Singer Mike Ruocco Talks Solo Album, Writing for Candlebox + More
The title of his upcoming solo disc ‘The Rise. The Ride. The Risk.’ seems to perfectly encapsulate Mike Ruocco’s musical journey up to now. Paying homage to the beginning stages of his career as an integral part of rock bands like SR-71, Plunge and Cinder Road, to reflecting back to where that path has taken him throughout the years as a successful touring act in addition to a sought-after songwriter for bands like Candlebox and Halestorm, right up through present day where he’s about to stare down that risk right in the face with a new solo disc that lays everything he is all about out on the line for all to take in.
While it’s back to the beginning for Ruocco, his past successes have taught him a lot about the business of music as well as himself - both the good and the bad. From touring with Kiss and Daughtry to collaborating with the likes of everyone from Marti Frederiksen to Kevin Martin, Ruocco has taken everything he’s learned along the way and instilled it into his solo effort making for one dynamic collection.
We recently caught up with the new solo artist to talk about his upcoming disc that hits digital outlets on June 12, the transition from lead singer of a rock band to a solo artist, and the crazy ride along the way.
Let’s start with some history. The last time a lot of us heard from you, you were in a rock band called Cinder Road – how did your path lead to becoming a solo artist?
Becoming a solo artist is something I wanted to do for many many years, it’s just that the band took precedent over that and things were going great for us. We were all young and as we use to say a bunch of pirates in a pirate ship traveling the world and life was good. Once we came home, after we toured for a couple of years on our ‘Superhuman’ record, we started working on ‘Damage Control’ and asked our label to let us go.
I was spending tons of time in L.A. writing the record, and the guys were back home and some of them ended up getting 9-5 jobs, some of them got married, and the next thing you know, you turn around and real life starts setting in. Some of the guys left the band and it was those things where it didn’t feel right to call it Cinder Road anymore. I could have stuck with that name but I always hated when I went and saw bands on the road billed as band “X” and there was only one guy in the band from the original lineup.
So the timing finally felt right?
It did. Once Chris Shucosky left, it was only me and Pat left in the band and I just said, maybe this is someone trying to tell me that this is your turn to try and do this solo thing.
You were an integral part of the writing for Cinder Road, so do you approach it differently for solo work or is the writing process just business as usual?
As far as actually crafting a song, nothing has changed. I still go into writing the same exact way, whether it’s for me, another artist, or whether it’s because I just feel like writing. I write to write and I write to get out an experience or an emotion, I write to talk about things that are going on, and I write for fun – all of the above. What is different about this solo thing is that I’m going through the process of deciding which songs make it onto the album completely different than I have in the past in that if I want to put a ballad on it or if a song isn’t quite heavy enough, I’m not worried about that anymore.
For me now it’s more about what’s the best song and what do I want to talk about, what’s feeling good right now. I just love this record that we’ve made so much because it has so many different kinds of songs. I’m independent as far as a label and while if a song doesn’t exactly fit into slot A, B, or C but I still like it, it’s going to make the cut and I hope the fans like that. The music business does try to pigeonhole artists to a degree into certain cookie cutter molds and I just refuse to do that and I fortunately don’t have to do that right now.
You’ve talked about wanting to cover all kinds of music on the disc; do you feel like you put a real focus on that?
Here’s the thing – my mentality is almost the reverse of what you said. When I was doing the Cinder Road stuff, there was a strict mentality of sticking to songs within our format, and our format at the time was active rock which as of 2012 and the last few years has become very heavy. There’s nothing wrong with that but not every song I write sounds like that and I just refuse to put out an album with 12 songs that sound exactly the same. We would always find ourselves when doing the Cinder Road records in a position where our manager or the label would say, “We need another up-tempo song” and I remember thinking, ‘G--damn I thought I was done." Luckily they did push me because ‘Should Have Known Better’ was the last song I wrote for the album. I wrote it, we put it on the record and thank god I did but obviously with any record I put out, I want the best songs on there. I will never sacrifice that but I’m just having a little bit more fun, everything is a little loose – there are some rhythmic and hip-hop influences you’re going to hear, it’s fun, it’s different – it’s modern, it’s the most current thing I’ve ever done.
