I've written before about the explosive potential of digging in the discount bin and basically any part of a well-curated record store's stock that is ignored. Whether it's a known entity that was simply overstocked, a title that failed to move units, or a record the buyer thought was promising enough to buy yet whose aesthetic didn't resonate with the store's traffic, it's hard not to feel like you're leaving records on the table if you skip past the discount or used bin. Then again, that's most of the fun--seeing a title that you know no one has or will touch, going home to listen to samples of it, and returning to purchase it, knowing that very few others will have that diamond in the rough. It was digging through one especially-trusted buyer's bin that I stumbled upon a twelve inch bearing only a non-distinct label, an unknown producer's name, and a clutch hand-written note along the lines of "Trippy UK-style breakbeat excursions." Needless to say it quickly found its way into my listening station pile and after dropping the needle for a few seconds on each of the record's four cuts, I was sold. It was like the record had been waiting for me to find it, so perfect did it line up with my own tastes and predilections.
Turns out it was, so to speak.
A few months before that fateful day, the Pillow EP--hit that link for my review--authored by the humorously-named Mischa Lively--had been cleverly placed in that store's discount bin by its creator, née Blake Barton, as a clever way to reach individuals like myself who are always digging for the unknown and revelatory. Of course, I only learned this in the past few days during my extremely enjoyable (and efficient!) exchange with Mischa, whose name is a clever juxtaposition of the names of two female 00s pop idols, Mischa Barton and Blake Lively. Considering the fact that so many producers proffering in similar heady and ambitious electronic music like that on the EP often seems to affect a certain aloofness around pop culture, I was pretty eager to learn more about the guy behind this fully-realized four-tracker. In the world of dance music, I find it useful to distinguish between the terms "twelves" and EPs as the former connotes a more functional quality--you might be getting it just for one track that you can't imagine not being in future DJ sets--while the latter, much like an LP, is created as a coherent work of art.
Moving with ease from spacey house build-ups to ambitiously-programmed and confounding drum breaks, Pillow felt like the kind of EP that had been gestating in its creator's head for years while boasting a perfectionist sensibility in that each note and drum hit felt essential, deliberate, and genuinely unique. I quickly found myself drawing parallels to in-a-league-of-their-own artists as T++ and Monolake. But moreover, as someone who grew up playing the drums, I couldn't help but feel a pang of jealousy by the sheer, raw talent that is as florid as it is accomplished. A former bandmate and dear friend of mine once theorized that 99% of drummers are fans of The Police, a band he considered a "drummer's band." It was the first time I realized that my identities as a music fan and as a musician overlapped and to this day, as much as I love the drone zone, percussive pings add color to my life. And seemingly Barton's as well, with him stating that "rhythm is instinctual to me." The thing is, rhythm isn't instinctual to everyone and that seems especially true of those individuals who strive to become drummers--look, having full coordination over all of your limbs isn't exactly a cakewalk. But as someone whose father was a drummer, rhythm was also instinctual to me, figuring out the beats of pop songs be it on my school desk or on my chest (while walking down a crowded street with my moms, natch).
On Pillow, I hear a musician applying that instinctual rhythm to an infinite percussive and sonic palette and not getting lost in the possibilities. As I will be the first to attest, as much as I love DAW's (digital audio workstations) like Ableton as they are like the drum set I always wanted, having infinite sounds and compositional possibilities as your disposal is more of a handicap than a blessing. Yet, when I listen to Lively's music, I hear a true synthesis between live music sensibilities and how they can translate to a digital environment. And as he describes below, it's a balancing act that might not be easy or intuitive, but he's found a process that works for him. With his debut now in the rearview mirror and a 2018 tour on the horizon, who knows if Lively will be able to pierce the veil of hype. What I do know is that he's creating truly vital music that electronic music fans and drum heads alike can enjoy with total abandon.
Z: First off, could you give me some background info on yourself and how you got into music? Where did you grow up and did you live in a musical household at all? What was your earliest experience with music? Did you play any instruments? When did you first encounter electronic music and what was it, if your remember? Did you play in any bands or when did you first get into making music?
ML: I grew up in Nashville, TN in a semi-musical household—meaning, my parents both dabbled with music growing up, and MTV/VH1 were on television pretty regularly. They, especially dad, were surprisingly enthusiastic when I took up drumming, coming to school events, taking me to rehearsals, and even chaperoning marching band competitions. It was grueling and strict (the instructors, not my parents). The drumline practiced more than the sports teams, so by the time I hit college, I was a little burnt out. This gave me more time to skateboard.
I’d been into the Chili Peppers like many teenagers, started digging Prince and Ghostface, but skate videos exposed me to so many new types of music I’d never hear/see on MTV/BET/VH1. These videos led me to acts like Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, Herbie Hancock, Turing Machine, etc. I mention this because I finally embraced electronic music when I shed my drumline ego and realized: Prince programmed a lot of drums, Tortoise/The Sea and Cake heavily manipulated a lot of drum sounds, and John Frusciante was making electronic tunes so much weirder and scarier than his role as Chi Peps guitarist, lol. It was like discovering my idols used their brains and electronic methods to modify their tastes to expand, rather than limiting themselves to what limbs could do. Even then, I still tried to join/start bands as a drummer, but either folks weren’t enthusiastic/adventurous enough, or it just didn’t work out. The only band I was ever officially in was for about a year—a friend who needed a live drummer for some stuff they had written together with Machinedrum. It was a good experience, but it didn’t feel like where I needed to be.
