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Michael Haaga pic #1 by Creg Lovett

The Plus and Minus Show is an eleven-track masterpiece that Houston deserves to be gifted with. After hearing it, I wanted to discuss the transition of songwriter Mike Haaga from death metal to pop rock mastermind. After some quick CD shopping at Sig's Lagoon, we headed out past the Continental Club to the Ensemble/HCC Metro Rail station for a jaunt to the Museum District. We paid our two dollars and boarded the clean, quiet train without even so much as a glance from other passengers.

Haaga: They don't even check your tickets, but if you don't have one I hear its a two hundred dollar fine.
[Okay, adhering to the honor system is not very metal.]

SCR: That's more than I can afford for a two-mile ride. What do you think of the press you've gotten so far?
I was really happy they were writing about us. Oddly enough, everybody has chosen different people, and I don't mind comparisons, especially when people have said Elliot Smith, Elvis Costello and the Flaming Lips. So it's like, "Okay, those are all great bands." But it hasn't always been the same band. What bands did you think it sounded like?

Oh, I don't know.
Cool! When I first started listening to Radiohead or The Shins, I would say "it sounds like that or this," and then eventually you say "wow, it sounds like Radiohead," or "it sounds like The Shins." You no longer listen to them through the comparisons. So, I hope that will be the next scenario.


Michael Haaga -- http://www.michaelhaaga.com/

Dead Horse -- http://www.bnrmetal.com/groups/deho.htm

The Demonseeds -- http://home.flash.net/~anti/dh/ds/dsHome.html

Relapse Records -- http://www.relapse.com/

Three Fantastic -- http://www.threefantastic.us/

Superjoint Ritual -- http://www.superjointritual.com/

Well, I do keep hearing a lot of Dead Horse in it.
That makes sense. It's the same guy.

I hear metal themes almost immediately in the record.
[puzzled] Metal themes? I guess, in a more toned-down way. But even in Dead Horse, I never thought was as typical metal, even lyric-wise. I didn't talk about killing people. You know, it was really just more about catharsis rather than hatred. I wrote about things that made me angry, not things to fuel anger.

Michael Haaga pic #2 Then was DH death metal?
I think most people would say that it was, but I always thought we were pop music. [we both laugh] I say that jokingly, but it's true. We were a rock group, definitely. "Medulla Oblongata," that's a punk rock song. Some of it was obviously very, very, very metal. The records that DH put out were demos. If we'd ever worked with a producer, I hoped he wouldn't have made us heavier than we already were, you know? The thing that made DH popular is that we didn't take ourselves seriously. We were the metal band that covered the B52's, with "Rock Lobster."

On The Plus and Minus Show, I hear a lot of happy music and sad lyrics.
I like that. That could be the name of my next album, actually.

Then I should tell you that I think I got that from a review of Nevermind.
[laughs] I was definitely a fan of Nevermind. I had a few people when I was in DH saying "Do you like Nirvana?," and I would say, "No." I hadn't heard of them yet. And even when I did, I definitely didn't think that DH sounded anything like them. But maybe some people thought so.

Yeah, I don't know why they would say that either. Maybe they were talking about Bleach.
That is what they were talking about. That was when people said it. It wasn't Nevermind. [The train stops at the Medical Center/Museum District train stop.] This is where we get off.

Did you ever leave Houston?
I moved to New Orleans whenever I was recording and trying to start a new band. I was trying to do what I am doing now, but I hadn't found people that were trying to do that, as well. Which is why it took me so long to do this record. I spent a lot of time living in Phil Anselmo's house, drinking, and drinking, and playing, you know. He had a nice house. Not like a mansion. That was the point in my life when I was living a few months with him in New Orleans, and then a couple weeks with my brother, then maybe with an ex-girlfriend for a while. So a lot of my stuff just kinda hung out in my van or my brother Curtis's house. But it never really panned out into a band. It did pan out into a few recordings and some really great shows.

The Demonseeds?
Yeah, we probably did 20 shows, if that, but the last shows we did were with ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd; we opened for The Misfits, GWAR, Fear Factory, and played with Slash's Snake Pit at Instant Karma. But we never really were a band. We always seemed to be saying, "We hate this name. We've gotta get rid of this name." Or my drummer, Joe, who is Hank III's drummer, he always wanted to get rid of the bass players that I liked or had. So it was in constant motion but not growing. Constantly changing.

