Interview with Mike Dimkich: More asses than seats

Mike the Serb Dimkich: More Asses than Seats

Interview with Mike "the Serb" Dimkich, guitarist, runner and cyclist.

As part of an ongoing collaboration with the website, I have been carrying out a series of interviews with prominent people involved in the cycling community in the Valencia Region. The link with Valencia is a little slim in this case, admittedly, but I recently caught up with Mike "the Serb" Dimkich, formerly guitarist with rock group The Cult and the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones,  currently a member of North American melodic punks Bad Religion and a seriously keen cyclist, before his band's recent gig n the capital of the Turia.

“I like to think that cyclists form part of some secret brotherhood, a bit like the Masons in way, where they look out for each other. ”

As a touring musician, Mike “the Serb” Dimkich has found in cycling and running a way to both break up the potentially monotonous life on the road and to keep fit.

At first glance, there would seem to be little in common between the dedicated world of the fresh-air breathing, clean-living, mile-hungry life of a cyclist and the high-octane, high-decibel life of a working rock’n roll guitarist: the former usually goes about their business during the day, making sure they get ample rest, and finishes their activity in a state of exhaustion, whereas the latter day often involves working when others are out enjoying themselves, following days spent travelling , and ending up in the small hours of the morning  high on adrenalin and energy; whereas one is generally accepted as beneficial to health, the other is an occupation noted for its high casualty rate.  And yet, similarities do abound: both are eminently vocational pursuits in which nothing is given away for free, requiring many thousands of hours of dedication and training without any guarantee of a stable livelihood or reward, and while they are often practised in groups, they are both essentially solitary activities heavily reliant on self-motivation. At the professional level, they both involve hitting the road for extended periods of time and performing in front of crowds: neither a bike race or a concert would really be classified as such without an audience. Uncannily, they both also involve the semi-fetishization of their respective tools, attract a preponderance of remarkably thin people and encourage a pronounced tendency to wear alarmingly tight trousers.

Perhaps they are closer than they seem and have more in common than first appears?*

Mike “the Serb” Dimkich (California, 1968), a remarkably skinny man in alarmingly tight trousers, formerly guitarist with rock group The Cult and the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones,  currently a member of North American melodic punks Bad Religion and a seriously keen cyclist, would seem like an opportune person to ask about the matter.
Currently immersed in 6-week post-confinement European tour with his band promoting their latest album “Age of Unreason”, he took a break from his day job to talk about all things bicycle and some things music. An initial idea to get him out and about into the nearby Valencian hills or the Albufera rice fields to get some photos of him on his bike in the local countryside didn’t work out, but he kindly found time to sit down to chat post-run, pre-show in the incipient Valencian spring heatwave.

He’s a dapper gent, Mr Dimkich, as befits a rockandroller of his vintage, an interesting one, too, and while his rock and roll duds clearly give lie to his profession, his interest in Orwell and Spanish history betray wider concerns perhaps not always so readily associated with profession. Furthermore, his healthy-looking tan hints at some serious spells in the outdoors away from the traditionally shady confines of the murky, artificially-lit rock and roll environment. Still, he’s remarkably skinny and sporting alarmingly tight trousers, so it’s a little hard to tell initially just where his true allegiances lie. Let’s talk to him and see.

Mike "the Serb" Dimkich ©Gibson Germany

OYB: How did a touring rock and roll guitarist get into cycling?

MD: I first started off running in my early 20s. I played with Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, this was at the end of the ‘80s, he was going to the gym a lot and really in good shape at the time and it made me think that I needed to get fit to be able to keep up. Also, I realised that I couldn’t keep myself in good enough shape to fit into my favourite clothes, so I’ll admit straight off that vanity played a part in it. In my mind, I have to be skinny to play rock and roll. So initially I was running a lot, doing marathons in a little over 3 hours, but I started to pick up injuries, as you inevitably do when you run, so I started cycling, as a way to keep fit – and skinny - without injuring myself so often.

OYB: From the outside it seems like an incongruous sort of thing for a guitarist to be doing. It’s not something you’d initially associate with rock and roll. Did you get a hard time from people when you started?

