The Conformists' Mike Benker: "I Will Do it With Gusto Two More Times. Be There or Miss the Boat Forever."
Since 1996, The Conformists has been making music that has confounded the brain and put terror into the heart. Full of kinetic odd-timing, a calculated exercise in repetition, and disjointed melody, its music remains challenging and fresh. Sure to make any fan of U.S. Maple or Shellac take notice, this quartet has spent years designing a plan to destroy rock n roll.
Now after three full-length records, six different drummers, several U.S. tours, and most recently a European tour, the band is about to put an end to another chapter. Having put in fifteen years as a Conformist, soon-to-be ex-lead singer Mike Benker will be retiring from the band. As a founding member and integral part of the band's driving force, Benker leaves behind drummer Patrick Bolan, bassist James Winkeler, and guitarist Chris Dee. In honor of Benker's stepping down and celebration of the fifteen year anniversary, the Conformists will be playing two "good-bye" shows this weekend. The first on Friday, the 18th at the Schlafly Tap Room and the second on Saturday, the 19th at Chicago's Quencher's Lounge. Both shows are free and open to the public - Spelling Bee and Airport Elementary School will also play the St. Louis show.
We talked to Benker about his experience in the band, why he's ready to move on and what advice he has for aspiring musicians ("Get in the basement and play your asses off.")
Josh Levi: How did the band begin?
Mike Benker: It is pretty standard stuff really. It was 1995. Everyone we listened to were making horrible records at the time. Chris and I decided it was time to play stuff that we would listen to. We got our act together in fall 1996. We each brought in a childhood friend and wrote some songs. We were young and didn't know hardly anyone in bands and we did everything wrong the first time. We were clueless and young. We played bass through guitar amps. We tried to record ourselves and failed a lot at first. We tried to get shows and begged people to let us play at absolutely horrendous places. We handed out shitty demos and handed out flyers at gas stations. We tried open mic nights. One time we played open mic night at Panama Red's on Locust and we put out fliers that read "See the Conformists tonight and EVERY Monday night at Panama Red's" They coincidentally stopped open mic night after our first one.
We had no place to practice and would jump around practicing at people's parents' house. Our equipment got stolen by our drummer's idiot brother. We played wild shows and had a great time. We played a high school in New Baden and absolutely destroyed.
We played the old Creepy Crawl like twice a month to 4 people at a time. We didn't care. We were having a blast.
When you initially started, what did you plan to establish/complete?
We have never asked each other what we want to sound like. Never. We all got together and this nasty rock music came out. When Tom joined he was a far superior drummer and he and Chris began messing around with song structure and off-time stuff. He helped make us solid and precise. We all evolved together.
Your lyrics are often abstract, yet personal. How do you approach writing lyrics?
In the early days we wrote songs to things that I had written and sometimes I found things that I wrote that fit the music. Then for a few years I faked it by singing nonsense along to the song until recording day and I made lyrics fit the nonsense. On None Hundred, I actually wrote specifically for the songs.
I sometimes have abstract ways to express something personal, too. Sometimes I reference things that only I will understand. I let people interpret them how they want to, though. If it means something really important to them, who am I to burst their bubble?
The band has been known for a wide array of pranks (shaving male pattern baldness into your hairline) and challenging performances (Airhorns at the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center). As you look back over fifteen years of live shows, what have been your favorite/craziest/most notable performances?
Not a Conformists' show per se but we played as the Mellowfeathers at an event called Outside the Box, which was held in the Lemp Brewery and we covered the floor with porn magazine pages and handed out firecrackers to the crowd. We played with many half stacks and we were loud as hell. That shit got out of control fast. It was smoky and my eyes were burning and I was slipping on glossy naked ladies. It was awesome. People were everywhere.
That time we played that basement show in Milwaukee -- you were there -- with Corbeta Corbata was awesome. It was super packed and the crowd acted as one large sea of sweaty energy and I was being pummeled on the back while attempting to hold back the people -- unsuccessfully -- from crashing into the amps.
We had a great show in Amherst at Jack Callahan's place in 2010. Another one of those wild, fun basement shows that you constantly hope to have. I feel sorry for bands that want to play in legit generic rock clubs all of the time. How boring.
As the Conformists have served as inspiration for countless of testosterone-fueled fans, what local bands inspired you growing up?
In high school, I saw Fragile Porcelain Mice a bunch of times. They were my idea of "big time" for a while.
I wish like hell that I would have seen the Dazzling Killmen. I love those guys but I am just slightly too young to have seen them.
I am not sure if we were inspired by local bands until much later. We were friends with a lot of bad bands who sounded like Korn.
I see all sorts of great, inspiring locals now. It took a while, though.
What do you see wrong with the current state of St. Louis music? How can the St. Louis music scene improve?
Stop referring to itself. Stop wondering what is wrong with it. Play music with your friends. Go see other bands play. Book great out of town bands to play with your band and your friends' bands. Don't bicker and squabble amongst yourselves. It's whiny and tired. Play at places where people might hate you. Play with bands that are different than you. Play at places that might only let you play once. Stop pestering your friends to see your band every week. Just promote the big shows to make them bigger. Talk to your friends about your favorite local bands or one that they may not have heard of.