Raven Tree is flying high on their musical journey
"[We] have a lot of work to do....The industry is not a Rock 'n Roll fairy godmother upon which we should be dependent on it for our success. "
Baltimore, the largest city in Maryland, is the birth-place of the U.S. National Anthem, home to John Hopkins Hospital, some guy named Babe Ruth, writer, Edgar Allen Poe, the Baltimore Orioles and some wannabe singer/songwriter named Tori Amos. For you foodies, Baltimore is also known for its Crab Cakes.
Someone you may not have heard of, yet, and I say that with pause, is also a Baltimore native. His name is Mike McCann, a military vet and hard rocking guitarist/founder and lead singer of Raven Tree, a hard rock band on the cusp of the mainstream. After speaking with Mike and learning about the band, their history and music, you’ll see why Raven Tree may soon be mentioned in the same sentence as some of the top national bands on the festival circuit.
by: Kreig Marks May 2, 2019
TRR: Hi Mike. Welcome to Tru Rock Revival Magazine. I've been a big fan of your music since I first heard Raven Tree on Spotify a few months back.
Mike: Thanks, Kreig.
TRR: What’s going on in the Baltimore music scene these days?
Mike: I wouldn’t classify Baltimore as having any one “scene,” per se, more a diverse number of groups which seem to align along genres. There is Emo, Metal, Rap/Hip-Hop, Neo-Punk, etc. Of those, the Metal and Hip-Hop scenes are the strongest. Of course, w\Raven Tree, we aren’t really aligned with any of those, so we’re pretty much out here on our own. There are a couple of other bands of which I am a huge fan, Lazlo Lee and Bombenkinder are my two absolute favorite Baltimore bands. There is another band, out of the Towson area, called Dreamcatcher, which is pretty rockin.' They tour a lot and I really dig them too.
TRR: What is the origin of your band’s name? Is this the original name or have you changed it before?
Mike: Raven Tree is our original name, I wanted to tie us to the creative history of Baltimore, with Edgar Allen Poe being our most prominent as the original Goth and Roller. I also wanted a name that could be amorphous musically, which, given our range of music, has worked out just right. I also felt like trendy band names always become dated rather quickly, and we are a band that plans to have a long life span. Raven Tree originally started out as a solo song writing/recording project, and I spent about a year and half working the arrangements before hitting the studio in early 2014. Around that time, I did a few shows with my session lineup, then began a series of lineups based upon musician availability, etc.
TRR: Who are the players?
Mike: We have myself on guitar and vocals, Phoenix Johnson on bass/vocals, and Tony Lotierzo on drums/vocals. The original debut album featured Dave DeMarco (bands: Crack The Sky, Several Species) on bass and melotron, with Greg Giannetti on drums. In 2015 I brought in Dan Logan (The Itals, The English Beat) on bass and Jeff Gardner (Split Five) on drums. In 2016 Dan departed back on tour with The Itals, and in 2017 Jeff recorded "Devil’s Red Mistress" with Phoenix and myself before leaving for personal needs. It’s been pretty much just me and Phoenix for the last few years until Tony joined us in late 2018.
TRR: How did all of you meet?
Mike: I first saw Phoenix perform with his Progressive Metal group in 2014, at '98 Rock’s weekly showcase Noise In The Basement here in Baltimore. What struck me about him was his professionalism and musicianship, qualities that are becoming increasingly rare in music. About a year later, in 2015, '98 Rock DJ and impresario Matt Davis, paired Raven Tree and Phoenix’ band for a performance at The Hard Rock in Baltimore, and we struck up a friendship. So, I took them on the road with us for a couple of shows.
In 2016, during the recording of The Devil’s Red Mistress LP, my session bassist quit after one session and Phoenix was my first call. After we completed the album, Phoenix pretty much told me how he felt he was now a member of the band, which I embraced like a hobo on a ham sandwich!
TRR: A hobo with a ham sandwich? Honestly, that’s a first. I’ve never heard that expression.
