By Angela Barbuti
Michael Bacon on a musical life and playing in the band with his movie star brother
When Michael Bacon isn’t rollerblading in Riverside Park, he can be found in his studio on West End Avenue making music with his brother Kevin. Their band, The Bacon Brothers, is playing a show at City Winery April 25 and 26.
Besides playing music, Michael Bacon writes the scores for documentaries, including an upcoming HBO project on Richard Nixon. He also wrote the music for the feature film Downtown Express, which is coming to New York in mid-April.
You grew up in Philadelphia?
My parents were urban pioneer types. They wanted to raise their kids in the city rather than the suburbs, which most people didn’t really approve of. My dad’s family has a long historical connection to Philly. We actually grew up right in the middle of the city. My mother is from New York City.
When did you know you wanted to be a musician?
I didn’t think, until I went to college, that it was possible—it wasn’t a profession most people went into. Then the late ’60s came and the philosophy was “do your own thing.” I just said, “This is what I like to do, so I’m going to try it.”
Which musicians inspire you?
It’s hard to answer that question because I’m not just a rock ‘n’ roll musician; I’m also classically trained and I love folk music. My favorite musicians might not even be rock bands. I was brought up with The Beatles and The Stones, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger—but also Stravinsky and Bach. We had a very eclectic upbringing. My parents just loved the arts and they loved music. They never played, but they certainly encouraged any kind of creative expression in the kids.
How did you start working with Kevin?
He played percussion in my band when he was about 14. I was out of college by then and in a group that played around Philadelphia. That group broke up and I was playing by myself with a backup band, and he was in that band. My brother and I used to write a lot together, but since Kevin’s skill level has gone up, he doesn’t really need me. He has his own studio. But the band is a good excuse for us to hang out. We spend a lot more time together than if we didn’t have the band; we’re busy and we have families.
Who are the other members of The Bacon Brothers and how did you find them?
When I first came to New York in the early ’80s and started to score films, I met a group of musicians who did sessions for me. They worked for the folk singer Tom Rush. When I opened for Rush in Philly, I saw them perform and was impressed with the way they backed up an acoustic singer. When Kevin and I decided to put the band together, I immediately thought of them.
What is your educational background?
I never took formal music classes until 13 years ago—I just had lessons and studied privately. Around ’92, I went back to Lehman College in the Bronx. One of the teachers there is John Corigliano, an amazing Academy Award-winning composer. I really went there to study with him and got my degree finally after all those years.
What projects are you involved with currently?
I’m writing the music for an HBO program about Richard Nixon called Nixon: In His Own Words. It’s extremely challenging. They only have interviews, so the music becomes very important in telling the story. It’s all put together with pre-existing footage. They release a certain amount of Nixon tapes every once in a while and there was a just a new batch let out. This is the third one I’ve done. The first one was Teddy Kennedy, then Gloria Steinem. I also have a feature film that I was composer and music director for which is coming to New York City on April 20 called Downtown Express; it tells the love story of a concert violinist at Juilliard and a street musician.
You work with your wife and your brother. What is the key to successfully working with family?
Whatever negatives are outweighed by trust. My brother and I have a business together and my wife is a partner in it as well. You begin with a level of trust and you’re at a much better starting point. My wife Betsy and I have worked together for 18 years. She does all the day-today management of the film scoring and the band, and is also the prime critic of my work. When I’m in a jam, I rely on her ears.
When did you know Kevin was going to be famous?
He was in Animal House first and then had to go back and work in a restaurant. Then he got the part in Diner. It really was a very successful alternative, indie
kind of movie. That’s when he really started taking off.
How did you end up on the Upper West Side?
When we first came to New York in the ’80s, it was almost impossible to even get an apartment. My brother was living on 88th Street and an apartment came open above him. Once you settle in a certain neighborhood, you connect with it and really don’t want to leave. I love the Upper West Side; it’s just gotten better and better.
What are your favorite places in your neighborhood?
The Riverside Park jogging trail. I rollerblade, so going up and down there is an amazing gift. We live on West End Avenue so we feel like we live on the beach, especially in the summer. And of course we are right between that and Central Park, and 10 minutes from Lincoln Center.
Tags: 60's, Animal House, Bach, Betsy Bacon, City Winery, Diner, Downtown Express, Gloria Steinem, Gordon Lightfoot, HBO, John Corigliano, Joni Mitchell, Julliard, Kevin Bacon, Lehman College, Michael Bacon, New York City, Pete Seeger, Philadelphia, Richard Nixon, Riverside Park, Stravinsky, Ted Kennedy, The Bacon Brothers, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Tom Rush, Upper West Side, West End Avenue
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