I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch In The House
Every great once in a while, something comes along to remind you of what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to sound like, to push rock’s essence and spirit into you veins and manipulate your heart and mind. I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch In The House — their full moniker is borrowed from bare-knuckle legend John L. Sullivan’s vivid biography — is a raucous quintet out of Portland, Oregon, and one of those rare throwback-catalysts. For the past couple of months, they have been on an erratic, scorched-earth campaign of the Western states, making instant believers out of audience after audience. I Can Lick’s heady mix of Americana and punk reminiscent of Robbie Robertson and the Band, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and Black Flag — has also converted dozens of marquee-mates, who have learned the hard way that following I Can Lick on the bill is often an embarrassing situation.
At night, Mike Damron exorcises demons — his own, and often, his audience’s — only to have them return by the next evening, providing for a neverending struggle. Offstage, the band’s creator, songwriter and frontman is the nicest fellow you’d ever want to meet, a family man and seemingly normal joe. Behind the mic, however, he’s a madman. Stalking the stage like a pulpit-less, barefooted preacher and playing a guitar that looks like it was pulled out of a dumpster fire, Damron rants and shouts and sings his way through some of the most powerful songs you will ever hear. Onstage, Damron will say that his songs are all about “death and fucking,” but they’re much more than that. I Can Lick’s typical set list also covers depression, alienation, heartache, loss, a dysfunctional, lonely childhood; rage, determination, love, and sonic assaults on the right-wing establishment that Damron clearly despises. Together, the searingly personal lyrics and swing-from-the-heels music (played by five ass-kickers who, save for their baby-faced bassist, are so wild and woolly they make Skynyrd look like Ivy League frat-boys) alternately stuns and galvanizes an audience. Indeed, witnessing I Can Lick’s live show is akin to a tortured, desperate soul stumbling into an old-fashioned tent revival. A scant 13 hours after a recent Seattle gig (which closed with a blistering, sweat-soaked cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World”), I Can Lick’s 39-year-old lightning rod was awake by sheer will. Speaking from his Portland home, this former soldier, cook, and prizefighter (among other things) was somehow ready to answer any question that I might have. The following no-holds-barred interview revealed one of the most fascinating personalities I’ve ever encountered, and kept provoking thought days after the tape stopped rolling.
After what I saw last night, I can’t believe that you’re on your feet.
We got home around 5, I got up at 10 and went to the guitar shop to finish paying off a Martin acoustic guitar. I had a really nice Takamine that got the shit smashed out of it at a show; most of our songs are acoustic-driven, John Mellencamp style, but I’ve been playing an electric for the last six months or so.
I know that you’re from Vegas by way of Oklahoma. How did you wind up in Portland?
I was livin’ in Dallas, and this band that I was in [Tablet] was signed to Mercury. I was a bassist, more or less a hired gun. It was very Brit-pop kind of stuff; we went on the road with Oasis. This was in 1996. We got to do the rock star thing; it wasn’t my cup of tea as far as music went, but it was a gig. The singer was an asshole, we went through all these clichéd dramas with him being a junkie and shit. That took its toll. We didn’t get dropped, but our manager asked Mercury to release us from our contract. Danny Goldberg took over at Mercury, and the guy there that was supporting us got fired. We got pushed to the back of the roster; we were ham-and-egg’in it up and down the Midwest. Anyway, after we left Mercury, I got into a fight with the singer after a crappy college gig — I told him to kiss my ass, and quit. A friend of mine that I knew from Vegas had this acoustic thing going on. He had this tour scheduled from Portland to Vicksburg, Mississippi. I said, ‘Hey, let me go on this with you.’ And so we went. I got up to Portland and fell in love with the Northwest, so I wound up staying.
So you went from playing Brit-pop to…
Playing acoustic-duo music. Which was fine, because I love to play, period. But, before I was in Tablet, I worked at a place in Dallas called Poor David’s Pub — where I got to meet and drink with Townes Van Zant, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark…the great singer-songwriters. I got to see them every night at this intimate venue; that turned me on to that scene.