MD: A little bit maybe, at first, but now everybody who knows me, my family, the band, my friends, they all know I ride and so it’s just seen as something normal now. In fact, in this band, Bad Religion, I think they maybe thought it was a little odd at first when I turned up with a bike, as they weren’t into that. I also happened to turn up with no guitar pedals, which they at the time used quite a bit. But now Brian Baker, the other guitarist in the band, he’s heavily into cycling, more than me even, perhaps. He’s got a few bikes now, and he’s got a bike on the bus, too. He’s lost a load of weight since he’s been riding and, funnily enough, he’s not using foot pedals anymore, either. So now nobody thinks either of those things is strange.

OYB: Did you get on straight away with long-term cyclists? They can be a, shall we say, somewhat obsessive bunch, in their way, with their codes and traditions and so on. Road riders especially have a reputation for sometimes being a little less than welcoming.

MD: I’ve had no problem with cyclists since the beginning. In fact, I like to think that cyclists form part of some secret brotherhood, a bit like the Masons in way, where they look out for each other. I’m sure there are douchebags riding bikes, too, as there are everywhere, but I found that if people came to do some work on my house, for example, let’s say some plumbers, and we found out we were all cyclists, not only would everything go well with the work, but they’d then turn me on to other cool dudes who, say, look after my car, and they’re cyclists, too, and so on. Like a brotherhood. They all seem to know each other and look after each other. As I say, it’s a bit of a romantic idea and it’s not really like that, I’m sure, but my experience with cyclists has usually been very positive.

Mike "the Serb" Dimkich in full cycling mode
Mike "the Serb" Dimkich in full cycling mode

OYB: You seem to have slotted in well with professional riders, too, and picked up quite a few pro riding buddies over the years.

MD: Yeah, I came into contact with the Australian rider Scott Sutherland, and through him the former rider and DS Brian Holm, who contacted me for something to do with tickets for a show and who I’ve since become good friends with. It turned out that there were quite a few professionals into The Cult at the time, and Brian is connected to everyone in the world of cycling, so that led me to making contact with a whole bunch of professionals and meeting up and riding with them when they spend time in LA. I met Cavendish and Eisel that way, and a load of other guys. I’m good friends with Koen de Kort, too. He’s retired, now, and he spends a lot of time in Andorra, where among other things he runs a coffee shop with his wife, and maybe I’m going to be able hook up with him later in the summer when we have a break in the tour. And I’d like to go to Gerona this year. I’ve heard so much about it from cycling friends, but I’ve never been there, so I hope I can make it there this summer, too, if everything works out. It’s supposed to be great for cycling. And of course, I’ve since become close buddies with Phil Gaimon, who also lives out in LA now since retiring. We see each other a lot and go riding together. In fact, I was meant to go to his wedding but I got COVID.

OYB: Do you find it tough riding with the pros? Are they giving you a hard time while you’re hanging on the back with your tongue out all day?

MD: No, it’s not really like that. Generally they don’t ride so hard in training, actually. What they do is ride steady, and then they break it up with series and sessions. When they do that you just kind of keep out of the way and catch up with them later when they get back down to pace. I’ve seen cases of amateurs riding with pros and trying to impress everyone, hitting the front at full speed and taking risks on descents, and in general the professionals really don’t seem to like that. I mean, it’s their job and they have a programme to follow, they want to do their work and they don’t want to break a bone and lose half a season by taking silly risks when training. I think they appreciate it when you just go with the flow and let them do their job.

Mike the Serb Dimkich in an Isadore promotional photo
Mike the Serb Dimkich in an ©Isadore promotional photo

OYB: From your position, touring the world with professional musicians, do you see similarities between the two professions? I’m thinking in terms of dedication, or even obsession, you might say. They are both professions that require absolute commitment while offering no guarantee of success or stability.

