Salem’s Ranch Records is buzzing on national Record Store Day in April, as customers mill about picking up the latest albums by mainstream rock bands such as The Black Keys and a special reissue of The White Stripes’ “Elephant.”
One man stands apart, his nose pressed intently downward as he flips through a box of records labeled “Oregon Artists 1990s.” Pretty soon he makes a score: a 7-inch by Portland band Hell Cows.
“Yeah,” he murmurs in satisfaction, adding it to a stack of acquired records almost as long as his arm.
Michael, or Mick, Hickman works by day for the Oregon Lottery, fixing lotto machines when they need repair. It’s a perfect job, he says, because it offers time for his true passion: listening to music — specifically, music from the Northwest in its many forms.
About eight months ago, he started his own show on community radio station KMUZ called “Northwest Notes,” dedicated exclusively to playing music from the Pacific Northwest. The mix of tunes is as diverse of Hickman’s taste — on any given week, you might hear everything from the McNary High School choir to heavy metal. His frequently cited tagline is, “I’m bringing you the music your neighbors are making, and tracing that music to the past.”
During one show, Hickman opens with a surf rock tune from Tacoma, Wash.-based group The Ventures, and makes his way through artists as diverse as Eugene bluesman Robert Cray and Salem experimental touch-guitar artist Oymyakon. Just to play something a little more accessible to the average listener, he throws in some Heart and Nirvana for good measure.
“I try to play every possible range, and go as far as back as I can go,” he says during a recent chat over tea at The Governor’s Cup. “I do play some jazz, although not a lot because I don’t know enough about it, and I love country but I don’t have a lot from the Northwest in my collection. I’m building up to that.”
He tends to favor indie rock and pop — with a particular fondness for melancholy music, such as Elliott Smith, David Bazan, Robert Smith (of The Cure) and local act Whiskey Priest.
“I really dig horribly depressing music,” he says, laughing. “I love music that just really rips you up and gets to the truth of things.”
Discovering the Local Scene
Hickman, 38, grew up in the small community of Jefferson, about 20 miles south of Salem. Known for “mint and frogs,” as Hickman puts it, Jefferson was hardly a musical oasis. But from as early as he can remember, Hickman loved music. As a child, he listened to a lot of mainstream radio — Van Halen and The Beach Boys were his favorites.
Two defining moments paved the way, however, for the direction that his musical taste would take. One was seeing Neil Young on “Saturday Night Live” in 1989.
“I saw him break all his strings just playing the hell out of his guitar and I was like, ‘I want to do that,’” Hickman says, smiling at the memory.
The second moment came when a friend turned him on to the band Beat Happening, led by Olympia music legend and K Records founder Calvin Johnson. That was in the early 1990s, and Hickman describes the experience as akin to “the heavens opening up.”
“I realized that real people can make music,” Hickman says. “I know that sounds naïve now, but growing up in a town like Jefferson, culture came to me by way of television and radio. You didn’t hear stuff like K Records. They weren’t rock stars. They were just real people making music that they believed in.”
I saw him break all his strings just playing the hell out of his guitar and I was like, ‘I want to do that.’
In high school, he formed his first band, Sorrow and Co., with some guys from the school jazz band. He played guitar, which he learned after “10 lessons from a guy and just winging it from there.”
Hickman moved to Salem after graduation, and in 1994, he joined an alternative rock outfit called Cynical Son. That group played the first rock show at the Grand Theatre, which had reopened as an all-ages music space under the leadership of Mike Jones, owner of the Salem-based record label Schizophonic Records. At the time, the Grand was a run-down hole with all the seats ripped out — a prime space for rock ‘n’ roll shows.
“I worked with Mike at the record label, and my band played quite a bit in Salem and Portland,” Hickman says. “Whenever I wasn’t playing a show, I was at a show. All I did was go to shows and listen to music. It was heaven, really.”
