These days the old adage of “punk’s not dead” may be a wasted statement in most parts of the United States—that is unless you’re a fan of the mall, gutter or emo varietal. In most cases, “punk” is a banal mutant of those three. Punk, in its purest form, has been rotting for years. Unless of course you’re from Southern California, where it has remained a way of life for those souls who shoulder the weight of the plasticity and faux ideals that nook of civilization perpetuates in smog-filtered sunlight. The girls in Mika Miko are those souls standing on the other side of the mirror, and in daydreaming, I can imagine they grew up like the kids in either Over the Edge or Suburbia. Surrounded by equal amounts Sunset Strip and SST, their existence tends to stem from the punk theology pushing through to the present and the future.
Where the group’s earliest recordings seem to revel in the spirit of post-punk, no-wave and cheeky improvisation—accented with chirps and squelches, off-tuned guitars and oft-unbalanced percussion—now, especially on their latest album, We Be Xuxa, the girls have become cannibals of sorts. By feeding on the classics—from Black Flag to the Germs to the Go-Gos and even to Green Day, along with every bad and good record made in between—they’ve managed to distill the essence and blow it back up into miniature explosions, both unique to their surroundings and grotesquely aggressive against stale stereotypes of what a punk band should sound like exactly.
The Mika Miko gold standard is best witnessed live, with guitarist Michelle Suarez dipping into knuckled riffs and atonal sludge like a zoned banshee while the dual-headed front femme-fatales Jenna Thornhill and Jennifer Calvin split the spit between what sounds like Patti Smith and Belinda Carlisle trading blows. I recently caught up with the group on a frantic night in Columbus, wherein our chat involved stories of their time in the trenches of LA’s now-infamous Smell and how they came to the conclusion that they all were, indeed, Brazilian television-host and demigod Xuxa.
You were all in a number of other bands before forming Mika Miko—Dead Banana Ladies, the Ride, Silver Daggers, Slitwrists—what was it about those bands that forced them to dissolve and eventually become what Mika Miko is today?
Michelle Suarez: I played guitar in the Ride for a couple months, and we were doing a West Coast tour when my friend Kate got shot because the guys in the Ride started a fight with some gangster dudes. After that, I was out. I was tired of that shit. Being in a band with a bunch of guys from East LA was fun for a little while, but it got old.
Jenna Thornhill: By that time, Mika Miko was already a band. The only one of those bands that existed before Mika Miko was Dead Banana Ladies.
What did you learn from being in those bands that you didn’t care to repeat in this band?
Jennifer Clavin: Slitwrists was more of a joke. All of those bands were sort of joke bands. We started Mika Miko because we were tired of being in hardcore bands, which were more one-off jokes than anything else.
But being a huge Black Flag fan, I can see where you get your influence. Was it just natural that you formed your sound or do you find yourself patterning the songs to resemble the SoCal hardcore punk vibe?
MS: We all like all of those old LA punk bands.
JT: But I’m afraid to admit that I’ve never actually owned a Black Flag album. But it doesn’t affect the music whether I’ve listened to them or not, because with them (motioning to the rest of the band) it’s already there.
I’m really interested in how the Smell, once just an all-ages, art squat for punk kids, has now become this one-stop shop for the sound of LA. There doesn’t seem to be a band from LA that isn’t associated with the club somehow. Can you elaborate on your involvement there? Were you there from the beginning?
JT: It formed in the Valley. We never went to the Valley one; I was thirteen. I don’t think my mother would have dropped me off if I asked her to take me to a place called the Smell that originally was packed with people smoking and drinking and doing tons of drugs.
JC: We used to go to the really shitty Hollywood clubs like the Roxy, the Troubadour, Showcase, Glass House. And then the Smell moved downtown, and we went to see Citizen Fish, the ska band.
MS: We thought that was really great because it was in this dirty alley with homeless people, and if my mom knew I was there, she would’ve been so pissed.
