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In Memoriam: Mike Denneen

Dear Members of the Berklee Community,

Mike DenneenOn July 10, Mike Denneen, an esteemed faculty member, accomplished producer and engineer, and strong presence in the Boston music community, passed away at age 54 from cancer at his home in Watertown, Massachusetts, surrounded by family and good friends.

An associate professor in the Music Production and Engineering Department since 2011­, Mike was a successful producer, engineer, and keyboardist whose credits include recordings with venerable musicians Aimee Mann B.M. ’80, Patty Larkin ’74 ‘02H, Letters to Cleo, Kay Hanley, the Click Five, Guster, Howie Day, Fountains of Wayne, and Morphine. He also has credits on movie soundtracks such as Magnolia, and national branding campaigns for L.L. Bean, Dr Pepper, and the National Football League.

Born in Boston and raised in Quincy, Massachusetts, Mike graduated from Milton Academy and Yale University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1985, cum laude, with a major in political science and a minor in music. At Milton, he studied jazz improvisation and recorded and released an LP with a group of classmates, including future business partner Jon Lupfer.

In 1986, with Jon, he cofounded Q Division Studios, a small demo studio in a former shoe factory in the warehouse district of Boston’s South End. In 1995, Mike and Jon cofounded the studio’s record label arm, Q Division Records. In 2000, Q Division relocated to a larger space in Somerville’s Davis Square around the time that the music scene was experiencing a migration of sorts across the Charles River to Cambridge and Somerville. He was known for his blend of musical expertise and laid-back style, and served as a mentor to musicians at the studio and at Berklee.

A five-time Boston Music Award winner for Best Producer, Mike brought his professional experience to the classroom. Of his Producing for Records course, he had this to say on his Berklee.edu faculty bio page: “I have a lot of experience doing the thing that this course is teaching, so as situations have come up for the students, I have probably been in that situation and have something to say about it. Hopefully, I can give them some tools and some perspectives to figure the problems out themselves.”

In addition to his seven years with the MP&E Department, Mike also taught two semesters with Berklee Online and was slated to author one of the first-semester courses for its music production master’s program.

Students respected Mike for his ability to improve their work, according to longtime friend and colleague Michael Creamer, Berklee’s Cafe 939 event manager/talent buyer. “He loved working with students. He would take what they were working on and rip it apart, but not rip it apart and leave it. He’d help them reconstruct it to help produce a better song.”

Colleague Sean Slade, an associate professor in the Music Production and Engineering Department, remembers Mike as “an incredible person and really good teacher who had a great rapport with the kids. He balanced that with being tough. He would communicate how a producer works and runs a session by how he ran his class.”

Indeed, Mike’s commitment to students made an impression. “The main thing that made me love Mike was his enthusiasm for student work,” noted Bonnie Hayes, chair of the Songwriting Department. “He just really invested in things—people, music, life. Mike was a believer, and for that reason, one of my favorite people in my Berklee community.”

Beyond the classroom, Mike made a big impact on the Boston music community. “His passing leaves a tremendous void in the Boston music scene,” noted Michael Creamer, who has managed bands that Mike produced. “He was a leader, someone everyone looked up to, and a calming force who could lead artists in the direction they should go.”

Musician Kay Hanley paid tribute to him on her Facebook page: “There are literally hundreds—probably thousands—who can confidently state that our lives and careers in music might not even exist were it not for the talent he and Jon Lupfer provided for us at Q Division Studios.” Kay noted that he “built a small but powerful empire stitched together with chewy chord changes, tube amps, and lifelong friendships” and “made an indelible mark on this world” with all the records he produced and championed.

David Hughes, production manager for Cafe 939, toured with the Click Five, a band Mike produced. “When they recorded their last record, I spent a good amount of time watching him work with them, something I felt lucky to experience. I remember we were all chatting, laughing, and drinking beer in Studio A after they’d recorded for much of the day,” David recalled. “Then in a classic Denneen way, he said ‘Okay, everybody out.’ He dimmed the lights, closed the door behind us, and started mixing one of their songs. He knew how to have fun, but also had the most hardcore work ethic.”

The day after Mike passed, Fenway Park’s organist and DJ honored him during a Red Sox game by playing songs that Mike had credits on: Morphine’s “Honey White,” Loveless’s “Gift to the World,” the Gravel Pit’s “Favorite,” the Cavedogs’s “Leave Me Alone,” Letters to Cleo’s “Here and Now,” Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom,” and Aimee Mann’s “That’s Just What You Are.”

Mike also found ways to connect music to the community outside the classroom and studio. Along with his wife, Jen Trynin, a singer-songwriter and author; Michael Creamer; and local bookseller Tim Huggins, Mike founded the authors and songwriters series Earfull, most recently held at the Dorothy and Charles Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown, where Mike served as board president.

Panos A. Panay, Berklee’s vice president for innovation and strategy, recalled Mike’s energy and entrepreneurship: “Mike has been synonymous with Boston’s music scene since the day I entered the business in 1994. As a fellow entrepreneur, music lover, and local arts advocate, he was always a source of inspiration to me.”

A memorial celebration will be held on Saturday, August 4, at 4:00 p.m., at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, located at 321 Arsenal Street in Watertown.

We invite you to share stories and memories about Mike in the comments section below.

Jay Kennedy
Vice President for Academic Affairs/Vice Provost
Berklee

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1 Comment

  1. JOHN SWEET

    I’m quite sure I am Mike’s oldest friend because I know he is mine. I believe I was three years old when we met and he was just shy of that age. We grew up together on Channing Street in Quincy and had an idyllic life in that neighborhood. From my very first conscious memory I had a best friend, Mike. We did everything together and our imaginations ran wild on that street. We knew every back yard as we played cowboys and indians, lost in space, cops and robbers, (you know the things 5 and 6 year old boys did back then) I’m sure we looked at each other and hugged after playing all afternoon and said I love you to each other the way little boys do when it was time to go home. Mike was a statistics monkey! He loved baseball and so did I, he knew all the stats of every player, we were thrilled to get packs of baseball cards and the gum that came with them. I got to witness Mike taking his very first piano lessons, we would be playing in his house when his private teacher arrived and I sometimes stayed and watched the lesson (about 1 hour I think) while he learned his life’s love at its very beginnings. I distinctly remember listening to his dad’s jazz album after his lessons and both of us loving it (I love jazz to this day!), Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass! We went to grade school together and his family eventually moved to another area of Quincy but I got to spend junior high school with him and witnessed him start to mature and develop an incredible sense of humor, largely founded on Monty Python!! We went our separate ways in high school and lost touch, but through the wonder of the internet we found each other again about five or six years ago. Two longtime friends arranged for the four of us, including myself and Mike to get together and attend a few Red Sox games over those last few years (Mike got the best tix!). But I will never forget when he told us all last year before the game that he had cancer. We ate before the game and watched the game until its completion, but I have to admit my mind took me back to those glorious days of our early lives on Channing Street throughout the night. I couldn’t stop thinking about my friend and the news he shared. The game ended and our two other friends went their separate ways to their cars and Mike and I had a chance to walk together for awhile as I headed toward my parked car which through a twist of fate happened to be feet from where he had locked his bicycle. We talked about going to another game next year and Mike said lets go every year, I think I said hell yes! We said our goodbyes and I grabbed him, gave him a huge hug and I whispered in his ear, “I love you” ….the way mature grown men who truly love each other, say it. I’m so very glad those were the last words we ever shared face to face, we had come full circle.

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