Saturday, May 12, 2012

Midgetmen Interview

This interview is week 17 of Sean Claes' 52 Weeks of Austin Music Interviews.

Austin's Midgetmen 
Celebrating their 10th Anniversorry

By Sean Claes
OK, I have to admit something. Midgetmen have been around for a decade and before receiving their Loud Enough in the mail recently, I'd never heard them before. When I did hear the CD, their fourth which was released in 2011, I dug their stripped-down sloppy and fun rock sound. It says "Austin" to me. I can see myself siting back in a club on Red River drinking a beer while listening to them do all the work from stage.

So, I took a chance to interview them for their big 10th Anniversorry Celebration (Yes, I spelled that right) which is happening on May 18th at The Mohawk. That's when I learned that they are some pretty funny folks as well. Apparently I didn't get the memo for the last decade, but I'll be damned if I don't let the readers on INsite make the same mistake for the next one. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Midgetmen - The INsite Interview.

Sean Claes: Four friends who worked together in the software industry learn that they can play music to get free drinks. The Midgetmen were born in 2002 based on this premise. Did you think you’d still be playing together in 2012?
Marc Perlman: No, I thought I'd have moved out of Austin before then. Probably to a mansion in Malibu after our first album when 17x platinum.

Jon Loyens: Don't know if I ever thought about it like that.  I love this band and I think as long as I'm living in Austin, I'll be playing with these guys because they're my friends and it's one of the things we like to do together.  I mean, playing music just slows down the beer consumption so that's probably a healthy thing.

Justin Petro: No, not at all. I wasn't sure we'd make it to next practice, let alone next month or year or… decade! When you look back on it though, it was remarkably easy to put up with the other three jokers for the last ten years. 

Perlman: I think Justin and I were both of the mentality of "Two years in Texas, then back to real life in the Northeast!" Oops.

Claes: OK, that’s the bio story, but how did you guys actually come together as a band?
Loyens: Really simple.  I was hanging out with Marc one day (I forget if it was at work or at a show) and he said he'd like to be in a band.  I said, great, how about you learn to play bass since Petro already had a kit and I played guitar.  We drove up to the pawn shop (I think I may have almost got in an accident and killed us) the next day and got Marc his first bass. That next weekend we had our first little jam session.  Then later that weekend we went to a J Mascis show with Alex.  Alex was said "I want to be in your band too" and showed up at our next jam with a case of beer. That's about it.  We were all hanging out together anyway so hanging out and playing music was a natural extension of what we were doing.

Perlman: Jon got it pretty spot on, I think. Our published bio is pretty accurate-- we did all meet at a software company called Trilogy and really did bond over a love of watery domestic beer and loud guitars. No one in the band (or outside the band, for that matter) had some epiphany of "If we put these four incredibly hot guys together and arm them with guitars, they'll get rich and famous."

Petro: Bordem. Economic collapse. War. Those are why you start bands, right? I think there was a certain degree of serendipity at play with us. We certainly had common interests in indie rock and beer, but also were afforded enough time and patience to make it more than a hobby. Patience equals putting up with my inability to play an instrument. 
2012: Photography by Maurice

Claes:  I like how your bio says you’re an ever devolving work in progress. How far have you devolved in the last 10 years?
Perlman: A couple years ago, it got to the point where Alex had to learn how to change a diaper.

Petro: I think most recently, especially with the return of 'real' indie and rock — that is, stripped down, guitar and drum driven growlers — we're devolving back to that. We got enamored with the Hold Steady a while back because they were making bar-rock again. They since went all sideways and have finally saw the light again, we hope. Similarly bands like the Cloud Nothings and Henry Clay People have brought back that angry fun we love listening to and playing. I think it's the right level of devolution. 

Loyens: I think in indie rock it's actually good to not sound like you know what  you're doing.  In the last 10 years we've actually gotten alright at playing our instruments and being tight. So from that perspective, we're devolving away from the indie rock ideal.  Next year we're going to prove how far we've come by covering all of 2112 and 5150 front to back.  We will only cover albums with numbers as titles.

Perlman: C'mon, Alex has to regularly change diapers. On multiple boys. You can guess whose diapers.

Claes:  How much farther is there to go?
Perlman: We're like Columbus. If we sail far enough West, we'll wind up East. Or, in our case, if we get low enough, we might get to headline Coachella by accident?

Loyens: I won't stop until we can play all of 2112 with note by note perfection. Therefore, we will never stop.
Petro: Miles. I hate all the fucking guitar and pomp and circumstance wankery of most music today. Let's go back to writing simple, awesome Ramones-y, big-beat pop songs. 

Perlman: Can a band exist where one guy wants to play 2112 note by note and the other guy thinks the Ramones were too complex? Stay tuned for the second decade of our lives!
5/13/03 @ Emo's

Claes:  Has the line-up remained consistent for the entire decade? How have you been able to pull that off?
Perlman: Same lineup, except for album #1 when Keith Shepherd (also another software guy who now has written of the topselling iPhone/iPad games!) was our singer. He was around until our first show as a four piece of July 31, 2003.

