Interview: Michael Yonkers

Photo of Michael Yonkers courtesy the artist.

Note: A shorter version of this interview was published in The A.V. Club’s Twin Cities print edition, August 31, 2007. This version, which appears online here for the first time, was re-edited and expanded in August 2023 with extra material that was too long for the original space constraints. This interview is 15 years old and some of the information in it may be out of date. To see what Michael Yonkers has been doing more recently, visit his Bandcamp page and, for his collaborations with The Blind Shake, their Bandcamp page. Grimwood is currently available via Light in the Attic Records. Microminiature Love and other Yonkers works can be found at Sub Pop Records.

Michael Yonkers’ roots in the Minnesota music scene go all the way back to 1963, when he was inspired by The Trashmen—the state’s first band to score a nationwide hit, with “Surfin’ Bird”—to join the surf-rock revolution that was beginning to infiltrate the land of 10,000 Lutheran churches. Four years later, he helped introduce psychedelic music to Minnesota ears. He rejected a major-label deal to release his first album, 1968’s Microminiature Love, over creative issues, and largely retired from the public eye after complications from a 1971 surgery on a broken back led to permanent disability. But he continued to make music prolifically, releasing four albums on his own label in the 1970s and stockpiling hundreds of hours of tapes that have never been officially released. Long-overdue recognition came in 2003, when Microminiature Love was finally released by influential Seattle label Sub Pop, catching critical raves for its inventive, Sonic Youth-esque approach, which was years ahead of its time.

All that music is bursting out now like water over a dam. Yonkers plans to release 15 albums and two seven-inch singles in 2007. This includes a re-release of his long-out-of-print 1969 psychedelic classic Grimwood as well as solo experiments and collaborations with younger musicians—including Minnesota noisemakers The Blind Shake, with whom he made this year’s scorching Carbohydrates Hydrocarbons, and Chicago’s Plastic Crimewave Sound. Yonkers sat down with me at the A.V. Club offices in Minneapolis in 2007 for a wide-ranging talk about his music and career.

AVC: How did you first get involved in music?

MY: I grew up in Morningside, a little village in the southwest part of Minneapolis. [It is now part of the suburb of Edina.] I wanted a motorcycle real bad; I had a paper route and wanted to save my money up for a motorcycle, but my parents said no motorcycle. I had gotten interested in music through Elvis and Buddy Holly when they first came on the scene, but then I heard a group called the Trashmen and thought, “now that is something I’d like to do.” So, I took my motorcycle money and bought a guitar. By ’63 I was in a band, and we played mainly surf music. In ’65, I changed the band into an all-original band called Michael And The Mumbles. As the psychedelic thing started to happen, in early ’67, we went to a three-piece, all-original, psychedelic-type band and recorded Microminiature Love. We recorded it in ’68, but we’d playing that music for a year. After Microminiature Love, the band broke up, and that brought me to Grimwood because I started doing recordings on my own in my own little studio.

AVC: What was the Minnesota music scene like in the surf era of the early ’60s?

MY: There wasn’t a lot of bands, but it was a vibrant garage-type scene.  People actually did practice in a garage. We did, a lot of bands did. And the area I was in, southwestern Minneapolis, was kind of a hot spot. Quite a few bands were in that area. The biggest difference is when you played a gig back then there were no opening acts. You didn’t share any evening. You played either three or four sets. So you’d play for forty-five minutes, have a fifteen minute break, play for forty-five minutes, have a fifteen minute break. Bands these days find that just astonishing, but that was the standard gig.

AVC: You had to know a lot of music.

MY: You could repeat some of the songs from the first set in the third set, but yeah, man, that was [hard], especially if you drove a couple hundred miles and played three sets or four sets. It wasn’t even that uncommon for our band to play eight sets. We would go to a town maybe three or four hundred miles away. One time we played four sets at one place, had a three-hour break, and then we went to another club and played four sets there—and then drove back. How insane were we? The other big difference was there was no PA systems; you’d run your mic through your amp with your guitar so the sound was totally different. And the amps were a lot smaller. A lot of times you’d be playing in gymnasiums—that’d kind of be your standard gig back then, gymnasiums for a high school dance. It’s kind of an interesting sound, the smaller amplifiers with the vocal and guitar going through the same amp in this huge echo-y place. Another difference was, there was no music between sets. You go to a club now, and there’s always music.

AVC: DJs, and that kind of thing.

