Words by Jim Testa
Mike Patton – sometimes known as “the other Mike Patton,” or “oh, that Mike Patton” – is not the lead singer of Faith No More or Mr. Bungle. This one’s a Nashville musician best known as the front man of Vista Blue, an indie-rock trio known to release themed albums based around holidays or seasons. Now Patton and his band of merry collaborators have come up with the fictional band Ralphie’s Red Ryders, who have just released the perfect punk album for Christmas: You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out, a celebration of the characters and major plots points of director Bob Clark’s 1983 classic, “A Christmas Story.”
“If you’re familiar with the sounds of Vista Blue (and you should be, really), you’ll know what to expect here: buzzy guitars, bright gleaming keyboards, and harmonized vocals, all done in a Ramonescore meets Beach Boys style,” enthused San Diego critic Paul Silver. “And if you’re familiar with the movie (or better yet, the stories upon which it’s based) you’ll recognize the vignettes that inspired each of these songs.” The titles speak for themselves: “I Can’t Put My Arms Down,” “I’m Gonna Get An A+ On My Theme,” “I Don’t Want Your Tinker Toys,” and of course, “I Won’t Shoot My Eye Out.”
Before Vista Blue, you might have seen Patton in touring punk bands like the Loblaws and the Robinsons; he also published the DIY horror zine “Body Count,” and works with the DIY collective/record label Radiant Radish. But with Christmas on the way, this seemed the perfect time to talk about Ralphie’s Red Ryders.
Off Shelf: Besides that “other” Mike Patton, which must be confusing enough, I also understand there are other bands using the name Vista Blue. So let’s start by hearing your life story: Where did you grow up, how’d you get into music, and what are the bands/songs/projects we should know you for? How do we tell your Vista Blue from the others?
Mike Patton: Wow, that’s a lot! The whole Mike Patton thing – or, as he’s often referred to in my presence, the “real” Mike Patton – has been an adventure for 20 years. I’ve mostly stopped using my name when I play solo shows. The best story is when a guy came to a tiny coffeeshop in New Orleans because “Mike Patton” was playing, and he really let me have it as I was trying to set up my stuff. Many other confusing episodes have taken place as well, and I prefer to just avoid the whole thing. Promoters and venues think it’s funny, so sometimes they’ll use my name anyway. I played at a record store in Indianapolis a couple of years ago, and they put a big sign out promoting “Mike Patton” with “of Vista Blue” in very tiny letters. There’s lots of stuff like that. I even keep a Facebook album going for funny posts where people point it out in reviews and interviews.
So I guess my projects that people would be most likely to know – if there are any) – would be The Loblaws, my Nashville project that did a 7-inch for Mutant Pop in 2008; the Robinsons, a New Orleans band I did for about seven years before moving to Nashville, and again for a little while after The Loblaws; and now Vista Blue and hopefully soon, Ralphie’s Red Ryders.
I grew up in New Orleans and started The Robinsons in 2000 with my brother Todd. We did an EP with our buddy Wyatt Funderburk in 2001, and then Todd and Wyatt moved to Nashville in 2002 to start Second Saturday. I kept the Robinsons going until coming to Nashville in 2007, where I did The Loblaws with Wyatt, Todd, and our other brother, Brett.
In 2015, I started Vista Blue and have a revolving group of friends who pitch in, mainly Mark on bass, but also sometimes Todd and our friends Reese, Richard, and others.
We record a lot of music. We’ve done more than 30 digital releases, along with stuff on vinyl, cassette, and CD. We noticed there was a California Vista Blue, a blues band who seems to do mostly covers, around 2016. We reached out, and they never replied. I don’t think they’re very active. An indie band from Philly, I think, changed their name to “vistablue” earlier this year. Again, I reached out, and while they answered, they weren’t concerned about it. Seems weird to me. Honestly, we’re probably niche enough for it to ultimately not be a huge issue. I mean, I’m not even the real Mike Patton.
OS: Your music traditionally slides in between a number of sub-genres, from power-pop to pop-punk but somehow it ends up as “punk.” I recently interviewed Larry Livermore about his own bands and the birth of Lookout Records and he said that Punk would have been impossible without Buddy Holly, Elvis, doo wop, rockabilly, the Beatles and Beach Boys, and lot of other rock ‘n roll. Do you see what you’re doing as part of a continuum? How do you feel about something as sui generis as Ramonescore, where you’re only supposed to create within one specific template?
