Most people who hear the name “Mike Patton” immediately think of the famous crooner from Eureka, California. But for a good handful of folks from New Orleans, they also think of an outrageously underrated songwriter from Chalmette, Louisiana. Over the many years that I’ve known him, it seems like Mike has been constantly writing songs and releasing demos, either with a full band or by himself. And though The Robinsons have always seemed like his main band, Mike never wasted any time sitting around if he lost a few members. He hasn’t been shy about playing solo or starting from scratch again and again with new bands.
But his commitment to DIY ethics may even exceed his prolific musical output. While my interactions with younger punks have always hinged on criticism, cajoling and mockery, Mike always had a much more respectful and supportive approach, acting like a real mentor and helping kids find their way through the mysteries of DIY culture: exposing them to house shows, being in a band, self-recording, and so on. This is probably why he makes such a wonderful teacher and father, an overlooked gem we’re desperately missing. But luckily for us, much of his family still lives in the Parish, and he’s been great about traveling down for a few shows every year.
It seems like you’ve basically been the nucleus for a string of bands starting with Park Bench and inevitably coming back to The Robinsons.
Mike Patton: Yeah, we started Park Bench when I was at USM in Hattiesburg. My brother Todd played bass, and he was still in high school. When we played places like Checkpoint Charlie’s, we could get him in, but none of his friends could come. My wife Donna played keyboards, and our friend Ryan Faust from Chalmette played drums. Eventually, our cousin Terrell Robinson joined. It was a lot of fun, but we weren’t very good at all, mainly because my songs needed to be much better… Park Bench played a show at the Dixie with the Mr. T Experience and the Groovie Ghoulies. We were MTX fans, but we hadn’t really heard the Ghoulies. They blew my mind. It was one of those moments where I immediately decided to kill my current band and regroup with more of a ‘90s pop-punk influence.
We had an old drum set and Todd started playing along to Green Day albums every night. One day I walked in and realized he was awesome. We put him on drums, brought in my wife’s brother Allen on bass, and formed The Robinsons. Terrell was into it, but my wife kind of stepped aside after our first show… This was 2001 and we started playing a ton of shows. I think we played something like 100 shows in about 18 months, mostly in New Orleans. We did a punk prom in Gainesville, almost got beat up in Jackson, but mostly stayed home, going between Chalmette, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge.
Todd moved here to Nashville to start Second Saturday with our friend Wyatt Funderburk in 2002. Donna stepped in to help on vocals in the last few months, while our friend Dave played drums. But The Robinsons wasn’t the same without Todd or Terrell, who also left soon after.
I met Richard Bates near the end of 2002 and essentially forced him to start Sally Stitches with me. Dave stayed on drums, and my youngest brother Brett came in to play keyboards, along with our friend Dana on bass. This was probably my “best” NOLA band. Dave is an exceptional drummer, and Richard added a new dynamic to my music. We didn’t sell a single thing, giving away CDs, buttons, and whatever else we had. It was really fun. But eventually it was tough for the five of us to get together regularly. That band needed more practice to stay tight, and it wasn’t working out.
In 2005, Brett, Allen, and I started The Sunflowers with our friend Brian on drums. We played a few shows, including some Robinsons sets, but of course Katrina ended it before we really got going. Brett stayed here in Nashville, so the three of us picked up after the storm, going back to just being The Robinsons.
I moved here in 2007 and started The Loblaws with my brothers and Wyatt. We were really just messing around and did three demos to send to some friends. Tim at Mutant Pop Records heard the demos and did a 7” for us. We did another 7” with Killer Records in Finland and played a handful of shows, including Insubordination Fest in Baltimore. But Todd moved to Cincinnati in 2009, presumably because he hates playing in bands with me! So The Loblaws haven’t really done anything in a few years.
Brett and Wyatt helped me do a Robinsons record in 2011, and then I took a couple of years off. Now I’m getting a Nashville lineup together and will have The Robinsons playing shows here this fall. I’ve been very fortunate to have brothers, relatives, a wife, and my best friends who all happen to be musically gifted. People ask me about it all the time, and it makes sense to me. I’d rather be in a band with my best friends, even if we might not be the best. It’s just more fun that way, which is really what my music is all about anyway.
The Robinsons released a lot of CD -R demos during those years, am I right?
Yeah, we never really cared about finding a label so much because we had seen friends have trouble going that route. We figured it would be more fun to just record the songs ourselves, put them on CD -Rs, and sell them at shows for $5 or whatever. And eventually we started the Radiant Radish Collective and were doing CD -Rs for other Chalmette bands as well… Doing CD -Rs removed a lot of pressure. There was very little cost involved, so we could give them away or take whatever money someone was willing to donate. It was the best way to share the music. In Baton Rouge we sold a bunch of them.
I think we sold like 200 copies of “Cool Down! Got It?” in Baton Rouge over the course of like two or three shows. I remember going to a graduation party up there at the end of 2001, and someone put the CD on, and everyone started singing the songs. At that point we knew we were onto something and that we could get the music to people ourselves if we worked hard enough.
