We set the timer and snuggle in with our favorite bands in the Impound’s version of speed dating with a killer-diller soundtrack.
Mike Coykendall performs on Saturday, April 6, at The Lost Church in San Francisco, CA.
One of the foundational ideas behind Dirty Impound is to shine a light on great musicians who aren’t household names – the lurkers in the liner notes that consistently help bring quality music into being, the session cats with cult bands far better than the groups everyone knows, the dial twirlers with the instincts to pull the best out of players. That said, Mike Coykendall is kinda the archetype we had in mind. From his hook-laden, roots-rock-pop days with the Old Joe Clarks in the 1990s through his invigorating hand in standout albums by Richmond Fontaine, Blitzen Trapper, Tin Hat Trio, Luther Russell, Jolie Holland, Bright Eyes and more into his important role in the bands for M. Ward and She & Him and ultimately to his consistently knockout solo albums, the Impound has found that anytime we see Coykendall’s name we’re assured of quality stuff.
He’s probably most recognized by modern rock fans & critics for his collaborative relationship with M. Ward but it’s in his trio of albums under his own name that the full spectrum of Mike Coykendall’s talents are revealed. As accomplished with a mixing board as he is on guitar (and a wild host of other instruments), it’s on Hello Hello Hello (2005), The Unbearable Being of Likeness (2010) and last year’s best-yet Chasing Away The Dots (one of DI’s Favorite Albums of 2012) allow his vibrant musical mind to roam off-leash in a wholly satisfying way, a sound gently psychedelic in the most complimentary sense anchored to a cool mix of finger snappers, crunchy rockers, ambient explorations, “Yesterday”-esque Beatles ditties and more. Coykendall sings and plays with freed up bravado, particularly on Chasing, that takes one back to when rock was less uniform, to when it opened its arms wide to get turned on by, well, whatever. Simply put, these albums are palpably labors of love that are exceedingly worthy of listener love. And DI, for one, hopes he never stops giving us these occasional missives from his heart and soul.
We grabbed Mike for a 14 Minutes in Heaven segment because if you get a pro like Coykendall to chat it’s worth doubling down.
Why do you think you’re a musician?
I honestly think a little bit of it is hereditary. My mom would have liked to have been a performer, and music was in their house. And we grew up going to the movies, and there was the oral tradition of learning things that her mom had sang around the house, and my dad would also do a bit of that. He was really good at making up a little stanza about anything that was going on, just kinda silliness, which demystified songwriting for me. “Oh, you just kinda say some stuff and put it to a rhythm and melody!”
There is a tendency to overcomplicate music.
It’s real easy if you’re in the mindset. He would never have called himself a songwriter. He’d be in a good mood for a second and just get silly and say anything to a little tune.
I do the same thing with my son. There are moments where music just seems the right way to communicate something. It’s amazing how much you picked up on at an early age.
Yeah, it was just there and for whatever reason later on music came easy to me. They lined up a row of ten of us learning to play drums – a snare drum or a pad – and the teacher would say, “Do this,” and I was always the one who could do it. So, I had a little natural ability, and that was encouraging and it makes you pursue it a little more.
You play a lot of different instruments. Were you attached to one particular instrument when you got started or did you simply dive in with whatever was offered?
The one I was most drawn to was the guitar. I started as a drummer and liked that too, and took piano lessons early on. I like the piano but I didn’t like the lessons that much [laughs].
As a producer, you draw on that varied skill a lot. I’m sure there’s plenty of times a song calls for an instrument that you may not have a player to provide.
Yep, yep, yep, there’s that, too. Give a shot and look around the room to see who’s gonna pick that out [laughs].
As a listener I find that naïve engagement appealing because sometimes experts don’t hit the right emotional tone.
I agree with that.
How has working with other artists and helping them sculpt their songs rolled over into your solo work as you hit your third solo album?
It has influenced me for certain. When I started recording, I was recording myself, and then people would hear the recordings and say, “Hey, that sounds really good. Can you record me?” Or I’d offer and say, “I’m pretty good at recording. Can I record you for free?” This was early on, so I’ve worked with other artists in this capacity since about 1986. You do subconsciously pick up things working on other people’s stuff. Usually it’s real positive but sometimes you’re inspired to run the other direction from their stuff. It’s like, “I just watched them torture this process and I’m not going to do that [laughs].”
You learn lessons in all kinds of different directions. So, delving further into the new record, what was your mindset going into it? It’s a great song cycle taken together, but stylistically this presents a rainbow of what you’re capable of doing as a musician.