MY: Right. So there was a lot of noise and then it was very quiet and then a lot of noise and then it was very quiet. We were a controversial band, and so we didn’t fare too well with a lot of the crowd—especially, interestingly enough, we had a lot of trouble in the cities. Out in the country people loved us. We were playing this out-there psychedelic music and yet people out in the country really liked it, and for some odd reason the people in the cities didn’t like it at all. So it was not uncommon for us to have the electricity pulled, have people coming up on stage wanting to fight, having to use your guitar like a weapon. You don’t run into that anymore, I don’t think. We were always watching out for trouble.

AVC: They say that one reason old blues players in the 1930s liked the National Steel Guitar was that it would stop a bullet if you were playing a rough club.

MY: Oh, I bet it would, I bet it would.

AVC: I don’t know for sure if that’s true, but it’s a great story.

MY: It’s a great story, and there could be a certain amount of truth in that. I know that I always felt very confident playing a solid-body guitar—I did on occasion have to do this [he makes an axe-raising motion] and threaten people that were climbing up on stage with knives and stuff. I’m not going to be stabbed over the damn music I’m playing. [Laughs.]

AVC: How did you make the shift from surf rock into psychedelic music?

MY: You know, that’s something I’ve pondered and I’ve not been able to quite figure that out. I just remember there was a certain period; there was a certain day when I told the band, I said, “I’m sick of playing these fraternity/sorority gigs. I’m sick of doing the songs we’re doing. We’re going to take a break and when we come back I’m going to have all new songs.” And they just seemed to take on that flavor.

AVC: It was kind of in the air back in those days.

MY: It was in the air, and I hadn’t really heard any psychedelic music because we were one of the first bands around here to play psychedelic music. We didn’t call it psychedelic music, which I think was the key. We didn’t call it “psychedelic,” we just called it “the new sound.” I just wanted something different. The sound that I was getting into was this really distorted kind of thing. One of my speakers blew on stage one day—and I liked it. Because it was all distorted. I had been listening to some of the old blues guys who were trying to play loud through tiny amps—they weren’t really trying for distortion, it just sort of happened. Then that speaker blew out and wouldn’t play anymore, and I was thinking, “how am I going to get that sound?” Because there weren’t any effects boxes back then. I took an old speaker and cut slits in it with a razor blade, and then I had it on a foot switch, so that was how I started getting distortion. Around the same time I started working for a music company and I started to learn more about electronics. It was around the same time the [Rolling Stones] song “Satisfaction” came out with that buzzy sound. That was the very first commonly known effects box—it was called the Maestro, I think, by Gibson. But that’s all it did was that sound—[hums opening riff of “Satisfaction”]—and I thought, “why not take that concept and just blow the shit out of it?” So I started experimenting with circuits and came up with this circuit that was just this outrageous distortion.  So the new songs were all based on distortion. And eventually the word “psychedelic” came into being, and they just sort of applied it to us, and we accepted. It was the distortion. Of course, now there’s more effects boxes, I mean you can build a house out them with the number of effects boxes there are. Musicians today can’t comprehend a time where there were no effects boxes. I think I was kind of a pioneer in that. I developed two on my own, and I actually sold them through the company I worked for, though not a lot of them.

AVC: 1960s psychedelic music, obviously,  had pretty strong connections to the drug culture. Were you also part of that scene?

MY: As far I remember we were one of the few bands that had a pretty strict rule—I didn’t give a crap what anybody did in their spare time, but when we played gigs or had practices there was no alcohol, no drugs, no women, no pets. [Laughs.] And that’s why I think we were pretty efficient. But, yeah, we hung around in the drug culture. I wouldn’t say we were big-time druggies, but everybody back then was in contact with it. As I recall, some members in my band didn’t have anything to do with it, and some of us experimented, but we weren’t hardcore druggies and when we played we were never on drugs.

AVC: You were more interested in the music.

MY: We were about the sound, we really were. I had an advantage where we were used to playing these really long nights, three or four hours. When it got to the point where we were just part of a bill—and in psychedelic times that started to happen more and more where there’d be three or four bands and you’d each play an hour or forty-five minutes—I very quickly observed that the ones that were hardcore into drugs and that whole scene weren’t lasting that long. And I don’t think that they were coming across as well as they thought they were. I don’t want to play holier-than-thou, but I think it was to our advantage that we didn’t get caught up in it. Again, not to say that we didn’t do it, but it didn’t become our lifestyle.… I think the sorry part is, when you’re high and when you’re playing; you really think you’re doing great, and a lot of times you are really not. Some people I knew could play astonishingly well high. We never condemned that; I have friends who can’t play unless they’re loaded or high on something, and I never criticized them because if that’s what works for them, then great. But it didn’t work for me. I just had to be more focused. I tend to be not too focused, so anything that’s going to unfocus me isn’t going to work too well. [Laughs.]

