Chat with Michael Yonkers about Goodby Sunball, His Latest Reissue

Posted by Miss Ess, July 6, 2010 02:01pm | Post a Comment
Michael Yonkers has had one of the strangest careers in the music biz. His creative and lo-fi albums were largely ignored at their release in the late sixties through early eighties, but now they are being reissued slowly and discovered by a whole new audience of rabid psych-folk fans. Since the early sixties, Michael has been a pioneer in the world of recorded sound. Unfortunately, he also suffered a catastrophic back injury in the early 70s that radically changed his life.

Goodby Sunball is the latest reissue for Yonkers, and it was written back when he was recovering from his spinal injury and subsequent surgery. He says, "I recorded the tracks in the little studio I had in my place. It was all recorded on two-channel, tube type machines (back and forth between machines). The vocals were done in the bathroom, to give an expanded sound." The album came out originally in 1974, and now Secret Seven Records has re-released a special 500 limited run vinyl pressing and it is available at Amoeba now!

To get an idea of what Goodby Sunball sounds like, you can check out a track from the album, called "Swamp of Love," right here. You can also hear a cover of another track off the album right here, "Oh Can You Tell Me" by Grace Cooper of the Sandwitches. This cover reportedly made Yonkers cry when he heard it! Finally, you can watch the premiere of an entrancing video by Jeanne Applegate set to "The Day of Jubilee" for a final glimpse of this beautiful, idiosyncratic record. The interview follows below.

Miss Ess: Mr Yonkers, how did you first get into music? How did you discover that you wanted to be a recording artist?

Michael Yonkers: When I was very young, there was no rock music. When rock first started, it was on the county western radio stations where it was played. My father listened to country western music. I took to the early rock music like a fish to water. About the time when a couple radio stations started to play all rock music, I got a little "crystal radio." (It needed a real long antenna wire and a "ground" connection in order to pull in a few AM stations.) Then, with money from my paper route, I purchased one of the first transistor radios. I would even put the radio under my pillow so I could listen all night. But, it was not until I heard a band named The Trashmen that I decided that I wanted to play guitar.

ME: What drove you to become such an experimenter when it comes to recording?

MY: I purchased an electric guitar, but I had no money for an amplifier. I did have a tube type tape recorder. I figured out a way to use that machine as an amp. It was the early days of surf music that got me interested in the effects of sound. Reverb was the sound used a lot for surf music, along with tape type echo. I found that I could add another playback head to my tape recorder, and by running the signal back into the recorder, along with the signal from my guitar, I would get an echo. This led to more experimenting. As time went on I became fascinated with the distortion on old blues guitar recordings. I tried to duplicate that sound by slicing slits in the paper cone of an old loudspeaker. That led to experimenting with circuits in order to get an electronic version of distortion. Remember...there were no "stomp boxes" at that time. It just went on from there. The experimentation came out of necessity.

ME: How does it feel to have Goodby Sunball released after all this time?

MY: It feels good, but kind of odd. It was so long ago. It makes me wonder if I have to live until I am more than a hundred years old for some of my newer music to be released (just kidding).

Your recordings feel intensely personal, since its all home recording. When you hear older recordings such as Goodby Sunball, what do you experience as you listen to them? Do you feel nostalgic? Critical? Pleased? Do you listen back to older recordings with any regularity or never?

My eyes are pretty much pointed towards the front. I almost never listen to anything I have done in the past. I am not saying that this is a good thing. It would probably be a good idea for me to do this. But, I seldom do. It is strange, though, as when I do, I feel oddly disconnected from it. There is no nostalgia. There are definitely no critical feelings. However, I am always pleased.

Please tell us about the writing and recording of Goodby Sunball – did you write the words or music first and how did you record the tracks? What was your home recording set up like at the time?

The music came first. It was the period of time when I was recovering from major spine surgery. I had a hospital bed in my apartment, because the surgery had not gone well, and I was in for many months of recovery. I had my main recorder set up next to my bed, so I could record the guitar parts while laying down, or semi sitting. Then I wrote the words (also while in bed). As I was able to get up and around more, I recorded the vocals. I like recording the vocals in the bathroom, because of the live sound.

How much more music do you have that you would like to release, when is it from, and what is it like sonically?

Quite a bit. Next, I plan to get into the music I was doing in the 80's. I was experimenting with keyboards (the little Casio types), and other homemade circuit bending stuff back then. I have not heard these tracks for over 20 years, so that should be interesting.

How has your back injury limited your musical output? And how has it inspired your music?

The back injury has mainly limited my ability to play live. I do not believe that it has inhibited output. I think the fact that I have spent decades in constant (many times very severe) pain has inspired a lot of the music I have done. I feel that it comes out most in the solo guitar.

What is your life like now? Are you still making music and if so, what is it like and will it be released? How limited are you by your injury currently? What inspires you?

The last couple of years have been very difficult. I spent most of last summer laid up in bed as a result of a terrible flare up of a post surgery neurological problem. I am still recovering from that. Unfortunately, this nerve problem has manifested itself in my wrists and thumbs. This makes it almost impossible to play the guitar at this point. I am using standard and holistic therapies, and hoping for the best. On one hand, I have not played for over a year. On the other hand, I have had several periods like this in the past. If I was 20 years old, and all of a sudden could not play the guitar, it would be much more devastating than to be 63 years old with decades of playing behind me.

What kind of music do you listen to if/when you put on a record?

I listen to quite a variety. Probably the music that you would expect me to listen to. However, what surprises people is that I listen to a lot of symphony orchestra and polka music. I really do.

Do you have a daily musical ritual of any kind? If so, what purpose does it serve?

Yes, I hum. This exercises the vocal chords and lungs. Most mornings I listen to whatever music project I am into. This keeps me oriented. Otherwise I have the tendency to just keep experimenting (and forgetting what i should be finishing).

I read that you love many different kinds of dance. What/whose music is your favorite to dance to?

I have used dance as therapy for decades. I have mostly studied modern dance and ballet. However, I have also spent years studying Middle Eastern dance (belly dance) and improvisational jazz. I have taken exercises and concepts from each of these to use for health benefits. Seriously, I do not have a favorite style of music to dance to. If I did, I would tell you.

What does it feel like to have your music rediscovered and celebrated so many years after it was completed?

I feel like the iceberg that has turned upside down. When one sees an iceberg from the surface, it is hard to realize that most of it is under water. For all these years, I have known that most everything musical I have done has been stored away in boxes. Now, it is getting heard. And, although I do realize that it is being heard, I don't think about it much. Maybe I should think about it ... no, I don't think so.

Thanks so much for your time!

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Interview (341), Secret Seven Records (10), Sandwitches (17), Goodby Sunball (1), Michael Yonkers (2)