Boy interrupted

Mike Farrell stared down the days, months and years lost—but instead of weeping, he gently turned to his guitar

Mike Farrell, photographed at work—or at play?—at Cheap Thrills. Check out his debut solo release, Devil May Care, at <a">

Mike Farrell, photographed at work—or at play?—at Cheap Thrills. Check out his debut solo release, Devil May Care, at

Photo By Larry DALTON

It was September 27, 2008, and Mike Farrell, only four days clear of turning 40, faced a twofold quandary. The Sacramento musician, known for his guitar finesse in bands such as Sex 66, Persephone’s Bees and Th’ Losin Streaks, didn’t want to grow up, didn’t want to mature, didn’t want to be responsible.

But he also didn’t want to die.

And at the rate that he was going with the drugs, the heroin to be specific, Farrell knew he might not live to see another day, let alone grow up.

“Bad things were happening on that last run. People were dying, going off to jail, and I just knew it was a matter of time before one of those things happened to me,” he says with weary half-smile.

“I didn’t want to be 40 years old and still a junkie. It was just the thought of ‘How pathetic is that?’”

So Farrell, who’d already been through numerous rehab programs during his adult life, quit cold turkey, holing himself up for two weeks at a friend’s house in Nevada City and then, when he finally felt like he could manage on his own, heading back to his Midtown apartment for another two weeks of self-imposed therapy.

“I didn’t want to go to rehab again. I didn’t want to put myself through that again—a year of inpatient care and then another year of outpatient,” he says. “I knew if I could just get myself past the hurdle, get past the cravings.”

Now, nearly a year later with his 41st birthday fast approaching, Farrell sits outside Old Soul’s Weatherstone coffeehouse in Midtown. Dressed in a mustard-yellow T-shirt and slim-fitting pants, he cuts a slight figure, all angles framed by a shock of dark hair and emphasized with big, piercing eyes and a heart-shaped chin.

With a new record completed, his first and only solo album in more than two decades of playing music, Farrell says he’s got the will to move forward without ever, mind you, actually growing up.

Of course, everlasting youth can be a pain, he says, especially when those around you shift into the adult world, taking on all its complicated responsibilities.

“In high school, it was a no-brainer to be in a band, because you had so much free time. But now people have grown up, except for me. I never grew up,” he says.

“I’m having to pull people back down to my immature level.”

Farrell is very emphatic about this notion, and although on the surface this insistence comes off as something of a joke, it’s also a recurring theme in Farrell’s music and, as such, seems like more than just wry humor or even a way to deflect the inevitable. Perhaps it’s a survival method, a way of staring down all the days, months and years already lost to drugs.

Farrell almost quit rock ’n’ roll, but to get to that part of the story you first have to go back more than 20 years, when Farrell, growing up in south Sacramento, nurtured a love for rock, practicing air-guitar moves in the mirror.

He never really thought he could actually sing.

“I don’t have a rock ’n’ roll voice,” he says, shifting his tone into a falsetto to demonstrate the ideal rock-singer pipes: high, screamy, intensely passionate.

A friend introduced him to the Velvet Underground, and Lou Reed’s thin but cool voice convinced Farrell that one’s lack of range can more than be made up for with showmanship, lyrical finesse and, of course, inherent cool.

Still Farrell, who attended Hiram Johnson High School before dropping out in the 11th grade, was mostly content to just be the guitar player—the sidekick, the guy in, as he describes it, “the shadows.”

“I’ve always been able to hide in other people’s bands; it’s so easy to just be the guitar player.”

But anyone who’s ever seen Farrell play guitar—leaping and bounding across the stage as if gravity were merely a suggestion—would hardly accuse him of being a wallflower. Even onstage with Tatiana LaTour, his ex-girlfriend and longtime cohort in the quiet, bossa-nova-tinged Daisy Spot, Farrell is charismatic and captivating.

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Still, Farrell says, he doesn’t feel as though he’s the center of attention.

