This past Monday, 25-year-old Austin-based producer and rapper Eric Mikulak (better known by his stage name, Click-Clack) released his highly-anticipated full-length album Untitled. I had a chance to sit down with Mikulak and discuss the album, his progress as a musician, and the future of the hip hop scene in Austin.
Mikulak got his start in 6th grade, where his early endeavors were realized on a sampler and programmer.
“I would record my own vocals and trigger them on there. I think I still remember one of the songs I made was like…sounded like a Sprite ad or something. I was talking about sipping Sprite. I don’t think I really knew what that meant at the wee age of eleven, but yeah I think that’s when I started producing really. I had another friend and we would have sleepovers and make eight songs or something…fully orchestrate them, and memorize all the triggers and record different vocal samples on them…It was more of the classic electronic one-hit samples where I’d say something stupid and then trigger it in. I was more messing around at that point.”
At age thirteen, Mikulak’s mother got a MacIntosh computer, and he began experimenting with the digital audio workstation program GarageBand.
“My step brother showed me “Sippin on Some Sizzurp” in that same period of time which is probably why I was talking about Sprite on that one song. But I don’t think I started rapping until later, 9th grade or so. I think that was where I started making actual beats and was like, ‘Oh these are kind of good’ and would freestyle over them and put out projects back then.”
By 9th Grade, Mikulak was putting out his own CDs.
“I think the first one was probably thirteen or fourteen tracks. So it was all self-produced in GarageBand…and I hope that never surfaces because it was pretty horrible. I would sing a melody in the background instead of sampling, and then put a random drum sample down, and that was my beat. But yeah I definitely started and released a project in ninth grade…and sophomore year…and junior year of high school.”
Around that time Mikulak formed his band, Karmatron, along with Colter Lutz (drums), Patrick Mertens (lead guitar), Aaron Lemke (bass).
“We started out as just that four-piece with me rapping and those three and then Kai Roach joined the band, and he went to Austin High. [Roach] had played in a band with Patrick called Blues Mafia. And it was sort of their high school group, which sort of fell apart. Max Frost was also in Blues Mafia. It sort of formed out of Blues Mafia ending and them looking for something to do, and Colter and I wanting to start a band. We used to practice in the living room at my mom’s house. I think Karmatron was around for six months or so doing random shows. Then we had a break-up in classic Karmatron fashion and I focused on my solo stuff for a little while and I think that’s where Housework came to be.”
Housework and Beyond
Following the break-up of Karmatron, Mikulak sought to establish himself as a solo artist.
“I think I always liked being self-sustaining and being able to go start to finish on a song by myself in a night. Like, produce the song, write the lyrics, and record the lyrics. So I think I started out just doing that, and then before I knew it, I had like thirty songs that I was sitting on. I sort of just sifted through the BS and pulled out the better songs. I don’t think I ever went through any post-recording mixing or mastering on any of Housework. It was just sort of like all the raw recordings I thought were worth putting out there. But it was definitely in a Karmatron hiatus because I was like, ‘Let me show these guys what I can do by myself…’ But it’s all love.”
In February of 2012, Mikulak (under the name “Click-Clack” released a 14-track album, Housework.
“I think Housework is the first real release just because before that in 9th grade I was producing those beats in GarageBand which I never really considered to be pro quality. I started recording over other peoples’ beats and other instrumentals I could find online or on Kazaa or wherever. I started taking myself more seriously once I went to MediaTech [Institute-Austin] when I was seventeen years old and I learned how to use Reason, which is the software I currently use. It still took me a year or two after going through that program to feel confident that I was making pro-level beats, and I always thought that my rhymes were sort of up-to-par or better than my production was, but then I sort of caught up. Housework happened when I finally felt comfortable with my production and thought that I would be able to put it out there and not be looked at as some kind of joke or whatever. Because I feel like everyone puts out their first series of projects in hip hop and then it’s like ‘That never happened.’ I’d like to be able to go back and snap all those CDs in half and just watch the pretty glitter fall down from the sky…(laughs) but I don’t think I can do that. One day they’re going to resurface and end my career.”
The Road to Untitled
The self-produced Housework (2012) and Housework II (2013) demonstrated Mikulak’s lush sample-based production style and distinct lyrical delivery. The following release, The Click-Clack Mixtape featured Mikulak’s vocals on top of other producers’ instrumentals- a move that steered him towards his latest album, Untitled.