Give me a rough sketch of the Chalmette scene, as you know it. A lot of strong musicians have come out of the area who’ve spawned great, long-lasting local bands (Gristnam, haarp, Rat in a Bucket, Dummy Dumpster, Bring Your Own Tomatoes).
All those bands that you mentioned are awesome and probably more talented than I am. We did go see Penguin at Burmaster’s one time, but we never played there. What we tried to do was create an all-ages scene where kids could come and hang out at shows, even if they weren’t necessarily into every band. It was really cool for a while, with parents dropping their kids off, basically trusting that we had things under control. So that involved inviting a lot of the kids to start bands and come play shows with us. We loaned them equipment, recorded their demos on our crappy 8-tracks, and did as much as we could to help them. And we did a lot of house shows and we rented out the VFW a couple of times. But we are eternally grateful for [Chalmette coffee shop] Espresso Yourself. Again, they trusted me to respect their business and to bring in bands and musicians who wouldn’t drive their customers away. Plus they paid us! For a while, I could actually give touring bands $50 to $100 on most nights, plus whatever they made in tips and merch. We were really lucky. We always tell people about that place and how much they helped us… People might not consider that much of a scene, but I’d love to have something like that here in Nashville.
Family has always seemed like a major supporting factor in all your musical endeavors.
My parents were 18 when I was born, and my dad loves music. I have so many ticket stubs from going to see Iron Maiden, Krokus, Scorpions, and tons of others before I was even five years old. I grew up around music and also had uncles who always encouraged me to play. To this day, they all support anything that my brothers and I do.
My parents have driven hours to watch us play single shows. They wouldn’t usually come to the all-ages stuff, like at Cypress Hall, but definitely any time we played at a club… I always felt bad for my friends whose parents didn’t approve of them playing music and would never support it. I’m so proud of what some of my friends have done, yet their parents have never seen them play a live show… Having so much family support doesn’t really affect my writing. I don’t even know if they’re listening to the songs as much as just hanging out and being supportive. But I love the fact that I can come to town, play a show, and see everyone.
Your writing style always seemed to rely on wit and a more innocent humor in your lyrics as opposed to melodrama or crass profanity.
Yeah, we’re not anti-profanity or anything. But when you spend most of your time listening to the Beach Boys and Beatles, it just doesn’t become a natural part of writing pop songs. When we do use any kind of “language,” I guess we want it to be effective. I approach lyrics in two ways. One is to either write a good pop song, with catchy lyrics that can be easily remembered. It’s like “All You Need Is Love.” The Beatles weren’t saying much lyrically there, but everyone was able to sing along. That’s what I want. Of course, the second method is to be humorous. Sometimes these can overlap, and I guess that’s often the goal. We really just want the audience to have fun. And sing along. We do sometimes try to sneak little messages into our songs. “Punk’s Not Dead” is about a local band who blew us off when we asked if they wanted to play a show together. Todd sent them some mp3s, and they wouldn’t even listen to them. So we wrote a song about it. That’s about as political or dramatic as we get, I guess.
What was it like being a somewhat older, grownup type person in the all ages New Orleans scene? You’ve always been so straight-laced, and well spoken, seeming more like a civilian than a punk.
I love the DIY punk community, even if my bands aren’t exactly punk. I don’t think everyone involved needs to stand out, you know? I was happy to just hang around and get on stage and sing fun songs. Most people got that, I think. Of course, not everyone did. There were a lot of local bands and fans who didn’t really associate with us for various reasons. I’ve heard people say that I’m not a great guitarist, which is true! Or my songs are too simple, which is also true. There was that one local review that said our beach balls were too distracting and that we sounded too much like Weezer. I’ll take that any day. But of course we were friends with most of the local bands and fans that we came across. We just tried to get along with everyone. Why would you want to be part of a scene and cause drama? Those are conflicting ideas. As for touring bands, the response was usually great. We played with This Bike is a Pipe Bomb a few times, but I don’t think they really got into us at all. They were nice, though. Carrie Nations definitely got us. There was a lot of mutual respect there, and I got chills whenever I watched them play live. I’d probably say that any of the bands who traveled to Chalmette to play in my garage were certainly on board with The Robinsons. And we usually ended up playing with the same bands when they came to town, so people got used to seeing us with groups like Jupiter Sunrise, The Huntingtons, The Ergs, Matt & Kim, and others.
Your bands have done a good bit of covers over the years, wearing your obvious influences like The Ramones, Beach Boys, Nerf Herder, etc. But you also ended up covering local bands The Ghostwood and even Eat a Bag of Dicks.
One of the best things about the original Robinsons lineup is that our music collections were like 75% the same. We could call out any number of songs at practice and get through them without missing a beat. We’d do shows in Mississippi and Baton Rouge where we had to fill two hours or more, so we’d end playing covers that we hadn’t really even practiced. Again, we were fortunate to be a group of best friends more than just a band. And right, it made sense to us to let people know where we were coming from, whether we covered the Ramones or Fountains of Wayne. As for covering local bands, we did a cover of a song by Good For Nothing, which was a Chalmette band that we worked with. But that never got released. I do wish we could’ve gotten that out. I love covering bands as a tribute, and I’d try to cover just about anyone, even if the result isn’t great. Also, as much as we’ve played with The Ghostwood, it still doesn’t seem like it was enough to me. I think we were rarely active at the same times, though. Our music isn’t quite the same, but I think the mutual respect and the fact that so many of our friends like both bands just make it a natural fit. I think Jonathan [West] is such a good songwriter, and I love watching those guys play. We missed out on a lot of other bands that started playing after I moved as well. We played with Rougarou and The Rooks once. But there are others like Lovey Dovies and Pumpkin who I wish I could’ve played with.
