“Mike Pygmie is a ‘Whizard’ on the guitar. He writes melodic songs that are very complex, original and inspiring – Rush meets Black Flag, Minutemen and Descendants. ‘You Know Who’ – Mike Pygmie, that’s who!” – Nick Oliveri (Uncontrollable, Mondo Generator, Queens of the Stone Age)
by Lisa Morgan
The Johnson’s may not have realized the monster they were creating when they took their son, Michael with them to see the Jackson Five with Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, and Gladys Knight. They did, however, figure out pretty quickly, that they could keep him working hard at school if they threatened to take away his guitar and extra-curricular activities. Surely they had to know something was up when, at the tender age of 14, their son’s favorite extra-curricular activity was his “after school program” at Mario Lalli’s Rhythm and Brews, jamming with and learning from some of the best musicians around. These were the beginnings of an incredible music career that has taken Mike Johnson all over the world, touring and playing music; a career that stands on the precipice of becoming even greater in 2015.
It all began in middle school, when Mike Johnson became known as Mike “Pygmie” after forming the band Melodious Pygmies, with band members that at various times included John Dean, Eli Cohen, Steven Hall, Brant Bjork, Rob Peterson. The band continued until he was 16. Pygmie had picked up the guitar after getting a Jimi Hendrix box set that he listened to constantly. “Once I got a guitar, I never put it down,” he shared. “I’d even sit on my couch and learn and play the theme songs I heard while watching TV.”
CVW: What were your earliest influences and sources of inspiration?
Pygmie: We were underage, so we’d only get to play private parties. But there was this one big party in the La Quinta Cove – one of the last big parties I remember up there (we’d never get away with a party like that now). This big dude came up to me and started telling me about how he was going to open up an all-ages club in Indio: Turns out that big dude was Mario Lalli, and the place was Rhythym and Brews. I felt really lucky to be part of that scene. That’s what solidified it for me. On top of Mario’s musical skills, we were always around great players and bands because he also did the booking. It was really a huge influence on my music at a critical age. Fatso Jetson was pretty much the house band and I got to jam with them. A lot of SST bands would come through, because Fatso was on that label. I got to meet Black Flag’s Greg Ginn, George Hurley of Minutemen. All the punk bands I grew up loving would come through with their new bands. I saw Unsound and The Fixtures there for the first time, and that was a huge influence.
CVW: You’ve been in a number of bands following Melodious Pygmies, right?
Pygmie: Yes. The Agents started up after Melodious Pygmies. I played guitar and sang backing vocals, Scott Nelson sang lead, and Charlie Ellis (of Mighty Jack) played bass. Scott and I played little league together as kids. He had started jamming with Jeff Bowman from Unsound, and asked if I wanted to join them. I was like, ‘Jeff Bowman from Unsound? Crazy! Yeah, I want to jam with you!’ Jeff actually played guitar in the beginning of that band, and Mike Webb was on drums, but eventually they switched. That was the band I cut my first album with. Chris Haines had discovered us, taken us under his wing and produced it for us. We recorded it in a room above my parents’ flower shop.
There were a whole slew of bands I played in after that: I started playing drums for the first time with Brothers from Different Mothers. I took over Rob Peterson’s spot on the drums in The Pedestrians when he went to school for a bit. I started playing in The Operators about that time. Brant Bjork (Kyuss, Fatso Jetson, Mondo Generator, Vista Chino) and I would switch off drums and guitar. We played the Troubadour, opening for Monster Magnet. I was in my early 20’s at the time. I had also started working on my own project, writing and recording for the Whizards. I put everything into the Whizards; there were a few members in and out of the band including Jeff Bowman and Charlie Ellis, but most people remember the Whizards as Benny Cancino drums, Billy Cordell on bass, and myself on guitar and vocals. About this time, Brant asked me to play with him in Brant and the Bro. I did both for a little while, until Brant said I had to make a choice between the two. I was doing bigger things touring with Brant, but Whizards was my baby, and I really believed we could have done just as much. I chose Whizards, and we probably could have if we didn’t break up.
Mikey Dolan, from the band Snot, sat in during some of the recording of the Whizards, and he wanted to produce it. But then, his band broke up, the Whizards broke up, so we ended up starting a band together called Invitro. I toured more heavily with Invitro than with any other band. We made a record that I’m really proud of called, When I was a Planet. Brad Dujmovic was on bass, Benny Cancino was on drums and Jeff Weber was on vocals. We did our first tour with Endorphin, then went on with Seven Dust, Static-X, and just went from tour to tour. We ended up on the Family Values Tour. We were on big stages opening for bands like Evanescence and Hellyeah. In 2007, I think I was on tour 9 months out of the year. Then that band broke up (he chuckled).
Following Invitro, I had just had a baby, and was happy to be home, but still recorded and played. Eventually, I had an album worth of material. Greg Saenz, who was playing with the Dwarves at the time, and Dylan Brown were both interested in playing. They both really impressed me with their skill and dedication. I gave them a CD and they came back having really done their homework. That was the start of You Know Who. Greg got busy with the Dwarves for a while, so Rob Peterson played on drums for a bit – he’s a guy who can play anything. Greg’s back now and we’re working on an album that will come out some time in 2015.
CVW: How did you find yourself in Mondo Generator?
