Influenced: Mike Mildew on the Continued Relevance of Sonic Youth
In Influenced, we talk to Milwaukee musicians about the artists that shaped and inspired them, both as performers and listeners.
Mike Schauwitzer along with his brother Eric have been performing under the name Mildew for the better part of the last 20 years. Starting at a time when Milwaukee’s experimental scene was still in its infancy, the duo has continued to be a Milwaukee noise music staple. Mike sat down with us while working at Acme Records to discuss the band that opened him up to the world of noise music, Sonic Youth.
Let’s talk a little bit about your early musical influences.
I was pretty sheltered in my early childhood as my parents were super Christian, so a lot of the music I got into, I remember hiding from them. The first thing I bought was a cassette of The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill in 1986. Public Enemy, too, I remember really liking It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. I was into a lot of hair metal stuff, too, but you know, I was 10 [laughs]. Metallica I remember being pretty into at the time as well. And then when I was about 15, Nirvana happened.
I just want to stop here before you go on any further and ask you, as someone who witnessed the whole Nirvana phenomenon firsthand: Was it really as huge of a moment as history has made it out to be?
Oh yeah, to me it was totally one of those moments. I remember I was babysitting at the neighbor’s house and I saw the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video come on MTV and just being completely floored by it.
It’s interesting because you were listening to metal.
Yeah, and I continued to listen to metal as well. I’d listen to Guns N Roses and Nirvana and I didn’t think anything of it. There was nothing in my head that said there was anything wrong with that. But yeah, with Nirvana I just became obsessed. I read every article I could find about them. Kurt Cobain was famous for talking about music he was into, stuff like Daniel Johnston and Sebadoh. That’s how I got into Sonic Youth.
What was the first thing you remember hearing of theirs?
I think it was Dirty. That had just come out and I remember hearing about it a lot. From there I worked backwards with Daydream Nation, Confusion is Sex and all those really early records.
Those early records are…pretty different from Dirty.
Oh yeah, definitely. Dirty was pretty much in line with a lot of the other stuff I was hearing at the time. I think because I heard them albums in reverse chronological order, it made more sense, like I was able to see where they were coming from. I saw the evolution in reverse. On those early records they’d have those long freakout kinda parts, and that was really my first exposure to more abrasive uses of noise. Like I was listening to these waves of feedback for like five or 10 minutes, and I couldn’t really tell if there was a direction they were going in or if they were improvising, but I was intrigued. I think from then on, I started to hear music differently.
Did you start to hear Nirvana differently as a result?
I think I had already been listening to Nirvana in that way by then. They got pretty noisy when they’d destroy their instruments, or stuff like “Endless Nameless.” They always had that element in there, maybe not so much on Nevermind but you can kind of hear it on In Utero.
So when you say it sounded “different,” was
that a good or bad thing?
Good thing. It was like expanding on things that I liked about music already. I was curious as to what process they were going through to create some of these sounds that I was hearing. A lot of those things I was hearing weren’t like obvious guitar sounds; they were playing instruments in ways that they perhaps weren’t intended to be played.
Sonic Youth really embraced noise pretty much full on. Was it a challenge to endure some of those harsher passages?
Not really, and that's primarily because of listening to stuff like Public Enemy. It was just so shrill and harsh, even the vocal delivery. Chuck D was just yelling at you and Flavor Flav was mocking you the whole time. It was just very confrontational on a sonic level. I really liked NWA’s Straight Outta Compton too around that time, and that’s also pretty abrasive in a lot of ways. Even [Beastie Boys’ 1989 follow up to Licensed to Ill] Paul’s Boutique is kind of noisy in how those samples are layered and arranged, just a lot of stuff to pay attention to at once.
Their use of noise was eventually more than just a violent aural assault; they eventually started to use it in a much more musical and textural way. It almost builds up your tolerance for it. What did they get you to listen to, and do you think that it made you understand music that you wouldn’t have understood a few years prior?
I started listening to a lot the no wave stuff, so again going backwards. Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and Glenn Branca’s stuff, which is noisy but there’s also a rhythm there. I would read about their tours and who they were playing with. That was when I started to realize that noise music was a thing. I saw that they were playing shows in Japan with Masonna. All I had to go on were descriptions of live sets that he was playing, like these crazy five minute sets of this guy throwing himself across the stage. So that got me into a lot of the Japanese stuff that was happening at the time like The Boredoms and Merzbow and Melt Banana. A lot of the Skin Graft Records stuff, too.
Where were you buying these records?
I would just happen upon them. Atomic Records would stock some of that kind of stuff. Earwaves would get it in every now and then as well. My brother and I would take day trips to Madison and go to Earwax and Madcity Music Exchange; they carried a lot of experimental stuff.
Did you see ever see Sonic Youth live?
I did. I've seen them a ton, actually. It was great to see how they were getting some of those sounds that I was hearing, because I had no idea how a lot of it was being made.
When was it that you started to make your own music?
