Interview: Let’s Take a Trip Into The World of The Mike Bell Cartel

Get ready to journey into the world of Mike Bell Cartel, a band that embodies the quintessential essence of 1960’s garage music, manifested in the purest forms of pop melodies and garage punk effervescence. Join us as we introduce you to this band that hails from Helsinki, Finland and constitutes an ensemble of seasoned members from the city’s vibrant music scene.

Mike Bell Cartel is the brainchild of its lead singer and principal songwriter, Miikka Siira, also known as Mike Bell (Mike Bell & The Belltones). Siira is a renowned figure in the global rockabilly scene, well-known for leading one of the most exhilarating bands, Mike Bell & The Belltones. His profound passion for authentic garage punk led him to craft catchy tunes that recapture the spirit of the mid-sixties American teen band chaos. This sparked the inception of the Mike Bell Cartel, which he formed in collaboration with like-minded musicians from Helsinki.

Their debut album, titled ‘The Cartel & I’, released in 2022 under the banner of Beluga Records (Sweden), saw its first vinyl pressing sold out within weeks of its launch. The album’s mixing was masterfully executed to perfection by Grammy winner Liam Watson of Toe Rag Studios, well-known for working with celebrated names like Tame Impala, Billy Childish, Supergrass, Madness, and The White Stripes, to name a few.

The first two singles from the band have garnered an impressive amount of international radio airplay and rave reviews in the UK-based Shindig!-Magazine as well as Finland’s leading newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat.

In 2024, the band released a new single, ‘Ain’t No High (That’s High Enough)’, under the Rogue Records label. The band has always had a clear and shared mission, to breathe new life into the evergreen elements of sixties’ garage music, transforming them into their unique, fresh sound. In the realm of Mike Bell Cartel, haunting melodies and harmonies, jangly guitars, searing fuzztone, eerie Farfisa organ, and a driving beat are not elements of nostalgia or retro but key ingredients of explosive and timeless rock’n’roll in the present day.

Stay tuned as we delve deeper into their journey, music style, and upcoming projects in this riveting interview.

Can you share the story behind the formation of The Mike Bell Cartel, and how it was inspired by various music styles like Rockabilly, Surf, Garage, Folk, and Punk?

“In 2018 I had this idea of a 60’s garage band that would make one EP and would no gigs whatsoever. I had just recorded a solo EP of early 60’s pop and I thought that next it would be fun to write a few songs and put out a garage style EP.  My musical background is in rockabilly and surf-instrumental (Mike Bell & The Belltones and The Fanatic IV,  The Atomic Blast) and I had played with Pekka (guitar) and Samuel (organ) and I knew that they’d be up for a garage band.

So I wrote some songs, asked around if anyone is interested and there we were: 5 guys who share a big love for 60’s garage. It took about two rehearsals to find out that we are actually doing a full album and we are definitely a band that want to do gigs too! But then again all the guys were – and still are – really busy with other bands so I don’t think they would have said yes for a new steady band. It was my lucky plan to lure them all in!

As members of numerous Finnish bands, some well-known and others less so, what unique experiences and influences do each of you bring to The Mike Bell Cartel?

Yes, we come from different circles and have played so many different bands and styles (The Hypnomen, The Valkyrians, John’s Children, Mike Bell & The Belltones just to name a few) but I knew all the guys love Nuggets and Pebbles. And we also love music in general. Might even say we are obsessed with music. But in Cartel we are focused on playing 60’s garage without the urge to put every other style into the mix. We might do that later, who knows, but right now I just want to write good songs and everybody brings their own style of playing and it sounds like The Mike Bell Cartel. And right now I like the idea that we are like the Nuggets compilation – we can play pop, punk, bluesy, psychedelic, we can take all these different styles and we don’t have to stick to just one.

Miikka, you’re known as a composer and guitarist. How has your role evolved in this new project, The Mike Bell Cartel?

It’s pretty much the same as with Mike Bell & The Belltones, I write the songs and make demos and we rehearse and arrange together to make those horrible demos come alive. And they usually do! But we need everybody the make it sound good.

Since 2021, you’ve released a few singles and an acclaimed LP. Can you tell us more about the creative process behind these releases?

So we started working with these songs as soon as we knew that we are a proper band and decided on the name The Mike Bell Cartel. And when we did our first show in Helsinki the guys from Beluga Records from Sweden happened to be there and asked us to make an album. We did two separate sessions at Timmion studio in Helsinki (known for their soul record label and studio). I think we worked about 3-4 days in the studio total. I asked Liam Watson at Toe Rag studio to mix the album and he said yes. I think the album came together quite easily because all the guys are good musicians and fun to be around.

Your second single was presented with the French Disques Rogue. How did this collaboration come about, and what was the experience like?

Jean-Marc from Rogue asked us to do a single and we liked the singles only -style of the label and always with those cool flipback sleeves. I thought it would be fun to write songs for a single only release and it was pretty fast to rehearse and record two songs. And I was right, it was fun. And we were joined by our new bass player, Mikko Sivén just in time when we started working on these songs.

The Garage and Jangle Pop preferences from the sixties are evident in your music. How do you keep this influence alive while also bringing something fresh to your sound?

I just write songs for myself, it’s pretty intuitive and keeps me sane. I do try to evolve as a writer but sometimes the progress is really slow, haha. And I do listen to many types of music just for the fun of it.

A few years ago, you decided to resize your career by recording Garage songs. How did this shift in direction come about, and what was the reaction from your musician peers?

I don’t think the shift from rockabilly to garage was that dramatic. For me it’s the same rock’n’roll in a slightly different package. I heard people say good things about the band and the album though.

Rogue Records recently released your second single, following your first 7” from 2021 on Beluga Records. What can fans expect from this latest release?

The a-side ‘Ain’t no High’ is kind of a classic 1966 punk stomper with the fuzz and the swirling organ sound and the b-side is a more melodic song with jangly guitars, backing vocals and little bit of psychedelia. The single is pretty much what The Mike Bell Cartel is all about.

With The Mike Bell Cartel gaining momentum and your music receiving positive responses, what’s next on the horizon for you and the band? Can we expect certain styles or influences in your future projects?

We are just working on a special show that we are playing in April; we going to play songs from the Nuggets compilation and nothing else! I also have a couple of songs that I’m working on at the moment that have a strong garage-soul feel would. They would probably make a great single but I’m not sure if we will use them. But this spring we are definitely starting to work on our second album. I can’t tell you much more at this point except that it will most likely sound very much like The Mike Bell Cartel! And other projects; I just finished a new rockabilly album for Mike Bell & The Belltones that turned up real nice and will be released this summer. Pekka just released a new album with Inginmaa/Hypnomen with a strong chanson feel, Sami released a new ska album with The Valkyrians last year and a post-punk album with The Bunkers this year and Ville released a folk prog album with Tanssiva Karhu last year. Things are cooking all the time.

If you had the chance to collaborate with one artist from the past, who would it be and why?

I’m not sure about the collaboration part but I’d really love to see Brian Wilson in top form working in studio circa Pet Sounds -era.

As we conclude our journey into the captivating world of Mike Bell Cartel, we extend our sincerest gratitude to Miikka Siira and the entire ensemble for sharing their stories, inspirations, and musical passions with us.

As we eagerly anticipate their upcoming projects and the promise of more timeless rock ’n ’ roll, let us extend our appreciation to Mike Bell Cartel for keeping the flame of garage punk alive and burning brightly.

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