Conversations with Mike Brun: Josh Mease
Josh Mease’s music first captured my imagination back in 2010. His debut album,
, was on heavy rotation in my headphones back then. It’s my experience that Josh’s music hits home not only with a wide swath of folk, but also specifically with lots of musicians. (In 2011, he was invited to share the stage at 92Y Tribeca with many well-received jazz musicians, on a night called “713 → 212: Houstonians in NYC”, hosted by MacArthur Genius and lodestar of the jazz world Jason Moran.)
I think what people hear in his music is a universal quality. I mean that in every sense – his recordings often have a outer-space-y, cosmic vibe, and his lyrics and melodies have a timeless, American quality that so many can enjoy.
And now Mr. Mease’s sophomore release is nearly upon us. Tonight,
, and the new album will be out. It is much like the first album in certain ways. Ways that I can’t quite articulate: they’re both simultaneously urban and suburban, both distant and whispering in your ear, both dark and light. The new album, Lapland, which is actually an eponymous title of his new moniker, definitely feels like a cousin of
. (The scenic imagery of those titles convey that to an extent.) But it’s more of
– not so much in quantity, but in concentration. More impressionist, vintage-y synthesizers; more repeats of the chorus; more reverb on the guitars; an even foggier haze of the vague longing that permeate all his lyrics. Mease seems to be patiently boring deeper into the vibe he first found with
. As a songwriter, I admire that.
: in the subway, on your way to a raging party; with your morning latte; walking through Central Park alone at sunset this summer; sitting with friends on the porch of a lakeside cabin in Maine; while folding laundry.
Josh and I exchanged emails over the last few weeks. Here’s what we came up with.
: It's been about four years since the release of your last album,
. When did you start the process to record this new album?
: I started writing some of the songs as early as 2009 - "Overboard" and "Memory" were probably the earliest. By the time the recording process began in early 2011, most of the songs were completely written. I decided to start working when a buddy let me use his apartment full of keyboards while he was out on tour. I would usually start out with some kind of synth and a click track, and add a vocal as early as I could in the process. This way I could build the tracks around the vocal instead of having to sing over a wall of stuff.
: My understanding of the process for Wilderness was that some of it was recorded in your apartment in Brooklyn and some of it was recorded at a "proper" studio in Houston. So that work you did in your friend's apartment... was that more demo-recording, or did it end up being used directly for the album?
: For Wilderness, most of the tracks were started at a proper studio down in Denton, Texas (Echolab) - drums, bass, and some guitars. I then took the tracks back to Brooklyn with me and finished them off at my apartment or other random project studios. The stuff I did at my friend's place ended up being used for the album - this was mostly synths, vocals, and acoustic guitar. I had already tried out plenty of demos on my own, using a 4-track iphone app or a looping pedal.
: Wow, an iPhone app! As a composer and particularly as a sideman, the Voice Memos app is invaluable to me - but I haven't gotten too deep into music apps. Care to disclose the name of the one you had been using?
: It's called "FourTrack". It's not the most amazing sounding thing in the world (just imagine stacking a bunch of voice memo tracks on top of one another), but it's a great tool for demoing stuff really quickly. I actually prefer that whatever I make the demo on doesn't sound too fancy. This way, I'm not trying to chase a good sounding demo when I go to make the definitive recorded version.
: Ah yes, the dreaded "demo-itis". I hear you on that. Ok, I'm gathering you have rituals and workflows where you're mostly by yourself. And on your site, it mentions you were "rarely using other musicians" in the process of generating content for this new album. So when you felt you were ready to fully realize the recordings, who did you end up engaging?
: The only other musicians I ended up using were drummers. The main drummer on the record is Brian Wolfe, who works with Sufjan Stevens and St. Vincent / David Byrne. I met him on a wedding gig we both did. He's really solid and thorough. Even for really good drummers, I think it's hard to add drums to mostly complete tracks after the fact w/ a click. I always like editing stuff as little as possible, and I didn't really have to move anything he did around. My friends Robin Macmillan and Bill Campbell also played on some stuff and did a really good job.
: You're describing your end of things as being relatively solitary. I reckon that comes across to the listener. For me, Lapland's sound is most conducive to headphones or a stereo - which makes the experience more solitary as well, not to mention the audio of a higher quality. Would you say live performance is a goal for Lapland? You've had a bunch of shows as Lapland already: who joins you on stage?