What were your goals when the record was finished and you realized how good it was?
[laughing] Well, I don't know if I "realized how good it was." I'm real proud of it. I definitely felt when I was doing the record that it wasn't just something that I wanted to do, it was something that I had to do. Like I said to John Lomax, I didn't grow up listening to metal. I grew up listening to '70s rock. So, when I was 28/29 and I'd done another handful of metal albums, I was like "Oh, man, where is this record of real music that I'd been wanting to do?", and it's not that any of this other stuff is not real. But when I considered DH up against Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, that's real rock. It's different. I always felt that I could do a record that was just real songs. And I'd always been doing it. I'd always been writing [these kinds of] songs. But I was always playing with people that played double bass. It was just something I had to do. I knew that I could sing.

Amazing vocals on the new record.
I guess I felt like if for some reason I wasn't around anymore, then I wouldn't have been able to sing. So really I sort of have been living out a long life dream of getting on stage and singing.

Why did you do this in Houston? Maybe you might have been served better by...
L.A. or New York?

Or even Austin...Sixth Street...
Well, when I started off, it didn't really matter. DH really did well enough out of Houston to do anything we wanted to. I just don't think we took enough of the right turns, ultimately.

Okay, but I think there's gonna be a time when you are gonna need a pretty big room for this thing.
Well there's always someone out there promoting that'll find the room. [laughs] If that turns out to be the case. The Meridian is a pretty big venue. Numbers holds well over a thousand.

What were the biggest shows you played with DH?
Well we sold out Numbers with our own show in '93. Literally in '91-'93, when we were really doing well, we didn't have a problem selling out any venue that was under a thousand if it was promoted right. If you could spend enough money advertising and reach enough people. In Houston when you talk about local bands, you almost don't talk about it like it could be anything more than a local show with a couple hundred people. But we were at that stage when we were a local band but we drew like a national. Particularly in Texas. We went everywhere. We went down and played for as many as four or five hundred people in Harlingen, on the Mexican border. Dallas, El Paso. We played El Paso a lot. We had a following there, as well. But Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston; we were playing to five or six hundred people, depending...even College Station. Selling out Numbers was the biggest as our own show. But one of the highlights of the DH shows here in town was the Surfers, DH, and CrazyKilledMingus at the Tower Theater. That was a great show.

Michael Haaga pic #3 I was pretty upset when that place became a video store.
I guess the Tower Theater didn't have much for parking. They could never get clearance from the stores nearby to give them some parking.

Do you know how many DH records were sold?
I think including our own independent issues of them and the reissues with Relapse Records, we probably hit about 50,000 over the entire span of the band's career. Selling a thousand here and a thousand there. When it was put out on Big Chief Records, I think we sold about 30,000 with them. We had a great thing going. We were and maybe still are one of the bigger underground, unheard-of bands. We were truly underground. We did almost everything we did on an independent scale, and half of it without even an independent label. Just doing it ourselves. I think when you talk about DH, maybe one of the things that gave us a bigger following than some metal bands was that we really didn't take ourselves seriously. We were really influenced by English comedy. Bean, Young Ones, Monty Python. When we played, we'd have the typical hardcore death metal heads, but we'd also have people show up with Guns 'N Roses t-shirts on.

Do you at all get tired of talking about your old band?
No, I don't. I love those guys. It's been a long time. It's amazing that anybody still wants to talk about it. That's really cool and really flattering. It's been over ten years since I did a show with them.

Were you ever on the radio?
Linda Silk used to play us real late at night. She played the "Rock Lobster" B-52s cover. That's another reason why people came out to see us. We were the metal band that played the B-52s.

At your live show, you play two songs that aren't on The Plus and Minus Show.
"Like Asrielle" is the only DH song that we cover. There's a few others that I think that would be fun to learn. The other song is from a demo that I did on a four-track recorder.

Did you tour with Superjoint Ritual?
I did the first tour with them, which was before the record came out. We did New Orleans, Lafayette, a few shows in Dallas. The Houston show was the bad ass show.

