Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Interview with Mike Minnick from Less Art (Puig Destroyer, ex-Curl Up and Die)

I always feel kind of lame to be doing an online-only, blog version of a zine, because coming up in punk and hardcore when I did, actual physical zines were such a critical element of the subculture. One of my favorites was called Status, and if I remember correctly it was run by a kid named Seth, it was based out of a town called Thousand Oaks, California (not sure why I remember that) and I think it was given away for free.  Anyway, it totally ruled! Great design, cool bands, it was simply very well done.

At a certain point Status started releasing music as well, and one of the first records they put out was called “The Only Good Bug Is A Dead Bug” by a band called Curl Up and Die. I still remember sitting on my mattress, opening up the mail, popping the disc in my CD player and rocking the fuck out to some bad-ass metal-core, haha. CUAD quickly became a favorite of mine, especially as they got weirder, noisier, and more interesting over time.

After they broke up I assumed they would go on to form new bands as most musicians do, but in this case, it seemed like the members just vanished. Fast forward to a couple years ago when I hear about vocalist Mike Minnick doing a new project called Puig Destroyer, quickly followed by the formation of Less Art alongside members of Kowloon Walled City and Thrice.

To say I was amped would be an understatement, as I knew this would be pretty awesome. The bands’ sound definitely makes sense given their collective resume; heavy but not overbearing, smart but still accessible.

I never had any sort of personal connection with Mike when CUAD was active, but when I reached out he seemed more than happy to chat. Here goes.  

I always like to learn about people's backgrounds in trying to get a window into what makes them tick, so talk a little bit about your family and your childhood. How would you characterize your household and upbringing, particularly as it related to the presence of music, art, etc.?

I grew up in a pretty average family setting. Mom and dad that stayed together until I was a teenager. One sibling. A younger sister. Born and raised in Las Vegas. No one in my immediate family was musical or sang or did bands or anything like that. Though I was close with my uncle growing up and he got me into punk and skating. He was in bands and I would tag along and go to their shows as often as I could. At that time I had no interest in singing. Loved drums but they were too expensive. My uncle played guitar so I followed him in that pursuit. Though I was never very good.

At what point did you get turned onto punk, metal, hardcore, etc.? What bands, shows, venues were you first exposed to and what kind of impression did they make?

High school is where I branched out and started listening to other types of music besides punk and grunge and popular alternative stuff on MTV. That's when I first got into hardcore. I remember my friends showing me tons of more metal hardcore but a lot of it not clicking with me at first. I had that teenage mindset that if I started liking metal, I'd be turning my back on punk. This totally made-up either/or scenario. It was ridiculous. 

But bands like Endeavor and Chain of Strength were the ones I first loved because they played a more punk style but had more intense vocals. I remember my friend Matt (from Curl Up And Die) showing me the Endeavor/Envy split and I was blown away by how punk it was musically, but Mike Oleander screamed over it. The vocals were the most intense thing I'd ever heard. After hearing that, I was like damn, I want to do that in a band and sound like him.
That's crazy that you mention Oleander because when I think back to the most intense vocalists from late 90s/early 00s hardcore two of the people I tend to think about are BBTS-era Oleander and your work with CUAD, especially on “Robots”. How did you start to experiment with your voice/realize you could pull off some of the stuff you were wanting to emulate?

I loved vocalists that screamed with tons of power while still understanding what they were saying. People like Tim Singer, Karl from Earth Crisis, Dave from Botch. Oleander too. But I never had that much strength so I went in the other direction. Just hide all the words and bury the vocals under the song and use my voice almost as percussion, and hope the emotion of the vocal gets the lyrics across since there was no way the listener would understand the words. (That's what a lyric sheet is for. Though I don't know if that helped much either.) 

Another major factor early on was I was scared and had no idea what I was doing. I'm a pretty shy person and it sort of doesn't make sense that I ended up singing in a band. So covering up and obscuring and hiding behind the music as much as possible was my initial approach.

Talk about the origins of Curl Up and Die. How did you guys all meet/how did you wind up playing together?