I think around the time I first heard them, I had been experimenting with tapes and stuff. My brother and I had a dual cassette boom box that had a microphone input. I’m not even sure what we were using around then…I think maybe we had a bass that was stolen from one of the high schools or something. But yeah, we would experiment with tape speeds and overlapping sounds and stuff. It didn’t sound anything like what we were listening to, but it wasn’t really an attempt to make music. It was just something we did. We played video games, messed around with tapes and listened to music.
So you were doing that just out of curiosity?
Yeah, we would just layer sounds, just tons of layers. The boom box had high speed dubbing on it, so we would manipulate that function. When you played something back, it was really slowed down and warped sounding.
It seems like cassettes were a huge part in a lot of musicians’ early development. Like a lot of hip-hop producers talk about making pause tapes early on.
Yeah, we’d do a lot of weird pause stuff too. I’d have my brother read something and I would mess with the pause button to make it all fragmented and weird. We were listening to a lot of the Burroughs stuff.
That seems like very much in line with what Sonic Youth were doing, using an instrument for something in a way that it wasn’t intended to be used.
I’ve never really known how to play instruments in the traditional sense; I’ve just been able to figure out how I can get them to make the sounds that I want them to make.
So when did you make the transition from
playing around with sounds for fun to actually performing and releasing music?
I think sometime around ’95 or ’96. I don’t think we started playing live in front of anybody until like ’97 or ’98. We’d play anywhere with anybody basically. We’d play basement shows in Riverwest, but we’d also play at these dance parties that Doormouse used to throw at clubs in West Allis. We’d just do stupid stuff like smash stereos and throw things into the crowd. It was dumb [laughs]. We would just play with anybody because there wasn’t a noise scene like there is now. In Milwaukee there really weren’t any other people that were doing what we were doing at the time. I remember a few years later once the Internet came into play, I started looking up noise music just to find out where we could send things out to get them released. The idea of releasing something yourself didn’t occur to us for whatever reason.
So when did you take on the Slow Owls moniker?
My brother had moved to California for a bit, and people would still ask me to play, but I didn’t want to use the same name because my brother wasn’t a part of it; it just felt weird. So I took the name to differentiate between the two things, even though they are somewhat similar. That project has evolved in that I’ve developed somewhat of a style with Slow Owls in that it’s tape based and loop based, just like this repetition and degradation of sound. Mildew is more open ended.
If a 15 or 16 year old kid came into Acme looking to get into Sonic Youth, what record would you suggest to them to start off with?
Honestly, I’d probably go with Dirty. It’s noisy, but it’s got pop songs on there too. That’s where I started and it made me want to hear more because it kind of showcases everything that they do.
As far as a favorite goes [pause] I’d probably say Sister. It’s got this kind of dark and distant feel to it that I really like. Which reminds me about this cool thing that happened when my brother and I went to see them once with Stereolab.
Some time in like the last 10 or so years, my brother and I drove to Pontiac Michigan to see them with Stereolab. We got there early and wanted to check out the town because we had never been there before, but it was a Sunday, so pretty much everything was closed. So we’re walking around trying to find something, wandering the streets. The amphitheater was on a hill on the edge of town facing downtown, and we started to hear Sonic Youth sound checking, which was echoing through the empty streets and bouncing off of buildings and stuff. It was one of those cool cinematic dreams—like moments that don’t happen very often. I don’t remember what song it was they were playing but it was great. That’s kind of how Sister sounds to me.
Starting with Sister going through A Thousand Leaves, they maintained a pretty flawless track record. NYC Ghosts and Flowers are the first album in their discography that tends to kind of get dissed by critics and fans alike, mainly for its more spoken word tendencies. Seeing as you mentioned earlier that you were into some spoken word stuff, how did you feel about that record?
It’s definitely not like a high point of their career, but I think it deserves more credit than most people give it. It's far from being a "bad" record. I was listening some of Ginsberg's recordings and the Burroughs stuff, so it kinda fell in line with that stuff.
existed for nearly three decades and have continued to stay relevant. Why do
you think this is?
They haven’t turned their back on anybody, they’ve always had one hand in the underground no matter what point they were at. They all have their side projects and other things outside of the band. Thurston Moore is still playing noise shows, you know? He’s usually an audience member at these things, too. He’s always watching the other artists. He’s still very much a part of that world.
Yeah. And they never really changed who they were in attempt to be more accepted by the mainstream, like the Butthole Surfers for example.
Yeah. “Pepper” is just a poor attempt at making a Beck record [laughs].
Over the last two decades, what have you gained from being a Sonic Youth fan?
They opened me up to a lot. I don’t know if I would be making music if I hadn’t heard them. I might have, but it did open a door into other things that I wasn’t hearing in other music and wouldn’t have had I not heard them.
Mildew will be performing alongside many others at the 2014 Milwaukee Noise Fest, which will be held at the Borg Ward from Sept. 25-27. More information can be found here.