“I can just be the guy who’s trying to show—it takes the pressure off.”

But last year, as he emerged from his state of rehab, Farrell wasn’t sure if he even wanted to be the sidekick anymore. Even that, he decided, was too much.

“I cleaned up and I thought that maybe I don’t want to do this anymore—I’m kind of old now, maybe I’ve duked it out long enough and haven’t really gotten anywhere.”

He considered a career in drug counseling and set about visiting his old therapists. One clinic director told him about a counseling program, but on the day Farrell planned to trek out to American River College to sign up for some required psychology classes, he received a phone call from Persephone Bee’s singer Angelina Moysov that changed his mind.

Moysov told him the band had a chance to play Paris and, immediately, Farrell realized he’d narrowly escaped a close call with the wrong side of fate.

“That very quickly turned me around. I looked at it as though the universe must be screaming at me: ‘Wait a minute—what are you doing, you stupid schmuck?’”

After the European jaunt, rock ’n’ roll spirit renewed, Farrell set about finally finishing his album, recording songs new and old. Some tracks date back as far back as the early ’90s, and although many are drug-induced, Farrell says he probably wouldn’t be here without them.

“With songwriting, it’s like each song I wrote was like visiting the fountain of youth—it bought me more time,” he says. “That period was completely drug-hazed, but it was a survival method.”

Andy Lawler stepped in to fund Devil May Care. Lawler’s been a Farrell fan since 1998, when he first caught a Sex 66 gig and started helping the musician soon after that show, promising to support the solo endeavor.

“We started doing this when Mike wasn’t in the best place,” he says. “But I made a commitment to Mike—it just took 10 years.”

So why keep on taking a chance on a guy with a history like Farrell’s? A guy with a track record of repeated trouble and relapses?

“I believe in salvation,” Lawler says. “With his ups and downs with drugs, this was the last time he was going to have the chance to do something like this. He got clean and did the record, and it turned out beyond my expectations.”

While the album doesn’t capture Farrell’s live exuberance, it does offer a glimpse at a different side of the musician. There’s sardonic, self-deprecating humor (“Ain’t It Funny (Not Much Better)”); sexy, bombastic rockers (“Devil May Care”); and Pete Doherty-esque sonic benders (“Rock ’n’ Roll Letdown”).

The album’s loveliest song is “Near Death Experience,” a John Lennon-worthy soft-pop ballad. There is also the pretty “Mirage, Mirage,” which borrows a bit of that Brazilian-pop aesthetic from Daisy Spot, only to marry it with Farrell’s haunting, ethereal vocals on the simple refrain: “Should’ve known, should’ve known, should’ve known / so many sleepless nights.”

Dana Gumbiner, who co-produced the record with Farrell, says the recording sessions were relaxed, fun and spontaneous.

“Mike brought a lot of uninhibited energy to the process and was all about the first takes and the happy accidents,” he says. “I had to keep tape rolling constantly when Mike was near his guitar or I’d miss something unrepeatable.”

Gumbiner, who has known the musician for years, says that, of course, there is always the fear that his friend will slip back into old, bad habits.

“I do worry, but I think it’s a rational reaction. Mike himself understands that he’ll be an addict for the rest of his life and his health requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline,” he says. “Although I’m grateful for how much progress he’s made and am totally proud of him, as his friend I’d be naive to ignore the risks. And he knows that, and knows that his friends keep an eye on him, check in on him.”

Farrell is also all too aware of the risks; once you get past the rehab and the therapy and the cravings, he says, there are still the underlying causes to think about.

“Why am I of this makeup?” he says.

There’s no easy answers, Farrell says, only the determination to move ahead. He’s cut his hours working at Cheap Thrills and assembled a band featuring Liani Moore, Shawn Hale and Mike Curry. He plays guitar in his old friend Danny O’Grady’s blues band, anything to keep music as his central focus—a career, but also a safer release for all those demons.

“I have no excuses. It’s not like I have a shitload of time anymore.”