Mike O’Cull has been a lot of places and met a lot of people. His life-motto is basically to always try something new with his music, as well as his career in general -- what’s in the past is in the past, or something like that.
O’Cull was born in Chicago and was raised in a small apartment there, and even as a 2-year-old, he could be found banging on his toy guitar for hours, he explains. When it comes to discovering his so-called destiny in life, he has always known music is what he needed to pursue, whether it be playing it himself or writing about the talents of others.
At an early age of 8, in the mid-’70s, after pestering his mom for the longest time, he started taking lessons with Jimmy James, one whom he describes as a “retired star.” O’Cull explains that he was totally unaware of the fact that James -- his then teacher -- had actually toured with Elvis Presley in the ‘50s, and he didn’t find out about it until much later on in his life, as he was browsing the internet. At the time O’Cull was taking lessons, James was the owner of a small music store in Bartlett, IL. “It was a lucky break,” he adds. “I was just another little kid taking guitar lessons.”
Fast forward to the ‘80s, O’Cull attended Columbia College in Chicago, and there he studied Creative Writing, pursuing his interest in writing about other local musicians. He graduated as class of 1990 and eventually started writing for small magazines, moving on to more professional writing, such as real-estate, public relations stuff for artists and bands, press releases, music reviews, etc. He smugly adds, “My secret power is writing artist bios.” O’Cull has been all around the music scene over the years: “Anything I do involves musicians,” he says. “I’m either being one, or covering -- covering or writing about somebody.”
O’Cull had the opportunity to write about musician Joel Hoekstra, current guitar player for Whitesnake, who played as the guitarist for Cher at the 2017 Billboard Music Awards. He explains how he was the first to write about Hoekstra back in the late-’90s, when Hoekstra was playing for the Cathy Richardson Band in the Chicago club scene. “This guy was like sitting on my couch at one point,” O’Cull recalls. “He still talks to me -- I consider that a victory. He’s sort of the proof that dreams do come true.” The review is still up on Hoekstra’s site to this day.
In terms of his own music, O’Cull has shifted from more guitar-based, classic rock stuff to pretty much anything new that he hasn’t experimented with yet that seems in the least bit intriguing. “You’re never going to out-rock the greats of rock ‘n’ roll,” he counts on running with whatever comes his way, as the world changes. His enthusiasm for discovery is what defines him as an artist: “I’ve never been a purest of anything.”
O’Cull is most recently interested in electronic music, as well as the way that music has been shaped over the years. He adds that it is interesting to see the ways in which people have learned and adapted to whole new concepts in the music world -- there is no limit to what music is or what it should be. It keeps growing and expanding. “Putting different kinds of performers into a creative situation and seeing what comes out of it,” O’Cull explains. “I’m very open to what the future may hold.” In addition to writing new music, he recently took an offer to host his own podcast for Chicago Music Guide, promoting Chicago talents; the show will start within the next few weeks.
O’Cull has a tendency to look out for and listen to new artists on the rise -- whether it be hip-hop or ambient-sounding music -- because while classic and alternative rock will always be foundations to build upon, there is so much more to discover. “I’ve had my fill,” he says of the music he grew up listening to and playing. “I’m trying to grow in the production end -- becoming more skilled in the electronic stuff.”
His idea of being a musician does not mean solely playing music; new sounds and concepts are integral to becoming an even greater musician and human being. O’Cull doesn’t hope to ever stay the same -- or sound the same -- rather, he continually strives toward change. “That’s where I feel that beginner's mind,” he adds in regards to his newfound passion for electronic music. “I don’t even know what’s possible, so I can’t make a mistake.”
Music will never stop being a part of O’Cull’s life; he has even attempted to walk away from it at times in his life, but his inability to do so proves the music scene is a part of who he is. “I’ve seen the worst of it and the best of it,” he explains, and his authenticity shows through his words. “I don’t know what else I’d rather do.”