Interview: Michael Pfohl (Secret Stuff)

secret stuff

On the stoop of 1237 Niagara Street, I had the immense pleasure of catching up with Secret Stuff’s frontman Michael Pfohl. Michael and I sat, drenched in our own sweat from a successful and unbearably muggy Buffalo night, and chatted about a wide variety of topics: details and background info on their upcoming split EP with Sundressed, moving on to newer topics with an upcoming full-length, the regional division and gentrification of Nashville (and its impact on the local music scenes) bar-backing, touring, taking trips to Reykjavik, and so much more!

Ouch That Hertz!: Alrighty, Michael, I first have to apologize/warn you in advance: all of my interviews are super informal and a bit unorthodox.

Michael: That’s the best way.

OTH: Yeah, it’s almost like a casual conversation, if you will.

Michael: Yeah! I don’t like to be grilled. <grins>

OTH!: Good because I don’t like touching uncooked meat in the first place.

Michael: Ahahaha! There you go!

OTH!: So, that was me trying to fill in some awkward space with… well, a bad joke.

Michael: Ahaha!

OTH!: Anyways, so… I know being a musician, especially one of your level and caliber- because Secret Stuff has made a pretty big name for itself-

Michael: Why, thank you! I appreciate that!

OTH!: -That’s a very time consuming occupation. Y’know, you said that you’re on day 18 of a 31-day tour; you’re back on the road later this year-

Michael: –Yeah, 2 and a half weeks after we get back home from this tour.

OTH!:  And, yeah, you’ve been on the road a lot this year already! But, aside from playing Magic the Gathering (as you mentioned onstage), what do you do? What’s your free time- your time away from Secret Stuff- like? Because you’re a person outside of this. 

Michael: Well, I work at a cocktail bar. And I don’t drink at all.

OTH!:  Oh!

Michael: So, that’s funny. But, that’s what our bassist also does. He also works at the cocktail bar with me. And we work really heavy shifts- really long shifts- to be able to afford to come out here and do this, and still be able to make money. Whenever I’m not doing that, I also run a tour booking company called More Than Me Touring.

OTH!: Oh, nice!

Michael: So, I book for, like, 9 other bands and us, too. And, tour booking is the worst- it’s the hardest part of the music industry. It’s bugging people the whole time.

OTH!: Yeah, it’s kind of Hellish

Michael:  Yeah, it’s really Hellish.

OTH!: You couldn’t pay me to do it.

Michael:  Yeah, I would not do it if people didn’t pay me the scraps that they do. 

OTH!: When did you start that up?

Michael:  I started doing that in January and we’ve got a bunch of really killer tours. Like, I just did Save Face and A Will Away’s tour, and Brightside has one coming up… A ton of cool stuff is coming up. But, what I feel that you’re asking me is ‘what do I do for fun’-

OTH!: -I mean, yeah, I guess you could lump that into fun.

Michael: Oh, it’s fun, it’s fun. But it’s also work.  I am super addicted to Civilizations V.

OTH!: Good!

Michael: It’s like, one of the only video games that I play. I played it for 3 hours in the car today.

OTH!: I’ve been on a Dark Souls run lately!

Michael: Uhhnn, it’s great! So, I do that to be over and in control of things. It’s kind of a way of exerting control. Like, whenever there’s a lot of uncertainty in your life or whatever, you can literally control the whole world there. And so, you can kind of sink in to it and decompress. Also, our band is really big Smash Bros. freaks.

OTH!: YEEEEEEESS! Brawl or Melee?

Michael:  Oh, Melee, if I have to pick between those two, but, honestly, Smash 4 is really great!

OTH!: I haven’t played Smash 4.

Michael:  Smash 4 is awesome. Seriously, Sammus, that’s my girl! 

OTH!: Sammus is amazing! The Metroid Series? Incredible. Prime: my favorite. 

