If you want to hurt your friend in a band’s feelings, refer to his/her musical pursuit as a hobby.
The balance of aspiration, dedication and self-delusion required to trudge through bad shows at crappy bars can be punctured pretty quickly just by acknowledging that playing music without getting paid for it isn’t that much different from needlepoint, or building epic Star Wars models in your garage.
Unlikely Austin punk rock stalwarts The Midgetmen embrace the term, though. Ten years into the band’s history, its members are grown-ups whose day jobs have morphed into careers, and for whom playing music is just a really fun thing to do while getting drunk with their friends.
"I never understood local bands who take themselves seriously. Let’s cut to the chase — you’re not making art."
To celebrate their decade of music, the dudes in the band are throwing their 10th Anniversary Party at The Mohawk on Friday, May 18th — and, to make sure you have a reason to stick around until the end, they’re capping the night by playing “Weird Al” Yankovic’s masterpiece, Dare To Be Stupid, in its entirety. CultureMap caught up with the band’s Marc Perlman and Justin Petro to talk about day jobs, Weird Al and why they’ve outlasted all of the hype bands that broke up over the past ten years.
So what’s been up with the Midgetmen for the past ten years?
Marc Perlman: Drinking a lot, unfortunately. Avoiding going to work. Actually, my boss's boss’s boss’s boss is Alex in the Midgetmen, which is great. In the org chart, I report to him now. He’ll try to be professional, and I’ll be like, ‘Dude, I’ve seen you at your finest moments, passed out on the floor. It’s hard to take you professionally.’
Justin Petro: In the band, it’s reversed.
MP: In the band, I get to yell at him. At work, I have to try not to embarrass him too much. I’m not supposed to talk about tour type stuff. ‘How many of you have ever shared a bed with the VP?’ But it’s not like we were spooning, so it’s not an HR violation.
And to celebrate a decade of sharing beds without spooning, you’re going all-out this year with a Weird Al set. Covering Dare To Be Stupid is such a perfect choice for the Midgetmen. When did that come to you?
JP: For years, we’ve done funny covers. We did “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” at a gay bar. “Lola,” which was sort of “Yoda” already. I’d been pushing to do a polka, because a Weird Al polka is the quintessential funny thing to do. So when we were talking about the ten-year, we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do, and then it came to us: cover a Weird Al album. It’s parodies of covers and there’s a polka in there, which we’re going to do as our own song. And if we’re gonna do it, it needs to be Dare To Be Stupid.
"We’re old enough that it’s looped all the way around past the idea that serious music is what you have to be into. They stopped being into Fugazi, and now it’s cool to have fun again at a show. Weird Al is definitely cashing in on this."
That’s the quintessential Weird Al album.
MP: I would Google reviews of Dare To Be Stupid, and I didn’t realize at the time that it was the thing that made him a superstar, and this was a great album.
JP: We actually really enjoy playing the songs. We’re probably better musicians after having played it a thousand times.
MP: Especially his originals — he is a very talented songwriter, to say the least. The easy songs are the covers. His originals are incredibly weird. He’s obviously a really well-trained musician. It’s kind of scary. We have to have played "Dare To Be Stupid" at this point a thousand times.
JP: I think the sign of a great pop song is the complexity that you’ll never understand. You could sing along with it and not think about it, but if you have to play it, it’s like “Holy fuck, are they doing complicated things.”
This is a good time to cover Weird Al, too. He’s kind of in the zeitgeist lately — he played Fun Fun Fun Fest, All Tomorrow’s Parties, he was just on the Marc Maron podcast…
MP: The people who are our age, kind of in their mid-30’s — when they were kids, it was cool. Then it was like, “Oh, we’re too cool for this.” But now we’re old enough that it’s looped all the way around past the idea that serious music is what you have to be into. They stopped being into Fugazi, and now it’s cool to have fun again at a show. Weird Al is definitely cashing in on this.
It’s kind of fitting that you guys would do Weird Al, too — he doesn’t take himself seriously, you don’t take yourselves seriously. He’s been doing this forever, you just clocked ten years. What have you learned from ten years of playing in Austin?
MP: We’ve played at seven or eight clubs that have all gone out of business. We’re kind of the black angels of death for Austin clubs. The number of bands we’ve played with who’ve broken up one show later after playing with us is, like, in the hundreds, basically.
JP: I think we’ve won, now, between all our contemporaries. Cruiserweight was the last one.
MP: They play once in a while, but they’re not really around. There were all these bands when we started who we thought were the successful local bands. When we first started, the pop-punk thing was going on — Cruiserweight, Dynamite Boy, Schatzi (who also has a reunion show at Mohawk coming up), Rubberhed. They were our contemporaries when we started, and they’ve all basically broken up. Then there was that brief moment of stuff with, like, Knife In The Water, This Microwave World, I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness — this phase of these bands that seemed like they were the big Austin bands all of the sudden. We wanted to play with people like that — “We want to open for you!” — and then they all broke up as well.
