FROM RUN-D.M.C. TO MAYIM BIALIK by Donny Levit
Dr. Mike finds inspiration in his hardcore band life
It all started about two decades ago when a Craigslist ad caught the eye of Mike Friedman. A group of New York City musicians were in search of a lead singer for their new band. After answering the ad, the clinical psychologist stepped into a New York City rehearsal room as the rest of the band started to play. “Just sing whatever you want,” one of the musicians told him.
Dr. Mike – as he prefers being called – attended the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate, Yale University for his graduate studies, and completed his clinical internship and post-doctoral fellowship at Brown University. But besides “playing extremely loud music behind closed doors and jumping around pretending I was in a band,” the psychologist had no experience with what was happening at that audition.
“I started to envision having to tell everyone that I completely bombed it,” he recalls. “I actually just about started to cry. And then I started screaming into the microphone because I was so upset. That lasted about two minutes, and then some other guy came into audition and I just left.” And that, he thought, was that: “And like a proper nerd, I wrote them a thank you note.”
But then something surprising took place. He received a phone call from the band’s bassist, Tay Malloy. “We like your voice. I was thinking we could do a thrash or hardcore band,” said the musician.
“I’m so sorry, but I don’t know what those words mean,” Dr. Mike responded. “Are you sure you’re even calling the right person?”
And with that, Dr. Mike the practicing psychologist also became Mike Friedman, singer for a metal/punk/hardcore band called Odd Zero. The band became part of the New York hardcore music scene, did its fair share of touring and even opened for the Smithereens, one of New Jersey’s beloved homegrown bands.
As Dr. Mike tells it, getting to know the musicians and audience of this music genre was an illuminating experience. “I started to ask people around me if they were doing things that they loved to do.” He recalls speaking with Mina Caputo, a founding member of the New York City heavy metal band called Life of Agony. “Mina is metal’s first prominent transgender person,” says Dr. Mike. “What would it be like – instead of writing another article when I’m just sharing my own opinions, why don’t I ask her about her experience? I’d never really interviewed anyone before like that.”
Although he had concentrated earlier in his career and research on cognitive behavioral therapy, Dr. Mike found himself gravitating towards the concepts behind humanistic psychology. Yet he was exploring something deeper that would reap even more rewards for those who challenge themselves to find happiness and satisfaction by working to achieve goals that may, at first, seem out of their comfort zone. And for Dr. Mike, his life in music was just that. “One of the things that I’ve always struggled with a lot of approaches to psychology is that there’s often an emphasis on what’s wrong with you and not an emphasis on what’s right with you,” he says. “With humanistic psychology, it’s more about finding what’s right with you.”
Dr. Mike would begin to devise the approach he calls “Hardcore Humanism” that would become the core of his psychology practice as well as the guiding principle for podcasts he has developed.
So why add “hardcore” in front of the term humanism? For Dr. Mike, it’s what he learned from his years in that particular music scene. He references the musician and producer Ian MacKaye, known for playing a huge role in the hardcore and punk music scenes with his bands Minor Threat and Fugazi. MacKaye is also the founder of Dischord Records, a Washington D.C.-based independent record label that has nurtured underground and indie bands since the 1980s.
“Hardcore Humanism is sort of a nod to what I saw as the more humanistic quality of some of these underground genres that have been dismissed, like hardcore, metal, and hip-hop – which have been [at times] dismissed as being violent,” he says. “And that was where I was seeing a lot of people who were actually caring about the world.”
So Dr. Mike had questions. Lots and lots of questions. And over the years, he began to leverage his relationships with musicians to start to interview them about their career choices as well as their outlook on life. “They all seem to follow a very specific trajectory; which is that when everyone said to go right, they chose to go left,” he says “They found their purpose, and in this case it was music. They just worked extremely hard and they built a community that supported that. And I started to see how similar that was for all of them.” About 18 months ago, his line of inquiry would be launched as a podcast.
The Hardcore Humanism podcast is a collaboration between Dr. Mike and his wife, Aylin Bumin. Episode guests range from Darryl McDaniels (DMC from Run-D.M.C.), Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses), and Black Francis (The Pixies), to Mayim Bialik (Big Bang Theory and Jeopardy! host), comedian Margaret Cho, and George Clinton, musician and bandleader of Parliament-Funkadelic.
In Dr. Mike’s interview with Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels, the hip-hop icon discusses how he became fascinated with comic books and soon developed drawing skills: “By second grade, I didn’t need tracing paper. That’s when I knew I could create. Because all the kids would ask me ‘Yo, Darryl, could you draw my project for me?’ Even the bullies. I became protected. Because the bully said, ‘Here, sit by me! Do my paper!’ Nobody messed with Darryl. Before, they were picking on me, taking my money.”
Dr. Mike credits both his marriage and working relationship with his wife as examples of practicing hardcore humanism in everyday life.
“[Aylin] had worked in legal publishing for about 20 years and she also was extremely into self-help as a concept,” says Dr. Mike. “I’d always come from a psychology angle and we came together around hardcore humanism. She built our website – something that she had never done before – and learned how to be an audio producer. Our skill sets really combined.” Bumin also serves as the podcast’s editor.
“We don’t put limits on ourselves. I grew up conservative Jewish and [Aylin] is Muslim. We come from these different traditions, but we wanted to be together,” says Dr. Mike. “This isn’t exactly what either of us had planned on. But [hardcore humanism] has been baked into our relationship,” he says.
The couple moved to Maplewood about 14 years ago after living in both the West Village in Manhattan and City Island in the Bronx. Their 14-year-old daughter Alanya attends Columbia High School and Kaya, their 12-year-old son, goes to Maplewood Middle School.
“Going There with Dr. Mike” is his other podcast, presented by Sound Mind Live and Consequence Media. The series focuses on destigmatizing a range of mental health topics and includes episodes with Julien Baker (indie rock musician and member of the band Boygenius, featuring Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus); Aimee Mann (formerly of ‘Til Tuesday); and Jason Isbell (singer-songwriter and formerly of Drive-By Truckers).
“Going There is really about musicians talking specifically about mental illness,” says Dr. Mike. “Hardcore Humanism is about personal development.”
“Funk was not simply a musical genre. It was a way of thinking about the world – a way of being open-minded and outrageous over convention,” he writes in a blogpost about his Hardcore Humanism interview with George Clinton. “And by pushing the envelope as far as it could go, he created the space artistically to allow his obsession to run free. Soon Clinton became known for both his music and his live shows that shattered conventional boundaries. And it was that freedom to be obsessed, and pour everything he had into his work that helped propel Parliament-Funkadelic to become a phenomenon of its own. ‘We got obsessed with being funky…we did everything we could to be super funky’.”
As the couple complete the second season of their podcast, what are their next steps as they plan for the future?
“We’re going to be a bit more geared towards the specific lessons that we want people to learn. We now know what we want to say. What we want to do now is make sure that we’re communicating that more directly to people,” says Dr. Mike. “But I want people to be fine with who they are authentically. I want them to find out what their purpose is in life, even if they’re being told that it’s not something that they’re supposed to do.”
Donny Levit is a writer and Maplewood resident. He is the author of "Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories." You can hear him DJ his indie rock show "Under the Influence" and his jazz show "Kind of Pool" on Bone Pool Radio. Follow him on Instagram @undertheinfluenceradio and @kindofpoolradio.