dmersonhess on 02/24/2012 at 11:15AM
Last year, Los Angeles quartet Goodbye Kumiko recorded and released their debut album, "My Wild Arms". The record -- a melange of indie rock, baroque pop and ragtime-influenced piano stylings -- was one of the most satisfying yet underheard indie records of 2011. I caught up with GK singer and keyboard player Michael Barron over email to talk about the album and working with producer Bill Moriarty, a leading light in the Northeast who has manned the controls for Dr. Dog, Man Man, and a host of other extremely creative indie bands.
Who would you say are your influences? Include one from outside the world of music.
MICHAEL BARRON of GOODBYE KUMIKO: My first musical heroes were Scott Joplin and Paul McCartney, in that order. Then later in my life, Frederic Chopin and Harry Nilsson. When I'm playing piano at home, I often play old rags and Chopin's nocturnes. It's fair to say that I'm aiming for the awkward intersection of those pianists even though I know I'm not even in the same universe as any of them.
I think I speak for everyone that we have a lot of 90/00's indie running through our veins. I could go on and on about Pavement, Elephant 6, Phil Elvrum/Microphones, et al. all night long. We love all that stuff and probably will forever.
I love David Lynch, as a filmmaker, as an Angeleno, as an artist and as a man. I'd also say the short stories of Raymond Carver constantly inspire me.
Who's on the cover of "My Wild Arms"? Is that David Lynch?
MB: Not anymore, but yes it was. The new album art, in case you are curious, is a photograph Jimmy (my brother) took of a cemetery in Philly near Bill's studio. I feel like it resembles a paperback from the 70's so I'm into it.
I get the feeling this record was a long time in the making. How long did it take you to write the songs? Had you been collecting them for a while before you decided to record them?
MB: You are correct about that, this LP had a long gestation period. The second song Jimmy and I ever wrote together was "Exclamation Points", which originally was called "I don't believe in exclamations points anymore". That was written in 2004 (I think?), which makes it the oldest song on the record. Demo versions of "The Tigers", "Oakland" and "These Days I Wake So Early" have been around for years too. We enjoy self recording at home so we have a lot of songs. These were just the 10 that made it into LP form.
How did you guys hook up with Bill Moriarty? What made you want to record with him in Philadelphia, as opposed to finding someone locally in L.A.?
MB: We basically discussed which producers had worked on albums we liked and we could feasibly afford. Bill was an easy choice because of his work with Dr. Dog and Man Man. Both are current bands we really like and felt like we had a superficial similarity to. Jimmy and I read a TapeOp interview with him a few years ago [quite possibly TapeOp #62, Nov/Dec 2007 --ed.] and really liked what we read. We also met Ryan from Man Man (Honus Honus) at one point, so I asked his opinion and he recommended Bill wholeheartedly. To top it all off, Bill had assisted Oz Fritz, who recorded Tom Waits (another musical hero) so we were pretty sold. The bonus is that we have good friends in Philly, so we stayed with them and tried to make an adventure out of the experience.
The whole album has a really live energy to it. Did you try to track these songs live or were there a lot of overdubs involved?
MB: We hadn't had much experience playing together as a band actually. Mostly we're all used to doing things by ourselves in a multi-track fashion. Bill really wanted to record us live and playing together because he likes the energy and sound. Since we didn't have that much rehearsal time in advance of recording, we were nervous about it. So to answer your question, we recorded most of the album live, but it was really difficult for us. We had a LOT of takes for certain songs.
That's not to say there weren't plenty of overdubs too. For example, Andrew Miller played bass guitar, banjo, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, etc. The guy is a musical dynamo. But obviously he can't play them all at once so overdubs were necessary. The meat-and-potatoes of virtually every song, was recorded live.
I had always assumed recording live would be a speedier process for making a record. And maybe that is true for bands that rehearse and play shows all the time. For us I feel like it lengthened the process. We had 3 weeks to track and mix the album with Bill. Prior to entering the studio, I thought that was more than enough. Retrospectively, I wish we had 6 weeks to make the album. It probably would have been 3 songs longer at least.