"The number of bands we’ve played with who’ve broken up one show later after playing with us is, like, in the hundreds, basically."
Is that gratifying? I know it’s not a competition, but...
JP: Oh, it’s a competition.
MP: It’s a competition. At the end of each night, we’d look at each band and be like, “We outdrew them. We’re better than them.” It’s satisfying, in some way, that bands who took themselves seriously and tried to make it as a career have completely flamed out and given up. When they try to get to the next level, they all just completely bomb, and it never works.
You can kind of count on one hand the number of really successful Austin bands in the past ten years.
MP: Since we started, there’s Spoon. Explosions In The Sky. Trail Of Dead — and they had their moment, but they’re back to playing to a couple hundred people, nothing huge. Black Angels, Ghostland and Okkervil River. And these bands don’t treat themselves as Austin bands at this point. I think it’s satisfying that What Made Milwaukee Famous at this point flamed out. Now they’re “back,” but they still only have that same one freakin’ album from nine years ago.
Most of the people who cared about that record probably don’t go to shows very often anymore.
MP: They completely missed their chance. I hate to say that it’s satisfying, but it is, because bands that took themselves too seriously to even respond to a Midgetmen email, they’re broken up and are just working their desk jobs. We’re working our desk jobs, but having so much fun. These bands that were like, “We’re too successful to play with the Midgetmen, we’re too good.”
JP: In one sense, it’s live-fast-die-young. The fact that we’re still doing it is what, to us, is the important part.
MP: And most of those bands never even became famous. When they went on tour, they maybe had a couple hundred people. Maybe they played early in the day at a festival, but that was it. You had to be a music nerd to hear of them. White Denim has crossed over to some extent, but most of these bands never got to that. They were played on the Andy Langer Next Big Thing show, which doesn’t count as being actually on the radio — he’s played us, so it doesn’t count. I don’t know that they’ve accomplished significantly more than the Midgetmen.
The trajectories might have been different, but the peak is pretty similar.
MP: Some of these bands have played to more people at the outside of Mohawk, but only had, like ten shows that were massively successful. Voxtrot seemed like they were going somewhere. Sound Team, the same thing.
"Our original bio had a joke about how we were gonna knock the Strokes off the top of the charts. But we never thought that we were going to be successful."
Were your ambitions ever to be that?
MP: Our original bio had a joke about how we were gonna knock the Strokes off the top of the charts. But we never thought that we were going to be successful. Maybe early on we’d hoped that we could walk into that. But we very quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen, and we were like, “Whatever, who cares?”
JP: We now get to manifest our own destiny. Putting together the SXSW shows that we do, or the ten-year… We can play with who we want, when we want to do it. Some of the other bands, they have no control over what they’re doing. They’re at the mercy of the booker, and their manager.
MP: It’s the worst response ever when I email a band in Austin and they’re like, “Oh, you have to email our booking agent.” That band Not In The Face!, they were interested in playing last year, or maybe the year before. But now they have a “real” booking agent. So I emailed them directly about playing this year, and the guy finally was like, “Oh, you have to talk to our booking agent.”
To play a show in your hometown, you want this guy who doesn’t live in Austin to negotiate with me? I was like, “Okay, I’m deleting this email.” It’s kind of absurd that bands in their own hometown don’t have the ability to say they’re playing a show.
Ume does the same thing. You email them, and they’re like, “We are definitely interested, please contact our manager!” Then the manager has seven emails back and forth with me, and suddenly they’re not available that date because they might be on tour. You’re either on tour or you’re not, but can’t the band just say it? It’s in their hometown, so it’s weird.
It seems like when you do it that way, you might lose some of the fun, and for you guys, treating it like a hobby makes it sound like the most fun thing in your lives.
JP: For us, personally, we all have pretty decent careers, so “making it” is all on that side. We can’t be anything but tongue-in-cheek about the band. We’d never make a decision to cover Weird Al if we were serious.
MP: I never understood local bands who take themselves seriously. Let’s cut to the chase — you’re not making art. We’re not making art, those bands aren’t making art. You’re getting free drink tickets and playing to a couple dozen people. If you take yourselves too seriously, why did you even bother? I don’t understand that — they all have day jobs. It’s not like they’re on tour, then they come back to bartend for a month before going back out.
The reality is a band is a hobby unless your other job is temp work or bartending. Unless you’re actually on tour, even if you’re playing every week in Austin, if you’re not leaving Austin, your career is being a bartender, and your hobby is being in a band. I don’t care how many shows you play in Austin, it’s a hobby if you’re only playing here. You’re never gonna make enough money to sustain yourself if you only play in Austin. Unless maybe if you’re Dale Watson or something.