After a number of years plying his trade in small clubs, guitarist, singer, and songwriter Mike Montrey is finally coming into his own. He is leading his own band, the Mike Montrey Band; he is touring with the Samples, a nationally known band led by Sean Kelly; and he continues to play to growing crowds with the popular, New Brunswick-based jam band, Water.
“Water is just like the name, it’s very fluid,” Montrey says in a phone interview from a tour stop with the Samples in Florida. “We do group improvisational stuff and lean towards a song-oriented jam band sound.” Montrey formed Water with other New Brunswick-area musicians in early 2000, teaming up with bassist Anthony Duca, keyboard player Matt Tevald and drummer Vance Vann. “We played every club in New Brunswick, started out doing gigs at Golden Rail, and then we got in to the Old Bay and the Harvest Moon.” The band has recorded three albums in five years and also has made the break into larger venues like Starland Ballroom in Sayreville; House of Blues in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the annual Bethlehem Musikfest, held every August in Bethlehem, PA.
Montrey was raised in a musical household in North Brunswick, the son of a piano playing mother who worked as a teacher, and a father who was a computer consultant and now works in real estate. Montrey’s parents split up when he was young.
“My mom taught piano for many years, but I didn’t really start playing guitar until I was 17,” he says, adding that he received a guitar as a gift from his mother around the time he graduated from North Brunswick High School.
Montrey formed the Mike Montrey Band in the fall of 2006, and he expects to release that band’s first album, “The Perfect Reality,” in the spring of 2008. Although he does not play keyboards professionally, there will be a track on his forthcoming album that showcases his piano playing. “There is a song on this album where I play piano, and I play chords and stuff, but I can’t do it the right way,” he says, adding that he picked up guitar playing skills in college in North Carolina and later, where he finished college at Onondaga College in upstate New York.
Montrey says his guitar playing style comes from many different places. “I grew up listening to AC/DC and ZZ Top kind of stuff from my father, but later I got into a lot of the jazz players, not necessarily guitarists, either, people like Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter. More recently I’ve been listening to Jeff Tweedy from Wilco and Ryan Adams.” He also cites Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and Princeton native Trey Anastasio of Phish as major influences on his guitar playing. “I’ve been influenced by so much, sometimes you don’t even know it, it just comes out in the way you play.”
Montrey says he began songwriting while he was out in San Diego with his brother. “I lived in San Diego for a year and my brother bought me a little four-track recorder, so I could hear back what I was doing,” he says. He moved back to New Jersey after a year. “Once I had the guys in Water to collaborate with, the songwriting came much easier.”
Last fall he left his job at First Investors’ Corp. in Raritan Center, Edison, to pursue teaching and performing music full-time. He had already expanded his roster of students and was working out of a studio in West Orange, as well as out of his rented home in Spotswood. “I had a regular job for nearly six years working with a mutual fund transfer agent,” he says, “and it was a matter of deciding that I didn’t necessarily want to do something like that for a living, I didn’t want to spend 75 percent of my waking hours doing something like that.”
In 2002 and 2003 he audited some jazz guitar courses at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers. “I went there for the purpose of learning things I thought I’d missed out on musically.”
He plans to release his solo album by spring, and says there is something in the works for a new Samples album, which will likely feature Montrey’s guitar playing, “and I’ll continue to play gigs with Water as well.”
He says touring with the Samples has taken him to some spectacular clubs. “In April of this year, I started playing guitar with the Samples and I stayed with them through their summer tour. I’ve had the chance to see some really special venues like Tipitina’s in New Orleans, the House of Blues in Dallas, and now we’re out on a fall tour.” Montrey will perform with the Samples on New Year’s Eve in Atlantic City at the House of Blues.
“Later next year I’d love to be touring a bit beyond New Jersey clubs and festivals with the Mike Montrey Band,” he says. “I just want to get the new record out to some Triple A radio stations, and play wherever the radio stations are playing my music.”
Mike Montrey and Water, Wednesday, November 28, 9:30 p.m., Harvest Moon Brew Pub, 392 George Street, New Brunswick. www.mikemontrey.com or 732-249-6666.
Also, Saturday, December 1, 9 p.m., the Bitter End, 147 Bleecker Street, New York City. www.thebitterend.com; Saturday, December 8, 9:30 p.m., the Old Bay, Church and Neilson streets, New Brunswick; and Monday, December 31, New Year’s Eve with the Samples, House of Blues, Atlantic City.