Where did you spend most of your time, growing up?
I was born in Las Vegas. It was a real tumultous upbringing. My parents split up, and my mom went to Oklahoma and my dad went to Northern California. I was jettin’ back and forth between the two every three or four months, and sometimes I went back to Vegas and went to high school here and there — so actually, I never finished high school. But, I feel like…you know those “life events” you have as a teenager –first time you got high, first time you had sex? Most of that happened in Tulsa, so I tend to think of that as my hometown.
Were you a wild kid?
No, I was very introverted, very shy. I was picked on a lot, that kind of shit.
To have your first record (2002’s Creepy Little Noises) receive so many positive reviews, that must have given you a lot of confidence.
Oh, it gave us so much confidence. It was like, “We can do this now.” It let me know I could write songs. It made me think, “Maybe in five years, I could write a song as good as Steve Earle.” It made me think that I couldn’t stop there. If 25 critics had said, “This is self-absorbed bullshit,” maybe I would have re-thought things. But I can’t stop now.
Did writing so much about your childhood for your two albums help you resolve some issues with your upbringing?
Yeah…for the next record, I’d like to write less in the first person, and more about universal things and politcal issues and so forth. But I’m still learning.
You’ve done quite a bit of that with Put Here To Bleed (I Can Lick’s new disc), I’d say. But, you know, people can identify with childhood trauma and loneliness and grief.
Sure. Hey, I can identify with every character in a Drive By Truckers record. Those are just people in my family.
Tell me a little something about your amazing band, starting with percussion.
My drummer’s name is Flapjack Texas, a nice guy and a brutal drummer — very passionate. I wish he’d buy some cases for his fuckin’ drums, that’s the only thing that bothers me about him. We’ve always got drums fallin’ into the street, we’d go into a club and these cymbals are fallin’ everywhere and there’s Slobberbone behind you, and the booking agent’s standing right there, and you feel like an asshole. Flap played baseball in college, then played minor league ball in Canada… then he hurt his arm.
Your youthful bass player really stands out onstage.
That’s Mole Harris. We’re very different, but we also have a lot in common. He played with Flap a long time ago in Boise, Idaho. He was going to school, and I needed a bass player really bad. He had seen a previous incarnation of the band, and he quit school and joined up full-time. He makes the T-shirts, does the web site, all the nuts-and-bolts stuff that I have no idea about.
Just how young is he?
Oh, he’s 25, but he looks about 15.
The harmonica brings a whole new dimension to the group’s sound.
Absolutely. In the region, David Lipkind is pretty renowned. He plays with a lot of different cats, and has a sponsorship from Hohner. I don’t know why he’s playing with me… I’ve known him for a long time, been in different bands with him. He’s a monster, a sick harp player.
And your lead guitarist — he’s on fire, the crowd loves him.
Yeah, that’s “Handsome” Jon Burbank. He just turned 22, a kid. He came up in the whole NOFX – Green Day kind of shit, but he’s got a great sense of melody, and he’s really good in the studio. He produced and engineered our two records. And he’s a damn good guitar player, he really kicks ass.
How long did it take to get things cohesive, and as a sideman for so many years, how do you handle being the boss?
This version of the band had been together for about a year now, and I think we’ve all got the spirit of what we’re trying to do. I think in different areas, each person is the boss — in the studio, John’s the boss; for writing songs, I’m the boss; when it comes to T-shirts and business stuff, Mo’s the boss, and when it comes to drivin’ the van, Flap’s the boss, ’cause he can drive 18 hours and not blink an eye. So everyone plays a part. We all come from different, weird backgrounds, but it all fits. I think all we need to do is start tightening things up — and for me to get better as a writer. I give us another year, and we’ll really be makin’ some headway.
Does the band lead a pretty clean life on the road?
