If you've been much of a San Diego scenester over the past 20 years, you've likely encountered Mike Stax. With his skin-tight pants, chelsea boots and long blonde hair, Stax looks like someone straight out of a 1967 psychedelic film.
Though he's been a mainstay in San Diego clubs with a succession of bands, these days Stax is best known for his encyclopedic magazine, Ugly Things. At more than 200 pages per issue, the other U-T has become mandatory reading for discerning music fans worldwide. Not even the U.K.'s highly-revered Mojo-the nearest rival-comes close to Ugly Things' depth of coverage.
Interviewed at his home in North Park a few days after returning from a festival in Leon, Spain, where his band the Loons was greeted by 1,500 rabid fans, Stax reflected on two decades of making and writing about music in San Diego.
Born in Watford, England in 1962, he arrived here in 1980, one of the first in our modern-day scene to move here for the for the purpose of joining a band-in this case, the legendary Crawdaddys.
“I first heard [the Crawdaddys] on John Peel's radio show. I think it was ‘Oh Baby Doll' off the first album, this would have been late 1979,” Stax recalls, his obsessive attention to record details already showing itself. “It knocked me out because it sounded like the early Stones or Yardbirds. I immediately went out to track down the album and wrote them a fan letter. I explained that I played bass and was in a band... and they wrote back and said, ‘Well, our bass player's leaving-why don't you come over here and join our group.' I was just getting out of high school then and I was kind of delaying the possibility of going to college or anything like that.
“Obviously I really like it here,” he says of his choice to move. “The main thing was, I got on really well with [the Crawdaddys]. Just even playing to 30 people at the Zebra club was a blast-it was beyond anything I'd ever been in.”
By 1983 Stax had moved on, forming his next group, the Tell Tale Hearts, as well as starting Ugly Things. The Hearts managed to capture the imagination of Southern California youth, even turning up in the pages of People magazine, but folded a few years later. They were followed in quick succession by the Barons, then a second lineup of the Hearts and R&B favorites the Hoods. Stax finally landed on his current group, the Loons. All the while, Ugly Things grew in size and stature.
“I didn't [have any idea Ugly Things would do so well],” he says. “I didn't have a business plan where it would grow by a certain amount each year. But it just did, and somehow, it's never really leveled off.”
The focus of Ugly Things is primarily obscure '60s groups-bands that music geeks loved but, for some reason or another, were never chosen for mainstream coronation.
“It's bands that we don't think got enough attention, but we also cover some pre-'50s stuff and some '70s and early '80s things, too,” he says. “Basically, we're telling the story of bands that made amazing records, but you could never read anything about them. There's a million stories about the Beatles and the Stones, but try finding something on the Music Machine.”
The current issue of Ugly Things is on stands now; the next edition drops in early March. Stax also mentions the new album by the Loons-produced by Rocket from the Crypt frontman John Reis-which will be out by next summer. Stax is also writing a screenplay about a band called the Misunderstood.
With the magazine taking so much of his time these days, Stax will, sooner or later, have an identity crisis: musician or writer?
“I like playing, but if I ever get to the point where I'm some old guy...”
“Sometimes you see these old guys on stage trying to jump around like they're 25 years old, and it's sad.”
“If I ever get to that point, just tap me on the shoulder and tell me, “It's time, you're a writer now,'” he laughs. “But, I think you can keep doing the music and still maintain your dignity.”
Stax has also become highly sought after for album liner notes, with more than 40 albums to his credit, including several Rhino box sets and both the Pretty Things and Downliner's Sect re-issue series. Notably for local club-goers, Stax and his wife Anya host “Hipsters,” the bi-monthly night held at The Ken Club. As for the future of Ugly Things itself, he says, “Sky's the limit really, but I've got to be realistic.
“I don't mind having advertisers like Toyota or whatever, but I don't want to have to do a cover story on the Strokes,” he laughs. “That's kind of where the delineation is. I want to keep it pure to what I love.”