AVC: The re-release of Microminiature Love in 2003 by Sub Pop put your music in front of a whole new audience. But in 1969, you had huge problems working with record labels to get the album released. What happened?

MY: I have to admit to you that it wasn’t so much me. There were people who were trying for me to shop this stuff out, especially Microminiature Love. Peter Steinberg, who owned Candy Floss Recording out of Dove Studios in Bloomington. He took Microminiature Love all over the country, to all the big labels, little labels, medium labels. And they just didn’t know where to put it. It just didn’t click, until [the album was] hooked up with Sire [Records], and Sire really liked it. But they wanted it totally re-recorded with studio musicians in New York. And I just said “forget about it.” And that was: Forget about the contract, forget about the release, forget about everything. So, I never really dealt with any labels directly. I was into the music part, see. But the people who did try to sell it, it just didn’t fit. I always thought it would fit, I always thought people would like it, even back then, but who am I? What do I know?

AVC: Your 1970s albums, starting with Grimwood,  were self-released.

MY: After Microminiature Love, the band broke up, and that brought me to Grimwood because I started doing recordings on my own in my own little studio.

I kept recording after the band broke up. Grimwood was the first one, and then I did sort of a country-flavored one called Michael Lee Yonkers, and then Goodbye Sunball.

[And around that time] I was in a pretty serious accident, where I broke my back in a couple places, right here in this very building. [Editor’s note: This interview took place in a downtown Minneapolis building, in what was in 2007 the local office of the Onion and A.V. Club, and was a warehouse in the 1970s.] Just one floor up—right there, as a matter of fact. [He points to a spot about 20 feet from where he’s sitting.] A very serious accident. About 1,500 pounds of scrap metal fell on me and broke my back in two places. I had sort of a downward spiral from there. Schlepping equipment around, and even playing the guitar became increasingly difficult. So I stopped playing out, pretty much.

I would do some improv stuff with some jazz folks from time to time. But I don’t know what got into me—at a certain point, I took out a big, fat loan, and decided to put some of these recordings onto vinyl, just see what would happen. And, what happened was, nothing. [Laughs.] Nothing at all. But I thought, “Well, at least I did it, and at least I have them.” Some years later, I had a little store that just sold all kinds of goofy stuff, called “LoonLand.” I had my records in there for five bucks initially, and then I lowered them to $4, then to $3, to $1. And, eventually, it got down to 25¢ each. Never sold a one. People would come in and they would pick one up, and I would always say, “Yes, I did do that. No, you’re probably not going to like it. But I would buy it anyway, if I were you. In fact, if I were you, I would buy them all at 25¢ a piece. Because, many years from now, they will be worth something.” And then they would laugh, and put it back, and go away, and that was it. Never sold a one at 25¢ each. Now, that probably would have been about the best investment anyone could have possibly made back then. Don’t you think?I’ve seen these on the internet, sometimes, $50, $60, $70 each. So a 25¢ investment, you know, that’s not bad. [Laughs.] But, it was just funny, ’cause I always knew that eventually they would be worth something, just because they were vinyl. And, I was absolutely right in that, because—as you know—vinyl is kind of a thing now.

AVC: Grimwood is a little like the Skip Spence record Oar, both for its introspective bent and the circumstances of its recording. Spence left the rock band Moby Grape to go out to the desert by himself and make Oar, and you followed the louder Microminiature Love with Grimwood, where you were pulling back and being more reclusive.

MY: I’d say that’s exactly true. I also think that these days there’s a whole segment of music listeners that have an appreciation for this kind of home studio stuff. Grimwood truly is a home basement recording. I lived in my parents’ basement and I had taken a corner and turned it into a little studio. There weren’t very many people doing that in 1969, at least that I knew of. People tended to save up their money and go into a studio. You just couldn’t just go out and buy equipment like you can now; everything was on reel-to-reel [tape machines] and they were very expensive and tricky to work with.

AVC: What did you use for a mixing board?

MY: There was no mixing board. On Grimwood I used a combination of seven-inch reel-to-reel machines called Vikings, made right here in Minneapolis, and a Crown International. Great big giant things. Rather than a mixing board, I’d just run between the two machines and mix one into another and add a track.

AVC: So your electronics skills really came in handy.

