On May, 31st, 2010, I talked with Michael Shuman (Queens of the Stone Age, Wires on Fire) about his new project, Mini Mansions. Mini Mansions is playing here in Denver on the 4th, so look out for a possible follow-up interview.
To start, what is the line-up and how did you guys form?
It’s myself, Zach Dawes and Tyler Parkford. As for getting together…that’s a long story. Me and Zach have been best buds for like 14 years and he went to college in Santa Cruz and ended up living with Tyler. Tyler makes weird music and always has. He’d never been in a band, just kind of made weird tunes for himself, and Zach sent me some of his stuff and it was always rad. So, when he moved back to LA I hung out with Tyler and showed him some of my stuff and talked about making a band, and the music we were both making just kind of made sense together in the direction we wanted to go. And since he’d never been in a band he didn’t really know what do with his music, but it made was just so good I felt that we had to make a full band out of it.
Do you and Tyler contribute equally to songwriting, or is there a primary songwriter?
Do you and Tyler contribute equally to songwriting, or is there a primary songwriter?
I’d say Tyler contributes a little bit more. Maybe like 60-40, if you really want to break it down. You know, we all have different roles in the band. But, for example, the first EP has maybe 2 of my songs and the rest are his. It’s just, he never really had fully developed songs, it’s just him in his room with no drumset or anything. It’s a process... I’ve always hated talking about who writes songs, because, you know, maybe we have a great chorus on an acoustic, but how would it sound with a full band? The orchestration is much more complex.
So there’s much more of a full band mentality to writing?
Ya, definitely. We might start with a riff, but then we’ll dissect it and rearrange it, which leaves us with something completely different than what we started with.
Why did you choose the name Mini Mansions?
Coming up with band names is the worst process ever. I don’t think there are really too many good names to choose from anymore, so you just sort of throw words together. But, when we threw those two together it just kind of made sense in the way we were writing songs. Like I was saying, the songs would start out as little minute and half songs that would be built up.
So it’s sort of a reference to the different compartments in every song?
Ya…ya, it just kind of made sense with everything and what our live show is like.
Your first EP was hand-packaged, numbered and self-released. How do you feel about the DIY approach, compared to being signed and distributed by a label?
I think both are good, depending on how you do it. I’ve always done the DIY thing but that’s because I didn’t have any other options. You know, otherwise you have to find someone to put it out and everything. Like, my other band, Wires on Fire, we have a label called Buddyhead Records who put our records out, but we still did everything ourselves. We booked the tours, sold the merch, and, you know, I like doing it myself. I like doing all the work, but the only thing is that is gets a little taxing, and when its starts to beat you up, or the music suffers, that’s when you know you need some help. And its totally cool to have a label to help you reach as many people as possible, its awesome, because you just want to play and have people hear it. But, some people do it right, like that band No Age, they’ve always done the DIY thing. They still don’t have a manager, just a booking agent, and Sub Pop puts out their records, although they still have their own label. And, you know, those guys do really well. They really did it right, and so, you can definitely do it right in the DIY world.
Is the DIY approach something you’d recommend to other bands that are coming up?
I highly recommend it. I don’t think there’s any other way to do it when you’re beginning. Like, if you live in LA you can try to go play the rock scene and hope some producer is coming to listen; you don’t just play one show a month and sit on your ass the rest of the time. Or, you learn what you have to do to do it yourself. With Wires on Fire we learned how to book our own tours, and how to do the DIY thing. And its like I said, you just can’t quit. You have to go and just do it.
Your first 7” comes out tomorrow (June 1st 2010) through Psychedelic Judiaism. What is your affiliation with them?
Well, Evan from Wires on Fire and my good friend Jon run that label. They’re my old best friends, so you know, it was easy that way.
Are you going to release the LP through them?
No, were doing it through another label, but I don’t know if I should say who just yet…
The b-side on the new 7” is a cover of Blondie’s Heart of Glass. How did you choose that particular song to cover?