Michael:  Oh, absolutely, it’s wonderful. And, uhm, other than that… I dunno. I mean, I guess, I just like hanging out. Whenever we’re home, I like to spend a lot of time with my girlfriend because she’s super cool and understanding. She tolerates me being away from home for so long and so often. And, so, whenever I’m home, it’s not like a chore or anything to spend time with her- it’s just what I love doing. So, we watch a lot of X-Files. We watch a fuck-ton of X-Files. Actually, on this tour, we just started watching Breaking Bad and it’s, like, the only thing I can think about.

OTH!: Oh, man!

Michael:  I haven’t seen it all the way through, so… yeah.

OTH!: Dude, it’s hands-down one of my favorite series. The whole duration is just… Dude, it’s incredible.

Michael: Yeah, it’s just amazing.  I’m on, like, episode 7 of Season 1 right now, so. 

OTH!: Yeeesss, you’re getting on to some good stuff. I won’t spoil it.

Michael: Definitely! Yeah, don’t haha.

OTH!:  So, if you don’t mind, I’m gonna jump a little bit to your music. Now, the genesis of Secret Stuff: I’m not terribly familiar with it.  But, if I remember right, I read somewhere that y’all met at Belmont University?

Michael:  Yes!

OTH!: What were your majors there? Like, music production or education or…?

Michael:  I was a music business and entrepreneurship major. Gonzer (our bassist) was also a music business major. I’m actually the only original member of Secret Stuff that’s left. We used to be a 5-piece. We started in January of 2013 on the day that my other band broke up. That band broke up and I was really pissed off, and I went to my buddy’s dorm to complain to him and I said, “Fuck it, I’m gonna start a solo project so I can go on tour on spring break.” And he’s like, “I’ll play guitar for you.” And then his roommate walked in and said, “Oh, I’ll play guitar for you!” And then I remembered that I also had some friends that had been wanting me to go front their band, and they happened to play drums and bass. And so, we were a 5-piece at that point! We did that for a little over a year and, uh… Well, once we decided to be a little more serious about this and actually pursue it, it became a lot harder to coordinate 5 people rather than 3. It’s also a lot harder to fit 5 people in a car vs. 3 people.

OTH!: Yeah, and, honestly, the less stuff that you have to lug, the better.

Michael:  Yeah. And, so that’s kind of the direction we took after looking at it logistically. We just wanted to make sure that everyone that was involved in it was really in it for the long haul.

OTH!: Right, right. So, I’m assuming that the other two that would’ve been here (had they stuck with it) just sort of gracefully removed themselves and exited Secret Stuff?

Michael:  Well, yeah, basically.  There wasn’t a huge falling out or anything. I went and DJ’d our old drummer’s wedding the other day because he just decided to go back to school and get married and stuff.

OTH!: Right, yeah, he started his own life and you’re just like, “Well, you’re not gonna have time for this and we’re all just gonna move along.”

Michael: Yeah, right, exactly!  Yeah, he was just like, “You guys deserve to have someone that will pursue it harder” and that’s totally cool with me, y’know?

OTH!: For sure!

Michael:  So, yeah, but it’s great! Our bassist, Gonzer… Alex, and I met in my freshman year and we’ve been friends ever since and we lived together. And, y’know, when our old bassist left, [Alex] said, “I’ll play for you,” and I was like, “I hadn’t even considered that but that’s great! That makes so much sense!” Here he is, right in front of me the whole time. We lived together, we play music together, so… Why not do it? And it’s been great. He’s definitely the most consistent member that Secret Stuff has had that I can rely on. And then Daniel, our drummer, actually is from North Carolina.

OTH!: Oh, woah.

Michael: And he plays in a band called Pictures of Vernon

OTH!: Oh, WOAH! WOAH, I know Pictures of Vernon VERY well. Holy crap!

Michael: Yeah, they’re very cool. I book for them, as well.

OTH!: Oh, nice, dude!

Michael: And, so, he plays with them and he plays with us.

OTH!: So, he still lives in North Carolina? He just makes that commute?

Michael:  Yeah, he makes that commute whenever he needs to. We don’t play too many local shows now and if there’s ever a time that he can’t do it, then we ask someone to fill in.

OTH!: What about practices- how do those go?

Michael: We basically practice, like, the day before we leave for tour.

