Local Current Blog

Not just a Happy Apple: Mike Lewis on John Prine, Bon Iver, and his very own music

Mike Lewis plays saxophone with Bon Iver at Rock the Garden 2017 (Emmet Kowler for MPR)

“How the hell can a person go to work in the morning and come home in the evening and have nothing to say?”

That’s singer/songwriter John Prine. Well, that’s Mike Lewis quoting Prine’s song “Angel From Montgomery” while sitting next to me at a countertop. We’re nearing the end of an hour-long conversation, and I’ve asked him what’s so special about this Illinoisan songwriter. “Truth. The amount of truth in what he has to say,” he responds. I realize the lyric could be the driving question behind Prine’s whole life.

Lewis, a Minneapolis native, knew he wanted a career in music at age 10. He shared the news with his musician father the summer after sixth grade. “If you can smile with sad eyes,” he says, “my dad [did that].” As a teenager he open-enrolled at South High School to study under celebrated music teacher Dennis Malmberg.

In high school, Lewis found friends for life. “I was 15 years old when [bassist Adam Linz] drove me out to JT Bates’ house in his s—ty pickup. I was very fortunate he put me in that pickup. And that Dave [King] and I started playing when I was 17.”

I called Bates, part of the band Fat Kid Wednesdays with Lewis and Linz, and asked for his version of the story. “When you’re in high school,” he says, “and you’re into a niche or nerdy thing — like jazz music — you have to try to find people who are also into that.” His family often hosted musicians for jam sessions or rehearsals. So he invited Linz, who invited Lewis, and they had such a good time that they kept playing music, swapping records, and sharing meals for years thereafter. That first session, Bates says, was “one of those moments in your life when you couldn’t even possibly imagine the weight of it. Couldn’t have ever guessed that we’d still be friends and still making music 26 years later.”

Lewis plays bass with Alpha Consumer and guitar in his living room, but he’s best known for his chops on the saxophone. Tenor is his favorite: the most forthright and “the most malleable.” You can hear him over all recordings by contemporary jazz trio Happy Apple and experimental group Bon Iver.

Considering how little Lewis cares for spectacle, it’s funny he ended up in one of the Midwest’s most hyped bands. He’d been aware of Justin Vernon and the Eau Claire music scene about as long as he’d been a professional musician. He and Vernon finally met at one of the music festivals both Andrew Bird (who’d hired Lewis for tour) and Bon Iver played. They both performed in the Ryan Olson outfit Gayngs, and Lewis eventually joined Vernon’s band.

The first Bon Iver album to feature Lewis was the self-titled record from 2011, but recent album “22, A Million” bolsters the sax quotient with songs such as “29 #Strafford APTS” and “___45____.” The latter showcases a new instrument, the Messina: a hardware/software set-up that refracts melodies into voiceable harmonies. According to Lewis, “‘___45____’ is quite literally the first thing we did on it. We added to it later, but that whole front part was just me being out there. Vern was like, ‘You get in there. You play.’” When they started to grasp what it could do, Lewis says, “We looked at each other like, ‘Jesus Christ.’”

One of the biggest differences between Lewis and Vernon is Vernon’s ability to “let s— go.” With a Bon Iver record, Lewis says, “There’s a lot of paint getting thrown at the wall, and you decide what comes first later.” But Lewis struggles to work that way on his own. Even during our conversation, a tinge of irritation emerges when he can’t find the perfect words, and he’ll use a stabby “whatever” to cut himself off. He says that sharp self-critique is part of why he hasn’t realized a solo project.

However, Lewis has turned more attention to his individual music lately, and JT Bates couldn’t be prouder. “He’s an incredible musician so he’s given a lot of opportunities,” he says. Dusty Heart, an Americana band Lewis plays with, echo this sentiment: “Mike is positive, imaginative, and engaging. A master of many genres, his skill is reflected in how he plays — never too much or too little and always unique.” But Bates points out, “One thing that can slip by is making music for yourself. He’s finally putting some energy and focus toward what is truly inside of him. Finding out whatever that means, and maybe putting it into a record… I mean, hell yeah.”

Lewis isn’t one for pageantry. He dresses like any other casual 41-year-old; he doesn’t concern himself with maintaining a presence on the internet. He channels the entirety of his energy and emotion into his art, whatever form it may take, from Happy Apple’s nasty, nerdy jazz to Bon Iver’s squeaks and squawks.

By the end of our conversation, we’ve moved past niceties and biographical facts to discussions of ego, self-awareness, and this “wild time to be alive.” We close with Lewis’s opinion of John Prine: “He seems like a guy who’s drinking a bottle of beer and smoking a cigarette,” Lewis tells me, hands spread. “Just a plumber wanting a sink to work. ‘Can I fix that?’” He mimes a wrench gripping onto a pipe. “I’ve always admired that. Like, I don’t need some grand f—ing accolade [as a musician]. I just know this is right.”

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the September edition of The Growler.