You may recognize Mike Coykendall as guitarist for M. Ward but a mere sideman he is not. A local institution here in Portland as both producer and musician and curator of musical lore, Coykendall also writes his own songs and fronts his own band. On the eve of the release of his latest disc Chasing Away the Dots, Coykendall and I spoke over a bowl of minestrone soup about his new record, fame and getting old. I’m pleased to present the Spectrum Culture interview with Mike Coykendall.

Why don’t you tell our readers how you first came across Spectrum Culture.

Through my friend Dylan McConnell who owns Field Hymns records. I think the first time I heard about it is when you reviewed that last record that I had.

Was that me?

No, not you but Spectrum Culture. We hadn’t even met.

We should let everyone know that we know each other.

Yeah, we’ve hung out a few times.

It wasn’t the most positive review, was it?

That was not a positive review. I think he liked one song, or two maybe. Yeah, that was not a positive review (laughs).

You told me that you don’t take those things personally but then you were able to quote the review verbatim.

Oh! Yeah, I read it a couple of times. I was like, “What did he say?” I don’t think I quoted it verbatim, but I got the gist of it. There weren’t too many bad reviews. That was the worst review for that record.

We’re honored. Were there a lot of reviews?

Oh, maybe 10 or something like that. Not that many. We didn’t have a PR budget on that record. Dylan sent it out the best he could.

That record was mostly outtakes, right?

It was leftovers from my prior record and a few things that I recorded shortly after that record. Two or three songs.

Here you are gracious enough to sit for an interview even though we put you through the shredder once.

I don’t take those things too personally. Even though your reviewers probably love music it’s subjective. Sometimes somebody has a bad day or sometimes they just like certain types of things and don’t like other things. Unless they would attack me personally, I wouldn’t smell a rat.

Did it take time to get to a place where dealing with less than glowing reviews doesn’t matter that much?

No, the only way you can be in it as long as I have been in it is to somehow figure out a way to cope with the bad stuff and hold onto the little morsels that keep you going. I got a review one time in MOJO magazine for the first Old Joe Clarks record where they compared my voice to Kermit the Frog. That was not a really good review.

Willie Nelson kind of sounds like Kermit the Frog.

Yeah, maybe so, but that was a good record. It got really good reviews. But we got that one bad one and I remember it. I couldn’t quote you the good reviews but I can quote you the Kermit the Frog part. It has become a running joke.

Have you ever covered “It’s Not Easy Being Green”?

No. (laughs)

Well, you have a new record out called Chasing Away the Dots. I’ve never heard of the label before. Fluff and Gravy Records?

A brand new Portland label. It’s just getting going. They’ve had three releases before this one.

Why did you go with them?

They were enthused. They were willing to put some of their money behind it and they liked the record. They wanted to do vinyl. I couldn’t afford to do vinyl myself really.

Are you doing anything special with the vinyl releases?

Actually, the vinyl comes with the original full double record. It was originally a double record and I weeded it back down to a single record. It was my version of a White album style kind of record. A double record covering a lot of territory.

Except you wrote all of the songs.

Except I wrote all of the songs! I have multiple personalities.

I’ve heard the record does veer from style to style. There’s some quieter songs and then there’s more studio trickery type songs. Did you just go with your mood that day?

Yep, that’s it! Exactly. Just my mood. I grew up playing covers. That’s how you did it back then. You learned other people’s songs until you started writing some of your own. Through learning other people’s songs you could have ended up learning “La Bamba” and also have to learn the new John Cougar Mellencamp song or Zeppelin or anything. I learned to play in a lot of styles and some of those styles I would spend a lot of time with. I’ve listened to a lot of psychedelic music. I’ve listened to a lot of the Carter Family. I’ve listened to tons of Beatles and a lot of Johnny Cash too. A lot of disparate worlds. I identify with both of those things.

Yeah, I’ve heard you cover “Astronomy Domine.”

I’ve been covering that one since the late ‘80s.

