It's a Tuesday night at Austin's Horseshoe Lounge and two members of the band Mike and the Moonpies are here to do an interview. Frontman Mike Harmeier is wearing snakeskin boots and a Dwight Yoakam trucker cap. Lead guitarist Catlin Rutherford vaguely resembles Chris Hillman when he wears a mustache, but he's just shaved it off.
Harmeier's from a suburb of Houston, and grew up going to the rodeo. He says his favorite movie is the George Strait vehicle Pure Country, but Pulp Fiction is a close second. Rutherford's family used to own a dance hall in South Texas. He recalls a time Johnny Paycheck came through and asked for a glass of water before the show; instead of drinking it, he startled everybody by plopping his dentures in.
Mike and the Moonpies are a professional honky-tonk band. They are self-managed and don't have day jobs, gigging four or five nights a week at bars and private parties around Texas. A typical Moonpies set is a mix of '70s hardcore country standards (Doug Sahm, Gary Stewart, Freddy Fender) and their own songs, which have good hooks and lyrics about heartbreak and hard living.
"We're gonna start getting out of state more but right now it pays for itself to go in the same circle: Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin," says Harmeier. On one hand, this makes them a throwback to an earlier breed of dancehall-circuit performers. On the other, they're just doing the practical, 21st century thing: constant touring, digital record releases and self-promotion online.
The parking lot is its own spectacle at the White Horse, where they play every Thursday.To get to the door you'll pass Cadillacs, choppers, and the occasional mule. Mike Judge has been spotted there, and is a fan. He makes a cameo in their music video for the song "Tape Machine," from their new self-titled EP on Phono Records.
In advance of their show Friday, May 4, at Adair's, here's an excerpt of our interview.
You play a lot of covers, which you probably wouldn't do if you were a rock or indie band. It's similar to what Dwight Yoakam was doing, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Mike Harmeier: For the country music genre in general, it's always been big to play covers. For us it's partly out of utility. We play private shows that are long and you have have a good set of covers to keep people interested. We dig ourselves a hole sometimes. Once we play five or six covers, we get on a roll, go into cover territory, and never come out of it. But it doesn't bother me. We mix it up. As long as people are dancing, it doesn't matter. Catlin Rutherford: That's our job.
Every time I go see you, the crowd seems to double. And it's an unusual mix of people. MH: In the '70s, it was the hippies meet the rednecks. Now it's like, dancehall cowboys and hipsters, all in one room. There's nothing better than seeing cowboy hats next to skinny jeans.
You've filled a niche. MH: This scene of the country people and the stuff we're playing, that's what I've been wanting for a long time.
Here's a taste question. Recently I was having a conversation with somebody about loving George Strait but hating Alan Jackson.Thoughts? MH: I'm in that boat too.
What's that about? Is there some kind of Alan Jackson vs. George Strait thing? MH: I've felt that way for a long time. But I don't think you feel that way, Catlin. CR: I like them both. I mean, I like George Strait more. MH: George Strait was my number one forever, since I was a little kid. I like the music, I think the production value's good. I know every lick I hear on every George Strait song. Alan Jackson, I don't know what it is. I don't like his voice. There's something about it, I'm not sure if I can explain it either. CR: He's not a Texan.
More like that Florida sound. "It's 5 O' Clock Somewhere." MH: Yeah, Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffett. That gets played on the radio a lot. Buffett's on all those Zack Brown songs now too. Zack Brown is probably at the top of the country charts right now and it is terrible. I remember my friend said, "Once you go to the island, you never come back." And that's kinda what he's doing.
Beach country. MH: Yeah, Beach country. I cannot stand that stuff. It's everywhere, like Kenny Chesney and now Zack Brown.That's what happened to Jimmy Buffett. He used to run with Jerry Jeff Walker back in the '70s. Then they went to the islands one time, and Jimmy never came back. CR: He went to Margaritaville and stayed.
Do you listen to contemporary country? MH: I try not to listen to contemporary country or that Red Dirt shit.
What is Red Dirt? CR: Didn't it start when Stoney LaRue came down from Oklahoma? MH: Those jam kinda country bands. CR: Look at Stoney La Rue's top ten on MySpace. That'll tell you.
So what's your cutoff point, the mid-'80s? MH: I'm really into that late-'80s/early-'90s stuff. CR: That's the last of the good country.
What about Garth Brooks? Garth's kind of a guilty pleasure. MH: I think you have to feel guilty. CR: I used to be a huge Garth Brooks fan. MH: Garth Brooks is tainted for me because my parents were so opposed to him. It's not true to country roots.
