[FUN FOLK] Call Mike Midlo’s songs silly if you want. He will freely admit himself that some of them are, indeed, just funny goofs. But even though the new album by Pancake Breakfast—an alias he once used for his home recording project; now the name of his nine-piece band—is steeped in tales of dogs, owls, fish and the other woodland creatures he encountered while living on a farm in White Salmon, Wash., he bristles at the notion that his songs are “childlike.”
“It’s easier for me to tell a story in the American folk tradition of using animals,” he says from the dining room of the perfectly urban Southeast Portland home he now lives in with his wife. “If that makes it childlike, there it is. But some of those old stories are dark.”
With his intense pouf of curly hair and steel-wool beard, it’s easy to mistake Midlo, 42, for a backwoods hippie. But he is, at heart, a self-described “rocker”: He grew up in Minneapolis worshiping the Replacements and playing in punk bands. It wasn’t until he moved to the Pacific Northwest and onto the farm that he connected with the lineage of Woody Guthrie and other prewar songwriters who conveyed deep messages through stories kids could understand. Pancake Breakfast is full of songs about loss, sadness and the disconnect between humans—they just happen to be sung through the eyes of cats, deer and scrub jays.
“They’re just American songs,” Midlo says.
When Midlo started recording out of his home (make that barn) studio as Pancake Breakfast, he had no intention of performing for anyone other than his dog and chickens. Eventually, he was persuaded to do some gigs—just him and a big, clunky Kimball Swinger 400 electric organ—and found his humble tunes (most written by a wood stove) resonating with audiences. From the crowds at those early shows, he gradually assembled the nine members of what would become the Pancake Breakfast Singers. The full band debuted in 2008; since then, Midlo says the group has evolved from “a campfire band” into “a machine.”
It’s evident on the Mike Coykendall-produced debut album (which was funded through a campaign on the Kickstarter website that raised an astounding $8,000). Songs roll, rollick and, in some cases, even hark back to Midlo’s loud, noisy past: “Peterbilt” and “Pea Green Boat” have riffs crunchy enough to border on stoner metal. That growth is also reflected in the band’s live show. It was always joyous, energetic and playful, but now it’s loud, too. (And Midlo promises their record-release show is going to be “different than what anyone has seen at Doug Fir before.”)
And, yes, some songs—like the call-and-response singalong “Who Is Wearing Pants?”—are built simply for laughs. Just because the project is getting more serious doesn’t mean Midlo is going to take himself more seriously.
“I’m still going to write silly songs, because they’re fun. But hopefully the songs on this record have some meat on them, and skin and fur and fat and gristle and sinews and blood and applesauce,” Midlo says. “Hopefully they’re full of all sorts of things.”
SEE IT: Pancake Breakfast releases its self-titled debut album on Saturday, Sept. 25, at Doug Fir Lounge. 9 pm. $5. 21+.