Editor's Note: In July, the Minnesota Daily talked to Micheal Larsen in what would end up being one of the artist's final interviews. To hear the interview, click here. Raghav Mehta reports.
He could never sleep.
From birth, Micheal Larsen struggled to relax and close his eyes for the night. As a baby, his mother Kathy Averill strapped him into the car seat and drove around St. Paul in the middle of the night to lull her boy back to sleep.
As an adult, when he was working on an album, or a new project — which he almost always was — Larsen went through periods of mania that kept him awake and working for days on end.
"I don’t think at any point in his life did he ever get eight hours of sleep," Averill said. "Sometimes it was hard to shut his brain off."
On Oct. 16, Larsen lost a lifelong battle against sleep. Exhausted and intoxicated, he fell face-first into his bed and never woke up.
In his wake, Larsen — who recorded with the bands Carbon Carousel and Face Candy, and under the aliases of Oliver Hart and, most famously, Eyedea — leaves thousands of pages of unpublished poetry and dozens of unreleased songs. That his work might long outlive him saddens Averill, but it would not have surprised her son.
"Mike always used to tell my mom he’d be more famous after he was dead," Averill said.
Averill felt things about her child before he was born. Without consulting a doctor, she told friends that it was a boy. She also told them that his name was Micheal, and he would be special.
Micheal David Larsen was born Nov. 9, 1981 in Fayetteville, N.C. Averill, who grew up in West St. Paul, had left Larsen’s biological father — her high school boyfriend — after he urged her to terminate the pregnancy. While pregnant, she visited friends in North Carolina, where she met a military man. They soon married, but divorced almost as quickly, and Averill and her infant son Micheal moved back to St. Paul.
Already, Averill was noticing in her son an active mind that was keeping him awake at night.
When Micheal was only a few months old, Averill would hold one of his tiny hands against her throat and touch the other to an object in the house: a couch, a table, the carpet. Then she would say the name of the object so Mikey could touch, hear and feel the object at the same time.
She sang to her son, but not typical songs for a baby. She skipped Mother Goose and chose Otis Redding.
"I don’t even know nursery rhymes," Averill said.
As an adult, Larsen told his mom that he remembered music playing nearly constantly in the house. Averill’s range in taste might explain the sounds Larsen sought as an adult. She listened to a rotation of Earth, Wind and Fire and other funk, Led Zeppelin and heavy metal and the symphonies of Bach.
When her son was less than a year old, she met with her brother and his girlfriend, whose parents were divorcing. Averill, then 22, agreed to allow Nettie to stay at her house, so long as she stayed in school and helped take care of young Mikey.
Over the next 20 years, Averill took in at least seven other teenagers whose home lives had collapsed through divorce, neglect or death. Each of them followed her rules and graduated from high school.
Averill welcomed her infant into all of her adult conversations and discouraged baby-talking to him.
"There was no ‘goo-goo-ga-ga,’ " Averill said. "If you wanted to talk to him, you talked to him like he was a person."
Averill enrolled her son at Mississippi Creative Arts Magnet School. Almost immediately, his kindergarten teacher approached Averill about advancing Micheal two levels, to second grade, which Averill declined.
By junior high school, Larsen’s issues with structure and authority got him into trouble: He failed the grade, receiving no academic credits.
Even as an early teen, Larsen was an iconoclast.
He hung out with a rough crowd, kids who vandalized and stole property and picked fights. Averill made it clear these kids were not welcome in her house, but told Larsen he would have to choose his friends.
The last Averill remembers of that set of friends was when Larsen called her and said they’d stolen a van and wanted to go joyriding. Larsen refused and called his mother to come pick him up.
The majority of those friends, Averill said, are now in prison or dead.
At school, Larsen challenged his teachers’ authority. One day Averill picked up her son from school, and he told her that he’d gotten in trouble. Teachers had locked a special education student in a room, Larsen said, and he broke down the door to get him out.
On another occasion, Larsen refused to join a gang and talked back to the gang members. They jumped him, and the beating he received left him with a concussion.
Highland Park Senior High School teacher Charlotte Landreau, who had Larsen in her history and philosophy classes, described him as "a unique soul."
"He never judged anybody on where they got their ideas or what they did with the rest of their life," Landreau said.
Landreau remembers something peculiar about Larsen, something that was most often absent in other kids seeking "street cred," which Larsen had in abundance.
"He just loved his mom, and he talked about her, and he respected her, and he called [out] other people on talking about women [negatively]," Landreau said.
Landreau recalls one on-stage project, organized by Larsen and several African and black American students. As part of a section on slavery, Larsen planned to play the role of slave auctioneer, while his friends would play slaves.