MD: Definitely, I think there is some of that. There are more asses than seats in both fields, and hence a lot of competition to find a spot. For that reason they both tend to attract very focussed, driven individuals, sometimes obsessively so, and sometimes to the exclusion of other aspects of life. I’ve definitely seen traits of eccentric behaviour in both professions that you most likely couldn’t exhibit in “normal” jobs, so yeah. I’ve never met him, but Bradley Wiggins seemed like an extremely focussed person when he was riding, so much so that once he’d won the Tour it seemed like his interested waned. As if he had been so focussed that once he reached his goal he didn’t seem to be able to find that obsessive motivation anymore. It looked like cycling was an outlet for his obsession, in way. And you definitely see that in music, in rock and roll. And you do occasionally get that seemingly damaged sort of person in cycling that you see perhaps more often in rock and roll. I’m thinking of people like Vandenbroucke, or of course Pantani. Reading about them almost feels like reading about Keith Richards at times. There is a main difference that I can see, though, in the sense that professional cyclists have greater freedom to move around, to change teams and carry on their profession. With musicians, it’s more usual that after leaving a well-known band or having some success you disappear, sink without trace. That’s it, it’s over. There’s always that fear in music, whereas maybe less so in cycling.

OYB: Perhaps not coincidentally, both professions also require the use and control of sometimes ludicrously expensive equipment. I don’t think it’s going too far to say it’s fetishized by some people in both fields. You yourself have got a nice yet simple setup in terms of your guitar equipment, 1950s Gibson Les Paul Juniors and original Mesa Boogie Mark II amplifiers. As in cycling, this can get to be a very expensive habit indeed. Would you classify yourself as a gear junkie?

MD: No, not really. I mean, in music, for touring with the band I wouldn’t really like to take collectible, museum-quality instruments around the world with me, as they tend to take a beating on the road and they can get lost along the way. I see them as tools, they’ve got to be reliable and functional, but nothing else. I don’t want to have to worry too much about them when I’m playing. And I’m the same with bikes. I think from running I picked up the ability to be adaptable, to different terrains and routes and gear, and I’m a little the same with bikes. I don’t fuss too much about equipment, saddle height, as long as it’s more or less ok, and I’m not too precious about my bikes. The one I have on the bus on this tour is a beat up aluminium Giant TCR, which does me just fine. Again, that’s another thing I’ve seen with professional cyclists: they will talk about their bikes and their gear when they’re out, but from a practical perspective, in terms of what works and what doesn’t. They’ll whine a bit, just like musicians will, about the times that they’ve been supplied with substandard gear, but only because it doesn’t do what’s required of it. Similarities again with musicians, in that practical concerns revolving around how to get the job done are more important, I think.

Mike the Serb Dimkich playing with The Cult
Mike "the Serb" Dimkich playing with The Cult ©Dena Flow

OYB: You’ll have noticed from mixing and riding with professionals that there’s a big difference between just riding your bike, at whatever level, and doing it for a living. In fact, the more I think about it the more separate they seem to be. Is that similar to playing music and performing, between playing an acoustic on your own and cranking out riffs in front of a huge, hyped-up festival crowd? Do you see them as very separate pursuits? I mean, for a start, do you even have an acoustic?

MD: Yeah, I have an acoustic, and I sometimes perform in my local area, with a friend, playing acoustic at small gigs. Funnily enough, being in this band has helped me improve my skills on acoustic guitar. The rhythms we play, the strumming patterns, they’re a little more intricate than the straight ahead duh-duh-duh rock and roll that I was maybe more used to playing in the past, so learning that has helped my acoustic playing. And yes, there’s a difference when you’re performing: People come to a concert to see a show, to get excited and to let off energy, and that’s a big part of it. You’d never go out there to purposefully do a bad show, there are certain standards that you’re going to observe, but you’re not there to replicate the record either, you can be a little looser. People want to have a good time and you want to help them have one, so you play up to that. I can see a similarity there with racing bikes, as there is definitely a performance aspect to it, putting on a show. And at the end of the day it becomes a job, so it’s clearly not the same as just riding your bike.

OYB: Do you ride a lot at home?

MD: Yeah, I get out, but perhaps not as much as I used to. I tend to combine running with some shorter, off-road loops near my home, as that fits in well with the school run and other activities. I’ve got an old mountain bike, it’s a XC I think, I’m not sure, and I take that out.

OYB: You ok with mountain biking? Do you find it fun?

MD: I do, but I go pretty slow, on fire trails mainly, that sort of thing. I’m no good at descending single tracks and stuff. I also think that as you get older you become less inclined to put yourself in a position where you’re potentially going to fall off and injure yourself. I have no interest in that, so I tend to take it a little easier.

OYB: Where are your favourite places to ride?