Loyens: I think we're lucky in that we're all good at doing something that makes a band stick.  Petro makes posters, Marc books shows, I drive the van and Alex drinks beer.

Petro: I F*CKING SING, TOO. Mostly, we're not good enough to do anything else… mostly. 

Claes: Who are some of the bands you’ve been honored/excited to play with over the years?
Perlman: The Wrens, Country Mice, The Misguided Lemming

Loyens: Titus Andronicus was great.  Playing the aftershows for Pavement and Dinsosaur Jr. at Stubb's was also great because we got to watch those shows from up high.  Of course, I've also loved playing with friends bands like Goes Cube and the Misguided Lemming.

Petro: I think we've met some really great people over the years. I think it's more the people than the bands themselves. Some of the stand-up folks in the industry who I like seeing because I know them through more than just their music: Henry Clay People, The Wrens, Titus Andronicus, Gay Blades, Calm Blue Sea, and Country Mice. 

Claes: The Midgetmen finally got to play the outdoor stage at Emo’s last year, and then the club closed. You feel responsible at all?
Perlman: Definitely. It's a little known fact that the Black Cat burned to the ground about 6 hours after I dropped off our first ever 5 song demo CDR looking for our first ever show. We're like the black angels of club death.

Loyens: No, and I wish Emo's all the best booking metal and hip hop out East.

Petro: Clubs, bands and marriages… we've killed them all. 

Perlman: Justin wins.

Claes:  I’ve seen your music described as “White-collar pub rock.” How accurate is that to you? How would you describe it?
Perlman: We've all got white collar jobs and we sing about it. So, maybe? I like Bob Pollard's description of GBV as "fun rock." And, I like former Austin Chronicle writer Darcie Stevens' description of "slop punk."

Loyens: We've got white collar jobs yeah but I don't think the music is white collar at all.  I think White Collar Pub rock is honestly the shit cover bands that play Lucky Lounge or even a lot of the faux-Americana stuff that all the done up Dallas girls go see at Saxon Pub.  The fact that we have these white collar jobs lets us make music that we actually give a shit about.

Petro: I think we've all worked pretty hard to get where we are in life. I don't think anyone of us really came from a silver spoon situation, so we have a blue collar ethic — DIY, punk rock, call it what you will  — that built it. We like being in bars and playing to 50 people as opposed to 5000. Not that we wouldn't do that latter, but to coin a Hold Steady lyric: "It's great to see you back in a bar band…" 

Claes:  How would you describe your writing process? Are you driven by lyrics or music first?
Perlman: Most stuff seems to come from jamming on a riff until we come up with a few parts and then piece it together. The lyrics are usually slapped on like a bad paint job. Alex and Jon used to bring fully formed songs to the band, complete with lyrics, but that stopped around 2007/2008 probably because we got comfortable screwing around until we said "that's a song!"

Loyens: Generally it's music first.  Marc and Justin are definitely the best lyrics writers in the band but they tend to be a little verbose.  Alex and I can't remember that many lyrics so we're good editors in that regard.

Petro: Music. I like that for the most recent stuff it's all a jam session. Someone may come with an idea, but it's usually a riff or something. We play it over and over and see what sticks. I think it's much more democratic than most bands where there is a true leader. I think that's also one reason we managed to get this far — individually, we're a bunch of assholes, but somehow in the context of the band we're able to be egoless and just roll with it.  

Perlman: It's also important to note that Alex has such an ego he decided not to participate in this interview. He also is the defacto frontman, because it annoys him when we say that.

Claes:  Who typically writes the lyrics? Is there ever anything that’s off limits, or you don’t think the band should be writing about so you don’t?
Perlman: We kind of rotate who "claims" an unlyric'ed song. We'll play the instrumental song 9 million times until we realize "Hey, Jon hasn't sung a new song in a while. Jon, this one is yours!" and then it's Jon's job to come up with lyrics. I don't think anything is off limits, though we've tried to limit profanity in case someone accidentally wanted to play our songs on the radio.

Loyens: Generally (but not always) the guy singing the song is the guy who wrote the lyrics, but everyone will chip in and help edit.  I suppose pedophilia would be off limits but not much else.

Petro: I think we draw mostly from life's moments. Most of them have some sort of personal tinge, whether that's something deep like Goodbye, or light hearted like King Kong. We don't tend to stray too far from what we know, either in lyrics or content. 

Claes:  You’ve released 4 albums thus far. Do you have a favorite?
Perlman: Favorite album is definitely Loud Enough. from 2011. Favorite song is a toss up between Shitbox and King Kong. Though, Goodbye -- which we recently started playing live again -- is up there.

Loyens: Loud Enough by far.  King Kong is my favorite song we've done.  Front to back it's great.

Petro: For sure, I love the fast ones. I honestly have to say I still get a kick out of playing the very first song we wrote: Gone Away.

Claes:  Your latest release, from May 2011, is Loud Enough. What is your favorite track to play live from this album?
Perlman: King Kong. I remember when we wrote it, I said it was the best thing we'd done in a while. And the first time we played it live, I could tell our friends and fans didn't think it sucked. Tommy from The Pons told me we'd have trouble topping King Kong after he heard it with the horn parts, which is about as complimentary as you can get!

