Mike ‘Muleboy’ Makela is about as cool of a guy as you would expect in a band named Bongzilla. He was awesome to talk to and had me laughing through most of the interview. He had some really cool stories from being on the road and I almost forgot to ask him the questions I’d mapped out as I became engrossed in the tales he had.
Mike has switched from guitar to bass on their new album Weedsconsin (that my fellow scribe Harry recently reviewed) and shares how their first new album since 2005 took shape. Between the cool stories, he shared some valuable information about gear choice, how to create riffs and songs without having to overthink (which I do too often). He makes it clear that if you’re not having fun you’re doing it wrong.
Let’s jump right into gear, what amp are you using now that you have switched from guitar to bass?
I’m currently using a Matamp GT200 with a Sunn 215 and a Sunn Model T with a Sunn 215 and a Fender Telecaster bass guitar with two big hum buckers in it.
To be honest, I don’t know much about the bass guitar. I’m still learning guitar and never switched to four strings, although I want to one day.
To me strings are strings. Anything with strings I’ll try to fucking play….
To me strings are strings. Anything with strings I’ll try to fucking play. I played bass before I played guitar. That’s what I started on. When this all happened, Cooter [‘Black Bong’ Brown] had broken a finger and we were supposed to play this weed festival in Madison called Harvest Fest. We were going to get paid a lot of money, so I was like ‘we just have to play it’, so let’s play it as a three-piece.
First, Jeff was going to play bass, that didn’t work out, so I said I’ll try playing bass and it was really good. I said I’ll just play the show and then Cooter would come back. He decided shortly after that he needed to be with family and take care of some business. The transition was kind of easy because we were getting ready for one show to do as a three-piece and then right after he bailed and we just kept going that way. You heard the record, so you can hear it’s freer and we unleashed Spanky [Jeff Schultz, guitar] now because I’m holding it down a little more.
I think it’s good and the transition was easy because I almost played guitar like I play bass anyway. I don’t do a lot of leads, and the leads I do are kind of just part of the riff anyway. I think bass guitar and lead guitar are almost the same thing except the bass player has to stay in rhythm where the guitar player does not.
I find it hard sometimes to fully hear the bass and love songs where you can really hear it. I feel like the bass is more in the forefront on your new album. Is that intentional?
I think that’s what’s cool when a guy does an extra riff on bass like Dixie of Weedeater. He is the king of that, where they’re playing riff and he adds little subtleties. On our album Gateway you can’t really hear the bass as it almost becomes one tone. Cooter never really did extra riffs so I think that has allowed us to become more free when I started playing bass. It’s definitely different Bongzilla to me, we all really like it and hope other people do.
For this new album, it was more like we just got high enough to channel this shit…
I think people will really like it. I love long intro songs similar to Earth Bong and Space Rock. Has your writing process changed from previous years to incorporate this style more?
I’m definitely going to agree that it’s a different approach. The why of it, I’m not sure [laughs]. I know for a fact with Earth Bong, the whole thing came about by me bringing that first riff, that bass intro. That was the riff that started that song. To me, this is the best Bongzilla when somebody brings in riff and the whole song will fall out of it. While we’re playing, the second riff falls out and I’m like let’s do this and I’ll kind of freak out [laughs]. A pattern will form in my head and we’ll go with it.
It’s never felt like songwriting to me, except a couple of times on Amerijuanican where I had to sit and write songs. I don’t like it. For this new album, it was more like we just got high enough to channel this shit [laughs]. It’s not like let’s work on another riff or another idea, it’s let’s smoke another bong and play and somethings going to fucking happen because it always does and that’s the beautiful moments for me in songwriting, in Bongzilla especially.
How do you go about creating unique music with the limited number of notes and chords and not repeating yourself or others?
One of the three of us will hopefully say ‘hey that sounds a little bit too much like Greenthumb or something.’ I know for a lot of people this is a conscious kind of world [laughs]. But for me personally, I can’t speak for Spanky, because he probably works on riffs more than I do, but I play bass around the house and I think ‘oh I played that last 10 times so maybe that’s a riff that we should work on.’
It’s not like let’s write a Sabbath Stomper, but sometimes I’ll say the song needs a slow intro, that’s about as much thinking as I do [laughs]. I’ll say let’s play that riff but really slow and that’ll be the intro. I know dudes who sit in their fucking bedroom and play that riff 8 million times, in 8 million different ways to get it just right, but that’s not how it works in my world [laughs].
We joked saying one of their songs [Mastodon] is three Bongzilla records…
Well your method is working. Weedsconsin is a great album
I appreciate that.
I have many off days and get discouraged, what do you do when your having off days and get inspired to play again?
Oh definitely you peak and valley, especially when you’re starting early. Imagine going out on tour when Mastodon hooks up with Relapse and, I think, they’d just put out their first EP. They’re opening for us every night and I don’t want to pick up my fucking guitar because I don’t even deserve to play after watching the Mastodon boys fucking tear it up. They play every note up and down the neck every time. We joked saying one of their songs is three Bongzilla records [laughs].
It obviously makes you happy if you’re doing other things with music, like this project so you hope the days that it sounds good are more than the days that it doesn’t [laughs]. You just keep playing and you’ll get better and you’ll get over those humps for sure, or just get higher and it’ll sound better [laughs].