How different is it living in Nashville than New Orleans, musically and professionally?
Honestly, I love everything about Nashville except for the local scene. I miss my friends and relatives and obviously the food. But this is a great place to live and to raise a family. It’s still close enough to come back whenever we want to… Unfortunately, there is no place here for a band like ours. We’ll have fun, and we have friends who come out when we play. But it’s nothing like the years we played in New Orleans. Do you remember our Box of Fun? If we pulled out a box of inflatable guitars and jump ropes here in Nashville, they’d probably drag us to the Ryman and hang us. We do have friends here who do well. Tom from Baby Calendar is in Radar vs. Wolf, and they’re killing it right now. Our friends ELEL just played Bonnaroo, and they’re about to take off. It’s obviously a musical city. It’s just not a pop-punk town. When the Queers play here, there might be 100 people or so. But I tried booking shows at first and failed miserably. I had the Leftovers, Jetty Boys, and Dopamines play for like 20 people one night, so I quit trying. Those were three of the best bands in our scene at the time… Nothing will ever come close to the shows we had in Baton Rouge while a lot of our friends were still in college or the New Orleans shows after Katrina.
Watching documentaries, cooking food, and sharing the stage with a handful of other bands that didn’t even sound like us… that was special. On the other hand, living apart from most of my music friends has allowed me to start more internet-based projects. For example, we have a horror podcast called the Body Count Podcast that we can do via Skype. That has been a lot of fun and has helped us make so many new friends. The indie horror scene can be a lot like the music scene, and it’s just great to go out to conventions and hang out with these new friends we’ve made. The horror community has really accepted us. We have a zine that we’ve started, and we took that to a few conventions already. And something that’s really cool is that filmmakers are asking to use our songs in their movies. Our favorite one so far is Slasher Studios’ Don’t Go To The Reunion, which features two of our songs. We’re now working with those guys on their next film called Dismembering Christmas and plan to be heavily involved with the soundtrack.
What’s it like coming into town to play now that you’ve planted some roots in Nashville?
Well, like I said, it gives me a great chance to catch up with friends and relatives. It’s so hard to visit everyone when we come to town, especially if we’re only in for a couple of days. The last few shows at Hey! Cafe have been great, and I’m really thankful for spaces like that. It’s also great for people there to hear what we’ve been working on here. I think the best part is when someone comes up and says they haven’t seen me since a Cypress show 10 years earlier or something similar. It means so much that someone takes the time to come out and watch a band that they haven’t heard from in a decade. It shows what kind of impact we used to have when we were putting in all those hours of work.
What do you have planned for the future?
For now I’m going to give The Robinsons everything I’ve got again. We just released a fun party album on Mooster Records, inspired by the 1965 Beach Boys record and produced by Wyatt. It’s a live acoustic mess, but it’s so much fun. It’s a free download, and the response has been tremendous. Ramone to the Bone Records in Germany just re-released our two previous albums, also as free digital downloads, and those have done great as well. We seem to be reaching a new audience in Asia and Europe, and it’s starting to be a lot of fun again. Both Mooster and Ramone to the Bone have been key in promoting us.
Giving the music away also seems to be the way it should be at this point. If we can get some stuff out on vinyl, the collectors will want that, and that’s a lot of fun. But we’re not doing this to make money. We want to get our songs on as many turntables and iPhones as we can. There are so many bands out there putting out quality music, so it’s hard to even get people to listen sometimes… The other main thing I’m focusing on right now is my writing. I had a horror novella published in Australia last year, but my next project is a book about NOLA musician Paul Sanchez. He has been such an inspiration to me, and I have so much respect for him. It’s a story I’d want to read myself. So even if no one else reads it, I’m going to write it. Of course, I’m hoping others will check it out, and I’m honored to have this opportunity. I’ll be there in July to meet with Paul and do some research, and I’ll also be playing a few shows while I’m there. It’ll be a fun time, and I’m hoping to have the book done sometime around the end of the year or early 2015. One other thing I’ve started doing again is helping younger bands. Right now I’m working with a group called Endless Existence. They’re 15 years old and are just writing terrific songs. I was listening to NWA when I was 15. Maybe some Smiths and Depeche Mode. But I certainly wasn’t writing good pop tunes. Anyway, we just got their demo finished, and they’re playing their first live shows this summer. I’m really excited for them!
The Robinsons play July 3rd at Counter Culture in Slidell, July 5th at the Circle Bar (with Richard Bates), and July 6th at Buffa’s Lounge (also with Richard Bates). For more info, check out moosterrecords.bandcamp.com and rttb-records.bandcamp.com