Whether they say "COY-Ken-doll" or "KIRK-en-doll," Portland folkers, rockers, and Pickathon types all seem to know Mike Coykendall's name. He recorded Sallie Ford. He's touring the world with M Ward. He recently got some backing vox done by Zooey Deschanel. This weekend, he'll release his 21st album, Chasing Away the Dots, at Doug Fir Lounge.
But some 30 years into the game, it's evident that Mike is over his own ego, satisfied to play his gigs pretty low-key and so reluctant to name-drop that we had to ask him twice. Mike tells Portland Monthly about appreciating music for its own sake, keeping it analogue, and learning to embrace his recently discovered role as a "Band-pa."
You're one of those incredibly prolific musicians who still seem to fly under a lot of people's radars. What can you tell them that they can't learn on your Wikipedia page? Well, first off, I haven't created a Wikipedia page for myself. I think whatever is there was put up by the folks that released my last couple records, and it should probably be expanded. I guess for the full brag, people could go to my website and look at my bio; that's pretty extensive. But, in brief:
I've been at this for 30+ years. I was born in rural Kansas in 1963, had my first band in high school and just kept at it. Did some prarie-psych in the 80's with Klyde Konnor and we made six or seven records. Met my wife Jill (also a musician) and we moved to San Francisco and started the Old Joe Clarks, which did really well with the Americana crowd. We released three albums that I'm really proud of, and we're probably going to make another one in the next few years just for the love of it. Jill and I moved to Portland in 1999. I set up a small studio in my house to apply the recording skills that I'd acquired via trial and error over the years. I started recording people that were into my style of analog tape recording, and one of those early artists was M Ward. Our first collaboration was on his record Transfiguration of Vincent, which is still one of my favorites. Anyway, I continued to record him and others (including Fernando, Blitzen Trapper, She & Him, Sallie Ford, Carlos Forster, etc) for a few years. In 2006, I started playing in his live band, which has taken me all over the world and been a real kick—TV shows, all that glamour stuff. That's slowed me down on the recording front, but it's definitely improved me as a live performer.
But I guess what I'd want people to know is that throughout those years I have worked obsessively and pushed very hard to get better on all levels. It hasn't been easy, but it's been rewarding. I've crossed paths with so many people who helped me out by lending their talents and/or encouragement. That list of friends is now super-long and to include them all would make for a very long Wikipedia page. I'd have to write my memoirs first, and that's not on my to-do list. Still adding.
What's a characteristic that your records share? How does Chasing Away The Dots fit, or differ?
My musical opinions and style are always evolving, but I still primarily record to tape, which imparts a certain sound. [Fuzzier, less perfect, and often described as "warmer."] Also, working with old school limitations opens up doors of fun and experimentation out of necessity. That comes through to varying degrees, depending on the project.
Chasing Away the Dots is unique as I started most of the recordings on a cassette 4-track, then sifted through the "inspiration" later to make a little order out of the chaos. I transferred selected portions to the 8-track 1/2" tape machine to be embellished a little, but not too much; then I experimented with random mixes until I got something that felt right. Very little stress and no grand plan other than to make stuff that was satisfying on some level.
When I record initial takes to the 4-track cassette, it allows my mind to be free. I've been using a 4-track since 1984, so at this point it's the closest thing to not recording at all, and I can just stream without being too precious about anything. So, that's what makes "Dots" special: I went into full on subconscious mode.
Don't some of your fellow folk musicians call you "Band-dad?" How do you experience your role as a Portland rock elder statesman, and how does it compare to what you envisioned when you started? Nathan Jr. [of Duover, M. Ward, etc.] calls me "Bandpa" and I call him "Bandson." It's cute.
I don't know what I envisioned when I started; it was too long ago. I do know that I believed (and still do, to a more weary degree) that music mattered because it mattered to me. Early on, I caught the desire to create something that made me and others feel a sense of joy or connection, to get to the center of things and find some kind of elusive moment of truth. Then, as a bonus (for a shy kid like myself), it seemed like a good way to meet girls—shallow and stereotypical, but true. I must have thought I could make a career out of it someday. I certainly wanted to give it a shot, and I'm still shooting. I love the things that can be said through music, the connection between what's being said and the way it's being framed, the hypnosis of it all, the way it makes me want to boogie, cry, to fully embrace the moment. So, I've always felt the stuff.
As far as the "elder statesman" thing goes... well that's what happens. Days, weeks, months, years, decades go by, and if you stay in the game and work hard to evolve and improve, you wake to find yourself an elder statesman. I don't think that much about it, and it's only been over the last few years that I've become aware of how others view me. Strangers call me "sir" more now and I occasionally get offered the senior citizens' discount. Funny stuff like that. I'm almost 49 now and really not that much different than I was at 25 or 35, other than I think I'm a better artist/performer now. I just keep working at it. At some point it, physically, it will start going the other direction—but for now, I'm pretty certain that I still have some prime years left!
Tell us about some of your favorite peers and collaborators.
I've been out on the road playing rhythm guitar and bass with M Ward for much of the last year. That's been great. I love him and all the people in the band and crew are top-notch and kind. When I haven't been out with M, then I've been here in P-town focusing on getting the new record ready. So, I haven't been recording for others much lately—though I did finish a two year project called "Teletype" with my friend Charlie Maxton, in a three-piece with John Amadon. I've known Charlie for over 20 years now; we know each other's styles and I've always loved his tunes and his edge—so it was rewarding and comfortable with just the three of us overdubbing and fleshing out the tunes. It was fun and easy! I've also been working on another record for Fernando Viciconte. We've been taking our time, but it's going to turn out great. He's a Portland legend, and he has one of my favorite voices of all time—right up there with John Lennon in that sweet-and-sour sort of way. Also, I've been recording Pigeons, who sound very unique and cool, hard to put your finger on. I love 'em.
What's happening at your show on Saturday? Who will join you, what are you most excited about, what's the feeling going to be? OK! I'm going to start off with a short acoustic, mellow set at the beginning of the night to get the quieter material out of the way before the room becomes too "conversational." Then the wonderfully percussive 1939 Ensemble is going move everyone. After that, the inspirational Old Light will add their deep down magic. Then I'll return with full band for an "electric" set at the end of the night. As far as who is going to join me: I'm going to have Kelly Bauman on guitar, Todd Corbett on bass, Sean Oldham on drums, Mark Orton on keys and lap steel, and I'll have a few extra guests sitting in on a few tunes. I'm most excited to just have the record out there! It's been a long time coming, and I've worked very hard on it. So, I hope the feeling will be "love, plus community." I'll probably be semi-overwhelmed that night, but I'm going to try and let go of that and just be in the moment. That's always the goal.