Mike Shirley-Donnelly ~ Curious Quail

Mike Shirley-Donnelly

Mike Shirley-Donnelly

Mike Shirley-Donnelly and his indie orchestral rock band Curious Quail have started a gaming music revolution. Their most recent album After the Lights Failed was crowdfunded through a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign and is a hit with fans. Curious Quail has Mike Shirley-Donnelly on vocals, guitar and Chiptunes; Erin Keely on vocals and bass; Dr. Alan Chen on violin; Abe Myers on lead guitar and keyboards; and Joey Guthrie on drums and percussion.

When I asked Mike Shirley-Donnelly to tell me the band’s tips for a successful Kickstarter campaign, he explained, “It was a whirlwind. When we decided to do a third record, we decided to crowdfund it and see what happens. We asked for about $6,000 to cover the cost of recording. We hit $6,000 within the first week; we ended up capping the campaign at $10,000. We were blown away. We kept adding stretch goals, like a music video and documentary, both of which are almost done.”

The key to success turned out to be the campaign video: “We threw together a video for the campaign that said, ‘This is who we are; this is why we want to do this.’ Kickstarter staff loved it so much that they put us on the Staff Picks, so we were on the front page of the Kickstarter website for 2-3 weeks. Mix that with the fact that we were social media hounds, we were throwing it out everywhere. In week two, our guitarist Abe came up with the idea that we would match every dollar donation with pushups on camera. We did a lot of pushups and it hurt, but it totally paid off.”

Curious Quail - Alan and Abe JumpingI love the single The Villain, so I asked Mike to tell me more about the song: “There’s a little bit of a back story to that one. The records we released up to After the Lights Failed have all been part of this ongoing story. There’s a bunch of different characters that weave in and out. The Villain is involved with a catastrophe that eradicates most of the life on the planet. The album After the Lights Failed is about how these series of events play out. It’s convoluted, but the song is about regrets and being blamed for something that you didn’t want to happen, but you had intimate knowledge of it anyway. He’s in a really weird position and he’s losing his mind.”

So, After the Lights Failed tells a story in addition to being interesting music. The first record that Curious Quail released in 2009 called The Glow included some story elements. Their second record Instant Gratification released in 2012 was a concept album; it tells a story from start to finish. The album After the Lights Failed alludes to a lot of melodies and events that happened in Instant Gratification.

I listened to the song Instant Gratification and watched the video, and I love it. Mike Shirley-Donnelly explained that the video for Instant Gratification is live footage, crowdsourced from fans at various shows: “I asked them, hey, can we use this? And they said, ‘Absolutely.’ There’s footage from different shows and festivals and studio footage. It was a lot of fun.”

Curious Quail - Joey on drumsWow, that makes the video even more amazing. Throughout the entire video for both Instant Gratification and The Villain, the music is in synch with the footage. How does Mike do it? “Part of our sound involves this thing called Chiptunes, which is music created from video game hardware like the Nintendo Gameboy. That 8-bit sound is weaved into what we do. In order to perform live, we have to be synched in to the beat. When we look at live footage, we know that we’re actually playing that at exactly 150 beats per minute, so we can synch it our live music up with the video.”

I was surprised to learn that Mike Shirley-Donnelly is a self-taught musician: “I started playing guitar when I was 13 years old. I heard a Smashing Pumpkins song and I wanted to learn how to play guitar, because I wanted to do that. I have no formal training and I can’t read music, nor do the notation. I come up with ideas and write them onto guitar or Gameboy and put them into a computer. For the first two years of the band, it was just me. I was performing solo, looping stuff. Then, Joey, our drummer, stepped up. We grew from there. Alan, our violinist, is world class. I come up with an idea, and he charts it out and explains it to the other members of the band. I just write the stuff and they make it sound beautiful.”

We know that Curious Quail are social media hounds. So, how do they use social media to get the word out and raise lots of money? “Twitter is the best. Everyone talks about how Facebook is dead or consistently reducing organic Likes and organic reach. People are always looking for the next big thing, like Ello. For me, Twitter has always been the best way to interact with people, because there’s less of a barricade. You can tweet at anybody. They don’t have to respond, but the channel of communication is there. Just being good at Twitter is the best thing that a band can do.”

Mike continues, “A close second is Instagram, because it’s a social network dedicated entirely to visual elements. Everyone says that if you see a picture, you’re most likely to stop.”

Curious Quail - AFTER THE LIGHTS FAILED coverBecause Curious Quail has been successful producing their unique genre of music, I asked Mike for his advice to others: “The best thing you can possibly do is just be yourself. In 2008, I was sitting by myself with a computer and a guitar and a keyboard and a loop pedal. I wanted to mix violins with guitars and video game sounds. If I had thought that I wanted to be commercially successful, I probably would have done something else. I was really true to what I wanted to do and I was so passionate about it that Joey wanted to be in my band. These other people came to me, because they liked what I was doing. I think that level of honesty and drive can do wonders. If you are a new up-and-coming band, don’t wait for somebody to tell you what to do.”

What’s up next for Mike Shirley-Donnelly and Curious Quail? “We are playing two relatively large festivals in 2015. 8BitLA hosts a yearly event called FREQUENCY, which is down in Hollywood and is all video game music and music made with obsolete hardware. We’re playing that in late January. We’re also playing an event hosted by MAGfest, which is a huge video game and music festival on the East coast. They’ve expanded to the West coast and they’re having events in San Jose called ROCKAGE. We’ve played previous incarnations of ROCKAGE, and this year is going to be gynormous. We’ve also got some new music in the works.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d love to see Curious Quail live, so I’m crossing my fingers that they come up to the Pacific Northwest.

The Amused Now Featured Artist Series

Curious Quail - Mike and Erin performingMike Shirley-Donnelly, Curious Quail

Cynthia Kahn, Founder of Amused Now