A measure of success | TheUnion.com

A measure of success

How many accomplishments can one person have in his or her lifetime? How many places can one person travel? How many instruments can one person play? How many dreams can one person dream?

When it comes to Mikail Graham, those questions are open-ended. Nevada County’s “music man” has lived a fascinating life.

At first sight, Graham looks like a laid-back sort of guy. With his long hair tied in a ponytail and a beret on his head, his looks belie his 51 years. His kind smile and soothing tone seem very understated for a man who has traveled the world; plays most instruments; sings; is a composer, radio show host and producer, tech innovator and inventor ” for starters.

Graham’s family roots in Nevada County began in 1849. Although he was born in Sacramento, he attended kindergarten through high school in Nevada County. Graham was in the first class at Seven Hills Middle School and graduated from Nevada Union High School.

As a child, Graham was immediately attracted to music. With a family piano in his house, he started picking up instruments early on. After he and two other children formed an a cappella trio in the third grade ” which sang songs by bands such as Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio ” Graham realized he had an ability to carry a tune.

His first consistent instrument was the saxophone, but Graham admits that initially his motivation wasn’t musical: “I wanted to meet girls.” He points out that the saxophone wasn’t the most attractive instrument back when he was young, so he started playing the guitar.

“I used to call girls on the phone and play Rolling Stones records. I would tell them that was my band playing.” As his talents grew, however, Graham’s thoughts shifted and “Girls became optional.” His passion for music became his main intention as the years went on, and he realized that music was something he would pursue instead of just girls.

Graham plays keyboards, electric/acoustic guitars, drums and percussion nowadays. But don’t think his talents are limited to just those instruments; there aren’t many he cannot play. Others include flute, bass, accordion, harmonica, steel guitar, slide guitar and foreign instruments. “I love anything that I can make a sound with,” he said.

The talented musician sings and plays guitar for Buck Love and the Humperheads. The band has been together for 20 years and play shows around Northern California at various festivals, clubs, benefits and parties.

For Graham’s personal music, however, there is a more experimental sound. He describes it as if it were something visual or tangible. According to Graham, his music is “a soundtrack to a film that hasn’t been made yet.”

And his music is not just one style. Intermingling in much of the music are ethnic overtones and a Middle Eastern flair. His sound seems to revolve around many influences, yet he has a style all his own. The same is true of his musical taste in others.

“One day I could be listening to Nine Inch Nails, Kingston Trio or Frank Sinatra, and the next day I could be listening to Bowie, The Cure or Barry Manilow.”

As far as solo releases go, Graham says that he has been cautious about what he has put out. Some of his solo work is on CD, such as “The Sitting” and “Virtual Sculpture.”

He has also released pieces such as “Mr. Filter and the Obscuritans,” recordings of different spoken word pieces. “My Wife The Amphibian” is a soundtrack to a short film that Graham and Menlo MacFarlene created together. Graham also composed another soundtrack for “An Error In Judgment,” a film by Aaron Lucich. The versatile Graham also records with other artists, including Roger Hodgson, a former member of the group Supertramp.

Locally, the Nevada County Composers Cooperative is another of the pies that Graham has his fingers in. He composes, performs and promotes its cause: To provide the Sierra Foothills with an opportunity to hear live, American contemporary music. Also working with the group are David Dvorin, Terry Riley, Howard Hersh, Ludi Hinrichs, Menlo MacFarlane, Jay Sydeman, Mark Vance and many other musicians.

Aside from being a part of the team that originally got KVMR up and running in 1978, Graham is also the last member of that team still on air today. Graham is the producer and host of “The Other Side.”

The show airs every Tuesday from 8 to 10 p.m. and plays a diverse range of music: exotica (Les Baxter, Martin Denny and Pink Martini); space age pop (Bob Thompson, Dick Hyman and the Lawrence Welk family); novelty classics (Spike Jones); bachelor pad (Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr.); and film and television (Henry Mancini, David Lynch and Jerry Grant.)

Graham is also the one who books all of the live bands at Cooper’s bar in Nevada City. According to Graham, it is an important factor that live music is available for the public. He said that lately, “the world of live music is changing. Not many people go out to hear live music.”

Outside the realm of producing, mixing and making music, Graham is also the co-founder of emagic, Inc., one of the leading manufacturers of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), scoring, and digital audio recording software. The company is now owned by Apple.

He additionally has consulted with various companies on the development of new products. Graham refers to himself as a sort of “tech evangelist,” in which he helps to turn people on to new technology.

Last year he worked with Japanese-based company ZOOM to create its new G series effects processors. (Basically the processors are for musicians who want to enhance the sound they are already getting out of their instruments.) The G2, for example, is a stomp box for guitar players that gives them the ability to create special effects with their instrument such as distortion, delay, or echo. There are also processors for bass guitars and acoustic guitars that can enhance sound and simulate sounds that other instruments create.

Graham has also contributed his talents to the community. Along with Utah Phillips and Terry Riley, he organized a 12-hour peace vigil called “Awakening: A Sunset to Sunrise.” The vigil was held from 7 p.m. on Oct. 2 to 7 a.m. on Oct. 3 in 2002.

Speakers, musicians and storytellers entertained and spoke out about the war in Iraq.

Outside the U.S., Graham described the many places he has traveled to throughout his lifetime, including Europe, Eastern Asia, India, Australia and South America. A few of his favorites are Australia, Montreal, Paris, New York City and Japan.

For Graham, Paris is a favorite because “it’s so full of history and passion and romance. You don’t even have to be involved with anyone to feel it.” It is clear that he derives much of his musical influence from the places he has been.

Music today has progressed in many ways, according to Graham. He says the idea of mixing together music, mingling cultures, is fascinating. “I love the fact that boundaries are becoming blurred,” said Graham.

Besides Graham’s evident attraction to music, he possesses other interests. When asked what he does when he’s not involved in music, he said, “dream, brush my cat and walk.” His cat, Simone, is a big part of his life because of the love that he shows to Graham. He enjoys walking around town and the alongside the NID canals. He also likes mountain biking.

The introspective Graham still retains a curiosity about life and says he’s “learning to find peace within my being.”

You might spot Graham modeling “Haute Trash” at the Nevada County Fair this August. Additionally, he and others are holding “Lying in the Wake,” a piece based around Hurricane Katrina.

Graham is full of a love for life that emanates from his very being. When asked which accomplishments he is most proud of and thankful for in his life, Graham simply said that he is thankful.

“I’ve survived all the madness of my life and still retain my humanity, and I’m still able to learn but I haven’t figured it all out. I’m even proud of my mistakes. I can still laugh at myself, and I still love those who don’t love me.”


Kellen Hopfner is finishing her sophomore year at Nevada Union High School. Her work at The Union is part of her “Passion Project” for journalism teacher Lynn McDaniel.

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