So, moving on to The Plus and Minus Show. If you sold a million copies of this record and a certain percentage of people were file-sharing it, would you hate that?
No. I don't think music is something that you can... Music is something you can't even describe on paper. You can write the notes down, and you may be able to read music, but music floats. It's everywhere. It's kind of ridiculous to think that you could tell somebody that they couldn't listen to your music if somebody gave it to them or shared it. For the most part, musicians don't make their money off of record sales anyway. Certainly you can make money off of that, but if you're already selling a million records and people are sharing one song, then you've obviously already sold a million records! But I just don't see it, as I see how it hurts record companies maybe a little. I always thought music is supposed to be something to be enjoyed by people, and if you start bitching about when people can enjoy it and how they can enjoy and how much they have to pay to enjoy it, that really ruins it all.

So, the other side of that is some people really encourage you to file-share.
I think it really helps to promote bands. I don't think that it's totally killed the market. I think CDs killed the market. But it's not killing the market for music. Music is just good music. People that keep creating it will hopefully get past wanting to create it just so they can sell a million copies. I have no problem with anybody burning my disc or getting it online. Gosh, let's just sell a million records, and you can ask me that again.

That would be cool, huh? A Houston band!
Any Houston band!

Michael Haaga quote #1 I found that you recorded with a French band in Montreal.
I love Canada, man. Especially Montreal. I like the cold weather. I like the people; I like their sense of humor. I like that they're laid back and not so taken aback by everything. It's a beautiful city, Montreal. Beautiful countryside. I have a bunch of friends up there, and that's who I was working with, some friends of mine. I stayed in a nice studio, played a few leads and screamed a little bit. Worked with a really nice producer, Pierre De Milliard, who was in a metal band and is now doing some great work in real music. But when I talk to my friend [on the phone], and I'll be in Houston and he'll hear sirens in the background. We just take it for granted; we hear sirens. I may even hear gunshots where I live in Houston, for real. I remember one time he asked me [with a French-Canadian accent] "What are you watching?" He literally thought that I was watching some kind of cop show. But I love Houston, so it depresses me that every time I watch the news -- and I don't watch it nightly. I don't watch a whole lot of TV unless I'm trying to go to sleep or have too much time. But you can't watch the news without hearing about the five people that got murdered in town. There were three yesterday. Two people on the north side.

What we're talking about is like the second song on your new record. It's kind of a post-9/11 record.
Well, there's a lot of psycho poetry babble but, yeah. There's no doubt that 9/11 happened right as I was beginning to write all this stuff. To me there has been obviously a big change in the way people think. But it's more terror -- I would've thought and hoped that something like 9/11 would've made everybody closer and happier and to want to lead toward a better life. And I think obviously everybody has been made more scared. So I guess my record is definitely sort of how I see things. We're good people. There's a lot of good people, and for the most part everybody is good people, so the fighting is ridiculous.

Well I'm a huge fan of the record.
It's neat to know that I didn't do something that makes everybody go "Oh, god, what did Haaga do? What was he thinking?" And I haven't really heard much criticism at all, really.

Oh, I'll tell you what's wrong with it!

Just kidding. [After we laugh:] I might've said that criticizing this record was like picking out flaws on a diamond.
Well, I'm thrilled that you're writing about it, then!

I wanted to put in the article; what are your favorite Houston bands?
Well, let's see. I don't know. I expect you'll have to give me one minute. Well...

Really? Are you trying not to leave anyone out?
I think Sprawl. Sprawl and I, I feel like, have a lot in common. As far as seeing a show, and saying, "Wow, that was a great fucking show and that was a local band!" Putting on a great performance, that would probably be the number one band.

And what are they playing right now?
They turned into the Free Radicals, and some other bands. Oh! I like Three Fantastic, the band that I scammed my guitar player from. They did just get signed. Their singer, Charles, has a really good, good voice. A lot of the things that disappoint me about Houston local music is that people don't take it as serious as I think that I do take the music. But I've been doing it for 20 years, so if there's any way I can show them how serious I am about it, it's that. But none of the bands have schticks, you know? Not that you have to have a schtick. But not a lot of bands even jump out at me as original or different. Even if you're like this band in San Francisco where everybody dressed up as their favorite Sesame Street character and the singer was Cookie Monster. He literally growled.
And I guess my point is that even if you're just putting on a little theater performance and playing music at the same time, at least that's more fun and original. A lot of the stuff that I've seen here in Houston, and I can't say that I've seen it all, everybody sounds like their favorite band. I guess that's one way to approach music, is to sound like your influences. Sugar Shack was a great band. They didn't sound like anybody else; just kinda doing their own thing. There was a band called Academy Black I thought they were fun and had an original sound. Clouseaux is doing something that is sort of old and new at the same time with that style of music. They put a little bit of heavy guitars in, and they're lounge. And, of course, they are one of the other bands that got signed. They are doing something. It seems Houston in the last ten years has been a little void of excitement. You've been here, so what do you think?

