Mike Clark and the Sugar Sounds: Colorado Garage Soul

Mike Clark

Dec. 16-17 | Moody’s Bistro, Bar & Beats | Truckee

Mike Clark is at his home studio in Pueblo, Colo., listening to mixes for his next record.

“Sometimes if I go for a nice, long drive something will speak to me and I’ll put down some lyrics,” he says. “You have to grab it out of the air while you can. Just jump on a feeling and go for it.”

Since picking up music at the age of 27, Clark has made a name for himself throughout the Rocky Mountains and West Coast roots music scene as a songwriter and performer. In 2007, he joined The Haunted Windchimes plying harmony vocals and down-to-earth instrumentation that harken back to the early American folk of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams. Following a brief stint with folk project The Ghost of Michael Clark, he formed Americana group The River Arkansas whose vintage sound follows in the footsteps of The Band and Bruce Springsteen. They’ve since put out five records, including “Damn Good Dog” with Oakdale crooner Willy Tea Taylor.

Clark first met Taylor as he came through the Colorado Front Range on tour. When Clark released his first solo record, “Round & Round,” with throwback rock and soul combo Mike Clark and the Sugar Sounds in 2013, he wrote the song “Smooth Sailin’” about their parallel journeys through music, traveling and divorce.

Everything is packaged in a 3-minute pop song for me,” he says. “If it’s got three hooks, I know it’s going to do pretty well.”     –Mike Clark

“His and my lives were really aligned at the time,” says Clark. “He came back to my house and I played it for him. It’s at the top peak of my falsetto, which is a really strange thing to do for another man. It’s about living on the road. The woman says she’ll wait for you, but then you’re gone all the time and they never really do.”

The music evokes the bares-bones, neo-folk charm of Cat Powers and Modest Mouse while drawing on the heartland R&B of Clark’s youth. He grew up in Calhan, a small town on Colorado’s eastern plains, halfway between Colorado Springs and Limon with a population of 758. With limited radio reception and his parents old record collection, Clark absorbed himself in blues, classic rock, Elvis, Buddy Holly and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

While competing in mountain bike trials on a road trip through the Southwest and up the California coast, a fellow athlete brought along a guitar. Clark was inspired to buy his first harmonica, which he broke in on ferry rides in the Pacific Northwest. He soon picked up the guitar, banjo, mandolin and violin. He began writing folk songs about his life.

“Everything is packaged in a 3-minute pop song for me,” he says. “If it’s got three hooks, I know it’s going to do pretty well. I write songs about living in Pueblo and the gun violence there. I write love songs about the way I feel. I write about the struggle of all the people before me trying to keep their families warm. And I write a lot of songs about coffee.”

Clark worked as land surveyor for 23 years before becoming a full-time musician. He had all but moved on from The Sugar Sounds when someone put “Smooth Sailin’” on a Spotify playlist. It now has nearly 3 million plays.

“It’s really popular for some reason and I don’t know why,” says Clark. “About 5 years ago, it suddenly started catching steam. People keep listening to it and following me. If this is what they want, I want to give them what they want.”

The belated success of the record inspired Clark to put out another album with The Sugar Sounds this year. “Moon Rock” features 70’s-era, classic-rock sensibilities crossed with the simple, strong riffs reminiscent of The Black Keys. Clark calls the music “garage soul.”

“I play real loose,” he says. “It’s not incredibly put together. Every show is different than the last one. I’ve got a van and a trailer. That’s all you need.” | moodysbistro.com