The musical journey of former Venice roommates culminates in UltraLove
By Michael Aushenker
Something funky is happening at Harvelle’s.
UltraLove, an R&B group rooted in contemporary music influences and the friendship of two former Venice rap emcees, is shaking things up at the venerable Santa Monica jazz club with a semi-weekly Thursday night residency.
“It’s a very dynamic thing that we do live,” Mike “Mr. Ultra Love” Wagner, the band’s vocalist and chief songwriter, said of performances that include neo-soul originals interspersed with a handful of covers, such as Andre 3000’s “Roses” and Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
The outfit — which also includes Conrad Bauer (guitar), Mike Gunn (bass), Pete Antunes (drums), Blaine McGurty (keyboards) and DJ Paper (aka Jeff Schwartz) — might also mash-up Sade’s “Is it a Crime?” with Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.”
Wagner’s musical journey, as he tells it, began as a white kid growing up in a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh who found inspiration in neo-soul heroes D’Angelo, Eryka Badhu and Outkast while also digging Bob Dylan and Jeff Buckley. Through the neighborhood he also gleaned Simone, Billie Holiday, Brian McKnight and gospel music while diving into hip hop’s story-driven rappers —Mos Def, Talib Kwali, Notorious B.I.G., Lauryn Hill and The Roots.
Wagner originally came out to Los Angeles to pursue acting and wound up performing in a scene cut from the 2004 blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Through another actor who gave him a ride home from a shoot, he met DJ Paper, and the pair began to hang out and record “raw, Wu-Tang Clan-ish songs.”
DJ Paper, said Wagner, “is the reason I do music. He really pushed me.”
Billing themselves as rap emcees Love and Paper, the pair moved in to a Venice apartment and tore it up on the L.A. club circuit, including at the 217 (today Copa d’Oro) in Santa Monica, where club promoter Darren Carrol discovered them. Managed by Carrol, Love and Paper became a lucrative act.
That all changed after Wagner’s 22nd birthday.
“I got a guitar and I couldn’t put it down. I turned my back on whatever we were doing,” he said.
DJ Paper became annoyed when Wagner became another one of those guys threatening to learn guitar.
“But he was in his room all night long with the guitar,” DJ Paper said. “I’d wake up in the morning and he’s still playing. Within a month, he was writing songs; 12 or 13 songs within a couple weeks. I ate my words.”
Likewise, DJ Paper had grown disillusioned with rap’s direction and reinvented himself as an open-format deejay. As DJ Paper began spinning mash-ups, Carrol got him inside Club Nokia’s VIP room and gigs spinning at Santa Monica’s Shangri-La hotel and large parties.
Though they were heading in separate directions, plenty of room for collaboration remained.
“[Wagner’s] vocals, his rhyming always surpassed me. He was always the singer on the hooks, and I was falling out of love with rap,” DJ Paper said.
In 2009, when UltraLove was performing Monday nights at Harvelle’s, Wagner invited his friend to join as “extra artillery,” DJ Paper said. “They had a problem. They’d take a break and people would walk out. It’d be dead.”
So DJ Paper worked the turntables in-between acts.
“It was just a smash,” DJ Paper said. “Everybody would go crazy [dancing].”
UltraLove played Mondays for three years when, in September 2012, Wagner went back to Pittsburgh after son D’Angelo was born. Wagner returned to L.A. last summer and jumped back into playing Harvelle’s.
Through Harvelle’s other resident funk band, House of Vibe, Wagner found a mentor figure in Jurassic 5 emcee Chali 2na. Wagner is currently working on UltraLove’s debut LP and has put his hip-hop stamp on the soundtracks of recent films “Friends With Benefits” (with a remake of “New York, New York” during the Times Square flash-mob dance scene) and “Here Comes the Boom” (a re-dux of Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy”).
DJ Paper is aiming for summer with his debut album — a mix of dubstep, trap and deep house —with producer Andrew Kapner, who has worked with Snoop Dogg and Cypress Hill.
Wagner “was always so comfortable on stage,” DJ Paper said of the pair finding their niches. “He’s got so much personality. Everyone loves watching him when he performs.”
UltraLove performs at 9:30 p.m. Thursdays at Harvelle’s, 1432 4th St., Santa Monica. $7, and a two drink minimum. 21+. Call (310) 395-1676 or visit harvelles.com or ultralovemusic.com.