I remember getting excited about 30footFALL.
I think that they did put out some good records. They really did. They toured a bit and they still manage to put on a good show and have fun doing it. But as for other bands, I feel kind of stumped. I like Pure Rubbish. Kind of one of the things that I hope to do is to put out a record that displayed all the talent that I knew of in town.

What about Texas bands?
I was a big Toadies fan. Polyphonic Spree is doing something that's old and new. I guess I'd have to go to old school stuff like the Surfers. For some reason I just can't regurgitate any right now.

Michael Haaga pic #4 What do you listen to right now?
I listen to a lot of vocal music. Over the last couple of years I think the Shins were probably my favorite band. I know a lot of people don't get them, and that's kind of cool, because I actually did discover them for myself. Nobody turned me onto them. I ran across a disc when I was working as a buyer for Southwest Wholesale, a record distributor here in town. I just thought they wrote great songs. I loved the guy's voice. And if you look at my CD collection, you'll notice it's all about the vocals. I'm a big fan of singers and singer/songwriters. Whether it be the new stuff like the Shins, or Neil Young, or Frank Sinatra, or Frank Zappa. I love a lot of that stuff. In fact, I feel there will always be a place for me in music the older I get because I wouldn't mind eventually doing crooning-type stuff. Blood Sweat and Tears. The guys in my band like jazz. So I was like, "Let's do something like Blood Sweat and Tears," because nobody has accomplished that since them. In my opinion, he's something that's very, very pop but also has all the elements of rock.

I might end up describing your record with the word "pop." That's not a bad word?
No. Not for me. Not in my opinion. And I think a lot of Houston bands have sort of feared the word "pop," and I laugh at that. It's like everybody wants to be hip and cool, but in a scene that doesn't like pop. I think there's nothing wrong with pop. I wouldn't even venture off to say that everything on the radio sucks. I hate when people say that. I think it sucks that it's all run by one company. But I'll listen to 104, and I might listen to 106.9, and 107.5, and 88.7, and listen to some classical, and they took KART off. But I'll listen to KPFT and KTRU.

But do you sing along when Creed comes on?
I would never listen to or buy a Creed album and probably listen to it on my own. But I don't think that "Six Feet Under," or whatever that song is, is a horrible song. [He begins to sing, with feeling:] "I'm six feet from the edge and I'm thinking..." It's catchy. What is wrong with having somebody write a song that's catchy? It seems like that is the fear of a lot of musicians. It's like "If I repeat this three times, then that makes me..." I don't know what. Texas is known for strange bands. We're weird. Everything from ZZ Top being a strange blues band, the Surfers, 13th Floor Elevators. Dead Horse being a weird mixture of styles. I don't know, man, I just like music that makes me feel good, and if I hear it on 104 that's okay with me. There's some band out there -- and I don't have MTV, I don't have cable, but I was at a friend's who did, and there was a song that came on and these guys all looked metal, but it was a song I was hearing on 104. The thing that I downloaded last was a Sarah McLachlan song. I've got that Creed song stuck in my head now. [laughs a lot]

I might have to print that Michael Haaga sings along with Creed.
Go ahead, man. The guys from Gone Blind are playing with Creed's singer. The guy that owns the Engine Room, who used to own Instant Karma, got signed to Roadrunner. Played with them for a while and met with the Creed guys. And then when Creed split, the singer took Gone Blind and evidently is doing a new record with them. If you wanna, really wanna print something that'll freak people out, I listen to 104 as much as I listen to KTRU. I think there's a lot of music snobs in the music scene in general, and I'm just not a music snob. I don't look at music as, "This is better than this," like it's some sort of game or competition. For me it's not really about that. It's about, "well, this makes me feel good." You know, man, at different times in your life, different things are cool. At different times of the day different things are cool. I like Usher songs. He did a song with Enya. I like Enya.

