Music News

Not Dead

Whatever animates Riverboat Gamblers lead singer Mike Wiebe, the audience is giving him a wide berth lest it prove contagious. Dragging the mic cord like a lifeline, Wiebe climbs on tables, mounts structural supports, and hangs from exposed pipes — within the first 15 minutes of the show. Behind him, the band crackles like grease on a hot skillet, their lacerating riffs circling rumbling rhythms with manic energy that blends the garage-punk shout-alongs of New Bomb Turks with the catchy, hot-blooded attack of fellow Texans the Supersuckers.

Yet as good as they sound, all eyes are on Wiebe's antics. He sidles up next to an attractive blonde alone in the audience and sings right into her face, then follows her around like a guy who doesn't get the message as she repeatedly tries to put distance between them. Finally rebuffed when she flees to the bathroom, Wiebe throws himself onto an open barstool, and puts his arms around the women on each side of him. It's the kind of irrepressible display that's his stock in trade.

Of course, it's only minutes into our conversation when Wiebe mentions his obvious inspiration, as he notes his frequent scrapes and bruises. "I don't want to hurt myself, but I want it to be as exciting as possible. And then you always have Iggy Pop to look at and go, 'Well, he's a lot older than me and he's still doing it.'"

That Wiebe is doing this is somewhat surprising, given that he grew up as a comic book geek and still considers himself shy. He says being onstage is an entirely different matter for him. "It's just time to be on when you're onstage and to let out any feeling," says the gaunt frontman. "There's all kinds of bad things going on all the time, and I feel like you can really exorcise that and channel it."

Wiebe's penchant for mishap is the occupational hazard of his high-energy performances, and his derring-do can probably be traced back to a youth spent skateboarding in Denton, Texas, a suburb about 40 miles north of Dallas-Fort Worth. It's how he first heard punk music, and where he found his first identity.

"At the time, it was an outlet to be an outcast. It gave me something to cling on to until I found music," he says, recalling how the Misfits shook him to the core. Growing up in a strict home ("not like snake-handlers but fairly religious"), and hearing Misfits singer Glenn Danzig sing, "I ain't no goddamn son of a bitch" on "Where Eagles Dare" was a revelation.

"Singing along with that, with friends, on a little shitty jambox, while we were skateboarding in a basketball parking lot in a middle school, I felt at that moment more free than I ever felt in my entire life," he says.

Wiebe did get over his shyness — at least long enough to take a stab at acting school. He didn't begin making music until he was 21. When he did, he indulged in it with typical reckless abandon, playing with several different bands before the Riverboat Gamblers finally came together a decade ago. They kicked around the area for a while before releasing their self-titled debut in 2001, and followed it up with Something to Crow About in '03. By then, they'd begun to attract some major label interest, but the offers contained little substance or value.

"They make you feel great for a minute, then they leave you like a whore and toss a couple dollars on the bed," Wiebe says with a laugh. "There are people on their payroll whose entire job is to go out to shows, five or six nights a week, and talk to bands and tell them how great they are . . . so they can say, 'We were talking to you a couple years ago. The timing wasn't right, but now, things are better.' When, really, the fact is that your genre has become more marketable or you're selling this many records right now, so you're more bankable and they can take a risk on you, where before they were complete cowards."

The band instead signed to Volcom Entertainment, a small California-based label that's had a stage on Warped Tour for 10 years, and where the Gamblers and frequent tourmates Valient Thorr really turned some heads three years ago. Alongside typical e-moaners and teeth-gnashing metalcore kids, the two acts' revolutionary fervor and live intensity stood out, further stoking both bands' buzz.

Last year's To the Confusion of Our Enemies ups the ante considerably, with a snarling, hook-heavy, start-to-finish roar fueled by vigorous piss 'n' vinegar attitude and big, catchy, outraged choruses, like those of "Biz Loves Sluts" and "Rent Is Due." The chunky, Bad Religion-ish "On Again/Off Again" recounts Wiebe's frustrating health care odyssey without insurance, and "The Art of Getting Fucked" celebrates resilience and bad luck.

Noticing a theme? Wiebe did, and that's why he wrote an upbeat album highlight, "I'm Still Not Dead." It name-checks "all the given ups, the special needs crew . . . those who wake up at dawn, underpaid and then shit upon," and counsels, "Just keep screaming out, 'I'm still not dead, don't bury me yet.'"

"I write a lot of songs about very negative stuff," Wiebe says. "So I just wanted [to try something different] because I'm not completely without hope, or I wouldn't still be in a band."

It's a powerful anthem, and it struck a chord with fans. They come up to Wiebe and tell him how much the song has meant to them. "It's amazing when people say that and it tipped me in a direction where — I used to be more guarded about writing, I'd write about the werewolf or something — and [on] this record, I kind of opened up a little bit more and put myself a bit more out there — which is cheesy to say in an interview, but it's true."

He's trying to take that same positive attitude and apply it in his personal life, where Wiebe describes himself as a "glass half empty" kind of guy, noting how "negativity is very infectious in a band."

This realization has come not a moment too soon for Wiebe. Freshly back from a U.K. tour, Wiebe drove the band's van five minutes into town to get some grub on his birthday. But he forgot to check that the trailer was locked (despite being reminded), thus losing the bassist's instrument and assorted merchandise.

"I was grasping. 'You always leave the radio on too loud, so I didn't hear it when it fell out' — in my head I'm thinking that, but it was 'No, this is 199 percent your fault, and the other 1 percent is also your fault,'" Wiebe says. "The wound is deep and infected right now."

It certainly can't help that this is the same bassist (Pat Lillard) who took Wiebe's flying microphone to the mouth four years ago, requiring six hours of surgery that managed to save all but one of his teeth. Hard to imagine Wiebe is his favorite bandmate.

"Worst birthday ever," Wiebe says, shaking his head disconsolately.

But hey, he's still not dead.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Parker
Contact: Chris Parker