How To Stay Relevant, With Riverboat Gamblers Frontman Mike Wiebe.
Before fronting bands became a way of life for Mike Wiebe (pronounced “We-Bee”), the former Dentonite used to be an actor, studying film and acting in Santa Fe, New Mexico full-time. Times changed, though, and instead of letting auditions rule his world, Wiebe entered music and took to fronting bands, like that of the contemporary Austin punk outfit, The Riverboat Gamblers, which has been around for over a decade ago.
In that time, Wiebe has taken the Gamblers across the globe and back with stops in places like Europe and Australia, though the band's tour schedule has slowed some in recent years. With its members now pushing 40, you won't find the Gamblers pushing its limits like it used to, though the punk quintet does still pop up from time to time — for instance, it'll be headlining this month's Red Bull Sound Select show this Friday at Three Links. You can — and should! — RSVP for that one here.
Ahead of that show, we had the chance to speak to the cynically outrageous front-man on things like Snoop Dogg, changing with the times and maintaining interests outside of playing music.
Who are The Riverboat Gamblers?
It's me and [guitarist] Fadi [El-Assad], and [guitarist] Ian MacDougall and [bassist] Rob Marchant. But actually, Ian MacDougall is out. He's actually out working with the Foo Fighters right now, so our friend Cole is our clutch man. He's going to be playing with us on that show.
How did he score the Foo Fighters gig?
I don't know exactly. He befriended Dave Grohl, and Dave asked him to come do some work behind the scenes with the Foo Fighters. It's pretty crazy. It's a good gig for him.
I read a thing recently that you wrote about Snoop Dogg. I'm really curious what the story behind that is.
It was 1993 and I was working at a Subway in Santa Fe. The whole impetus for the article was that Snoop is going to be sort of like Frank Sinatra; he's a big game changer. It's kind of weird to think, “Oh, Snoop's this whole different thing then when he first came out.” It's just such a weird, kind of, essential turning point in hip-hop music back then, so much so that — even though I don't play hip-hop, I still listen to it — this kind of cultural thing that kind of twisted things around. And, wow, just to remember what a young kid I was. I don't know who it'll be [now], maybe, like, Kendrick Lamar. There's always, and it's this weird thing that trickles down to us, at the Gamblers because we've been a band for 15 years. You're only this new thing once. I think for every artist, there's this initial moment where you're this new thing, and nobody's ever heard it. [You're] lucky to even have a little bit of that, maintain integrity and kind of keep a semblance of what you did before but also change and do new things, and try and stretch your arms legs artistically, which inevitably is going to piss off a whole bunch of people, which is kind of a good thing. Some will come back around, and you will also get new people. There's people who only like our early garage records, and there's other people who are only into the middle to later years that are more polished and pop. And the last record we did was a little more, kind of a mix, more focused. I'm most happy with the very focused songwriting, but it's a little bit garage-ier, but a little bit mix of both, that people are still finding out about it right now. It's just a weird thing, much more exciting, to be a weird, permanent staple than if you're an artist that comes out with one really good record, or two really good records, that either just breaks or up or someone OD's or commits suicide. But yeah, we've decided not to go that route and to keep on living and keep doing the band stuff and make it interesting.
So in 2015 what keeps the Gamblers going, then?
Some of it is that we all kind of do other stuff and it sort of reinvigorates that band. There's different fuels for the engine. For that last few years it's been a little bit nicer now that we took the pressure off ourselves to try and just do this band full-time and try and make an adult living off of it because there's only a handful, especially rock bands, that can really do that. We kind of took the pressure off that. Some of it is just getting older and enjoying writing more, learning to stuff in the studio on our own. Some of it is getting along and getting more comfortable and taking chances. A lot of it is taking the pressure away from trying to do this every day of the year. Now we just kind of pick and choose the stuff we really wanna do, the stuff we like to do. If were doing a show now, or if we're doing a record, it's only ever because we really want to do it — that we enjoy it. It's never forced. There's times for any band where there's a bunch of shows, where it's, “Gotta pay the bills, gotta pay the rent.” Now we don't have that pressure so much. It's nice to get back to the old days. We're just kind of doing this because we want to do this. We turn down so much stuff now because, no, it doesn't sound fun. Even if, sometimes, the show is to our financial benefit, we're just like, “No, I don't think we'd really enjoy doing that.”
The poverty rate in Austin for musicians is pretty high right now, does this comes as a surprise?
