By Brian Costello
It’s one of the first warm nights of spring, and tonight’s show, after having its location changed two-to-three times due to landlord hassles and police concerns in the past week before settling on Crown Liquors in Logan Square, is packed with zitty rock ‘n’ roll youth and paunchy garage-dude vets like myself, cramming in closer as Mickey finishes setting up on the too-small stage. Dirty D, the rhythm guitarist, starts playing a guitar line not unlike “Bang a Gong,” as the drummer, Christmas Woods, marks the 2 and 4 beats on the high hat. I look around. Everyone is smiling, as much from the end of another lousy winter as for what is about to happen.
The only person not smiling is the lead singer, my old friend and collaborator Mac Blackout, who has that look I’ve seen countless times—where he’s either going to break everything around him, and/or he’s going to start screaming, like a drunken demon, some made-up song about dead babies or something of the sort. Usually, he’s a sweet Indiana kid with a chaotic creative streak, but when he looks like this (whiskey-flushed, rabid eyes, hissing mouth), well, you don’t think he’s going to hurt you, but then again, this might be the time he does. Christmas Woods moves into a triplet snare fill, and Mac screams “SHE’S SO CRAZY!!!!,” leaps into the crowd and lands on some unsuspecting audience members. The crowd not knocked down smiles, jumps in time, sings the words. They back up and dance, as Mac paces around in front of the stage in exaggerated pantomimes, falling and leaping around, singlehandedly making the term “outrageous frontman” mean something again. The music is rock ‘n’ roll at its most elemental—fun, simple, rooted in the past while putting a whole new spin on the familiar.
We’re all very happy here at Crown Liquors. The Party Season has come around again in Chicago, and Mickey is destroying another stage.
I’ve known Mark McKenzie (aka Mac Blackout) for nine years now. We played in a band together for five years; he did the artwork to my novel. I’ve kicked him out of my house for drunk-and-disorderly assault on my walls, guitars and strawberries (don’t ask) more times than I care to count; we’ve shopped for bargains together at Deals in Lincoln Square.
In other words, I’ve seen the guy from all angles, and at the end of the day, in a world of phony hipsters who try too hard with their tattoos and their American Apparel leisure wear, Mac Blackout is, for better or worse, a true nonconformist, a creative maelstrom of artistic energy constantly in search of outlets, be it the 4-track (where he has recorded twelve volumes of solo material in six years), or the walls of your bathroom at four in the morning. With Mickey, it was exciting for me to see him play the glam rock I knew he had always loved but couldn’t really explore in either the Functional Blackouts or Daily Void, with four other guys who, as Todd Killings of Victim of Time so perfectly put it, “all seem to be in their own worlds, but come together like nothing you’ve ever witnessed.”
Indeed, it is something to see Mac in a more traditionally rooted rock ‘n’ roll band with a former pro wrestler, a couple record collectors who aren’t, for a refreshing change, insufferable dorks, and an energetic young booker of house shows who also plays in three other bands. The sound that comes out of these guys ain’t pretty in the glam sense, and it ain’t ugly in the punk sense. By accident or by stumbled design, Mickey has a wholly original sound, as much drawn on vast musical influences as it is their own unpremeditated creative/destructive impulses.
Or. Maybe. Not. Fuck. It. Maybe I’m reading too much into it (prolly, bro!). This could be simply unadulterated hedonism, with that added dash of American Ruse-fueled frustration that finds its release in exciting music the way it always has in this country. And yet, I can’t help but wonder, as I always have for as long as I’ve known him, what, if anything, goes on in Mac Blackout’s mind when the music and/or the booze kicks in and he’s in that feral world of his, pacing and seething on the stage, about to pounce.
“I’m not trying to be angry,” Mac says. “If you’re frustrated it’s going to come out that way. I like to let it go in all different ways. That makes the show more exciting. The performance comes from real emotions, not from something plastic. That’s what the best performers have always done. You put all your energy into the performance. If you’re going to do one thing you might as well put it all out right away. I never really thought about it that much. It’s therapy, but everybody needs the therapy. That’s why the audience is there too.”
As for Mickey’s unique sound, “It all just comes out that way,” Mac continues. “I’ve always listened to glam, and I’ve always loved it. After playing in a band that was really really aggressive for years and years, I wanted to play something more straightforward. You take a little bit here and there, but you add a little bit of your own. If you get a good mix of people, you can get a damn good band together.”
