Monday, May 16, 2011

Interview with Mike Herrera

I like to refer to Mike Herrera as the "James Brown of Punk Rock" because he is hands down the hardest working man in the music business. Between his duties as frontman for Tumbledown, MxPx and Arthur, running Monkey Trench Studios and helping out with Legionnaire Clothing, the man never stops! Thankfully I was able to catch him long enough to interview him before he lit up Nashville's Exit/In on the last stop of his recent solo acoustic tour. Mike provided not only an incredible night of music, but an awesome interview as well. It's always nice to find the great musicians who just happen to be great people too! Mike was super nice, gave some great answers and laughed alot. I hope you guys enjoy the interview as much as I did. Here you go!

Tonight’s the last show on your long-awaited and much appreciated East Coast solo tour in support of your new Live From The Basement album. What sparked you to record these stripped down versions of your songs and then take them out on the road?

Mike: Well it actually was sparked because of the tour. We booked this tour, me and Louis from Gasoline Heart, and… I’ve done a couple solo tours, but not in the U.S. yet, and each time I’m selling MxPx albums, I’m selling Tumbledown albums. A lot of Tumbledown stuff because people don’t have it as much. But nothing I’m doing sounds exactly like those records because I’m not with a full band. So I decided to go down in my basement and record a bunch of songs real quick, as fast as possible. I did 2 sessions, a couple in an hour and a couple more the next day. Then I did the artwork and sent it in and literally it came out the day this tour started.

Perfect! Sounds like you’re cutting out every middleman there is. So, this being the last night of the tour, do you have any surprises in store for us?

Mike: Yeah, absolutely! Every show I’ve done has been different from the one before but this one’s gonna be way different because I’m actually having a couple guys back me up on a bunch of songs. We’re gonna do some covers songs. It’s gonna be different than Tumbledown too because, it’ll be a different style of playing. It’ll be more like “Tennessee Three” type stuff.

Ah, Johnny Cash! Man, you’re in the right place for it! What was the song selection process like for Live From The Basement and were there any songs that you tried, or that have been requested at these shows, that just didn’t quite work out in this solo format?

Mike: (laughs) Oh yeah, oh yeah! For instance, “Drowning”…I had never done that acoustically by myself and I put that on the record because I was just searching for some songs that would work. I figured that one out and I was like “Oh, I’ll do that one.” I relearned the lyrics and all that. As far as stuff that doesn’t work out, there’s so many songs that MxPx has that don’t work acoustically. But people constantly are asking for “G.S.F.” or “Do Your Feet Hurt” and I don’t know…they just don’t sound that great. I mean, I still do them a lot of the time. But there’s definitely certain songs that sound really good acoustic and there’s other ones that are just…ugh.

So no one’s gone too far out and requested “Fist vs. Tact” or anything like that?

Mike: Well, they’ve asked for that and they’ve asked for “Teenage Politics.” For me, it’s like, it just doesn’t sound that great because it’s so choppy. It doesn’t even sound that great as a full band, I don’t think personally. That’s just my opinion though.

What’s been your experience on this run of East Coast shows and has it at least been better than your recent Mexico tour?

Mike: (laughs) Oh yeah, much better than the Mexico tour! Man, it’s been really cool to get back to the East Coast. Up to New York, Philadelphia, everywhere on down south through Florida. The Carolinas have been great. We’ve been just having a ball. Not only have the shows been fun, but we’re getting to see a lot of people. I’ve read a few things online about people talking about the shows and they’ve just been having a great time. I don’t think there’s a lot of shows that do what I do. I mean, there might be and I just haven’t seen them. I just really get into the songs in a way different way than people are used to because they’re acoustic. But I also just have fun and the audience can hear their favorite song. As long as I know it! Most of the stuff they ask for I usually know so it works out pretty good for the most part.

Have the crowds seemed to be split towards a certain band of yours or are they just Mike Herrera fans?

Mike: Of course most people definitely know MxPx more and know more MxPx songs. But there’s been plenty of people that have been requesting Tumbledown stuff. So it’s been really cool.

Apart from being able to choose the restaurants and radio stations, what are some of the big differences of touring as a solo act as opposed to touring with a full band?

Mike: (Laughs) When things go wrong it’s definitely your fault! There’s no one else to blame. You gotta be a little more responsible. Man, it’s fun though and it’s less stressful for me honestly. Just showing up with my guitar and plug in and play. It’s so liberating not having gear to tie you down. In that same way, on the other side, that makes playing in a band that much more fun too. So I gotta do both. If I only did one thing, I think I’d go crazy.

Are the times between the shows different? Like, being just the two of you in the car, do you get to listen to your own driving music?

