Riverboat Gamblers

Ah, the Riverboat Gamblers. Yes, you read that right. For a year that was lackluster in its releases, it was a breath of fresh air to get a new Riverboat Gamblers release. Their recent album The Wolf You Feed does not disappoint, and sounds like every stereotype of a maturing band you can think of: a progression yet still playful; raw yet polished; lactose intolerant yet in love with Chobani. But, in this case, is that such a bad thing?

Punknews staff writer Ollie Mikse had the great fortune of doing an interview with vocalist Mike Wiebe, the veteran sensation, and ask him a couple of pleasant and not-so-pleasant questions.

Do yourself a favor and pick up the new album, just make sure to skip "Gallows Bird." This interview is dedicated to the Merscheim brothers.

Hey Mike! So let's be right up front to the readers that we're doing this through email and not in person. Yes, we are posers. At the same time, let's hope no one reads this intro paragraph. Ready?

Your new album The Wolf You Feed came out three years after your prior full-length Underneath the Owl, which isn't bad considering your guitarist Ian MacDougall's scary near-death experience. Can you talk a little about that and whether it caused things to slow down a bit for the Riverboat Gamblers?

It feels like it took five years between records. Ian was hit on his bike by a truck late one night. It pretty much broke everything and had him laid up in the hospital for a few weeks. That being said, I think all in all Ian's recovery was pretty miraculous and quick. There was a good amount of time that we couldn't do live shows, but he was probably more eager than anyone to get back onto the horse. I think it made us all a little more focused and thankful. It also put stuff in perspective. Somethings you just can't control a lot of things really…

Do you think that new focus has made RG a different band in any way?

I think it has. I feel like between focus and getting older there has a slightly different feel to the band. In some ways, every band is always changing slightly from year to year, if you are lucky or unlucky enough to stick around for years. As people, you get older and get new perspective and grow --or the opposite-- you close yourself off and become narrow. Either way, that change influences your writing and performance.

For us, artistically, it has been a positive thing. I think we feel like more stuff worked for us in putting Wolf together as opposed to Owl. Us feeling good about how this record came out and feeling good about the process will hopefully inform the mode on the next thing we do.

You've been signed on with Volcom for some time now. It's kind of a weird fit to me, seeing as you guys are a pretty popular punk band and maybe would feel more at home at a label that is more firmly established, like No Idea or Paper+Plastick who you've done projects with in the past. Can you talk about your departure from Gearhead and your current relationship with Volcom?

Volcom have been really good to us. We have had pretty good relationships with most labels that we have been on and tried to make the best decisions at the time. I think the perception of what labels are and what they can do is a changing entity. For most of the "we should have done this" hindsight, I look back at where we were when we made whatever decision we made, and the mindset was always in the right place for the information that we had and the inability to see the future, which is a problem we still have.

And about your departure from Gearhead Records?

That was over 8 or 9 years ago now. But back then, we were making the decision to try and go from a band that tours five or six weeks a year to a band that tours for five or six months a year and we needed a lot more help.

It just seems obvious to me with the kind of high profile the Riverboat Gamblers have that you've been courted at one point or another by a larger label. Any truth to that and any anecdotes to that end?

The anecdotes are not too entertaining. We were taken out to a few dinners, nothing too extravagant, and just kind of talked a bunch of what ifs. We've never had any kind of hard "NO MAJORS, WE'RE PUNK" attitude, it just didn't really make much sense. The wind surrounding whatever buzzword genre shifted or somebody at the label got fired and it was nothing that we wanted to chase. I don't know if the majors work different these days, but it just seemed like bands were kind of like lotto cards that were being scratched off and thrown away and we didn't wanna waste more time saying, "Hey, will you maybe scratch us off?"

You titled the album The Wolf You Feed. Any reason for that?

It comes from a Cherokee parable about having two wolves inside you battling for control. One wolf is good and one is evil and the one that ultimately wins is the one that you choose to feed. In where our lives were at the time of the recording, I was thinking a lot about where my energy was going and how I could put it into better places. In my head, its not a black and white "always feed the good wolf" but it's about having to constantly be careful about where my thoughts are. My natural inclination is to feed the bad wolf and I am trying to change that.

I really like the new album, but I gotta say "Gallows Bird" seems like an odd song to place in the middle of the record. A song like that -- over 6 minutes -- just grinds the album down to a halt for me and kills the momentum it was gaining. Can you talk a little about "Gallows Bird" and if there were any discussions regarding its inclusion on The Wolf You Feed?

