On a random Wednesday in December, I decided to meander down to Louie's Trophy House Grill to participate in Open Mic Night, not having done so for months. After ordering the first of my standard Bell's Two Hearted Ale pre-game beers, I sat down with host Megan Dooley to chit-chat for a bit and catch up on life. But before too long, she let me in on this particular night's little secret.
“You picked a good night to come out,” she said. “Stephen Lynch is going to be here.”
I talked with Lynch, and it turns out that for some time, he and his wife had been living in both New York and Kalamazoo, splitting their time between the two cities. But about four-and-a-half years ago, they found themselves less-than-thrilled about going back to New York and wondering, “Why don't we just live where we want to live?” So they sold their house out east, bought a house in The Zoo and have been full-time residents ever since.
Accordingly, Lynch had met local favorite Megan Dooley and was familiar with the open-mic night she hosted at Louie's. He reached out to her when he had some new songs and asked if she could quietly fit him on the bill in order to test them out. So she penciled him in at 9:40 p.m. under the pseudonym Chazz McGruff.
“I wanted to try out some material that's just been sitting up in my office and torture chamber for the last couple of years hiding, and I had never played any of these songs for any living, breathing human beings,” Lynch said.
He then decided that debuting these pieces at a musical open mic would allow for less pressure and more of a surprise than a comedy open mic.
“I wanted sort of the expectation of no expectation, just being a guy who's just going to play a couple tunes, like everybody was that night,” he said.
Lynch had a quiet few years since the release and subsequent touring of his last release, Lion, an album he described as a labor of love. It not only changed the way he wrote and the way he approached songwriting in general, but also resulted in a collection of songs that he genuinely liked and was proud of. But it was exhausting too.
“(I) put a shitload of work into that one, then we toured on that thing for (about two-and-a-half years) and it culminated with the recording of the special (Hello, Kalamazoo) that I did,” Lynch said. “So when it was done, I was like, 'Oh my god, now I have to do this all over again.' It was a daunting and bleak future I saw in front of me, because I had nothing. I had no ideas.
“I had a lot of music, but I didn't feel particularly funny.”
It took a while before Lynch could get back in the groove, but once he did, it went relatively quickly. He hammered out eight or nine songs over the course of just a few months. With some new material under his belt, he decided it was time to bring on the funny.
“It's been like three years since I toured and I didn't want to go on the road just playing the old shit,” he said. “It's not a greatest hits tour — it should be some of the new and some of the old.”
Lynch doesn't follow musical convention when it comes to releasing a new record, then touring to support it. Instead, given the comedic nature of his material, he likes to first take his new songs on the road to see how they are received by live audiences. Then he can tweak them as the tour progresses.
“I go out and I do a couple legs of a tour and I try out all this new stuff,” he said. “I fix it as I go when I see what works and what doesn't work. Then when I get home, I go record it. By that time, people have already heard it, but I get the best versions of every song.”
While he has both plans and enough material for a new, full-length album, Lynch admits that he never truly knows how things will play out.
“I may have to whittle it down to an EP. You never know,” he said, laughing. “I think it's good stuff. I'll find out. Reality could punch me in the face the very first night of this tour, but, you know, it makes me laugh, so f*** it.”
1130 Wealthy St. SE, Grand Rapids
February 13, 7:00 p.m., $30.50
grcmc.org/theatre, (616) 459-4788