Biros, paper bags, comedy and music: Northern Soul chats to Mik Artistik
Some time around the mid-90s, the artist known as Mik Artistik went for a night out in Leeds with his brothers to a pub that was holding an open mic music night.
“There was this band on stage who were playing Honky Tonk Women and I thought ‘oh, that’s a bit tedious’, so I started to heckle them. I was singing Pretty Flamingo over the top from the back and then the crowd began to join in with me. The band were drowned out, so they just said, ‘why don’t you get up here and do something?’. I wasn’t sure what to do but I jumped up on stage, scratched my chin and did this lecture on the joys of pinball and smoking, just babbling away on stage for about ten minutes. I was thinking, ‘God, this is really weird. I think I’m having a breakdown. I’ll never be able to come in here again.’”
In fact, it turned out to be a pivotal moment for Mik. It led him towards a new life as a performer, initially doing a form of stand-up before forming his own band, Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip, who are now on the crest of a wave of popularity and about to release their ninth album. And all because, on that night in Leeds, his impromptu lecture went down unexpectedly well.
“When I stopped, everybody started cheering and clapping and they said, ‘where are you playing next?’. I said, ‘I’ve never played anywhere if my life’ and they went, ‘well, you’re a natural. Can you come back next week and do some more?’. So, I went back the following week and did a 20-minute version of How Much is That Doggie in the Window.”
Northern Soul had the great pleasure of seeing Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip play live at Festival No 6 in September, and it’s easy to see why they’ve built up a devoted following. It’s a memorable experience, and Mik makes for an extraordinary frontman: wired, charismatic, magnetic, simultaneously sinister, tender and extremely funny. It would be hard – foolish, even – to try to categorise exactly what it is they do, and it’s certainly not quite comedy.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a comedian,” Mik says. “I always thought I was sexier than that, but I’m not. I mean, really, it’s just me. When I was a kid, every night when we’d go to bed, I used to tell my brothers stories. They’d all be lying there in a big bedroom, four or five lads. I’d listen to them dropping off and I’d be telling stories about cowboys and princes and swords and little vans with straw in the back and snow. I just like stories. Sometimes they cross into sadness or they can be a bit strange and creepy or just really child-like.”
This uncategorizable approach hasn’t always made promoting his work easy, though. “When I was just starting the band, I had to do a poster and put down on it what we were. People’d say ‘well, what are you?’ and I’d say ‘I don’t know. We’re a band, you just have to come and see us’. But we’re not a band, we’re something else. Because I get off the stage and get people involved and stuff. It’s a kind of a free for all, you know – chaos. I just want to see what happens. On stage I’m a kid with loads of toys. I can play and that’s what I do. It isn’t about trying to be clever. I just want to scare myself and I want to scare everybody else.”
Mik’s life story has been pretty colourful. He was born Michael Gallagher in 1955 in Drumkeeran in County Leitrim, Ireland, the eldest of seven children. When he was just four, his family moved across to Armley in Leeds, a major culture shock-inducing shift from quiet, green countryside to noisy, modern city. His father was a multi-instrumentalist musician.
“He wanted us to play Irish music, but we didn’t want to. We just wanted to be in the Dave Clark Five or The Rolling Stones, so that upset him. But I did love music. I would listen to Stevie Wonder and Len Barry and all these different people. It was fascinating, growing up in the 60s when everything was kicking off creatively, so I just embraced it. I loved all the psychedelic art. There’d be, like, Frank Zappa albums and Jimi Hendrix albums, people would bring them into school and they looked amazing, these LP things. And we didn’t have record player, so this was something really luxurious.”
Young Mik also developed a great love of drawing, but always portraits of people rather than landscapes. After a spell doing a variety of uninspiring jobs, he went to study at Bradford School of Art, just as punk dawned. “I was just basically swept along with it. Suddenly you didn’t have to be rich to be interesting and be creative. It was like all the pillars were coming down. I really got into punk, I got into dressing up and going to see bands, Jonathan Richman or The Vibrators or whoever. It was always very visually stimulating, and I took a lot of that with me as I got older.”
On leaving college, Mik found himself on the dole for a few years, but the spur for everything he’s gone on to do since came in 1983 when he hit on the idea of doing private portraits around Leeds city centre using the most low-fi of materials. “I drew a friend of mine in biro and it just worked. I thought, ‘I can make a living now’, because I’d been really lost and then I’d found this key to survival. I thought, ‘I can do portraits on paper bags and sell them, pay my rent, get some money. These biros saved my life.’”
