Riverboat Gamblers

Today we've got a new interview with Mike Wiebe of the Riverboat Gamblers. The interview was performed by Todd Taylor, and he had this to say about he band:

Silly Putty transfer the inky goodness of a classic rock and'n' roll band, like AC/DC, and hard press that into the kickass catchiness of a DIY grassroots punk band like the Bananas. Or the Saints transposed on The Future Virgins. Or Rocket From the Crypt and the Potential Johns. Don't forget to add a couple of lightning bolts (And if these references have you scratching your belly button, it'll do your "I've heard it all before. There's no good bands" self to check them out.)

Interview by Todd Taylor

If someone’s new to the Gamblers—say someone who’s not into the underground at all— and they hear high-steppin’ rock’n’roll. There are expectations with that: sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. I know better. If you had to make a short credo about how Gamblers really live, what’d be?

There is a movie I really like called Murder My Sweet. It’s an old film noir. It is about a detective on a crazy case and he keeps getting his ass kicked the entire movie. At one point, the heroine remarks something to the effect of: "You work in a strange way. You get further along in the case by getting beat up by everyone you talk to. Are you some kind of sado masochist?" But he solves the case at the end of the film. I think that is the style of this band; we keep going forward by getting beat up.

Where do you think you get your reflexes from? Skating? Watching skate videos?

I do more watching skate videos than skating these days, sadly. I like to think in a past life I might have had a career in the vaudeville circuit doing pratfalls and slapstick. I don’t think there is any formal training for that kind of stuff anymore though, but I wish I was Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd or one of those guys. And to think that they did that every night….

What’s the biggest drop you’ve taken during a show?

We were playing a show at a place called Trees in Dallas several years ago. There is a balcony on the side of the stage several feet taller than me and the stage itself is about six feet tall. I climbed on an amp and hopped up to grab against some metal rails that barricaded from the top balcony. As I was pulling myself up, the rails broke loose and I fell about twelve feet or so, all the way to the bottom in front of the stage. I remember the second the rails broke loose and it felt like time stopped for a second before I fell with metal rails in hand. Right when it broke loose, I made eye contact with a random girl on the balcony and saw her face wide open with legitimate fear for me and I knew that if someone who I had never met could have that much fear for me then this was gonna hurt… bad. Fortunately, I didn’t break anything and, unfortunately, the person taping the show didn’t get a good shot of the fall, so it kinda sounds like a tall Texas tale. I caught a fish THIS BIG!!!

Did you have a nemesis in high school?

Not so much one person but maybe several groups of people. No Magneto, but the entire Brotherhood of Evil Mutants… and that fact that I reference things like that is probably what created so many nemeses in high school. But I was pretty out of place and a little underdeveloped and very unconfident, which makes for the equivalent of a big target on your back. I remember walking halfway around the school to find the bathroom that I wasn’t going to be fucked with in and eating lunch all alone in the library with old Thrasher magazines and some comics from home.

What was your favorite comic book as a kid? Did you have elaborate fantasies around the main characters?

I think that is the style of this band; we keep going forward by getting beat up.

X-Men were always my favorite. They weren’t household names like they are now. Back then they didn’t have cartoons or toys or anything like that. Just comics. It was a lot of the same themes of the films, like the X-Men being considered freaks rather than heroes and the government and society turning their backs on them. They had lots of cool gadgets and vehicles and whatnot, but they were always going through such emotional turmoil. It was really easy to relate to that as a punk kinda kid in Texas. They seemed a lot more three-dimensional than Superman and the Flash and stuff. There were always scenarios where Wolverine was out of costume, hanging out somewhere tough, and some big thuggy fat dudes who look remarkably like the football team come up and start messing with him because he’s short and unassuming and he either pops his claws or kicks all their asses without even trying. I remember replaying some of my bathroom defeats and wishing I had come out like Logan would have.

I don’t want to pop anyone’s bubble about rock stardom, but what’s your reality when the tours are over?

Back to the day job. For me, it’s pouring coffee and sweeping and mopping. After a long tour I actually enjoy being at home for a bit and working in the same town for two days in a row… and then I get to the third day and I’m fucking sick of it. Right now, I work at a coffee shop in Austin called Spiderhouse that is also a restaurant and a bar. But, sometimes, I get other little jobs or acting work or something.

