Andy Robinson Interview (VetPsychWars, 2005)
Elton Duck Interview with Andy Robinson in 2005 – by Thomas Krueger
This interview in its entirety copyright © Thomas Krueger, and all persons
mentioned in the interview. Photos and audio clips copyright © Andy Robinson and Mike McFadden, used by permission – thanks Andy and Mike!
tjk: Thomas Krueger/VetPsychWars
ar: Andy Robinson
tjk: How did you get involved with music?
ar: My father owned an amusement machine business in San Diego; he stocked jukeboxes, and used to buy records that were on the top forty charts, and then bring them home to “audition” them before he put them out in his locations. I got to hear all the hits, and if I liked a particular song, he would give me the single. This was in the mid-to-late fifties, so I was hearing people like Marty Robbins, Gene Pitney, the Chipmunks— some great stuff, and some goofy novelty stuff. Those songs, and the themes for my favorite TV shows, are the first I things I remember singing.
I was probably in fourth grade when I tried learning violin. That didn’t really work! But when I was in Junior High and heard the Beatles, I knew I had to be a musician. My friends wanted to form a band, and a couple of them already knew a few chords on guitar, so I volunteered to learn drums, and we formed a garage band, played frat parties and church dances. Eventually I ended up playing with some older guys, who played the blues and psychedelic music. I moved to Los Angeles with a progressive rock band, in the mid-seventies. That was when punk and new wave music were starting to happen, so no one was very interested in prog rock. We broke up almost immediately; no one else in the band went on to play music after that, but I started auditioning with various bands right away, because I loved the new wave stuff.
tjk: How did Elton Duck come together?
ar: I was working for Studio Instrument Rentals. There was a guy I worked with named Dave, very reserved and quiet, and one day he told me the band he played bass in was looking for a new drummer. He never really told me what kind of music they played, and I couldn’t even picture him in a band, but I decided to go try out, just for the hell of it. They were rehearsing at the Masque, which was this bombed-out looking basement—it was like the catacombs or something—beneath an old theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. All these punks were skulking around; strange stuff was going on in the corners. I thought someone was going to set fire to the place any minute. And in the middle of all this, here were these guys from Phoenix, who could call themselves Elton Duck with completely straight faces—Mike McFadden and Mike Condello, both about the same size, which is to say, small! I remember when Micki started playing with us she hated being the tallest one onstage.
McFadden was balding and wore glasses—he looked very straight, except his T-shirt had big holes ripped in it. And Condello looked sort of like a miniature Marty Feldman, with these incredibly outdated mutton chop sideburns and a big black T-shirt he wore outside of his pants that was so long it was like a skirt. They had a Styrofoam cooler filled with Budweiser, and they handed me one right away. I set up my drums, and they played me a song, and I just couldn’t believe it. McFadden sounded like Van Morrison, and Condello was playing electric 12-string, so it sounded like the Byrds. When they sang together, it was sort of like the Everly Brothers, soulful and supercharged with energy. Condello’s voice was raspy—I’d never been in a band with a guy that sounded like that. They also had a bit of surf music influence, which I loved. The songs were full of hooks, some of them were funny (real dark humor). They were all about three minutes long, with real melodies—instantly singable. I absolutely loved the music.
It was the most unlikely-looking band, but it worked, mainly because McFadden’s songs were so damn good—some of ’em were heart-tugging. Once I was in, I tried to talk them into changing the name, but they looked at me like I was from Mars, so I let it drop, and eventually I got used to it. I finally came around to digging it—you could say it to people like you were just daring them to laugh—“Yeah, that’s right, that’s what I said—we’re Elton Duck!”
tjk: How did Michael come to join Elton Duck?
ar: When Dave turned 30 he decided to get serious about life or something like that, and he quit the band. My girlfriend at the time, Karen, worked at Tower Records in Westwood, and so did Micki, along with a bunch of our friends—Dan Navarro of Lowen and Navarro, and Mick Garris, who directs movies these days. Karen told me about Micki, how she’d been in the Runaways. She introduced us, and I think I invited Micki to our last show with Dave, so she could hear the band and decide whether or not she wanted to audition. We didn’t bother to audition anyone after Micki—it was unanimous—she was in. I think her first gig with us was opening a big concert for the Tubes, in San Diego—trial by fire!