MD: It has to be the Santa Monica Mountains, where I live. I can be out on the climbs in a very short time, and despite being so close to LA there is very little traffic once you get out there. Some of the shorter climbs can be quite steep, but they are mainly steady drags that suit me. I’ve been going out there for years and it’s still my favourite place. There’s a big stretch of Mulholland Drive that’s still blocked off to traffic after the fires, so that’s great to ride along.

Mike the Serb Dimkich
Mike "the Serb" Dimkich ©Spin

OYB: Are North American drivers used to, or accommodating of, drivers?

MD: Not really. America has a car culture, and to not be driving a car is seen as odd. They can be really aggressive at times and, to be honest, it can sometimes be a bit tiring having to think about it constantly when you are out on your bike. Having said that, I have found that in rural places, like say North Carolina, the people that you would maybe initially think you have to be wary of, the guys in the huge pick-ups, are ok and they leave you alone. It’s as if they actually have their trucks for work and are used to dealing with heavy loads, animals, whatever, out on the road and they give you a wide berth. It’s in the cities, and in places like Texas, guys in trucks, you have to be really careful with them there.

OYB: Do you think this aversion to mixing it up with aggressive drivers is to some extent behind the rise in popularity of gravel riding, especially in the States?

MD: I think it might be, to some degree. You just get tired of it, as I say, always being on your guard. I know that whenever I go out on my bike, in the first few miles before I get up into the hills, I’ve got a good chance of having a run in with someone in a vehicle that’s going to spoil my day. You get over it, of course, but you do spend it a bit of time angry at them, and that’s not so much fun.

Mike the Serb Dimkich ©Cassette Media
Mike the Serb Dimkich ©Cassette Media

OYB: What about when you’re over here in Europe? Have you picked up any favourite places to go riding, and do you notice a big difference when you’re riding about here?

MD: Well, I’m a visitor here, so I don’t get to see all the day to day aspects of living in Europe, but in general people seem more relaxed and maybe friendlier than in the States, and the drivers certainly seem to be more tolerant of cyclists. That’s especially true here in Spain, where they all leave the regulation passing distance between the car and the cyclist when overtaking. In the Basque country I’ve even had drivers stop me to give me back something I’d dropped earlier on up the road: they stopped, picked it up, caught me up and gave it back to me. I’ve never had anything like that happen in the States when I’ve been on my bike. And it’s easier to ride in Europe, the roads are better, the signposting is better, you get a better idea of where you are going. Again, in the Basque country I once rode from San Sebastian to our next gig in Bilbao, along the coast and then inland, and in every village I went through there was a sign indicating the way to Bilbao. You couldn’t get lost. It’s like that all over Europe, and with that, the roads, the drivers, it just makes it so much easier to ride here.

OYB: Do you ride a lot when you are on tour?

MD: I was riding a lot, after I first started, maybe 500, 600 km a week, and I was riding a lot when I was on tour. Running, too. I think I was doing that at a time when I wasn’t so satisfied in other areas of my life, shall we say, so I was putting a lot of my energy into the bike. It was as if I’d rather be on the bike than in other places, let’s say. That was at that time. With this band I’m in now, Bad Religion, I feel very appreciated and involved professionally, so when we are out on tour I feel I participate more and I want to be around to help in whatever I can. That’s where running comes in, as it’s easier to fit in than cycling and takes up less time. But in general, running and cycling form a part of every day, especially on tour, as they help you to break up the day and to set tasks for yourself, which can be important when you’re living this life. It would be kind of easy to fall into a routine of sitting in the hotel or on the bus, or other things, which some people do, and that’s not so good.

OYB: You’ve been touring quite extensively for more than 30 years now. Do you still like it?

Mike the Serb Dimkich performing on stage
Mike "the Serb" Dimkich performing on stage ©Alison Toon

MD: I do, I like it with this band, they’re very organized and practical, that takes a lot of the stress out of it and so you get to see more things as you travel and enjoy it more.

OYB: I have to ask you, you’re on planes, trains and automobiles from one end of a continent to another for months at a time: can you actually remember much of where you’ve been in detail, or does it all become one big blur?