Releasing this independently has allowed you a lot of new freedoms with both your music and your career. Do you feel that that your creativity may have been impeded in the past by limitations put on you?
I wouldn’t say that anything ever impeded my creativity, what I would say is that the world is changing and in turn so is the music business to a degree but the music business isn’t changing at the same rate that the world is. In other words, when we put out ‘Superhuman’ there were still quite a lot of CDs going into stores and your average garage band could not put a record on iTunes, but things were changing a bit. If you look at the landscape now, through websites like Tunecore and CDBaby, you can make a record at your house using Protools, mix it yourself and have it on iTunes within a few days.
The power is kind of being put back into the artists hands..
Yeah, it is great like that. Certainly there are plenty of aspects of labels that bands like mine and others need. It’s expensive to tour, it’s expensive to make videos and photo shoots and album artwork but you can also do all of that in your backyard. That’s how I came up in the business with Plunge which then became Cinder Road. We got in a van and we’d book these tours up and down the East Coast from Rhode Island all the way down to Key West. We’d stop and play cover shows when we ran out of money and then we’d continue to play our original shows and lose money, which was okay, because we’d much rather play our own stuff for a couple of weeks and then go down to Key West for a week and make our money back. We’d make enough money to lose it on the way back up playing the rest of the East Coast. But that was what we did.We printed up shirts, if we could only print up 100, we printed up 100 until we sold enough to print 100 more.
That’s where I’m at now. I’ve just gained such an appreciation for what I experienced with Cinder Road and I just want the opportunity to do that again with a different mentality. We really had the world by the balls to put it bluntly, with touring with Daughtry and Kiss – all these big tours, we were on a big label, I came home and started working as a staff songwriter for BMG/Chrysalis/Bug Music, I wrote songs for The Gracious Few, I wrote two songs on the new Candlebox record that came out a few weeks ago, I wrote a song for Halestorm and all this kind of stuff that was taking me in a different direction.
I was still in the music business but I wasn’t really performing and I did a couple acoustic gigs around town, real laid back gigs, and I realized that I need to get back to playing and I need to get back in front of people that want to hear my music. It was such a blessing to go out and play and do radio rooms or in-stores, or even the concerts we did where you could see people singing our songs or wearing or t-shirts or taking pictures after the show – I miss that experience. I miss being on the road. I toured with Poison this past summer and got to be back on a bus and traveling around living the life but it wasn’t the same. I left the Poison tour early and came home and said F--- it, I’m doing this, I’m not built for being on the side of the stage, I’m built to be right in the front so the universe kind of aligned in a certain way and I decided that it was my time to step in the batter’s box and take a swing.
What can you tell me about the song ‘Millionaires,’ it’s definitely off the beaten path for you?
‘Millionaires’ is basically like Sublime meets Kid Rock meets G. Love. When you hear it you’re going to say there’s no way that this is Mike. Here’s the thing, I guarantee you have more than one type of music on your iPod, and that’s the thing the music business doesn’t want to go with. Rock bands have to have 12 songs that sound like “This” – well why? When I was growing up, Def Leppard had ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ but then they also had ‘Rock, Rock, Till You Drop’ or ‘Two Steps Behind.’ Aerosmith has ‘Dream On’ and then they have ‘Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.’ Staind had ‘Mudshovel’ and then they came out with the acoustic ballad that Aaron Lewis did a couple years down the road.
Nowadays, they’re trying to get everyone to sound the same within the genre and it’s just kind of like ‘insert band name here.’ I’m not going to do that. I listen to lots of different stuff, I write lots of different stuff, we wrote this song ‘Millionaires’ and like I said it’s got hip hop beats but it’s also still me. When I was in a cover band I use to cover Elvis, I use to cover Bon Jovi and Bush and then I would cover hip hop songs like Nelly and Eminem – just to give the crowd what they wanted to hear. With ‘Millionaires’ it talks about you don’t have to have all the shiny fancy things in life but when it comes to love you know we’re Millionaires. It’s a bit of a hippie kind of attitude but its fun. It’s the kind of song you throw on, you drink a beer, you high five your friends and you just have a good time.
You co-wrote a song with Candlebox’s Kevin Martin that made the disc, tell us about it.
