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Sounding off: Michael Yonkers

The story of the guitar-thrashing outsider and cult musician who single-handedly created the noise genre

Taken from the September 2010 issue of Dazed:

“1492 is now” sings Michael Yonkers in a psychotic baritone on Microminiature Love, from the Michael Yonkers Band’s 1968 album of the same name. It is a line that describes the feeling that the growing number of converts to his music get when they first hear this unique cluster of garage rock tracks – songs that seem to straddle time, punctuated by overloaded blasts of echo and distortion; songs that quiver in the light of each new discovery.

“I was just at a friend’s house and they put it on. Right after, I went out and bought his stuff,” Cole Alexander of psych-punk outfit Black Lips says of his virgin listen to Yonkers. “The key element is his intense guitar, with all the strings tuned to the same note. He kind of invented noise and drone guitar techniques, which is pretty fundamental now but back then it was unheard of. When you think of how The Who, Jimi Hendrix and The Velvet Underground were pushing feedback at the time – he was more extreme than all three combined in terms of what he was doing.”

Yonkers’s tale is one of a lifelong experiment with the potentiality of his instruments. The son of a stay-at-home mom and a supermarket worker, his Damascene moment came when hearing the The Trashmen record Surfin’ Bird (1963) for the first time. His first band, The Vectors, played a kind of surf rock, yet Yonkers felt limited by the sounds available to him over the counter, so decided to compensate by building his own additions. “I was 15 and had started listening to old blues records,” he says, talking on the phone from his Minneapolis apartment. “I liked the way that the guitar sounded on them, and to get that sound I took a razor blade to a big old loud speaker, put slits in it and attached a foot switch so I could click in and out.”

He constructed primitive echo boxes using tape machines and, as time went on, started fiddling around with circuits, developing one of the first ever distortion pedals, which he named Fuzz’n’Bark, and sold at the music store that he worked in. “I had no idea what I was doing really,” he says. “I wasn’t particularly practical; I was just trying to get a certain sound. I’d start to play around, see what I could get and just kept going.” But playing around with valves could be dangerous: “I got thrown across the room one day: a shock from a 600 volt circuit knocked me out of my chair. I thought to myself, ‘You know, it probably ain’t worth dying for this.’”

He formed Michael And The Mumbles, a “frat rock” psych band straight out of the files of Nuggets, and then the Michael Yonkers Band, forever pushing his sound forward into unchartered territory, but always trying to abide by a golden rule. “The only thing that we tried hard to do was keep things with a rhythm that people could dance to, because back then everybody danced,” he says. The dance hall audiences of Minneapolis were often left unimpressed – or worse, insulted – by the kind of emboldened path Yonkers was taking. “We were often chased out of clubs. I remember one time a guy came up on stage with a knife and I had to take off my guitar and make out I was going to swing it at him,” remembers Yonkers. “People were kind of resistant. They wanted to hear the songs that were on the radio.”

“I remember one time a guy came up on stage with a knife and I had to take off my guitar and make out I was going to swing it at him” – Michael Yonkers

Cole Alexander believes that it is this deep-rooted belief in pop form and structure that gives the music its power. “That album is as far out as you can go while still having a song,” he says. “With bands like Red Krayola, part of the song is lost when they go really far out into experimentation. This is like the most extreme experimental garage possible, but it’s still rock.” Playing four sets a night to the dance halls of Minneapolis came in handy too when it came to recording Microminiature Love. “My band was part of a company called Candyfloss Productions,” says Yonkers. “For every gig we played we paid some money to them, which they put away to use to pay for recording time in the studio.” Yet by the time the band wanted to make the record they had only earned one hour of studio time. “So I said ‘Well, we can record this in an hour,’ and we did – in fact, we had time left over. We set up our equipment, played every song once and that’s it.”

In America in the late 1960s there existed an invisible republic of relatively unconnected young rock experimentalists such as The Stooges, Cromagnon and the Michael Yonkers Band. While it might be clichéd to repeat it, in a very real sense the idealism force-fed to an apparently ecstatic public during the 1950s and 60s was unravelling before the eyes of adolescents, in part due to the prospect of going to war that loomed large in the lives of anyone of draft age. One song on Microminiature... above all reflects Yonkers contempt for Vietnam: “Kill The Enemy”, a muddy patch of disorienting, deathly blues that depicts the mindlessness of the battlefield as well as any movie. “It is ultimately about the tragedy of the human story,” says Yonkers. “We keep doing the same things, over and over. We somehow feel that competition, greed, and the rest of ‘the deadly sins’ are fine, as long as we do them well. We keep honestly believing that we have to war ourselves to peace.” 