JT: Before the Smell, we would just go to places like community centers and warehouses. But those places always had weird security guys and just an all-around shady atmosphere.
MS: So for us, the Smell had that same sort of vibe, but we knew it wasn’t going to be shut down. Nobody gave a fuck about that area—you could do anything there.
JC: Then it started to get popular with a younger crowd and they had to set some rules. That’s how Jim (owner of the Smell) decided on the no-alcohol policy.
It seems like, at least on this side of the Mississippi, that Los Angeles has a bad reputation, as if there’s nothing authentic there. Is it just the image of Hollywood that gives us that sense or do you see it living there as well?
JT: I think that’s why we like the Smell so much, because it’s the complete opposite of that. You can exist in LA and never have to deal with that side of it.
Do you think as a band you’d have a more enjoyable existence somewhere else?
MS: I have no fucking clue. As a person, I love LA. I work in Beverly Hills and I fucking love it. I love all the women who look like cats because of plastic surgery. I love all the fake boobs. I love all the actors and actresses that look so surprised when I ask for their names for their fucking drinks. I love it.
JC: But I think a big difference is these people know they’re fake. But in New York the fake people are trying so hard to act like they’re not fake.
We Be Xuxa sounds just as raw as the earlier recordings, but there’s certainly some evolution in your songwriting, where at one time a lot of what you were doing was more spontaneous and perhaps improvised. Was there more conscious songwriting for this album? What did you want to do differently that you hadn’t done in the past?
JT: I think it’s the only time we’ve ever been conscious when writing our songs.
MS: I feel like we worked really hard on each separate song. We knew we were making this record, so everything had to be in line, everything had to come together. In the past, we would just write a song and accumulate those over a long period of time. Vocals and lyrics were always an afterthought.
Even though I hear more skate-punk and hardcore in your music, there is a slant to it that suggests you were also influenced by some of the early riot-grrl bands, Huggy Bear in particular. Do you have any favorites from that era?
MS: We’ve always got the Huggy Bear comparison and I’d never heard of them before. One day I was like, “I want to hear this fucking Huggy Bear shit.” So I heard it and was pretty blown away by it. Even though I don’t think it sounds too much like us, it was weird, a lot different than what I expected. I like weird fucked-up shit.
JT: I think we get compared to them because we were influenced by the same bands they were: DC hardcore, Bad Brains—all that shit.
And I’m really curious to know about the album title. Are you aware that you’ll likely make a whole slew of fans in South America just for mentioning Xuxa’s name? Does the name hold any significance?
MS: Thing is my parents are from Argentina. They were sick of me watching MTV, and I was obsessed with it since I had older siblings. My parents decided that maybe Michelle shouldn’t be dancing and singing to “I’m Too Sexy” or whatever the fuck. So they would put Xuxa on because it was music and dancing and pretty soon I was obsessed with Xuxa.
JT: I was Xuxa once. I went to this after-school thing for Jewish kids for most of my childhood. Once during the summer, Xuxa was recording her children’s show in LA and all of us, this whole Jewish community center, got to be in the audience of Xuxa’s show. It was fucking nuts. It’s the only time I’ve ever been in the audience for something like that, so it holds some deep memories for me. So we really are Xuxa.
I read somewhere that Michelle was obsessed with the New Zealand/Flying Nun pop and was wishing for a trip there just to record shop. Is that style of music going to eventually find its way into your songs, or is that a side-project yet to be determined?
MS: I don’t think I could ever write anything like that. There’s this song from the Bats, where I hate the drum beat, but I love everything else about it. I want to record a cover of it without the drum beat. I really enjoy the Chills, quite a bit actually. It’s not Mika Miko style stuff, but lately I’ve been obsessed with all the Flying Nun stuff.
So what’s up next for the band?
MS: Well, home for two weeks and then another tour with Audacity. Black Lips, Strange Boys, and now Audacity—three very similar bands. I guess you stick with what works.