MY: Hugely handy. I’m no electronics expert, but I learned enough to be kind of dangerous to myself. Sometimes I’d be experimenting and would come up with effects just by not knowing that it was impossible, or that you could ruin your machine, but having enough guts to try it anyway and get some interesting sounds before the machine burned up. And there were occasions when they did—when smoke would come out, and “well, that’s the end of that one!” [Laughs.] One of the things that’s interesting about [Grimwood] is, I had taken a workshop from a guy named Herb Pilhofer [a Minneapolis-based jazz and electronica artist and record producer]. He was, I think, the first person in America to own a Moog synthesizer. The first Moogs were huge, just gargantuan.Later, I was in Woolworth’s downtown, and in the clearance section they had a toy called the Sketch-A-Tune. You would take a lead pencil and you could draw different things to get different tones and pitches. This was supposed to teach kids which note sounded like what. But my little brain clicked into gear. I realized, there’s a circuit in here which is a tone generator, which is exactly what the Moog was full of, tone generators. So if I take one of these apart, I can make a synthesizer. I bought eight or ten on closeout, took them home, and I built a synthesizer. By tweaking part of the circuit I was able to make beeps and notes and I found that not only could I control it by, of course, a knob, but I could also use my mouth, I could use anything that had variable resistance to change pitch. It’s really prevalent on [Grimwood songs] “Lonely Fog” and “162.” I was so proud of it, I just can’t even tell you.

AVC: Did Grimwood’s introspective mood spring from the whole situation with Microminiature Love and Sire?

MY: Yeah, indirectly. Probably directly. Microminiature Love does address a lot of political issues of the time, and a lot of us back then thought that two or three years from now the whole country’s all of a sudden going to understand everything, and then everybody’s going to get it all together, and everything will be cool forever. Didn’t work out that way. I think Grimwood ended up being kind of an escape from the reality of it all. It is introspective; it was me thinking, “What went wrong here?” [Laughs.] You know? “What went wrong? What’s going on here? I think it’s just time to stay in my little basement.”

AVC: Why do you think your music didn’t click with a wider public back then?

MY: Can’t answer that. ’Cause I did try. I have to say I tried in my own tiny way. Maybe if it would have gotten to the West Coast, it would have been embraced.

AVC: Being from Minnesota is maybe less of a hurdle to overcome nowadays if you’re trying to be noticed as a musician, but back in 1969 was anyone else paying attention to what was going on here?

MY: In Minnesota? No, I would have had to go to San Francisco, I think. And I wasn’t quite ready for that. So I just figured maybe eventually people will embrace it more, and I think that’s maybe what’s happening now. [The recent critical accolades for Yonkers’ Microminiature Love and Grimwood albums] is a real head trip. It really feels good. That’s a long time ago, for me. More than 35 years.I am to the point in life, though, where I’ve done so much music, so many different kinds, that I’m not locked into [any one style]. Say a band has one album, and they’re real proud of it, and they’re going to perform that music for 40 years. Now, that’s cool, but that just ain’t me. I’m much more into the new stuff that I’m doing, but it’s an amazing feeling to have somebody talk to me about stuff that I did 35 or 40 years ago. I never thought that would ever happen. I almost gave these [records] all away to the Salvation Army. I really did. ’Cause I just got sick of schlepping them around. [Laughs.] Never ever thought that there would ever be any interest in it. And then, when a company like Sub Pop [which re-released Microminiature Love in 2003] comes along, that was like, “Wait a minute. Am I dreaming?”

AVC: You play a heavily self-modified electric guitar. What kind of work have you done to it?

MY: The major modifications came after I broke my back. ’Cause I just couldn’t hold it anymore. It was just plain too heavy. So I sawed it down to almost nothing. Everything that was on there that I truly didn’t need, wood-wise, came off. But, then I thought, wouldn’t it be kind of convenient to have the effects not on the floor but right in the guitar? So I built a little box on there, and built in some effects.

And sometimes I’d be playing at coffee houses and stuff like that, to maybe four, five, ten people—and a lot of times, they wouldn’t even be paying any attention. But by experimenting [with the electronics], I came across this applause sound, so that was one of my major things—I built applause into the guitar. So I’d finish playing, and then I’d push this button, and there’d be [a crowd noise of] “Yeah! Yeah!” People would look around, like “Wait a minute, where’s this coming from?” [Laughing.] Now I’m back to just bare-bones nothing [in the guitar]. Lately, I’ve actually been playing a kids guitar, cut down. It’s really tiny. Very lightweight.

AVC: Is that mostly for the weight, or does it actually change the sound? My understanding is that it doesn’t really affect it too much.