From then on, we played at all the usual places in LA—mostly dives. At one of our better Troubadour shows Micki sang the Left Bank song, “Walk Away Renee.” I don’t think she was happy with her performance, but we thought she sounded great. Of course, we all had a crush on her, so basically, she could do no wrong! But she really did always sound good, and as a drummer I found it fun to play with her. She was a solid, tasteful player—never played a superfluous note—my favorite kind of musician. She used to rail about not being taken seriously as a player by the male musicians whose work she admired. That was a sore spot with her, understandably. She was in a lot of bands, had a few irons in the fire, so to speak—one was called Slow Children, and she also played with Toni and The Movers for a while. I went to one of their shows and they did this thing where they told the audience, “All right, we’re gonna get down now, we’re gonna get way down!” and then they all laid down on the stage while they played. Pretty funny, at the time.
Once we played in… I think it was a bowling alley bar or something? up in Modesto. We were staying with a friend of Mike Condello’s, who had a speedboat that we took out on a lake, and I remember Micki piloting it, and really digging it. I remember piloting it too, for a while, but I think I almost capsized us.
Somewhere in her post-Bangles days, after they’d disbanded, I remember bringing my electric dulcimer over to her place in West Hollywood, and playing on a few of her song ideas, because she wanted to start a new group, and I thought maybe I could be in it. I remember she had lots of animals. Several dogs mostly, that she’d rescued from the pound, I think.
I talked with her a while back. I work for Taylor Guitars these days, and Micki has one of our old acoustic basses, and one of our guitars, too. She really loves those instruments. She was looking for a road case for the bass, and saw that I worked for Taylor, so when she called up, she asked for me. She told me the Bangles were back together. I think they were about to tour Europe. It was the first time we’d spoken since Mike Condello’s death, so I filled her in on that. It was good to hear from her.
tjk: Have any amusing stories or fond memories of Michael?
ar: I remember one night we played at the Hong Kong Cafe. McFadden leaped up in the air to end a song and came down the wrong way and tore a ligament in his leg. He was lying on the stage, looking up at us and yelling, and we all thought he was joking around! We got him up and he played the rest of the set, though, and for a while we did gigs with him sitting in a chair with his leg out in front of him in a cast! Anyway, on that particular night, Doug Haywood had convinced Jackson Browne to come down and see us. After we played, I saw Jackson and Micki sitting at a table, seemingly engaged in a serious conversation. I thought, “Wow, Jackson is hitting on Micki,” and he was. But when I talked to her afterwards, I thought she’d be all flattered and excited, and instead, she was going, “Argh, I hate it when guys give you that silent, sensitive look, and don’t say anything—how am I supposed to react to that? What am I supposed to do?” It cracked me up.
Another time—this must have been when she was living at the Condello’s place—she was telling us about working with Prince, and about how all the Bangles were arguing over which one of them he liked best! Pretty cute.
tjk: Why did Michael decide to quit Elton Duck?
ar: When Elton Duck was signed to Arista, Micki decided not to sign with us. I’m sure it was a matter of intuition—something inside told her to hold back, so she did. Like I said, she was playing in other bands, too, and I think she was looking for the perfect fit—a situation that would satisfy her on all levels. We were hurt, of course, and we also couldn’t believe she was turning down a record deal with a major label, but that’s what she wanted to do, and obviously, it worked out pretty well for her! So she was a ‘hired gun’ for the recording sessions; she came in and played bass, and sang backgrounds on one song, called (ironically) Runaways. It’s hard to pick her voice out, though, because we layered so many vocal parts in the mix.
tjk: What happened to the album?
ar: Arista decided not to release it—more of a business decision than an artistic one, I think. Just one of those crummy music biz things that happen from time to time, but it definitely took its toll on the band. Our lawyer shopped for another deal, and Mike Condello did his best to keep us going—we tried rearranging songs to keep things fresh, and we played out a few times with an augmented band, with extra guitar players—it sounded pretty cool. We had one rehearsal with two drummers, which I thought was great, but the other guy didn’t go for it. At one point, Doug Haywood, who was Jackson Browne’s backup singer, played bass with us.
We put out a flexi-disc single, called “Christmas” and gave it to our fans, who were expecting a full album around that time. It was a darkly-funny song about being depressed at Christmas, and I guess it rang some bells, because McFadden had people from Phoenix calling him up to make sure he was ok. After that, we didn’t do much else. I’d been writing some of my own songs by then, and it didn’t look like we were ever going to do them. As much as I loved those guys, I wasn’t going to sit around and wait and do nothing. I don’t think we ever said it was over, but the next thing I remember, I had formed a band called Invisible Zoo, and was inviting the Duck guys to our first gig!
