Interview: My Dear Disco
I recently had the opportunity to meet up with the up and coming Ann Arbor band My Dear Disco at the Ithaca venue Castaways. Everyone in the band was personable and excited about their music. Under the primary colored lights of the Castaways’ stage it was made extremely apparent that each member brought something fresh and essential to the group. Later on in the show one couldn’t be sure if the smoke onstage was from the fog machine or from the pure chemistry of the constantly smiling group. Adorned in shirts featuring all the symbols featured on your favorite music player (stop, play, pause, fast forward etc.) the band rifled through hits off of their new Dancthink LP, like the scorching hot White Lies andthe hyper-melodic My Dear Disco as well as an energetic cover of the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams as well as a soulful cover of the Stevie Wonder sampling Wild Wild West complete with a rap breakdown from their generously bearded drummer. It’s safe to say they blew the roof off the joint.
10 Questions with My Dear Disco
By: Aaron Z. Lee
1. You guys have some pretty impressive credentials already; a 3-time World Champion instrumentalist, a 1st place Michigan Idol winning singer, and two 1st place Block-M Records “New Music on the Block” winning recording artists. Did you guys have a secret meeting for super-powered Michigan area musicians and the result was My Dear Disco? How did you guys get together?
Haha. Well, we all met in the secret underground genetics laboratory at the University of Michigan, where we were all students, and slowly augmented our genetic code to allow for musical abilities previously unimaginable. In addition to our genetic work, we were all students in the school of music, taking classes together, playing in school ensembles together, studying anything ranging from classical percussion to jazz theory to electronic music composition. I guess because there is a lot of common ground between us as people as well as musically, a bunch of us all moved into a house together in Ann Arbor, and this really kick started the music making that eventually led to My Dear Disco.
The band originally started as a drum & bass duet with bagpipes as the lead instrument. As the duet slowly accrued members its musical identity evolved with each additional member, the last of which was our singer, Michelle. Before that point everything was instrumental and the band was called Toolbox. Then she guested on a tune that was to be recorded for the Toolbox record, and, wait, stop everything, holy shit this is the band. That first tune become White Lies. Tracking for the toolbox record was already 85% finished, but it didn’t matter. The bagpipe player, Tyler, learned to play synth, we renamed the band, and hit the ground running. A year and a half later, we released the Dancethink LP. Tyler will still break out the bagpipes at shows when it seems like a good time for an all-out thrash. People go crazy for that, it’s amazing to witness. We’re also planning to release an EP in the spring of 2009 of some of that older material for the fans who really get into the bagpipe-rave stuff.
2. You guys have talked about your particular brand of music as Dancethink, can you talk about what that term means to you?
Dancethink is a term that kind of serves two functions: First, it is an identifier for the music that we make. It functions like a genre title to describe our sound. We get asked so much about how we label our music, and we came up with this term to use rather than going through the dozen or more genres that we listen to, love, and draw on when we make music. Second, it is a concept which we aspire to achieve with our music. We want to make high energy dance music that gets people moving but we want it to be in complete balance with creative integrity and making music that is fresh, exciting, and interesting. Dancethink is both a descriptor and something that we strive for.
3. The music on the Dancethink LP cycles through so many styles so quickly in so many songs. From jazz to electro, to neo-soul, to bluesy duets, was it your intention to make an album so diverse or did that happen more organically?
Well, it was certainly never discussed ahead of time that this would be such a diverse sounding album. I think it is so diverse simply because we make music that reflects our interests, and our interests have a lot of variety. I think that is one thing about My Dear Disco that stands out to me as different from a lot of the other bands we meet out on the road or on the internets or whatever: we really don’t try to have a single concise image or sound. Nothing is really out of the question stylistically for us, as long we all dig it. Each member of the band has a really strong musical personality and so whether we are trying to play soul or techno or pop or whatever we all express ourselves in that music, and I think that is why whatever we do will sound like us.