Landreau and another teacher attempted to talk Larsen out of the performance.
"It was such an uncomfortable thing to do, a white boy reenacting auctioning off people," Landreau said. "Mike said, ‘You know, people are always uncomfortable. It’s better to be uncomfortable out in the open, rather than just pretend it doesn’t exist.’"
Larsen convinced his teachers, and the performance went forward.
"Mike rapped it out, this unbelievable verse about selling people," Landreau said.
Landreau said she had never seen anything like it from a student.
Larsen had no time for college. That summer he was off for a tour with acclaimed local rap group Atmosphere. The tour took Larsen across the U.S., to Europe, and, for one night in New York, to the top of the rap game.
Max Keltgen needed a place to stay.
His mom’s struggle with drugs drove him out of his home, and after secretly sleeping at his girlfriend’s house, he was discovered and kicked out by her parents.
Keltgen had met Larsen and hung out with him at a few parties — hours spent in basements with turntables and portable breakdance floors. Keltgen knew Larsen, who was always a couple years younger than everyone else, as a wicked breakdancer and a talented freestyle rapper.
"He was a special, gifted individual," Keltgen said. "I mean everybody knew about little Mikey."
At a party, Keltgen explained to Larsen his living situation, and Larsen immediately volunteered to let Keltgen stay at his house.
Keltgen stayed there for about one year before moving in with his brother. After two years, he moved back in to Averill’s house and stayed for another two years.
They got along well, and could always make each other laugh. Though they looked similar — both with dark hair, dark eyes and slim builds — they had contrasting personalities: Keltgen the introvert, who at times had trouble relating to people, and Larsen the extrovert, who struck up deep conversations with strangers. More than anything, they bonded over their love of music, especially hip-hop. A shared passion for music made them close friends and collaborators, and soon — under the stage names of "Eyedea" for Larsen, and "DJ Abilities" for Keltgen – it would make them famous.
In a genre rife with misogyny and materialism, Larsen’s brand of hip-hop was anything but.
While some emcees toiled in clichés and superficial themes, Larsen boasted an introspective side and took hip-hop to a place far more strange and daring than most emcees were ever willing to venture.
But before making his foray into rap music, he was a self-described "metal kid" — the first tape he ever purchased was Metallica’s "… And Justice For All."
It wasn’t until hearing N.W.A’s 1988 album "Straight Outta Compton" that Larsen first began expressing interest in hip-hop. The songs inspired Larsen to make his first serious attempts at writing, and he began composing lyrics as early as the age of 14.
But even in his early years, Larsen never looked up to rap moguls like Eminem. He admired artists like Bob Dylan and the Beatles instead.
Keltgen and Larsen were immensely talented in their own respects — Larsen for his superlative delivery and Keltgen for his turntable chops — and they started producing music out of Averill’s basement, eventually forming what would be known as Eyedea & Abilities.
While Larsen worked diligently at recording his own music, he started to build a reputation as a skilled freestyle battle rapper on the side, winning major competitions around the country.
What was perhaps his breakthrough moment occurred in 1999. At the age of 17, Larsen defeated Los Angeles rapper P.E.A.C.E. of Freestyle Fellowship, a hip-hop group Larsen grew up listening to, at Ohio’s Scribble Jam competition, taking first prize and making him the youngest emcee to ever earn the title at the time.
Larsen’s cavalier demeanor during battles often irked his competition. While opponents would strut around in an attempt to intimidate, Larsen remained calm, arms crossed and stoic-faced the entire time.
During the Chicago Blaze Battle in 2000, one rapper, who refused to shake Larsen’s hand after losing, cornered him backstage, threatening to beat him up and take his belongings.
"When people take that across the river, essentially, and bring it into the way they act, it’s scary as hell," Larsen said in a July interview with the Daily. "Backstage, that’s how it is, everybody’s [expletive] mean-mugging each other, they won’t talk to each other … I was just never interested in that shit."
Larsen's win in Chicago sent him to New York City, where regional Blaze winners competed for national honors. He won.
While Larsen’s triumphs on the battle rap circuit won him respect and catapulted him to underground fame, he claimed he never took the battles seriously, and ended up using most of his earnings to build a studio in his basement where he would record his own music.
"What people don’t understand is, yeah, when I was 17 years old, until the age of 19, I entered every battle I could and won most of them. I was never interested in it at a deeper level," Larsen said. "The only reason I did it was because I loved freestyling and I thought I would be good at it and I thought that it would help me sell records."
Larsen’s appearances caught the attention of record labels and hip-hop heads throughout the country.