OTH!: …Wow.

Michael: Yeah, that’s it.

OTH!: And you just spend a whole intensive day on it?

Michael:  Well, we’d go through the set once.

OTH!: Jesus Fucking Christ, are you kidding me?

Michael: No.

OTH!: What I heard in there was LITERALLY the same as the EP.

Michael:  Well, that’s off of 17 days of straight playing it.

OTH!: Okay, yeah, but, y’know, 17 days straight or not, not everybody can actually hit everything as dead-on as you guys did.

Michael: Well, thank you!

OTH!: In fact, if I had to describe your performance tonight, the only word that comes to my mind is “authenticity.” 

Michael: Hell yeah, that’s a really good word, thank you!

OTH!: And how, out of everybody I heard in the room tonight… y’know Small House Fires is literally playing right now. And I’m digging what I’m hearing and seeing from them a lot. But, collectively, your performance was the most authentic performance of the night. It was the defining line that sold me on your performance- y’know, you’re not just a studio band. I can tell that you put the time and the raw emotion into it.

Michael: Yeah, and that’s something that we really wanted to do on our record, too.  We don’t wanna put stuff in that is gonna dramatically change the way that it sounds live. Like, there’s some stuff on our record that we can’t do live because we don’t have two guitars, but it’s super low in the mix and it’s not something that’s prominent. It’s just to kind of give you a feeling.  And that’s what I wanted and I kind of find other different ways to do that live. I use different pedals live than what we were using on the recording. 

OTH!: Yeah, I was looking at your current setup/array of everything and I thought, “Whoah, shit!” Have you considered getting a board, or no?

Michael: I have a board.

OTH!: Oh, shit, wow, I guess I didn’t see it. I think I must be blind. I’ve been saying I need new glasses for quite some time now. 

Michael: Ahahahaha. That’s probably dangerous, but, y’know ahaha. But, yeah, I’ve got the board. It’s filling up. I have room for probably five more and I’m just gonna get them.  That’s just the nature of my current addiction. 

OTH!: Now, I saw on your Facebook Page that you have an H9 that you were messing with?

Michael: Yeaaaaaaaahhh. Ohhhh yeahhhh!

OTH!: Woooaahh, that’s awesome!

Michael: I only used it once tonight because we didn’t play some of the other songs.  I got it, like, right before tour, so I only had time to mess around with it and get, like, 4 presets on it that I really liked.

OTH!: Yeah

Michael: But it’s insane.

OTH!: Yeah, I watched/listened to the video that you posted and all I could think was, ‘Woah. Dude!’

Michael: Yeah, it’s nuts. They’re such incredible pedals. And I hadn’t even really thought about getting one because they were so cost prohibitive. They’re so expensive.

OTH!: Oh, they’re WAY too expensive.

Michael: Yeah. But my buddy was selling one for REALLY cheap, so I was like, “Sure!”

OTH!: Oh, that’s perfect. Second hand market is a lifesaver.

Michael: Oh, yeah. I never buy new gear. Ever.

OTH!: Yeah, just…  Just don’t. But, anyways, since we should probably be talking about your music, I’d like to give note/touch base on something- specifically, your latest EP. This Is Fine marked a very important milestone for you and within the career of Secret Stuff. Before it, with your release Learning Not to Care, you were making some… And I mean this in no disrespect, because I love my emo-twinkly daddies bullshit, but you definitely were makin’ some serious emo/twinkly daddies music.

Michael: –Haha, that it was. It really was!

OTH!: You weren’t out to reinvent the wheel or anything within the genre of emo music or its revival-

Michael: –Yeah, absolutely!-

OTH!: -but This Is Fine was a major step up in your technicality and musicianship- it really brought you buys out of the woodwork.

Michael: We wrote and recorded that EP in 6 days. We wrote every one of those songs in 6 days.

OTH!: Damn! Because the dynamicism within that EP is just insane!

Michael: – And the.. Thank you! We started the band and we played our first show two weeks after that

OTH!: Holy shit.