In what ways do you think poverty has shaped you as a person?

I appreciate things I get to do a lot more. I think I do, anyway. Sometimes I wonder if that is one of the things that has kept me from wanting to start a family like a lot of people at my age are starting to do. I am constantly going to weddings and meeting people’s kids and it seems pretty out of reach for me. But I’m not really reaching for it, so, maybe, "out of reach" is the wrong term. It has made me realize that I am really lucky, actually, because my poverty isn’t shit compared to some people’s poverty. I try and remind myself that, but it’s tough and it feels like in this society that—assuming you are not a drug addict or criminal—by a certain age you should have this and this and this. At least that is what I always grew up thinking, so, sometimes, I have to tell myself that I am not, in fact, doing anything wrong and that all the money I might make from a middle management position would not, in fact, make me happy or make me feel "right."

Business sucks when it deals with music. It’s no fun, but the longer you’re involved in music taking over your life, you have to deal. What’s one or two business-type things you’ve done—as a member in a band—that you’re doing now that you wished you’d done from the beginning, just to make things easier on you?

Set up bank accounts and been super duper organized. I am incredibly unorganized, so it’s like pulling my own teeth to do things like that. I always heard about how you are supposed to write lists in order to help get things done but I always get frustrated and throw the list away. Now, I’m simply not doing something written down rather than something that is in my head.

But, asking for help… that’s something too. I am just not good at everything. I always wanted to run things like Fugazi and Dischord… but I just don’t have it in me. I respect them so much for that stuff.

What’s the weirdest bill you’ve been on and you just had a totally fun time that you weren’t expecting?

Well, it hasn’t happened yet but we are scheduled to play the weirdest bill ever at SXSW. It is us, Mstrkrft—who is one of the guys from Death From Above 1979, an amazing old school rap group from Houston called UGK, and Yoko Ono. Not a band called Yoko Ono but THE Yoko Ono, the one who married John Lennon and gets blamed for breaking up the Beatles. I don’t know that it gets weirder than that…

Ever wish you could build a drummer, like Frankenstein did with his monster? Yours keep on blowing up.

I know, I know, Spinal Tap is seeming less and less like a comedy and more like a realistic documentary. We are kind of at a difficult level of a band in that it is a full-time commitment but the pay is really really horrible. There is no guarantee that it is gonna get any better, either. I mean, we definitely want it to get better and are working for that, but it is a crap shoot. I just want a drummer that can play super hard forever and psychically know exactly what I want when I come in with a song. Is that too much to ask for… really?

If you could have one friend back from the dead, for just one evening, who would it be and what’d you do with them?

the first band that I was involved in was kind of more just an act. We put together the semblance of songs and just kinda goofed around in front of people.

Wow… that’s tough. I have a few friends that passed in kind of odd or random ways and I would really like to know what happened. I tend to daydream and fantasize but it’s such a real and painful scenario and it almost feels damaging to let yourself think about that… for me, anyway. But I think I would just want to replay some old memories and make myself appreciate what was going on at the time a little bit more. Like I remember having some wonderful times but remember being bogged down with some bullshit at the time that really didn’t matter. I think I would just want to be doing nothing special, like hanging out in the old punk house I used to live at, have a beer and make fun of the TV, and goof around and say cuss words. I try to appreciate what is going on right now more than I used to. I haven’t mastered it yet now, but I am better at it.cd

When did you first realize that music could help you transform? Were there bands, shows, or a community that really sparked your imagination or gave you the confidence?

I was always really drawn into performing in some kind of way, but, for a long time, music seemed so out of reach and impossible. I did acting stuff and a little bit of just generally acting out. I was always really drawn to music and punk, but I was too shy to talk to anyone about what it might take to learn anything. I remember going to shows and just wanting to be a part of it in some kind of way and kinda feeling like I might be able to add something a little different. So, the first band that I was involved in was kind of more just an act. We put together the semblance of songs and just kinda goofed around in front of people. It was just me and another fella. I moved away for awhile and when I came back, my friend Mike Searcy was playing with Fadi and they could actually play as well as kind of take the silliness that Mike Searcy and I were doing. So I kinda hung around and snuck my way into the band, The Skeleton Kids, and years and years later, me and Fadi are still playing together. At the time, Denton was really happening. It was the early post-Green Day boom and there were a lot of the older guard of Denton music as well as a bunch of young bands. We were doing tons of house shows and there was college area that was having tons of shows. It didn’t feel like we were doing something that had any kind of future, but it felt like we were really doing something right then. And, for me, I had never really had much of anything going on to hold on to, so it felt really good even if I didn’t plan on it going anywhere