Mike: (laughing) Yeah, I think I heard that back in my early military days. We had this one guy nicknamed “Elvis” who was from Tennessee, and he had a million phrases like that one…
Tony and I met when we were both in the military stationed in Wash DC, we had a kick ass cover band trio that performed in Southern MD. As with most military based partnerships, we drifted apart as our respective military careers wound down, but a couple of years ago, Tony returned to MD and we began trying to figure out how we could “put something together.”, I Fall 2018, I finally just said, “It’s time, brother!” and he came on board with Raven Tree. I can’t imagine this band going forward with anyone else.
TRR: How would you classify your music?
Mike: You know that’s a funny thing, I have heard as many opinions about us as there are people who have voiced them lol! As a genre, I would say we are Post-Grunge/ Hard Rock, sitting solidly in mainstream AOR rock…which is at the EXACT BOTTOM of commercial appeal. (laughing)
TRR: So, what are your plans to get the band in the mainstream if you feel you’re at the bottom of “commercial appeal” right now?
Mike: The first step is to not give in to cynicism. To paraphrase Ed Harris in the movie, “The Right Stuff”: “No Fans, No Band”. Bottom line is that without REAL fans, no amount of promo, marketing, social media blitzing, etc. will result in mainstream support or success. Friends and fans connect with those bands that they believe are “real” to them, and this authenticity cannot be conveyed solely online. Audiences MUST have an opportunity to experience and connect with a band through their live show.
Of course, the paradox of our “globally connected digital environment” is that we have a large, geographically diverse audience who have expressed an initial interest in our music. However, given the geographic challenges, it is financially impossible for us to physically take the show to all (or any) of them.
So we’ve decided to take the show to them virtually. On May 11 we will be filming and producing a live Raven Tree concert album and video performance - made available to all of our friends worldwide; giving our friends living in the Australian outback an opportunity to experience our show simultaneaously with our friends in Stuttgart. We believe our live show will convince the doubters and those sitting on the fence, that we really are who we say we are, an unapologetic rock and roll power trio. At the same time, virtual concerts simply don't take the place of the live show, and can't replace the impact of a live performance. So, we are also in the process of developing a partnership with a multi-national booking agent to enable us to get out and be in front of Rock 'n Roll fans.
TRR: Where did you record Devil’s Red Mistress? Who engineered that?
Mike: The basic tracks for the DRM album (drums, bass, rhythm guitar) were recorded live at Sheffield Studios in Phoenix, Maryland. We were assigned two of their in-house engineers; Jake Caples and Jesse Klaput. Jake has since become a touring engineer with Bob Seger, but sadly Jesse passed away this past Fall. Those two were outstanding engineers and pivotal to the sound of the rhythm tracks. The second guitar tracks, solos and vocals were recorded by Phoenix (RT bassist) and myself. The album was mixed and mastered by Chris Suter down in Charlotte, NC.
TRR: How did you promote the album?
Mike: I wish I had a better answer than the truth, which is to say that we distributed the album via DistroKid but didn’t really promote it beyond a few social media posts, and a few shows around the time of its release. We also filmed two videos, one for the title track, "DRM," and for "Superstition," which were released on Youtube prior to the album release. That’s about it. Since the album’s release we’ve engaged in robust social media marketing of the band via video promotions, but the album has been slow to catch on. We are much more savvy now, and our next release will be accompanied by a solid marketing campaign, both organic and via industry media.
TRR: You had a great career and great salary, and just decided to walk away and pursue your dream of being a rock star? That takes a lot of guts, a lot of balls. That must have been a difficult thing to do.
Mike: Hmmmmm…you know, life is too short not to live it, and there are far too many people who say that but don't mean it. Bodey from Point Break (Swayze, not that other guy) is my spirit animal, and I will never be one of those folks driving to work in my “metal coffin”. We have far too many people who have chosen to live angry, unfulfilled lives, lashing out at each other in their misery. I don’t need to add more to that cultural dysfunction than I already have.
