As a late bloomer in the music world, Mike Clark is clearly making up for lost time. A land surveyor by trade, he'd never picked up an instrument until, at age 27, Clark and future bandmate Pancho Anderson went out west to compete in some Seattle bike trials. Before heading back, Anderson wanted to stop in a music store to look at guitars. "I saw the harmonicas in there, and I bought one," recalls Clark. "I played it the whole 25-hour drive back home."
In the five years since, Clark has become proficient not only on harmonica, but also guitar, banjo and concertina. He's fronted bands like the Crow Flies and the Jack Trades, and is also a member of the Haunted Windchimes, who got word this week that they'll be featured as a musical guest during this Saturday's live taping of Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion at the World Arena. (Windchimes manager Scott O'Malley has booked another client, Norman Blake, on the show a number of times in the past. The episode will be broadcast to Keillor's 4 million listeners this Saturday and Sunday.)
On a more modest scale, Clark has also gained some YouTube notoriety with "Hey Daisy," a music video that finds him singing and playing guitar while riding down Tejon Street on a bike, trying not to get himself killed, all in one 3½-minute take. The song itself was a sing-along crowd favorite when the Windchimes closed their set with it at this year's Indy Music Awards festival.
This Friday, Clark will be playing a CD release show for Bound to Break, the debut album from his band, the Ghost of Michael Clark, which is coming out on the Windchimes' Blank Tape Records. The show will also boast an exhibition of paintings and sculptures by artists like Heather Leech and Jonas McCluggage, each of them inspired by a song from the album.
"I wanted to write a book and have all my friends illustrate it," explains Clark, "but I don't have what it takes to write more than a three-minute story. So I wrote an album that's almost all stories and asked each person to illustrate one of the songs in some fashion."
All in all, it's an auspicious time for one of Colorado Springs' most prolific musicians. Last Friday, I caught up with Clark to talk about his career and life trajectory, as well as the lure of murder ballads, wooden effigies and apocalyptic inspirations.
Indy: So what's the story on the little puppet guy who appears on your album cover and promo photos? Where'd you find him?
Mike Clark: Actually, I carved him. I carved his head and his arms and legs out of basswood. And then I went to Arc and found some clothes and cut 'em up and sewed little clothes and suspenders and everything. [Laughs.] He's actually the Ghost of Michael Clark.
Indy: But you already had the band before he came into existence?
MC: Yeah, we've been playing around for about two years. When it started, it was just me and my friend Pancho, actually. I'd gotten out of the hospital in Denver one time, and he came up there to stay with me at this place while I was healing up. So he brought his lap steel and I brought my guitar so I'd have something to do, and we started writing the beginning of these songs.
At first, it was straight country-western songs. And then, after I picked up the banjo for the first time, minor chords kinda started taking over my life, and we ended up with this. That's why out of nowhere, there's two country-western songs on this album, as a throwback to what we were doing at the beginning.
Indy: I was going to mention that the title tune reminds me a little of Ralph Stanley.
Indy: And "Wrapped Up in Color," you could hear Merle Haggard singing that.
MC: Maybe he'll buy it. [Laughs.]
Indy: I also couldn't help noticing that songs like "Snake Mountain" and "Daniel, Charlotte and the Gypsy Davey" are pretty dark. Had you been listening to a lot of murder ballads at the time?
MC: Yeah, I don't know where those songs came from. I can't hardly write one right now at all.
Indy: You can't write a dark song now? What happened, did you get happy?
MC: Well, I don't know that I got happy. It's just times are changing, you know? Most of these sad songs I wrote back when I donated a kidney a few years ago to my wife. And man, it's funny how much fulfillment I got from it, but I also went through a long stage of being really worried about dying from the surgery. So, yeah, it was kind of intense. I went through a little bit of a depression, and that's where most of these songs came from.
Indy: So in its live incarnation, the Ghost of Michael Clark will feature you and Pancho on pedal steel, as well as some of the Haunted Windchimes?
MC: Yeah, [the Windchimes'] Chela Lujan sings and plays a little banjo. And Aaron Fanning, who's in Changing Colors but was technically in my band first, he's the cello player. And now we've just recently started adding Inaiah [Lujan] into the mix as an electric guitar player.
Indy: So why didn't the song "Daisy" make the album? Did it just not fit in with the other songs?
MC: I recorded the album before I wrote that. The album was already in the mail by the time we made that video on the bicycle. "Daisy" comes from Sugar Sounds, which is my soul band that [local blues artist] Grant Sabin is gonna play trumpet in. When it finally exists, it'll be Mike Clark & the Sugar Sounds. You know, it's kind of like a Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings kind of thing.
Indy: It seems it was both bike fans and music fans who made that video go viral.
MC: It kind of reached both worlds a little bit. It's wild, man, I think it's up to 7,000 views or something. And when I went on tour a couple weeks ago, people knew that song in every town we went to somehow. It was exciting to sing it and have people sing back that I had never met or known before, just because they had watched that video. And man, if I had crashed, it'd be up to a million hits.
Indy: I like the fact that it's a kind of upbeat sing-along, but when you listen to the lyrics, they're pretty apocalyptic.
MC: Yeah, I actually wrote that song back in May, right when that church said the end of the world was coming and they had it on all those park benches. We were actually sitting around, just like we're sitting here now, having coffee and talking about how it was supposed to be the Rapture that day. And everybody was like, 'Oh well.' So I went home after that, and just kind of thought about that a little bit.
Indy: You know that today is the rain date for the end of the world, right?
MC: The rain date?
Indy: Yeah, he revised his prediction after it didn't happen the first time. He said October 21st, which is today, would be the Rapture.
MC: I heard something about that on KRCC the other day, they were talking about him.
Indy: We're in mid-Rapture as we speak.
MC: [Looks out window.] I think it's going pretty well. If this is the Rapture, I'm having a good time.