Yeah, sounds about right. Now we started out in Denton, but we've been in Austin. I was the last guy to want to move out of Denton just because it was financially easy to maintain, but I think we've been in Austin long enough, and have been kind of lucky enough that I was able to get something of a foothold, of some sort, to where I can have my job and ways of staying afloat. But, yeah, it's getting pretty difficult to try and figure out a living and make music and something else. It's tougher the older you get. It's a lot easier to be totally okay with sleeping on a floor when you're in your 20s, but as start approaching 40, like I am, rapidly it gets less appealing and starts to bother you. It starts hurt your back. It gets much, much worse. It's really frustrating and it's something we've seen happening her for a long time — and it happens literally everywhere; it's not exclusive to Austin. But all these artists get into an area and make the place cool and make the place interesting but they don't own that area they can afford it, and then people see this place is really cool [and say,] “You know what would be really cool? If we made a whole bunch of money out of this!” And you just need to make it bigger and then it's not the thing that it was at all. This was like five years ago where they build these giant condos downtown and they were huge and really expensive, and they were having trouble selling them at first, so they made these noise ordinances, and the only reason they put the condos downtown was because there was this cool South by South West. Live music immediately changed overnight. Oh great, it's already happening. So none of it's really surprising. No matter where you are, whether it's Denton, Dallas or Austin or Minneapolis or the cool borough in New York, none of it's gonna last. Everything's been put up and re-purposed in Las Vegas right now. There's no place that's going to maintain forever, which kind of goes along musically, always be moving forward, not getting too content and too locked into one thing or one place forever. Be open to change.
What other advice might you have for other up and coming musicians?
All the rules and things that I've learned about being in a band — even things I've learned four years ago about being in a band — all that shit's completely irrelevant. The music industry and how be successful is so much luck and timing, and it just changes so quick. That would be my only advice, is to be malleable — even if you've got the thing that's working perfectly, even if it is working perfectly — that shit could change real quick.
You exert a lot of energy onstage, how have you managed to keep that up over the years?
On the road you've got this one 45 minute or hour thing to do a day. I mean pretty much for the most it's sitting in the van, or sitting in a club. The whole day is built around that one thing. So I'm excited about it when it actually does happen. Nothing could be physically active about it, there's not really any exercise going on. So it is all is built around that 45 minutes; it's really exciting when it really is there.
With performances at both Summerfest and Sound Select, has the band been working on anything new?
We actually just recorded two singles that are going to be coming out this year. They just need to mastered still. But they're pretty much done. They're going to be on End Sounds and they're kind of like end of the trilogy with the “Dead Roach” single we did with them earlier in the year. That's coming out. We're just kind of demoing and getting stuff ready to record a full-length, which will probably happen early next year. We have a fair amount of stuff. There's a couple pretty cool things hopefully happening, but they're a little too… We shot some stuff for a movie that we're actually in, so I don't really wanna totally jinx it. We shot it, it's a cool movie, but I don't really wanna jinx it. I don't wanna say it and it not come out entirely.
What is the Dead Roach trilogy?
It would more accurately be the “End Sounds” trilogy. It's three singles we are doing with End Sounds. We wanted to take a break from the album format. We also wanted to try new things like offering special vinyl copies to those bought with Bitcoin.
You talked about Snoop earlier, what other hip-hop gets your attention?
In hip-hop, as opposed to rock music, I am looking for artists that don't feel married to having a catchy chorus. I oftentimes can get bored with a sing-songy hook that so many commercial hip hop artists feel they need (granted because the market probably demands it). Mostly I'm interested in clever writing and turn of phrase. I like MF Doom, Action Bronson, lots of Wu stuff, Danny Brown.
You were also talking about your diverse interests a minute ago. What else do you do when you're not making music?
I'm new to stand-up comedy, but I've been doing that for several years. I have several un-produced screenplays.
What do your parents think about you being in this band?
I think my parents would prefer I do something more practical, and at times I agree with them. But I think they also kind of see that the band has taken me all over the world and that it fulfills some sort of “deep down body thirst” that Gatorade alone won't fulfill.
Cover photo by Karlo X. Ramos. The Riverboat Gamblers performs with Son of Stan and Richie on Friday, June 26, at Three Links as part of Red Bull's Sound Select series. Tickets to the show are $10 — or $3 with an RSVP right here. An RSVP does not guarantee admission, just a discounted ticket. Space at the show is limited; admission will be determined on a first-come, first-served basis until capacity is reached.