A few years back I came upon a C.D. called “The Idiot Smiles” by Toledo based musician Mark Mikel and what a gem it was. Mikel was obviously a creative artist to be reckoned with. Peerless playing, adventurous production, classic voice and guitar sounds and, most vitally, superb songwriting, Mikel it seemed was blessed with an abundance of heart fuelled talents few could match. The petsoul psych sound of a man who obviously had a passion for what he was doing, delivering up an album of pop joy riches just for the hell of it. The album was already a few years old when I fell for it’s endless charms and on such a tiny label that I thought the chances of ever finding out anything about the man himself, remote. File along side the likes of Bill White Acre, Sean McDonald and Mr. Brown, in the “Who was that Masked Man?” section of my collection. Then a few weeks ago I was handed a CDR of an album by The Pillbugs, “The 3-Dimensional in Popcycle Dream” which just knocked my socks off. A brilliant adventurous psychedelic rock tour de fucking force of the most beautiful kind with an overflowing detailed and stunning production and playing that is jaw droppingly authentic without a single knowing wink of conscious parody. The Pillbugs aren’t just playing in the perfumed garden, ala Dukes of Stratosphere, they are landscaping it from the bottom up. Most importantly of all at the multicoloured heart of this multi-layered treat lay one great pop song after another. This was the real deal beyond all doubt and I quickly tracked down a proper copy of this magnificent creation along with a copy of the equally brilliant self titled debut double CD and low and behold who is the main driving force behind the band? The Mikelmiester himself (well obviously, otherwise why would I bother mentioning him at the start). Anyway Mark has not been an idle jack in these last few years, as a quick trawl through http://www.pillbugs.com/ will confirm. A whole slew of production jobs, a couple of other, solo albums and Mikel also finds time to plays drums for The Sprags. The new Pillbugs album in itself should be reason enough for an interview but now there’s loads more reasons why you every loving Bucketfull should track the mighty Mikel at Bug Central and open your eyes to a truly gifted talent.
BOB. So what are your earliest musical memories?
MM. I don't remember a time when music wasn't important to me. I remember my favourite toy (which wasn't really a toy at all) was my little portable record player. The first song I can remember hearing is Louis Armstrong's "Hello Dolly." My mother was a singer and a big music fan so I was lucky to have access to her collection, which was mostly big band stuff. Harry Bellefonte was another early favourite of mine. My parents would buy me kiddie records like Disney and Yogi Bear-type stuff. I loved those too. I'm talking about when I was 4 years old. I think I was aware of a newer-style of music called "rock and roll" but my grandfather (who I was very close to) always made fun of it. He would say it was nothing but (mock sing-shouting) "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Oh Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! I'd laugh and agree with him though I really hadn't a clue. Then my friend across the street (who had a few older brothers) invited me over to listen to music that he likes and he played me an album by The Monkees. The first song I heard was "She" and by the time I got to the 3rd song "Mary Mary" I was completely hooked. He told me this band had their own TV show and it was on tonight. I couldn't wait. I sat by the TV until it came on and enjoyed a few minutes of the coolest zany-est comedy I'd ever seen, until my mom made me turn it off and come to dinner. I couldn't make her understand how heartbreaking it was to press that off knob and go eat. I think I started making up my own songs around that age but they were not very original. Just stupid kid lyrics to an already famous melody.
BOB. So what was the first song you wrote?
MM. The first actual song I wrote that was any good at all was called "Georgia Apple Wine." I was 12 years old. I've never recorded it. My first band was with Scott Tabner on guitar, Ian McCormack on bass and I was the singing drummer. We had known each other since we were six years old and we always pretended we had our own rock group called “The Jelleybeans”. When we were old enough we begged our respective parents to buy us instruments, which they eventually did and once we had the stuff we became the local garge rock band. We were The Bronze Serpent then but soon switched to the name Marikesh and added Dan Rhyand on keyboards. That was my band for over 12 years. We released our own LP in the mid-eighties and a couple of singles, while reaching some sort of a "hometown heroes" status. Local radio stations weren't locked into a strict playlist then and we were fortunate to get some good airplay. After Marikesh disbanded in ’86 I was tainted toward the idea of forming another group. I got in the habit of recording alone in my studio and making albums that never materialised. I got into doing a lot of production works for the local Toledo bands and that kept me busy. Then an old friend of mine Mark Kelley called me up one day and asked if I'd consider being in a band if the band agreed to play my songs. I thought that was okay as long we didn't have to become a recording entity. I didn't want to put that kind of labour into a group that would just fizzle out again. I liked to record by myself and if these guys wanted to play my songs live then I'd go along with that fine. He suggested calling us The Mark Mikel Band but I suggested Hallucination should replace the word Band to give it more pizzazz. I thought it had a Jimi Hendrix Experience sound to it. I didn't really like the name but inside I thought this group would only last for a few months so I wasn't that precious about it.