We write our material in a very collaborative way, we almost never actually write out the music (though we do a lot of little demo type recordings along the way), and so it takes a really long time, but it is a very organic process. I think that the Dancethink LP is a reflection of this aspect of the band. Some of the takes of certain instruments on the final record were recorded almost two years before the album was put out, and so the record itself and its recording and production kind of came together in an organic way. Also, the way that we work is based a lot around doing most of our production and mixing, and a little bit of tracking, in a home studio environment so time and flexibility were things we had at our disposal so the whole record just kind of “grew up” over several months.
4. On the Dancethink LP you guys worked with Mark Saunders whose studio is responsible for the sound of Shiny Toy Guns’ “We Are Pilots”,” David Byrne’s. “Feelings”, and The Cure’s “Wish.” Can you talk about his contribution to the album?
It is worth saying first that it was a really amazing experience for us to get to work with Mark on some of the tracks on this record. He has an incredible sound that seems to compliment anything he chooses to work on. It was the shiny toy guns record that really put him on our radar, though at that time it was more like, “Could you ever imagine if we ever got to work with Mark Saunders?” He made that record sound so huge, but also focused — an extremely difficult balance to achieve, and an ability was extremely desirable for us since we were working on 100-120 track sessions. We originally just called his project manager hoping to work with a side-business he runs called “RE-EQ,” an affordable way to have your mix stem mastered (using separated tracks of select audio: usually kick, snare, vox, bass, and band) by one of his assistants, which he listens to at the end and gives a quick once over.
When we started sending our tracks over, the project manager (an amazing guy named Ollie Hammett) told us he really loved the music and thought it might be something mark would want to work on personally. He dug it, and we worked out an arrangement to have him do 3 tracks: White Lies, For Your Love, and All I Do.
The beginning was all over the phone (many cumbersome cell phone conference calls . . . not recommended), picking the tunes, talking about directions to take, references to use, arrangement changes, etc. Then we toured to New York and stayed an extra week to work with him in the studio. Mark is extremely honest and to the point. He’ll tell you if he loves something and he’ll tell you if he thinks something is shit — right away. It was challenging at first for us to say goodbye to certain sections or parts we had grown attached to. But, after giving a mix a few days, we started really hearing the incredible improvements and appreciating that critical ability. He’s also extremely open, so if we happened to disagree (which did happen more than once), we’d have amazingly productive conversations that would always lead to an ever better result.
At the end of the day, I can honestly say that working with Mark changed the way I will ever make music again. I’m always excited to put our disc any peoples hands because i know every single detail has been attended to with the highest level of attention and consideration, from the tom feel in the 4th measure to the 119th track of those 120 track sessions.
5. You guys have a bus that runs on bio diesel as well as regular diesel; can you talk about how and why you came into possession of such a vehicle?
It all started when a band from Kansas City called Bent Left stayed at our house in Ann Arbor a couple of years ago. They were running a veggie oil powered bus, and they kind of got us hip to the idea. Maybe a year later we were gearing up to start doing some serious touring, we had all graduated and were basically going full time with the band thing and so we decided we needed to get a touring vehicle. We debated for a long time about whether or not we should get a gasoline or diesel vehicle, with the intention of converting it to run on veg if we got a diesel. We eventually found this lumbering, awkward beauty of a short bus on ebay, located somewhere in Massachusetts. The price was right and we had done enough homework on the Veggie Fuel front to feel comfortable doing it so we went for it.
We got in touch with a company in Oberlin, OH called Full Circle Fuels (http://www.fullcirclefuels.com/) and they did the conversion for us. But it is really an interesting thing to do because there is a lot of education involved in doing it right, because there are not mechanics everywhere that you can take the system too to fix it, so you really have to have a good understanding of what is going. We have learned a lot about the process and about the system since we started running it. BTW, anyone considering this option should understand: you are collecting and using 100’s of gallons of liquid garbage. It has its ups and its downs, as I am sure you can imagine, but at the end of the day were glad we do it.