When did you learn that you could transform? Like, there is Mike, who’s the fearless frontman performer and Mike, the kid who had a target on his back—and you’re both without betraying yourself or without putting on a front. Where, in the midst of comic books and general outcasting, did you realize you could invert all of this bad stuff and send it back out into the world as a frontman?

Well, I had a scholarship for acting, but I never felt like I would ever get to do anything I really, really wanted too. Like… there are only a few people doing cool plays or films and the odds of me getting in those at the time were just nil. even when I would get some kind of little gig or part, it was all someone else’s project and I never really felt like I was contributing too much. So, with a band , you just kinda throw some shit together and get up on stage and do it. And at that point even falling on your face feels good because you are falling on your face on your own terms. Denton was a great place to fall on your face a lot… I guess it had a soft ground.

But, to more directly answer that question, I think that a lot of the people in rock and punk music and a bunch of the comedians and actors that had the biggest impacts on me seemed to be people that used to have those targets on their backs. They weren’t particularly good looking and a lot of them would talk about their frustrations and then they would be out there making this brilliant stuff. So—and I guess this is maybe a little selfish—but I think that rather than thinking, "These people make other people happy. Wouldn’t that be great?" I was thinking, "These people make me really happy, so if I was more like them, then I will be really happy." That is not to say that I am not touched deep down when someone tells me the music has made an impact on them or they go out and get the logo tattooed on them because it means that much. But, back then, I wasn’t really thinking that far ahead.

Do you find that you have to get into a zone before you go onstage or afterwards? I’ve seen a transformation, like you’re preparing beyond "I’m going up there and singing," and it takes a couple of minutes for you to come back.

There is, but it is constantly changing. It becomes something you think a little less about. I don’t know exactly. There is an intangible quality. There have been times that I actually worry that I am not nervous enough and then times that I just can’t believe that I have been doing this for so many years and I am still getting jittery.

I’ve been thinking a lot about being American lately. I absolutely love it and hate it the exact same time. I went and saw some low-level professional wrestling at an American Legion Hall this weekend and it encapsulated what I’ve been thinking: it’s absurd—men going through intense physical pain in order to look like they’re fighting, the crowd being funny and rowdy, then chanting "fuckin’ faggot" over and over again. So it feels like I’m in the middle of America, but also isolated from it. I was wondering what you thought about the concept of being American, since you’ve traveled far and wide in and out of it.

I really feel conflicted and ambivalent about it, too. I love the idea of coming from nothing and making something, but I wonder if that only happens just enough to have someone to put on Oprah to tell their story and keep the rest of the country with some sense of hope. I love the idea of not being born into the caste system you have to spend the rest of your life in, but I worry it’s just an idea. I love the idea of apple pie and rock’n’roll and skateboarding and big, stupid Hollywood blockbusters with too many explosions and popcorn with extra butter. Like, I think maybe I like that America allows such excesses, but I am bummed that so many people take the excesses for granted and live on the excesses. And I know that is kind of a backward way to think, and I know that there is no way in heaven or hell that kind of thing can be controlled. To try and control it makes it something worse.

Talking about it sometimes feels like working on a song that just isn’t working… like the song has some really good parts and some cool melodies but you just can’t put your finger on what isn’t right. Maybe it’s the bridge, but the bass player really likes the bridge. Maybe it could use a better intro, but after you run through it for the nineteenth time everyone just kind of silently looks at each other… and someone says we should get some beers. But the fact is you know that the song is way better than most of what is getting played on the local alternative station and maybe, even though it isn’t that perfect and it isn’t near as good as one of Against Me!s new songs—if you’ll allow me to step outside my analogy for a moment, we’ve just started touring with them and the stuff they are playing from the new record is so fucking great—well, even though your band’s song isn’t exactly how you want it to be, it is a song that should keep getting played.