It’s called ‘Carry Me’ and it's kind of like Bruce Springsteen meets Johnny Cash. The vocal delivery is different for me than normal. It’s a relationship song but it could be tied into the military, how these guys and girls are away and they’re sacrificing for their families but at the same time I know all of them want to come home. As much as they support what they’re doing and believe in it, they do it because it’s their job and what they believe in but everyone wants to come home. It talks about "Carry me, Carry me home, say you’ll be there for me, don’t let me go cuz I want to lie with you and I want to die with you, just carry me home.”
Can you pick a song on the disc and walk us through it both musically and lyrically – maybe tell us a story about how the song came together.
I wrote a song for my sister called ‘Love is Goodbye’ and it’s probably my favorite song on the record. What it talks about is, sometimes the hardest thing is, and we all know this, when you love somebody is to let them go. If it’s meant to be it will be and it talks about that whole story. Love can be the time of your life but sometimes love is goodbye, I’d never written a song for my sister before but there it is.
You’ve said that positivity is a central theme throughout the new music – how did you arrive at that place because it hasn’t always been the case?
I’ve never been political, I’ve never been religious in any of my music, I’ve never been anything other than let’s just have a good time and the reality is the world is in a sad state of affairs. People don’t have jobs, people don’t have money, there’s all kinds of bad things going on and I didn’t want to write another dark, depressing, angry record. People look to music as an escape, something that can take them to a better place, at least in their own mind of nothing else. I wanted to people to listen to this – the beauty of music is you can interpret a song any way you want to interpret it – I wanted to leave that interpretation up to the listener a lot of the time, but what I’ve said in the past and what I’m putting out there is that, for instance, with a song like ‘Too Late’ obviously the song talks about how the relationship is falling apart but the message at the end of the song is it’s not too late and I’m not going to let this go. Things may be at rock bottom but there’s only one place to go from there and that’s back up. I just wanted to take a bit of a different route than a lot of other people.
The new Candlebox album just came out and I know you co-wrote a few of the songs on that disc with Kevin. Is it hard to balance writing with other artists versus keeping songs for yourself?
To get down and dirty to the business side of it, there’s a song on my record called ‘After I’m Gone,’ it’s a brand new song and I wrote it with a guy named Scott Stevens who co-wrote and produced ‘Damage Control’ with us and he was the singer for The Exies and a good friend of mine and a great writer. We wrote this song and we pitched it to Halestorm and they wound up cutting it. Throughout the process of labels and A&R cycles the song didn’t make the final cut on the record, but I do have a version of them doing the song. I wanted the song too but Halestorm, who I’ve been friends with for ten years, they are from PA we’re in MD and we use to play shows together when neither one of us were signed. They’ve had such great success, I thought the song had a better shot with them, especially if it’s a single, so let’s let them have it, I’ll write another song. Through different events the song didn’t wind up on the album so I was stoked to do it.
I know you’re planning to road test the material soon – can you tell us who will be in your touring band, will it be any familiar faces for fans that have followed your career?
I’ve been doing a couple of shows here and there. I played in Baltimore with a full electric band and it was packed, it was awesome. We didn’t know what to expect, it’s been a challenge for me. You’re obviously very familiar with my other band, but in between songs I was so use to saying “Hey, We’re Cinder Road” and I had to change that. I’m still referring to everything as “we”, it’s just a change.
“We” meaning me and my band, are doing a lot of acoustic radio promo, and the feedback has been great. I’m doing the radio promo game right now and then after that we’re hoping to get the song charted and land a big tour, obviously I’d love to get back with Chris Daughtry, I do have a full electric badass band and everybody is new with the exception of Pat, he’s still playing with me and that’s fun.
When I do the acoustic stuff it will be at a minimum of me and two guitar players. Although I could do it by myself I’d rather have the guys with me for the vocals and the pretty little guitar parts we crafted in the studio. I’m not afraid of my past, I’m not ashamed of it, I’m proud of it, I don’t care whether someone wears a Plunge shirt or a Cinder Road shirt or an SR-71 shirt or has any of those albums, as long as they’re coming out and hanging I’m happy to have them!
What do you hope people take away from this new disc?
There are so many things I could say to that, I feel like it’s the best material that I’ve ever written in my life. I want people to respect me as a songwriter.