I don’t know if it was the chicken or the egg, but I really wanted to do a song that a girl sang, because it would just be completely different. Instead of changing the song you’re changing the sex, you know, changing from a girl singing it to a guy, yet the words are the same. Plus, we kind of sound like chicks when we sing anyway (laughs). And, I remember we were just fucking around and thought it would be great to take a disco song, you know, a fast and upbeat classic disco song and just make it a real bummer. I think it worked really well.
Do you think you’ll do any more covers in the future? If so, any artists/ songs in particular you’ve been thinking about?
Ya, I’d love to do more covers, more girl songs. Other than that, I’d really like to do this Leonard Cohen song, but that kind of goes against the whole girl-song thing, so I don’t know about that…
I don’t know, I love Leonard Cohen, so you should probably consider that…
Ya, it would be the ultimate, its one of my favorite songs. It’s the first song on New Skin for the Old Cemetery; it’s called “Is This What You Wanted”. New Skin for the Old Cemetery, I think, is the best Leonard Cohen record.
That’s a bold statement…
I feel very strongly about it.
If you don’t mind, let’s talk about the upcoming LP…Are you guys still in the process of recording?
No, we finished mixing it yesterday.
How many songs made the cut?
Were those songs written around the same time as the songs from the EP and the 7”?
2 of the songs from the EP and the a-side to the 7” are on there, although they’re mixed differently. So, yes and no. We started the band in January of ’09 and did that EP in March of ’09, which was real quick. It was more like “Were excited, lets do something, let’s make a demo”. But right after that we began writing the rest of the songs, and we wrote all the way up until we started recording the LP. Also, the songs on the LP are completely different than what’s on the EP.
What is different? Was it the sound, or the approach…
Well, on the EP, no one played drums yet and we just wanted to make something that was mellow and focus on vocals and songwriting. Only 3 songs on the EP have drums, out of 8, and there was more guitar because Tyler and I were both playing guitar. But, I think we found out the best situation for us to play, which was me on drums, Tyler on keys and Zach on bass. It just felt right. And so basically all the songs on the new record were recorded with that set-up.
Because you have so much experience playing bass in other bands, do you feel comfortable just being the drummer, or do you still have a lot of input on basslines?
I’m really tough on Zach... (laughs) Not too tough though. I mean, ya, if I have an idea or if I’m writing a song, I often like to write the bass line for the guitar riff I have, or sometimes I’ll write on bass. So, ya, I definitely put stuff on the table. But, Zach is one of my favorite bass players, so, I fully trust him and love what he does, which is very different from what I do, but his stuff just fits perfectly. I love playing bass, but I also love playing drums and have a lot of fun doing that. It makes it OK because I just feel really comfortable with Zach on bass.
That’s the only way it could be, really…
Ya, ya, or else I’d just be pissed at him all the time (laughs)
Ya, that would never work out… Does the album have a name yet?
Along with the release of the 7”, you guys begin an American/Canadian tour tomorrow. Is this your first tour headlining?
Basically. I mean, we’ve done our own shows, and on the last Canadian run we did 12 shows by ourselves. But, this is kind of the first time were going out like “OK, lets see what we can do by ourselves”.
You guys have toured in support of Them Crooked Vultures. What was that experience like, specifically being around John Paul Jones?
Its weird, it’s trippy. You know Josh and Dave are good friends of mine, and then you meet John Paul Jones, who, you know, I learned how to play bass from listening to. So, its one of those weird things. But, you know, he’s just a normal dude. Unless you really stop and go “oh shit, he was in Led Zeppelin” nothing really changes. He’s the sweetest guy ever, so, it’s not weird unless you make it weird.
If you don’t mind my digression and indulgence, out of curiosity, will you tell me a little about meeting and playing with two particular bands that we’re all fans of?
Ok, the first is The Dead Weather:
They’re all sweethearts. Dean [Fertita] is one of my favorite people ever, so that was normal. They are all really cool but their just normal people really.
