Chicago’s favorite mod band, Mega Super Ultra, released their second album Back to Take Another Bow this week on JumpUp Records. 2strokeBuzz talked to bassist Mike Stirk about the “mod” label, getting older, and that naked guy at Slaughterhouse VI.
2SB: I generally don’t like calling music “Mod,” nothing against mods, but it just doesn’t really seem like a genre to me, but a fashion statement. But you guys do seem to take the various sounds generally associated with “mod” music and meld them together very well, and if there’s an argument that there is a “Mod” sound, you’re it. How do you describe your music, and why Mod? why now?
Mike: I think we place ourselves in that era for the simple fact that we came of age in music (14–15 yrs old) at the height of the mod revival. We fell in love with the British flair of the music, and yes, the fashion too. I think of the scene in the film Quadrophenia, where there is the dance party going on at that smoky little hole in the wall club, and the band is pumping out rhythm and blues numbers while the girls are all dancing with each other, and the boys are popping pills and trying to look cool. That’s youth–in Britain, in the States–it doesn’t matter when or where. But behind all the emotion, the circumstances, the little stories of love and hate , of rivalry and allegiance, there’s the band, playing the music, putting down a beat–the rhythm of the conversation, the mood and dynamics of the night follow. WE are that band–in the background–just playing our tunes. When you tune in and listen, you can follow the music, follow the groove, and enjoy the song, the vision, the moment. When you tune out, we are still there, the backbeat, the sway and the swagger. That’s rock and roll.
You literally wear your influences (The Jam, Stiff Little Fingers, The Kinks, Motown, 70s Punk, and such) on your sleeves. Most of your music has, for lack of a better term, a very “retro” sound. Do you purposely try to sound “retro?”
I guess that we are retro, in the sense that we have been ourselves for more than 20 years. So many bands self-destruct or end up in some dimensionless space trying to be the one and only completely original act. It’s total bullshit to believe in that approach. You are what you listen to. Every song and sound that you hear contributes to the creative effort. It doesn’t matter if it’s your favorite record that you have listened to a thousand times or canned elevator Musak that you heard once on your way the the dentist, it is all stored in some dark recess or your mind and someday it will come to the surface. We are not afraid to wear our tastes on our sleeves. All the better–I think that gives the listener a clearer message of where we are coming from–and if the listener has never heard of our influences, that makes us completely original to that ear. I can clearly remember the first song I learned to play–and fell in love with–it was the Clash’s cover of “Police and Thieves”, ooh, it must have been about 1978, maybe that proves your point, I guess we are a bunch of retro geezers.
Isn’t it ironic that “modern” is “retro” now?
Irony is the cornerstone of so many things in life.
What do you guys try to add to what your influences have done before you?
Oh, just everything that they haven’t done–or didn’t have the time to do. Music, and life in general is so dynamic. Things change constantly–the way music is recorded, marketed, packaged, performed. I think that every time you get up and play for an audience, you are adding to the fabric of sound. When we are gone, there will be someone else there to carry on–to play the next note–there always will be. As long as there are people, there will be music, whether it’s played by an ancient aboriginal tribe banging a drum, a concert piano, or a Les Paul through a stack, it doesn’t matter. Something is being added–in some room, some club–for some listener. Everyone of us adds to the collective effort. I wish we could get it out to more people, but we’ll do what we can, and take our chances.
What other bands, or types of music, do you like, other than the obvious ones?
You touched on the major ones. Good job. I’m glad you noted the Motown and 70’s stuff. We generally put ourselves forward as a loud–power pop/punk band, because we think it is our “place of equilibrium.,” it offers the best point from which to go in any direction, but the other influences eddy beneath the surface. Tony has a metal streak that runs deep. Tom is all over the place. I truly admire his knowledge of music–scary actually–but he loves the soul and Motown, Al Green, baby! I think that I have the taste that most closely follows what we sound like, that is, XTC, Clash and the Pistols. I think it is safe to say that guitar and drums are the bricks and mortar of the band and it’s sound. It takes a lot for a bass guy to say that.