“The Click-Clack Mixtape was the first project since I had taken myself seriously where I actually purchased other people’s beats online and through a few people that I knew and released a project of entirely other people’s beats. Mostly unheard beats or not very well-known beats. [For Untitled] I went with the same concept: Initially I was going to do two separate projects: One of more of like an old school, classic hip-hop feel and one more of modern, electronic, trap sort of feel and then I just sort of joined the two. I purchased all of those instrumentals online. This time it wasn’t as diverse of a group of producers because there are a few producers that I really like KIN and Tesla. It was going be two different projects and I hadn’t really thought about names for either of them. I thought about, for the classic hip-hop album, naming it Doors for some reason. Then I realized that that would be something that would be ridiculously hard to search and find. Not that Untitled is any easier…, but I just figured I was going to put it out, and I didn’t know if there was anything that really encompassed what I was trying to get across in the album when it was really like two different vibes thrown together, two different styles thrown together so I just went with Untitled. I really didn’t overthink it too much; it just seemed right. It’s twenty tracks long, and they’re all over the place. Once I realized it was twenty tracks I was like, ‘Damn, I wasn’t really keeping track …’ There were probably thirty or forty I had recorded that I was looking at for the project, but I didn’t really realize that it was 20 songs that I really liked. I realized ‘I must have spent a lot of money making this happen. I invested a lot into this. I should give this away for free.”
Untitled features work from 14 different producers, with multiple tracks produced by Tesla, KIN, MadBliss and PAFMilo.
“Those are all just random guys I found online. The three from Tesla were like a month ago when I was in New York my buddy messaged me and said ‘You should check out this collective of producers’ while I was in New York. I checked him out and bought three beats off Tesla the next day. Ezekiel actually just sent me a few beats that were free just because he wanted to work with me. They were both members of the same collective. I found all of those dudes through SoundCloud through word of mouth and then contacted them on SoundCloud or via email. But I think Tesla’s based in Europe. That’s the cool thing about SoundCloud and working with random producers is like if they think that my music is up to par and they have a good following then they can easily share it with their entire audience. And that’s a whole audience I wouldn’t have access to otherwise. I think he’s in Berlin maybe, but he was talking about sharing my stuff. Hopefully he does that in the next couple of days.”
Mikulak maintains back-and-forth communication with the producers on Untitled and tries to encourage other instrumentalists from across the globe through SoundCloud.
“It’s interesting the way that happens. I feel like a lot of producers that are on SoundCloud or put out instrumentals like that sort of are appreciative to have someone reach out that’s actually trying to spend money. You know, who sees their worth and is like, ‘How much do you need for this?’ So I feel like once that working relationship and business relationship is established, there’s sort of like a different level of respect, as opposed to like, how they’re probably approached on a daily basis or a weekly basis by a million different emcees who are like ‘Hey I really want to rap on this beat. Can you send it to me?’ I’ll even buy beats from different producers, spur of the moment, just to let them know and establish a connection with them. I’m probably sitting on fifty if not more other beats that I’ve purchased from other producers that I’ve never written to, or started writing to and never recorded. But I think it’s still important to purchase those just to establish that connection and let them know that ‘Hey, I’m all the way over here in Austin and I think that you’re doing something that’s worthwhile, you know? Yeah, SoundCloud’s been awesome; that’s definitely also the way I found all the production for The Click Clack Mixtape…which no longer exists online.”
In addition to Mikulak’s in-studio experience over the years, his time onstage in Austin has led him to think critically before booking a show in his hometown.
“For a while I was really concerned with getting a guarantee, which makes sense, but I thought that if the venue is charging $5 and I bring in fifty people I should at least make most of that. I would always ask for guarantees which is hard for a lot of promoters and different artists to stick with in general because they’re sort of coming out of their pocket if you don’t fulfill your side of the agreement and you don’t actually bring out fifty people so for awhile I was worried about getting $200. Also I like to pay my DJ as well and pay for practice time before shows. I think it was partially that and sort of that, as much as there’s talks of being a prevalent hip hop scene here, there’s a scene within itself and everyone seems to respect each other within the scene…Or not everyone respects each other but there’s not really a large following for hip-hop in Austin outside of the people making hip-hop. So I’ve been reluctant to take shows that are all hip-hop shows because they won’t do well outside of the certain crowd that’s already involved in the scene. Outside of that, I’ll be booked as the one hip-hop act on a roster of straight bands for a night and that’s interesting if I have the right slot but it seems like it’s hard to get people out if I’m playing right off the bat which is how a lot of promoters will want to book it because they have to take care of all these other bands or play late at night. I’ve kind of been trying to distance myself from that especially on the money side of things because I feel like if I want to make my money off of performing I just need to have my merchandise in check and not really leave me making my money in anyone else’s hands. So I’ve been trying to be more open-minded about the shows that I take and not close myself off as much, but I also just really like being in the studio. I like the part of the process that’s creating music and it’s interesting to see how people react but at the same time I don’t know how much on a local level that does for me career-wise because everyone’s always telling me I should tour or whatever and when I think about it, it costs money to tour until you’re an established artist and I’d rather spend my money on recording or being in the studio or improving my equipment or making music videos or I don’t know. I just don’t think that performing is, at least on a local level is quite as integral as it used to be.”
