The first time Mike Wilson moved to Kokomo in 2008, he came to join a band.
He played bass for In The Face Of War for the band’s last three years, touring with the band and eventually moving to Indianapolis.
Wilson explained that he joined the hardcore music group after their bassist left. It also wouldn’t be the last time he would join a band after losing a member.
In total, Wilson predicts, he’s been in 10 to 15 bands. Often, he added, he joins bands because they need to fill a spot and know he’s always happy to play live music.
Currently, Wilson is in two groups. He plays ukulele bass in the horror-based folk punk band Harley Poe and guitar in the Grateful Dead tribute band United States Blue Band. He also plays occasionally at Northview Church, alternating between guitar and bass.
Getting into music
“From my belly, I was constantly listening to the Beatles,” Wilson said.
He attributes his appreciation for classic rock bands, such as The Doors and The Rolling Stones, to his mother and stepfather. They also played a lot of The Beatles when he stayed with them.
When Wilson spent time with his father, however, the music was a little heavier. Bands like Guns and Roses, Led Zeppelin and Metallica were commonplace.
His father was also an influence on Wilson’s appreciation for live music. He played with cover bands in the 1980s.
During this time, Wilson explained, cover bands had a higher status than they do today; They were able to join musicians’ unions and go on chartered tours playing in bars or hotels across the country.
“From the ’70s to the early ’90s, every hotel had a bar, and most bars had music seven nights a week,” Wilson said. He remembers going to band rehearsals with his father and going to weekend shows as a kid.
Technically, says Wilson, the first instrument he chose was the piano. He was 8 at the time and thought the instrument was boring.
The grunge and hard rock scene that found popularity on radio, such as Nirvana, caught his interest. Wilson played his father’s guitar until he finally got his own, a cheap $100 Washburn Lyon.
He learned to play bass after the bassist in one of his bands left. Rather than look for a new bassist, Wilson decided to move on from guitar. Going from six strings to four, he said, was relatively simple.
There isn’t one instrument in particular that Wilson feels most comfortable on. He prefers to adapt to the needs of the one he plays with.
“I would never settle for having a shitty bass player just because I want to play guitar,” Wilson said. “If I knew I’d do better on bass, I’d just play bass and vice versa.”
When In The Face Of War broke up, he returned to Kokomo to work for Weber Speakers. He had recently purchased a collection of 300 classic rock vinyl records when he was fired at the loudspeaker store.
After signing a lease for a new apartment, he decided to sell the records online to continue making money.
Weber Speakers rehired Wilson for a time, but he continued to sell records. After a while, the idea of opening a shop didn’t seem too outlandish to me.
He opened the first American Dream Hi-Fi location in 2014. The store was supported by Wilson’s friends and it was able to expand after about a year. The store was in Indian Heights Plaza on Center Road.
“We started with literally nothing,” Wilson said. “But we were the only record store in town.”
The store moved to its downtown location, 109 E. Sycamore St., when the Downtown Association had a rent reduction program several years ago.
Naturally, classic rock records from bands like The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd do well in record stores. Surprisingly popular picks at Kokomo, Wilson learned, are Kiss and Alice Cooper. Ween is another Kokomo favorite.
The town also has a good amount of hippies who want to buy Phish and Grateful Dead records.
As for day-to-day records, however, Wilson said indie rock and hip-hop are doing well.
During recent renovations, Wilson decided to remove the CD display so they could install another bench and make room for more live music.
Owning a record store had not been Wilson’s dream. He said he was just meeting the needs of the community. Before opening the store, he visited other companies like Target and Meijer to ask if they planned to sell vinyl records. All the companies told him that seemed like too small a market.
Shortly after opening his record store, the market changed.
“Every one of those places that told me they weren’t going to go in there, went in there,” Wilson said. “We were a bit ahead of the curve for a small town.”
The store hosted frequent movie nights and hosted live music. Although Wilson’s involvement with several bands takes up much of his time, he has said he plans to start hosting gigs at the record store again.
