The Multifarious Mike Wiebe
Music, comedy, faux-Christianity: the many faces of the Drakulas/Riverboat Gamblers frontman
Last time the Chronicle profiled Mike Wiebe, 14 years ago, the reporter paid for a visit to the chiropractor. The doctor examined the spindly frontman and found a variety of musculoskeletal ailments often generated from catapulting himself from precarious DIY perches (revisit "Rattle Me Bones," April 21, 2006). In 2016, while performing with his long-standing punk band Riverboat Gamblers at Jackalope on Sixth Street, he jumped backward off the bar into a crowd that didn't see him coming.
He rose from the floor singing – broken ribs, collapsed lung, et al.
For most of this millennium, Wiebe's existed as Austin's shirt-wearing Iggy Pop, a piston of hyperactive showmanship. In April, genre populist Damian Abraham of Toronto punks Fucked Up designated him "One of my favorite frontpeople ever" on his Turned Out a Punk podcast. Even so, the Denton native finds himself less entrenched contemporarily in the rock singer genus as he ventures into a variety of projects musical and otherwise.
He does this thing he hates when talking about them: self-deprecating wise cracks.
"Really, it's an inaccessible genre for success – that thread goes through all my work," he riffs about his new album during a coffee-fueled backyard interview. "It needs to be something that I for sure can't make money off."
Regarding his longevity as an entertainer: "I'm aging out of lots of opportunities as we speak – comedy, music, acting. It's all getting saggier!"
Consider it the opposite of manifestation. Sure, repeating the national success the Gamblers experienced in the Aughts may be a long shot, but I've never bought that lightning never strikes twice. In fact, you're more likely to get zapped if you're tall, and Mike Wiebe stands 6-foot-3-inches.
Funny people often developed humor as a coping mechanism, so what's Wiebe's childhood trauma?
"Just being a weird kid," he shrugs. "Maybe being adopted had something to do with it. With that, you're starting off, 'Oh I'm different from everyone.' I figured out that if you can make an adult laugh, it wins you extra points in lieu of being smart or good at sports, which I was neither."
One sport Wiebe excels at is tweeting. When he's not getting into DM spats with accounts he believes are bots, Twitter serves as an ideal platform for his concise observations: "I'd have been wearing a mask this whole time if I knew it was gonna upset people so much."
On the Riverboat Gamblers' 2013 single "Comedians," Wiebe sings:
"Wanna hear a joke? Wanna have a laugh?
I can be the punchline. Laugh at myself, laugh at my past."
Since then, comedy's fielded the bulk of his creative output.
There's a podcast, Contrarian Court, where he and Wayne Gladstone canvas issues including "every Chipmunks cover is better than the original," the live events he MCs like the Austin Music Industry Awards, alongside Yours Truly, and his joke summits.
"In Mike's stand up, he's very honest about himself," reflects comedian Avery Moore. "There's a sadness to it that I really love, but then the punchlines are fast and bring levity."
"He's also one of the most quick-witted people I've ever met," adds Moore, Wiebe's better half in the McCuewans for the last six years. "I don't know anyone easier to be funny with."
That pair of cluelessly corny Southern youth group ministers, Dottie and Jefferson-Montclaire McCuewan, bring Christ to comedy showcases and dish awful advice to teens with their Cross Talk videos. Wiebe pulls experiences from attending a Baptist youth group in Denton.
"They taught us that sports and popularity was super important and also rock & roll music and fantasy stuff has demons," he explains. "They believed literal demons exist in the music and walk around your house if you play this cassette."
Savage Lord Mic
Not unlike Jefferson-Montclaire McCuewan, Wiebe assumes a distinct character in concept band Drakulas. Of course, the former would definitely declare the latter a demon in his spiked-sunglasses, culty medallion, and blasphemous name: Savage Lord Mic.
The group's sophomore LP, April's Terminal Amusements, ranks among the best out of Austin so far this year, spinning a hook-laden, punked-out, street-pop platter.
"They're songs around a late-Seventies, New York-esque metropolis that's like the movie The Warriors," explains Wiebe. "Each song comes from a specific character about what's going on in their lives, but it's not spelled out in exhausting three-act structure. The concept albums I like, I didn't even originally know they were concept albums."
Drakulas instrumental architect Zach Blair, a guitarist in Rise Against who's also played in Hagfish, Only Crime, and Gwar, calls his seven-year writing partnership with Wiebe "profound" and his "favorite project in 25 years of playing music." He notes that conceptualization confines most lyricists.
"With Mike, it helps him flourish," he says. "In an odd way, this character Savage Lord Mic is almost the authentic Mike Wiebe more than anything he's done before. It's really cool to bear witness to."
As for the Gamblers, Wiebe says new material keeps piling up and that the 23-year veterans plan to record a seventh album, their first since 2012.
"The smartest thing for us would've been to say, 'We broke up. We can't even stand to be in the same room,' then do a big reunion," he deprecates. "We enjoy it too much to do that ... or we're too lazy."
On the topic of reunions, four years ago Wiebe hired a private investigator to track down his birth mother. Turns out, she lives on the outskirts of the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex in Cleburne. They began exchanging letters, then met in-person.
"Now we're buddies," he smiles. "It helped me connect some dots between nurture and nature. I'm still processing it because it's new and weird and hard to define."
Touring nationally in January, Drakulas planned to hit the road hard this summer. No matter, Wiebe stacks a multitude of projects to work on instead – all with questionable probabilities of paying off.
He compares creative success to scratch-off tickets. He used to look for that $10,000 payout, but now he says he's content with a $10 winner. Anyway, success hinges on the creation more than the result because the projects themselves help stave off depression and restlessness.
"I transitioned from being on the road constantly with the Gamblers to hustling all the time, divided between comedy, music, and writing," he concludes. "I've found that my best therapy is staying as busy as humanly possible. That's my main coping technique – hurling myself into projects whether I'm qualified or not because it makes me feel better."
Check out Drakulas’ new album Terminal Amusements on Bandcamp.
Mike Wiebe Playlist
1) Drakulas, "Level Up" (2020) Jim Carroll-esque spoken vocals about arcade love: "Took me back behind the console/ Put your tongue into my tonsil/ Grip the joystick screamin' victory."
2) Drakulas, "Sin Will Find You" (2020) Buzzcocks-ian punk, riding Blair's wild guitar riff and rolling out the welcome mat for Satan.
3) Drakulas, "Owowowowowowow" (2015) The gang debuts on EP with a song about a popular drug in their fictional universe.
4) High Tension Wires, "Get Weird" (2011) Wiebe's breathless vox careen over a helicopter rotor of super-fast garage rock with members of fellow Dentonites Marked Men and the Reds.
5) Riverboat Gamblers, "Don't Bury Me... I'm Still Not Dead Yet" (2006) Anthem of perseverance from RG's most popular album, To the Confusion of Our Enemies.