So Mark Kelley brought in his bass and Dan Chalmers to play drums and I brought in Glenn Blattner on lead guitar. I was to play rhythm guitar and sing my songs. We were more successful than I'd thought we'd be. Winning a few “battle of the bands” competitions and getting to play openers for big shows for the likes of "Bad Company," "Cheap Trick," and "King's X." So... here I had a band that really rocked and played MY songs. How lucky can one be? It seemed like a good idea to release a solo album made up from some of the best songs I'd recorded up to that point.
Dan Chalmer's was obviously very rock steady. He was so good I'd include him in the studio on most occasions. Dan had the most, easy going, eager to work and please, attitude that I'd ever experienced from a musician. He loved my songs and loved being the drummer on the recordings. The other guys would get invited over less but still made it onto a few songs. Mark Kelley was still pretty new to the bass guitar because he'd been a drummer for so many years. Glenn Blattner just wasn't crazy about my songs.
When this first "solo" album, "Sorghum Pudding" was released in mid-1993 there were no other Toledo rock groups with CDs available. So again local radio was very willing to play it. "Out In The Midnight Rain" was the track played mostly. I find it hard to listen to Sorghum Pudding nowadays because it was recorded to please Def Leppard's producer/engineer Mike Shipley. I think I was making too much concession to the music scene at the time to please him. He was courting me with a possible record deal for about a year and a half. Mike's own career was getting a bit wobbly at that time so he eventually decided he couldn't take me on. Anyway, after all that I felt liberated and confident enough to do a new album that was more me...more what I'd like to do.
And the band kept continuing on, even though the lead guitarist role kept constantly changing. We'd added a keyboardist, Steve Eyer and a background singer/percussionist Dave Murnen. We'd had so much fun becoming famous in our hometown with Sorghum Pudding that we were eager to release another. The Idiot Smiles was released in late 1994 and, though I believe that album was so much better than its predecessor it basically died on arrival. By that time, every garage band in town had their own CDs pressed, so radio stations, rather than dealing with that kind of onslaught, closed their doors for good. We just needed a good idea to get noticed again.
I had the braniac idea of doing an album comprised solely of cover songs by some of the many groups I'd produced records for. The idea was to try to do their songs our way and then give all the discs away at one concert, a tribute to the success of the Toledo rock bands. "Blatant Rip-Offs" was the first and only Mark Mikel Hallucination album and it was a training ground intended to make the band an actual recording entity. By the time the CD was actually released the line up was Mark Kelley (bass), Dan Chalmers (drums), Dave Murnen (vocals/percussion), my old Marikesh bandmate Scott Tabner (guitar), and me (vocals/lead guitar/keyboards). That's the line-up you know today as The Pillbugs except Tabner has taken on the lead guitar role.
BOB. So how did The Pillbugs germinate, first gig, first recordings etc.
MM. I was becoming more uncomfortable getting all the attention with only my name being represented in the band's name and I think, possibly some of the other guys were becoming a bit resentful too. And as I said before, I never liked the name so I was keen on changing it even more than the others were.
This was 1996 and by this time everyone and their brother had their own crapball band. Techno dance clubs were really becoming the hang-out of choice for the hipsters. It was becoming almost impossible to get audiences excited about seeing an original rock group.