Michael: And we wrote every song that’s on the first EP in that two weeks in just 6 days. And then we put out the EP like a month after that so we just kind of went at it. We were like, “We’re a band, we’re gonna record, and we’re gonna get something out because we don’t wnana be like that band that does something and then never records it and never puts it out.” But it was weird because I never really… At that point I was really into… I suppose you’d say alternative rock. Darker themes, y’know? Like, uh, Brand New… Shit like that. I hadn’t really listened to revival bands or anything like that, which, now, I love. I love them. But, it was weird because I go back and I listen to it and I’m like, “It sounds like I just listened to a lot of, like, Algernon and You Blew It!” Which I do [listen to them] now, but I didn’t then. So, it’s kind of funny.

OTH!: That’s really funny!

Michael:  Yeah. 

OTH!: That’s fucking brilliant, though.  You unintentionally made an emo revival album.

Michael: Yeah!

OTH!:  Yeah, but that… I can’t get over the dynamicism of both EPs. I loved it. And, especially when I listened to This Is Fine, I realized that I had to have it. I bought it the second that the last track closed. And here I am, about to pick up my vinyl copy from you in a minute!  But, I have to ask: the first track, “I Knew You So Briefly, You Dead Soap Dog,”- I take it you’re a major Bob’s Burgers fan?

Michael: Oh, yeah. Definitely. I’m also just all about naming songs stupid shit.

OTH!: I noticed. What was the title of that new song that you opened with tonight- something to the effect of touching hands for wanton reasons?

Michael: “You Made Me Touch Your Hands For Stupid Reasons?”

OTH!: YES!

Michael: Yeah, that’s off of a fucking, like, 2006 YouTube video. Dramatic Reading of a Breakup Letter.

OTH!: Hahaha, whaaat? That’s amazing! Like, what a throwback. I remember that so clearly now!

Michael: We were actually gonna end the first EP with a sample that was, “Well, bye, you piece of shit!”

OTH!: HAH!

Michael: But we just didn’t.  We forgot.

OTH!: Awww, man!

Michael:  Well, we were like, “Well, maybe we’ll take this a little more seriously.” So we just put “Eternal Sunshine” in, which is also kind of goofy.

OTH!: Yeah, but it’s definitely good, though! So, you have a new split EP coming out and one of the new songs you played tonight is from that upcoming split. Now, I imagine, given the quality of musicality that you just demonstrated earlier in your natural performance, that what I heard tonight is going to be exactly on this split-

Michael: Yeah, pretty much!

OTH!: -with Sundressed, right?

Michael: Yupp, yupp.

OTH!: They’re… labelmates of yours, yeah? On Spartan?

Michael: Uhm… sort of. Yeah, this split is coming out on Spartan Records, but they actually put out a record on Take This To Heart Records. But, yeah, this split is coming out on Spartan, and they have a new full-length that is getting mixed and mastered right now. It’s incredible. And they’re gonna kind of see where it takes them

OTH!:  Sweet! But, I’m curious: how did you get in touch with these guys for the split on Spartan if you aren’t label-mates?

Michael: Basically, the internet. We just kind of met their singer, Trevor, over the internet, and, uh…

OTH!: And you basically asked him, “Wanna collab, bro?”

Michael:  Yeah! Kind of! Because it’s like… A lot of bands will put out splits with bands that are from their town or from their side of the country, and I knew that we wanted to do the West Coast. And that’s super scary. Like, the West Coast is a place that… Well, if you’re an East Coast band, going to the West Coast is just something that can literally kill you if you don’t plan right.  If you go out there and you don’t have a lot of money and your shows don’t do well, stuffed gets dropped, your van breaks down, you can end up in the desert and you could just fucking die. Or you could go there and all that could happen, and you might not die, but you could get super stressed out and get super pissed at your bandmates (who are your best friends) and it would ruin the band for you. So, we wanted to make sure that our first West Coast tour would be something really cool, and we thought that a way that we could prime that would be doing a split with a West Coast band and then going on tour with them. So, it was really cool because we got the ‘OK’ from John from Spartan. I heard back that that was an idea that he was cool with (and we were gonna proceed with it) right while I was driving to Baltimore to fly to Iceland to play over there. And that was so much fun!