Although the record is disparate in style, who would you say were your biggest influences this time around?

At this point, and I don’t mean to sound big-headed, I’ve had enough years of blending these styles that I think it’s just me now. But I could tell you that on certain sections of certain songs that I’m ripping off “Young Lust” off of The Wall with that bass line there or here that if the Byrds hadn’t played folk rock I definitely wouldn’t have come up with that.

On the vinyl it said it’s more Mike for your money. How many extras tracks do we get?

Eleven. The double was originally a 25 track record.

How many years in the making were some of these songs?

Four or five, considering the last year where I didn’t do anything but a little more mastering on it. It’s been done for a year and three months.

How did you decide which half of the tracks to jettison?

It was hard. It’s always hard. It would be easier, stylistically, to make a record in just two weeks and put it out. There’s going to be a little more natural continuity to a record like that. I dinked around and just had fun. There’s no pressure on me to come up with an album. I’m not relying on the income. It’s probably the opposite! It costs me every time I put out a record. I enjoy the process of making stuff. But at a certain point I start thinking, “Okay, that one’s good to go on the record.” I just add to that and record some more. Sometimes you’re in love with one for awhile and then, “You know, this song doesn’t wear that well on me.” Then there are other ones that you know are lesser songs but they seem to fit nicely as a little thing on the record. So you put one on that just works on there even though this other song might technically be a better song and you leave it off.

You can save it for the fan club.

Save it for the fan club.

What would you consider the Mike Coykendall sound?

Oh, goodness. I don’t know if I could answer that. I’m a rhythmic player. If I’m playing all of the instruments there’s a stark, rhythmic quality. Lyrically, I tend to be a little bit on the melancholy side but also I can be real silly.

For some musicians, the lyrics are the primary and the playing is subsidiary. What about for you?

It depends on the track. Sometimes the playing does come first. Most of the time, the lyrics come first. I almost always have a notebook with me. It’s something I therapeutically do. I’m always writing bits for song lyrics and titles. I work on the lyrics more than I work on the music. The music comes pretty fast for me. Occasionally, I can hear a chord progression and a melody and I have one line. Then I have to fill out the lyric and that can be really hard because you don’t want the lyric to grab you if you really love the music.

Can you think of any great songs where the music is amazing but the lyrics are crappy?

“Highway Star” by Deep Purple.

Ah, I don’t really listen to Deep Purple.

I don’t either but I’ve always liked that song. One time, I was sitting and my friend was playing me the quad version of that song. I’d never heard quad before. So he’s setting me in the center of the speakers and hands me the big gatefold record and I said, “Oh! Play “Highway Star,” I’ve always loved that one.” I opened it up and was reading along for the first time and I was like, “These are awful!” That’s the first one that comes to mind. Some of Led Zeppelin’s lyrics were really bad. McCartney’s not so good, but his music is. He can be good and he has been many, many times, but it feels like an afterthought on his stuff. He’s just a melody guy. He wants to get as much melody in there as he can.

He will be the last Beatle standing probably.

I don’t know. Ringo’s cool.

You have some great guests on your new record. Who do you have?

Who do I have? Who don’t I have! There’s Jill, my wife, who plays bass on a song and plays clarinet on the double record. So everybody who plays in my band: Jill, Scott Hampton, Scott DeMay, Matt Brown, Chris Robley, Lewi Longmire, Christian Hurd, tons of Portland people. Garth Klippert played all over it. Eric Earley from Blitzen Trapper, Matt Ward, Zooey Deschanel and Ben Gibbard. They weren’t even married yet, but they were seeing each other. We were working on the She & Him record and they came over and sang background vocals on one of the songs. I was like, “Why not? Yeah, they’re great singers.” I’m probably forgetting somebody but I didn’t bring a list. There’s a lot, but I meant to do that. It was a 4-track record to a degree, and I wanted to keep it low-key. This was not going to be some glossy production. I was comfortable knowing it was going to be a quirky, underground, low-profile record anyway. I was more comfortable asking people to come over and play on that record than make some kind of star-studded high-gloss record.