Did you listen to Justin Timberlake's record?
Some of it. They played it on 104, so yeah! [He takes a minute to laugh at his "confessions."] I like some of the Eminem stuff. I don't own any Eminem, but I did own Public Enemy, NWA, Slick Rick, Beastie Boys. Maybe I'm more of an '80s guy. But I thought Outkast was great. It allowed hip-hop to chill out a little bit and be more fun like it used to be. I was an instantaneous fan of Outkast. The guys from Scarface, they're good. I don't have any problem with rap at all. I'm not surprised by Eve and Missy Elliot. It's good stuff. It's creative, fun stuff. There's no doubt in my mind that it's more technically exciting for kids because it's got all the right bleeps and buzzers. The time is perfect; it's not surprising. It doesn't scare me or piss me off. I have some friends, and when they talk about music, I say, "Play hip-hop. Play whatever makes you happy." And right now obviously hip hop makes a lot of people happy. There's a lot of heavier gangsta rap stuff that I think a lot of it that comes out of Houston isn't done very well, but stuff like Devin the Dude is really innovative, fun, cool stuff.

So what's next for your band?
What we'll need to do in order to continue to build a following. Continue to play in front of people who have never heard of us. Get on the radio. I can't see why the Buzz wouldn't play "If and When," "Looking Beyond," or "Anything Is Real." They don't have choruses that just repeat and repeat and repeat, but I think all three of those songs would appeal to appeal to that audience. But what do I know? I'm not a member of Clear Channel. I would like to get the record to Little Steven's Underground Garage. I think he would appreciate it. He's from the E Street Band; that's a great show. That's the best show on commercial radio, in my opinion, that plays rock. If you want to hear rock, it would be the best show. He always plays the Ramones. He played something the other night called Tegan and Sara, and I couldn't get the song out of my head.

I think you can do something for the Houston music scene that hasn't gotten done otherwise.
Houston is a city where the opportunity to do something with music is great. So I do what I have the opportunity to do. The scene in '91 was great here. There was nothing wrong with Houston. We had a great scene -- not to say that when my band and Sprawl broke up, there was nothing. But it was really a bad time. The last ten years have been kinda bad. In Houston, there's always been good bands. There's always been shows. And now more than ever there's more venues now, more interest. Ian Varley does his roundtable at the Volcano on Tuesday nights. It's just a music gathering of people in the music scene. If anything, I feel like I can help the scene a little bit just by really trying and maybe expressing to the scene that man, everyone needs to put in a little bit more. And I think that that's happening. In the last couple of years, it has grown. Bands are getting better. I don't know what I'm saying; I just do what I feel I'm good at, and we jump around and sing it.

Michael Haaga pic #5 At your show the other night, it seemed like every band that didn't have a show of their own was there watching yours.
There definitely were a lot of musicians there. I've been playing around town for a long time. I'm fortunate that they are there; I'm fortunate that I know a lot of those people. I saw a lot of good folks that I haven't seen in a while -- I think for the first time since we started playing, the word got out. I'd like to start playing in front of crowds that have no idea who we are. There's so many elements. You have to have a good performance; or maybe you don't. You have to have a good record. You have to have ways to let lots of people know that this stuff is out there, and I'm touching on elements of all of those things. The Shins are one of my favorite bands of the last couple of years, and I saw them three or four times and didn't think they were very good. But because I loved the record so much, I loved every minute of it. Then I saw the live taping of Austin City Limits, and they were fantastic. So I think in about two years, if we continue to do what we're doing and refine our show, it's a matter of growing things. It's how everything happens. There might be a few bands who do one show and then they're on MTV.

Is that what you want? To be on MTV?
I'd like to be on David Letterman. I've always liked Paul Schaeffer. I've always thought he was on the cusp of good music, and I think that the things that I'd like to do honestly are that I think I could do the Letterman thing and I want to tour Europe with this.

[At this moment, a priest walked across the street as we crossed in the other direction. And as I snapped photos of this dangerous encounter, I said]

So a priest and a rock star are crossing the street, and one of them says to the other...
"Which one of us is going to hell?" END


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