Small Brown Bike
I interviewed Mike Reed from Small Brown Bike on the boardwalk in San Diego before they played with Hot Water Music and Leatherface. We listened to the ocean and watched the sunset as we talked about writing, creativity and Michigan while kids played catch on the beach.
I know you've been around long enough to put out 2 full-length albums, a 7" comp and a bunch of singles, but I don't know how you got started. I've never even seen any interviews with you.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. Well, we've all been friends for years. My brother's in the band so I've known him for years and I've been friends with Travis since I was 5 years old. That's how it all started. We were friends first and then we started doing music in high school and that was just messing around, learning our instruments. Then about 5 years ago, around 1997, is when Small Brown Bike actually started. I don't know. We're just all into the same kind of stuff, just from growing up together, and then we started putting out our own 7 inches and we just went from there. It's only in the last year really that people have taken note and heard our records. No Idea helped us out so much with their distribution and all their support. We couldn't have done anything without them.
So was there anything in particular that inspired you to start playing?
Mike: Well, music has always been in my family. My dad had guitars around the house all the time and I grew up listening to music so it was kind of in my blood. For all of us, it's just something we always enjoyed. And art. My mom paints, all of us do stuff like that so I guess this is our version of art that we do in my family. I think it just kind of came naturally. We were all interested in writing songs and whatever.
So it just kind of originated in your environment.
Mike: Yeah, that's how I feel. It was just natural. I could just play guitar. I'd sit at home and play guitar for 2 or 3 hours and that's just what I did. Now we're writing songs and that's what I love to do. All of us love to practice and go on tour and all the benefits that come with it like learning how to play guitar. It's awesome.
So did Michigan have anything to do with it?
Mike: I'm sure it had an effect. I don't know if it was direct, like, "Oh, I'm bored, I want to start a band," but now I know that it affects us, like our environment affects the way our music sounds. That probably has more of an effect on us now, where we live and what kind of tendencies come out of our music, that's what Michigan helps us with. I don't mind Michigan, I love living there, so it's nice to have that kind of environment. I think it influences our music.
One of the things I've been getting from your music is that there seems to be a disconnection. You all seem really nice, but your music sounds really angry.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. I don't know. I don't look at our music as really angry music. I look at it as intense and honest music. We try to be as honest as we are to ourselves and I guess I just look at us as honest people and that comes through in our music. It's just that release. When it comes to music, we just love to let go.
So it's more catharsis.
Mike: Yeah, I'm sure it is. It just feels right to play and write songs and it helps. It's therapeutic to work on music, to play a show and look out and see someone singing along. It's great therapy to be able to scream my lyrics out at the top of my lungs. It's like screaming out my journal and it's nice to be able to do that, whatever the situation.
So you write your songs from personal experience.
Mike: Well, yeah. That's pretty much how we all write. A lot of the stuff just comes from personal experiences. That's how I'll write some songs. I'll grab my journal and draw from that. That's just what I feel most comfortable writing about, things that have happened to me. That's what interests me a lot - relationships with people, friends and family and stuff like that.
It sounds like that's what "Future With No Friends" is about, people changing until you don't recognize who they are anymore.
Mike: Yeah, completely. It is. The whole idea of the record is looking back on past relationships and past experiences to figure out where we are at this point in our lives right now and also to look ahead to see where we'll be in the future. That's the whole theme of the record and that song kicked it off.
It seems like a lot of your music is about that, like looking back on situations and how they've affected and changed you and how they might have turned out differently.
Mike: Yeah. I think that's what makes people who they are is the past, those relationships and experiences. I think it's an easy way to really get an idea of who you are and it helps to do it through our music. We're lucky that we can do it.
I don't know that anger was the best way to put it, but it seems like there's a lot of bitterness and regret to it. I can't say that I've heard a single happy song that you've done. It's not pointless anger; it's more like anger with a purpose, like trying to figure out how things went wrong and how you can make it better from that.
Mike: Yeah, totally. It is. There are different forms of anger, definitely, and I can see the anger in our music. I guess I look at it more as a positive anger, that it's something you can learn from.
Mike: Yeah, constructive. You look at a bad situation that went wrong and you learn from it, or you just realize that's who you are and that's how life goes. That's what comes out a lot of times.
