In-Time Interview: The Midgetmen

Welcome to our second installment of In-Time Interviews. A couple of months ago, we featured Abram Shook of The Great Nostalgic talking about their new release Hope We Live Like We Promised. This time around, it’s Marc Perlman and Jon Loyens, bassist and guitarist respectively of local punk legends The Midgetmen, discussing this year’s Loud Enough, which we have previously raved about here at OVRLD. As with last time, we all gathered via the power of the Internet, synced our iTunes and listened simultaneously to Loud Enough. What follows is a real-time transcript of our conversation, and you can listen along to the album on their bandcamp page:

“Beer’s Gone”
Carter: A rousing song to start off with. It’s interesting to start the album with a song about the day after the party. Do you think that’s a theme throughout the material that follows? Dealing with life after the party ends?
Jon: I’d say that’s somewhat accurate. The last song on the album is about a guy who is always the designated driver.
Carter: Whoa, you’re getting ahead of us!
Marc: Could be. I proposed doing a rock opera about being in The Midgetmen for album #5 to which [singer/guitarist] Alex [Victoria] said, “That’s the first 4 albums.” And this album might actually fit as the autobiographical rock opera inadvertently. I really just wanted to say we released a rock opera, and then start a feud with Fucked Up.
Carter: How is this like an autobiographical rock opera?
Marc: How? We’re pretty bad at writing lyrics, so pretty much everything is autobiographical by whoever writes the lyrics. We’re not very good at topical songs – politics, etc.; they usually fall flat.
Carter: So one day, the beer was gone? And you wrote a song about it? You just make something so mundane sound so anthemic here.
Marc: Alex wrote this one. I think the line is from a movie about the beer being gone so the actor is gone.
Jon: We all liked the sentiment. That’s how I feel about most parties.
Marc: Of course no one except Alex and his brother Rich got the reference. We thought he just needed to go to HEB for another case of Keystone.

Carter: So what is “Unforgettable” about?
Jon: I think this song is about how Marc gets pissed at us for never remembering when we have shows.
Marc: Yes, another autobiographical song. The song started with me just singing the first line because Alex can’t remember anything ever. Then I had to come up with more lyrics, so I just made stuff up to sound profound. “Those words of his” line? No clue who that’s about. I was trying to come up with something bigger than just “me,” I think.
Carter: How do you take these little ideas or moments or experiences and turn them into full-fledged songs?
Jon: Our songs all generally start off by jamming on a riff and then starting to arrange them in real time. Lyrics come last for us.

“King Kong”
Marc: Man, this is hard when all of our songs are two minutes long.
Jon: This is actually one of my favorites on the album… Lots of good space.
Carter: I like the horn section, what was the impetus for that? How did you write it? Record it?
Marc: I think that came from Alex. He played trumpet in high school, and was probably in the marching band and wore those silly outfits and hats.
Jon: This was 100% a jam in practice that we miraculously remembered. Then after we recorded it, we realized there was some great space for the extra instruments. My first guitar solo in this song was recorded live too… It was meant to be a scratch track. It’s my favorite guitar playing on the record I think.
Carter: Jon, you’re talking like a recording engineer. What do you mean by “space” on this track?
Jon: This one just had good space in the arrangement. We didn’t neuter it by shortening it to two minutes.
Marc: The guitar intro, played by Jon, is always slightly different live. We still haven’t mastered the rhythm part.
Carter: But you nailed it in the studio.
Marc: This breakdown– that’s me playing the cello. I have to toot my own horn in that I played cello from 3rd-12th grades and hadn’t touched the instrument since 1996 when I graduated from high school!
Jon: Yeah, instrumentally this song hangs back in the grove well. Plus, when we recorded it we realized it needed some more beef.
Marc: I thought — until the liner notes — that the lyric was “Your King Kong” in the possessive manner. Instead, it’s “You’re King Kong.”
Carter: So the reference to Stevie Nicks doesn’t seem so punk…where did that come from? I mean, that is my favorite Fleetwood Mac song…
Jon: I hate Lindsay Buckingham. He grates my nerves.
Marc: No clue. Alex will spend months and months just mumbling words. Even live, he’ll mumble stuff the first 15 times a song is played at a show. And then when it’s time to record, we force him to have real words and he just appears with lyrics about Stevie Nicks.
Carter: So you aren’t all closet Rumours fans?
Marc: No. For as much as I like 70s rock, I hate Fleetwood Mac… The rest of that outro, lyrically, is about Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania, where Alex grew up.