You also do a lot of covers, and your fans seem to really enjoy them. I, personally, love your cover of “Caught by the Fuzz.” Is it awkward or disappointing that people at the shows are calling out covers all night?
We love doing covers. We usually stumble upon them during rehearsal. Someone brings up a tune–and we just jump in and play. You know right away if it is going to work. We also love it when people call out a song–we encourage it. Tom is always opening the request line while we are on stage. “Caught by the Fuzz” is a blast, I remember learning that one when we rehearsed at a little “pay by the hour” practice studio in Uptown–it was $25 bucks or so per hour–we would go up there and set up the gear, rip through all the songs, then scoot out before the meter hit an hour. Caught by the Fuzz is my memory of that place. We are lucky to have our own studio now!
You sure seem to enjoy playing covers, and your catalog seems to be ever-growing.
Yup–like I said–we just stumble upon them. Any suggestions?
You’ve got a new album out soon, right? On JumpUp again? What’s it called? When’s it due? What’s on it?
The new record has been complete for several months now. It is on JumpUp, we have a three record deal with them. They’d dragged a bit on getting it out–but it’ll be out March first. It’s called Back to Take Another Bow!–it seemed appropriate. I think the artwork took as long as the recording, but we are very happy with it. We had the horn section from Deals Gone Bad play on a few numbers. The songs are a little more rock-and-roll on this record, but we try to cover a few bases.
And JumpUp is distributed by Detour Records in England? That’s a good place to be, both labels are pretty great.
We are happy with JumpUp, and it is a hoot to be distributed by Detour. I remember so many great record from that label. It is a dream come true for us to be associated with them. I have regular contact with Dizzy regarding us getting to the UK in the future. We’ll see.
I haven’t caught the Power Hour [Tom and Mike’s show on Loyola’s WLUW radio in Chicago] in a few months, how’s that going? How did you and Tom end up doing that?
The Power Hour is a great story. It is on hold for a time–while the station is reformatting the programming. That all started when I started tuning into the station–I would listen on my way to work–they play great music! After a few weeks I decided to send the station an email. I just told them that I liked the format and mentioned that I played in a band. Mike Stephen [host of “Stephen in the Evenin'”] returned my email and asked me to send in a tape. They liked it and asked us to come down to the station for an interview–we had a great time joking around and playing a few songs live on the air. At the end of the affair Tom sort of half jokingly said “I could do a radio show” and he launched into his “DJ” voice and jibber-jabberred! He had the whole place in stitches–so they asked us back as guest DJ’s. I’m sort of the nerdy–don’t-say-much engineer guy, Tom is the over-the-top personality. Not too long after that, the Power Hour was born. Jed James [host of WLUW’s local artists’ show] was a great help! We are looking forward to getting back to it soon. It is a great feeling to sit on the doorstep at the studio, watch the students walk by, have a smoke, and in the back ground know that the music that you love is going out over the airwaves–it’s awesome!
Do you meet people at shows that heard of you through WLUW?
We have met a few, maybe people are bashful. Mostly we get people who call in and ask about us to go to the shows. We have had several interesting callers so far–Tom will be administering the restraining orders in his spare time.
I think they [WLUW] have a lot more listeners than they realize or than corporate radio would like to admit. Almost everyone I know listens to WLUW regularly.
It’s great stuff, I believe it. They just need more watts from the FCC!
You’ve been around for a while now, and you seem to be going strong as a band, we talked a little about this before, but what’s it like getting older? Do you have to really push yourselves to practice and set up shows, or does it just happen?
It is work–no way around it. The good gigs, for the good audiences, are hard to find. We have been at it for a long time, but we wear it like a badge of honor. We love to play, it is the only truly rewarding part of it. I think you’ll hear that from any true performer. We love it! We have had a few bad gigs along the way, but they are obscured by the good ones ten-fold. We do all the booking and promotion ourselves–I know we could do better–but we do our best, and we play our hardest for every show.
I know I used to hit about three shows a week, now it’s maybe one every couple months, and I rarely try anything new.
