Grad Mike Tompkins (’08) is known all over the world thanks to his success on YouTube, producing music videos of himself performing top hits with only his voice and mouth. Mike’s mashup of Katy Perry and Bruno Mars “Teenage Dream & Just the Way You Are” is currently the #11 most liked video in YouTube history and he remains one of Canada's most viewed artists. This success has led him to television appearances on the Today Show, Canada AM and the Ellen Show, who introduced him to his greatest musical influence, (Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado producer) Timbaland. Impressed with Mike’s talent, they spent several months working together in the studio in Miami. Recently Mike visited London, and OIART’s Robert Breen spoke at length with him about life before, during and after OIART.
You've recently relocated to Los Angeles, California... how do you like life there so far?
I love LA and I miss it right now. I’m ready to go back. When I first visited I had a really bad experience going to Hollywood. I didn’t want to ever go back, but then I got the opportunity to meet with Maker Studios, who are in Venice, and got to really experience Venice and Santa Monica and I just fell in love with it. When they asked me to move there I thought, “Sure! Why not!” It’s just funny that in just one week my whole opinion completely changed.
I remember the first time I really spoke to you as a student was at an outdoor show, LOLA fest in London, and you said quite modestly that you beat boxed “a little.” Then you got up on stage with Shad and were absolutely fantastic, but you didn’t have designs on being the front man. What inspired you to do strictly voice and mouth recordings as an artist yourself and post them on YouTube?
The idea of having a viral internet video was intriguing to me, but I was really just trying to get my name out there as a producer. Living in London, Ontario obviously it’s hard to get your name out worldwide when you don’t have the opportunity to be out in LA or New York, or somewhere where there’s big artists. It kind of turned into this whole thing of me now being an artist myself, but that wasn’t the initial idea.
How many views are you up to now?
Last time I checked it was 85 million, it’s probably more now.
You hear people say sometimes, "well, all you've gotta do now is post a video on the internet and anyone can be a star." Obviously it doesn't work that way for everyone, but it did for you. Why do you think it blew up like it did?
I think for one my production value was a lot higher… not for the videos but the actual music. The other thing was doing popular songs and the timing, especially the Katy Perry thing (Teenage Dream - see link below). I released it the same week her Teenage Dream album came out and it turned out to be a massive selling album, especially that song… so the timing was really good. Later I was blogged about by Perez Hilton and it really took off.
Of all the opportunities that have come your way in the wake of your success, what stands out as the highlight of the last year or two of your life?
I just have lot of fun making music and making videos. It’s a lot of fun.
From a career standpoint, I learned so much from Timbaland. I hadn’t really been in a big recording session before. It’s a little different going in as a producer rather than an engineer. Not just being able to say I want to do things a certain way, but to learn from him and how he does things; what’s made him what he is.
What is it about his production style that really affected you?
I think it’s going down to the bare roots of, when you have an idea in your head you just get it down fast. He does a lot with his voice and mouth, and he affects his voice and puts it into a song. Pretty much every song he starts is just a mouth beat, him beatboxing. He builds a song around that. He’s not always sitting down at a sampler or a synth. He’ll go into a booth and bang on drums or plastic bottles or just anything he can find that makes noise. He makes it musical.
Even though you've demonstrated your Pro Tools, recording and production skills for a national television audience in recreating your video for “Dynamite” with the Today cast (see link below), people might be surprised to learn about your technical background. You were a studio operator even before you came to OIART. Take us back please and tell us a little about that...
Before I came to OIART my parents actually let me build a studio in the basement. They were supportive enough to let me reconstruct a room… so I was able to do a lot of recordings and I learned a lot. I was able to work with (Juno Award Winner) Shad, a band called Hue and another band called Elephant and a few other people…
You had considerable success. You're certainly the only student we’ve ever had with a Juno and Polaris Prize nominated album (Shad's "The Old Prince") while you were in school. You obviously came in with talent and a fair amount of experience and skill. What made you feel like you needed to go to audio school anyhow?
During that time I learned I could only get so far teaching myself how to do this, and that’s really what pushed me to go to OIART. My big dilemma was whether to invest my money in better gear for my studio or go to OIART and get the proper training. Luckily I made the right choice to go to OIART.
What made you pick OIART?
