A young Todd Michaelsen came to NYC via the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. He had just quit college and knew that he needed to be in a place where things were happening. His goal was to expand his horizons, so he crashed on his uncle’s couch on the lower east side, soaked up music and read every book he could get his hands on while taking in the excitement of the big city. Todd soon found himself hanging out with musicians, artists and DJs in Brooklyn’s burgeoning art rock scene. It was there that he met Reena Shah, a beautiful Indian dancer and actress.
The two became inseparable and quickly moved in together, their blossoming romance punctuated by the harsh reality of living in a cold water flat in a rough neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn. A shared love of music and art got them through this stressful period. They may have been dead broke but they were falling in love and exploring new ideas. Their luck changed when they went to Mumbai to visit Reena’s relatives. It was Todd’s first trip to India and he was amazed by the experience. The couple explored Jain temples and saw live music, dance and the martial arts of Kerala. After two months in India, Todd proposed to Reena on a beach overlooking the Arabian Sea.
Upon returning to New York, the couple formed My Pet Dragon as a music and dance duo. Their encounters in India heavily influenced Todd’s songwriting—rock fans and DJs, alike, embraced their debut album, First Born. A remixed version of the song Dragon Breath was played on BBC radio and the album and subsequent tour received rave reviews. First Born also caught the ear of acclaimed DJ and producer Karsh Kale, who had Todd write and sing three songs on his 2006 album Broken English and appear on Breathing Under Water, his 2007 collaboration with Anoushka Shankar. Todd and Reena worked together again on 2009’s award winning animated feature film Sita Sings the Blues, with Todd composing the score and original songs, and Reena voicing the title character.
All of this activity led Todd and Reena to Producer Stephen George. Blown away by First Born and a demo of Todd’s new compositions, George offered to produce and release the next My Pet Dragon record on his newly formed label, Gimme That Sound Productions. Recorded in a barn located in the Catskills, the new recordings feature Danny Louis (Govt. Mule), Carlos Anthony Molina (Mercury Rev), Carl Jason Molina (Hurricane Bells, Longwave), as well as members of MPD’s current six-piece touring band, Rajeev Maddela, Mario Padron, Vincent Mascolo and Anthony Rizzo. The recordings were inspired by classic and contemporary artists such as Radiohead, Flaming Lips, Smashing Pumpkins, Beach Boys and Neil Young but invoke a unique ethereal sound driven by Todd’s frenetic guitar strum and melodic tenor voice. Combining elements of rock, pop, electronica, folk and experimental music, My Pet Dragon released a maxi single entitled Lover in Hiding this spring,. Subsequent singles and a full-length album are planned for later in the year.
How do you describe your music to people, Todd?
My Pet Dragon's music is big, melodic rock. We are a song-driven band that is heavy on the vocals. We layer voices and guitars in an aggressive yet ethereal way. The songs have a range of emotion to them. Some are soft and sweet, others are biting and howling. We are about connection and throwing away ignorance and letting all the color bleed. But it all sounds like My Pet Dragon!
Tell me about how you originally got into your craft.
I fell in love with music at an early age. I remember playing and wearing out my parents' records when I was 4 years old. I listened to Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" and Michael Jackson's "Thriller" over and over again. I loved looking at the artwork and photos in the album jacket while the music was playing. Music was always a big part of my family gatherings and my upbringing. My aunts and uncles got me into Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix by the time I was ten.
In high school, I sang in the school chorus and played trumpet in the school band. Then I met this kid Junior year who played guitar and it completely mesmerized me. He could play anything on the radio, which at the time was all things modern rock and grunge. So I learned "Disarm" by the Smashing Pumpkins because it was only a few chords. I sang along with the guitar and boom - my whole world was changed! I had found my calling. I started learning more songs and eventually started making up my own. I stopped caring about the other aspects of school and life and just totally found myself in the guitar and in music. So by the time I went to college my mind had other ideas about my life's path. College was a doomed endeavor. I knew I had to be where the most music was - New York.
What is your favorite thing to do in the whole wide world?
Well, besides writing a new song in the high of a manic phase (nothing beats that) and playing shows with my band, I guess traveling to new places with [my wife] Reena. We LOVE to travel. We do not enjoy being stagnant in one place for very long! We have to move. I love traveling with her.
What is your biggest challenge when it comes to running your business?
The biggest challenge is letting go. You've done everything you could do that day. Play your song and enjoy the music. Focus on the music. The rest will follow.
When you were a kid, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
At first, I wanted to be a gymnast in the summer Olympics when I was 4 years old. Then I saw Max Weinberg on TV playing with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band and I wanted to be a drummer. Then the obvious "Marine Biologist" in middle school. Then a psychologist in high school. Luckily now I know what I will be when I "grow up".....what I am now - a songwriter, composer and performer.
In what way has your community impacted your development as a musician?
Well, Williamsburg, Brooklyn is obviously one of the music hotbeds for rock/indie in the world right now. But our music doesn't really fit in with that scene to be honest. I like big, anthemic choruses and reverb. But what New York does offer is unbelievable access to all kinds of music. You could literally see any style, from country to underground drum and bass, in the same evening. And being a "world" city, in NYC you get to meet people who have a completely different idea of what good music is, brought from their native countries. It's amazing.
New York also lead me to other creative fields within music and film -namely with Nina Paley and her film "Sita Sings the Blues". I scored the movie and wrote original music for it. I can't begin to tell you how fun that was. It's very different from writing for yourself but equally rewarding. I would have never met her if I hadn't performed in New York with Karsh Kale (amazing musician based in NYC).
And now I've connected with the music and art community in the Catskills. I recorded My Pet Dragon's second album with Stephen George of Gimme That Sound Productions located in Stone Ridge, NY. I spent 3 months up there and I can't believe all the musicians and artists living there. It's almost like another borough of NYC--very cool people.
What other artists out there do you love?
Presently: TV on the Radio, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, She Keeps Bees, Radiohead, David Bowie, My Morning Jacket, Phoenix, Animal Collective, SilverSun Pickups, M.I.A., Deadbeat Darling, Bamboo Shoots, Aeroplane PagaentSearch Amazon.com for Aeroplane Pageant, The Invisible, Bat for Lashes, Mew, Ancient Country Wisdom. There is so much good music out there right now my head could explode!
From the Past - this list could be insanely long but the obvious essentials for me are Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, the Clash, Dylan, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Springsteen, Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins--on and on!
What does your future hold?
Good things, .......Sound waves everywhere.