6. I read that you had not named your bus anything, have you since bestowed your beloved bus with a name?
We do have an unabridged book of bus names, and we have it narrowed down to 175 ear marked pages, but you can imagine how hard it is to make a decision like this in a seven person band, so our beloved veggie bus is still nameless. Believe me though, we’re trying to get it sorted out ASAP.
Some nicknames we throw around: “The Batmobus, “The Vicky Vooten Veggie Vagon,” and, “Big Shorty.”
7. What are you guys listening to on the bus during long drives?
Lately: the Supremes, the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson’s Bad, The Talking Heads, the White Album. It is kind of funny though because our bus doesn’t have a CD player or anything like that built into the bus, so we bring a boombox on the road with us to listen to while we drive. Since it is just some ordinary boombox though, it doesn’t have anything like skip protection, so CD’s basically won’t work so we only listen to cassette tapes while we are on tour. When we got the bus a bunch of people contributed and donated cassette collections to us, so we have a lot but it is all kind of dated. Funny enough, we currently have the legendary blues harmonica player Mad Cat Ruth’s tape collection from the 80’s on the bus . . . it’s a long story.
8. So far, what show have you enjoyed playing the most on your tour?
Well, we are kind of in a semi-constant kind of touring situation because when we aren’t out on the road on long runs, we do 3-4 day weekend runs out from Ann Arbor and back. This particular East Coast run, which is a little longer, we’re out for a whole week on this one, is just getting started, and we play our first show tonight in Buffalo, NY.
That having been said, I will share with you a little bit about a recent gig that we played on Halloween at an anime, music, movie and TV convention called Youmacon (pronounced YO-MAH-CON). It was basically one of the wildest and weirdest gigs we have ever played, but in a really awesome way. Youmacon is basically an opportunity for 6000 of the most fanatic kids and adults to get together, dress like video game, movie, and television characters and completely take over and transform the Dearborn Hyatt in Dearborn, MI. It is a little bit like a festival (think Bonaroo or Rothbury) that happens inside a hotel, and you are surround by massive multiplayer online gaming, dance dance revolution contests, rockband contests, voice acting workshops, anime music video dance parties, raves, and what have you. It gets pretty insane and it goes on for 3 days straight. Non-Stop. It is mind altering in and of itself. We got asked to perform two sets, one of which occurred at this massive rave-style event. People just went crazy; there were glowsticks galore, people dressed in elaborate outfits like a giant domokun suit that was 7 feet tall and 4 feet wide. People just raged. It was awesome. There are number of wonderful youtube videos to document it that you can find here: http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=18AC27FEC4AE3DC0
9. What show are you most looking forward to in the remainder of your tour?
Well both NYC and Boston have been really great to us the last several times we have been out. I expect there to be some good vibes at those shows and lots of friendly faces, which we always love. But honestly, I am really excited about all of the upcoming shows on the tour! We are playing some new towns like Buffalo, Ithaca, and Philly, and I can’t wait to see what the crowds are like there! Being out on the road is amazingly fun. The band is really like a big family, and I love being with all the band members, and we see so many old friends and make so many new friends every time we go out. It is great!
10. Have you ever thought about performing in the costumes you wear in the album art?
Ha. Not really. The main reason for that is that the costumes were so cumbersome and were really difficult to wear even while standing still. The album art and pictures obviously don’t reflect that, but we had to readjust and reset between almost every photo. We could barely stand, and the thought of trying to play an instrument in those costumes is painfully hilarious. We do have outfits that are based on that concept which we wear at shows, and are currently in the process of designing a new set that incorporate EL wire (glowing threads!). We’re taping for a TV show called Fearless Music on Fox which we’re hoping to have those outfits ready by. We’ll see . . . we could always dress up as the 7 dwarves too.
Thanks for doing this interview and best of luck on the remainder of your tour!
For more with My Dear Disco check out this interview with Bob, Tyler and Joey from the group as girls from Hobart and William Smith College showed up in a limo. For Real.