Interview – Toehider
Sometimes I meet people who make me think that talent really is something you’re born with. Having been born with none myself, and developing none despite my best efforts, I’ve become comfortable in simply enjoying what others have to share. In the case of singer and song writer Mike Mills from Melbourne band Toehider, that’s an awful lot.
After meeting me at a pub that I honestly didn’t expect to be closed lunchtime Saturday, Mike patiently followed me to a noisy cafe where I could ask him some questions and still have a beer. I hope you can spend a short while with me getting to know a bit about a great and humble talent.
(((o))): Where does the name ‘Toehider’ come from?
Mike: It comes from the imagination of my daughter who was about four years old at the time and she would talk about this creature that would stare in through the windows and it would look from side to side (without moving its head), but she wasn’t scared of it. To me that was the thing, it was like some combination of bogey man with an imaginary friend. Even now I talk to her about it from time to time and she barely remembers, but that was his name – the Toehider. So then I wrote the song ‘Toehider’ and when it came time to put the band together and name the band, it just seemed a natural thing.
(((o))): How did Toehider start?
Mike: I think it started early 2009 when I put the first EP out (solo) and I sort of experimented with the idea of doing live gigs. Our guitar player Lachlan had sent me a video of himself playing one of the tracks off the first EP and said if you ever need a guitar player, let me know and he really nailed it, it was really amazing. He was in from very early on and I met Amy, the bass player who was in band ‘Cafe Medula’ and I was in this band ‘Template’ at the time. We used to do shows together and she’s a massive Queen fan too. She brought drummer Ricky along. I’ll have to say this bunch of guys is the easiest I’ve ever worked with. There’s no feuding, no arguing or personality clashes there. It’s all really easy-going, a total bunch of sweethearts.
(((o))): When did you start writing?
Mike: When I was about eight or nine years old. The first song I wrote was about a kid who was lonely and wanted to run away from home and all this (laughing), not because of any real desire to run away although who knows perhaps on some sort of subconscious level, it’s that separation between fiction and reality. I showed it to my Dad and he got really worried about me but it was just a song, I wanted to write songs about people and stories – something interesting. Then I guess I got more into the more serious side of things and I started to write about Egyptian mythology, which is still an interesting thing for me now. But I’ve been writing for as long as I’ve been playing really. It’s always been kind of my friends got into more of the playing side of things. They always wanted to be very proficient and versatile and that kind of thing, but I was always more interested in the creative side of writing lyrics and chord progression and arranging songs, so song writing was always the reason I wanted to be a musician.
(((o))): When did you realise you could sing?
Mike: I sort of worked into it. I’ve been playing in bands with my brother since I was about twelve and I guess I was the one who, because I was a bit younger, I was a lot less self-conscious about singing in front of a crowd. One of the first gigs we did, it was a party, and I sang ‘Enter Sandman’ and my voice hadn’t broken yet – I still had my squeaky kid voice and I remember people were just cracking up laughing at me and part of it was crushing me, but at the same time it kind of drove me to get better at it, like an ‘I’ll show you’ kind of thing.
I started getting a lot into Deep Purple and Iron Maiden and that kind of stuff and I was really wanting to have that high voice – the song ‘Child in Time’ by Deep Purple just blew me away when I was a kid. I used to just practice in my room. At this time I was still thirteen or fourteen and we were playing mainly in pubs doing AC/DC covers, so I was singing but I could never really quite get there. Then, in my late teens, when I was about eighteen or nineteen, I don’t know, something just seemed to open up.
(((o))): What’s your vocal range?
Mike: I don’t actually know, I can only talk relative to the guitar. I can sing from the open E string, but the highest note is, I think, the B just below that famous high C that breaks wine glasses.
(((o))): Your singing is really clear and you use the full range of notes. What are you aiming to do when you sing?
Mike: Well it’s good you brought that up because being understood is a huge thing. Being able to understand most of the words, because lyrics are very important to me, without (people having to have) the lyric sheet in front of them.
(((o))): In a lot of your songs, like ‘The Most Popular Girl in School’, you take the mundane, the everyday and make it epic. They are contemplative but specific or about incidents rather than metaphorical and general.
Mike: I get that sense from listening to a lot of folk and country stuff, where guys were just singing stories, singing about situations, I guess I’ve always been really drawn to that story teller mindset. I’ve never really been into lyrics that just deal with general emotions and talk in metaphors.
(((o))): The song ‘Fireside’, about your father, sits in an interesting way amongst the loud screaming rock songs. Is your Dad still around?
Mike: Yeah, yeah! When I play that song live I always dedicate it to my Dad and then I say he’s alive and well – he’s probably healthier than me.
(((o))): That’s a song I can relate to. Because you write about everyday life and everyday situations, do you get many people tell you that they can personally relate to a song?
Mike: Yeah absolutely, there’s another song on the new album ‘There’s a Ghost in the Lake’ which is about a woman’s request to not have a traditional funeral, and just be thrown back into nature to be with the soil and all that, and this guy emailed me and said ‘you pretty much described in a nutshell my Dad and his wife’ and went on to talk about his Dad and his life. His Dad wanted nothing lavish as a funeral, just wanted to be gone. That’s interesting because that song didn’t come from any direct experience of my own. In my mind the whole getting back to nature thing was not the main thing, but this guy saw something else. I think that whole thing of someone listening and interpreting a song in their own way is a very cool thing – very flattering.
(((o))): Where do you wish your music would take you?
Mike: It’s not something I really contemplate too much. A lot of people talk about the practicalities of ‘Is this what you want to do for a living, is this something you want to be making money from, do you want recognition, do you want this and that’ and I guess I haven’t thought seriously about it. I just want to write songs and it doesn’t go any further than that really. I want to connect with people, I want to entertain people and get people interested and get them thinking I suppose. And what we were talking about earlier about people contacting me and saying ‘this song really meant something’, like I had this guy saying to me that he listened to one of the albums – it was the biggest compliment I’ve ever had – he said that he sat back on his bed with headphones and that he listened to it and his whole perception of life and the world just changed, and I thought wow, to have that effect on people, it’s really amazing, humbling.
(((o))): Tell us about the 12 EPs in 12 months (Toehider released 12 EPs over 12 months, one on the 12th of each month)
Mike: I was in that band ‘Template’ and I had a bunch of songs that didn’t sit with what we were doing, which was like Mars Volta / Muse kind of stuff. I always wanted to do something a bit more humourous and funnier but the others were after a more serious sound. ‘Template’ sort of just dissolved and then I broke up with my girlfriend of many years and it all exploded from there. It focused me to actually get these things finished. When I set that goal of getting everything finished for release on the 12th of each month it really pushed me to stay focused and creative.
You can find Toehider‘s twelve EPs, sold in two compilations, plus their Album ‘To Hide Her’ at http://birdsrobe.bandcamp.com/
Tags: Birdsrobe, Gilbert Potts, Interviews, Toehider