MY: I wish we had some people here that I’ve been arguing about this for years with. I agree with you. It can’t change the sound. It can’t. I mean, electronically, it’s pick-ups, and it’s string. I mean, I shouldn’t say it can’t, but it’s almost negligible.

AVC: How is your health these days?

MY: It’s really… on edge. Years ago, I had major surgery on my back. It didn’t go so well. [Yonkers had an allergic reaction to a dye used during the X-ray process, and developed a life-threatening, chronically painful condition called adhesive arachnoiditis.] Having arachnoiditis normally takes about 12 years off of your life. According to the statistics, I only have a year or two left. But I’ve never really gone well with the statistics. I usually do a lot better. I’m sorry; I just never talk about this stuff, because usually people don’t want to hear this stuff. I’m 60 now. I should be in way worse shape, according to statistics.

AVC: You seem very energetic.

MY: It’s because, many years ago, I dedicated myself to health. My doctor says, “The statistics say you should be dead within a short period of time, but you’re not, because you are so much into health.” Food, nutrition, supplements, exercise, all that. So I don’t look 60. I don’t feel 60, and I don’t feel I’m at the edge of death. I don’t feel like death is around the corner.

AVC: Let’s talk about your new stuff. You’ve been doing some work with The Blind Shake, a power trio from St. Paul.

MY:  I’m real proud of that one, and I’ll tell you why. Microminiature Love was a band recording that I produced. Then, from Microminiature Love until now, all I’ve done is my own stuff, solo. Well, I did record with [a different group called] the new Michael Yonkers Band a couple years ago, but I didn’t produce it.  I really like how that turned out—that one was produced by Chris Strouth and he did a great job, he really did— but I just feel so closer to [the work I did with] The Blind Shake because of the way it was produced.

AVC: What made it different?

MY: When it came to [recording] with The Blind Shake, I thought, I’m going to do this as close as possible to the way that I did Microminiature Love. So we rehearsed like crazy, then we went into the studio and recorded the entire thing in an hour. That’s the same way we recorded Microminiature Love. We did the whole thing in one hour, because all we could afford was one hour of studio time.  It would drive a lot of bands nuts to do it that way, but The Blind Shake guys just fell into it—they were totally comfortable working like that. They didn’t feel any kind of pressure in the studio, we just went in and treated it like it was a practice. And it came out so good. It’s called Carbohydrates Hydrocarbons. And, Zak Sally, from Low, did the beautiful artwork.

AVC: What else have you been working on?

MY: I record a lot of solo stuff, and I guess that’s the stuff that I’m really into most. I don’t think that much of it will see the light of day, but I don’t care. I just like doing it.

AVC: How would you describe the solo work?

MY: Noise guitar, that’s about what I can describe it best as. Noise guitar. That’s just most fun for me. That’s really how I’ve kept into music for this long. I’m a noise guy. I don’t know how to describe it, I’m just a noise guy. And I write good melodies. It’s interesting to put the noise to good melodies.

AVC: You’re planning to put out a huge amount of music in 2007.

MY: Yeah, because I know I’m kind of reaching the end of my collaborative ventures. It is hard on me, physically. As soon as all these things are done, I’m going to back to doing my own music by myself in my own studio, just like I did years ago, and then start going back through my enormous piles of boxes of tapes and stuff. I’ve been recording all these years, but it’s just all sitting there. I think this is a good time, since my health is getting worse, to just start going through all that stuff. I’ve got a whole lot of interesting stuff archived away that I haven’t heard for years that I’m really looking forward to.

AVC: You have something like 200 tapes archived, right?

MY: I think there’s more than that now. There’s a lot. The reason I haven’t gotten into it is because it’s just too mind-boggling for me. Not to mention video tapes, little experimental music videos and stuff. Whether there’s any actual market for it, I don’t care, I’m not in this to make my fortune as a rock star. What are the chances of that happening? Almost zero to anybody. Once I figured that out, many years ago, then that released me into the artistic part of it all. When I do my little music stuff, I’m not looking at it like whether it’s commercial or not—I’m not looking at it like whether my friends or my family or even the people I might play it for are going to like it. It’s just me, doing my thing. It’s the way to stay happy. I see too many people, so many of these poor souls are just so sure that they are the next whatever, and they’re probably not. They may be as good as the next whatever, they may be as talented as the next whatever, but there’s a lot of logistics that all have to fall into place at the same time in order for one to really make a career as a rock star. So once that’s off the board and not even a consideration, it’s a very freeing feeling. I think that’s one of the reasons I have this huge backlog of stuff, because it’s just all me doing what I want to do for me at that moment. Now comes the fun part, which is to go through it all.

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