Set realistic goals early. I grew up with the goal of “making it” in the music industry. What does that even mean? Plenty of bands/artists have millions of streams and massive fan bases but they are broke. Others are smaller in recognition but sustained financially. What does success look like for you/your band? Outline it specifically. To this day, I am still working on this skill. Even as recently as this new album. What is the goal of the record, what does a successful outcome look like?
Rock & Roll has been extremely popular from the 50’s until the 2000’s. But with the rise of Hip Hop, Pop, and electronic dance music, it has seen mainstream decline. But some observers have cited that Rock & Roll may be on the verge of a comeback. The frustration and turmoil of the past few years align well with the message of angst, protest, and rebellion that rock & roll conveys. In this interview series called “Music Stars Helping Rock & Roll Make A Comeback” we are talking to music artists, music groups, and music producers who are helping Rock & Roll make a comeback.
New Haven, Connecticut based progressive group Mile Marker Zero creates a slightly off-kilter, multi-tiered approach towards modern rock music spending the past decade honing their skill set both as musicians and songwriters. They were the New England Music Award winners for Best Band (CT) and described as “a must listen for fans of commercial progressive music.” They have spent the last year creating their most commercial work to date. We are speaking to lead vocalist, David Alley, about the band’s past and future.
Thank you so much for joining us in this series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?
I grew up in your typical New England suburb in Connecticut. Life was slower paced and wholesome with late night little league baseball games and summers spent at the lake with friends. My younger brother Doug (drummer in the band today) and I grew up with a lot of overlapping friends and experiences. In a small town with only around six to seven thousand people, many of our friends’ parents were also friends and there was a strong sense of community. School was always a challenge for me, mostly because I was constantly bored and hated doing monotonous work. I did love English and writing as well as any opportunity to work in a group. I learned pretty early that I loved to create things and that I needed people creating around me to be fulfilled in the work I was doing.
I grew up listening to music A LOT with some of my fondest memories sitting in front of a stereo in my room air drumming (actually practicing the parts before I got a kit) and focusing on how music made me feel. 90s grunge was dominating the mainstream when I was young and I really took to the visceral nature of that music. I loved making mix tapes and probably spent too much time sitting and actively listening to albums. If you were to grab my box of tapes, or my CD case, you’d find bands/artists from the likes of The Beatles, Tom Petty, Tool, Alice in Chains, Jeff Buckley, Primus, Rush, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Sting, Dream Theater, Buddy Rich, Miles Davis, Notorious BIG, Spin Doctors etc….
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I started playing music relatively young, around second grade taking piano lessons. Music was always playing in the house growing up and my mother was a self-taught piano player. My father worked in business and never had any musical education, but he has a fantastic ear and sense of rhythm. My mother’s sisters could sing well, my father’s sister also was a singer. It was always clear music was a family talent that had never been formally explored.
When I entered high school, I played drums with a few different groups and also started singing more frequently. My ride or die brothers at the time, Tim Rykoski (former bassist for the band) and Mark Focarile (current keyboardist) started a band together covering mostly Ben Folds Five songs. We started writing our own material and eventually embraced the idea of a Piano, Bass, Drums rock trio called Mile Marker Zero. We cut our first EP while in high school and I vividly remember the first time we heard our songs on local radio. We were in my parents basement with friends over and when the song came on, the feeling was incredible. I remember thinking, “wow… maybe this is a thing I can do for real”. Music school followed, lots of classical training in percussion and voice. I went to Western Connecticut State University, along with both Mark and Tim. Which is all where the bands current iteration occurred. We met John (guitarist) and as decided I should focus on being a “frontman” (drummers were easier to find). We ended up asking my brother, Doug to play drums. He was the perfect for given he grew up with us, played in a similar style and liked similar music. He too went to school for music (percussion) and graduated with a degree in education. THAT is how we formed what people know as today as Mile Marker Zero.
Are you able to share a story with us about what first attracted you to Rock & Roll in particular?
My first live concert was The Moody Blues. Is there anything more epic than hearing “Nights In White Satin” live with smoke and a full-on light show? At 11 years old, no. So I was intrigued early. Then in 1996, I remember going to see Soundgarden at the Roseland Ballroom in NY and remember Chris Cornell coming onstage and opening the set with “Spoonman”. I recall the feeling of that intro riff and opening vocal. I was blown away and said to myself “I want to do THAT”!
Can you tell us the most interesting or most funny story that happened to you since you began your Rock & Roll career?
One story always makes me laugh, though it was long before the current version of our band. In high school, as a Piano/Bass/Drums progressive art rock band, we played a battle of the bands at a neighboring school. All the other groups were SUPER heavy and mostly screaming metal bands. We figured people would hate us, so we decided to play a 25min concept song that had everything from jazz breaks to chill ballad moments. I remember rolling out our gear to the stage and a kid saw Mark’s keyboard and yelled stunningly “Keyboards? This better be fucking hardcore!”. We then continued to play what any classic Genesis or YES fan would call an art piece, hahah. We accidentally left the vocal mic muted to the PA system, so to make this gig even worse for those metal heads, they got a 25min instrumental set of piano-centric music. We ended up WINNING that battle of the bands because the local kids’ screams of “you suck” and their booing outweighed the applause the other acts received during the audience judging.
We packed up quickly that night… took our prize money… and never again returned to Kennedy High School in Waterbury, Connecticut.
What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?
The world is very different today than when I grew up. Learn to use your tools and the resources around you. Start early in learning how things work. Software like logic/pro-tools, final cut, the streaming platforms, photography and design. You’re going to be your own PR team, your own marketing team, your own producer, engineer, etc. The earlier you can start getting a handle on those things, the better. Do and own everything in the process yourself until you actually can’t handle it.
