For more than half his life, Mikey Wehling has been both a student and a teacher of the guitar. His musical gifts are no secret to those who grooved to his work in the jam/fusion sextet Messy Jiverson, or who bathed in the meditative smoothness of his own projects such as the Reverbs or Vandeventer.
But for the 37-year-old Wehling, the past year has presented him with a new teaching experience. Once a week he teaches a few students at the Missouri School for the Blind, and he quickly found that the practice of relying on visual cues of chord shape and strumming patterns would have to be adapted for his new pupils.
"Going into it, I sort of sold myself on that fact that I could do it — and sold them on it, too — but I previously had no experience in that field,"he says from the living room of the south-city home he shares with his dog Scout.
Wehling calls his weekly gig a "wonderful experience," one that is nourishing on both a musical and good-vibes level. "It's the kind of gig that you have where you leave feeling better than when you got there, and those are really hard to come by," he says.
Much like their sighted counterparts, Wehling's students at MSB wanted to learn some of the guitar-hero basics — he taught them drop-D tuning, which makes playing Nirvana's "In Bloom" a breeze. But there was variety among his five students, including a country music fan who wanted to learn George Jones songs. Wehling took him deeper to the source and taught him some licks by Doc Watson, the blind flat-picker and paragon of the form.
Wehling is winding down his first year at MSB on a high note — "everybody left wanting to come back next year, which is the least you can expect," he says with a laugh. But his time at the school yielded more than engaged students. A traipse through the music department's gear locker yielded some 1970s-era analog treasures that had long been moth-balled: among them a Univox SR-55 drum machine, the kind with no programming capabilities but a bevy of lo-fi patterns from Samba to Fox Trot, and an Ace Tone combo organ, a scaled-down keyboard resplendent in red Naugahyde.
Those instruments, a bundle of transistors and ancient technology by modern standards, provided the inspiration for Wehling's latest release, the all-instrumental Antique Electronique. The album is made up of fifteen tracks, none more than two minutes long and all of them based around the pre-set groove spat out by the Univox and embellished by organ. It's a funky, dusty trip into a deep-shag carpeted hotel bar with Wehling, bearded and grinning, behind the console.
What the album doesn't feature much of is guitar — though some quick-wristed, Chic-esque licks enliven the track "Daryl Porter" (named after the late Cardinals catcher whose baseball card stands sentinel on the controls of Wehling's parlor organ in his living room/studio space). For Wehling, the album was a way to stretch out without the use of his primary instrument and attempt to make something of value with an intentionally limited palette of analog gear.
"Acquiring all the knowledge and technical skill felt so great and has been a great thing to strive for, but then sometimes all of that — especially the technical ability on an instrument — can lead to too many options, too many colors to paint with, too much to think about or over-think about," he says of the guitar. "So when I moved to the keyboard, because I'm not a great keyboard player by any means, it forced me to have to use all of my abilities to create technically."
For Antique Electronique, he trimmed down five or six minutes of music into bite-sized chunks that emphasize the groove and melody, with little extraneous material left in.
"I wanted them to be long enough to be interesting but short enough to hold up upon repeated listens," Wehling says. "I really wanted to do instrumental music again; I wanted to go back to that. I feel like the current environment we live in, it's just a lot sometimes. I thought that some instrumental would be good for everyone."
Learning to cut out the noise has been a crucial journey for Wehling, who recently celebrated his 500th day of sobriety. He calls his sobriety the "best thing that's ever happened to me — it saved my life. Not to be scary or overdramatic, but I was in a real bad spot."
As someone with a tendency toward compulsion, he quickly found other prospects to occupy his time –organ-jams, for one, and a burgeoning collection of vintage Star Wars toys he bought after selling off his booze collection. And his trusty guitar is never far from his side, despite his brief dalliances on the black-and-whites.
"I feel like being sober and back into it, I'm practicing and playing guitar at a newfound level. I am feeling better on the instrument than ever," Wehling says. "Maybe I'm not quite as fast as I used to be — I try not to think about that — but I just think you get wiser with every experience."