Q&A: Michal Menert
The American DJ and producer on returning to India for Bacardi NH7 Weekender, collaborating with Ox7gen and Dualist Inquiry and touring with Bassnectar
The last time American electronica artist Michal Menert was in India, he teamed up with Mumbai drum and bass artist Aditya Ashok,Â better known as Ox7gen, and came up with some brand new tunes. This time around, Menert plans to collaborate with OX7Gen as well as Dualist Inquiry.Â Making his second trip to India for the Bacardi NH7 Weekender in Delhi and Kolkata and confesses that he is a big Indophile and says ofÂ Indian artists, “It really inspires me to watch these guys taking the best parts of what they’ve seen other people from the world do, incorporate their own stuff in and taking it to the next level.”
Collaborations come easily to Menert, who set upÂ Pretty Lights project with Derek Vincent Smith, his childhood friend. The DJ and producer alsoÂ helmed electro hip hop project Half Color with American producer Paul Basic.Â Menert went solo in 2010, a few years after the release of their debut album Taking Up Your Precious Time, and continued as a member of the Pretty Lights music label.Â Both Vincent and Menert have released their music for free even before they released their debut album as Pretty Lights in 2006, much before it became a common phenomenon. They make most of their money from touring, says Menert, “It’s actually great because you literally have to work for it. You can’t just strike it big in the musical lottery of the Billboard and make millions of dollars and instead go out and work for it. Also, I think it keeps the music a lot more common and in the real world rather than in the celebrity world.”
You tweeted saying Mumford & Sons is good ”˜feel bad about love’ music. Which track were you listening to when felt this?
Michal Menert: It was “Little Lion Boy” I think. The one which goes, (sings) “It’s not your fault but mine.” Actually, any Mumford and Sons song would be bad enough to make people sad.
What would you walk out with if you were to raid a comic book store?
I would walk out with just about as many graphic novels as I could. I would walk out with Nausicaa, The Walking Dead series, then there’s Shaolin Cowboy which I just got turned on to. It’s really good.
You communicate a lot with your fans. What is the funniest thing anyone’s said to you?
Umm”¦ It’s hard to really pin point that. One time, a fan told me that he got laid at one of my shows by looking like me. I was kinda like,Â “that’s cool” but at the same time, I hope he did a good job.
The Instagram lookalike shot was pretty funny when someone said that you looked like Enrique Iglesias. Have you ever been mistaken for other celebrities?
Before I had my beard grown, when I was 19 or 20 and touring, I looked a lot like Bam Margera (from the Jackass series) and even now people say I look like Bam. People also say that I look like Jack Black a lot too.
Could you tell us about at least one non-musical goal?
I am trying to open a restaurant. I would like to learn to sail. I guess not letting little things get to me is my biggest non-musical goal. As a musician, there are a lot of times where little details make you really self-conscious or make you over-analyze things. Like someone on Twitter criticizes you or something and you want to go on the defensive only to realize that tomorrow, all of this isn’t going to matter.
Your first few years growing up were in Soviet-run Poland. How did it influence your music?
I would say that just seeing how much music meant to my dad there, how hard it was to get western music there and just seeing his love for it at a young age [influenced my music]. I think the biggest way it affected my career was the fact that moving away from there and seeing that I have opportunities that people during the Soviet rule wouldn’t have had. I’m going to add one more thing to that. Watching my parents really have an emphasis on freedom and just the issue of how they grew up, [which was] just so oppressive. Seeing that parallel in so many ways in the music industry ”“Â with the way the labels are trying to pull on the artists and aren’t willing to evolve with the whole new digital movement ”“Â has made me strive to stay in control of my own future, give out music for free, be able to do what I want to do and not have the business side of my team criticize me for my decisions.
So how and why did you and Derek Vincent Smith start to put out your music for free right from the start?
