Guitarist and singer Mike Visser left Sacramento to forage for musical insights
Mike Visser is a man of many moves. Sure, he can groove “like a jerk-off” for the making of a music video, but he also migrates with the urgency of a hibernating bird to reignite his musical spark.
It seems to be working. Alongside his band Imaginary Tricks, the former Sacramentan is signed to the label Friendship Fever and has gotten press in Stereogum and The Fader for the group’s debut album Skommel, released in March. With the nihilistic shrug of Kurt Vile and the baroque orchestrations of Deerhunter, Imaginary Tricks adds a heaping dose of dissonance not found in the music of Visser’s Sacramento years. He couldn’t have done it without gathering insights in the wake of his travels.
Visser might have caught itchy feet at the age of 12, when he visited Mexico on a father-son trip. On the beach, he saw a stranger playing guitar around a campfire.
“It was like a laser beam into my head: That’s what I’m going to do,” he remembers.
As soon as he got back to Sacramento, Visser rushed to buy a classical guitar. Over the years, he progressed from the tablature for “Stairway to Heaven” to fronting the jazzy rock band Frank Jordan that was well-known—OK, by Sacramento standards. The budding musician adored performing in Old Ironsides with its cozy, barely there stage. But in the mid-aughts, the band broke up and Visser was adrift.
“I felt like a failure because I didn’t ’make it’ in terms of what ’making it’ to me felt like back then,” he says.
Without much of a plan, he crashed with his friend Christopher Watson, who had moved from Sac to Pennsylvania. Years later, Watson would return home to launch the record label Friendship Fever and live out the company name by signing Imaginary Tricks. After that Pennsylvania layover, Visser made his way up to New York, where he would meet his future band members, despite feeling out of his element.
“It’s good for anybody to get the fuck out of their comfort zone and be scared,” Visser says.
So when he hit another rut in 2013, Visser moved yet again, this time briefly to Los Angeles. While at a friend’s house, he overheard “this crazy noise” coming through the garage. Turns out it was SK Kakraba, a master player of the gyil, a xylophone from Ghana. Visser jammed with him that day and eventually contributed to some of Kakraba’s recordings. The collaboration taught Visser to play the guitar rhythmically, a skill that was “foreign” before.
You’ll find those percussive chops throughout Imaginary Tricks’ debut, but especially the track “Lights Out” with its shuffling guitar motif that drives the song like an angry motor. The music video filmed in Sacramento juxtaposes a rich snob—and Visser’s “jerk-off” dancing—alongside a character experiencing homelessness near the Capitol. It’s about “feeling powerless to people who have infinite wealth.”
But thanks to the perspective of time and travel, the musician himself no longer cares so much about money or making it.
“I feel like I’ve already made it,” says Visser, who now lives in Queens and supports his music by working at a coffee shop. “I know what I love to do, and I’m going to do it for the rest of my life, and money has nothing to do with it—and that’s a completely liberating feeling.”
If he ever loses that sense of freedom? Don’t be surprised to find Visser back on the move.