Nate on Mika Miko
May 18th, 2009 | Uncategorized
Mika Miko—We Be XUXA (Post Present Medium, 2009)
Jennifer Clavin—Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards
Jenna Thornhill—Vocals, Saxophone, Keyboards
Michelle Suarez—Guitar, Keyboards
Mika Miko are a punk rock band from Los Angeles, California. They execute one of the most fun and exhilarating live shows I’ve seen in a long time. As I write this, I am listening to their new album, We Be XUXA , for the fourth or fifth time. Even though the songs are kind of blending into one another and are largely indistinguishable in my head, I’m realizing that each song’s vocal melodies and guitar riff have already been filed away somewhere in my brain and have made themselves unforgettable. This is an effect, probably unintentional but no less special and rare, that some of my favorite punk bands, those who influence Mika Miko, also have: I can recall with no more than a moment’s thought basically any song by Black Flag, The Misfits, Wipers, and would probably still be able to if I didn’t still listen to those bands several times a week, in some cases a decade after first hearing them. The intro to one of the songs on their new record, “On The Rise”—which might be the best song on the album—is basically lifted (one) note for (one) note from the intro to Black Flag’s “Revenge” (minus Dez Cadena’s famous warning that “It’s not my imagination, I’ve got a gun on my back!”): a B chord, choppily played, careening into the rest of the song. But instead of being goofy or cheesy, it comes off as a subtle, knowing gesture to a band that means a lot to them. Or something.
Mika Miko formed in 2003, out of the ashes of L.A.’s Dead Banana Ladies, and are comprised of four girls (two of whom are sisters) and one boy. They started with a boy drummer, replaced him with a girl, and now another boy is drumming with them. In a lot of their group photos, when they are just hanging around and not playing, they look like they are having a lot of fun and are enjoying one another’s company a whole lot. (The live shots of the band, as well as their shows, bear this out: they’re having all the fun in the world.) On the cover of We Be XUXA , they surround what looks like an old white Mercedes sedan parked in the middle of what is probably some park or other public space in Los Angeles; I don’t know anything about L.A. and so someone more familiar might be able to tell me where they are exactly but it’s not very important.
The gender makeup of Mika Miko is not, in the end, a determining aspect of the band; a friend of mine thought they sound like Bikini Kill, but I don’t think so. Bikini Kill, lest we forget, are one of the most important American bands ever in large part because of their violent (lyrically as well as musically) assault on the patriarchal, misogynistic ideology undergirding American society. Mika Miko, on the other hand, are just four (formerly five) girls who are in a band. A really good band. I suppose you could think of new drummer Seth Densham as Mika Miko’s Billy Karren, but that’s again missing the point. One reviewer has said that the lack of emphasis Mika Miko puts on the fact that they’re girls who are in a band is “post-feminist”; I don’t think it’s so much that as it is just something they’re not that interested in wielding as some measure of political or cultural or musical caché. The fact that they’re, for all intents and purposes, an all-girl band is, I think, important, but it’s not the focal point of the Mika Miko project. Riot grrrl this is not. To give just one example: on “Double Dare Ya,” Kathleen Hanna sang, “You’re a big girl now/You’ve got no reason not to fight/You’ve got to know what they are/Before you can stand up for your rights/Rights/Rights/You DO have rights!” On “Turkey Sandwich,” Jenna Thornhill is singing, over a sped-up, cut-in-half version of the riff from The Misfits’ “Some Kinda Hate,” about wanting a turkey sandwich. But she’s also pleading with someone, asking just to be told that she’s “gonna be someone.” (At least, that’s what I think she’s saying. I don’t have the lyric sheet in front of me and Mika Miko aren’t terribly interested in delivering crystal-clear vocals.) It’s a song, then, about universal desires, ones which aren’t gender specific: to eat what we like, and to feel whole. Straightforward, nothing highfalutin’, no gimmicks, no hidden meanings. But also no attempts to exploit, and thereby cheapen, the fact that they’re girls: no dolled-up press photos, no stylists, no makeup, no hairdos. The opposite of a (terrible) band like The Donnas.
Mika Miko cut their teeth at the now-famous The Smell, an all-ages, D.I.Y. art space in downtown L.A. They got the attention of Dean Spunt, formerly of the (absolutely incredible) band Wives and now one-half of No Age, and the head honcho at the Post Present Medium label, which has released a number of Mika Miko recordings. We Be XUXA is their second full-length, a follow-up to 2006’s C.Y.S.L.A.B.F. (Kill Rock Stars). Sub Pop released an alternate recording to a single from We Be XUXA last year, called “Sex Jazz”. It’s good, but not the best song on the record. Jenna Thornhill plays sax on it, drawing the inevitable James Chance and Lora Logic comparisons. The B-side to the single is a ramshackle cover of “Bastard in Love”, from Black Flag’s 1985 full-length Loose Nut . That’s another thing: Mika Miko likes to do covers. Prior to We Be XUXA, these remained pretty safely within the punk canon: the aforementioned Black Flag cover, plus one of The Misfits’ “Attitude,” which appeared. On We Be XUXA , things get a little weirder and more obtuse, as they dip into the L.A. backwater with a cover of “Sex” by The Urinals, who later became 100 Flowers.
Mika Miko make me feel all turned round. Usually, I can’t stand throwaway, nonsensical, or mundane lyrics—Glenn Danzig’s C-movie, often-misogynistic lyrics alone exhaust every justification I can possibly provide—but there’s something undeniable about Mika Miko vocals. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Jennifer Clavin and Jenna Thornhill often use their voices to give the music a more percussive texture call-and-response yells, doubled lines that are somewhere between sung and spoken. “Totion” sees a healthy dose of reverb on the guitar and vocals, an inverted bassline, and the odd dub bubble. At one point, after trading off lines duly recorded in opposite channels, either Clavin or Thornhill’s vocal starts to mimic the see-sawing, surf-meets-post-punk guitar riff, before the song crumbles to a literally explosive end. On second thought, this might be the highlight of the album. While there’s not really a song that, in some alternate universe, would be the feel-good dance hit of the summer—for that, see C.Y.S.L.A.B.F.’s “Jogging Song (He’s Your Mr. Right)”—there’s a little something for everyone on We Be XUXA , provided that “everyone” is as enamored of late-70s L.A. hardcore, death disco, and decidedly simplistic punk riffs as some of us are.
I meant for this post to be about 1/8 as long as what it ended up being, for it to be simple and spur-of-the-moment and straightforward and exciting, for its enthusiasm to spread infectiously. Reading that line, it strikes me that even the humblest, and most seemingly simple, intentions are difficult to bring to fruition. But that line also brings home what I like most about Mika Miko: they accomplish what I can’t, what I perhaps wouldn’t even think to. When I was younger, I used to daydream that I was a member of the bands I liked most. That doesn’t happen with Mika Miko; they do their thing and I do mine and those things are worlds apart. That is the way it should be. I’m just happy that they’re doing what they’re doing and that I can see and hear them along the way.
See Mika Miko June 13 at Bushwick’s Market Hotel. And order Mika Miko records from Post Present Medium.This entry was posted on Monday, May 18th, 2009 at 7:35 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.