Um, outside of eating shitty food, yeah. If we have a day off, we might do so some drinkin’…we do okay. Being on the road is about making relationships, making friends. First thing I like to do is meet the doormen, the bartenders, the waitresses; it’s important to make friends with the staff. It’s those people who are going to get you booked into their club again — more often than not, the booker isn’t going to catch your show. So, rather than whorin’ and druggin’ and partyin’, it’s important to take care of your business.
Being on In Music We Trust — a small label, but a recognized one — is a big leap from DIY, an accomplishment. No offense, but Capitol would never touch you in a million years.
Oh, I’ve already resigned myself to that. Alex [Steininger] saw me playing a solo acoustic act, and he dug the songs and dug my vibe. I’m very grateful to be on his label. Everyone there works their asses off to make things happen, and I’ve never seen a guy work harder than Alex.
You really take a poke at fellow Oregonian Courtney Taylor (“The Ballad of Courtney Taylor”) on the new CD.
Yeah, he’s a fuckin’… I kind of like him, actually. He’s so ridiculous, so caught up in his own world, his importance. One night in this bar… [for legal reasons, I shouldn’t repeat Damron’s recollections of that evening].
The closing number on Put Here To Bleed, “Sixsixfive,” is one of the best rock songs that I’ve heard in years — what power.
Thank you very much. That song is pretty much about my dad. That’s my dad talkin’ through me — that part in the end. “I come from killers, whores and West Virginia coal mines.” Why he was such a tough-ass and a bad man, it came from where he’s from. I understand that now, and I don’t harbor as much hate towards him as I used to. Usually, we play it at the end of the show, it brings down the house.
Have you seen the video of Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”?
Oh, Jesus Christ, yes.
What did you make of it?
I was moved…I wanted to cry. Whoever had that idea, it was a beautiful thing. His wife standin’ over him…regret, loss, getting old and dyin’ — that’s stuff I think of all the time. Somethin’s coming for us, and that captured it all, right there. It shed a whole new light on Trent Reznor.
There’s that old songwriting adage, something about it’s better to feel pain than to feel nothing at all.
Oh, yes. There’s been times in my life where I was completely apathetic and didn’t feel a thing…that was horrible. There’s times now where I can’t feel anything, I can’t write — those are the worst times. But I feel something every time I play, and I feel joy and love when I’m with my daughter.
You do not look like you’re almost 40.
A lot of it is your genes. My dad looked good until he died; of course, the alcohol got him. I don’t feel 40, but I wish I would have had this mindset when I was 25, because I think I would have done a lot better. I lived hard all those years, when I could’ve been doing the right thing, especially when it comes to music. But I didn’t have a clue.
Since Put Here To Bleed takes on some political issues, can we talk politics a bit?
I know you’re not fond of Republicans, but I don’t see you as an “I feel your pain” Democrat, either.
Oh, no. It has more to do with the distribution of wealth in this country — it’s so uneven. I don’t think a Democrat gives any more of a shit about me than George Bush does.
So it’s more about class struggle.
There’ll always be haves and have-nots, and that’s fine with me. I’m content with what I have; you can’t take it with you — I don’t think a lot of people have figured that out yet. The people in power don’t think about… they just jumped into a war. You know, I’d love to see some payback for 9/11 — find who is as fault, and get some justice. But I don’t feel justice has been done. We’ve just been thrown into a tornado of shit now…guys are dyin’ one, two, three a day over in Iraq. Somebody gets killed guarding a fuckin’ museum over there, what kind of bullshit is that?
I don’t think that someone needed to be a genius to predict that this Iraq fiasco was going to turn into another Vietnam, or Northern Ireland.
Yeah, it’s ridiculous. This is all about bravado and money and power. I’m with Michael Moore on a lot of things. I see a phoniness in George Bush, just like his daddy.
You want to talk about phony… Clinton could sell igloos to Eskimos.
Yeah, I know, he was only looking out for himself. But, I like the idea of whoever has the finger on the button being a sexual being, and a decent musician.
You take on Charlton Heston and Ted Nugent (“Dear Mr. Heston”)…
The Nuge, well, that speaks for itself. Every time he opens his mouth, he’s talking about his beautiful wife, blah, blah… everything in his life is a trophy.
