Interview: Miguel Happoldt
July 25, 2014
Many know the band Sublime, but very few know the guy that helped keep everything together. Michael “Miguel” Happoldt is the co-founder of Skunk Records, which was Sublime’s first label. Miguel was an iconic and influential figure in Sublime’s legacy. Not only that, but you’ve probably also heard him on the radio. The song, “Doin’ Time,” features Miguel singing only two words in the song: “summer time,” right before Bradley Nowell takes over the verse to say the living’s easy. Since then, Miguel has produced for a variety of artists including Unwritten Law and Slightly Stoopid, among others. He also has a band called Perro Bravo, which formed just a few years back. His label just reached the 25-year mark that was celebrated at the Cali Roots festival in Monterey, California just a few months back. It seemed only appropriate to reach out to Miguel to see how things are going with the label and his band.
JB: You just finished a string of shows in California that were part of the 25th anniversary for Skunk Records, the latest one being the show up in Monterey for California Roots. How did those shows go overall?
Miguel: I thought it was good. It was really fun. To gather all my really good musical buddies all together, like Sublime’s Marshall Goodman and Opie Ortiz and The Ziggens. It’s really amazing; hopefully we get to do a little bit more. If not now, when we play as Perro Bravo, there are a lot of opportunities for people to come play as guests, because everyone has got songs worked out. We’ve expanded the roster, so to speak. Unfortunately most people had no idea what they were hearing. We didn’t get any support from Sublime, Sublime with Rome, or even Slightly Stoopid to help spread the word. Nothing, so it all went right over the vast majority of people’s heads.
JB: You mentioned in the interview with Tommy Dubs that you didn’t care much for touring in the United States. After seeing the success of these Skunk shows, has that changed your mind at all?
Miguel: Well, it’s not that I don’t enjoy touring; it’s just that it’s not really that feasible anymore. There are a few things that hurt bands, one being the price of gas. The fact that there are so many bands now, and the third thing, is the Internet; there’s a lot of competition for entertainment in general. It’s hard to get people out of the house period. So with those three things working against you, I’m not in any hurry to get out there and tour. I’d do it if the circumstances were right but it’s kind of prohibitive right now with what’s going on.
JB: Completely understandable. Well, Perro Bravo has also played shows in Costa Rica, have you guys considered playing shows down in Mexico since it’s closer?
Miguel: The thing is, well, we’d love to. We actually have a good friend, Memo, who wants us to play in Ensenada. We’ll probably do that next year. It’s just for me, to go down to Mexico all the time, the chaos and the violence factor is kind of prohibitive. To take equipment down there, it’s kind of best to go and be under the radar. If you go make a scene it kind of could be a problem. But we’ll see how that goes, I mean, Costa Rica was really the whole reason for putting the band together to begin with to be completely honest because I just love going down there to surf and have fun and all that, so playing music is really just a bonus. We’d love to play in Mexico sometime and we’d love to play in Cabo to tell you the truth, but I just don’t even know how to even begin with that. Costa Rica is easy because I just know so many people there. I just don’t really have many connections for music in Mexico so I’d have to start with that and then we could work up.
JB: Got it. So Perro Bravo just released an album last November, Smoking Scorpion Tales, how good have sales been so far, considering it’s only available in vinyl?
Miguel: It started out really slow; we only sold a couple hundred. It took us a while to find the right distribution. Vinyl is really taking off. Everyone has kind of got their plate full. We’ll have to see how it goes in terms of selling more. It hasn’t been too bad. Most people want it on CD or iTunes or whatever but we’re sort of holding off on all that because I just feel like it hurt music so much in the past that I just want to move into that realm a little slower.
JB: That’s true, take Spotify; they only give artists a fraction of a cent every time a song is played. It’s pretty bad. You released the latest album on 11/12/13 because you’re into numerology and you were waiting for someone to help you put out the next album. If you do find someone, will numerology play a role in the release of the next album? Could fans expect the new album to drop on 12/13/14?