While not recorded for release on any specific label, it was not long before record companies began to show interest. Sire Records travelled from New York to Minneapolis to hear the band. “They offered us a contract but I was not old enough to sign it – I think I was 20 and I had to be 21,” he remembers. “My parents would not sign for me because they wanted me to stay at college and Sire wanted me to move to New York. I remember suggesting we wait a year until I was 21 but they wanted me to sign right away so lost interest and shelved the album. The band broke up right after.”

Instead of embarking on a new career as a rock musician in New York on his 21st birthday, Yonkers was holed up in his parents’ house with the army breathing down his neck. “I remember one time I went to an anti-draft rally one day and for my induction into the army the next – it just made no sense to me.” Yet avoidance meant incarceration. “I would be arrested if I didn’t go. I had five friends who were actually on their way to prison for a long time for refusal.” Luckily, after three inductions Yonkers was turned away as he was allergic to an antibiotic used prevalently in the army at the time.

Disillusioned with the world outside and the failure of his band, he retreated to his parents’ basement with a secondhand reel-to-reel tape recorder, a guitar that had been sawed down to a plank of wood, some homemade keyboards and the effects boxes he had already made. There he recorded the lighter, folkier, but no less weird trio of albums, Grimwood (released by Sub Pop in 2007), Michael Lee Yonkers and Goodby Sunball. “I got into the habit of recording myself at home and I’d be the only one listening to it pretty much,” he says. “I got the idea to put out three LPs and went into a lot of debt pressing them on to vinyl but then nothing ever happened to them. There were 500 of each pressed but I sold almost none. It got to the point when I was trying to sell them for 25 cents each and still no one would buy them. Now they’re worth money, so I’m just saving them.”

In 1971, an accident at the Acme Electronics warehouse where he was working changed Yonkers’s life forever. His back was crushed by a 2,000-pound pile of computers, leaving him unable to walk. Complications arose when surgery undertaken to combat the subsequent pain almost killed him, and an allergic reaction to the dye used during the procedure further weakened his spine. It didn’t diminish his output. While recuperating, he kept recording, making an album with former Mumbles member Jim Woehrle. In 1977 he made Lovely Gold while living in the basement of a commercial building in Minneapolis. Ever the pragmatist, recording equipment was set up beside his recently acquired motorised hospital bed. “It was like living in a recording studio,” he remembers. “Conceivably, I could wake up in the middle of the night with an idea and reach over and turn on the machines without even getting out of bed. I would just raise the back, sit up and record right there.” The album, an anti-folk pre-echo, was released earlier this year by Chicago label Drag City under the advice of local impresario, artist and leader of Plastic Crimewave Sound, Steve Krakow. 

“We were often chased out of clubs. I remember one time a guy came up on stage with a knife” – Michael Yonkers

He is still severely impaired by his disability, suffering from a nerve condition that flares up periodically, but has remained relatively active thanks to some lateral thinking. “Before the accident, I was taking modern dance classes,” he explains. “When the injury happened, I couldn’t do anything for a long time but somebody suggested along the way I get back into it and use it as therapy. Medical advice at the time dictated that you should stay still at all times, but there was nothing I could have done that would have been better for the type of back injury that I had: it is what they tell you to do now.”

It was by tracing Yonkers to the underground dance network in Minneapolis that Clint Simonson, of record label De Stijl, got permission to put out some of the songs from Microminiature Love that he had found acetate recordings of. He put the tracks on the compilation Dove Recording Studio Cuts 1964 - 69 in the late 90s, which in turn alerted Sub Pop.

Since then Yonkers has played gigs in Belgium, Russia and Australia and recorded with local band The Blind Shake, French artist GR, and Steve Krakow’s Plastic Crimewave. “I saw him at a festival in Minneapolis and he gave me a CDR,” says Krakow. “It just knocked me out that he was still making this noisy stuff that was still so clearly him, sticking to his story. I try to think of other people who have been keeping it as real as him and I’m usually at a loss. Even his place has this crazy, fix everything quality to it. When I went there, I saw he had put duct tape over all the carpeting. I asked why and he replied, ‘Have you ever felt it?’ So I took my shoes off and there was this weird spongy feeling. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah!’”

Yet Yonkers has turned plenty down too, including a noise festival in England, which, he says, was hard to refuse. At the moment, he can’t play guitar. But far from becoming mournful, it has edged him towards a vital task that he has been long putting off – going through the mountains of forgotten recordings that he has buried away in his flat and in storage. “I have boxes and boxes full of tapes and I don’t even know what’s in them,” he says. The potential of the archive seems boundless, with one possible highlight being tapes of his 1980s synth period that he has recently uncovered, recorded during a time when he was forced off the guitar due to his injury. “I am one of those people who doesn’t look backwards too much, so I don’t have any lists of what is what,” he says. “It has been a big surprise getting into some of this stuff. I have been doing this for over 45 years and sometimes I think it is somebody else on the record, not me.”