Mike: Yeah, we listen to a lot of sports. I listen to a lot of news stuff. We listen to our own headphones a lot of the time. Eventhough we like a lot of the same music. Louis loves Howard Stern, so….

He’s indoctrinating you?

Mike: (laughs) Yeah, he’s indoctrinating me.

Based on your activity level on Twitter and Facebook, the “Robbed In Mexico” fundraising and the recording sessions you’ve done on Stickam, you seem to fully embrace the ability to connect with your audience over the internet. How important are those types of tools for an independent artist and do they have any drawbacks?

Mike: Well, first with the drawbacks. (laughs) The drawbacks are your job is never done. You’re never not working. You’re always working. That drives me crazy sometimes. I mean, I don’t mind working but sometimes you just want to hang out and not think about it. But as soon as you upload a video, you’ve got to do another video. As soon as you send a tweet, you’ve got to think about, “what do I need to promote now?” So it’s a lot of self-promotion. But on the flip side of that, it’s a really easy way to stay in contact with your fans and with your friends too. Let people know about the show. Not everybody is constantly checking twitter all the time. So if you send a couple tweets, there might be a few people that get annoyed, but some people miss the first time. Same with Facebook and all that. It’s huge, it’s important. For an indie artist it’s very important because I’m my own manager. So I don’t have a management team. I mean, I have people that help me do stuff. I guess that would be part of the management team. But as far as making decisions, figuring out what I’m doing next. It’s all basically whatever I want to do.

Between all of your bands, you’ve been a pretty prolific songwriter. When you sit down to write, do you specifically have one of your bands in mind or do you decide after the songs have been written?

Mike: Yes and no. I don’t always specifically think about what band I’m writing for at first. But I know right when I start writing it, what it’s going to be for. So it’s never, “ah, I should change this and make it a Tumbledown song, or vice versa, MxPx.” It’s pretty apparent and the songs are a lot different. Eventhough some of the roots to the songs are similar. Say like, “Secret Weapon.” You get down to the brass tacks of it and it could’ve been a Tumbledown song. On the flipside of that, there’s a lot of flipsides I guess, “Late Again” by MxPx really should’ve been a Tumbledown song. But it was before I had Tumbledown. So we kinda just made the guitars distorted and actually the guitar player for Tumbledown plays the solo on it. So that sounds even more like a Tumbledown song. Besides those bits, a lot of the songs are different. Lyrical content is usually fairly different. Tumbledown is... I wouldn’t say it’s more light-hearted, we definitely have a lot of party songs and fun songs. But so does MxPx. So in that way it’s similar. But I think we’re serious about different stuff. MxPx is much more broad as far as…it’s for an audience that could be very young or even old, depending on your musical taste of course. With Tumbledown, there are some songs you could be young and be in to, but usually it’s for a “21 and up” type crowd. (laughs) In musical tastes too. Usually when punkers get a little older, they still love punk rock but they kinda get into the more folky, acoustic, singer-songwriter type stuff.

When you’ve been doing these songs in a solo acoustic format, have you seen some of the differences between the bands or is there a common thread?

Mike: I think there’s a common thread. I mean, not all of the MxPx stuff translates. Most of the Tumbledown stuff does since I play acoustic on it. But there are even some Tumbledown songs that I wouldn’t really want to play by myself without the band. It definitely is a little easier with Tumbledown to do acoustic though.

In your songwriting, I can hear some of your influences pretty strongly, like Mike Ness, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, etc. but is there any artist or band that inspires you that we would be surprised to hear you mention? Your secret musical shame?

Mike: (laughs) Um…nothing that’s too crazy. Huey Lewis maybe. He had a big influence on my singing way back in the day and I still love him today. If you get past the sound of the recordings, which I still love, I think they’re great, the songs are really good and really have a lot of groove to them. So, Huey Lewis and The News of course is a big influence. I’m trying to think of weird ones. Jackson Browne, I’m a big fan of Jackson Browne. Everything else is fairly normal. I listen to The Eagles. A lot of punkers hate The Eagles but I like them. I mean, I don’t listen to them a lot. But there’s definitely those songs by The Eagles that I love. “Take It To The Limit,” that kind of stuff. Willie Nelson is a huge influence. Obviously Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, George Jones.

(At this point in the interview, I pointed out to Mike that MxPx's name was written right below Willie Nelson's name on Exit/In’s backstage graffiti wall of artists and he seemed pretty surprised and excited. Here's the picture he took of it.)

Over the years, you’ve worked with some great producers like Jerry Finn, Stephen Eggerton and one of my personal musical heroes, Aaron Sprinkle. Did your experiences with them led you to want to get into producing and opening up Monkey Trench Studios or was it just a natural direction for you?