Miguel: See, all music comes out on a Tuesday, and I don’t think that’s a Tuesday. Tuesday’s are usually the day’s music stores display new music. And that other date was accidental. Sometimes things go that way. Many years ago I put out an album by my friend, Toko Tasi, and we released that on 07/07/07, so that was kind of magical. It just worked out that way, sometimes, you know? The release date for the new album would be to hopefully get it out for like back to school, sometime in September. Nothing in particular, dates wise.
JB: I’ve been to a bunch of your shows and it seems that sometimes people don’t know who they’re watching when they’re seeing you guys perform. They like the sound but they don’t know their history. Is this frustrating in any way to you?
Miguel: Yea (sigh), but it is what it is because I mean, at least if we made fans we made it on our own.
JB: On a positive note though, going back to the new unreleased music, I noticed you changed the song, Electrified, to include a Bob Marley line, “Who the cap fit, let them wear it,” during the bridge where you say, “Too many bands try to steal the style.” Do you feel bands are stealing your style or sound?
Miguel: Well, I mean, everybody steals from everybody. You have to understand a lot of my lyrics kind of come from a dancehall perspective. I love that aspect of dancehall culture so I try and bring that in. It’s just a callout, just letting people know, just getting real. But not everybody, see, so who the cap fit let them wear it, just like Bob Marley said. Some people take influence and change it up and do something real cool and some people are just definitely trying to replicate without completely understanding. That’s bad in any genre and with any type of music. I don’t really want to hear a punk band that’s just trying to sound like NOFX. I want to hear a band that can take some NOFX influences and do something different.
JB: That’s cool. So you worked with Bert Susanka from The Ziggens on his solo album, and there’s a track called, “The Trip That Needed To Be Took.” Was that based off of real life events?
Miguel: Yea, that was a free-style off the top of the head. I didn’t even know what I was gonna do. That was the story of me and my friend Toko Tasi, who’s a great reggae singer as well, the other guy who was with us on the trip was Bobo the Bigfoot Hunter from Animal Planet’s show Finding Bigfoot. So the three of us went to mainland Mexico together to Michoacán, Colima and Guerrero. It was definitely something that was on Brad’s bucket list. When Bobo brought it up that he was going I decided to go with him and check that out and it was really amazing. Not that many gringos get down that way. I need to get back down there.
JB: Let’s talk about LAW. You’ve taken LAW under your wing pretty much since the day they first started playing music. How do you see them coming along so far?
Miguel: They’re getting there. I get asked that a lot and you have to understand that to me it’s that with those guys I just want them to be good people. They have a lot of school to deal with. Most people ask where’s the CD, where’s the tour, where’s this, where’s that, and it’s like, man, the dudes are just trying to get used to college and living on their own. It’s not like people picture it. When you get to the point where you’re really serious about music, that’s just something that you get to yourself. You can’t push somebody that hard; I just support what they do. When it comes time for them to get serious we’ll get serious. Right now they kind of have their hands full with going to school and jobs and just trying to be like regular people. I don’t want to push them out there too fast and then they don’t really get the gist of what else is going on around them. They’re learning slowly and it’s going really good. Hopefully by next year they’ll be able to do their own set at Cali Roots, that’s the plan.
JB: When the time comes, will you be producing any of the material for their first album?
Miguel: Well, that’s planned, I mean, most likely. Unless we can get somebody cooler! Maybe we can get like Mike Watt or something. Mike Watt is actually the reason the whole band exists because the drummer, Nick Aguilar, the reason I found out about him was because he jams with Mike Watt. I saw Mike playing and he brought Nick up and played three of the hardest Minuteman songs that were ever written. When I saw that I thought, “Man, this kid is good!” When I talked to Mike Watt about it, that Jake and Dakota needed a drummer and that they were trying to jam, he talked to (Nick’s) parents and put the whole thing together.
JB: What would you recommend to folks who are trying to make a living in the music industry, whether as a producer or just on the business side of things? Is there any hope, with such little source of revenue from music?