Russell Banks once wrote that "For better or worse, rage generates a future."
Mike: Yeah, totally. That puts it really well.
So is there anything specific that you've written about? For example, it sounds like "Zerosum" from "Our Own Wars" is a song about getting a call about a girl who died.
Mike: Yeah. I didn't write the lyrics for that one. That was Trav, our other guitar player. He wrote 40 or 50% of the lyrics on that record. But yeah, that was a personal experience that he had. It just came out. I think we write in the same way, from personal experience, and it really helps to write about it. It just comes out.
And share it with someone else who may have had something similar happen.
Mike: Yeah, totally. A lot of people have mentioned that song and they really connected with it, completely, and that's one of the most rewarding things that any of us could hear is that somebody connected with a song of ours.
Right, that genuine response that lets them make the song their own.
Mike: Yeah, completely. It's awesome that people can do that because that's what we've always done with music. You become friends with bands because you understand what they're saying. It's nice that people do that with us now. They feel a connection without even meeting us or seeing us. It's a nice experience.
So when you were growing up, you were basically just huge music fans who liked records because they fit where you were and songs that said something about who you were and now you have people coming to you and saying that to you. It seems like it's come full circle for you.
Mike: Yeah, there's no way I could have predicted being in this spot 5 or 10 years ago. It's surreal. It's completely surreal. All this is overwhelming at times, but I feel comfortable with it too. It's just weird to be on the other side of it where we're touring and meeting fans and whatever. It's at a nice level where everything feels really personal and respectful and we're all really happy. We feel so lucky to be where we are right now.
Doesn't it also suggest that your music might influence your fans the way that your favorite albums influenced you?
Mike: Yeah, completely. That's the foundation that was laid by the music we listened to. If we can be a part of that to somebody else who hears us and is influenced by us, that's a pretty big thought. It's cool because there is that cycle.
So how does the songwriting process break down?
Mike: A lot of the stuff starts out because Trav or I will have a guitar part and test it at practice, like "You try this and I'll try this," or whatever. Then we start to jam on one part and everybody just plays it over and over again. Then we work on something else and come back to the next practice and say, "I had an idea," like working on the arrangement and structure and we just go from there. What we generally do is once the song is done, all the parts are done, then we go back and nit-pick every part. We figure out transitions, a good arrangement that we can all be happy with ...
Where the bridge is ...
Mike: Yeah, yeah, that kind of thing, like what kind of transition would be a good fit there or how, and do little things like add an extra beat there or 2 of them here and just play with the song so it's not just cookie cutter, like 4 here, 4 here, 8 here. We like to keep it interesting for ourselves.
So what comes first, the lyrics or the music?
Mike: Generally the music comes first. Lyrics come from a journal or humming along with some music that we wrote. There are pages and pages of lyrics in my head and there are pages of lyrics in my journals so they're waiting. Once that instrumental song is there, then we just lay the lyrics on top.
So you make the lyrics fit the song.
Mike: Yeah. That's what I generally do. Trav sometimes does it a little differently where he'll work with a song and putting it over the lyrics, but for the most part, we fit the lyrics into the song. I feel most comfortable working that way, the phrasing is really easier to focus on when the song is an instrumental.
So how did the sound evolve? Was that just the result of what you listened to while you were growing up?
Mike: Yeah. I think it was just growing up because we listened to a bunch of different kinds of music, from classic rock to metal to whatever, everything really. Then when we found punk rock in middle school, it was this melting pot of all these different styles. I guess that influence came through in the music. We're all into heavy music but at some point we're all into melody. I think the band uses both of those characteristics. It has melody but it's also heavy.
One of the things that interested me was the syncopation. This isn't standard 4/4 rock. I was picking up jazz influences in the rhythm section in the way the drums start and stop and basslines come in. It almost sounds like something Mingus might have done.
Mike: Yeah. I guess it's the kind of stuff that we're interested in. Whatever is interesting to us, it's like, "Oh yeah, let's try that." I would never directly say, "This guy did this so let's try this," but it's probably something subconscious. We're just trying to keep our music interesting to us and that's important. That's probably why you hear all the little weird things. Dan, our drummer, will do a weird fill just because he wants to, but it's interesting to him and it gives us a little signature sound.