It seems that some people get really scared, get really conservative and do and say some ourtrageous things, like they’re drawing a line in the sand against the boogeyman.
Sure, the older you get, the more scared that you get, a lot of times.. You want to believe that your life made sense, that it wasn’t a lie. Watching Charlton Heston at the end of Bowling For Columbine…when Michael Moore showed him the picture of the little girl, I think Heston realized that his whole life had been a lie, that his tenure with the NRA and his belief system was wrong.
I know that you’re had first-hand experience with violence and tragedy…
Absolutely, my little brother was shot in the head by a handgun, by my other brother. I wasn’t there, so this is just hearsay or me speculating on what happened, but my brothers and their friends were sittin’ there jive-assin’ around, showing off this gun. The fucker went off, and shot him. I was working at the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas, cookin’. One of the security guards there also worked for the coroner, and he had driven my brother from the house to the morgue. He said the bullet that killed him — a .22 – was so small they couldn’t find it in his brain, so they just left it in. My brother was 12 years old.
When did this happen?
This was in ’94…Stuff like that just rolls over you like a wave of black shit. I’d never seen death like that, up close. I had a couple of friends die before that, but this was different. I’ve seen death since… I had a good friend when I first got to Portland. My wife and I were separated for a little bit, so I was livin’ with him. A good-looking guy, a guitar player who wrote good songs. Came home one day and found him dead from a heroin overdose. These things have affected my psyche… I’m really in tune with my mortality right now — I think everybody should be, you feel a lot better and you try to enjoy every moment that you have. But I still have a fear of death that I have to overcome… I don’t believe anybody should have to fear it. But our culture is obsessed with fear, and they shove it down our throats. It takes a Herculean effort to overcome that shit.
So are you opposed to the NRA because they’re extreme, or are you against guns entirely?
Who the hell needs ’em? If they weren’t so easy to get, 14-year-olds wouldn’t be shooting each other, or shooting assholes like me that just happen to be standing there. The Second Amendment is obsolete. Some people say, “What if we have to revolt against the government?” Well, the shotgun or handgun under your bed — which could potentially kill your child — isn’t going to stop The Man if The Man wants to come kick down your door.
But, at this point in time, how can you possibly get rid of the guns?
Oh, I don’t know. I guess it’s a personal thing, I have to take care of [my] backyard, and maybe everything else will eventually fall into place. It takes generations to change viewpoints… look at racism. Racism is still out there, but kids today are less racist than I was, and so on. I believe that people are basically good… as a species, we’re fuckin’ sick, but as individuals — pure beauty.
I can’t remember where or when he said it, but Michael Moore once said something to the effect that liberals forget that Middle America starts just east of Seattle and ends just west of New York. Meaning, to me at least, that your average guy doesn’t give a damn about same-sex marriages or condoms in schools. They’re concerned with feeding their families.
Yes. Nobody gives a shit about that stuff, except the hardcore religious people and the right wing. Most people just want to live.
But politicians on both sides just don’t get that.
Yeah, no. If they weren’t complicatin’ shit, they would be out of a job.
On the surface, your music seems like it would also appeal to the Southern rock, good ol’ boy crowd, but the lyrical content… do you feel that having an anti-conservative stance alienates some people that would otherwise really dig you?
Maybe it does, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I said something about George Bush the other night, and the first thing I heard was a “fuck you.” I know that kind of stuff is going to happen, especially when we go to Texas. But I know what it’s like being a poor-ass kid in Oklahoma, and I was in the Army, so don’t pull that flag-waving shit on me. I’ve got a lot of redneck in me, but I also have the word “equality” tattooed on my arm. So, if some people are offended by our songs… I’m sorry. I’ve got to say what I have to say, just like you have to say what you have to say. That’s the beautiful thing about this country, and the Constitution — everybody’s got the right to be assholes. But then you have the Patriot Act, and Ashcroft wants to be peepin’ in on everybody… that’s when it gets squirrelly. But, you know, we’re mostly preaching to the converted.