Z: What is your process for making your tracks? I was really taken by the drums on the Pillow EP: Even the acoustic-sounding kit on "Blakeup" has a quality to it that is unmistakably your own...how do you go about creating the drum sounds for your tracks and what's your approach to creating beats? Who do you draw inspiration from on the rhythmic side of things and how do you feel the drums inform the harmonic element of a track?
ML: Processes change for me a lot, but every idea starts with a drumset, or whatever I can tap on nearby. I have no fidelity rules: I record on iPhone/Zoom/Tascam recorders and with actual drum mics. Sometimes, I use those crude recordings and hyper edit, sometimes I convert them to MIDI. In the past I would just layer these in Ableton and affect them to until they don’t sound like a drum kit (“Pillow”,“Held Open”). Sometimes I’ll drum out a whole session, find the best parts to loop, duplicate and edit tracks so I can isolate the Kick from the tom from the hat etc. so that it sounds programmed (“Blakeup”, “A Posture for Learning”). Funny enough, "Blakeup" came from me playing along to “Make Up” by Vanity 6 on my drum set. Really though, there’s no programming other than quantizing and screen arrangement to loop/edit sessions down. Touching keyboards feels like typing, so that’s why I have to start with using my body to create the rhythms. Since I can’t communicate melodically/harmonically, rhythm is truly a conversational, story-telling language for me. I really just feel better knowing that even as brute-yet-overwrought as my process is, I know I’m not using packaged/preset drum sounds (outside of a few modifications from my Roland SPD-s) or forcing elements that people think should be included. Melodies and Harmonies can wait—they are inessential to my communication, but I do enjoy accommodating them when one arrives.
Z: Inspiration is a tough things to pin down, especially on the nonmusical variety. That said, what influences animate the music you make as Mischa Lively? It's at once frenetic and glistening; still yet kinetic. Which other artists and/or experiences have shaped your approach to music?
ML: I’ve never been a drug user, so I like making tunes that feel like a trip I can go on while caffeinated. It’s not easy to pin down influences, but I think Laurel Halo and Demdike Stare have such a good sense of compositional arc in their tracks, while still being comfortable with detours and shifts. Those are the only sort of current influences I could name as of the past few years, but listening to Prince, SOS Band, and lots of Hi-NRG/Italo help influence the rigid-grid sense of groove too.
Z: You've mentioned that much of the attention you have received has come overseas. How would you contrast the reception to your music in the UK vs. in the US and what are your thoughts on our country's relationship with electronic music? Is there much of an interest in electronic music in your area? What labels have been important to your development as an artist and which ones have inspired you as a fan (and are they one in the same?)
As for regional support, I’m not sure why I’ve had more support overseas, aside from the obvious (Non-Americans have always seemed to embrace the electronic heritage more openly). There is this level of “grit” that Americans seem to want, as if to validate the music they hear. They need to see people “work for it”, even if the music sucks. They deem music and performance invalid unless an artist/band has live instruments and moves around a lot. They have an aversion to it don’t consider the work that is happening within electronic music. But even then, all forms of music have their cliques/social hierachies/preferences.
Regionally, the south of the US has a pretty cool underground, scene. It’s spread-out categorically/regionally, and it’s unpredictable which shows will be packed, and which will be sparse. I dance regardless. My friends at the Tram Planet and Fraternity as Vanity labels regularly bring lots of talent that you’d not see/hear unless in NYC/Chicago/Etc. Big Ears Fest in Knoxville books incredible worldwide acts into various theaters. CGI and DKA are in ATL and release great music from all over. They are all doing a good job building bridges between dance and experimental communities.
Modern Love is the only label I’d say I’m a loyalist to, but there are various artists on Hyperdub/PAN/Hemlock/CGI that have inspired me to keep it weird. No genre commitments! I could listen to DJ Wey one minute, Joni Mitchell the next. (Ed: A-fucking-men)
Z: What is your work schedule like? Do you do music full-time or is it a hobby? You hand-delivered many of the copies of your EP; how do you see your role in marketing your music and how do you try and stand out at a time when there is truly so much music to choose from? What can we expect next from Mischa Lively? Lastly, what's with the name? ;)
ML: I am a graphic designer during the day, so I record periodically through the year, and will take holidays and lunch breaks to edit recordings. As for sharing my work, I had a lot of personal copies of my EP left, so I made sure to take a few to stores I supported while traveling, and doing trades with other friends and labels. Music for me is a relationship based sociological glue, so that’s why it’s been fun doing trades with stores, mailing copies to people I meet or buy from online, etc. I enjoy the gift and the opportunity that comes from exchanging one of my 12's with someone. Similarly, stores that don’t want to stock my records get a copy or two snuck into the bins. Making money on this is unlikely, but I could make a new friend or supporter when someone stumbles upon a copy, as you did!
I’ll be playing shows in 2018, so we’ll see what opportunities open up from that. I’m sitting on some finished material I’d like to release, but I’ve not sent it to any labels. Some of it is more straightforward to DJ with, some of it is far stranger than the last EP. Hoping someone can embrace both ends of that spectrum and release some of it.
As for the name, I thought I saw Blake Barton on a magazine years ago, but I actually just saw Blake Lively and Mischa Barton close together. Adopting a female nom de plume was meaningful since music is not my dayjob. The name captures the requirement of a secondary persona and altered mindset to create music. ML unifies all of that, masculine and feminine.
To learn more about Mischa's contemporary influences, check out his Soundcloud page where he curates a fantastic selection of new electronic music.