Cover Story: Craig Mitchell Gets Naked
Our man Chris Parizo undresses the real Craig Mitchell and stands back while Craig gets naked and photographer Matthew Thorsen takes pictures of the action. Everybody wants to watch Craig Mitchell. And for good reason. He's a great singer, he's a great disc jockey, he's a great actor, he's a great writer. Hell, the man is great. Even the straight guys at Good Citizen are into Craig Mitchell.
Craig Mitchell stands on stage at a packed Club Metronome and gazes out towards the audience. His band for the evening is a collection of local musicians who were asked at the last minute to back Craig up for an impromptu jam to end a Saturday night DysFunkShun show. Unrehearsed but willing and able, the band is on fire.
"Alright," yells Craig to the audience. "Give me another!"
Someone yells back: "Morris Day!"
"You got it!" he replies.
Instantly, the band crashes into a cover of a classic by the Morris Day fronted eighties band The Time. Craig doesn't miss a beat as he glides into the lyrics of "Jungle Love." The audience explodes, knowing that none of what they are witnessing has been rehearsed... it was spontaneous and it was electrifying. And in the center of it all was the master of ceremonies, grinning from ear to ear as he scanned the sea of dancing bodies. At that very moment, Craig Mitchell was on top of the world.
It would be unfair to label Craig as just a singer. Over the years he has established himself as a singer, a song writer, a dancer, a dj, an actor and a poet, succeeding at all that he attempts. His techno nights at 135 Pearl have gained the attention of the rave crowd, while his Saturday night "Retronome" show at Club Metronome always delivers classic dance hits of the eighties and nineties. He is the frontman for the funk/dance band Orange Factory and co-owns and operates Orange Factory Studios, a recording studio located on College Street. He has also starred in his own "One Man Show," a theatrical event that gave him the opportunity to express his ideas on modern social issues.
Oh yeah, he also is heavily obsessed with Mark "Marky Mark" Wahlberg... so heavily obsessed that he once attacked a girl at a Marky Mark concert... but I'll get to that later.
Craig grew up Saginaw, a small suburb outside of Detroit, Michigan with his family. Craig has met his father only once. He tenderly refers to his hometown as the "armpit of America," a cess pool of what has become middle America; Saginaw was a racially divided area that reeked of gang violence and hate crimes.
"There was a designated black area and there was a designated white area, and no one went where they weren't suppose to go," Craig recalls. "You pretty much did the same things every night. You either went bowling, went to movies, hung out at the mall or stood outside the 7-eleven all night long. There really wasn't much else to do. You had to find something to do." Craig did eventually find something to do with his free time: he made music.
"When I was a kid I used to dj without realizing what I was doing. I would make these mix tapes... kind of like my own radio show. I would mix songs with interviews of some musician, like Michael Jackson or Prince. I would mix an interview with Prince over a song and pretend that I was the DJ, and make my own commercials." One of these was a commercial for Sprite Soda. He wrote a commercial jingle and alternated between saying slogans like "drink Sprite" and burping into the microphone.
So what are the odds of one of these tapes appearing as a Craig Mitchell b-side? "Uh... I really don't know where they are. My mom might have them."
Craig's mother was a strong influence on Craig's music career. She surrounded him with music and encouraged Craig to perform.
"I had all these toy instruments lying around the house when I was a kid. I had a toy drum set that I used to bang on and a toy piano. I just kept screwing around, banging away and shit."
He began writing complete songs by the age of eleven. At the age of sixteen, one of his songs was published and performed by a professional recording artist. He had begun making demo tapes of his songs and sending them to record labels. An artist by the name of Kathy Cox, who was signed to Rainbow Records, heard his tape and fell in love with a song titled "Forever Doesn't Seem So Long" and with Craig's permission, she recorded it and released it. However, she of course would have to make a few artistic changes.
"When the record was released I invited all my friends and family over to listen to it for the first time, I hadn't even heard it yet. So we got a record player and played the song." Everyone gathered at the Mitchell house, listened to the first recording of a Craig Mitchell composition. When the song began, everyone's mouth dropped. The tender slow-pop love ballad had somehow morphed itself into a country two-step ditty.
"They ruined my song, man!" he says today with a laugh. "I received $500 dollars for royalties and that was about it."
In high school, Craig was the center of attention when it came to music. He would put together shows at his school and call local acts to perform. They would get up on stage and play cover songs, with Craig doing impressions. "I used to get up there and do a mean Tina Turner, I'd put on a wig and dance around. I had people come up to me on the street and say: `hey, you're the guy who did Tina Turner the other night!' That was who I was known as."
He had a rather difficult time blending in with his surroundings. He was "never `black' enough to fit in with the brothers" so Craig decided to go on his own route and he adopted the appearance of a famous musician who, to him, was God.