Yeah, we started doing it when nobody else was really doing that. Everybody was pirating music and then Napster crashed. Honestly, we got tired to convincing people to buy our music and that was the only way they could hear it. So we just put out it for free on the website and that way if you like it, you can share it without feeling guilty and if you don’t like it you just delete it without losing $15 or $20 or whatever. Plus it allows you to cut out a lot of the overhead manufacturing and just the things that don’t need to apply to an art form like the cost efficiency and all that. You should be thinking about the best idea to put it across and not to sell it.
You spent your growing years in Colorado where there wasn’t really an established hip hop scene. How did you get access to the artists you were into?
There were a couple of DJs but this wasn’tÂ really much. This was way before you could order stuff online, so we’d have to wait to get stuff from the record stores. I lived in a smaller town than Denver, so we’d go there to try and get records once in a while. The older kids that were into it were very territorial and they’d be almost like bullies, who didn’t like the younger kids doing it. It wasn’t a very supportive scene at all and is a big contrast to what’s going on now. Now in Colorado, with hip hop, everybody wants to build the community. The spotlight is big enough for all of us to share.
Which hip hop artists did you grow up listening to?
Early on, when I was in grade school in the mid Nineties seeing the Beastie Boys videos drew me in. It was so cool, innovative and had the element of both punk rock and hip hop. And being a white kid growing up, I was like “Wow here’s three white guys and they’re doing it”. Then there were groups like Wu Tang Clan that just had this culture around it with the whole kung fu part of it along with the fact that there were so many members, which was a cool idea of having a whole team of people. And people like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest were doing hip hop that I could relate to without having to pretend like I knew what it was like growing up in some of the harder parts of the East Coast.
Tell us about your collaborative projects like Half Color and FutureSmash. Does that bring out a side of you which doesn’t when you work solo?
Yeah, the biggest part of it is that you have another torch to guide you through the dark to the main door you want to get to. There are a lot of times you hit a wall as an artist with a song. There are a lot of songs that I haven’t finished in years because I hit a point where I realize that I don’t want to do this forcefully, as I don’t have the part that I need yet. And with having more than one mind [working on a song], you can bounce things off each other and you can see different people’s perspective on stuff. It’s always fun cause I grew up making music with friends. Doing it solo is great because you don’t have to listen to other people’s ideas but then when you do it long enough you start wanting collaborations more and more.
Is there a rapper in the circuit today that you’d want to collaborate with?
Yes. There’s actually Eligh from the west coast, who is part of the group Living Legends, who I’m making an album with right now. He was one of my favorites. Living Legends were one of the first independent groups to record their own albums and tour on their own. After their shows, they’d go into the crowd with a backpack full of tapes and CDs and sell it one by one. They would make that connection where you could meet that artist and pick up their CD from them. So we met through a mutual friend and he heard some of my stuff and liked it and now we’re doing a full album. People that I haven’t worked with and would want to collaborate with are Sean Price from Boot Camp Clik and Heltah Skeltah. He’s great and has this burly deep voice with funny lines and he’s kind of the epitome of hip hop for me.
Did you ever get into the West Coast side of hip hop?
The West Coast side was more of gangster rap and I never really connect to it in the same way. There were, of course, a handful of songs and artists I loved but the East Coast was just always grittier. The West Coast was more synthy, polished and smooth whereas the East Coast had beats from people like the Wu Tang Clan which were rough and some of them were out of tune but you’d still bob your head to it. I do like a lot of the West Coast rappers today but I always liked the concept of New York being a mecca of all kinds of cultures. LA was more like Hollywood to me and felt more like a business town rather than a cultural town.
When and where was the last time you felt like you brought the house down with your music?
This Space Jazz tour I’ve been on. I had a huge crowd in New York,which was not expected, and to have such a crowd in a place where there is so much happening every night made me feel really good. In the mid-west, there’s Milwaukee, where I have a lot of fans. It was crazy there because my computer was malfunctioning and I was playing with a drummer,so I would just freestyle while I was trying to reboot stuff. About 30 minutes into the show, it finally all started working. It could’ve been the worst show but instead, it forced me to improvise and it turned out to be a really epic night.
We’ve read that you used to play the keys and guitar earlier. Have you ever played either during your live sets?