OTH!:  You went to Iceland? What city were you in?

Michael: Reykjavik!

OTH!: Reykjavik is AMAZING, what the fuck?!

Michael:  It was so cool.  My girlfriend and I went there for vacation and my friend Finn-

OTH!: -What took you there? Just on a whim or?

Michael:  Well, plane tickets were very cheap and we were like, let’s go!

OTH!: Do you speak the native language?

Michael: Oh, no, no, no. Everyone there speaks English for the most part. We’re very privileged in the fact that most of the world speaks our f-ed up language. But, so, yeah, we went over there and I played a solo set with Cult Leader, who are incredible hardcore band-

OTH!: Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuude!-

Michael: And, uh… Oh, there’s lots of amazing Icelandic hardcore bands that played and it was NUTS! But, yeah, so I got the news like, right before then, so that was a good stretch of trip. It was so cool. Like, this is gonna be sweet and really cool, and we got the mixes back were listening to them and we got the word that it’s gonna be on vinyl again and that’s just, like, the best feeling.

OTH!:  That is SO awesome! So, are you guys gonna follow up at some point with a full-length?  Is that something that’s in the works?

Michael:  Yeah, yeah.  That’s the next step.  Absolutely. I think a full-length is definitely something that shows that you can have depth as a writer and it’s not just song, and song, and song, because…  I like all of our records, and I listen to my own music more than any other kind of music because I like what I make… Which is a little narcissistic to think, but if I didn’t like it, why would I make it?  And, so, basically, just doing a full-length is gonna be a challenge. We really wanna take our time with it and make sure that it’s something that has value and has meaning. And, uh, yeah, so we’re gonna do, like… probably gonna write 18 songs. We have 7 songs ready for it right now.

OTH!: Ooooo!

Michael:  And, uh, the second song- the second to last song that we played [tonight] is on it.  And we did 2 of the songs that are gonna be on the full length a couple days age. So, yeah, we’re gonna do that and then I think we’re gonna try to get 18 songs written and cut it down to the best 12. 

OTH!: And then go from there, eh?

Michael: Yeah.  That’s definitely something that’s gonna be coming out next year!

OTH!: Can you give me some ideas of the themes that you’re working with on this one?

Michael:  I don’t wanna write any songs about girls.

OTH!: Thank you.

Michael: I don’t wanna write any more songs about girls.

OTH!: I feel like I should shake your hand for being one of the first men in an emo band in a while that has explicitly stated that they don’t want to write any more songs about girls!

Michael:  I don’t wanna write any more songs that are like, “Oh, you’re my ex-girlfirend, you broke my heart” ya know? So, none of the songs on the record are about that. I’m really happily in a relationship and there’s other stuff.

OTH!:  Why dwell upon it?

Michael: Yes, exactly! There’s other stuff that I wanna touch on, so… I guess… My family is very important to me and I live 6 or 7 hours away from them, so, that distance is definitely going to be a topic in it. We recently got evicted from our house that we used to run.

OTH!: Oh, that sucks!

Michael: Yeah, yeah. And, uh, because Nashville is growing at an astounding rate and the gentrification is out of this fucking world.  And so that’s gonna be one of the themes and also just, like, little, like, relationship stuff. I’m living with my significant other for the first time in my life.

OTH!:  That’s a big step and experience!

Michael: Yeah, it’s a big step!

OTH!: For sure! And it’s at least worth documenting in some way.

Michael:  Definitely. So, one of the songs is about how my girlfriend and I were dating for over a year and we never said “I love you to each other” because we’re both just very stubborn people. And I knew that she loved me, and she knew that I loved her, but we just never said it. Just out of stubbornness because we wanted to be the first ones to… We wanted the other person to break first.

OTH!:  Ah, yeah.

Michael:  And I broke. Like the little dumbass that I am. I dropped her off at work and I said, “Bye, I love you.” And she heard it, and I knew that I had said it, so I just left.

OTH!: Heheee!