He tries to book monthly shows. Often, he said, American Dream Hi-Fi is the only venue that allows people under 21 to perform or attend. However, he thinks it might be time for another venue to resume service.
Going to Marion’s high school, Wilson said there was only one place open to young people.
“It was the only thing for me to do other than run around the streets and cause trouble,” Wilson said. “When we started this, I thought I would kind of like to give back that way. What helped me in high school, maybe I could help other people.
Instead of having a particular favorite genre, Wilson said he goes through phases of deep interest in particular genres.
For example, he dove down the rabbit hole of 1950s Chicago blues during his forties.
“It’s a problem, because I’m not really up to date with new music like I should be as a record store owner,” Wilson said. “But I became a kind of historian. If I go into a genre, I want to know the origins of that genre.
His deep dives help him when clients ask for recommendations, however, Wilson noted.
USA blues band
The United States Blues Band plays mostly regional shows.
The group’s most visited locations are the Kokomo Alehouse, 1134 Home Ave., and Mousetrap, which is located at 5565 N. Keystone Ave. in Indianapolis.
“The Ale House is great, but it’s a seated, laid-back crowd,” Wilson said. “Our favorite place to play is the Mousetrap. We can do all our psychedelic lights and get a little crazy with improvisation.
Wilson’s favorite Grateful Dead set is the August 27, 1972 show in Veneta, Oregon.
“It’s just super creamy, super psychedelic,” Wilson said. “It’s just really good.”
Wilson said he first met Joe Whiteford, singer and face of Harley Poe, at the original location of American Dream Hi-Fi.
The former Harley Poe bassist played upright bass, Wilson explained. Rather than lugging around one of the big instruments, he found he could mimic the sound of a double bass by using flat strings on a bass ukulele.
Wilson said he brings two bass ukuleles on tour. Both have a preamp installed so it can connect directly to the room PA system.
Although the instruments are relatively inexpensive, he said, they are best suited to people sitting in a room with other ukulele players, lightly tapping the strings. Touring with Harley Poe, Wilson’s ukuleles are prone to being exposed to sweat or having debris lodged in the preamp.
“Halfway through the tour, one of these basses will fail on stage, die out completely,” Wilson said. When that happens, he just grabs his backup.
He also plays with a foot tambourine, to add a hi-hat effect that pairs well with the band’s snare or washboard player.
Wilson said both instruments are aesthetically fun.
The horror folk group released a new album, titled “Horrorful,” on April 1. The album, which explores various horror films, was partially recorded in American Dream Hi-Fi. The entire disc was recorded on Wilson’s cassette tape recorder, a Tascam 688.
Wilson explained that he had used a Tascam 388 when recording with a previous band. The recording equipment was popular among Fountain Square bands at the time and was used by a large number of popular artists. He sold the material after using it to record an album.
The price of recording equipment skyrocketed after famed indie rock musician Mac DeMarco spoke about using the equipment.
When Wilson started writing original songs later, he missed out on 388 but didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on equipment.
Instead, he opted for the 688, which is an updated model. When he showed the recordings in Whiteford, he learned that the Harley Poe frontman had been writing new music and was looking to record an album.
Harley Poe did a partial tour in May, following the album’s release. After taking the summer off, the group is looking to get back on the road from September.
After touring across the country, Wilson said there were no particular cities he enjoyed performing in more than others.
“You just saw the differences in everyone,” Wilson said. He explained that some cities are ready to party once they see people tuning their instruments while audiences in other cities seem listless at the most impressive performances.
That being said, he acknowledged that Canadian audiences tend to be “super nice and crazy.”
The Midwest shows, he said, are also different from other regions.
“Once you get to working class Chicago, they don’t give you anything,” Wilson said. “Playing a gig in Indiana is almost silent compared to playing a gig in LA or anywhere. It’s just weird.
“It’s just a symptom of the local culture,” Wilson said. He added that he still enjoys every show he performs.
As a final thought, Wilson said he would love to see more music created and performed at Kokomo.