Secondly would be to remain true to yourself. It’s easy to get caught up in the Tik Tok or Youtube artists of the moment. In such a fast paced world of single serving and “disposable” content, your authentic self/sound is your superpower. As we move towards even more technological capabilities in this industry such as AI and the like, authenticity and realism will become more and more important.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ll take a crack at speaking for everyone in my band and probably for most people who take on a career in the arts. Your upbringing is the bedrock upon which you build your life. Support from parents and family is crucial. I remember playing bar gigs at 15 and my parents needing to cart me to and from the gigs. Those long nights couldn’t have been easy. As I got older, they spent sleepless nights waiting for me to return home with their car full of gear after driving all over New England playing gigs. That couldn’t have been easy for them. I am truly appreciative of their love and support while I, at times recklessly, explored this crazy life in music.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Right now the guys and I are finishing up our new album titled COMING OF AGE. We are looking to release it some time in the coming months. It’s been an incredible journey making this music and it is an honest reflection of where we all are within our lives. The past couple years have been both incredibly difficult and amazingly beautiful. What people will hear on this new record genuinely reflects that in an intimate way. We’re all really excited for people to experience it.
Are you able to summarize the message of Rock & Roll in a sentence? Why do you think that message is more relevant now than it’s been in a while?
“Rock & Roll’’ is the unadulterated expression of one’s self through music. From Elvis to Nirvana, Woodstock to Compton, the Rock & Roll mindset has always pushed boundaries and tested the status quo. This expression is more important today than ever as we live in a world where we are seemingly at odds with each other in most arenas. Rock & Roll will and always will question and challenge us as a society and as individuals.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Figure out what makes you/your music different and exploit that. I remember working on our self-titled record and sending the demo for the track “Laceration” to producer/engineer Michael Birnbaum at Applehead Studios (Coheed and Cambria, Bad Brains, a ton of killer work done there) and he loved the opening vocal on the track. I hated it. It wasn’t sung well, I could have done it better. However, it was the imperfection and the vibe that he loved. Imperfection is what is beautiful.
- Don’t burn bridges. We’ve always avoided burning bridges with people, but no one ever told us specifically not to. Just like in any business, the world is much smaller than you think. Even in your most difficult times, remember that people in the room might come back around at some point. Most people we have worked with have gone on to become “bigger” players in the industry or are now in bands that are doing measurable work.
- Set realistic goals early. I grew up with the goal of “making it” in the music industry. What does that even mean? Plenty of bands/artists have millions of streams and massive fan bases but they are broke. Others are smaller in recognition but sustained financially. What does success look like for you/your band? Outline it specifically. To this day, I am still working on this skill. Even as recently as this new album. What is the goal of the record, what does a successful outcome look like?
- Participate. If you’re lucky enough to have a good music scene in your area, go to shows. Surround yourself with good people. Learn from other bands. As recently as this past month, I had calls with our friends in Head with Wings (a great New England act with a new album coming out) to chat about art, marketing etc. A rising tide raises all ships. Support each other and your music community.
- Learn to play with a click/metronome. Its 2023 and the live show game is different than it used to be. Get solid with a metronome and playing with a click track. You’ll need to be solid with a click for the studio and if you get to “the bigger stages” in your career lighting queues and potential backing tracks are table stakes. Doesn’t matter if its a broadway gig on drums, or if you’re hired as a guitarist for a pop singer, its all with in-ear monitors to a click track these days. I remember doing a TV performance and the production crew saying “you’ll have exactly 3:57 for your song on the show, otherwise we cut/edit it”. Playing to a click allows for that level of accuracy in the setlist for moments like these. Just a good skill to develop early.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
There are so many things I can bring up but I’ll pick two totally different things
We need to focus more on art/music education in schools. Not only are these subjects proven to increase cognitive function, they provide an outlet for children emotionally. They unlock creativity and they enhance our culture. As we move more and more towards a digitized and artificial world, the arts will be pivotal to the health of society.
Secondly and in a similar spirit, I think there needs to be a general conversation and understanding around the coming impacts of technology. The convergence of various technologies is going to result in both unfathomable challenges and never before seen opportunities for everyone. However, if not communicated and democratized it could exacerbate our already unbalanced systems. There are organizations and people out there trying to share this message, however we need leadership in the public/gov sector here with voices heard globally.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Thomas Edison said that “opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like hard work”.
Nothing worth doing is easy (did I just say another quote? lol) so get used to hard work. Life around you doesn’t stop, either. This new album and the process of making it was challenging. Tough situations for guys at home, distances between us at times both physically and emotional, Etc… it was all very hard work. There were plenty of times where we wanted to roll over and give up, or lower our standards because it was easier than fighting for what we really wanted.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I don’t even know where to start, haha. I’m a massive nerd and technologist (as people who listened to our last studio album in 2018 about the future of technology, The Fifth Row, might have guessed). I’d love to spend some time with computer scientist/futurist Ray Kurzweil or someone like Sam Altman from OpenAI. Kathy Wood from Ark Invest or Ray Dalio from Bridgewater are brains I want to pick someday. On the music side, I’d die for time with Peter Gabriel or Sting. By the time I see this interview posted, I’ll have thought of hundreds more. I just really love learning from people and get their perspectives on things.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My band’s website is www.MileMarkerZero.com and almost all our socials are @MMZOfficial. I would GREATLY appreciate everyone checking out our music, especially our new album when it comes out, on all the streaming platforms. We need and love everyone’s support. Never hesitate to reach out to us and say hello, be it online or a live show (tour coming). Thank you so much for listening to me rant.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Music Stars Helping Rock & Roll Make A Comeback: David Alley of Mile Marker Zero was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.