“Glue Factory”
Jon: Anyway, modus operandi for us when we “beef things up” is just to record 20 tracks of guitars… On this one, Alex and I just went a little crazy. This is the only song on this record that I sing 🙂
Carter: The metaphor of a “glue factory” sounds very fatalistic, but you’re saying “We all get by” at the end, right? This album seems to balance those two extremes a lot.
Marc: “Glue Factory,” Jon’s vocal moment on Loud Enough, is about all the bands we’ve played with that we outlived: The Misguided Lemming, Syntax! Facist.
Jon: Yeah, this song is about playing with friends’ bands that I loved.
Marc: Calm Blue Sea — who have reunited. In theory (my theory!), because we immortalized them in a song.
Carter: So this is your homage to all of them.
Jon: And how when they all move on or whatever it’s kinda sad but we keep on trucking along and hell, we still drink with every single one of those guys from bands I name check in the song.
Marc: Pretty much. Dave, from Syntax! Facist, is in a heavy band called Goes Cube now — they’ve opened for Tool — and he was really flattered that we name checked him.
Carter: Why do you think you all have lasted longer than those other bands?
Jon: Two words: Marc Perlman.
Marc: We have no lives other than being in the band.
Carter: And being software engineers.
Marc: I mean, we have jobs and some wives and kids or whatever.
Carter: Oh, those things.
Marc: But this is the real outlet for fun.

“Race to the Bottom”
Carter: So even after nine years, it’s still just as much fun as the beginning?
Jon: Definitely. Probably more. Especially after breaks. We’ve got our first show back after a break on Saturday and the last couple of practices have been super fun.
Marc: Also, I really LOVE the end with the “Whoa”s. I don’t care that the Hold Steady did it on whatever song it was on Stay Positive a few years back.
Marc: “Race To The Bottom” is another jam song.
Carter: I hear that in this middle section.
Marc: And the key shift right here was me just suggesting we do something stupid… The chords are basically Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” In fact, the song was called “Hey Ya Song” on our setlists until we had to name it for the album.
Jon: I can’t believe we almost took out that proggy guitar part/breakdown. That would’ve been tragic.
Carter: What left it in?
Marc: I probably told Jon and Alex to shut up and stop whining about how they didn’t like it.
Jon: I think it stayed in because I wanted it to still be ridiculous.
Marc: Every so often I get something right!
Jon: I loved that part!

Carter: So I’ve been wondering for weeks now: Who or what is Honus? And why is this song titled that?
Marc: I wish I had a good answer for that. The song was called “Neil Young Song” because it’s very similar — two chords, for the verse at least — to Neil Young’s “Change Your Mind.”
Jon: We play this song too slow live sometimes and it really drags but when we play it with some energy, it’s awesome.
Carter: Yeah, I like the slower groove of it.
Marc: And when we played it maybe once or twice, [drummer] Justin [Petro] said something about how it’s like a song for dudes with bad beards. And somehow I think I said a guy with a handlebar mustache should be named Honus, and then it became named “Honus.”
Jon: There’s a balance. If we play it too slow it turns into a death march.
Carter: Here you have a really antagonistic relationship with songwriting. There are a couple of songs on this album that are pretty self-aware about the songwriting process. What is your relationship with that process? And how has that changed over your nine-year career in the Midgetmen?
Marc: It’s gotten easier to say, “No, this song sucks,” and just throw it out. We used to try to keep every riff ever.
Jon: We started by just jamming as a group, then it went to individuals writing complete songs. Now we’re back to jamming. The energy in the jammed out songs is just so much better. And I think that’s important to us that everyone in the band is bought in on a song. We just play it better and with more force behind it.
Marc: The line about the song fighting back is actually stolen from an Onion AV Club review of Adam Sandler (I believe) covering Cortez The Killer or Like A Hurricane or some other Neil Young song on late night TV. He apparently butchered it and the AV Club said that the song fought back. I loved that line and stole it.
Carter: That’s awesome.
Marc: Alex actually came up with both the chords and arrangement on this, plus the vocal melody. But he didn’t want to sing and since it was so simple to play the bass on this one, I just started singing something.

