Mike Cammilleri grew up in Beloit, Wisconsin, where his father played – and plays – organ in a variety of local bands. At the age of 5 or 6, Mike grew to hate his piano lessons. But eventually, he heard music that moved him, and he felt for the first time the desire to make that music himself.
A succession of teachers followed, but opportunities to play in bands in Beloit were limited.
“I remember discovering Medeski, Martin & Wood and realizing that the Hammond B-3 organ, an instrument my dad had owned growing up, was at the heart of that music,” Mike says. “I scolded my dad for getting rid of his B-3, and I think he felt a little bad. I went away to summer camp, and when I came home, there was a B-3 and a Leslie. He saw one for sale, in mint condition, and he bought it to surprise me. I started playing it every day.”
When Mike arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1999 to attend college, the world opened up. While earning his degree in Economics and Political Science, Mike played organ in a series of bands including Poor Charlie, a Dave Matthews-type pop band, and The Montankus, a Medeski, Martin & Wood-inspired trio. Later on, he gleaned valuable insights from avant-garde jazz pianist Joan Wildman’s class at the university, where he met Pete Colclasure, who would soon begin his own stint in The Kissers.
Several years later, through another Kissers connection, a mutual friend of fiddler Kari Bethke’s, Mike heard that the band was auditioning accordion players to replace Pete, who was moving to Seattle. Not owning an accordion, and knowing little or nothing about Irish music, Mike played the audition using a ratty, borrowed instrument. After some back and forth, Mike officially joined the band in about 2007.
“I don’t have the history with The Pogues and with Irish music that the rest of the band has,” says Mike. “But I do like Irish traditional music, the really intense, minor-sounding, fast-paced music that sounds evil and fun and is good for drinking. The accordion wasn’t that foreign to me – it’s basically a piano hanging off the front of you. My dad started on accordion as a young kid because he came from a Sicilian immigrant family, and everyone had to play accordion.”
Today, Mike owns four Hammond organs, and he keeps his jazz chops sharp. After a long stint hosting Hammond Organ Night at various Madison watering holes with drummer Scott Beardsley, Mike has been booking gigs with John Pollard on drums and Vince Jesse on guitar, under the Mike Cammelleri Organ Trio moniker.
In his Kissers role, Mike is now the longest-tenured accordion player in the band’s crowded history. The band has featured three previous accordionists.
“Making this new record is required everyone to learn new things,” says Mike. “I’ve picked up button accordion, and it’s been fun because the Irish music I liked, even before I became a Kisser, was the more traditional stuff. I totally dig that stuff. Of course, the traditional tunes we’re doing are being done with a Kissers twist. It was Ken’s vision and Kevin’s passion that started us down that road, and I’m pretty proud and happy to be a part of it.”