MD: Yes, I can, I can remember a great deal of it, and a lot of the places where I’ve been. You go back over the years and you start to get familiar with it. There are some places, like certain towns of a similar size in Germany, that you get mixed up, you can’t remember sometimes which is which, but on the whole I can remember the places I’ve been to from having gone running or cycling there at one time or another. I can remember roads and cycle paths that I’ve been on, running up the beach in Barcelona, visiting the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, running 30 kilometres to a festival in France, the parks in Berlin, I can remember quite a lot of where I’ve been and I can picture it clearly. For example, I remember playing here in Valencia for the first time with The Cult, it must have been in 1993. We played in the Velodrome, which we thought was odd at the time as we didn’t know what the building actually was. And I remember running in the gardens in the river. It wasn’t so complete as it is today, there were stretches that were just unfinished and empty, it almost felt like you weren’t meant to be there in some places, but I remember being there. You go back over the years and you see how things have changed, you compare it in your mind, like here in Valencia. I can remember quite a lot of it.

Plus, apart from just travelling in itself, when you’re touring with well-known bands you get to see things that you probably would never see otherwise, and they tend to stay with you. For example, I can remember being in Italy, again with The Cult, up in the north somewhere where we had a gig, and I went to the Selle San Marco factory. I knew the family that owned the company, I was friends with them, and they picked me up and drove me miles out to the factory when I should have been at the sound check. We got there after everybody, all the workers, had gone, and the only person left in the factory was the grandmother, and she was in there gluing the leather onto the saddles. She was in there on her own, hunched over a bench, gluing the saddles, in this historic factory. They told me she was always the first person to arrive and the last to leave every day. Somebody turned up, this well turned out, attentive, elderly Italian guy, who brought a bottle and two glasses of wine and served her. Turned out it’s her gentleman friend, who calls by for her at the end of each day, serves her a glass of wine before they go. I can still see her gluing the saddles and her friend waiting on her. It was great just standing there watching them.

And there in the corner of the workshop, they had three or four specially-prepared yellow saddles, originally made for a sponsored rider who had looked close to taking the yellow jersey in the Tour that year. It was during the Tour and one of their guys had a chance, so they’d made up the yellow saddles. He’d missed out though, he hadn’t taken it in the end, so the saddles where just sitting there, looking unwanted. It felt rude and out of place at the time, but I wish I’d asked them for one. So I missed the opportunity, but through bikes and music I got a great memory.

OYB: So sometimes, it seems, there are occasions when there are in fact more seats available than butts waiting to occupy them.

It’s coming up to show time by now, with punters streaming into the vicinity with that ever –increasing anticipatory buzz they give off on concert days, when they know they are shortly to see some of their favourite musicians perform live, in the flesh. The sight of Dimkich works as an additional trigger for some, who become keen to consecrate the exceptional moment with a selfie. More than accustomed to the situation and polite to a fault, the guitarist obliges as he must have done thousands of times before, whilst taking the moment as a cue to slip off, change into a different set of tight clothes and fit in one more solitary run before the day job begins.

*Of course, rock and roll and high-level cycling do share another common factor, one that sits there on the table like a hand-grenade with a hair-trigger pin, ready to explode the minute it’s touched, especially when talking to people related to the world of competitive cycling. It’s always there. The blast won’t hurt you, personally, and there’s the problem: it will hurt others, in varying degrees, people who are far away, people who you’ve never met, people about whom you have no idea what they have or haven’t done. So you don’t talk about it. If you do want to read about it, rock and roll and bikes and that “other business”, it’s covered in detail in former Clash road manager Johnny Green’s hilarious book “Push Yourself Just a Little Bit More”, wherein he recounts his exploits as he blags his way behind the scenes at the Tour de France and chats to all and sundry while following the race around the country in the early '00s. Green is funny and sharp in his reflections and approach, as always, and provocative, and he doesn’t care. He has nothing to lose. But ultimately it’s a serious question, one which hopefully we will all get around to discussing, one day, but not here.

Do not miss the latest interviews with the winner of the 2000 Giro d'Italia,  Stefano Garzelli, the Valencian former professional cyclist, Javier Benítez, and the Spanish national cycling coach, Pascual Momparler, among others.


Bad Religion

The Cult

Jonesy's Jukebox

Grupetta Cafe 

Phil Gaimon 

Turia Gardens 

Push Yourself Just a Little Bit More - Johnny Green

Michael Dixon

No hay comentarios:

Publicar un comentario