“Sword Fight”
Jon: This is the novelty song on the record
Carter: Was it a conscious decision to follow such a weighty and dark song as “Honus” with something as silly as “Sword Fight?”
Marc: No, on this one it was a case of me trying to come up with more topical lyrics about just the general situation of being in a band, I think.
Carter: Being in a band is like having a sword fight? Wow, I would not have picked this as the most symbolic song on the album.
Marc: We originally called this “Lions” because it sounded like us trying to be the Austin band Lions and failing miserably.
Jon: It’s a little more about 5 yr. old humor on this one.
Marc: But the lyrics are deep! “American Standard flushed my dreams.” That’s a toilet reference!
Carter: A high-brow toilet reference.
Jon: I like the Senator reference too. What was that dude’s name?
Marc: And “Bathroom bromance, a Senator screams” is about the guy who tried to initiate gay sex under the toilet door.
Jon: The senator trying to solicit a little man-on-man in an airport.
Carter: Larry Craig.
Jon: Yes! I love republicans.
Carter: Wow, there’s your political song.
Marc: And I wanted to use the word “bromance.”

Carter: And now we’re onto “Advice”… Who are you giving advice to here?
Marc: I would have to guess this was Alex giving advice to his first son. I think we played this live a few times before his kid was born and then the first show before his kid was born — the Dinosaur Jr aftershow — he magically had some more words that made sense.
Carter: Coincidence? I think not.
Marc: It should be noted that his son was born a week or so early after his pregnant wife came to that show. The baby literally got rocked out of the womb. Thank god J Mascis didn’t have to deliver it.
Carter: Though that would’ve been a story.
Jon: That would’ve been the most socially awkward delivery ever.
Carter: Did you/do you worry about the level of sincerity here? I feel like a lot of indie music, both of the punk and non-punk variety try to eschew this kind of earnestness.
Jon: No, not really.
Marc: I think Alex just had a moment of clarity where he actually had something to say.
Jon: I think we’re so tongue-in-cheek a lot of times that when we do stuff like this, it’s because we mean it. It’s authentic, not forced. Doesn’t happen often but it happens.

The Midgetmen at their 9th Anniversorry

“Wheeling Downs”
Marc: Another song where I have no clue why Alex is singing what he is singing.
Jon: This is a weird mashup about Alex’s dog, his life and a dog track in Wheeling Downs, West Virginia.
Carter: Ah, I was wondering what the title was referencing… Do you do anything different in the studio than you would do live, or is this pretty much how the songs will sound?
Marc: I think we slow things down a bit in the studio.
Carter: Is that conscious?
Jon: On this one? Yeah, it was.
Marc: We learned on our first album that what we think is ploddingly slow is actually fast when it’s played back. We try to do it live too, but we’re usually too worked up and excited to remember to take a deep breath and just wait.
Jon: We really nailed this breakdown here, too. A lot of what we recorded in the first couple of studio sessions we re-did in my home studio because we didn’t like the performance, but this one stayed because of this breakdown.
Carter: This bridge is another great example of the space you were talking about.
Marc: This is a song that probably has 20 alternative mixes.
Carter: How did it evolve?
Jon: There’s a lot of dynamics in this breakdown and it was hard to get everything to ramp just right.
Marc: The outro vocals were tweaked a lot, and then Jon did all kinds of crazy automation to raise and lower specific instruments as it builds.
Jon: The outro was hard to get mixed, too.
Marc: This was definitely a song that came from just jamming though, which is why the “chorus” part is kind of awkward. We had a single part and we needed something else and just fiddled around until we had a song… This is one of the first songs we wrote. The goal was seven new songs for our 7th anniversary and this was one of the seven.
Jon: One of the more challenging parts of mixing our music is the amount of cymbals in it. It’ll make you pull out your hair.
Carter: I was going to say, the cymbals have a huge presence. The hi-hats in particular sound really thick.
Marc: Like Lou Reed said, “Cymbals eat guitars.”
Jon: No avoiding that. You just have to work around it.

