Interview: Mike Midlo of Pancake Breakfast

It was a decade ago that a singer-songwriter by the name of Mike Midlo cooked up his “wild west circus of a band” that he dubbed Pancake Breakfast. They were, for a while, the best ticket in town, storming small and large venues with a stomping, hollering roots-pop sound tempered with moments of hushed beauty and romantic yearning.

The band kept a-going until 2013 when its members went off to other endeavors and Midlo found himself in the quiet, very quiet region of Wallowa County, scratching out a humble existence.

“There isn’t a movie theater or shopping mall or stoplight in the whole of the county. It’s a rural spot,” he says. “End of the road. We live in a little farm house on the slope of a mountain surrounded by hundreds of acres of wheat fields. It’s real nice. Except this winter. It was brutal. Never ending snow. Way below zero for days and weeks in a row. Our water comes trickling from a spring way up the mountain. It froze, and we lost water for 44 days and 44 nights in a row. ¡44! No water in the house. Oof. With the thaw, it’s back now and I’ve never delighted so much in hearing the sound of a toilet refilling itself.”

In that time, Midlo also started recording some songs that existed during his days working with Pancake Breakfast, but that never made it onto any of the group’s previous records and releasing under the name Juicy Fruit. And, with the help of his family and some willing locals, he cooked up some videos for each one! They’re just as laid back and as joyful as the music they accompany and look like they were a hell of a lot of fun to make. Have a look at each one right here and then scroll further to read a little interview we did with Mr. Midlo about wrapping up the Pancake Breakfast experiment, his continued recordings under the name MidLo, and putting together these spirited, colorful little clips.

Besides being hunkered down in Wallowa County and snowed in for days, what spurred you on toward getting these final Pancake Breakfast songs recorded? To put the period on the end of that sentence?

Pancake Breakfast started around 2007 in a barn, in White Salmon, Washington. It was a recording project. Just for me. But then friends heard the songs and started tugging on my sleeve, “Midlo! You need to play in Portland.” So, I did. And before I knew it, Pancake Breakfast became a band. A big western circus of a band. Within a year we played Pickathon and Doug Fir and Mississippi Studios and so many shows. I just about choked on my chew. It was one of the sweetest little chapters of my life.

After a good long run, the band retired in 2013. Everyone went on to create incredible music, and children, and arts of their own. They’re my favorite people. Since moving to Wallowa County, I’ve mostly been playing for the dogs and field mice. They’re a good audience. But you know what? This winter was hard. So hard. I looked back and found some Pancake Breakfast songs that never made it on a record or to the live set. I forgot all about them! So I recorded them up to take the chill off. Sort of like doing jumping jacks.

What I think these three songs demonstrate is that there was never a sense of urgency or interest in “making it” with your work. Is that essential for you to be able to make music? To do it on your own schedule and at your own pace?

That’s a good instinct. Here’s the thing. When you put a dollar sign to your art, it changes it. There’s an important and significant difference between making art and creating craft. Craftsfolk make stuff to please other people; be it a beautiful wood table, or a hand woven woolen rug, or a pretty dress. These people make the working things in our life, beautiful. But they create to please others. It’s to make money. An artist makes stuff as a reaction to or reflection of their world. To please themselves. And if it resonates with other folks, that’s a gift. But you can’t want people to like it or buy it, or you’re in trouble. We all know that little kids make the coolest art. It’s before anyone tells them that they’re singing too loud, or that they’re dancing too funny, or that a horse doesn’t have 6 legs. I try to channel the 4 year old with everything I do. If it makes me laugh, or weep, or dance, or jump up and down, then it’s good. I’ve been lucky that sometimes, my songs connect with strangers.

Was it an easy process to come up with ideas for each of the videos?

I made-up the videos during my everyday sunrise walks with the dogs. My favorite part of the day. It’s 80 acres of stubblefield and ponderosa pine we live on. Valuable time to think, sip coffee, and commune with the world waking up.

Music videos are a good way to spread music about the internets, but they’re tough on the musician and music fan. And here’s why: We all listen to songs and create a visual narrative in our heads based on our experiences. You know what I’m talking about. And then this filmmaker comes along and tells you what to think about a song through their lens of interpretation. Sometimes it makes for a more fulfilling experience. Sometimes, it sorta ruins it. There are a hand full of Pancake Breakfast music videos and we’ve been lucky to have talented filmmakers cast their vision on songs. For that, I’m grateful.

This time, I made them. Out of desperation for something to do this winter. I wrangled 23 Wallowa County locals. ¡23! That’s more than all your fingers and toes put together. One lady made a cake, someone volunteered to made a pony ride sign, people drew stuff and dressed up and brought props. A friend fired up his 1927 Model A pickup from a deep winter’s sleep in the shed. Friends 12 years old to 72 pitched in. It was all good clean fun.

What have you been doing in the years since we last heard from you? What is your life like up in Wallowa County?

I moved to Wallowa County back in 2013. It’s way up in Northeast Oregon. Rural. There isn’t a stoplight or movie theater or shopping mall in the whole county. Cattle outnumber people 3 to 1. But it’s a nice place to live with good neighbors and pretty mountains. For a bunch of white people, there’s a surprising amount of diversity.

You say that there’s new MidLo music on the horizon…what can you tell us about those new tunes?

The first MidLo record was released in 2013 on Curly Cassettes. It was darker and woodsier than the Pancake Breakfast songs. Then, I moved out here with this notion to make a super happy dancy prancy rock record. Something you can wash dishes to. But you know what? Your art becomes a reflection of and reaction to your surroundings. I ended up writing a pile of songs about blue skies and irrigation lines and buckaroos. Because that’s what my life is now. Heck, I drive past a herd of bison on my way to work every day! A few of these songs might work in the greater world. We’ll see. Dogs seem to like ’em. And that’s reward enough.

What comes next for you then? Do you have any grand plans to tour or play more shows or anything exciting like that?

I’m opening for The Builders and the Butchers in Astoria at Fort George Brewery on May 5. That’ll be fun. I’ll probably play a bunch of the new cowpoke songs for that show,. Some old Pancake Breakfast numbers too. Yup, that’s exactly what I’ll do. Other than that, anyone can see me play on my back porch most any cocktail hour. We’re just outside of Enterprise, a couple miles past the fish hatchery, on the eastern slope of Ruby Peak. Dogs and kids welcome.