Mike: Yeah, definitely. When I was working with Jerry Finn I really started paying attention to what he was doing. All the miking, what he was doing on the console. He had of course mixed Dookie which was huge. He was a good idea guy and he was very into engineering. He loved sounds. Mixing is what he loved to do. With our band there wasn’t a whole lot to do, producing wise. It was like, “Okay, let’s make this sound good. Maybe don’t do that four times, do it two times.” You know, that kind of thing. So I started paying attention. Then we worked with Dave Jerden and that was the first time I started paying attention to Pro Tools. I hadn’t used Pro Tools before. Actually that was the first time we ever worked with Pro Tools, Before Everything and After. I don’t know, that was 2003, I think, was the first time we used Pro Tools. Everything before that was all analog 2 inch (tape). We have actually used 2 inch since then. It was like “Oh cool, this is what everybody’s been talking about.” At that point in time I was already learning how to record, like engineer. But I did it from an analog place. Eventhough I was in the digital realm as far as ADATs and 4 tracks. Well, I guess 4 tracks are technically analog but there’s not a whole lot to do there. The experiences I had with all those guys really made a huge difference. We actually brought up Gavin MacKillop. He produced the “Friends” song, the theme song. He did a lot of stuff. He came up and worked in our studio and that was amazing for me. That was cool. He made everything sound amazing. It was like “okay, this can be done on the crappy gear that we have.”

Is there any producer out there that you’d really love to work with?

Mike: There probably is, although I can’t think of… (laughs) I’d love to work with Mutt Lange obviously. John McBride, here in Nashville at Blackbird. I mean, I don’t even know if he does producing anymore but I know he’s a big sound guy.

As a record collector, I really appreciate that the vast majority of MxPx and Tumbledown releases are available on vinyl and that they usually have some awesome color options. Is that a personal decision for you? Do you collect vinyl yourself?

Mike: I am a huge vinyl collector, yes. I love to have my stuff on…To me, I could care less about cds. I mean, I enjoy cds as well. But vinyl is to me, the holy grail. Like, it’s real if it’s on vinyl.

Before we close up, I’ve got a couple quick “lightning round” questions that you shouldn’t have to think too terribly much about. You have a weekend off, unlimited funds and a chauffer; where do you go, what do you do and what do you eat?

Mike: Wow! (laughs) Does it have to be in the states or anywhere in the world? That is a huge question. I’d probably change my answer like 10 times. Geez, that’s blowing my mind. I guess I’d want to go to Athens. I haven’t been to Athens yet. So that might be cool. Athens, Greece…and I would eat everything, I don’t know…(laughs)

What was the first song you learned how to play?

Mike: First song was “Smoke On The Water.”

This one might stump you like the first one. If you could assemble your dream supergroup, who would play what and what song would you like to hear them cover?

Mike: Wow! (laughs) There’s a lot of options there. Tom Petty. Might as well throw in Paul McCartney since it’s a super group. He’d be on bass, Tom Petty on rhythm. Umm…(laughs) this is ridiculous! Let me just tell you my favorite bands. (laughs) That’s a good question but it’s so hard because you don’t want to screw it up. There’s so many good people and could they be alive or dead too. Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash pops up. I’ve seen Willie Nelson but I never saw Johnny Cash play live. As far as newer bands…well, Smoking Popes are one of my favorite bands. Obviously Black Flag, eventhough they’re not new. Actually that doesn’t count as new, you’re right…and Smoking Popes aren’t even new are they? (laughs) I do like The Decemberists. They’re fairly new and I really enjoy them. Their songs are really good. Old 97’s, great band. Superdrag, huge fan of Superdrag.

What’s been one of the most rewarding moments of your career?

Mike: There’s been a few but I would say… just playing alongside bands that should be way above you, but you’re sort of peers with them. That’s been the best part. Just getting to hang with other bands that you respect. We got to open for Joe Strummer. (laughs) We got to open for The Sex Pistols but we didn’t get to meet them.

On the flipside, when was the last time you had to say, “Well, that didn’t work out like I thought it would”

Mike: Plenty of times on this tour! (laughs) Sometimes for the better though.

Finally, the inevitable interview closer, what’s next for Mike Herrera?

Mike: New MxPx record in the works. Already started recording it. When I get home I’m gonna finish or at least continue working on it. I’m excited for that. After MxPx, we’ll probably start working on Tumbledown. Which I haven’t written hardly anything for because I’ve just been touring and writing for MxPx. It’ll all happen though!

Huge thanks to Mike for taking the time to talk! Don't forget, Mike's newest album, Live From The Basement, can be ordered from the Tumbledown merch site HERE or from the MxPx merch site HERE.

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