Mike Coykendall is a name that very well deserves to be on the tips of Americana musical tongues across the land. But despite two lifetimes worth of credentials, he’s still lurking somewhere in the shadows of the woodsy dusk. Growing up in the heartland in Norwich, Kansas, Coykendall has been in the game since cutting teeth with Klyde Konnor back in 1984. Moving to San Francisco in 1991 with his wife and musical partner, Jill, Coykendall brought with him a love of both rock ‘n’ roll and traditional country music, as well as a voice bearing a sapient mood beyond its years. Right quick, Coykendall formed the Old Joe Clarks which led roundabout to his meeting Matt Ward, aka M. Ward, a partnership that eventually saw Coykendall’s inclusion in Ward’s touring band. Coykendall later relocated to Portland in 2000 and opened his own studio (Blue Rooms) out of he and Jill’s home. Through Blue Rooms as well as his Portland creation The Golden Shag, Coykendall began recording and collaborating with names like Gillian Welch, Bright Eyes, She & Him and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, to name a few, and helped break Blitzen Trapper, for whom he later recorded and produced Destroyer of the Void.
Coykendall is currently on the road in support of his own records (Hello, Hello, Hello; Unbearable Being of Likeness), joined by Carlos Forster of For Stars fame. In anticipation of their performance at Duffy’s Tavern on Sunday, January 29th, Synthesis caught up with Coykendall for a quick chat.
Musically speaking, where are you at right now? It seems you’re a man with hands in many cookie pots at all times. Any additional projects, be they performing or recording, on the horizon?
Well, there is no roadmap. Just trying to do as much of the fun/fulfilling stuff as I can, while I can. I’m always songwriting so there will be more of that; I have a new record of my own stuff ready for release. I need to find the right home for that so that it has a chance to be heard. I’m very happy with the record; it’s as good as I can do, anyway. So, I wanna get it out there and support it in every way I can. I guess that means touring, which is a pretty tricky equation to put together with fuel prices, the distance between venues and the saturated amount of “entertainment and leisure” options that are coming at us from all directions 24/7. More concretely, I’ll be going on tour with M. Ward this year playing rhythm guitar and bass. That’s always super fun and it’s been a few years since the last one of those. In the cracks I’ll be recording albums for other artists.
How did you and Carlos Forster originally meet?
My band the Old Joe Clarks was recording at the same studio (Wally Sound) as Carlos. He was about to make the first For Stars record. I think it was around 1997. Anyway, Wally had a cassette demo of some of Carlos’ 4-track recordings that he was playing for me after an OJC session had ended. I thought the songs and singing were really great. I begged Wally to loan me the cassette and then I went home and dubbed a copy. I listened to that in the car for quite a while. I liked it all but three of four of the tunes really killed me; a couple of those got re-recorded on his new Family Trees record.
I later found out that Carlos was playing a show at a laundromat there in San Francisco and so I went to hear him play, then introduced myself. I think he thought I was a weirdo but he gave me a chance and we’ve been friends ever since.
Seeing as you work on a professional level as a studio musician, a road warrior and a producer, do you have a preference between the three at the end of the day?
For ego enhancement, I’d go with the road warrior large-scale touring. The downside of that is that sanity starts to fade. Studio work is probably the most stable and I sleep best when working with others on their projects. It’s less about me.
To that end, how did you first come to be involved with Blitzen Trapper? Did you foresee them blowing up in the fashion that they ultimately did?
I was working a part-time desk job and a friend in the next room was playing their album Field Rexx. I wasn’t paying much attention at first but then it grabbed me. I went out and found the CD later that day. Then I attended a show and introduced myself, telling them that I’d love to help them record if they ever needed anything. Not long after that we did a bunch of recordings on my 8-track in their garage. A couple of those ended up on Wild Mountain Nation. I thought they were a really great band that deserved more attention. It took a while, but those guys are smart and work hard. I’m not surprised.
What was the last LP you bought?
AA Bondy, Believers.
If you would talk history for a moment, what was the scene like in Wichita back in ’84? Do you ever cruise through these days, for old time’s sake?
I grew up in that area so I still go back to see family and friends. Wichita in ’84 was a small scene. There were probably four or five bands playing original music and not very many venues that supported. The “art” that did and does come out of there is unique because it exists outside the circle and is looked upon with contempt and suspicion by the neighbors. The local artists and musicians all know each other. And support each other, [but] can also fight like brothers and sisters.
Is it satisfying to know that some of your greatest successes as a musician have come at a latter stage in your career?
Yes. I try to believe that if you work hard and try to be a decent person that you’ll get what you need. I’ve been working hard at this since I was 16. No breaks. I matured/ripened slowly so it’s best that I had to wait.
What do you listen to when you’re alone in the dark?
I used to love to listen to Art Bell’s show. It’s now called “Coast to Coast” and has different hosts. Art Bell retired I guess. It’s not as good as it used to be but I still tune into that on the clock radio. Oh, and then there are the voices in my head. Sometimes they sing to me.
Mike Coykendall and Carlos Forster will perform at Duffy’s Tavern on Sunday, January 29th. Local support from The Middle Ages, a new project featuring Kelly Bauman and Scott Barwick.