Elton Duck did one great reunion gig, at Club 88, with Mike McFadden’s then-girlfriend-now-wife, Katie, on bass. McFadden eventually formed a great new band called Public Display of Affection, but eventually he just hung it all up and retired from making music. I remember him saying, “No, the world doesn’t want this kind of music any more. I’m done!”
tjk: Mike Condello died young, but seems to have a great effect on a number of people. What are your recollections of Mike?
ar: Mike was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, funny in a very dark way. If humor is supposed to be the flip side of pain, then Mike was living proof. I had no idea he was suffering from clinical depression, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have known what it meant at the time. I don’t think most of us knew. He was very talented, and it meant a lot to me to have him in my band, the Questionaires, a few years after the Duck’s demise. He came to see Laura and I play at a coffeehouse out in the valley, and afterwards he asked if he could sit in on a few tunes next time, because he’d been learning mandolin. I was playing the dulcimer full-time by then, and Laura was playing fiddle.
Before I knew it, the three of us were working out songs, and recording an album at Mike’s place in Santa Monica. I would’ve loved to keep that group together. Mike’s attitude started to change, though—he seemed under a lot of stress, and he eventually told us he had to quit. He died at his own hand, probably within a year.
He had a great ear for harmony, and whatever he played always sounded like an arrangement, not just a bunch of notes—he wasn’t the flashiest guitarist I’ve ever known, but he knew instinctively what a song was supposed to sound like. He always got great sounds and played exactly the right parts. I miss him.
Micki stayed at Mike and Martha Condello’s place for a while, when she was just starting to play with the Bangles, I think. She and Mike and I worked out a one or two of my songs on acoustic guitars during this time, and joked about calling ourselves Peter, Paul and Andy.
tjk: What is Mike McFadden up to?
He married Katie, and they still live in the Los Angeles area; Mike works for the same company he’s worked for since I first met him, and they have a couple of sons who are both talented musicians. I heard some demo CDs his boys did a while ago—it’s metal—very different from their dad’s rock and roll!
tjk: What have you been doing since Elton Duck?
ar: I’ve played a ton of music! There’s information on all my bands at andyrobinsonmusic.com, along with pictures and sound clips. I’ve played a tremendous variety of music, from synthesizer pop to solo acoustic shows. In 2000 I relocated back to San Diego and began working for Taylor (i’m our media relations guy.) I married my long-time girlfriend, Dagmar, in 2001.
My most recent release is a solo instrumental CD, “Exotic America.” It’s the album I always wanted to make—a project that combines elements of everything I’ve ever done; it’s melodic and fun and interesting-sounding, and easy to get into, even though there are no lyrics. The reviews have been great, and I’ve been getting a lot of play on NPR stations. The San Diego Union Tribune picked it as one of the “Top Ten” debut CDs of 2004. My dulcimer player fans are flipping out, because it’s not like anything they’ve ever listened to before—there are all these electronics and drums and trippy voices and odd instruments!
I’m currently producing an album for my friend, Connie Allen. She’s a folk singer who also happens to play the dulcimer, and she’s written an album’s worth of songs about life in old San Diego. It’s a very different sort of project for me to be involved in. It’s been a lot of fun, and I’m learning a lot from the experience.
As I mentioned, I began writing my first songs on the dulcimer while playing drums in Elton Duck. (I’d picked up the dulcimer back in my psychedelic music days, after hearing a friend play one.) “Flame” is one of my first songs, written during that time. Of course, Mike McFadden was the main songwriter for Elton Duck, and it was really a fluke that we did “Flame”. I remember being really nervous playing “Flame” for those guys the first time—I think Mike and Mike were kind of skeptical of the idea that their drummer could write songs. But they did like the song, and we ended up doing it. The picture is of me and Michael, laying “Flame” at an Elton Duck show at the Troubadour, probably around 1980.
Hey, here’s a special deal for Bangles fans—a gift, if you’ve read this far! The first couple of people to buy “Exotic America” as a result of reading this interview will get a free copy of any of my other CDs (their choice). They’ll just need to send me a note via email when they order “Exotic America,” either at andyrobinsonmusic.com or CDBaby, and tell me which other CD they want.*
Also, in the future I’m going to be posting more Elton Duck sound clips on my site, so people might want to check in from time to time, and give a listen—it’s good music that you won’t hear anywhere else, and Michael plays bass on all of it.
tjk: Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with Michael and Elton Duck!
ar: Sure, no problem. I’m sure some fans are upset that Michael has left the Bangles, but all I have to say about that, is that she’s a woman who knows her mind. I wish her all the best in whatever she does, and I hope that all Bangles fans do, too.
* This offer may not still apply, a decade on. [RIShane]
Post-script: Seven years after this interview, the Elton Duck recordings were finally reissued for a small charity release, funded through Kickstarter and including the original Elton Duck album, two bonus tracks, and liner notes from Bud Scoppa and all surviving band members. Early copies came with autographs. Andy remains active in music and is also a keen improviser. He can also be found on Facebook. [RIShane]