To quickly jump back to gear, what pedals are you currently using?
I have a tuner [laughs]. Even with guitar, I never really use the pedals. Spanky has a myriad of fuzzes and overdrives. I think he’s running a couple of fuzzes, an overdrive, maybe a boost pedal and then a delay and a reverb for some of the softer jammy parts. For me, I weirdly don’t.
The amps we’re using are great and I just bought this ‘74 OR 120 Green with fucking two 412s. Spending 350 bucks on a boutique fuzz pedal that I’m not even gonna hear never made sense to me. The gear we use, I pretty much crank the amp to get our tone. If you listen to Gateway you’ll hear two distinct guitar tones, mine is the one that’s way muddier and almost falling apart on that record. Spanky mimics my tone because he is using my old amp so we’re both running two stacks.
We were so nervous about losing a whole guitar set up so he’s running two stacks and I’m running to two bass stacks now. It’s not like Sleep loud, but we’re definitely crushing most people up there and I have to feel it, you know drummers get to feel it so I got to be real loud for that music to take over me.
Spending 350 bucks on a boutique fuzz pedal that I’m not even gonna hear never made sense to me…
I’ve heard that less is more live. How do you go about fixing any gear that is broken during or before you go on?
Sometimes it’s a super easy fix and sometimes you’re begging people for an amp head because you just know you blow yours up. We’ve been playing long enough that we know if it’s something that could be fixed right away, or if we need to be asking somebody for an amp head. Luckily, knock on wood, it doesn’t happen much these days.
There was a European tour that Cooter was blowing up amps every fucking night [laughs]. I swear to God on a six-week tour he blew up amps three or four nights a week. It was crazy and that’s probably speaking to how we treat our gear. If you don’t service your gear, re-tube your heads and stuff, then we blow the shit out of them. If you’re using low wattage speakers, the way we run heads, will blow your bottoms out. That European tour we were either using somebody else’s gear or renting gear, so it’s just not serviced or taken care of. Cooter was just on a bad streak [laughs].
Do you have a practice routine or warm-up you do on a daily basis?
Laughing. Yeah right. I remember watching the Neurosis dudes backstage. They were warming up and I’m like man that would be getting in the way of me getting high [laughs]. I mean there’s some stuff I’ll go over. I won’t warm up right before we play, but I will want to play the songs sometime that day. Especially, if they’re new songs, but I’m not playing arpeggio routines or anything like that to get my fingers warmed up to play power chords all night [laughs]. We’re playing slow anyway. If I was in Mastodon I’d probably have to warm up.
They [Neurosis] were warming up and I’m like man that would be getting in the way of me getting high…
Do you find it easier or harder to sing while playing bass after switching from guitar?
I didn’t notice any difference. I think with singing and playing, you just do it. It’s hard at first. Almost like a drummer trying to separate his limbs, or a guitar player fingerpicking and using different fingers. There’s moments that you’ve done it so much that it just starts to happen. Singing and playing to me is comfortable now. I can play piano and sing because I know I can sing at the same time as something else. If it was sweeping and singing, how much different is that compared to playing guitar and singing? Or doing anything and singing? It’s a weird thing to start doing for sure but that was twenty five years ago [laughs].
That’s cool you play piano as well. Have you thought of adding piano into Bongzilla?
We did a 7 inch for Wake Brewing that came out in March. Magma put a little keyboard on some of that. I don’t know if there’s a huge place for a lot of keyboards, maybe some spacey keyboards on some of the weirder shit we’ve done, but not really. I guess I like big huge guitar tones to fill that space.
For other stuff in life, I’ll use keyboard. I’m in a drone band called UusikuU and I like to use keyboard for that because it’s a pure note. When you have strings and fingers, it’s impossible to hit that string the same exact way every time. It’s not as pure of a note as a pre-programmed sound. Setting up a synth between two big guitar stacks is pretty insane and distorting the hell out of the tone you’re putting into it.
I think sativa’s are great for creativity and make your brain go ‘wooo’…
Last but not least, what is the most creative strain of weed?
Ooo Sundae Driver. Recently there’s a Webster OG also. We were just talking about that. Pots not legal here, but we have a friend who basically has a dispensary, we call it a friendspensary [laughs]. I was talking to him about writing down the strains. Me and Spanky will stop at his house before practice and writing songs. He’ll say ‘oh you’re going to practice, this strain is for spiritual rising.’ Then we’re like OK man as long as it gets us high [laughs].
I think sativa’s are great for creativity and make your brain go ‘wooo’. One second you’re talking about butterflies, the next second you’re talking about a suspension bridge or something [laughs] and it links perfectly [laughs]. But Sundae Driver is the last strain that we wrote about. We’ve written about a couple of the strains in the past but Sundae Driver is on the new album.
And it’s a killer opening song to and even better album. Start to finish you can feel the creativity flowing and there is no better day to release this monster than on 4/20. Thanks for taking to time to share your stories and how you create some outstanding riffs!
Weedsconsin will be unleashed to the masses on the sacred day that is 4/20, then Doom Sessions Vol.4, a split EP with fellow heavyweight Tons, swiftly follows on the 23rd April. Pre-orders for both are available now through Heavy Psych Sounds.
Interviewed by: Josh Schneider