: I guess playing live is a sort of "goal" in the sense that I want to keep getting better at it and doing more of it. It's helpful for my musicianship and it's good to get some audience feedback in real time. You get an instant sense of what touches people and what doesn't. That being said, my relationship w/ playing out can be complicated at times. I feel like the reasons people react more to one thing than another can be pretty superficial. In lots of settings it's easier to win people over with loud / energetic / fast stuff. Still trying to figure out the trick of drawing folks in without hitting them over the head.
I've only done two shows as Lapland so far, but the guys that play with me now did plenty of shows with me when I was playing as Josh Mease. Frank Locrasto plays keyboards, Ryan Scott plays guitar, Bob Hart plays bass, and Aynsley Powell plays drums. All great musicians that make my job easier. All I have to worry about is not screwing up my singing / guitar playing.
: People can read on your site about the book you came across that was the specific inspiration for the new moniker, Lapland. But backing up a step, I'm wondering if there's a philosophical shift that you wanted to convey with the idea of an alias. New thematic territory? Re-branding? Or maybe you were just looking for a general change-up? None/all of the above? That is, what sparked the idea for the name change in the first place?
: I found myself cringing a little every time I would think about using my real name to release stuff. I've never really loved the singer/songwriter tag and all that it evokes, and I think when people use their own name it can lead to someone picturing a guy on a stool with a guitar in a coffee house. Also, the thought of having a bit of a buffer between my music and my identity has always appealed to me.
I tried to figure out a name to use before I released Wilderness, but everything I thought of seemed worse than using my own. After I finished recording this last record, the name dilemma was still on my mind. I wrote down tons of ideas, but nothing seemed to work until my wife brought home an old book from the 70's called "Lappland Wanderland". The english version, Lapland, seemed appropriate and no one else was using it - so I went for it.
: I'd like to hear more about some of the other things you were up to between Wilderness and Lapland. For example, a tune you wrote called "Me and You" made it onto Gretchen Parlato's most recent record. My guess would be you made the connection with her through your college roommate, Alan Hampton, who has played quite a bit with her - but I won't assume. So how did it all come about? And what was your creative process like for that particular composition?
: Between Wilderness and Lapland I did some short tours, kept a day job going, and got married to my longtime girlfriend. I probably could have knocked out Lapland quicker, but I only worked on it when I was feeling the urge. I did indeed meet Gretchen through my friend Alan Hampton. I did some gigs with her 4 or 5 years ago and gave her a couple of my songs to record and/or play on gigs, "Me and You" and "Landslide". I wrote "Me and You" way back in 2004 or 2005, so I don't really remember the process. Probably similar to how I write songs now. Try a bunch of stuff and see what comes out. I remember it not taking a very long time to finish writing it.
: Very interesting stuff. And you played some guitar on Hampton's record too, yea?
: Yeah, I played some guitar and bass on his last record, Moving Sidewalk.
: And I simply must ask about another thing. You seem to have a penchant for the absurd at times - particularly with ridiculous, Photoshopped images. Is that you behind the
videos on YouTube?
: Yeah, the silly images and videos are a good outlet for my natural goofiness. That was me that made the "What Jazz Means to Me" video you speak of. Those videos don't actually represent what jazz means to me. I guess a more accurate title would be "What Terrible Jazz Means To Me". You can see lots of other silliness at
: Ok, mystery solved. And thanks for the link. So I guess we can watch those videos and get a vague idea of what you're not into - but what have you been listening to lately that's inspired you? All examples welcome: local artists, old albums you've returned to, bird calls...
: Just to clarify, I'm totally into the inherent comedy of "bad" music. Sometimes I think I like it just as much as "good" music, so those videos make me pretty happy.
As far as stuff I've been listening to lately that inspires me, I've really enjoyed the new-ish Father John Misty record, "Fear Fun" on every level. The lyrics are vivid and imaginative, the recording is great, and the tunes (melodies/harmony) are strong. I've also been on a long-term synth binge. I've been checking out lots of Tomita ("SnowFlakes Are Dancing" and "Pictures At An Exhibition"), Mort Garson, Wendy Carlos etc. Also, I didn't listen to a ton of classical music in my formative years - so I'm playing catch up on that. I'm a sucker for old classical recordings that sound like found objects. I feel like the scratchy, murky quality adds an element of mystery to already great pieces.
Josh's NYC Recommendations:
(Ditmas Park, Brooklyn)
: The closest bar to my place that I like is probably Sycamore... Good selection of whisky. I usually like bars that do the old time cocktails like Clover Club, Weather Up, etc.
: Sometimes the selection of restaurants in NYC can be a bit overwhelming, but I've been eating frequently at Walter Foods and M. Shanghai in Williamsburg recently.
For more info on Josh and Mike, check out:
Josh Mease of Lapland