Despite the avalanche of attention, Larsen looked the other way, turning down countless contracts. He decided to promote his work with Keltgen through the independent Minneapolis label Rhymesayers Entertainment.
Larsen went on to collaborate with underground stalwarts like Slug and Aesop Rock and recorded three subsequent albums with Keltgen under the Eyedea & Abilities moniker.
Even in his formative years as an emcee, Larsen was always unique in his aesthetic approach. Eyedea & Abilities’ debut album, "First Born" — the lyrics to which Larsen had finished writing while in junior high — was a bleak 19-track production that introduced listeners to his thought-provoking and introspective lyricism.
In the album’s closer, "On This I Stand," Larsen raps: "I bleed the blood of a cold stone that roams without a shadow/ I’m only deep enough to realize that I’m shallow/ My head I keep it up but I just can’t keep it straight/ When you don’t believe in love and you just can’t cope with hate."
Released in 2001, "First Born" didn’t share the commercial success that label-mates like Atmosphere and P.O.S. enjoyed, but it was critically lauded and revealed a side of Larsen that was absent in his freestyle battles.
Three years later, in 2004, the duo followed up with the simply titled "E&A."
Larsen had matured both as a songwriter and a rapper. His vocal delivery sounded fine-tuned and polished. He seemed more confident, less scatterbrained, homing in on individual themes rather than rehashing the philosophical ramblings that dominated much of "First Born."
In "Man vs. Ape" he lamented humankind’s constant expansion and disregard for nature: "We think we’re so smart but there’s not much to know/ Caveman is still alive behind those robot eyes … This is technology for the barbarian/ I see the future, our past will be there again."
After abandoning the battle-rap circuit and releasing two albums with Keltgen, Larsen — at what seemed like the peak of his career — set the mic down to take an unexpected leave of absence from the hip-hop world.
When he reemerged in 2006, the change was surely noticeable. His hair was long and raggedy, his clothes were tattered and frayed at the ends. He’d made it clear his battle-rap heyday was long behind him and he had no plans of ever going back.
Larsen was busy pursuing different ambitions, toiling in musical side projects that included punk band Carbon Carousel.
He also joined forces with local rappers Terrell Woods (Carnage) and Chris Keller (Kristoff Krane) for an improvisational jazz-rap project called Face Candy. Freestyling over improvised beats supplied by bassist Casey O’Brien and drummer JT Bates, Larsen and his crew of emcees toured clubs throughout the country, recording performances that would later be sorted and released on the 2006 compilation "This is Where We Were."
Face Candy was Larsen’s attempt at combining jazz music and freestyling.
"My idea behind that was to capture what a band sounds like rehearsing or just getting to know each other,"
But to some fans, Larsen’s artistic endeavors were such a far cry from his work as a rapper that reactions ranged from incredulity to outright hostility.
"I would get death threats and stuff thrown at me every day," Larsen said.
During a Carbon Carousel show at Augsburg College, one fan hurled a golf ball at the stage, narrowly missing Larsen and cracking a window behind him.
"They were just so hurt and so confused … and it really hurt my feelings. I thought I was going to be able to deal with it but it was just too hard," Larsen said. "I mean, it really, really, really depressed me for a real long time."
"He once said to me ‘When people do this, it makes me not even want to rap,’ " Chris Keller said.
Larsen also faced personal depression at this time.
His 14-year-old dog died. He suffered through a troubled long-term relationship. He moved out of his mom’s house for the first time, and his best friend, Max, relocated to Milwaukee.
The despair bled into his notebooks. But the poetry he wrote at that dark time would lead into another project with Keltgen.
By the summer of 2009, following a five-year hiatus since the last Eyedea & Abilities record, the duo returned to release its final album "By the Throat."
By fusing together elements of rock and rap, the album showed the duo’s signature sound evolving into something more layered and massive than anything in the realm of contemporary hip-hop, making it clear that Larsen’s recent stints had had a profound influence on his musical approach.
"The older I get I’m trying to compartmentalize less and less," Larsen said. "Music is supposed to have no rules, you know?"
The album was the duo’s most collaborative effort to date, with Keltgen uploading samples of his beats onto Larsen’s computer who would then layer sounds on top. Despite hip-hop being their stock-in-trade, Keltgen was as open to incorporating rock-based sounds as Larsen was.
"We both respected each other very highly … we knew that we each had a veto, so to speak," Keltgen said.
So far as is known, the last thing Larsen did was watch his friend, Keltgen, play a show at First Avenue & 7th St. Entry, on the night of Friday, Oct. 15.
Keltgen met Larsen at an after-party and noticed something different about him.