The second band I wanted to ask about is Black Rebel Motorcycle Club:
They’re one of my favorite bands. I met them a few times here and there, and you know I just really wanted to play with them, I thought it would be cool and I thought, actually, you know, weirdly enough, you wouldn’t think it would make sense for us to play with them, but it worked. It’s weird, you can’t tell if they’re the real deal or not, but they sure seem like it (laughs). They’re always in black and that kind of thing, but they’re super sweet too.
So, along with those tours, you guys also played at SXSW this year. What was that like?
(I laugh, but he doesn’t) Terrible?
I hate it. I didn’t really want to do it, but did it anyway for some reason. You know, when I was in Wire on Fire, and we were like 17-18, it was really fun. And I’m sure its fun as a spectator, because it’s not like a normal festival; you can walk into a restaurant and eat instead of, you know, some shitty hot dog from a stand or something. You can go to a hotel or a friend’s house or something. But as band, I think it’s really discouraging and kind of depressing. The music industry isn’t what it used to be. Back then, you went because every label, manager, and booking agent was there and they were hungry, looking for the next big band. But no one is signing anyone anymore. So, it’s like you go out there to play while 200 other bands play at the same time as you, bands that are probably better than you. Well, I mean not in our case (laughs) …
(laughs) Obviously. But it’s just rough. We did 7 shows in 3 days and the worst ones were in a tiny shithole playing for like 4 kids. At your own show, even getting stuffed into a tiny, tiny, tiny room is better than your SXSW “showcase” where people are supposedly going to come see you or whatever, coming with their label badges or… its just a clusterfuck, and not very fun for me.
That’s really understandable, I’ve never heard anyone describe it like that but it really makes sense.
Ya it just like, you know, you’re getting out of your show, carrying your stuff back to the van and you see, like, 5 other bands moving their stuff into their own dirty, shitty van, but nothing good is really happening for anybody. It’s a really weird feeling. It’s just a bummer.
Man, that’s depressing. I’ve never looked at it like that, but it makes so much goddamn sense.
Most people probably lie, saying they love it and, you know, or, Atlantic was out there scouting, it’s like “yeah, right…”
You guys are doing a Daytrotter Session on the 10th. Were you guys fans of Daytrotter before you scheduled this?
My friend John turned me onto it, and it’s pretty amazing. I’m really excited to do it. The whole thing… it’s those kinds of things that make music exciting and fun still. At this point, you know, I don’t even know how that guy got so many rad bands. Small bands too that no ones heard of…
Ya, I’ve found some really awesome no-namers through there…
Ya seriously, and then you look and, like, Kris Kristofferson is playing too or something. It’s so bizarre, but it’s awesome. So, I’m really exited to play that, and excited that things like that are happening right now.
Do you guys already know what songs you’ll play?
No idea. I don’t even really know the deal. I just talked to the guy and he was like “this day, this time”, and I was like “cool, we’ll be there”, but I have no idea how many songs we get to play… do you know?
Um, it’s usually somewhere around 4…
Ya, 4 songs, give or take a few. So start thinking…
I’m on it.
You’re also continuing up through Canada after this. Have ever you noticed any difference between Canadian and American audiences?
Ya. Well, with Queens [of the Stone Age] I definitely felt a difference. Canada was just way more excited. Just way bigger fan bases. It just felt like everyone still bought records up there. You know, they still have programs that support music like this and everything. But, last tour we did we were caught on the wrong bill, just the total wrong bill for us. So, it was very weird...We got booed our first night, terribly…
Ya, and we destroyed, too. It was awesome... It was weird, but this time we’ll be able to tell for sure.
Overall, do you think your experience playing/touring with QOTSA and Wires on Fire has affected your approach to Mini Mansions?
