Mikey Wheling's lo-tech sci-fi heartbreak trilogy

Nov 17, 2011 at 4:00 am

In spring 2011, Mikey Wehling's life sounded like a terrible blues song: His wife left him, his band broke up, and his only consolations were booze and a cassette four-track recorder. "Somebody told me you can't write a story that good because nobody would believe it," Wehling says. "It's pretty heavy. I know; I lived it."

Wehling is best known as a key member of Messy Jiverson, a recently defunct local improvisational funk outfit, which is a nice way of saying "jam band." In the present tense, Michael Wehling creates mid-fi home recordings under his own name. His latest release, Forests of Reverb, is the third EP in a series that has been in the works for the better half of a decade.

"I started dabbling with solo things when I was living in Portland, Oregon, in the early 2000s," Wehling says. "I was a part of a band up there called Rogue Motel who toured around and did the South by Southwest thing and made our indie alt-country record. But things had hit a wall in Portland, so I moved back to St. Louis to start playing with some high school friends, who had also relocated back to the city. That was sort of the genesis of Messy Jiverson."

Wehling's migration to St. Louis was initially successful. Messy Jiverson became a local fixture, was awarded "Best Jam Band" honors by the RFT in 2008 and began taking its jazz fusion dance parties on the road. All the while, Mikey Wehling continued to write solo material on the side with the support of the rest of the group. "I put out my first cassette, Reverbs of My Mind, in April 2010, and we sold them at our band's merch table on tour," Wehling says.

"We had been touring pretty hard for about a year and a half, so I kind of sporadically worked on the second EP [Galaxy Reverb], and it took a while to get that one done because we were so busy. By the time I wrapped it up in winter, my wife and I had separated, and I started to realize that Messy Jiverson wasn't going to last." Wehling left the band in February 2011. Messy Jiverson played one show without him before throwing in the sweat-soaked towel.

"I had reached a point where I was pretty low, so I basically had to start eliminating things in my life," Wehling explains. "I left Messy and that alleviated some stress. My wife and I got back together to see if we could work things through, but unfortunately the relationship had also hit the end of its run.

"Bands come and go. I love the music we made, and I was happy with it. Losing the relationship was the hard part."

Wehling found solace by creating Forests of Reverb. "Everything was written and recorded and mixed in the two or three months before me and my wife got divorced and she moved back to Texas. I poured myself into the record, and it was an incredibly therapeutic way to express what was going on around me because I had no control over anything."

Unfortunately, music alone could not combat his depression. "I was drinking very heavily to deal with all these different aspects," Wehling says. "I would wake up and start recording, go to whatever job I was working for a little while, come home, start drinking, start recording, drink until I couldn't function anymore, mixing or recording or whatever, pass out or black out, and then start over the next day. There are tapes from the sessions where I listen back and hear myself being far too intoxicated to execute my ideas."

By the time he finished recording, his marriage had officially ended, and he decided to get sober. "Getting clean was a wonderful thing," he says. "But it was a little too late to save some parts of my life. I quit drinking, and I lost the girl."

Mikey Wehling's crises can be heard in the bipolarity of Forests of Reverb's nine tracks. Opener "From Root to Fruit" comes off like a Daft Punk song reimagined as a cell-phone ringtone. Shades of Nick Drake's introspective folk inform "Darkest Time of Day," and the gorgeously layered "Barn Owl Bucolic" would not feel out of place on Sufjan Stevens' Michigan album. Somehow it all works together as a portal into Wehling's life as a musician and music lover.

"In Forests, there's hope for the future and positivity, but there's also this darkness and distance. I've always enjoyed records that go different places but stay under one envelope," Wehling says before nerding out over Led Zeppelin III.

"For me, it's like forcing my listener to come into my world. People listen to music on shuffle like 90 percent of the time, so weird shit always comes up when you don't expect it anyway. I think those juxtapositions come across in a lot of this music."

The most direct of these combinations comes from the organic use of acoustic guitar alongside synthetic, outdated preprogrammed drumbeats. "A lot of beats came off this Roland keyboard that a buddy of mine scored at a garage sale," Wehling explains. "It had these beats that I thought were interesting, that didn't sound like anything a person would realistically program. I'd record a loop onto a cassette and improvise something on top, and that would eventually become the composition."

"I'm a big fan of the idea that too many options is not a good thing," he says. "I think the best way to be as creative as you can is to limit your options. So by going and using a TASCAM cassette multitrack recorder, you instantly paint yourself into this corner where you have to figure out how to make the least amount of shit as interesting as possible."

Drum machines and cassettes would help develop his aesthetic, but Wehling's use of the vintage technologies came out of necessity: "I don't have a lot of money for fancy microphones or software, and I can't play drums very well at all." And all the cavernous echoes mentioned by name in Forests of Reverb and its predecessors Reverbs of My Mind and Galaxy Reverb? It's all part of a grand concept reverberating in the recesses of Wehling's brain.

"The idea came from imagining that all recorded sounds ceased to exist from our culture," Wehling explains of his hippie sci-fi back-story. "And the only sounds that still existed were the sound waves from music that had been made in the past that were traveling through outer space. So musicians became these people who were heading out into the universe to retrieve the reverberations of these sounds because they had become as valuable as oil or gold, and the only way you can experience music is to go out and catch it. Maybe at that point music would be something people needed to survive."

Once the astronaut musician in Wehling's Reverb saga leaves Earth's atmosphere, he begins to realize he is on a one-way trip, leaving his life — and his relationships — behind in pursuit of music. "You can probably draw the lines from all that, right?" Wehling says, laughing. "There is definitely an autobiographical theme through this science-fiction narrative. And I think the drum machines are kind of supposed to be an '80s interpretation of what the future sounds like."

Wehling's immediate future sounds much like his EPs amplified for the stage. For his return to live performance, he recruited keyboardist Chris Stevenson and his former Messy Jiverson bandmate, bassist Gavin Duffy. The trio makes its debut on Friday with local minimalist electro-drone act Ou Où, which is also releasing its new album.

After a year plagued with tragedy, Mikey Wehling is optimistic about his next phase. "I couldn't be more stoked," he says. "It was good to take a break, but I've been playing in bars and clubs since I was fifteen. It's what I do. I can't wait to get back."