The Double Life of Mike Kelley (Polar) By day, Mike Kelley is a professional viola instructor and performer, based in a sedate corner of rural New Hampshire. By night, Kelley Polar, electronic dance musician and "cosmic space traveler," is anything but.
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The Double Life of Mike Kelley (Polar)

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The Double Life of Mike Kelley (Polar)

The Double Life of Mike Kelley (Polar)

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Back now with Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick. A lot of people are drawn to this fantasy of living an alternative life of just being someone else.

BRAND: OK, Alex, so your alter-ego would be?

CHADWICK: Could be a screen writer, could be a sponge, but either way it would be in the South Pacific.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Well, that's alluring. You know, I'd say having these split personalities, these sort of duel personalities, well that would require well, someone who's highly creative and maybe - I don't know maybe someone who's actually delusional.

CHADWICK: Let's not say delusional when we talk about classical violinist Mike Kelley. But he has figured out how to cross back and forth between two very different musical worlds. And for him, he says that it means really inventing an alter-ego. And then the struggle to keep that alter-ego in check. We have the story from New Hampshire Public Radio's, Dan Gorenstein.

(Soundbite of violin music)

DAN GORENSTEIN: Mike Kelley spends a lot of his time at the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music. The campus is tucked away in the hilly southwestern corner of New Hampshire.

Mr. MIKE KELLEY (Musician, Member of the Apple Hill Quartet): I'm the violist, the professional violist in the resident string quartet.

(Soundbite of music)

GORENSTEIN: Kelley, a former child prodigy, went to the Oberlin Conservatory, and on to the Julliard School. As a member of the Apple Hill Quartet, he's performed around the world. The Apple Hill campus feels like the setting for an L.L. Bean catalog photo shoot: A refurbished wooden barn, a west-facing gazebo, a dirt road visited by the occasional Subaru station wagon.

Mr. KELLEY: Yeah, I love it up here. The beautiful view, the sunset goes down over the hills.

GORENSTEIN: But this world is nothing like Kelley's other one.

(Soundbite of music)

GORENSTEIN: This song is off Kelley Polar's second album "I Need You To Hold On While The Sky Is Falling." Kelley Polar is - well, let's have Mike introduce him.

Mr. KELLEY: Kelley Polar is anarchist, hedonist, space-traveling, disco-dance-music-loving, far-out cosmic space traveler.

GORENSTEIN: Kelley Polar, Mike Kelley's other identity, is an electronic dance music composer and performer. As quiet and refined as Mike Kelley's New Hampshire classical music world is, Polar's pop music world is decadent, bizarre, and extreme.

Mr. KELLEY: One thing I learned about doing live Kelley Polar shows, however out of control I was, it was always better if I was even more out of control the next time.

GORENSTEIN: Polar says life in this weird world has led him to some extraordinary places. Like a few weeks ago, he was performing at a club in East Berlin. A place called the Panorama Bar.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KELLEY: The music is deafening loud, and there's people dancing around. There's people screaming. There's people getting kind of like out of their heads. There's absolutely, unbelievably bizarre things going on.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KELLEY: And then below it is this club Berghain (ph), and you go further and further down it gets kind of more and more hard-core in terms of debauchery. And then, like, finally, the next left foot there's a grate...

GORENSTEIN: What happened under the grate is probably best left to your imagination.

Mr. KELLEY: It's really far out.

GORENSTEIN: Mike Kelley came to New Hampshire almost seven years ago, after his high octane bright lights big city life started to come down around him. He remembers those nights, right at the end, before he decided he had to leave New York.

Mr. KELLEY: There was a visiting delegation of mycologists, who were studying mushrooms. We ended up partying on a rooftop in Chinatown with a troupe of Icelandic ballerinas, and eventually - you know, flooded the apartment building, a huge police action. You know, which some or all of that may be completely true.

GORENSTEIN: The New York club scene fed the Kelley Polar part of Mike Kelley. That hedonistic, decadent part, and it had got the best of him. So he escaped to Apple Hill. A safe place where he'd played music as a kid. Here he could return to his classical roots, and let Kelley Polar roam without getting in trouble.

Mr. KELLEY: I have to say, even though it's probably really psychologically disturbing, I love the fact that I basically have this really probably bizarrely over-developed inner fantasy world. And I don't think that would have happened unless I was here.

GORENSTEIN: Kelley says this world has unfolded on his runs along the old logging roads cut through Apple Hill's 10,000 acres of woods.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KELLEY: Creatures living out in the middle of space that - you know communicate by gravity waves. Or maybe you have a concert that is going to be so loud and so big that you have to do it on a planetary scale.

(Soundbite of music)

GORENSTEIN: That vivid fantasy landscape has helped him produce two Kelley Polar albums since 2005. Polar says on his first album he tried to reach out to those creatures in inner-galactic worlds. He laced his lyrics with messages about his desire to get off the planet.

Mr. KELLEY: Subtle or not so subtle messages, like, I can keep a secret. And I have a planetary claustrophobia that I would appreciate having addressed.

GORENSTEIN: And he tells me the messages were heard. So you're saying you've been taken off this planet?

Mr. KELLEY: Oh yeah, absolutely.

GORENSTEIN: Keep going.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORENSTEIN: Part of Kelley Polar's whole shtick is being that outrageous man of make-believe.

Mr. KELLEY: I apologize. I totally apologize.

GORENSTEIN: To him it's just another facet of the whole absurd world of pop music. He figures why bother to correct reports that Polar's originally from Croatia, when Mike Kelley is actually from Providence, Rhode Island. Or why not exaggerate that story about the Icelandic ballerinas on the rooftop in Chinatown? Kelley admits his habit of playing fast and loose with the truth got him in trouble in New York. That's a part of himself he tried to leave behind.

Mr. KELLEY: And so the fact that I have this duplicitous alter-ego double life might - it seems like I'm not making much progress.

GORENSTEIN: But the 34-year-old feels like he's found an equilibrium of sorts, both personally and artistically.

(Soundbite of people talking)

GORENSTEIN: Kelley's planning to move to Providence, also symbolic, he says, because it's halfway between both worlds.

Mr. KELLEY: I think probably the danger now is if I get too comfortable - like Kelley Polar's going to get really boring, and Mike Kelley will get fired.

GORENSTEIN: For NPR News, I'm Dan Gorenstein in Concord, New Hampshire.

BRAND: Day to Day's a production of NPR News with contributions from I'm - well I'm Madeleine Brand for now.

CHADWICK: And I'm Alex Chadwick.

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