Hickman saw many concerts in the 1990s in Salem — everything from national touring acts at the Armory Auditorium or the Mission Mill, to local acts at the Grand and other venues.
“I think all-ages venues are really critical to a good music scene,” he says. “When I was 18, 19, I just discovered so much stuff. I think your mind is more open at that age. You’re more open to really hearing something new, and you’re at the venue for the music, not to drink.”
Around 2000, Hickman took a break from his concert-going and from performing in bands while he focused on family life — with the exception of playing bass in Come Back Maggie from 2006 to 2008.
“I like to say I am the ruiner of bands,” Hickman says. “I don’t stick with them very long.”
Now settled in Keizer, Hickman is married with two teenage daughters. Local band Easterly, fronted by longtime Salem musician Noah Hall, played at his daughter’s birthday party a few years ago.
Hickman cites Hall as a personal musical hero, and not only as one of his favorite Salem artists, but one of his all-time favorite musicians, along with Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.
Like a lot of Salem stories, Hickman and Hall met in a strange setting — a now-defunct doughnut shop on Lancaster Drive that briefly put on rock concerts.
“I admire the way Mick listens to music,” Hall says. “He appreciates it, and he challenges it to show him something new. It is an enormous honor to be highly regarded by someone who loves music so much.”
Hall says having fans like Hickman, who value their local musicians on the same level as those who are more famous and have more resources, is essential.
“Fans are particularly important to local musicians,” Hall says. “There are faces at our Salem shows that have been there for the last 10 years. I consider it a challenge to give them a good show, or to deliver a great album. They know what came before. If it isn’t as good, or true, they will let us know. Mick is this kind of fan.”
For his show on KMUZ, Hickman tries to play a lot of Salem artists, and he brings bands into the studio on occasion. For him, the most exciting part of doing the show is making connections for listeners, and trying to turn people on to something they wouldn’t otherwise hear.
The idea for “Northwest Notes” came after he saw an exhibit on the history of pop music in Oregon.
“I loved the idea of connecting what is being made now in Oregon with what has been done in the past,” Hickman says. “I try to make that connection on every one of my shows.”
Karen Holman, founding president of KMUZ and current DJ and board member, says that Hickman’s show is essential to the mission of the station — content by locals, and for local people.
“What I love the most is that while there is definitely a lot of effort put into local-local bands, Mick throws in a nice mix of the bigger-known bands from the Pacific Northwest,” she says. “This is a cool reminder to all of us that while we have our local faves, we are also home to some big players.”
I loved the idea of connecting what is being made now in Oregon with what has been done in the past.
Holman also saw Hickman at Ranch Records and experienced first-hand his commitment to digging deep and finding lesser-known local music.
“It’s obviously an important part of his life, and it really comes across in his program,” she says. “Plus, he has a killer record tote bag crocheted out of cassette tape. How cool is that?”
‘Vampire of Art’
Now that his kids are “old enough to take care of themselves,” he says jokingly, Hickman is amping up his attendance again at local concerts. In a recent two-week period, he went to four shows, not counting a trek up to Portland to see one of his favorite singers, Storm Large.
Lately, though, he has been itching to jump back into the fray and start playing out again. He has started to work on solo material, recording fuzzy guitar-oriented songs at home.
“I’ve been feeling like a vampire of art, consuming only and not creating enough,” he says.
With so much good local music, Hickman says there is no shortage of new tunes to experience, only not enough time to do it all. He remembers that when he was in high school, his dream job was to become a music librarian.
“I didn’t even know if such a thing existed,” he says. “I just wanted to work for a radio station and spend all day organizing their records. That seemed to be the ultimate happiness.”
Instead, Hickman is on the microphone, reaching out to the community every Sunday evening to open their ears to something new, something local.
“I like to say that your neighbors are out there making great music, so you should listen to what they are creating,” Hickman says. “There is a shortage of venues, and at times not enough of an appreciative audience. But there is no shortage of great musicians in this town.”