I couldn't blame them either. I felt there was nothing new for me anymore personally that I could find in a record store that I'd even like, let alone be thrilled about. This was definitely a national or even global problem for all I knew. So I had a vision of this new group that would be just what I would look for if I was walking into a record store. I always felt there was a black hole in psychedelic music. That Sgt Satanic Piper stuff that you just can't find. If anyone was carrying the torch at all it seemed to me they were still applying this "college-y dance" or MTV quality to everything. Nothing seemed authentic unless it was authentic. But what if there was a band that sounded like it hadn't heard any disco, hip-hop or U2, REM, Gun n Roses, or Nirvana? I’m not knocking that music or their influences but it was so much easier to find. It's still that way today.
We still sustained a modest following when we changed from The Hallucination to The Pillbugs and gigs were different in name only until the first CD was released.
BOB. So when did you first feel that you were a proper band?
MM. I didn't think we were a proper band until we'd finished the first Pillbugs album. It wasn't until then that we could really see ourselves. That's what we can do when we try our best. That's what we are. That's what we sound like. Now we can feel it and live it. It was a myth that we created for us to step inside.
BOB. The sound on both albums is stunning, beautiful, overwhelming and endlessly detailed. What references were you taking in to achieve such an authentically psychedelic spirit while remaining current?
MM. Remaining current was a concern that I realised caused weakness in an artist. It was the element that killed Sorghum Pudding for me personally and I swore never to let it happen again. My tastes are extremely quirky because I feel records just sounded better pre-disco-era. There are some exceptions but it wasn't even really about that. I mean, how many albums amaze you like Pet Sounds? Where are the masterpieces where instruments and sounds appear unexpectedly or arrangements were colourful but somehow still managed to rock? With great vocals, songwriting, bass playing, drumming, guitars, orchestration, harmonies...everything. Real instruments and no sampling, sequencing, or Lexicon crap to kill the human element. Where the different conglomerations of sounds, create an alternate universe rather than a mental-picture of a band jamming onstage with really cool clothes. I wanted to make a rival for Sgt Pepper. Inside I knew we weren't as good as The Beatles, but I wanted us to believe that we were...to pretend at least while in the studio. So really the next idea for us to get noticed was to arrogantly believe that we were making "the best album ever" and...uh...make it a double.
I wanted everyone in the group to get a really arrogant attitude about our next recordings, a complete Zen-like approach. We were not to re-write or re-create anything that came before us. It was the spirit and attitude only that we wanted to retain. As producer I tried to make sure every little sound mattered. And there were many little sounds. I wanted as many instruments as I could get to make appearances throughout the album. I made sure that feel was king and not perfection because I tend to hate albums that sound too perfect, like no one's having fun and I wanted the songs relatively short and very melodic. It had to have push and pull, light and dark, control to cacophony or constantly at odds with itself. No two songs could sound alike either. Every silly idea we tried, whether it was swinging microphones around the room, bastardising the string section by sending them through guitar stompboxes, or ping ponging tracks till we achieved 70 voices, seemed to work magically. Echo and phase shifting were done with two tape machines or an old Echoplex.
BOB. I’ve always considered The Idiot Smiles imbued with the musical adventurism that came from the sixties era so you don’t seemed to have tailored your songwriting for the Pillbugs.
MM. My approach didn't really change, however a lot of the songs wrote themselves by just letting tape roll. "Illuminating Drink" would be the best example of that. The band were only in the studio to record a weird improvised ending to We Are The Orange Sky People. We kept on going and never stopped until the tape rolled out, 30 minutes later. After editing it down the overdubs flowed as magically out the air as the basic tracks. Some of the lyrics wrote themselves as a result of written lyrics played backwards. My songwriting process is normally just me humming and singing broken phrases and melodies on the piano or acoustic guitar until something connects. I always finish the lyrics last but sometimes a lyrical phrase or title will spark the whole song. I think lyrically I was consciously more playful than usual for the first Pillbugs album.
The other Bugs got their feet wet, songwriting-wise, on that first album. I requested that each one of them do at least one track for the album. Not only did they come through but their songs, in my opinion, are strong and memorable. Davey's "Comburda" and Dan's "Goodnight To Babylon" are stand-out tracks for me.