MP: First of all, we know we aren’t “punk.” But we’ve always been a part of the punk scene because that’s where we typically fit in as far as our personalities and the things we believe in. In New Orleans, the style of music never really mattered, and we’d play with all kinds of bands at “punk” shows. So we got to meet bands from all over and would open for The Queers, MTX, Groovie Ghoulies, the Ergs, and a bunch of our favorite bands, mainly because our scene didn’t really focus on the style of music as much, I guess.
I also think we do display a lot of the elements of “Ramonescore” in some of our music, if only because it’s so simple. But I also borrow a lot of tropes and ideas from various bands and genres, from the Ramones to the Beach Boys. I rip off a lot of people. With this project, we also do mostly themed releases, so it gives us a chance to explore these ideas within the worlds of our themes. For example, we have around seven baseball-themed releases, accounting for more than 40 songs. So when I wanted to rip off the Ramones, I wrote “Somebody Put Something in My Gatorade.” When I wanted to do a Beach Boys song, I did “Run, Run, Run.” I heard Lennon on the radio one day, so I wrote “Give Reese a Chance” about a player who doesn’t get much playing time.
Basically, I think I do have something of a template, but I think it skates between multiple bands, eras, subgenres, etc. Another thing that may set us apart is that I will always have a foundation of Beach Boys, and Beatles, but I’ve also studied other bands like Weezer, Fountains of Wayne, Big Star, Apples in Stereo, and so many others that aren’t usually referenced enough within our scenes. I think that’s why some power pop fans can connect to us.
So I don’t know how much of a continuum is actually there, but I’d like to think there is always something to discover in everything I do. I’m know I’m not very original. If you like something I do, it might be because Dr. Frank, Ben Folds, or Jarvis Cocker kinda did it first.
OS: I understand that you have a fascination with horror. Is it books, movies, TV, music, or all of the above? How did that start?
MP: I’ve been a horror fan since I was probably 5 years old. My dad loved it, and I had an uncle and a cousin who both enjoyed scaring me. My cousin lived in Memphis and had this great VHS collection, so when I was 6 or 7, he showed me both “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th II.” It just grew from there. So yeah, it’s mostly slashers, although I can appreciate the other subgenres, of course.
When my wife and I bought our first house, it became the place where everyone would hang out for a few years. So we did a lot of horror marathons, where we’d go to Blockbuster and rent like five movies and invite everyone over after a Robinsons practice. I used this concept for a horror novel I wrote called Horror Movie Society, which was published in Australia.
In 2010, my kids were 7, 5, and 1, so I wasn’t playing much music at the time. We started a horror podcast that was a lot of fun and had a zine for a little while too. We did a couple of live events in Nashville, screening films and stuff, but when I launched Vista Blue and started playing music again, we mostly stopped doing a lot of the horror stuff. During the quarantine earlier this year, I did another issue of the zine for fun. We’re talking about maybe bringing back the podcast after Christmas, so we’ll see.
OS: You’ve had an inventive history of coming up with projects like Ralphie’s Red Ryders, where you take a theme or idea and build a band and album out of it. Is this something you do because it’s fun, or are these projects considered an alternate source of income?
MP: If these were sources of income, my wife would love it! [laughs] No, this is mostly for fun. Honestly, we have the technology to do all of this stuff, so why not do it? One day I’ll move on, and I want to be able to look back and know that I did as much as I could.
I love exploring themes. When the Loblaws stopped playing, I felt like I’d exhausted the whole boy-girl pop-punk thing. I was writing for Yahoo Sports and doing the horror stuff, but I was still recording goofy Christmas songs with my friends every year, something we’ve done since 1999 or so. Having something to write about makes it a lot easier for me. I got a gig ghostwriting some songs for an education company and was doing podcast theme songs for friends. When some filmmaker friends did a Kickstarter for a horror film in 2013, I did an EP with songs about each of their previous movies as a Kickstarter perk, and that was a lot of fun. Soon after that, I went to hang out with my friends the Ueckers when they were recording one of their baseball albums here in Nashville in 2014. I ended up writing a ton of baseball songs and just started Vista Blue to finally have something to do with them.