He’d seen Larsen intoxicated before, but something seemed different this time. Larsen smelled like he hadn’t showered in days, and looked in a bad state.
But Larsen’s attitude was the same it had always been.
"After the show, he was all love," Keltgen said. "It was 100 percent genuine, it was 100 percent positive."
Larsen told Keltgen that the show was great. And, over and over, that he loved him.
Their last night together was like their first: again at a basement party, again making each other laugh and again talking about music.
The next night, Averill got a call asking where Larsen was.
She drove over to his house and met his friends there. Averill opened the door and found Larsen, face down on his bed.
As Averill understands it, Larsen had trouble sleeping the last week of his life. Knowing that he needed sleep, he drank on Friday night and then took an opiate-based prescription drug, most likely a sleeping pill or painkiller. In the last few years of his life, Averill knew Larsen often took prescription drugs for depression or insomnia.
"Mike didn’t really do a lot of illegal drugs," Averill said, "although they were illegal to him because they weren’t his prescriptions."
She believes the combination of depressants and exhaustion put Larsen into a deep, impenetrable sleep. As his face slumped into a form-fitting bed, Larsen might have suffocated or vomited and been unable to cough himself awake. Averill, who worked as a medical assistant for years, said she spoke with the coroner, who confirmed that this was a likely scenario.
On that Sunday morning, Averill met with her parents to tell them about Larsen’s death. She then began making phone calls.
Averill called Keltgen, whose tour had moved on to Chicago. Keltgen cancelled the rest of the tour. He didn’t feel like playing party music for anyone.
"I felt really, really empty," Keltgen said. "And I felt less safe. He made me feel more safe. I feel like, if I ever needed somebody, I could count on him."
Keltgen went back to Milwaukee, seeking life in a time of death, and spent a week with his young son.
Though his best friend’s Oct. 28 funeral and a memorial show he played brought him some closure, the pain is still fresh.
"There’s a sadness that overcomes me sometimes," Keltgen said. "It’s kind of, like, frightening in a way.
"I probably will be sad for the rest of my life."
Averill’s house soon filled with family and friends, and some nights nearly a dozen people were sleeping over.
Larsen’s death immediately became a public event: according to Google Trends, "eyedea" was the second most popular search in the United States on Oct. 17. Much of the speculation online since Larsen’s death has centered on a rumored drug overdose, which pains Averill, though she understands it.
"Part of it’s gonna’ stay out there because they want to romanticize Mikey," she said.
Averill kept Larsen’s body at a nearby mortuary and went to visit him nearly every day, sometimes twice a day. She waited to cremate Larsen until Nov. 9, what would have been his 29th birthday.
Larsen spoke often about his own death, telling his mom he didn’t know if he’d make it past 32 years. Though she and her mother would reply that they didn’t want him to die young, Larsen was unshaken.
"It didn’t worry him," Averill said. "He was OK with it. It seemed like it would be freedom. Then he would be able to explore or to go to those other realms or facets of our conscious that we can’t go to."
Averill’s brother suffered from a kidney disorder and has often been near death. Ten years ago, he went into kidney failure, and Averill donated one of hers to save his life.
Larsen spent time with Averill’s ailing brother as a child, and the hospital visits affected him deeply.
"That was the first time Mikey realized somebody he knew and loved could die," Averill said, her voice cracking as she reached for a tissue. "And what would they leave?"
In the last few years, Larsen, who had received so much encouragement from his mother and grandmother as a boy, turned back and began to encourage them.
He convinced Averill to go to college and helped her pay for it. In 2008, she received a degree from Augsburg College in psychology and education.
His grandmother, Margaret Schneider, had been a great fan of his work. But Larsen convinced Schneider, who was herself an unpublished poet, to stop following his career and start her own. The two of them collaborated on three books of poetry, the third of which, "Am I Wonderful?" arrived from the printers Thursday, Oct. 14. Schneider plans to mine his notebooks for new material to assemble books of poetry.
Larsen was helplessly prolific. Averill remembers him writing on napkins in restaurants, envelopes or scraps of paper that were then shoved into his wallet. She’s tried to keep all of it. In the summer, Larsen told the Daily he had between 300 and 400 notebooks full of writing.
According to Averill, a second Face Candy album is completed, and had been scheduled for release in late November, early December. She wants to see it come out as soon as possible.
Larsen also recorded about a dozen hip-hop songs over the summer, which were part of a planned, 13-part series. The songs were written and produced by Larsen alone. Averill said he’d planned a couple more songs.
It’s an upbeat album, happier than he’s sounded in a while, and Averill thinks a springtime release would be be best.