Ya, you accumulate everything you learn. For instance, I’ll use stuff I learned from touring with Queens for Mini Mansions, which is a much smaller thing. You learn everything though, from tricks to saving money, to not wearing your body out, to knowing where to get good food. Its funny, going on tour with Queens, we get to a city and Josh [Homme] has been going there for 10 years and has a ton of close friends. So now, going back with MM, we get to the city and it’s awesome because we have friends now. So you pick up a lot of different things.
People can’t seem to describe you guys without mentioning The Beatles. How do you feel about that constant comparison?
I think it’s a compliment, because they’re one of my favorite bands…but, I think it’s just an easy way out…
Do you think it’s accurate?
I guess I can see it, based on the first EP, which is all anyone has heard, but I don’t think they’ll say that about the new record. No, I don’t think it’s accurate. I say it’s an easy way out because I’ve heard people describe it exactly how I think it is... like, someone said it was a mixture between The Kinks and Pleasure Forever... I don’t know if you know Pleasure Forever, but they’re one of my big influences for this band, but no one would ever know it because no one has ever heard of them, you know? When someone said that I was like “thank you, that is so right”. But, the Beatles thing, ya, that’s way too easy.
Aside from the Beatles, obviously, what kind of musicians do you guys find yourselves listening to in the van?
Tyler is much more into the new, cool bands that no one has heard of. I used to be that guy, when I worked for this radio station, but I’ve become sort of jaded... I just like the stuff I like. And, I only really listen to music in the car; I don’t really go home and listen to records anymore, which is kind of shitty, but, you know, we listen to records for 7 hours straight in the van, so I don’t need to otherwise. We listen to a lot of mellower stuff, stuff to kind of give the ears a break. Or, we’ll listen to a lot of hip-hop because its refreshing. We’ll also listen to, like, Elliott Smith, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, you know, just stuff that’s easy.
That’s funny, I wanted to describe you guys as “Queen meets Figure 8-era Elliott Smith”, but decided to bite my tongue…
Elliott is my favorite.
Agreed. Rest In Peace, Elliott…Do you think listening to different kind of stuff, like Hip-Hop, influences your music. That is to say, not being influenced by music that sounds like you, but rather things that are completely different?
Exactly. I think that’s what we do. You know, with that whole Beatles reference, the reason I don’t get that, or rather, I get it, but don’t agree is because our process of writing songs probably came from film, or TV, or hip-hop, or those kind of things. Like, a lot of beats I write are very boom-bap, simple grooving beats, because, you know, listening to hip-hop you’re like “that beat is rad” and it just make you feel good. Or, like, that great organ or synth sounds that Dr. Dre uses, that’s just rad, and I want to use that kind of stuff, because it’s really dark too. Anyways, why would you want to listen to or copy bands that sound just like you? Why don’t you just start a cover band?
What kind of hip-hop do you like?
I’m into classic hip-hop. I don’t stray too far. I used to get into Aesop Rock and Murs and stuff like that, but not so much anymore. I really just listen to the classics like Dre, Snoop, Biggie, you know, classics.
Modern hip-hop just takes a very different approach…
I wish I got into it more. I’m sure there’s tons of great shit out there, I just don’t know it.
Try Typical Cats from Chicago, especially the self-titled LP, if you’re into the older, more laid-back type of shit that remains lyrical.
Ya, It’s three guys in the underground, but, I mean, really great writers and DJ Natural’s beats just resonate with that Classic Chicago sound.
Cool, I’ll check it out.
So what’s next? You plan to release the LP in September. After that do you think you will go back out on tour to support, or would you like to spend some time writing and recording new material?
I think we’d like to start writing again, but, you just kind of have to tour, you have to. You know, whether it’s a hard tour, or just some short touring around your area. Its the best way to promote. Now, were doing a tour right now were there might be 2 people at all the shows, but, if you have people backing you, financially, and marketing for you, then you just have to tour. But we really want to write more. We’re just going to keep going at it and see what happens.
--Z St. J, May 31st, 2010