Mikulak still enjoys the energy shared between himself and fans at live shows, but distances himself from playing too much in any given period of time.
“I don’t like the business side of things. It’s nice when there’s a good turnout at shows, which is also part of the reason I limit my shows is that I like to be able to tell people I’m going to bring this many people and then actually bring that many people and I feel like a lot of artists, especially in Austin, tend to dilute their following. They think that they’ll increase their following by playing all these shows but in actuality the promoter’s looking for them to bring their individual following to these shows instead of them getting publicity from them. It’s hard not to dilute yourself, so I just try to play like once a month or play only shows where I know there’s going to be a built-in audience where I know my fans can come out and feel comfortable and not like they’re coming just to see me and then they’re going to go hang out somewhere else or, I don’t know – try to limit the venues to venues that I would naturally hang out at otherwise, you know, even if I wasn’t playing…like Empire and used to be Holy Mountain, Cheer Up Charlie’s. They’re all places I would go even if none of my friends were playing, I could go there and just hang out so why would I play somewhere where I don’t feel like my friends could hang out even if I’m not playing, you know?”
Austin’s Hip Hop Scene
Click-Clack was one of the many local acts slated to appear at the 2015 Weird City Hip-Hop Festival, which was cancelled initially, then scaled down and rescheduled. The event made Mikulak reconsider the actual state of Austin’s hip-hop scene.
“They had great headliners and one of the main reasons that the festival had to reschedule was that one of their major headliners, Danny Brown, wasn’t able to make the show. I felt that there were so many local artists [and] with the way the hip-hop scene is here, at a lot of the local shows [with] six or seven or eight local performers, a lot of the turnout will be hip-hop artists themselves that they’ve worked with or that they’re friends with. So with that show I feel like a big flaw was that a lot of the people that would be attending or would buy tickets are already booked on the show. Outside of that, individuals in the hip-hop scene here don’t have large outside draw or especially an outside draw that’s going to pay $65 or however much to come into town or come see them play when they could see the headliners play for $15 some other night and they might be opening anyways…I don’t know if Austin’s ready for a hip hop festival. …maybe a local indie rock/hip hop fest with like 37% hip hop (laughs). It would do great things for the hip hop community.”
Mikulak feels that the amount of people moving into Austin and the culture of the city itself makes thinking about the future of the local hip-hop scene difficult.
“As there are people moving into town, there’s a good number of musicians, and a good number of people my age that are artists or creatives that are moving here, but there’s also a large number of people who are moving here for the tech industry or for the construction and development industry. I feel like those people only really skim the surface with hip-hop, and they only tend to know larger names which is really how the scene in Austin has been for a long time. The best show that you’re going to play as a local artist is going to be the opening slot right before and out-of-town headliner and a lot of people say Austin is where hip-hop heads come to die. And it’s true because there’ll be a lot of old school hip hop that comes through town and out-of-town headliners that come through town that may not be able to throw a show in other cities but the old heads that knew about them when they were famous will show out here. But I really don’t think that as much as the scene has grown and as much as the artists have improved, I feel like a lot of the larger artists in Austin tend to move away to establish themselves and that’s something even I’m thinking about it is not necessarily moving away but sort of branching out and maybe living in a few different cities for months at a time just to sort of see what that does for me. My recent trip to New York was sort of about was plugging-in with a different community of people and seeing how they work. In Austin it’s such a laid-back society, I think that it’s easy to think that you’re accomplishing more than you are as an artist just because people seem so responsive. I don’t think that the scene is really growing at the rate that people think it is. And a lot of people end up thinking that they’re going to be a part of something and then realize that they’re thirty-five and working on the album that they started when they were twenty-eight or whatever it is. I don’t know. It’s something about the city where you just get lost in it.”
With Untitled out for free digital download, Mikulak is optimistic about traveling and honing his craft for the future.
“My plan is to visit LA before summer and see if it’s a place I could live for an extended period of time or more than a month. My plan is to get back to New York because I feel like I was there for three weeks and I really didn’t start working or accomplishing anything until the last week. Then everyone came out of the wood work and I started recording and worked with a few different emcees and shot a music video the last day I was there. So I really want to get back there. There’s a good energy and I feel like everyone that’s an artist in New York – it’s sort of happening to Austin as well – but you have to work harder to survive because the cost of living is so high there that to be an artist you really have to be on your craft 24/7 which is something that was refreshing for me. Not saying that there aren’t people here who are like that but. I definitely find myself slacking or being from here hanging out with all of my longtime friends, which has its benefits but it’s also hard not to be distracted here. Not that I want to go live somewhere else but I definitely have a change of scenery and experience new areas. I feel like I came back with a new energy from New York just after being there for three weeks or so. But I think what’s most in my future is travelling. Housework 3 is on the way, probably in the next couple of months. Music videos. More online presence. Working a lot more so I have more funds to spend on my actual craft.”
– Jack Anderson