After 2015, which was all baseball releases, aside from a Christmas EP, I just started exploring other themes, ending up with releases about horror, summer, and even a curling-themed 7-inch with one of my favorite bands, The Zambonis, for the 2018 Olympics.
For Ralphie’s Red Ryders, I was mainly inspired by a band called The Home Alones. Same concept. I loved their EP, and last year I sent them a song I’d written about ”Home Alone.” They were super nice, and I joked about starting Ralphie’s Red Ryders as a “rival” band. Pretty soon, we decided to just do it and talked about playing shows together this year. Of course, it ended up being 2020, and that can’t happen right now. But by January or February, we had Matt at Outloud Records on board to release the CD for us, and we were talking to a couple of Christmas conventions about doing sets before they all started canceling. Hopefully that’s something we can do in the future!
OS: Speaking of income, COVID-19 has been devastating to the music community. What have you been doing during the lockdown to both pay the bills and keep your creative juices flowing? Is writing and recording what you do for amusement, or do you feel driven to create?
MP: It’s all a hobby. I’m a teacher, and that’s what I do to “pay the bills.” Music has always at least paid for itself, and at times it has provided a nice side income, mostly when I was playing in New Orleans and doing more solo shows. But I never think about money when I’m planning anything to do with my music. I do it purely for fun. Any money is just a bonus.
With that in mind, I have to acknowledge how lucky I am to have friends who consistently join me. I do some things alone, but more often than not, there are others involved. I only play in bands with close friends, and there are a dozen or so guys and girls who have driven countless miles and worked for hours and hours to help me with my music. It’s one thing to say, “Hey, let’s do a band that only writes songs about this one Christmas movie!” But without the contributions of my friends, this record wouldn’t be the same. I could say the same thing about every project I’ve done.
OS: “A Christmas Story” has become one of the most well-known films in America, watched repeatedly every Yuletide season around the country. The film was based on short stories written by Jean Shepherd, who narrates the movie. Did the inspiration for Ralphie’s Red Ryders come from the movie, or did you have any interest in Jean Shepherd’s short stories, radio show, etc.?
MP: I do love the radio show and his writing, but like so many others, I only found those things because of the movie. I remember on our horror podcast a few years ago, we were trying to come up with a movie that we could agree was perfect. “A Christmas Story” was one of the few that we thought we could consider. The 24-hour marathon is an insane concept that I can’t believe is still going. Think about it. This year, Charlie Brown won’t be on TV, but “A Christmas Story” will most likely run for 24 hours again. As our European friends discover the record, in fact, we are finding that many of them have never even heard of the film! I really can’t think of anything else to compare it to.
I think the combination of Shepherd’s storytelling, his narration, Bob Clark’s amazing use of his low budget, classic nostalgia, and just some good old-fashioned luck have contributed to its becoming one of the true classics of our generation. Like the Beatles and Beach Boys, and even a lot of Christmas stuff in general, it’s one of the few times that my tastes line up with society’s! And that’s something to celebrate with music, I think.
OS: Your records have been released by Mutant Pop, which has quite a colorful history, other labels, and now you’ve started your own, Radiant Radish. How has the role of a label for a band changed in your lifetime? Does the major label system make any sense for any musician anymore?
MP: The Radiant Radish has always just been a collective of friends who booked shows and hosted events. We’d put out a few releases, starting with cassettes and CD-rs back in the day, and now doing some digital stuff, along with a few physical releases. But it’s way more about doing fun stuff with friends than an actual “label.”
Being on Mutant Pop, even at the very end of its existence, was definitely special. Any time someone puts money into my music, I’m amazed and eternally grateful. One Eye Records, Killer Records, Something To Do, and others have helped get my music out to more people than I ever thought I’d reach. But yeah, in 2020, I don’t really see the need for a label, at least not for bands on our “level.” Matt at Outloud, to me, has created the perfect label “home” for bands like us. Like us, it’s always just about music and fun for him. He’s a great guy with all the right priorities.