He felt that Mick Gallagher wasn’t the right moniker for the paper bag portrait game, though. “I thought ‘I need some kind of special name’. Like, if you go to working men’s club or whatever there’s the names of the acts outside, like ‘Shazam: Entertainment, Joy, Excitement’, or ‘Kevin Curtain: Magic Man’. I just thought ‘Mik Artistik’, with the ‘k’ on the end – that sounds nice and cheesy’. It just appealed to my sense of cheekiness. I thought ‘yeah, that’s not too highbrow, I can get in anywhere with that’. So, I used to just take my paper bags and my biros around clubs and pubs and shops and that, and just introduce myself, and say, ‘Hello, I’m Mik Artistik, would you like your own personal paper bag?’ – and then bag ’em.”
He spent the next 30 years becoming a local legend as the paper bag artist, an experience which proved to be quite an education. “Doing that, I heard a lot of stories and I learnt how to live in somebody’s space, because I’d meet all kinds of different characters. You’d walk in a door and it might be a judge, it might an alcoholic, could be a football fan, could be a little Goth, whatever. And I had to just make them at ease, live with them for 15 or 20 minutes while I drew them and tried not to spook them. I mean, normally I didn’t see myself as a particularly extroverted type. It just took having that public platform to bring out this courage. And creating that strange little job meant that I could create other strange little jobs.”
It was an eventful sort of period for Mik, encompassing a spell spent working on building sites (and a serious accident on one when he fell from the sixth floor), some travelling, taking a degree course in theology and enduring a major relationship break-up. In the wake of the latter, he made that fateful visit to the open mic night at a Leeds pub. Having got a taste for performance there, by the late 90s he was on the circuit doing a very idiosyncratic form of stand up.
“I started to go over to Manchester, to the Frog and Bucket [comedy club]. Johnny Vegas used to come along and watch us. He liked what I did, and Peter Kay was there around that time. But I never felt like a comedian. I just felt like somebody who was a bit lost. Basically, my comedy was a bit ‘shit or bust’, really. It was a bit Marmite. A lot of people weren’t sure what I was. I didn’t know what I was either.”
The peak of Mik’s stand up career was probably in 2001 when he appeared uncredited in an episode of Peter Kays’s sitcom Phoenix Nights as one of the guest acts when the social club puts on a night of alternative comedy under the banner of ‘The Funny Farm’. That’s Mik dancing a jaunty Irish jig while singing the words ‘There’s a lot of bitterness in my life’ over and over (owners of the Phoenix Nights Series One DVD are directed towards the deleted scenes, where Mik can be seen performing one of his established favourites from the time, a gentle poem about Oxo cubes).
Around 2004, with his stand-up career having stalled, Mik found himself ‘invading’ local open mic jazz nights – “I used to pop down there, get up and just try and mess with it” – which led to him collaborating with a couple of the jazz musicians, putting music to his stories and poems. In time, this evolved into Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip, with his current bandmates, guitarist Jonny Flockton and bassist Benson Walker, both of whom he’s evidently fond. “They’re just killer musicians. Jonny teaches music at Leeds College of Music and he plays classical guitar, bluegrass, jazz, experimental music. Ben sings, makes his own music, he’s got little studio projects and he writes. We’ve done nine albums and I still don’t know a G chord or anything. I’ve no idea, but they both look after me. I just kind of try and push stuff, and it’s fun.”
Over the years the band has developed an appreciative audience, not least through storming regular festival appearances. Several of their most recent tracks – Plastic Fox, David Bowie Was a Funny Man, Sweet Leaf of the North – have been gaining them new admirers too, and they’re currently playing a series of live dates, including Manchester’s Wonder Inn on October 27. Their forthcoming new album, Sound, is the first to be released on vinyl, which for Mik squares the circle from the days when he pored over his classmates’ LPs. “We’re excited about having a big substantial piece of plastic to give the public. It feels like we’ve qualified now. We were just pretenders before, we were just chancers, but now we’ve joined the echelons of, y’know, Deep Purple and The Grumbleweeds and all that.”
For Mik, recording and playing live are all just part of the creative process. “It’s just interesting to be standing in a room and trying to create something magical and quirky. I spent years drawing portraits of people on paper bags and I got a buzz from that. I get a buzz from picking up a paint brush. I get a buzz from sitting in a room writing, getting a title for something and scribbling bits of ideas down for a song. The band’s been a steady burn for the last couple of years, really. I’ve watched more and more people coming on board and there’s some really interesting new people there in the audiences. They’re there to watch the show, so obviously we’re doing good. Yeah, I’m very happy right now. I’m feeling really giddy. It’s a ball.”
Mik Artistik’s Ego Trip play Manchester’s Wonder Inn on October 27, 2017 For more information, or to book tickets, click here.
Other forthcoming dates include Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle and Leeds.
To watch the short 2011 documentary Who is Mik Artistik? click here.
To preorder the band’s new album, Sound, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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