Did you produce it?

Yes.

Do you feel the high profile guests will help it sell?

Yeah. Oh yeah. Absolutely.

They going to plug it on “New Girl”?

Nah, I’m not going to ask them to do any of that stuff. It’s sad. It’s sad that it matters so much.

You are obviously not adverse to selling your music because you were telling me that you made some money off of “Breaking Bad.”

Yeah, it was through a licensing company. Basically, I got the check before I even knew what “Breaking Bad” was. It was $3,500.

Yeah, you said it was the easiest $3,000 you ever made.

Yeah! That song was the only song on that record that was purely recorded on a 4-track cassette deck and mixed to a regular cassette deck. It was the most lo-fi thing on that album. I love the track and the mix is good. It’s an instrumental. For the price of two cassettes, I made that money.

Thank goodness it was a good show.

I know it’s a good show, but I don’t have cable.

You could rent it.

I might. I hear it’s good.

Just telling someone your song was on “Breaking Bad,” even more than knowing Matt Ward, gives you instant cred points.

We should be putting that in the bio, I guess. I couldn’t tell you what episode it was. I heard it might have gone along with the “Breaking Bad” trailer that shows up when you rent another DVD. It was about four years ago.

Which song was it?

“Driver Carries No Cash.”

What is it about the track that attracted them?

It’s got an irresistible guitar line and it sounds maniacal.

Back to the new record and the guests. In our community, you are known as being a behind-the-scenes guy as much as a player. Your affiliation with Blitzen Trapper and M. Ward also helped you get these folks on the record, right?

I don’t call people I don’t know to play on my records. I’ve never called anybody I didn’t know unless I just needed a French horn player and absolutely didn’t know anybody.

So then it must be a lot of fun and loose to record with these folks because you know them.

Yeah, and the songs are pretty mostly done. They can just waltz in for anywhere from a half hour to two hours and then they’re gone. I have a house full of instruments, so they don’t need to bring anything. It was fun.

So Chasing Away the Dots, where did you come up with that?

I came up with it late one night and I can’t even really tell you exactly why. I just liked it.

Does it have any significance?

Yeah, it does, but it would be better if I don’t disclose it because it’s vague enough. If though I know maybe mainly what it makes me think of…

Makes me think of an acid trip.

Yeah, there’s that angle too. Like the microdots or whatever. Also, it’s kind of like trying to close out the static.

Are you going to be doing a tour to support it?

As much as I can. I’m going to have to end up taking a break for the bad winter months and maybe just stick to the West Coast. It’s hard to get a booking agent. I don’t pack places, so I have to do it myself. It’s a sea of bands out there. It’s like you’re in a rowboat in a sea of a million rowboats.

Yeah, I began listening to music in the pre-internet era and since the advent of the internet…

It’s insane. That’s how it is.

But you have an opening slot coming up for M. Ward?

Yeah, I’ve got some good things going. I’ve got a leg up, but it’s not a huge leg up. That’s wonderful but I don’t need to open for Matt Ward in Portland. I don’t need any more exposure in Portland. I mean, it’s fun. I love to play the Aladdin Theater but it’s not about that. It would be better for me to go around the country, opening every night in a new place.

That wasn’t an option?

Well, no. First of all, his touring is winding down and my record is just coming out. I missed that. The timing wasn’t right. And, you know, it might not be a good idea anyway. It might be better to go with somebody where I’m not playing in the band later on. But, I would do it if he asked me. You don’t get offered something like that and say no.

I’ve known you for a couple of years now and it doesn’t seem that being huge is a particular aspiration of yours.

No, I just want to continue on, not feel like a fool and not lose money. However I have to do that. If it means this is as big as it gets, that’s fine. Or maybe it can get slightly bigger. Or maybe it gets smaller!