TRR: If you weren’t in a band, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
Mike: That’s funny, because this IS my second career, same for Tony. After the military I was a security director for a 15 billion dollar commercial bank, six figures, etc. In 2014 I walked away from that because life is too short not to do what you want to do. So, I stepped up to the plate for myself and this is what I do. So, I guess this IS my “instead” :)
Rock 'n Roll is not an easy industry, and there is almost zero financial support for what we do. It’s made it tough to hang on to musicians, who need to eat and can’t work for free. Over the last 5 years, all my savings has gone into Raven Tree.
TRR: Who are some of your musical influences?
Mike: As a songwriter/composer I’ve been heavily influenced by Dylan, Chris Cornell and Jimmy Page, and mid-seventies “beta bands” like The Carpenters and Bread.
My guitar influences are pretty clear, I think, which are solidly set in Hendrix, Clapton and Page. That said, I don’t think I really sound like any of them. Lately I’ve really been getting away from listening to rock, and listen more to jazz legends, like Coltrane, Miles Davis, etc. I have no idea what Phoenix listens to, I know he started as a teenager listening to lots of Emo, then moved into niche prog metal bands. Tony is solidly influenced by hair bands like Motley Crue, Queensryche, etc. and it shows in his style…he is simply the best rock drummer I have ever played with.
Here is some additional background info: My takeaway from Dylan is his ability to speak volumes without verbosity, which is something I aim for when writing my lyrics: short, sweet and to the point.
Cornell certainly was a master of using colorful and emotional metaphors which I have tried to get back to. When I started writing for Raven Tree, I was a bit shackled by a bandmate who insisted I write in a style of “realism without metaphor.” That, for me, was a bit like a lefty being forced to write with their right hand. For the last couple of years, I’ve been striving to recover my more abstract style. As for writing melody, etc. those 70’s soft rock acts were the BEST!
TRR: Who do you not like hearing?
Mike: (laughing) I can say I do not own any post-80’s-metal or nu-metal records. While I appreciate the riffs and the intense emotion in post-80’s-metal, it doesn’t find its way into my writing style.
TRR: What do you think makes your band stand out from others?
Mike: We are unapologetically ourselves. We're not trying to be the “next” anything, and we are definitely not trying to sound like anyone else. Even when Tony and I had our cover band, folks were always saying “We like your covers because you put your own spin on them,” which was a nice way of saying we didn’t sound like the record lol!
The biggest thing we have going is how we are REAL. What is on our records is what we really sound like. Aside from the debut LP, all our studio work has been recorded live in some form or fashion, and the only editing or processing we’ve ever done was limited to an old-school, analog- only approach. We have a documentary on our YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/raventree) where the director for Sheffield Studios (where we recorded the DRM LP) said our approach to recording is unique and somewhat unorthodox in this day and age, ESPECIALLY for an independent band, and it’s something we’re very proud of.
TRR: You mentioned earlier the you feel the industry hasn’t accepted your style of music. Why do you feel that way?
Mike: Yeah, let me clarify on that one, since I don’t think the industry is really a challenge one way or the other. The industry typically follows trends and capitalizes on them, but the industry is NOT there to lead the way. Also, the industry is not there to do our work for us. In fact, most artists misunderstand exactly what the industry is; a loose partnership or network of commercial capabilities and services for use by those artists who have developed and grown themselves to commercial relevance. So I don’t believe they have not accepted us, we simply haven’t built ourselves up to the point where, the industry will find us commercially relevant.
Bottom line is, [we] have a lot of work to do.... the industry is not a rock and roll fairy godmother upon which we should be dependent on it for our success.
TRR: What other bands would you like to tour with?
Mike: I feel we would go well with just about any rock lineup, from a contemporary music standpoint I think we’d fit well with bands like Greta Van Fleet, Dorothy, Joyous Wolf, or older bands such as Alter Bridge, Foo Fighters, etc. But we’re not starry eyed about sharing a stage with anyone in particular, as long as the audience is large and appreciative. We will play anytime, with anyone!
TRR: Anyone? Calling Justin Beiber, we’ve got a band for you to meet!
Mike: (Big Smile) I believe our music will appeal to any demographic across the board, and so far our marketing data reflects that. We appeal to all ages, etc. So, tell Justin to bring his A Game…lol!