You're a keyboard player, yes? Who played the other instruments (guitars, drums, horns, strings, clarinet, etc.)? Did they come with you or were they local musicians you found in Philly?
MB: Pretty much everything on the album was played by us. Whatever instruments Bill had around we used. He had an upright bass, a banjo, various guitars, a Baldwin Fun Machine (a neat vintage keyboard which you can hear at 0:28 in "Sleeping In" and 2:16 of "The Tigers"), etc. We utilized them all. Jon Barthmus from Sun Airway had a harmonium he brought back from India that he generously loaned to me for the album so I had fun overdubbing that.
I can't overstate what Andrew [Miller] brought to the table, he really can play anything. He even writes amazing music under the name Firs of Prey (go
find the song "To Where We Drift" online, you won't be sorry [Free download here. --ed.]).
The only exception is the violin parts were overdubbed in Portland by Shannon Rose Steele from The Ocean Floor, another phenomenal talent we were fortunate to have at our disposal.
Did you go into the studio with your arrangements already figured out?
MB: Pretty much, but on two songs the arrangements changed dramatically. Those two songs were "Sleeping In" and "Plain Dream" which ended up being very rearranged in the course of recording them. Bill liked that we were flexible and always willing to try new things, even if this meant changing the songs' structures, tempos, arrangements, lyrics, etc.
How'd you get that fierce guitar sound on "These Days I Wake So Early"? And what's the synth on "We Own The Night"?
MB: For guitar sound questions, I put it to my brother Jimmy:
JIMMY BARRON: "All I can say is that my guitar is a Teisco 1960's weird Japanese surf guitar called the Del Ray. We used two Ampeg tube amps, most
notably the Gemini 22; and we just cranked it up really loud cause it sounded crappy otherwise. The only effects we used on the guitar was one pedal which was Jon's. It was the Zvex Super-Duper 2-1, which is just a distortion pedal that has a crazy huge range, from slight overdrive to making your guitar sound like a whale. We used this mostly on Oakland. In fact, I think we only used it on Oakland. It's a cool boutique pedal with the hand painted box and all that. It can do way more awesome stuff than we used it for.
Kinda boring really. As far as guitar stuff goes I keep it all pretty minimal. The most pedals I've ever owned was three, and one of them was a tuner. Anytime I use anything else it just sounds like I'm a kid in Guitar Center. Who wants to hear that? Just that kid."
MICHAEL BARRON: The keyboard at the end of "We Own the Night" was a Moog Rogue. Interestingly Andrew and I both came up with a part for the end, so we agreed to record one and then the other and see which we liked more. They ended up being very complementary, so we just kept both in.
What's the most inspiring album you've listened to lately?
MB: Nothing comes to mind, so I'll stretch the definition of "lately" a bit to champion 2 albums that I think are the most mystifyingly overlooked/underrated albums of the past decade. The first is the self-titled debut from Akron/Family in 2005, which is a beautiful, lo-fi masterpiece. The other is the sophomore MGMT album from 2010, "Congratulations". They're both complex, unpredictable pop records with just tons of things to love about them. I've listened to each dozens, if not hundreds of times, and I just can't get sick of them.
I forgot to mention DM Stith as one of my favorite records of the past 5 years. The production on that album is SO good. I've spent so much time trolling around online for any tidbits of info on his recording techniques. Love that record!
You've released your album with a CC BY-NC-SA license, allowing other artists to sample it and filmmakers to sync it for non-commercial projects (as long as they credit you and release their work under the same license). Where would you like to see it go?
MB: I would LOVE to see an animated music video to one of my songs. Jimmy and I have long been huge animation buffs. Jimmy even went to CalArts for a time and was in their Experimental Animation department. We've made a few aborted attempts to make music videos to our music, but frankly we just never follow through. But really, any film project that used our music would be exciting for us. It's a long-term goal of mine to score for films.