Miguel: Not really. In fact I talk everybody out of it. To be completely honest with you, all I have to tell you is that it’s not about music anymore. It’s about technology. Look at the most powerful and richest record producer to walk the planet, Dr. Dre. He hasn’t made a f*cking production in five years. He’s just selling headphones. What’s that tell you? He’s the best producer that ever walked, but he doesn’t produce anymore. He makes headphones because he knows that music doesn’t matter anymore. You’re not going to work that hard for no money, so he’d rather sell headphones. It’s sad, isn’t it?
JB: It’s concerning, definitely! All the good bands are fading away, slowly.
Miguel: Yea, or they have to figure out a way to stay in. Look at 311, they made a lot of money on that cruise that they put together. You have Jack White, who makes a lot of money with his venue, bar, restaurant, and nightclub. He still makes a ton of money on his music, but a lot of his money comes probably comes from other enterprises. It’s one of the things that I don’t really understand. Now you see, where, for someone like me, who understands what’s going on, to even put one song on iTunes is just kind of ‘over my dead body,’ because I blame them. There’s nothing wrong with what they did. It’s a good service and people like it, but for all the billions that they make and all the infrastructure that they tore down, they never built a studio or did a battle of the bands, they don’t give f*cking nothing back. Nothing! 100 Billion dollars that they’ve made and they’ve never put one band in the studio. They took everything away and they didn’t leave anything for the kids.
Most kids are making some music on a laptop. Well, people kind of get sick of sh*tty sounding laptops. It doesn’t sound like your playing in a castle. You can’t tell me it’s the same. You can’t. Who’s going to write songs that sound like they’re playing in a castle? You just have to be content with what you do with your laptop? F*ck that! If you’re not already rich, like Queens of the Stone Age or Foo Fighters or something, you can only make sh*tty laptop music or just quit, and most people quit. People really need to think about this whole gadgetry thing and how important it is because it really is starting to be the death of great art. What’s the point of being a great graphic artist when someone can just Photoshop something in fifteen minutes that would have otherwise taken you four hours to draw? It’s really not conducive to art. It’s really sad.
JB: Well, you still record on tape though.
Miguel: Sometimes, I mean, it’s not really the tape. You can record on digital all day long, but what I’m saying is that when you don’t have a way for people to appreciate it if they are faced with the prospect of listening to 50,000 other things on Spotify. It’s cool if you’re educated but if you’re uneducated, it’s like sending someone into a library and saying, “Well, go find something to read.” Where do they start? The library is a great thing if you know how to use it. If you’re referencing some point that you’re looking for something on anti-matter, you go straight to the books about anti-matter. You don’t f*ck around pulling travel books out. What happens now is that there are thousands of songs, and how do you know what you ought to listen to? You don’t even know where to start. It’s like turning a person loose in a library and thinking that he’ll figure it out, but they can’t, they won’t.
It’s the one thing that seemed like a good idea, but the only thing it did was to sell more gadgets. It’s not good for the music. The music isn’t important anymore. There are no more board meetings with big labels deciding who’s going to get money based on the quality of their music or achievements in the frontlines. It’s all about the marketing, and what kind of tie-ins they can do with Twitter or whatever. It’s like the movie, Idiocracy. It was supposed to be a spoof, a humorous look at where we might go, and then by the time they got it done, most of the sh*t that they were making fun of actually happened. Some people watch it and don’t understand why it’s funny.
You knew what the world was like before all of this gadgetry came in, and now you see the stupidity that we’re living under, it’s ridiculous. Nobody has a sense of taste anymore, that’s the problem. People, with all this gadgetry, they’re told what to like. It used to be that a band was really good so they’d be known in Los Angeles, San Diego, maybe San Francisco. Now, they have two dudes from New Hampshire. Why the f*ck would I give a sh*t about that? They say they’re great, but how did they qualify? But that’s what pops up on these kids’ phones on their way to school and they hit their button, and now they’re listening to what they perceive to be the coolest music.
You can’t really change some of that stuff but you can be a little bit slower in your decision making process of getting into it. I just try to stay out of the trap. People have always been trying to improve technology and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’d never thought I’d see the day where the technology was more important than the actual music. I never thought that kids would be more fired up about Twitter and Facebook than about a new band. A great band when we were younger, that was just everything, like Jane’s Addiction, we would have jumped the fence for them! Now you have a whole generation of kids who have probably never listened to an album start to finish in their life, ever. How would they know? It’s all disposable culture. Now it’s all about a catchy hook, and it becomes an annoyance within two weeks. But that’s all they need to sell a bunch of iPads and iPhones with it, and then they’re done with the band, who gives a sh*t about the band?
You can check it out for yourself; there are very few bands that make it to a second album in the last ten years. If they do, it’s very rare that they go anywhere. All the artists are expendable now. It doesn’t matter, they got their Led Zeppelin, they got their Rolling Stones, they got their Nirvana and Sublime, so what the f*ck do they care? There’s no way Sublime would have tried as hard as we did, to break even. We wanted to be successful, so we took a lot of chances. But it was based on the simple fact that we were going to try and make a living doing it, full commitment. Now, why even bother? We wouldn’t have done it now. To break even, all that work, no! Why?
People wonder why the music sucks, it’s because the music industry is gone. It was like a boxing tournament. You had the best of the best and they had to fight their way up so you knew they were qualified. Now there’s people just popping in first bout in a heavyweight championship and no one’s even heard of this motherf*cker. They figure out a way to hack Twitter, and that’s the credential for who’s great? Come on, man.
The good thing with what’s going on now is that you can make one song at a time and put it out and grow that way. That’s a cooler improvement; it’s kind of like the 50’s or something when bands only did singles. You can put out one song at a time and get better as you go. By the time you start to get really good, you make a full record and hopefully you’re a better band.
JB: You were going to CSU Dominguez Hills and you were already recording and producing. Did school ever get in the way of all that?
Miguel: No, not really. A lot of my classes revolved around music stuff. That’s just where our priorities were at. Not just me, but Brad too, we were both in college. For a time, we only toured during Christmas break or Spring Break or summer. We wanted to do both. I’m just trying to teach to Jake and Dakota that being in college is the best way to get a band off the ground. We’d be walking around giving flyers and playing on campus, telling people there was a party this weekend. Sitting around trying to make friends on the Internet isn’t the same thing. In the end, we had to make a compromise and we both dropped out, the same day. Marshall was with us but he didn’t drop out. He dropped out later but he thought we were crazy at that point.
What you hear kids are writing, it’s kind of all the same song until they turn 21 and can actually get out there and see some interesting real life sh*t. People are topping iTunes charts when they haven’t even legally drunk in a bar, that type of person would not be interesting to me. I don’t know how they could have anything interesting to say. Real life doesn’t even begin until you’re 21. To me it doesn’t interfere, it actually completes the musical part of your journey because now you actually have some intelligence AND something to write about. So I encourage people to stick with school as much as they can.
JB: The folks at Muir Fest just announced that the Skunk Records crew will be playing on August 9 in Ocean Beach. Could you give us a preview of what we can expect to hear?
Miguel: I’m not sure why they did that. Perro Bravo is probably going to play. I don’t think anybody else will. It’s kind of far to drive to play for free. Here’s the thing now with all the guys after we did this; everybody is welcome. Perro Bravo is doing the same thing that we were doing before the Skunk Records Anniversary thing, and we’ll be doing it afterwards, you know, that’s the point. See, if people want to come out and make some music, well, that’s where we’ll be. Everyone has to want to really do it for themselves. We’re going to do it, but I’m not going to try and drag people along anymore. We did that and it was great, it was fun, but it’s not what I’m in the business of doing. You never know who might come down and who might show up, but the only thing I can guarantee is that Perro Bravo will be there. We’ll have fun, that Muir Fest is some cool sh*t right there. It sort of reminds me of the old days. Ocean Beach is a very unique place because the planes fly overhead. You don’t have a bunch of pompous rich people living there. So everybody kind of gets along, it’s pretty cool. It’s the perfect place to do something like that, that’s for sure. Most people who live in OB are radical in one way or another. It’s a radical place so they like radical sh*t so we’re looking forward to doing it for sure.