I was a lot of different people in the four years I made the record. There were probably at least 30 pretty decent things recorded that I whittled back to the 14 you get on the record, plus there’s another 11 cuts that you get as a download with the vinyl version. I started off the record at a time I was getting to tour the world and have a lot of fun being a musician primarily for really the first time. So, a lot of it was done during weeklong trips home from She & Him or M. Ward tours and getting out the 4-track and having a blast fooling around. It went from that to a heavier period where my dad had cancer and was dying. He did pass away in 2008, and then I continued on doing whatever felt right on a given day.
It all sorta works together, and describing the path to its creation seems much more jumbled than the finished album. There’s something about this record that holds it together, and I actually like that I can’t put my finger on exactly what that ‘something’ is. There should be some mystery to music.
I worked pretty hard on making it feel that way. I felt it was important for it to have a little thread. There was no grand plan to what kind of stylistic record this would be. I just liked how the stuff was turning out, and I’m glad it flowed together that way for you.
It swings in a really appealing way. The hazy shuffle of “Hippie Girl” or the Highway 61-like vibe of some pieces like “Strange” give the feeling that a freak flag still flutters overhead for you.
Oh yeah! I like those two.
That sense of playfulness has gone out the window in rock ‘n’ roll for a lot of folks. There are novelty songs and there are serious songs but little of quality that embraces impulses like, “Let’s go skinny dipping just because!”
Yes, after the wake let’s all go skinny dipping!
The first time I heard the chorus to “Strange” – “don’t be a stranger, just be strange” – I realized how few anthems there are for weirdoes these days. You have a real hunger for interesting sounds, too, where you sit in a sound and see where it takes you. The drive to craft melodies and verses can miss out on texture and mood, which can be just as valuable.
Absolutely true. Sometimes it’s about the sound as much as anything else. “Medic” [on the new album] is all about this idea. I think it actually had lyrics and I ended up turning it into an instrumental. I abandoned the words I was singing over it early on, though you can hear a little bit of a rap come up in the middle. It’s all very hazy and intentionally so.
Pieces like that in your catalogue make me think I’m hearing something bump around in another part of the house. How do you put an intangible like that into a studio setting?
It does feel supernatural. A lot of times on these [solo] records I was just working by myself with headphones on and I’d come across just exactly what you describe, where something else is in control and I like it and I better roll the mix-down tape now ‘cause this is kinda doing it for me.
I played “Medic” and a few other tracks by you in the same vein for a friend, whose response was, “Uh, do you have a bong around we could use?”
[Laughs] That’s hilarious. I’m sure it would work just fine that way.
You’re friendly to the sativa-minded but I don’t think you’re making stoner music.
As you play music with M. Ward, She & Him and others, how you do compartmentalize that work from what you’re doing on your own? These are very different experiences, and even different from what you did in The Old Joe Clarks.
Well, the M. Ward and She & Him gigs are fun. It’s their thing and I have a part in it, but ultimately before and after the show I don’t have responsibilities other than sound check. They have to do interviews, photos or some business issue. It’s pretty carefree and I’m making money playing music, which is great. With my thing, I have worry if anyone is going to come to the show, is anybody gonna buy the record, etc.? I’m not complaining but it’s a tiny little niche. If I want to hire players often I have to pay out of my pocket since they have to make a little something. There’s more financial concerns when it comes to performing and promoting the stuff because it’s not a moneymaking kind of music…yet. The creating of it is just pure release and joy. I like it!
You can hear that direct, almost pure inspiration inside your music. With so much commercially oriented music you pick up on lots of elements that are anything but artistic or creative. When I listen to your stuff I feel like I’m hearing sounds that you need to make as much as want to make.
Yep. The first record I did like this was Hello, Hello, Hello (2005), and it was intentionally done with the mindset that I was making money off recording and playing with other people’s bands, and that’s very satisfying. I love both those things, but with my own stuff the last things I needed to worry about was how it would be received or if it would make money. I try to make it good, but if I stopped making them at all I don’t think a lot of people would really notice. So, I might as well make sure that every one of them is as good as it can be but not from a commercial angle.
So, what’s usually going through your head right before you go onstage?
Depends on if I’m playing solo or with a band. If I’m playing solo, it’s about becoming one with the room a little bit. If it’s with the band, it’s first about becoming one with the band and then with the room. I’m just putting myself in the performance mode and shutting out the rest of the noise.