I'll listen to it when nobody's looking. I was eight when No Fences came out. I didn't know better. MH: If I'm singing along to Garth Brooks, I'm generally smiling. At one bar in Dallas, we got told if we played "Friends In Low Places" one more time, we would never play there again. The owner was like, "You're not gonna play that." He's one of those people who makes everybody feel guilty about listening to Garth Brooks.The whole bar was into it, but he just wasn't having it.
Let's talk about actual influences. You've mentioned Gary Stewart, George Strait, Mickey Gilley. What about Jerry Jeff Walker? MH: I like the Gonzos and stuff like that. I like the songwriting, I like the band. I don't listen to them as much as I used to. I've kind of gotten away from that whole '70s Austin scene thing and getting more into straight traditional honky-tonk, and back to late-'70s Nashville country a little bit. Like Waylon and Merle.
You play a lot of Hank Jr. MH: We play a little bit. We'd like to play some more. I get on big Hank Jr. kicks. I'll just listen to that for a while. Something about the attitude of that I really like. It's pretty hardass. A bunch of friends were posting on Facebook about him being a bigot during that festival thing he had recently, going, "I'm never listening to Hank Jr. again." And I'm like, "What are you talking about? Maybe he's an asshole but you can't deny it: these are awesome songs."
You play every weekend in Bandera, Texas. What's in Bandera? MH: Bandera is the cowboy capitol of the world. It's nothing but antique shops and bars and they have a rodeo arena. It's a big tourist town. Everybody wants to go and see the cowboys. I would move there if I didn't want to be centrally located [in Austin]. When we played last at Bandera, there was this couple there from London and they were doing a tour of Texas.They loved us. I talked to them for a long time, they danced. CR: Nigel and Ginger.
Did they wear cowboy boots? CR: Oh, they dressed the part. It's like this corporate event we did. Mostly people from maybe China or something. They brought somebody else to teach them how to line dance. No matter if it's a waltz or a fast country song, they're out there line dancing.
You frequently cover Gary Stewart. MH: Gary Stewart's the king of honky-tonk. The lifestyle and everything all rolled into one. We play "Out of Hand" and usually close with "Empty Glass." Once I played a wedding with his band.
How was that? MH: That was awesome, playing Gary Stewart songs with the guys who were backing Gary for twenty years. Of course they've got stories. They were saying that he did have this lifestyle where he drank a lot, and he was kind of a sad person in general, but the character that he was made out to be wasn't really him. They told a story of him coming off the bus with a jug of water. People would come up and say, "What's Gary got? Is that moonshine? He's got moonshine, he's a Kentucky boy." And somebody's like, "No, I think it's just water," and [Gary] is like, "Don't tell them that!" People wanted to see Gary Stewart as they envisioned him, just falling down drunk. So Gary told the band all the time, "Let them think what they want. I can be sober as a judge but if people need to have this image of me, that's fine."
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I'm a fan of his image. I'm not saying the image of an alcoholic, but when I started the band, I wanted this image of a hard-living guy. We're not all falling down drunk all the time, but people see us playing and they like the party image. But it gets a little out of hand sometimes.
There's a lot of Dwight Yoakam in your act, Mike. I mean the dancing. MH: Yeah. That just happened. I didn't mean for that to be the case. But I like that. I'm trying to milk that. I probably do that more than I should, that dancing.
I don't think so. Who else is dancing like that? Nobody. MH: I've been getting my jeans torn recently. I'm gonna put conchos down my jeans. I'm gonna go all the way. CR: Late night hitting up the Denny's or IHOP, we always hear somebody making jokes about Urban Cowboy. MH: It's like [the Bob Seger song] "Turn the Page." You walk into this restaurant and it's like, "Is that a man or a woman?" The guy that owns the place we play in Bandera, the Longhorn Saloon, is Brian Black. He's Clint Black's brother. He was friends with my dad for a long time so he saw me as a kid in a bunch of terrible bands. It took forever for me to talk him into letting my band come and play at his place. And the first night we had booked there, he told me after the show, "I saw y'all coming in, looking straight out of 1976, and thought, "We're in trouble. There's just a bunch of cowboys and dancers at this place. We don't want to turn them off with a bunch of dudes who look like this." But we proved him wrong I guess, because we play there all the time now.
But I hear it all the time when we're setting up at shows. It takes us about an hour. Normally we're setting up our own PA and you hear people talking under their breath, like, "Oh, it's just a bunch of kids, this is gonna be terrible. Let's get out of here." I've seen people close their tabs and shit. I don't say anything. I don't look at them. Whatever. They'll figure it out later on. If you stay long enough, you'll see. That's a benefit though. You catch them by surprise.