That all being said, it's not the greatest album ever made but I think we achieved an important album in the genre. It's hard for anybody when you're that close to a project to see it from an outsider's eyes. You never get to know the experience of hearing it fresh for the very first time. I think we made an album that I would buy and thoroughly enjoy.
BOB. What was the response to the album?
I don't think the response was tremendous. I know we as a band loved it and believed in it but we knew we were travelling a bit out there for the average Toledo rock fan. There was no radio play or big hurrah in the papers. It wasn't until we got on the internet that things started taking off. I still run into people in Toledo who say they are huge fans of mine but have never heard The Pillbugs, since we changed the name of the group, we were basically starting from scratch again. To get people to come and see us, we would perform The Beatles Abbey Road album in it's entirety for the first half of our show and then play The Pillbugs stuff the rest of the night. We tried performing as many songs off of the double CD as possible but some just weren't made to be reproduced live. The band become a different animal in a live situation. We have to be for obvious reasons. The best live groups are all that way anyway. Nothing is ever dead-on like the CD. The Pillbugs know to keep the spirit of the original recording intact without completely imitating it.
BOB. So when it came to the new album, what lessons do you think you took from the debut?
MM. Well I know the other guys learned that they could write good songs. So this time around they were ready with a few more. So much so that even some of their contributions were given the axe along with mine.
"The 3-Dimensional In-Popcycle Dream" wasn't as focused from the beginning. I think we were drained from putting our all into the first album. It took awhile to even have any kind of vision except to try to record and experiment. Though we were confident in who we were and what the measure of appeal our songs should contain, lots of songs were tried and rejected for one reason or another. When recording had stopped we had 34 tracks to release. It would have been another double CD but it didn't really flow well as one. Somehow it didn't seem as coherent as a double. 11 tracks were removed in favour of a stronger, more focused mood. I'm extremely pleased with it now.
BOB. What songs are you happiest with and what do you try for when writing?
MM. Songwriting for me comes in phases. I never know when it's going to be but I'll become focused on writing for weeks or even months at a time and then stop completely for months at a time. I need to purge myself of them by recording them thereby opening up the demand (in my own mind) for more writing. Some people write more lyrically and some others more musically. I think I write visually. I can almost picture the whole mood and sound before I start writing. If I don't know what I'm going for then it's much harder, but I can stumble upon many good ideas too. If it's too agonizing I don't force it. I just stop.
I'm always into the latest. I feel like I keep getting better and whatever my latest song is, it's the one I'm happiest with or at least most excited about. I know that the songs we have been recording lately are by far my best. I had a great period of writing in 2002 and we're only laying that stuff down now. Mark Kelley wrote his best one yet too. It's called "Alluring Martha."
BOB. You also play drums in The Sprags, how did that come about?.
MM. I was a fan of The Sprags back in the early 90's. I bought their first CD "Neighborhood Sounds" and was really impressed at their songwriting muscle. I approached them at one of their shows and asked to produce their next album. Through the recording of it we became friends. I was particularly impressed with Scott Hunt who was much more into music than the others. Scott was like me in alot of ways. The kind of guy who could play many instruments and spent almost all of his spare time writing and recording. We became great friends and he's a huge source of inspiration to me. I think he's one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived and the true genius behind The Sprags. He's producing the new Pillbugs album. When he and I work together it always comes out unbelievable. We're even trying to develop a sitcom together.
Scott has me play the drums on most of his solo albums too. His sister Shelby sings on them. Their latest "Sonic Symphony" is a pop masterpiece if I'd ever heard one.
When The Sprags lost their drummer, around '98 I think, they asked me to fill in until they found another. I loved their songs and hanging out with them (plus I missed playing drums) so I donated my services indefinitely. I wasn't to join the band as anything but a drummer. They didn't need another singer/songwriter and I was okay with that. It was fun to be in a supportive role for the first time ever. We still do it and the new Sprags album is getting close to finished.
BOB. Future plans?
MM. I've been getting into video and animation lately. I hope to become better at that soon. I want to keep making Pillbugs albums. The next one "Happy Birthday" should be out by June. I keep toying with the idea of doing another solo album but I think I'll wait for a good reason.