TRR: How do you write your songs? Is it collaborative?
Mike: Historically I’ve always written all the songs, and the band brought their instrumental talents to pre-production and recording. Generally, songs may begin with a riff, or I hear a bass or drum lick which inspires a melody or guitar riff. From there I will build out a song. There are times where I think I have two different songs but will realize that I need to combine the parts into one song. Other times I will be fortunate to have a song just drop out of the sky fully formed; "Worn to the Bone" (from the DRM LP) was one of those.
TRR: What is your most memorable show?
MM: I think for both Phoenix and I, the highlight of the last couple of years was our performance at The Lincoln Memorial in June 2018. We were booked by a DC promoter to perform for 90 minutes, so we had an opportunity to bring nearly our entire catalog to the stage which, along with the setting itself, made for our first truly professional headlining opportunity.
On the other hand, we had a Baltimore area show on New Years’ Day 2018 which was an absolute wreck. I had committed to the show having been promised a follow-up performance in Philadelphia. Clearly, this was the ONLY incentive given.
So, we showed up at the “venue” which as some sort of whacky collective, the heating system was a woodstove in the farthest corner of the performance area. The vocal PA had a blown speaker, etc. There were hunting trophy’s lying around in the corners, boxes of donated clothes were spilling out everywhere, and it was filthier than you could possibly imagine. Needless to say, no one showed up, and the promised show in Philadelphia never materialized either.
TRR: What has been your craziest fan interaction?
Mike: Most of the strange stuff actually happens online. We had one person respond to our cover of "Superstition," by telling me Stevie Wonder was going to show up on my doorstep and punch me in the throat for wrecking his song, but Phoenix gets even stranger stuff. One person sent us a message and asked if he was a “midget” (their words not mine!) based on what he looked like in our videos, and another said he uses too much conditioner in his hair.
TRR: (laughing) Have you had a “Murphy’s Law” show?
Mike: Yep, our very last show. My amp fried out 10 seconds into our set, and since both my backup amps were in the shop, I was screwed. Had to borrow an amp from another band on the bill, and then that amp blew the fuse in the joint. We finally got the show going, but It was totally humiliating.
Yet, the worst gig was probably in 2015: It was an outdoor festival and it was raining, everything was soggy as hell. The band in front of us broke the stage lighting rig and ran overtime, so they made us use another band's backline, the only gear we were allowed to use was our own instruments. They also refused to allow our sound guy to work the board, and when he asked to provide guidance for our sound, they kicked him out of the venue and didn’t tell us. Then, they cut our set to 15 minutes. A totally miserable time. Actually, I can think of a number of super crappy shows in 2015.
TRR: What’s on the table for the rest of the year?
Mike: We have a lot of music being released this year. Our big event for the first half of this year will be the filming of our Raven Tree LIVE DVD and album, which will take place on Saturday, May 11 for release later in the year. This will be a 90-minute show featuring nearly our entire back catalog along with some of our new songs. In addition, we are re-releasing our debut album as a better representation of our original songwriting project. That will be released in two parts, with the album being split released as two EP’s. We also have an EP of new music coming out in the Fall, as well as an EP of Christmas covers, so, we expect to be pretty busy all year.
TRR: Anyone you’d like to give a shout out to or thank you to?
Mike: For myself I have to throw a huge shout out to my wife, yah! I know it sounds corny, but when I left corporate America that was a huge shift in our lives, and the fact that she didn’t walk out the door still amazes me. If it wasn’t for her, I never could have achieved what we have so far. Secondly, I’d like to recognize the role of Baltimore’s Matt Davis. I don’t think I will ever be able to express my appreciation strongly enough for his encouragement, inclusiveness, and support from day one. If it wasn’t for him, I am not sure how I ever could have launched this band. I am absolutely humbled by the friends and fans who have connected with us through our music. Their support is everything to us, without which there could be no Raven Tree.
TRR: Mike, I want to wish you and the band nothing but the best success and lets keep in touch.
Mike: Thanks, Kreig, and will do!
For further information about Raven Tree, check them