And it works in the music.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. As long as everyone's working together, it's awesome. It's so fun to have it come together like that.
So how do you feel your sound has evolved? I mean, I think the first album is more straight-forward while the new album seems a lot more diverse.
Mike: Yeah, totally. Well, it's a progression. As you'd expect, at first we were playing some songs that we wrote. Then it's just trying to find our own sound in it. I don't know. It's hard for me to describe it. It's like asking somebody to describe themselves 5 years ago. For me, it's hard to put into words but I know that I'm really excited about the recording on the new record and I think it brings out more of the little things.
It sounds so fucking clean.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. I want to be able to hear and pick out every single instrument. I want to be able to listen to the bass drum instead of the guitar when I want to, but it also should all work together. I think that helped out a lot too. And maturing as songwriters, just taking different approaches, whereas in the old days it was us just playing, one person writing a song and no one really put those little touches into it. Now we do a lot more of that. It's a free-for-all, like "Try this, try that." I'm sure that's just going to keep progressing.
Every time I listen to "Dead Reckoning" or "Our Own Wars," I always hear something I missed before - a beat here or a note there or something like that. Do you intentionally layer the albums?
Mike: Yeah. That's what keeps us interested. When I listen to music and I catch something, I have to rewind it, like "What was that? Why'd they do that?" That's totally intentional just to throw it off, for us mainly, but also to have someone like you catch it, like "Oh, that was a little different." It just keeps it interesting for us.
So you said your music is mostly inspired by personal experience. Has anything happened that you wouldn't write a song about?
Mike: I've never really thought of anything that I couldn't write about. There's such a wide variety that I don't know. I haven't encountered it yet. I haven't turned away from anything yet and I've been pretty honest with everything so I can't really think of anything yet.
Your music is really inspiring. You're admitting that things suck, but it always sounds better when you back it up with anger. Instead of feeling victimized, you can learn from it and grow.
Mike: Totally. It's a response to a situation and it does. It completely helped me, just as a person, to get past situations. It's a response to a situation that I've gone through and it's nice to have that.
So it sounds like you use the band as a therapist.
Mike: Yeah, totally. It just works. I don't think I'd ever sit down like, "I need therapy, I have to write," but it's one of those things that's subconscious when I'm sitting down and playing guitar and practicing. It just happens, but it is definitely therapeutic to be able to do that.
I always get so fired up when I find a band that combines melody and anger and actually tries to do something that makes people feel better. It's true that you aren't writing songs about love and happiness. I'm just going on general impressions here because your lyrics are really dense, you cram them in there, but it seems like you write about people who change, they sell out and aren't who they used to be and they do it for the wrong reasons. You seem to write about places that change and aren't what you remember and change for the worse. It's almost like your music is documenting those changes while also acting as a cautionary tale.
Mike: Yeah, totally. It's cool to hear other people's interpretations because it means a lot to us that people pay attention. Documenting those situations, it's going to be interesting to look back on and I already have. I've already looked back at songs and lyrics that we've done and it's interesting. It's a journal, it's just like a documentary of who we were when we wrote the songs. It's a learning experience to look back on it. There are tons of bands that have done that and that we've always listened to. Sometimes it's hard because it's not a conscious thing. We just grow listening to this music and it influences us and we aren't sure how.
Well, the songs are specific enough that people who want to figure out what it's about could, but they're also general enough that they can apply their own meanings, like a friend of theirs who changed and became a yuppie or something.
Mike: Yeah, totally. That's what I like. I don't like to be too vague about what I'm saying because that's what means a lot to me, when I know that it's really personal and there are specifics in there that mean it wasn't made up, but then to have that general thing where people can apply it to their own lives, it's cool that it works that way.
Well, if it's too vague, doesn't that call the honesty into question? Does it actually mean anything to anyone or are you just being abstract? Is this just some form of poetry you have no connection to?
Mike: Right, it's just words. Yeah, totally. Personal and honest lyrics are always what interest me. Everything from books to poetry or whatever, that's what really hits home with me.
What do you read?
Mike: Right now, Vonnegut. I'm reading a book called "Spoon River Anthology." It's an amazing book by Edgar Lee Masters. I love it. I've been trying to write more too, not lyrics but fiction. That's pretty much what consumes my time.