CUAD started out when we were in high school. We knew each other from going to the same school or seeing each other at shows and becoming friends that way. It was a side project for most of us and the idea was to be more chaotic and heavier than the other bands we had at the time, which were more punk and almost youth crew style hardcore. We wanted to play more aggressive music live and didn't think too much beyond that concept initially.

One of the things that always stood out to me about CUAD was the sense of humor you guys always had (I'm thinking the "demons from fucking hell" shot on the first EP, the ridiculous song titles, the quirky designs, especially “The One Above”. etc.). Was that coming as sort of a push back against how serious a lot of hardcore was at the time, was it more related to the personalities of the people in the band, maybe a little bit of both?

We did push against some of the seriousness, I think intentionally and unintentionally. We weren't tough or cool. We were nerds. We liked fucking around. I think about punk and hardcore the same way I think about comics and movies and video games. It's something I'm drawn to because it's a subculture away from cliques and posturing and acting cool. A way of escaping without escapism. Where you can hang out with people and have fun while also exploring different ideas that are outside of what's normal or okay.

We definitely went the silly song title route as a way of injecting humor into the band. Since the music and lyrics were serious, it was a way of showing a different side of us. Also, I remember Simon from Drowning Man thinking we stole the song title idea from him like he invented that shit. Not true. Like most of my early musical ideas, I lifted the idea from Endeavor. The artwork was another element where we tried different things. We weren't into skulls and dark imagery and wanted to have artwork that was more representative of what we were trying to express. Even if it was jarring and didn't land every time.
As much as I love "Robots", your final LP "The One Above All..." is definitely my favorite.  I've always been struck by how moody and reflective it seemed as compared to the more chaotic material of your earlier work. What sort of headspace were you guys in when you wrote that record?

We started pulling from some of our influences outside of hardcore while writing the last record. I think, while flawed, it's our strongest album. It's where we figured some things out and came into our own. Definitely for me as far as lyrics and vocal style. It was frustrating at the time to feel that way after breaking up.

I also remember being so stoked when I saw that Alex Newport produced that record.... mostly because I loved Fudge Tunnel but also because I didn't even know he produced records at that time. How did you guys hook up with him and what was it like working together?

We wanted to branch out and try something new. Alex was one of the options we considered. We liked the experimentation on some of the records he worked on. It was a plus that he was located in L.A. too, which was closer to Vegas. He was less into experimenting than we expected, but we were on a pretty limited budget. 

The thing I learned the most from that session was that it was okay to not cover up my vocals and hide them with indecipherable screaming. He really made a point to focus on the lyrics and the performance of each line. Which was harder to do than I thought. I had to unlearn a lot of bad habits. But I think that was where I started to be more confident and feel okay about my lyrics and voice.

So as far as I know, after CUAD there was almost a decade of radio silence from you until Puig Destroyer and now Less Art. Were you doing music at all during that time or focusing on other life stuff?

A year or so after CUAD broke up, I moved to Chicago. I didn't do music during that time. I had the itch but never tried to start anything with people in the Chicago music scene. That was until Riley recruited me for Puig Destroyer. I was overjoyed that he asked and while I knew it was just a fun joke band about baseball, I took it very serious and approached it almost as a last chance audition. Something I could show to any potential future bands I wanted to do. And I secretly was hoping this would lead to a non-baseball band with Riley and the other members.

It worked out well that all of us got along and we seemed to write well together. As soon as Puig Destroyer was finishing up, I reached out to the guys about continuing, but in a more conventional way. A band that writes music and plays shows and exists and functions in the real world. That's how Less Art came about.
So talk a little bit about starting to work with those guys. Not to demean the musicians in CUAD at all, but those were people you had grown up with, whereas the guys in Puig/LA all have pretty extensive musical resumes. Given that gravitas, as well as the fact that you had not done music for a while, were you at all nervous when you started working together, or did you feel like you had enough rapport with them that it would all go smoothly?

I was definitely nervous. I think the other guys are really talented and I didn't want to be the weak link in the band. So that nervousness ended up being a benefit. It provided a good kind of pressure. It forced me to push myself and work harder than ever. Also, I've wanted to play music with these dudes for a long time and I feel lucky to get this chance. I wasn't going to let my nerves get in the way of that.

