Rouchell agrees. “Though we have the mile markers along the way, everybody’s very free physically and showmanship-wise. We trust everybody’s ability to get from point A to point B, ultimately. We’ll change the set a bit here and there, but there are certain things that really work well together, things of that nature, and that was something that we really focused on.”
DeJesus continues. “I know when I’m on stage, it’s always sell it—no matter the circumstances. Never let the energy dip or die, always go as hard as you can whether you’re playing to one person or a thousand, it doesn’t matter. We’ve actually gotten compliments from other bands on how it doesn’t matter if we’re in a full room or if we pull up to a town we’ve never been to and the room is relatively empty, we still get compliments on how, even playing to an empty room, we still play 110 percent as if the room were full.”
Rouchell credits their early success and growth as a band to the energy of their live performances. “We try to make things completely blown out, and make it really entertaining. Showmanship and being over the top is fun for us. It is a bit self-indulgent but it’s a good time, so fuck it.” He says that the energy emitted on stage caused people to take notice and created a spur of events. For example, a show at Bonnaroo in the summer of 2009 caught the attention of a writer at Spin Magazine, who later listed MNIJM as one of the top 25 bands to watch at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York City last year.
The band is currently focused on writing songs for the second album. Unlike The People That Come and Go, the album won’t be extensively demoed and the audience won’t have a say in the tracks. This time, though, the band will. “We’re writing as a band,” Rogers says. “Now it’s a very collaborative effort when it comes to writing.”
Rouchell says that album number two is still in the formative stages. “We’re still figuring out how we want it to sound, the emotions that we want to evoke. What we are really trying to say in the theme of it.” He says that the song “After Ever After” summarizes the idea of the album – the idea of what now. “After so many of these things happen, and you achieve things, what happens when you’ve completed the plan? You’ve gotten to a point where the timeline’s over. Now what?”
For MNIJM, the answer is “more.”
“A lot of goals for this year involve playing more festivals, getting us in front of large groups of people,” Eric Rogers says. “We all want to make it to the point where this is our living and we don’t have to work our day jobs,” Leo DeJesus says. “So that’s just playing more, playing in different places and expanding in any way that we can.”
Rouchell pauses to light a cigarette, “Yeah, prolific is our middle name. It’s been the cusp of what we do. Whether it’s the 52 songs in 52 weeks, whether it’s keeping the blog up to date everyday, whether it’s touring as much as we possibly can tour, whether it’s putting on the best show we possibly can every night and doing things above and beyond the call of duty with the show. That’s our core value system. If we’re going to do something, we’re going to try to do it as well as we possibly can.”