All Hail Liquid Mike, The Next Great Midwestern Rock Band SuperNayr

There are two kinds of good observations that a writer can make. The first kind of good observation is one the audience has also made and therefore instantly recognizes. The second kind of good observation is one the audience has also made but didn’t know that they made until the writer pointed it out to them.

I’ll give you an example. Mike Maple of the Michigan power-pop band Liquid Mike once heard a story about a local man who built a statue in his backyard called Paul Bunyan’s Slingshot. Did Paul Bunyan actually have a slingshot? I have no idea, but it’s not pertinent to the story. What’s important is that Paul Bunyan’s Slingshot became an oddball tourist attraction. It became so well-known that some high school kid decided to sneak into the local man’s backyard and chop it down.

“It just sounded like a folk tale in itself,” Maple tells me during a Zoom call from his home in Marquette last month, “that some kid could chop down this guy who’s larger-than-life. It felt like a big metaphor, so we just ran with it.”

Maple is explaining the inspiration for the title of Liquid Mike’s endearing recent album, Paul Bunyan’s Slingshot, as well as the central thematic idea that links his hooky, funny songs about small-town Midwestern life. As the band’s principal songwriter, Maple is preoccupied with both the specific peculiarities of his community in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula and the almost-certain possibility that you can live your whole life in a place like that and not come close to mattering to the outside world. Maple writes about this predicament with dark, offbeat humor (the song “K2” is about killing time with drugs and the so-called “choking game” viral pastime) without diluting the very real fear inherent to living a lower-middle-class life in flyover country. (“The American Dream is a Michigan Hoax,” he sings on the deceptively bouncy “Mouse Trap.”)

Back to Paul Bunyan. Listening to Liquid Mike made me realize something I already knew but didn’t know I knew: Countless nowhere towns in Middle America claim Paul Bunyan as their own local myth and erect statues in his honor. I live in Minnesota, and there are multiple shrines to the giant lumberjack scattered throughout the state. The town in Wisconsin where I went to college has one, too, as does the resort community where my family vacationed last year. I could name many more examples. And, like Maple says, there’s a big metaphor here related to the big fella. When your town isn’t known for anything, glomming on to Paul Bunyan (or chopping him down) can be an identity. It might even be thing that keeps you from feeling invisible.

Have I mentioned that Paul Bunyan’s Slingshot is the most purely enjoyable rock record to come out in the early months of 2024? Barreling through 13 songs in just 26 minutes, Liquid Mike evokes mid-’90s Guided By Voices with an overlay of golden-era alt-rock radio dynamism inspired by Maple’s misspent youth listening to Weezer, Green Day, and Everclear. It’s music as engaging and unpretentious as the lyrics are witty and unsparing, in a manner that recalls another indie band with Midwest roots, The Hold Steady. (There’s song literally called “Drinking And Driving” and another song literally called “Drug Dealer.”)

Like Robert Pollard, the 27-year-old Maple had no expectations of ever reaching a wide audience. He moved to the U.P. in 2015 from his hometown of Ashland, Wisconsin in order to attend Michigan Tech. His plan was to study audio engineering, but when he learned the classes had more to do with “how to set up a theater for plays” than recording bands he pivoted to a communications degree. But once he was out of school, he landed one of the few jobs that were available in town, a mail carrier at the local post office.

The “indie rock mailman” thing is central to the band’s blue-collar, underdog narrative, though Maple isn’t sure how much longer he’s going to do the job. The critical success of 2023’s S/T and now Paul Bunyan’s Slingshot is growing their audience. (Also, the mail trucks at work “are just falling apart non-stop because they’re so old,” he says, which sounds like another potential metaphor.) Having caught their show last month at Minneapolis’ 7th Street Entry, one of their first concerts outside of Michigan, I can confirm that they will soon be (if they aren’t already) an in-demand touring act. On stage, their music is loose but relentlessly on-point, adding layers of muscle and noise to their rock-solid songs.

When I was growing up, the most famous export from the U.P. was the novelty band Da Yoopers, who were a big deal in Wisconsin and presumably Michigan in the ’80s and ’90s. Do you know them?

I’m a big Da Yoopers fan. They rock. They’re from Ishpeming, actually, which is just the next town over from Marquette. I don’t know if they coincide with “Weird” Al. But they’re very DIY. They all do it themselves. It’s pretty cool.

Are you looking to dethrone Da Yoopers as the most famous band from the U.P.?

It’s impossible. People that don’t listen to music up here know who they are. It’s crazy. Like, Joe Pera’s got that show that takes place up here. But I would guess that 60 percent of the town has no idea that he has a show that takes place here. But I would say 98 percent of people in Marquette know who Da Yoopers are.

The shtick with Da Yoopers was making fun of the U.P. accent, which just seems like an exaggerated Wisconsin accent.

And people ham it. They really like to crank it up when they’re at the bar. They start turning the accent up. But it’s not much different than a Wisconsin accent.

Do you feel like Liquid Mike has any kind of profile in Marquette? Do your neighbors know that you’re becoming known on the internet?

People at my work just figured it out. I was trying to keep it a secret for as long as I possibly could. But now they know.

How’d they find out?

Facebook. That seems to be the way things travel around up here. We haven’t had any Facebook presence for the longest time. But the Rolling Stone thing, that’s a very Facebook shareable article. And it had the word “mailman.” Then it was game over.