Time marches on, stick with it as long as you can, because when it’s over, you will miss it. I know this as a certain truth. That’s why we keep going.
What do you consider the highlights of your career as a band so far?
I don’t think we really have any as MegaSuperUltra. We are truly looking for a break. We all have our individual rock stories from other bands, I know that Tom has a vast array of “I knew them when” tales. The two that I like telling are; 1.) G.G. Allin was the drummer for a band that I played in in high school, there are some wild stories there! and 2.) I opened up for the Ramones in college–the show was a riot–still the biggest crowd I played for. The highlight was playing wiffleball with Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky while we were waiting for sound check. priceless!
What are/were your favorite bands to play with?
We are in love with The Pills from Boston! We have played a few times with them–and it is a perfect match. They are a great band, I hope they make it! We played with them in Boston in December. It is awesome when you can play a show, then see another band on the bill that you love–it’s like getting something for free!
Do you have goals as a band, or do you do it just for fun? I don’t get the impression you’re calling A&R scouts and begging them to come to your shows, but you clearly all take the band (if not yourselves) seriously.
We take it very seriously–we have great fun–but first and foremost is getting it right. We take pride in the songs, the sound and the performance. I guess we are just hoping that some A&R guy finally stumbles upon us. I get a little disappointed when we invite people, make the effort, have a totally awesome show, and the critics and industry reps are all at another show that had better backing. It is hard sometimes, but we keep at it. I know that we have never begged anyone to come to a show–we may have dared them, but never begged, with the possible exception of the scooter club. You guys need to rally around us!
What you need is for the Strokes or someone to set off a huge teen retro/mod craze that you can then capitalize on.
Aaah maybe. The Strokes are doing well–but somehow I think if we make it, it will be from some old record guy stumbling upon us at a bar somewhere and, just for a moment, feeling the way we do when we play. We were really encouraged when the scooter thing caught on a little a few years ago, but the club doesn’t seem to have many music/club events. We would be the house band–but nothing yet.
Do you consider yourselves “career musicians” or do you have other things that are more important to you, career-wise?
We are inescapably tied to music–we couldn’t get out if we wanted, it is in our blood, there ’til we die, no doubt. We are all professionals in the daytime, you have to pay the bills. I am happy that we have all be able to be successful in “regular” careers and maintain the music–it is something to be proud of.
What else are you guys into besides music?
Tom and I are both married. I have a son and another baby on the way. Tony is a real estate tycoon. I have a pretty respectable career job as and engineer and a design/build contractor, it gives me a creative outlet beyond music, it keeps me going. We are all right-brain people–it is a full time job just to keep the challenges coming.
This is, after all, a scooter webpage, so I gotta ask about scooters. You bought that red and black Serveta Lambretta from Moe, right? but you sold it recently?
No, I still have the Serveta. I am hoping to get the time to ride it one of these days. It is at Moe’s garage right now receiving love and care.
Have you or Tom or Tony had other scooters?
Tom had a Lambretta 200 all through college. He rides very well, I think he could do well in a race.
How did you end up mixed up with us, anyway? I’m guessing Moe asked you to play the first (Slaughterhouse 5) rally, maybe?
We got tied into the scoot stuff in Chicago when JumpUp records featured us in Scoot Quarterly! a few years ago. We got a copy of the magazine and I found an ad for the Second to Last SC in back. I called or emailed Moe the next day and soon after bought his old bike. I just bought a house with a garage, so maybe I can get that thing on-line by the summer. We love the scooter people. There is always someone interesting to talk with, something rare to see, or somewhere different to be.
I was there for Slaughterhouse 6, but I’d love to hear about your “biggest” fan from your perspective.
Let’s just say it was a starry night, very clear, new moon, and you could see Uranus!
Had you seen him before or since? I don’t think he was with us [the scooter crowd].
We totally thought he was with you guys–you are pulling my leg! Where did that guy come from? I prefer to suppress any photos of that guy for an article, we are afterall looking for our big break!
Mega Super Ultra’s albums Power Pop Art and Ready to Take Another Bow are available from JumpUp Records.