It's kind of interesting to me that somewhere along the way, people lost track of the point that punk is making yourself a better and more conscious person and not being an asshole.
Mike: Yeah. I think that's a fucking great way to look at it. Punk can mean anything to anybody, but that's a great way to think of it, like being honest and nice and respecting people. I think it's influenced my life a lot too, especially DIY ethics and principles. I know that, since we put out our own records and booked our own shows, I can do anything. I can do anything myself, anything. In just life in general, I think that, coming through punk, has made me better and more positive. It's a nice feeling and it's a good view to have in life.
Right. You don't need that record deal. You're making the music because you want to do it and put out your own records.
Mike: Totally, and it works in tons of different situations that have nothing to do with music. If one thing doesn't work out, we can do something ourselves on another level. I don't know when it hit me, but the DIY ethic is a cool thing to apply to life and respecting people goes along with it.
So what else do you besides playing in the band? Something I've noticed is that most people who do something creative are usually involved in other things that are either creative or enable other people to be creative.
Mike: Well, writing and reading. I do Web design. I help run a small label with a friend of mine. I like output. I like keeping myself busy and doing different things and it's generally writing and working on music, but it can be sitting at a computer working on a Web site. Everybody in the band has something like that. Poetry, my brother does great photography and takes really good pictures. We all have those other creative things outside of the band and it helps out a lot.
It seems like it keeps you busy and involved with the community, like it keeps you involved with the DIY roots of punk rock, but it also gives you things you can write about. It keeps you engaged and active and thinking and creative in ways that aren't related to the band, which could get stagnant if that's all you're doing.
Mike: Yeah, totally. I think all art is an umbrella and I could be working on writing or Ben could be taking pictures and somehow it will apply to the band. It's just putting things out and keeping creative. It's what all of us will continually do for the rest of our lives, no matter what, with or without the band. Right now, we're lucky because of all the benefits that have come along with these creative things.
What are you most proud of so far?
Mike: The relationships that I've made and that all of us have made through the band. I'm really proud of that. When I look back in 20 or 30 years, the people that we've met and worked with, the places that we've seen, I think it'll be unforgettable. I'm proud that it came out of 4 friends hanging out. Back in the early days, that's how we met new people and made friends and I still have those friends today. Having those relationships, that's what I'm really proud of. Something from 4 kids in Marshall, Michigan, grew into that and now I'm in San Diego meeting new people. It's just surreal sometimes and I have to take a step back. It's really cool.
It sounds like a series of George Bailey moments. You never realize how your life touches other people.
Mike: Yeah, completely. It's really rewarding, especially to come out on tour and meet people who we've emailed and make new friends. I feel so lucky to be able to do that. All of us are really proud of it.
So what keeps you going? What keeps you doing this when you're stuck in the middle of nowhere, the van's broken down, you need new brakes or the engine's toast and you have a show 8 hours away?
Mike: We've had that story. You must have heard that story with us.
Actually, I hadn't.
Mike: Well, we've got it. There's 2 things. One is the people, from just Trav, Dan and Ben in the band to the people that we meet to our other friends' bands, just having that relationship with people. We're at the show, we spend half an hour on stage. The rest of the time, we're talking to people and that's a special thing. The other thing is just basic creativity. There are so many facets of the band that we can be creative with whether it's a shirt design or album cover or a new song. It's nice to have that. The people and the creativity are what keep me going. I'm just having a great time. It's been so fun. We're having an awesome time.
Well, you get to go out on the road, but being on the road can also be boring, like when you don't know the city, don't know where to go and you're trying to figure out what to do before the show.
Mike: Yeah, it can be tough. People might think, "Oh, tour, how cool!" but there is a lot of that down time but it's still productive time. We're doing something. It's just a good thing in general. This trip is amazing and we're going to Europe in September and I can't wait. Those kinds of things are just a dream. I cannot wait. We have to take a week off after the tour and just hang around. I'm excited. That's a dream come true and it'll be fun.
Any last words, anything you'd like to add?
Mike: Thanks for being interested. It means a lot to us that you actually listen and take note. That's awesome.
I'm just glad you're doing it.
Mike: Thank you, man.