That song was originally a punkier uptempo number until Ted Hutt, who we did pre-production with, said, "Have you ever thought of trying that slow and ugly?" Ian fiddled with a pedal for a few minutes and found that clangy sound and the song ultimately became a completely different thing. There were lots of discussions about its placement on the album. Part of the idea was to think of the album as side one and side two of an LP that would have to be flipped over. So "Gallows Bird" is the end of side one. I can't remember who's idea that was initially but I remember I was kind of opposed to it at first, but after walking away and listening to it as a whole in that sequence I fell in love with it. It shook me out of my own box.

I watched an interview with you one time where you felt that your previous album Underneath the Owl had a rawer sound to it even though everyone said it was more polished. I have a hard time placing the sound on The Wolf You Feed. I think except for the drums which sound loud as shit, the album has pretty much the same sound as Underneath the Owl. Agreed?

I may have been wrong about that, or misspoke. We went for a rawer sound with Wolf. It’s funny because there really isn't a sonic consensus on words to describe music. One man’s "raw" is another man's "produced". Most of the production on Owl and To The Confusion of our Enemies was pretty similar, same place and same producer. I think the songs on Owl were just more unfocused as far as going into an album as a whole. We went into writing Wolf with an idea that it needed to flow more as a full-length album and that we wanted it to be darker than Owl. Do you think Ian going through that accident contributed any of that darkness in the new album?

It probably did, but that wasn't a conscious connection. Ian wrote a whole record about it with his band Broken Gold. As hard as it was to go through for him, there was still a big "Yay, thank fucking God that he's alive." I'm sure seeing that and him going through that gave us a few new stress wrinkles and gray hairs that went into the record, along with relief.

You seem to be pretty active with your project High Tension Wires, in which you play guitar and sing. Do you consider HTW more of a side project for you or a creative output that's just as important to you as the Riverboat Gamblers but where you and try out new things.

High Tension Wires aren't incredibly active. It’s tough with me living in Austin and the rest of the guys living in Ft. Worth and Denton. Also some of those guys have Marked Men and Mind Spiders and some of them have kids. I don't know that I think of it as a side project, it’s more of a project that works at its own pace.

Have you written any songs for HTW that you think would have worked better for the RG or vice versa?

I don't think so… It’s hard to imagine once the songs get done because the different guys bring such different things to them. What I write and bring in is a pretty raw piece of clay that’s going to get help shaped by different sculptors. I just try and figure out what would lend itself more stylistically toward which group of guys. I also have another group called Ghost Knife and it’s the same for that. Sometimes I will sit down and try and write for a specific band but usually I will just sit down and write and record my rough ideas and then later when one of the bands is working on new stuff I will go and listen to all the rough ideas and see if something jumps out to me as a new Gamblers/HTW/GK song. I am not sure how Ian does it with Broken Gold, but I know one time I was asking him about something along the lines same lines of that question and he said that it is always really obvious to him which song goes to which band.

You know, a Marked Men/Riverboat Gamblers co-headlining tour is dying to happen.

That would be pretty great. I would blow out my voice from singing along to their songs though.

I Googled you and you seem to have been involved with some comedy stuff with Tig Notaro and so on. How did that come about? Are you a comedy aficionado or is it just some of your acting chops coming through?

I have been a comedy fan forever and started doing stand up a year and a half ago. JT Habersaat and Altercation Punk Comedy tour kind of gave me a push to start getting up. I love it. It’s the hardest thing ever. It is such a similar yet totally different energy to performing music onstage. And when you fail (which I do, often) it’s so much more crushing. It’s also frustrating starting all the way over at something. I liken it to playing guitar in my first band. I know where the chords go, kind of, but once I get on stage my hand starts cramping up and I forget parts of the songs.

That being said, it’s exhilarating when it goes well. I want to be good at it. I want to possess all the skills of a Vaudeville performer in case that comes back. These "talkie" pictures are just a fad, I tell ya.

Bands re-releasing their back catalog is becoming pretty common these days. Have you guys considered re-releasing some of your oldest records in a remastered format with some bonus goodies on another label?

We just released Backsides on vinyl with Recorded Messages. We did a new cover and pulled out a song that we hadn't played live in forever and it was really fun. It’s a very strange thing to hear recordings that old. It almost feels like someone else did them. We would like to re-release some of that other older material. There are a few legal hoops to jump through, though, and that is never fun but we really just need to put on our jumping shoes and get it over with.

Let's do some more lighthearted stuff. One of my favorite songs of yours is "Victory Lap." In it you say that Rob's got a new name and it's not PC. What was this name and why does Rob keep getting new ones?

The nature of being in that band is always kind of fucking with each other in a friendly way. Everyone is constantly getting new nicknames. I think most touring bands have that nature of being able to speak entirely in a foreign language of inside jokes secret slang. Keeping everyone laughing is a part of the band dynamic.