"I went to a Prince concert with my grandmother. My grandmother was a huge fan, going around the house singing all his songs. He was `the man' to me at the time, the baddest motherfucker I had ever seen. But before I saw him in concert I hated him. I didn't get it. So I saw the show, and here was this little dude running around half-naked, stroking his guitar, spraying the audience with water... it was insane, so from then on I was like: `This guy is crazy! This guy is down!'"
A few weeks later, Craig could be seen walking around his high school in a pair of leather pants with his ass hanging out a hole in the back, and he grew out his hair and got it permed: "Man, I was the bomb!" he says with a laugh.
"Everyone was freaky in my town though," he continues. "Gang culture was huge, everywhere you looked there were gangs. So you used to have these brothers out on the street corners dressed in woman's clothing, just to piss off the rival gangs. It was like: `So here I am in a dress, and I'll still beat your ass. This is me dressed like a girl, and I dare you to come and kick my ass.' So I kind of blended right in."
When you live in a suburban area like Saginaw, Michigan, blending in is a good thing. You try to act like everyone else and not stand out in any way. If you were different, it should never be discussed. It was better to keep a secret, then to admit a "flaw." Craig, at the time, had a secret... he was gay.
"Homosexuality was just something that you didn't talk about in my town. You kept it hidden. No one wanted to be different. So there was no gay community in Saginaw. I wasn't exposed to it when I was a kid. I had never heard of `Gay Pride' or a gay parade. There was this one guy on the corner who was a fashion designer, and he was the only person on my block who was `out'. So I convinced my mother that he used to be gay, but now he's not because he found the Lord and blah, blah, blah. So I used to hang with this guy because I was interested in figuring out what the whole gay thing was, I wanted to know... and he hit on me. He tried to kiss me and I was like `NO!' I just bailed. It scared the shit out of me. So I just left."
However, this did not mean that Craig didn't experiment.
"I remember after basketball practice, the team would be in the locker room and we would, ya know, fool around. We didn't view it as anything homosexual, it was like just screwing around. So we would do that and then go out and pick on gays. It was strange.
I had a lot of friends who were in gangs, that was another way of experimenting sexually. Like, you would have to `perform' on someone in the gang and then let them kick the shit out of you, it was a part of initiation."
Craig knew back then, whether he would admit to himself or not, that he was gay. However, Saginaw wasn't exactly the place to "come out of the closet," so he continued having girlfriends and waited for the opportunity to come where he could finally open up... and he found it in Vermont.
In 1989, Craig packed up his things and left for school at Saint Michael's College in Colchester, Vermont. Craig been promised a minority scholarship from his high school guidance counselor. Upon his arrival, Craig realized he was in a completely different environment.
"My first reaction was shock! I mean, this place was crazy. There was a white dude with dreadlocks here! Burlington had more excitement, more culture, more diversity, this place had more to offer then Saginaw ever did. It was the complete opposite of Michigan.
"My family has only been here once. For graduation, this motorcade of Cadillacs pulled into town. My whole entire family showed up. They stayed in their hotel rooms the entire weekend and only came out for the graduation ceremonies. I took my Aunt out once to go shopping, but that was pretty much it. After graduation was done, they went straight back to their hotel rooms. They were pretty freaked out [by Vermont]."
Craig felt that he could finally be himself and be accepted in Burlington. He did not hide his homosexuality, he found others in the area who were the same as him and also discovered Pearl's, which at the time was strictly a gay bar. But it wasn't until his sophomore year that he finally told his family about his homosexuality.
"I went home for Christmas break and was so nervous, I didn't say a thing until my last day. I wrote this letter to my mom that just said everything I needed to say, stuff like I wouldn't call her when I got back to Vermont if she needed time to think about it. I wrapped the letter up like a Christmas present. We were sitting in the driveway, ready to go to the airport to catch my plane, and I said: `Oh wait... I forgot something!' I ran back inside and put the present on my mom's bed... then left."
Fearing that his family was going to disown him, Craig boarded his plane and flew home. He had pretty much figured that he had broken his mother's heart, but when he arrived back in Vermont his answering machine was filled with messages from his mother, "Call me! Call me!"
"She was cool with it, although a little weird about it. I mean, the whole family already knew, it was pretty obvious to them. She was always nicer to my guy friends when I was a kid then my girlfriends. She had a picture of my best friend (male) on the wall, she was overly friendly to all my guy friends and was kind of like (nonchalantly) `oh hey' to my girlfriends. She knew all along... she was just waiting for me to say something."
The minority scholarship that he was promised by St. Michael's never came through, so Craig had to turn to his talents in order to make cash for college, He began to work as a disc jockey at Pearl's.