There were a few people I had known that had gone to OIART. Siegfried Meier obviously; I had looked up to him as a producer. He was making it work. He was the guy living in London and making a living as a producer. I knew he had gone there and done some teaching there. Guys like (Juno Engineer of the Year winner) Dan Brodbeck as well, who also went there. It was close to my family too, which was important to me.
How did the experience help you do what you do now?
I think for me it’s been everything. I can’t even pinpoint one thing. I mean, now my brain is just so full of technical knowledge that I just don’t even worry about the technical stuff anymore. It flows, rather than stifling my creativity with technical problems - I don’t really have them anymore! Everything just works! It’s the most important thing when you’re trying to create, to be able to focus on the music. I know how everything works. I know my gear. I know my tools… it’s basically my computer, but I know what’s inside it and how it works. I also learned how to talk to people and act like a professional, which has just helped with everything.
What happened immediately post-graduation?
Well, I went to Toronto to live the dream in the big city. I wanted to go into Post Production because the Post Production class at OIART was awesome, as was the rest of the program, but I applied at a bunch of Post houses and didn’t wind up getting a job. It wasn’t really discouraging, I was working at Long and McQuade in downtown Toronto and I had a lot of fun there.
I had the opportunity to move back to London when my wife got a job there, and it allowed me to put one year into trying to make this whole thing work. It was pretty much a year to the day when the first video went viral, and the rest is history. Kayla quit her job and we’ve basically been travelling for the last two years. I’ve been able to make a living at this.
So what sort of projects did you do for that one year of “trying to make it work”?
I actually did get a lot of Post Production jobs when I moved back to London, many for a company called Fire Trigger. I did a lot of sound design. I was also doing some music projects, some producing, then ultimately it led to making the YouTube videos.
You’re not really a stereotypical musician in this era… you haven’t played shows, you’re not making a big chunk of your income off T Shirts… do you even have a T Shirt???
I do have a couple designs. We have some merch. We’re revamping the store and making some really cool new shirts actually. Fortunately, I don't have to haul amps in and out of clubs and things like that. Actually, my first live show was on Ellen in front of millions of people! Ack!
You're preparing your own album of original material right now... can you give us a little update on the progress?
Yeah… it’s hard to say when an album’s done! I have my singles ready and I’m going to shoot four videos when I go back to LA this summer. I feel like I’m going to be working on my album for a while. I have enough songs for an album, but when it gets closer to the release date, I’ll call it finished then! Then you have to go through the promotion and all that stuff to get it going, get people listening, get reviews…
You mentioned that you have some unique plans for your live show... but can you talk a little about it? Should we expect to see Hologram Tupac?
Yes, the live show is in the works. I’m the producer of that as well and it’s a whole other baby. It’ll be a solo thing, it’s just me. I’m trying to pull in all the right people to make the whole thing happen so it’s shocking, not just musically, but amazing visually. If I’m going to perform live I want it to be the best representation for the fans to see of me. It has to be 10 times better than the videos.
It would appear you have made a lot of your dreams come true already, if perhaps in a way you didn't expect. Can you talk a bit about your future goals?
To be able to grow my following, and just have fun making music and videos.
Past that, I feel like I’m a music producer and songwriter first. I always want to be in music and in the studio. So that’s where I want to be, just creating music. To me it’s just really exciting that I have the opportunity to do that. I want to work with other artists eventually, but for now I want to focus on this, and not be distracted from the main goal of building this career I suddenly have.
Do you have any advice for future or current students?
Be open to anything. Don’t be too stuck in the career path you imagine. If I was too narrow minded in thinking Post Production was the only way, none of this would have happened. When I first graduated it was really important to me to develop all my skills, including things like video editing. So I’d say just be open to where things are going, and let your career develop from there.
Thank you Mike! Continued success and enjoy the sunshine and the beach in California!
Tell us about Maker Studios, who you’re working with now.
I don’t really work for them, I’m a partner. They provide full support for YouTube talent and personalities. I’m really the first music person they have taken on as what they call, “Top Talent.” They give me full support, which they don’t do for everyone. That includes label, publishing, management and a bunch of other things. They’re building me a studio. I’m really fortunate that way.
They make… You Tube videos? That’s their gig?
You Tube needs good content, so that’s why they’re there. The whole idea of it is a YouTube network, developing channels. They’re supported financially somewhat by YouTube, but mostly by what the talent is generating, which is really exciting. They are a talent run company - for talent by talent.
This is kind of a paradigm shift isn’t it?
Yes, they’re really making money which is exciting, and it’s sustainable.