One thing I’ve always said is that I can’t have a label “own” my music. Even though my music is essentially worthless, it doesn’t make sense to not have control over it. Even Mutant Pop didn’t ask for full control. We basically agreed to not release those songs in any format other than vinyl for a few years, but there was never a contract to hold us to that. Guys like Matt Outloud, me, and friends like Grim Deeds, I think we all agree that music is supposed to be shared. Formats, distribution, none of that should really matter. Each artist and release is going to be different.
That being said, I realize that there are people who do earn a living by playing music, and they will have other priorities. But even then, if you’re not a clear-cut rockstar, I just can’t see a need for a “major” label. It seems like so many bands that we love got burned at the end of the ’90s, trying to find their place and decide if they were supposed to be on a major or indie label, and I feel like things are now finally getting to a place where it’s clear that major labels aren’t necessary. I have several friends who do fine for themselves when you factor in things like YouTube, streaming services, and physical merch. Not everyone can earn a living doing it, but that’s how art has always been.
I guess I’m probably so far removed from it all at this point that I don’t even understand what a major label would do to guarantee success. There’s not even a Buzz Bin anymore!
OS: On a similar note, how do you feel about the role of the traditional recording studio in 2020? Obviously having a good space, the right equipment, and a knowledgeable engineer pays huge benefits, but you can also make a pretty decent sounding album on a laptop these days.
MP: We did a 7-inch at Ardent Studio last year, and that was surreal. Being there, where Big Star, Gin Blossoms, and so many others have made great records, I really couldn’t believe it. But that was purely about the history of that place. Jody Stephens of Big Star has never walked into my bedroom and said my song was sounding good, you know? That was just a magical experience for us.
So while I do think there is something to be said for professional equipment and production (thanks to Perry Leenhouts of the Travoltas for making our Ardent record sound so good!), I do think artists should be embracing the DIY options available today. If you didn’t grow up using four-track analog machines like we did, maybe you don’t realize how great things are now. But you really can do a lot now, and there are very few excuses remaining for not getting projects done. I used to sit on 20 songs, waiting for a chance to get the opportunity to record 6 or 8 of them. Now I can write five songs this weekend and record and release them by next weekend, if I want to.
So it all depends on what you’re going for with each project. My band the Robinsons would play a basement show and a House of Blues show in the same week; similarly, I appreciate the full range of recording options, and I think studios and engineers are great, but we also need to stop relying on that stuff for everything we do. DIY or die!
OS: Since we’re at the end of the year, what has been some of your favorite music in 2020? Albums, EP’s, singles. Also feel free to mention books, films, or TV.
MP: Mainly, the Beths have blown me away unlike anyone since the Ergs and Unlovables did more than 15 years ago. I’ve played the new Mike Viola song constantly lately. I’m pretty excited that guys like Matthew Sweet and Less Than Jake are still making fun music. And I’ve had a bunch of friends do some great things throughout the year, mostly while quarantined.
It was also a weird year for music to me. Admittedly, Adam Schlesinger’s death really shook me. I kind of retreated a bit before doing a Fountains of Wayne tribute album with some of our friends in May. I focused on Ralphie’s Red Ryders and some Vista Blue stuff for most of the summer. I watched a lot of old horror movies, started a garden, and dug into lots of podcasts, but I sort of distanced from music for a little while. I finally revived my radio show, The Radiant Radish here on Radio Free Nashville at the end of summer, so I’ve been coming back around the last few months.
For TV and movies, we’ve dug into Shudder a lot this year. We loved Bly Manor on Netflix, and we did the Chattanooga Film Fest online, watching like 30 films – a lot were shorts – in a weekend. I’ve enjoyed Scare Package, The Rental, Da 5 Bloods, Jumbo, and Babyteeth, among others. I’m usually behind on everything, so I’ll catch up to 2020 in a couple of years. Right now I’m already watching Christmas stuff cause I’m weird.
OS: Feel free to mention anything or anyone else that you’d like to plug, hype, thank, or excoriate.
MP: If you’re someone who would enjoy a band that only writes songs about A Christmas Story, you may also be interested in my Christmas podcast called Snow In Southtown, which I do with my good friend Rusty. We talk about movies, TV specials, music, and weird Christmas stuff.