“Sea Shanty”
Marc: “Sea Shanty” was also an early song that was written for the album in those seven songs. I love this song as do a lot of our fans.
Carter: So you’ve had these two kicking around for a while.
Marc: I just wish it was a bit tighter.
Jon: Our guitar playing is actually really horrendous on this.
Carter: What do you love about this one?
Jon: The song itself.
Marc: Justin does some hairy rolls and the rest of us are all over the place.
Jon: It comes together much better as a whole than if you listen to the individual tracks.
Marc: And the second part, I love how it stomps around. Alex didn’t want to do this weird round robin thing with his vocals at the end. I think he did a single take and said it was good enough, and we made him double track it and then Jon made it crazy.
Carter: Yeah, it’s got two distinct halves.
Jon: That’s a Midgetmen signature right there. We never write just one song; we have to cram two songs into one.

“Fly High Fly Low”
Marc: We’re not very good at verse-chorus-verse (or maybe with a bridge)… We seem to wind up adding a random part that could be another song.
Carter: It keeps people on their toes.
Marc: And no one would ever say our songs are “complex.”
Jon: We have short attention spans.
Marc: If we were Wire, we’d have 4x more songs!
Carter: So here is another darker sounding song about songwriting.
Jon: I like this one. It’s a very different texture than the rest of the record.
Marc: I know I purposefully wrote this song about people asking for songs, because it was the LEAST catchy song ever.
Carter: To spite everyone?
Marc: Just to kind of say that we aren’t going to specifically write you a song, because we’re not good enough to pull a song together with a certain vibe. It just happens that we’ll write a happier song, or a dark song, or a stupid punk song. We fall into songs; we don’t write them with specifics in mind. … And the pigeon thing comes from reading a book about the history of pigeons (don’t ask) and there’s some inscription on the inside cover that says something like “Some days you’re the pigeon, some days you’re the statue.” Which is obviously about some days you’re doing the shitting on and some days you’re shat on.

“The Dream”
Carter: This is your fourth studio album, so you must have the process down pretty well now. What was the biggest challenge in recording the album?
Jon: I think we’re pretty good at coming up with the songs now. Lyrics are always an issue, and I seem to have a starter problem when it comes to mixing. I’m decent enough at it and I enjoy it a lot, but it’s daunting to look at a screen with 20 to 30 tracks and get down to business.
Marc: “The Dream,” contrary to popular belief of maybe seven people who get to the end of the album, is not about being on stage or being in a band. It’s about Alex’s Dad’s friend Les who is nicknamed “The Dream” because he’s a 60-something-year-old man — a judge, I believe — who doesn’t drink any more and thus is the designated driver for their gang of lawyer friends. Thus he is the dream!
Carter: So it’s a tribute to DDs everywhere, or just that one?
Jon: Just him. He’s awesome.
Marc: He wore a brand new Ramones shirt to see us in Vegas.
Carter: This just feels like an album closer – it has that epicness to it with the unison chorus and the return of the horn section. What message do you hope the listener goes out on with this?
Marc: I’m cautiously optimistic that anyone who gets to the end of this and listens to it will be pumping his or her fist a bit.
Jon: What message? That they want to listen to the record again 🙂
Marc: The horns were inspired by a track off Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor. I thought the song originally sounded a bit like Yo La Tengo or Silkworm, but it turned out a lot more classic rock epic than indie rock.
Carter: And yeah, the three-minute mark here is definitely fist-pumping territory.
Jon: The piano part really brought out the bar-rock in this one
Marc: Another lyrical tidbit: the line about where you going to go when the record is over or whatever I sing… It’s inspired by a poster I saw for Saturday Night Dance fever. I think it said something like “You’ve seen the movie. Where are you going to go when the movie is over?” or something absurd. I may have also just fantasized that this was inspired by John Travolta in a leisure suit and a 60 year old man who drives his friends around.
Jon: I wish I could make guitars sound exactly like the solo at the end here every time out.
Carter: It’s got a real Exile on Main St feel at the end there with the horns and piano.

Carter: Cool, well that was Loud Enough. Any parting thoughts?
Jon: This was actually a lot fun, having to remember the little things we did while we made it.
Marc: It’s hard to believe we’re approaching year 10 of doing this. Our first practice was some time in October 2001. And it took four albums, but this is one that there’s no shame or caveats when telling people about it.
Carter: So is this your best album to date, do you think?
Marc: Definitely, without a doubt.
Jon: Absolutely. This is a record I hope my kids will listen to and think I’m a badass.
Carter: Well, I’m excited for the show on Saturday. Where is it again?
Marc: Skinny’s, at 115 San Jacinto. Milk Thistle is at 9, La Snacks at 10, us at 11, and The Mole People at 12!