You've gone through many drummers during your lifespan. What is it about the RG that makes it suffer from Spinal Tap syndrome?

A question we have screamed up to the sky many times. I don't know, probably a variety of reasons. It’s not an easy gig, and it doesn't always pay that well. We hired the wrong person once or twice. Also we have been a band for a long time and some turnover is pretty inevitable. Our career as a band has moved in different speeds over the years. Also, spontaneous human combustion.

I've heard you guys being called the Gamblors. Short and simple like Madonna. Any chance of permanently using that moniker: GAMBLORS?

Consider it tattooed across my throat.

I just got back from a trip to France where I stayed in a standard Hostel. Do you think this is better or worse than staying at a "band" hostel in France?

Usually it’s just the band in a hostel in foreign countries. When you are out on your own, don't you sometimes get stuck in the same room with horny dude-bros lookin’ for primo kush and loose Latvian chicks that wanna stay up all night and talk about the best DJs in Arizona? Maybe not specifically that but something like it.

Usually it’s pretty nice and it’s just the band and a bunch of beds. Sometimes some random people will get in a bed next to you and have smelly sex that sounds like someone removing suction cups from a window. Then that’s kind of weird and not so much fun.

I always like to ask bands what are some of their favorite records out this year? What are you listening to a lot lately?

I never know when records come out. Some of these may just be new to me. But I really like Heavy Times' Jacker, Danny Brown's xxx, Holograms. The dudes in Cobra Skulls just turned me on to Cloud Nothings. I like the new Raveonettes.

I thought you were going to mention the new Toys That Kill for sure!

Oh shit! Yes! the new Toys too! My sense of time is horrible. I am the worst at end of the year lists.

Since you talked about standup, are there any comedy albums you're listening to a lot lately, like the new Tig Notaro or Paul F. Tompkins albums?

The new Paul F. Tompkins record Laboring Under Delusions is great. The first half about knowing that you want to be in showbiz and all the horrible jobs you have to work in attempting to do so hits home really hard. Patrice O’Neal's Mr. P is really great. Rory Scovel's Dilation. That new Kyle Kinane special was great.

The new One Man Army EP: great EP or greatest EP?

It’s so fucking good. It’s my favorite thing they have ever done. I was gonna go out and do something one night and it was playing while I was getting ready. I grabbed a guitar and started playing along to it and then that inspired me to play around with some new songs.

If you had the option to do the Warped Tour again, would you take it?

I doubt it. It's not really our thing. Unless they let us curate the entire lineup. It would be amazing.

Finally, what's this I've heard about a condom full of urine?

Well, I worked at a company that took care of mentally disabled folks. My job was to drive people from point A to point B. Now I never smoked pot on the job and at the time never really smoked pot at all. but I had the previous weekend off and on that weekend someone played a King Tubby record and one thing led to another, so cut to a few days later on a Monday and after I dropped the clients off I returned to the van to find out that someone had backed into it. Even though I wasn't even in the van, the company had a policy of drug testing everyone anytime there was any type of accident. This was a company that hired almost exclusively high school dropouts that were blazed the entire time.

I'm freaking out. I got this job and I've got to take a test. What am I going to do? So I knocked on this neighbor's door, who I'm friends with but not great friends with. I just decided not to even beat around the bush. I knocked on the door and go, "Hey man, can I borrow a cup of urine?" He gave me some urine. I filled it into a condom and tied it off. Now they have the sensors on the piss cups, the warming strips to tell whether it's the right temperature. I thought, "I've got to keep this warm." So, I set it on the front of the dashboard of my car. It was in the summer It was hot. I'm driving to work, watching this urine-filled condom roll up and down my dash and reflecting on what my life has come to. So, I got to the parking lot, taped it to the side of my leg, and walked in.

After that I had to meet up with a supervisor who drove me to the drug testing place. This was one of the most unpleasant people I have ever met. She spent the entire car ride complaining about how we had a holiday for Martin Luther King Day. Her quote was, "I just don't understand why THEY get all these holidays." Meanwhile, I have a condom taped to my leg biting my lip for her racist diatribe.

We get to the drug testing spot and I go to the bathroom. I had a Misfits button on I think and I went into the bathroom and I took it off and popped the condom and squeezed the urine in there, but I hadn't practiced with condom pressure techniques, spraying through the hole And there's no sink in there because they don't want you --as I was doing-- messing with your test. I got urine all over my hands, the cup, my shirt. It was freaking me out. I kind of just walked out with a frazzled look and piss everywhere. I passed with flying colors. Or, my neighbor Ian passed with flying colors, I guess.