Michael:  And she texted me later and asked, “Did you say ‘I love you?’” And I’m like, “I don’t think so.” And, then, in bed later that night I confessed, “Yeah, I did.” So, there you go. Ya know?

OTH!: Yeah! That’s cute, though!

Michael:  Yeah.

OTH!:  That’s really cute!  And precious! So, uhm, I hate to jump topics, but I’d love to talk a bit about Nashville. Whenever I used to think of Nashville, I always thought- until I had visited there- that it was just full of country music. And that’s what I used to hear from most people, they’d always rant and rave about country music-

Michael: –Ugh. Yuck.-

OTH!: -And Sun Records-

Michael:  -Shoot me.

OTH!: -and everything like that. I’m sure there’s plenty of that sort of music that abounds in that area-

Michael: There’s two streets of it.

OTH!: Right. 

Michael: It’s Broadway and Second and that’s all country music. 

OTH!: But there’s a surprising amount of other genres around there. When I was visiting, I didn’t have a lot of time to…. I mean, we accidentally wound up in Pigeon Forge.

Michael:  OOOOOOHHH MY GOD.

OTH!: It was a terrible time. 

Michael:  That’s a very bad miscalculation.

OTH!: It was the worst trip of my life. But Nashville was fun. Pigeon Forge can sink for all I care. But, anyways, what’s the alternative and punk scene like in Nashville?

Michael: It’s really cool. There are a lot of really cool bands from Nashville, like Freethrow, Daisyhead, and Pocket Science. There are tons of really awesome bands.  And uh, it’s kind of weird. There’s kind of a split regionally. There’s east Nashville (which is where I live now). I used to live on the west side and that’s where all of our shows are and stuff.  And that was kind of where our scene was.  And East Nashville is kind of hipper and full of garage rock, and stuff like that.  And those bands are killing it in Nashville. Infinity Cat Records is killing it. So many big, big bands from that scene in Nashville. But the “scene” part of it- the “scene” punk bands- I would say are… I think the scene is just growing. And more bands are getting bigger and bigger, grabbing more recognition and more Nashville bands are touring. And it’s cool because it’s definitely not a “hotbed” area like, say, Philadelphia, Chicago, or Brooklyn.

OTH!:  Which is hysterical because, like, that’s… I mean, I know that Nashville is primarily considered a country music capital, but that is a music driven city. 

Michael: And that’s the thing, too, is that there’s tons of very, very good musicians, but despite that, it’s still really hard to find people who are willing to commit and will throw themselves at just one project, ya know?

OTH!: So, a lot like NYC.

Michael: Yeah, sort of!

OTH!:  Ever seen that shit where Lindsey Sterling was playing in a subway and nobody fucking knew it was her because there’s so many other talented street performers that are already there every day and people just assumed she was another one of them?

Michael:  Right, yeah, and Nashville is a place where there’s like 50 shows a night, and… It’s tough, but I love it.

OTH!:  That’s what counts, man, that’s what counts. Well, I hate to cut us here, but I’m sure you need to make it back.

Michael: Meh. Whatever. 

OTH!: Well, haha, okay. So, one last question I guess for you, mostly because I’m curious.  You said you don’t drink, but you’re a bartender.

Michael:  Nah, I’m a bar-back.  I’m a bartender’s little whipping boy.

OTH!:  Right, right. Have you ever made anything for somebody then?

Michael: Oh, yeah. I used to bartend at a BBQ restaurant and I used to pour beer for people and stuff. 

OTH!: Do you have a favorite drink that you’ve ever made or served to someone?

Michael:  I love serving Yazoo Hefeweisen. Which is a really nice beer.

OTH!: Oooo, yes, it definitely is!

Michael: With notes of banana and nuts in it. And it was really good to serve to those people who like it and I like giving people what they love.

OTH!: Anything else you want to add to this before I let you go?

Michael:  Thank you for having me. Thanks for doin’ the damn thing.

OTH!: No problem! Anytime! It’s literally my job!

You can stream and purchase Secret Stuff’s This Is Fine and pre-order their new split with Sundressed below!

Pre-order their split with Sundressed here!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s