In terms of the writing process, what sort of influences were you guys drawing from, and what type of mood/vibe were you trying to achieve with "Strangled Light"?

When we set out to write these songs we weren't sure what the band was going to sound like. We have a few shared influences (i.e. Quicksand, Drive Like Jehu, Unwound, Cave In) but everyone just did what they do and brought that to the table. I like that everyone in this band writes and contributes. There isn't one songwriter steering the ship. It's a very collaborative process.

We didn't set out for a specific mood either. We let the songs take shape on their own and grow naturally, with some refinement as we finalized them. Lyrically, I had ideas I wanted to write about and explore, but I didn't force them into specific songs. I let the feelings I elicited from the music as I listened to them guide the direction.

You guys recorded at Antisleep/Sharkbite with Scott from Kowloon Walled City, with whom you share two members. I imagine for Jon and Ian the process was quite natural/comfortable since they have worked there before; for you how would you say it compared to your previous experiences working with Newport, Ballou, etc.

Scott is amazing. It was a pleasure to work with him. He makes great sounding records and works well with people and knows how to get good performances out of them. Which is a good skill to have when working with other humans and helping them capture their songs in a recording. He worked closely with me and helped me achieve what I was going for. He also pushed me to try different things, which helped me grow as a vocalist. It was a rewarding experience and I can't wait to work with him again.
Lyrically, the recorded is book-ended with songs about death, the first song chronicling loss in your own family, and the final song about dealing with it. So while it's an emotionally heavy and depressing record, I was struck by the glimmers of hope in lines like,  "What I can’t control won’t keep me down, I use optimism as survival" and "I know I must keep living, Though there will always be, Something missing".  You also reference that family history, "I can't help worry is that same blood in me?"

Talk a little bit more about sort of living in the shadow of death while seeming intent on beating those demons.

Lyrically, a lot of the record does deal with death and loss. I'm getting older and at an age where my friends and I are losing more people in our lives. I'm also getting closer to my own death. That realization was making me anxious about life and I became sort of death-obsessed and increasingly afraid because of it. I used this record to reflect on that and write my way through it. The good thing is it worked and after finishing the record I can say I feel easier about death and its inevitability. I'm not as scared of death and dying.

Aside from a lot of very personal content, there's a lot that seems to touch on our current social and political moment. What would you say most disturbs you about the kinds of things we are seeing right now?

I'm pretty disturbed by the all the bigotry and fear. People endlessly outraged and using mob tactics to censor or shame other people bums me out. Also, the 'if we don't completely agree, then we disagree' mentality is disconcerting.

Towards the end of the record in the song "What Is It In Man?" you talk about how religion is so often twisted and used to justify horrific things.  You ask the question “What is it in man, That takes the idea of God, Turns it into something it’s not".

As a hardcore kid who has managed to hang onto my faith over the years, I always get excited when I see people addressing these issues in a way that's more interesting and nuanced than your typical "No Gods! No masters!" sort of sloganeering; so for you, if the idea of God is so often turned into something that it's not, what would you say it is for you, and what role (if any) does spirituality play in your life?

Yeah, I kind of roll my eyes at religious people that know for sure that I'm going to Hell because of x, y, and z. I'm equally baffled by the type of atheist that is absolutely certain there's nothing after this life. I don't know how religious I am, but I am somewhat spiritual. I like the idea of God and faith and looking into what different religions are all about. I like taking some of their ideas and absorbing them into my belief system. I like questioning the parts I'm not as into as well. It's mostly all stories to me though. I think of God the same way I think of Spider-Man. It doesn't matter if it's real or not. It exists in my head and that's good enough.
Less Art’s debut full-length “Strangled Light” will be out July 28th on Gilead Media.
A couple songs are currently streaming on their bandcamp:

You can pre-order the record here:

The following live performances are scheduled:
August 4th-San Francisco
August 5th-Oakland
August 6th-Santa Anna
September 14th-New York
September 15th-Boston
September 16th-Washington D.C.
September 17th-Philadelphia

Photography by Less Art, Scott Evans, and Chris Barmonde

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