Listen to “Northwest Notes”
Hickman’s show, “Northwest Notes,” can be heard Sundays from 4 to 6 p.m. on KMUZ 88.5 FM, or streaming online at KMUZ.org.
Mick’s Top 5 Salem Artists
- Noah Hall
- Tim Martin (of His Name Shall Breathe and others)
- Tie between Dharma Bums (Silverton) and Typhoon (now in Portland but from Salem)
Top 5 Songs by Salem Artists
“One of These Days” by Easterly: “Heart wrenching. I love how Noah can just rip himself open and pour out his pain into song. This is one of the best examples.”
“To Die Alone” by His Name Shall Breathe: “Tim’s voice is haunting. Most anything he sings just seems to find its way through every crack in your shell to creep in and make itself at home. This particular one hits home. I think we have all had that person in our lives that seems to take over your life to the detriment of all other relationships. ‘To Die Alone’ illustrates it beautifully, if darkly.”
“Belly of the Cave” by Typhoon: “I love Oregon history, not just music history. There is a legend of a pirate ship taking a treasure chest and hiding it in a cave in the mountains near Seaside. Typhoon takes a local folk tale, creates a ballad of epic scale in a 7-minute song. This track also illustrates the amazing talent these kids have. They are so dynamic, which is difficult to do with a four-piece band, let alone 14 pieces.”
“Porch Song” by the Dharma Bums: “I picked this song less for the actual lyrics, particular rhythms or anything particular to the actual song. I chose it because it embodies the early ’90s to me. This is the sound of coming of age in Salem, discovering new people, new music, new everything. When I hear this song, it just transports me back to that time period.”
“Everyone’s Fucked Up” by Election Year: “This song made it into the list because of the feeling it inspires in the room as they perform it. Tim (guitarist and vocalist Tim Martin) almost always starts it off by apologizing, saying his mom hates it. That just sets the mood. The whole room is swaying, and often enough singing along by the end.”
Most Memorable Salem Concerts
Anthrax and Public Enemy at Salem Armory Auditorium (1990): “Anthrax and Public Enemy was a cool show because Salem didn’t seem to draw a lot of huge national acts, and the way the metalheads and rap fans all came together and put differences aside to enjoy some cross-genre entertainment was a very positive cultural sign.”
Cherry Poppin’ Daddies at Mission Mill (1994): “The Daddies at Mission Mill was memorable for exactly the opposite reason as the Anthrax show. It showed the other side of the acceptance coin, with skinheads pummeling kids for some reason known only to them. … Only incident I ever witnessed, and I went to lots of Daddies shows and a few Mill shows.”
The Dandy Warhols at Grand Theatre (1995): “The Dandy Warhols was one of the first bands we booked at the Grand and was quite a spectacle, causing a stir in sleepy little Salem when Zia (keyboardist Zia McCabe) took her shirt off and played topless the last half of the show.”
David Bazan at IKE Box (2008): “David Bazan commanded the stage all by himself, really captivating the room. My daughter, who was probably 8 at the time, went up to the stage and asked him all about what made him want to go up there. I could see dreams of rock stardom in her eyes.”
Mill Race at IKE Box (2007): “Mill Race was amazing. I had just finished what I thought was a really good set, playing for many more people than my band, Come Back Maggie, was used to having at a show. When watching Mill Race, I had second thoughts about how well our set went. Amazing sounds I had never heard before, mandolin and synthesizer together. I had to go home and listen to Zappa that night, and went to Ranch (Records) the next day to buy Mill Race’s ‘Westerns’ CD.” (Full disclosure: Writer Angela Yeager’s husband was in this band.)
Angela Yeager spent a decade as a newspaper journalist before joining the news team at Oregon State University. She co-hosts a film review show on CCTV and loves supporting local music.
Having left journalism for a career in teaching, photographer Lori Cain juggles her time between her husband, son and 120-plus students.