I’m actually doing my biggest show here in Denver at this place called the Fillmore, which was a venue I grew up going to shows at and I’m going to be bringing my synths up on stage there. I’ve brought the synths up on a few shows before. I used to play in a live band where I used to play the keyboard, guitar and did vocals as well, which was great, but I feel like with being in the DJ circuit, there are a lot of times I’m playing festivals where they just want me to plug in and start playing.
It’s hard to bring in an elaborate set-up where they want seamless sets. Also, just being that portable is why I think so much electronic music has made it. You know, I can afford to take a flight to a $500 show now, but a band with five people can’t afford that. And you have to take those shows where you don’t really make too much money and just cover flights in the beginning. Being able to have a backpack on your back with your gear in it and have it sound right with a half hour set-up time is quite incredible.
It’s crazy because in as much as it is limiting to not play instruments and play on a laptop, it is also very liberating, to have that ability to go anywhere with it. When I was touring with [American EDM DJ] Bassnectar, I brought up my set-up to after parties, just hooked it to speakers and just started off. A band can’t do that with the set-up [they have]. And it’s quite cool because it lets you make music on-the-fly too while you are traveling and play it while you are working on it to augment it.
You would do a complete live set someday?
Yes, absolutely. I am definitely trying to bring more instruments in. I played with a drummer this whole tour. I’m trying to bring in a bassist and I can play the synth and the guitar so I’m hoping to hook up a three-piece band. Like Dualist Inquiry is really good and he does that.
Â How was your previous India experience?
It was amazing. I went to Goa for a bit and that was great. I got to travel around old Delhi and I went record shopping and got a bunch of really good vinyls so that I could make some Indian-inspired newer sounds. I used a handful of Indian samples on my tracks, which you probably won’t recognize, but there are just some great little bits and pieces in there.
Every place has its own sound and especially a different country has a completely different sound. For a sample-based producer to go to a place like India is like being a kid in a candy shop. I was only there for 10 days the last time but this time I’m going to be around for three weeks. I just fell in love with your country.
What can we expect from your set at the Weekender this year?
I have a lot of new music, I’ve been fine tuning my sound and also I have some cool little Indian bits and pieces within my tracks now. Also, it’s cool that I’ll actually have more time to work with Ox7gen in the two weeks between the November and December show and pull off something completely different in the December show.
What equipment do you use?
I use an audio interface called the Apogee Ensemble which basically communicates with my computer and lets me plug things into it. I use a bunch of analogs like this Moog I have, which is a Little Phatty. I have a Fender Rhodes along with some old analogs ”“Â mainly records. My new album is going to have a track with me singing as well. I’m planning on playing that here in India and in a way, I am nervous about singing because singing live is so much harder. To be able to overcome that fear in front of several hundreds and thousands of fans in India is going to be a great stepping stone for me in terms of growth and confidence with my voice.
Lastly, how do you deal with post-tour depression?
Aw man, that’s a tough one. A few years ago when got back from a tour, my friend and I would drive around and stop at gas stations and smoke cigarettes because that just got more familiar than being home. It’s strange because I want to get home when I’m touring sometimes but once I’m back, I wish that I had 20 more shows. I guess I just deal with it by decompressing for a little bit, acclimatize myself to home and taking in the depression. As soon as I’m back into the groove at home, I go into the studio and make myself better for the next tour.
Do you end up making music during that phase?
Oh yeah, definitely. That element of wanting to create comes in after travelling so much. A lot of times you don’t have the means to do whatever you want to, so once you hit the studio, you have all these ideas bottled up which come out. And it feels lesser like work and more rewarding when you hit the studio after a long tour. I have definitely gotten better at using the post tour phase to make music rather than just moping around.
Catch Michal Menert live on his Space Jazz Tour in India at Bacardi NH7 Weekender at the Eristoff Wolves Den.
December 1st, 2013: Buddh International Circuit, Greater Noida. Click here to buy passes.
December 15th, 2013: Ibiza Resort, Merlin Greens, Kolkata. Click here to buy passes.