‘It was like survival’: Mike Vinopal discusses Local Motive’s new album and his ties between music, mental health
The new Local Motive full-length album “Slice of Life,” released in late December, doesn’t pull any punches. With a poignant voice memo from Arlington Heights native Mike Vinopal’s late grandfather as a gateway, the 10 tracks take listeners on an emotional journey through anguish, growth and, eventually, joy.
The 90-second clip, which runs over whispers of instrumentation (some pulled from the band’s last release), is quite a heavy jump for a band that describes itself as bouncy and jubilant, “shaking butts since 2012.” But it also tells listeners to warm up for some vulnerability.
“There’s a lot of depth to it,” said Vinopal, the band’s co-founder and primary songwriter. “There’s a lot of emotion there that we are celebrating. We want to feel alive. Rather than being morose and sad about it, we want to really keep it funky.”
“Slice of Life” plays out on a few different levels, he said, referring to the sometimes devastating cuts and pains of life. But it also looks deeper at a cross-section of existence. It plays with surface emotions, but also examines the layers beneath, exposing the deeper feelings we don’t always express. It touches on family and loss, but it circles back to Local Motive’s hallmark exuberant sound.
“Every time we put out a piece of music, as a band we’ve thought, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great to pay tribute to the people that shaped us, the people that made us who we are?'” Vinopal said.
Along with the music, the album art manifests that concept as Vinopal stands before a gallery of framed photographs of band members’ families.
“In it I am reflecting, and I think we all are trying to make sense of the last couple of years and trying to move forward,” he said. “I think the record ultimately begins in this place of anguish and grief. But the theme ultimately is growth and celebrating that we are still here and that we are still alive, and it leaves you with a feeling of joy in the last couple of tracks.”
Local Motive’s lineup has shifted some in its 10 years, but last week the band — Vinopal along with co-founder Matthew Sypherd of Bartlett on trumpet, Alex Willhite of Westmont on trombone, Todd Gutner on drum kit, Alex Subak on vocals, Elijah Medina on bass and Paul Aplington on guitar — celebrated the new release at Arlington Heights’ Hey Nonny with its bold and brassy, funk-inspired jams.
Vinopal also gets to play a different style of music as lead guitarist in Gutner and Subak’s post-garage rock band badcandy.
“They’re very different palettes that you’re working with. Local Motive is the band that I frequently write the songs that come from my soul. And it’s very much more rhythm and blues,” he said. “(badcandy) is like a whole different set of paints to work with because it’s Alex’s songs. … Darker, more alternative rock sounding music that I really love just as much because the outlet serves a different kind of function. It allows different feelings to come out.”
For Vinopal, expressing his feelings through music has been his key to a quality life. As a teen, he said he struggled with racing thoughts and feeling different in how his mind worked.
“I never felt weird whenever I was doing music. I felt very at peace. I felt very much like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing,” he said. “And without the vocabulary or understanding of what was going on inside of me, I think I spent as much time as possible at it once I found music, just because it made me feel better than I felt when I wasn’t playing it.”
Music helped him reset a baseline for his emotions as he navigated his mental health, he said.
“Writing songs and seeing what came out of me was just so comforting. And it worked so well that, as I started to understand that coping skill and that outlet, that creating this type of art was natural and comforting to me, it became even more valuable. I just don’t know what I would do without music, really,” Vinopal said. “Music stuck because I think, without realizing it, it was like survival.”
Mental health and self-expression have been paramount in his life, through his career as a special-education teacher for the Chicago Public Schools and as a mental health advocate and educator for Hope for the Day, teaching suicide prevention techniques through music.
More recently, he and his wife, Erin, have been working with the Hope for Us Network, an organization dedicated to addressing risk factors for mental health crises. They are in season two of hosting a biweekly discussion show — “The Tomorrow Show” — on Twitch. The show is also archived on The Hope For Us Network’s YouTube channel.
“It’s pretty light, affirming stuff. We search for goodness and a bunch of different ways to try to talk about how important community connection is, even if it’s just a digital community that you’re a part of, and we try to show that you can intersect with mental health through any topic,” he said. “We’re talking about going to Ren Faire and dressing up like kings and queens. That’s self expression. You need to find your community, your tribe of weirdos that gets you and that you can feel safe and like to be yourself around. So that’s been pretty fun.”
Vinopal, who said he also has a collection of personal music that doesn’t necessarily fit Local Motive’s vibe, is leaning into his solo act as well. Friday, Jan. 20, he plays a Songwriters Night at 7:30 p.m. at indie venue The Red Room, 1711 N. Honore, Chicago. Later in January, his performance at The Bunker Studio will be streamed on YouTube. And he hopes to drop a solo album sometime this spring.
But for now, he’s enjoying the warm reception to Local Motive’s new release.
“It’s unique and original on its own,” he said. “It just feels familiar. In that way, I want it to wrap around you and kind of just hug people when they’re listening to it. You know, like a musical hug.”