How do you feel about that being a narrative for the band, that you work a day job as a mailman?

I certainly didn’t invent the “musician having a day job” title. I brought it up once and I think people just kept running with it because it was a cool story, I guess. But I’m fine with it. It’s not my main selling point, I don’t think. I would hope not. But I don’t have any control over that either.

It would be different if you worked at a bank. There’s something all-American about being a mailman. You picture your own mailman and you think, “Oh, that guy would never be in a band.”

Some people hate their mailman too, so I wonder if that hits people like, “Yuck, I’m not going to listen to that.”

How did you become a mailman?

It’s just not a whole lot of shit to do up here as far as options. I just needed some money at the time. Before that, I worked at Menards and it just sucked working for that guy. But I always thought that it would be my dream job: I’ll just walk around outside for eight hours and I’ll have weekends off. It ended up being that I’m walking around for 10 hours and I don’t get weekends off. It bit me in the ass a little bit, but it’s a good job. It’s a normal-person’s job. I’m fine with that.

Guided By Voices gets brought up a lot as a reference point for Liquid Mike. You can certainly see the connection musically — like GBV, you write short, punchy songs that are catchy and lo-fi. But is GBV’s story — particularly the bit about Robert Pollard writing all of these amazing tunes while working as a schoolteacher — also an inspiration?

Yeah. I mean, that’s my favorite band for sure. But I didn’t get into that band until pretty late into college. I don’t think I would’ve gotten it, maybe, in high school. But it hit me at the right time where I was about to graduate and I was like, “Oh, you can just do this.” You just can live in obscurity and still be fine. Because I love all those records too, all the pre-Propeller stuff. I just thought that you could do it with dignity. You could just keep making music. I think that was the big thing that caught me. I do think that’s the best story in rock ‘n’ roll.

A lot of power pop bands come up when describing Liquid Mike. Weezer and Superdrag, for instance, seem like obvious touchstones. But are there influences that are less obvious that people haven’t clued in on?

I would definitely say Everclear. I mean, I grew up with XM Radio. There was no college radio for me to tune into growing up. The XM Station was as alternative as it got until I started with YouTube. I never heard that Superdrag record until people started throwing that out a lot when the self-titled record came out. And then I was like, “This is good.”

I understand that you also play in an AC/DC cover band.

I do. I love AC/DC so much. I feel like that shit kills harder up here than when Liquid Mike plays. People love the AC/DC covers.

I heard you’re the singer.

Yeah. I only can do Bon. I love Brian, but I cannot do his voice. There’s something about it where it feels like it’s even another octave upper than Bon. It’s just so squeal-y. But that was my first show I ever saw. The Black Ice tour.

One thing I responded to when I heard your music was the sense of place. You can tell immediately that you come from a specific part of the country with a unique sensibility. The fact that I come from the same place, of course, added to the appeal. I imagine that this regional identity was important to you as well.

For sure. I was scared that no one was going to get it. Because we are pretty isolated and it’s a bubble up here. But I did try to make a more personal record, at least from the writing standpoint and thematic stuff. People think about the U.P. and the first thing they think of is probably bearded dudes, like lumberjacks. I was leaning into that, but subverting it. I’ve never seen a lumberjack in my life. I remember my friend Corey — who I play in some bands with — said the most Yooped up thing he’s ever seen is a girl wearing basketball shorts in the middle of January with a Cookie Monster hat. That’s the most Yooped up shit ever. And it’s true. Low household incomes and poverty. That’s a big thing up here.

There’s a line in “Drinking And Driving” about how “400 Airbnbs will welcome you tonight.” It make me think about how a lot of these rural towns get used as vacation spots for people from bigger cities.

It’s expensive to live up here. Marquette is a college town. It’s pretty condensed. But there’s a lot of remote workers coming in, which sucks. Because it’s driving up housing. And there’s Airbnb. I think the town is finally putting a stop to it. It’s reached its Airbnb limit or something. There’s some sort of sanction in place, which is good. But I have friends that have gotten kicked out. Their landlord boots them out and it gets turned into an Airbnb that gets used four months out of the year. It’s just super wack.

A recurring theme in a lot of these songs is feeling like you’re not going to matter, that your life isn’t ever going to be significant. Are you writing about that from a place of fear or from a place of acceptance?

Definitely both. I’m terrified of death, as all good young men probably should be. But I was chill with it. I guess that’s why I made songs. Because I didn’t think anyone would ever listen to it. It was just for me, maybe, to wrap my head around it.

The song “AM” references one of my favorite films, the 1999 documentary American Movie, which has a similar theme.

Cody [Marecek, the drummer] wrote that song, actually.

Awesome.

We’re both huge fans of that movie. Maybe the story attracted me in the same way the GBV stuff did, where it’s this guy just clawing for a way out. Or clawing for self-actualization probably more so. Those are kind of the records that I always lean toward anyway. I like when people have vision and they can execute it on their own.

Are you hoping to make music your full-time career? Or do you like being a small-town mailman who makes records for fun?

I want something in the middle. I don’t think that music is going to be my main thing for a while. But I do want a more flexible day job so I can take these opportunities that are coming. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be working at the post office, I guess. It’s been really stressful lately. They got rid of a route. Everyone at the office just bitches about it all day. That’s part of the culture, to just complain all day, in a good way. But our trucks are just falling apart non-stop because they’re so old. They’re from the early ’90s. It’s just sad.

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