Today, 135 Pearl is a popular dance club that has a loyal following of gay and straight patrons. Almost every night, one can expect the area's best djs to spin their own style of techno and dance music through a great sound system, and dance under a pretty cool lightshow... this however has not always been the case.
When Craig first started spinning at 135 Pearl it was then known as Pearl's, a gay bar that was the object of much criticism and hatred from the community. The inside was a disaster. The sound system consisted of a turntable with two crappy speakers that sounded terrible and the dance floor lighting consisted of one disco ball in the center of the room. At the time, there was no such thing as a "rave scene" and techno music was as underground as underground could get. Craig was one of the very few people in the area who were capable of spinning techno. Today, the Burlington techno scene is a lot bigger and a lot stronger then it was seven years ago. Craig credits local disc jockeys like Twist, Little Martin and Roberto for taking the music to the next level within Burlington.
The respect is mutual and Craig's spinning skills have been lauded by many other disc jockeys.
A couple of years ago, Anne Rothwell, owner of Club Metronome, was looking to book some sort of party band for her Halloween celebration at the club. She went to Jeremy Skallar, keyboardist of the band Belizbeha, to put together some sort of fun party band that could tear the roof off of the club. Jeremy recognized the talent of Craig and asked him to help him set everything up. The two formed a cover band and named it Orange, after the color that is so commonly connected with Halloween. The show was such a success that the band decided to continue making music together. Today, the band is called Orange Factory. With the hectic schedules of the current members, Orange Factory shows are a rarity. Craig and Jeremy are joined by Robert Larow on guitar, Mark Robohm on drums (also in Belizbeha), John Hill on bass, Chad Hollister and Kether Darchuam on percussion. Recently, Craig Mitchell and Orange Factory signed a management deal with the Burlington based As One Management, who also represent such Burlington based soul/funk/pop/ groove artists like Belizbeha and Rebecca Simone. The band will release their first full length album, Naked, early next year even though the album has been recorded for over a year. Why has the album taken so long to release?
"No comment..." says Craig, "legal shit."
What Craig doesn't want to talk about is an ill-fated record deal with Sojo Music, a local production company now relocated to Atlanta. The company held up the release so many times that even the local press started asking questions about the album. Craig smartly brushes such negativity aside and prefers to focus on the future. Even if, to him, the album seems a part of the past.
"The album is going to be different," he says. "I have a difficult time explaining it to people. It's different than what people are going to expect from this dance band. It's pretty chill, I think people are going to be pretty surprised by what they get. I think it's great. It is going to freak out a lot of people. The only problem is that I am kind of tired of it, I have been listening to it everyday for over a year now. I'm constantly writing and recording new material, so two months after this gets released we might come out with something else." (A recent live recording of Orange Factory was done while Craig was completely naked on stage.) "There are a couple of dance tracks on the record, one spoken word piece, but a lot of it is down tempo sort of stuff. It is a lot different than the live show, more experimental."
(And for those of you who have been patiently waiting for the release of the CD... we are pleased to announce that Naked will be released on December 18 with a party at Club Toast. You might want to be there!)
A hot selling point for Naked was going to be the CD art. Craig invited a photographer to come to a private get together and take photos of an entire crowd of Orange Factory fans...naked. Unfortunately, when Craig bought the rights to the record back from Sojo, they did not include the photographs as part of the deal. Still, it isn't hard to find a naked Craig Mitchell. Craig is very comfortable with his body and the entire concept of nudity. "I think that if you hang around with people that are naked, you start looking at each other as they really are. You are no longer wondering what people look like, you know. After a while you just get comfortable with it."
When Craig talks about his life, music and his family, he glows with such delight that I thought could never be outshone, but I was wrong. Craig nearly bursts into flames when the name "Marky Mark" comes into a conversation.
"He is so fine," he says, practically melting into his seat. "I saw him on Oprah once, and Ijust started weeping. He is just so beautiful. I swear to God that I'm not like a stalker, I just have this (sick) fascination for him."
The recent film Boogie Nights, starring Marky Mark Wahlberg and Burt Reynolds, portrayed Wahlberg as a 70s era porn star who has a lot going for him... specifically thirteen inches.
"I really don't know what it is... I've got all these pictures of him that I got off the internet. He's just so beautiful."
Craig's admiration for Mark Wahlberg has lead to at least one violent situation. At a concert a couple of years back, Mark incited a mini-war between Craig and a girl in the audience.
"The show was cool, ya know, the pants were down and everything. And Mark threw a towel into the audience. This girl next to me grabs it and I'm thinking `I'm never gonna see this girl again' so I started to whack her in the back of the head... BUT I DID IT SOFTLY!!! So some guy saw me hitting this girl and starts punching me in the back of