Loyens: King Kong or the Dream.

Justin: I like Race To The Bottom. It's got this Dinosaur Jr feeling to it (at least to me), but at 2x the speed. I think it rocks. If I was 18 I would love it. 

Claes:  I caught an interview The Austinist did with you guys when you celebrated your 5 year anniversary and you sited The Hold Steady as your band-crush (in not so many words). Do they still stand as an inspiration to you? They are writing their 6th album right now.
Perlman: Well, album #5 was boring to me, but their live show here in Austin in April was great. So, while they're not my band-crush right now.. they could return to that if album #6 doesn't put me to sleep.

Loyens: Definitely.  Just saw the Hold Steady for the first time without a keyboard player.  It's a testament to that bands songs that they've gone from sounding like the E Street Band to sounding like Thin Lizzy and the songs still hold up great.

Petro: Well, yes and no. We just saw them a few weeks ago at Mohawk and they were awesome. However, I'm no longer enamored. The last two album were phoned in as far as I can tell. They lost that bar-band aesthetic that made them so unique. Band certainly need to mature, but I feel it safe to say that we want more 'Positive Jams' and less of the shite on the last album. I'm in to quirky and unique, not polished wankery. 

Other than them, I'm really into the Cloud Nothings and the new Japandroids at the moment. 
2009 - Photography By Maurice

Claes: You’ve been playing in the Austin scene for a decade. How has it changed in that time for you guys?
Perlman: It's become "home" as opposed to "this place that's hotter than hell where I happen to live."

Loyens: A lot of clubs and bands have come and gone but we haven't.  There are fewer places to play downtown, but generally the places we play are far cooler.  I actually think the scene has gotten better because of it.

Petro: I love that it's been disrupted by all the new players: Transmission, et al. I hope that continues to happen. It's good market economy. It's nicer to see shows now-a-days, better venues, better sound. It's potentially slightly less 'authentic' if you like truly shitty bars. It's all growns-up. 

Claes:  What is your thoughts on the current state of live music in Austin?
Perlman: I think there are some pretty good small bands, but it strikes me as very odd that Austin really has trouble producing a band that can pack a 300-500 person room that doesn't completely suck. As a city, we don't seem to produce many rock bands that get invited to tour as national openers, play early in the day at big festivals, etc who then grow up to be the next Spoon.

Petro: Eh. I think a lot of it is derivative. I like bands like the Gary who are still doing what they want to do regardless of the trends.  

Claes: You’re celebrating your 10th anniversary as a band on May 18 at Mohawk. You’ve got a pretty killer line-up. Do the other bands represent friends you’ve had throughout the last decade?
Perlman: Yes, for the most part, all these bands (or individual folks in these bands) have been playing shows with us off and on for 10 years. The Misguided Lemming played with us at our first ever Emo's show in 2003, so we're ecstatic that we convinced Ben to fly in from NY, skip his grad school graduation, and come play a reunion show with Scotty and James!

Petro: Of course. That's how we like to roll. It's amazing what people will do for other bands. We love the guys in the Misguided Lemming. They're reuniting just for us! How awesome is that?!

Loyens: Yup.  That's exactly the plan.

Claes: What kind of fun things are going to be pulled out of your bag of tricks for this celebration?
Perlman: I guess the Weird Al cover set is already out of the bag, eh?

Loyens: A tribute to the world's greatest songwriter. Weird Al.

Petro: We'll be sober. That'll be the best party trick we've ever accomplished. There's also zero chance it'll go off without a hitch.  

Claes:  You’re wrapping up the night by performing a set outdoors, then coming to the indoor stage and performing Weird Al’s Dare To Be Stupid. How did that idea come about?
Perlman: We've always covered a random song or two for the spectacle (like We Are The World in 2010) and no one wanted to cover The Wall or Sandinista, so we settled on Dare To Be Stupid.

Loyens:  We wanted to play a set of covers, but it needed to be just ridiculous enough.  This was clearly the answer.  Alex and I both wore out Dare to be Stupid as kids and most of the covers/parodies are good party songs that people recognize.

Petro: I had for YEARS wanted to do a polka party cover. These three d-bags never got behind it. When we were debating what to do for the 10 year, I pushed them again. It's a perfect idea really, not only do we get to play covers, we get to play covers of covers. They're songs that everyone knows and can sing along with — and, they're fun! 
4/3/02 - First Show Ever

Claes:  June 14th is Midgetmen Day at Stubbs? Tell me about this.
Perlman: The city will recognize any band that fills out a form (see earlier question on current state of music in Austin). They assigned us June 14th and then Stubb's was willing to let us book a show there. We'll get the key to the city or something and then promptly lose it in the bar bathroom. Also, our friends in Boy + Kite and Calm Blue Sea are playing that with us… and they'll be required to pay homage to us by offering their first born and/or their drink tickets.

Loyens: The city finally came around on us.  Just wait for our bronze statue.

Petro: Every dog gets its day. Right? 

Claes:  Anything  else you’d like to add?
Perlman: Thank you! To Sean, to our friends and family and fans and the other bands and the places that have let us play there over the years. It's been pretty fun.

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