Pygmie: I remember seeing Nick (Oliveri) at the Hope for Isaiah concert, and was really impressed with him. It wasn’t long after that, I heard Mondo Generator was looking for a new guitar player. I figured I’d write Nick, and just put it out there – I was looking for some serious gigs and wanted to tour again. I didn’t hear anything back, so I figured they had someone. True to Nick Oliveri fashion, he called me the day before and said, ‘Hey, can you make it. I drove to LA the next day. Nick told me all his plans over pizza, and I said, ‘Cool man! So should I come back? He said, ‘You want to be in the band don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah!’ That’s when he finally told me that they had already talked it over and I was in – everybody knew but me! I played some awesome tours with Nick. We opened for Clutch, Jello Biafra, and Black Flag in Belgium. I was stoked. They were bands I really respected and listened to. Nick made a lot of special things like that happen. People really want to play with him.
(Pygmie also played on Nick Oliveri’s solo project, Uncontrollable, “Leave Me Alone”, and played guitar with him at the LA Forum for Oliveri’s highly publicized brief reunion with Josh Homme and Queens of the Stone Age.)
CVW: How did you end up on tour with John Garcia (Kyuss and Vista Chino) for his solo tour, and on bass of all things?
Ehren Groban (the first official member of Garcia’s band) asked me if I would consider playing bass for a band. I didn’t even know at the time it was for John Garcia. I went and auditioned, and it just worked. I had played bass for my own songs recording, but never played it in a band situation. It felt pretty natural; John is a very calm and easy dude. I felt comfortable with him right off, and of course, I did my homework. If anything, I was focused on the fact that I didn’t want to sound like a guitar player. I wanted to sound like a bass player. Other than that, it came pretty natural. The first night we got together, John said, ‘If you want it, you got the gig.’ We tried out a couple drummers who were really good, but it didn’t feel like a band; it felt like a project. John had said, ‘I don’t want to do a project – I want to do a band – a real band where we hang out and jam.’ I thought that was cool, because that’s what I wanted too. I told him, ‘If you trust me, I know a guy.’ So we tried Greg (Saenz) out, and it just fit. For such a new project, with a tour already booked, it just really felt solid. Now we’ve got a couple of tours under our belt. It’s crazy to see how the fans in Australia and Europe love John and Nick. They do so much research and know so much about their music. It was a blast. It’s like going to camp with your best friends. You have a job to do for a couple of hours but otherwise, you’re just hanging out with your friends.
CVW: With all the music you’ve done, have you had to balance it with a day job?
Pygmie: Oh yeah! I’ll be at work tomorrow morning, on top of a roof at 7am. I work for Budget Roofing. I’m very fortunate to have this job. My boss is cool enough to let me take off when I need to go, and I always have a job when I come home. That’s been real important.
CVW: So what is coming up for you in 2015?
Pygmie: Before I took off with John Garcia and Uncontrollable, we started working on the new You Know Who record with Brad Garrow producing it. It will be released on Self Destructo Records. We have instruments done on 8 songs; there will be 11 altogether. Nick came with me right after the CV Weekly Benefit show. We pulled a late night, and he sang on a couple tracks. We recorded his signature Oliveri screams, as well as some of his more melodious background vocals. John will be coming in and singing on it too, as well as Sean Wheeler. It should be released sometime next year. There’s already been some good response to it, thanks to some download cards I was able to take on tour.
Uncontrollable will be playing the Viper Room New Year’s Eve, opening for Helmet. We’ll play the Viper again on January 28th. You Know Who will play in LA at the Redwood with the Chuck Norris Experiment. And You Know Who will be playing with the Chuck Norris Experiment again at the Hood, January 30th along with the Hellions and Monolith.
CVW: Any advice for those considering trying to follow in your footsteps?
Pygmie: The only reason to do this is because you love it. It’s hard to make a living at it. It’s not impossible, but it’s very tough. I see so many people that are so amazing and talented who are struggling. But if you love it and you’re going to do it anyways, you might as well give it your best shot.
I’m very lucky to have a really understanding wife. I get depressed when I’m not playing, but there have been times when it’s been a real struggle and I’ve thought, ‘I’m going to quit this and get a regular job.’ My wife would just look at me and say, ‘You can’t do that. I would never ask you to, nor would I let you. That would be like asking you to stop breathing.’ I’m very lucky and blessed to have her.
Mario Lalli on Mike Pygmie: “I remember back in ’93 or so, there was a house party with bands right down the street where we all lived in our band compound in La Quinta. We all cruised down to hear these kids that were just incredibly talented maniacs – really young dudes who were 13 years old. We walked in, and they were just slaying this very complex rockin twisted stuff. The musicianship was so advanced and they were so intense, I was shocked! That was the Melodius Pygmies. Mike and I have been friends ever since. He and his folks were at my club all the time, soaking in the music. He performed there often. He is one of the most talented musicians in the desert. Progressive, aggressive, dedicated, Mike is the real deal. That’s probably why he plays in at least four bands – guitar and vocals in one, bass in another, drums in another…it’s pretty insane. The best part is he has no ego about all that talent. Mike just loves music and splitting skulls.”
With more shows piling up in 2015 and a new record coming out, Pygmie should have very little to be depressed about. Perhaps this will be the year when all the work and sacrifice will be rewarded. But no matter what the year has in store for him, you can bet it will all be worth watching and listening to.
Follow Mike Pygmie and check out his music at the following links: