Words by Jim Testa
Mike Yannich – aka peripatetic pop punker extraordinaire Mikey Erg – proves the old maxim that nobody works harder than a musician who doesn’t have a job. It’s hard to think of a meaningful band in the pop punk universe that he hasn’t toured with, opened for, recorded with, or played in over the last 13 years, since the breakup of the beloved Jersey trio The Ergs. His Wikipedia page credits Mikey with 29 releases but it’s probably missing a few, and that list doesn’t include many of the bands he’s joined on a part or full-time basis on tour. Mikey keeps so busy, in fact, that it’s taken him a few years to finish his second solo album, Waxbuilt Castles¸ released by Don Giovanni Records this summer.
The album’s title comes from a poem by the Armenian poet/musician Sayat-Nova: “How am I to protect my wax built castles of love from the devouring heat of your fires?” Not the sort of thing you expect from a Jersey kid with a high school diploma but then, Mikey Erg defies a lot of expectations with this album. It’s arguably more mature, more fully realized, and less indebted to the punk scene he’s aligned himself with than anything that’s come before. That said, the band that started it all, the Ergs, will be reuniting this fall for a series of East Coast shows (most of which have already sold out) to celebrate the 15th anniversary of their debut album, dorkrockcorkrod. So we wanted to grab Mikey for a chat before he got too famous to talk to us.
Off Shelf: Everything I’ve read about Waxbuilt Castles describes it as the new, mature Mikey Erg. Is that the way you hear it?
Mikey Erg: I think there was conscious effort to take influences from some of the more mature artists that I’ve been listening to over the years. Ever since I was a couple of years old, I cared about The Beatles, and wanted to learn everything I could about their recordings. Everything else stemmed from there. I always read anything I could get my hands on that was about any musician that I loved, and I was always trying to take in information.
OS: This album features a lot of piano, which is a new instrument for you.
ME: That’s Alex Clute, who I worked with on The Chris Gethard Show. He was in the house band with me [the LLC]. He was also in the band Hiccup. My initial plan for this record was to do everything myself, including rent out Chris Pierce’s [Volume IV] studio and just have him take a week off and stay there and record every instrument myself. I grew up in my dad’s studio essentially, so I used to do that all the time, just record and play everything. So I wanted to get back to doing that. But as time went on, I started writing these songs, and Alex and I started hanging out a lot. He had been playing bass in my live band too, even before Tentative Decisions [Mikey’s 2016 first solo album] came out. And I just asked him out for drinks one night and said, I think I want to make this record with you, just the two of us. We’ll do it ourselves, together. So I played drums and acoustic guitar and sang, and he played basically everything else, all the shiny, jangly guitar stuff and bass and all the piano.
OS: The piano adds a nice dimension, I think it’s one of the reasons people are calling this record “mature” sounding.
ME: Yeah, it’s cool. I was a little worried at first to put this out. I meant to make a record that was very different from all my other stuff. And I’m sure the piano played a major part in that. Although it’s funny, the only reason there is piano on the album is that we recorded at Alex’s old rehearsal space, and there was this funky old semi-out of tune piano there. And we thought, oh, we’ll use that on a couple things, we can’t really use it a lot because it’s not in tune and we’re not going to pay to get it tuned. But we figured that if we could get some quirky weirdness that might sound funny on a funky out of tune piano, we might use it. But it sounded so good that we wound up using it on almost every song.
OS: There are one or two songs on the album that made me think, okay, these are for the Ergs fans. But I do like the way this sounds. I’ve always been a big fan of singers who, by American Idol standards anyway, can’t really sing, if you know what I mean.
ME: Yeah, I get that. I’ve been hearing that a lot on this record, which is pretty funny. But I guess that’s what I get for putting out a record where there’s not a lot of shit behind my voice masking it.
OS: Where did the title Waxbuilt Castles come from?
ME: There’s a movie called “The Color Of Pomegranates,” which is about this old Armenian poet, and it’s a line from one of his poems. [Tries looking it up online.] It’s funny, now when you Google it, all that comes up is my record, which is cool, I guess. But before my record came out, if you looked up “waxbuilt castles,” all that came up was this poem. I was watching the movie, and I just thought it was a great fucking way to put how lonely you can feel. I just kept rewinding the part of the film where that line came up, and I just wrote it down. I thought, that’s the basis of the next record right there.
OS: Loneliness is definitely a theme on this album, and I can’t help but think that the lifestyle you’ve chosen for yourself has got to be a pretty lonely one. It seems like I’m always seeing you online in a different city or a different country on tour with a different band. Which is a great adventure when you’re young, but you’ve been doing this for a while now.
ME: That’s true. You’re always around people, but you’re almost always around the same people, and if you’re not around them, you’re going off on your own, to get some alone time. Which is also lonely. The underground touring lifestyle is a very odd lifestyle. It’s kind of like a party every night, but it’s also not. You’re away from home and away from the things you know and are used to, your comfort zones, which makes you feel certain feelings.
OS: Clearly you’re happier doing this than sitting in an office somewhere from 9 to 5, but does it get tiresome?
ME: It was nice when the Gethard show was happening, because that was my day job. We got paid for that and I was home more often. It was a nice balance, I would do the show for a few months and then I could go on the road for a few months. But now that it’s over, I am getting older, and it is a lot harder to just leave for a long stretch of time anymore. It’s not as easy as it once was.
OS: This list is a lot shorter than it once was, but how many bands are you considered a full-fledged member of at this point?
ME: Well, I play in this band Early Riser, which is active around Brooklyn. And I play in Worriers, which is probably the most active band that I’m in. That takes up a lot of my touring time. And I do a lot of solo touring, and I’ll probably be doing a lot more of that now that the record is out. And I play in a band with Fid, who used to be in the Measure with me, and we have a band called Hat Rabbits. We don’t really play out that much but we just recorded… we actually have four albums recorded and none of them are out. None of them have been released yet. But we did just finish a double LP that I think will finally see the light of day fairly soon. It’s cool, I listened to it four times in a row the other day and I think it’s some of the best stuff Fid has ever written, so I’m excited for that to come out. But I think that’s it for full-time stuff.
OS: I just saw you on Instagram with [producer] John Agnello. You just recorded with Worriers and him?
ME: Yes, Worriers just did an album with John. That was just a dream come true for me. I love so many of the records he’s made. It was funny, we did the record at his studio in Union City, and when we were done, he took us all bowling with some people who are part of the Jersey City scene. It was funny to tell everyone I was playing shows in Jersey City back in 2000, 2001, at Uncle Joe’s and stuff. The Ergs didn’t really start playing up near New York City until 2002 or 2003. We were around for a few years but nobody really knew or cared. I feel like I’m coming up on my 20th year of recording and playing out and touring. It’s crazy.