Well, you’ve been around. Do you feel there is even a place for smaller or mid-level bands in this industry any longer in terms of being able to survive monetarily?

No. Not when you throw monetarily in there. The equation doesn’t make sense. It’s worse than ever. Luckily, I have a lot of things I can do. Maybe the record is too diverse, but I am diverse in what I can do too. I have a studio in my house. I can play as a side person. I can play a lot of different instruments. I can write songs and lead a band. I can do books for a company. I can do accounting. It’s comforting to know that I’m not stuck to one thing.

Do you feel like your way of life is something will die out sooner or later?

Yeah, I feel like it already has. I feel like that with most of the young, up and coming bands, the only ones that can stick it out are the ones that have some way of bankrolling it like some trust funds. I don’t see record companies coming forward. No one wants to develop an artist unless it’s a really attractive girl or some really attractive guy they can turn into a movie star. Those are your development deals. I don’t think anybody’s looking to work with a young band that’s getting their stuff together.

If you think of bands like U2 and R.E.M., stadium-sized bands, there aren’t that many bands that have come out in the last 10 years that can do that. Jack White, maybe. Maybe the Arcade Fire.

I can’t really think of anybody, yeah. Jay-Z?

He’s been around for a while.

But maybe some of those bigger hip-hop acts.

Yeah, but they also make a ton of money from sponsorships.

It’s crazy. This is my last shot at the old template. I’m not sad about that. I’m just going to have to re-assess how to do what I want to do.

Are you working on anything behind the scenes now that you would like to share?

Not really. There hasn’t been much time to work on anything because I’ve been on tour with Matt. And I’ve been trying to be a good businessman on my own record this time. It’s always easier for me to make the thing and say, “Okay! It’s done!” This time I’m trying to do the best I can.

Last time I saw you was at Sasquatch and you said you had just dropped in to play your set and then left. Do you find touring to be exciting still?

I do. When I’m touring with Matt it’s not too bad because there is a big crew. I don’t have to schlep the bass amp onto the truck myself each night. There are people who do that. That makes it easier on the getting older front. I still think it’s a lot of fun. There’s a lot more pressure on him than me. I just have to show up and play the songs good. I don’t have to answer for all this and that. I get to be kind of anonymous and I get to have fun.

It was kind of cool to see you on the Jumbotron there.

Yeah! I get to be on the Jumbotron!

I know a lot of people are Zooey Deschanel fans. Do you have any stories you would like to share about her you’ve never told before? You know, nothing humiliating.

Nothing raunchy?

Well…

(both laugh) I don’t have anything raunchy! I can’t think of one that is hoo-hoo, ha-ha crazy. When we were making that first record we went from my place to Thanh Thao and had dinner. We walked down there and it turned into a real, rare Portland night. It was funny watching her run up the street and try to get home and away from the cold. That was kind of amusing. She’s an LA girl. She’s not quite used to that. It was unusually cold. It was cold for Matt and me. That sticks out as kind of funny.

In interviews, do you feel the M. Ward stuff overshadows your own stuff?

Oh sure. Definitely. That’s just natural. More people know about him, so people want to ask about him.

I want to make sure you feel sufficiently attended to here.

Oh yeah. That’s just the world we live in. People are celebrity-happy. People really feel like if someone’s famous and then they can get a little piece of that, that makes them more than they were. I see that.

You don’t feel that way?

I think I might have at one point but I don’t feel that way at all anymore. Absolutely not.

So when Peter Buck walks out of your house, you don’t…

Oh, a little bit! I was such an R.E.M. fanatic. But not really. If it was 1985 and I was meeting Peter Buck I would be goony. But now, I can talk to him like a person. Maybe I ask him a story.

The reason I am bringing him is because a mutual friend of ours said he was biking by your house and Peter Buck walked out and got into his immaculate Benz with tinted windows and took off. He said he thought, “Mike’s cool!”

(laughs) Yeah, there’s great people (like Buck)… and then others too.

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