I ask Troy Canady, aka “Mick Swagger,” lead guitarist and one of the two main songwriters for Mickey, about this clash of influences meeting personalities so crucial to the Mickey sound. “My main influence is glam like T. Rex and Slade,” Canady says, “but everyone likes different things. Daniel’s [Daniel Schlosser, the aforementioned “Dirty D,” rhythm guitarist and other songwriter for Mickey] songs are more influenced by power pop. I also like early hard rock like Alice Cooper and Debris. There’s a little bit of a punk thing, but we intentionally try not to be a punk band, but that energy’s definitely there. Sometimes me and Daniel write songs together, but usually it’s one or the other.
“My big influence on songwriting is the first Cheap Trick album,” Canady continues “Every song might be something different: a glam song, a folk song, a hard-rock song. I dig bands that have different-sounding songs on the records.”
When Mickey first started two years ago, they were a two-piece, with Canady on synthesizer, and Schlosser on guitar. (“Like a Velvet Underground meets Chrome sound,” is how Canady described it.) But then they wrote the song “She’s So Crazy,” and Mac Blackout joined. “That took everything to the next level,” Canady says. “[Mac’s] lyrics are great little stories, and the way he hears music is different than the way we hear it.”
From such disparate desperation, combined with the pure joy of music, a great band is born.
There is nobody named “Mickey” in Mickey. And yet, the name fits, evoking images of a mixed-up, essentially good, inevitably tragic juvie kid in some forgotten sixties-girl-group song who’s scorned by everyone except his sweetheart… and even she has doubts whether the boy’s gonna make it to 21, the way he rides his motorcycle over the speed limit and all. It’s wholesome, yet dangerous. Like Mickey Mouse, on the letterhead of a Disney copyright lawyer. Like Mickey Mantle, drowning in booze. Like the glitter Mickey showers the audience with at their chaotic live shows, and how it shares airspace with tossed beer cans. The bubbleglam this Chicago five-piece plays is more fierce than fey, writhing in familiar idioms without wallowing in the hackneyed hokum of similar practitioners.
Mickey, basically, plays a ferally unhinged scum-glam, as rooted in early GG Allin, Gary Numan and seventies power pop as it is in T-Rextasy, and in less than a year, their songs have gone from being the soundtrack to Chicago houseshows to the venerable airwaves of National Public Radio. Rarely do bands this good get any kind of broader recognition, especially in a Chicago perpetually smitten with indie-rock on the tamer side of the spectrum, but it’s looking like, as in everything else with Mickey, the typical rules don’t apply.
Mickey’s first show was last May, at an underground space in Bridgeport, and since then, they have been a fixture in the basement, backyard and loft shows that have sprung up in recent years in Humboldt Park and Pilsen, on streets yuppies are still afraid of jogging down. When the initial idea for the band was hatched two years ago between guitarists Canady and Schlosser, they traded records and started writing songs. Daniel knew Christmas Woods, a Michigan native who had spent three years on the Upper Midwest-Canadian light heavyweight pro-wrestling circuit. (“I was the baby face,” Woods says, “the underdog hero who would come back in the end. But I didn’t want to get paralyzed, so I started playing rock ‘n’ roll.”) And, as Schlosser says, “I had the brains to put the puzzle pieces together.” In early 2009, Mac Blackout from Daily Void (and our old band, Functional Blackouts) was asked to join, and he provided the words to Schlosser and Canady’s music. After some minor lineup changes, “Brother Brent” Zmhral joined on bass.
Within months, Mickey caught the attention of Chicago’s HoZac Records, who put out their first seven-inch last fall. While A-side “She’s So Crazy” is the explosive party track for twenty-first-century degenerates of all ages, the B-side, “I Am Your Trash,” takes a more introspective turn. The music slows down only a little, into a three-chord jangle, as Mac sings, “Last night we got into a/ horrible fight/I was drunk and screaming/playing music all night… I am your trash/I am your man.” It’s one of the best morning-after-the-debauch songs I’ve ever heard—sad yet unrepentant, a big-hearted love song for the aforementioned degenerates waking up on the darker side of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. It’s a record so obviously the proverbial “instant classic,” I can’t wait for what they will release next.
And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Turns out, oddly enough, Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney has become quite the fan, constantly mentioning the band on her “Monitor Mix” show on National Public Radio. An EP is scheduled for release from FDH records in early summer, and HoZac is releasing their first LP this fall.
It’s looking like 2010 will be Mickey’s year. Reports say Mickey killed it at SXSW in Austin, and it seems they’re starting to generate the kind of well-deserved (to use a showbiz term I can’t stand) “buzz” usually reserved for shitty, overhyped bands unworthy of said “buzz.”
Not that any of that necessarily matters, in the big picture. What matters most is keeping the possibilities as open as the interpretations to what the name Mickey means. Perhaps it’s as simple as Mac’s answer to this question. “It can mean a lot of stuff, and that’s why I liked it,” he said, then quickly added with a laugh, “And, it’s fun.”