Mi Ami (Interview)
How’s this for an “OH SHIT” moment?
I was about fifteen minutes into my interview with Daniel Martin-McCormick, vocalist and guitarist for expanse generators, Mi Ami, when the phone disconnected. Dead battery. Within two seconds following the phone’s silence, I ran downstairs to my living room and began lifting up sofa cushions and turning anything over to see if I could find the other phone.
Then, I heard the phone ring and realized my interviewee was returning my call.
“All good now?” he asks. Once I caught my breath, apologized and remembered what we were talking about, it was.
Understanding what a big world it is out there in our info-tainment/music accessible reality, it’s become difficult to make generalizations without knowing the full breadth of the Internet and the wonders it possesses. With that realization in mind, Mi Ami is probably one of the oddest permutations of the post-punk, post-hardcore, dub reggae, no wave grab bag out there, its contents otherwise very easy to identify in a lot of bands whose palms pick and plunder with little or no hesitation. Theirs is a rhythmic and, at times, danceable variation, minimalist enough to call Pop Group, but jagged enough to call Boredoms; lengthy enough to say Public Image Ltd., but foreign enough to venture outside the continent.
“I don’t know, are we experimental or not?” he asked when I applied the word to his music. “It’s hard to say. It’s very personal. We experiment. We take risks. I don’t know, I just don't really think… It's more about… it’s like each song is an experiment.”
From 2001 until 2004, bassist Jacob Long and McCormick played together as Black Eyes, an aggressive D.C. band whose combination of punk rock and free jazz led into an abrasive blend of loud chaos. The band broke up before their last album Cough had been released by Dischord Records. Mi Ami rose from its ashes in 2007 after Long and McCormick relocated to San Francisco.
“Well, I like it here.” McCormick explained. “And, I grew up in D.C. and y’know, there was a really strong musical community there for a while. But, y’know, you kind of need to change your environment or something, so I had the opportunity to study out here, study music with a government grant from D.C. So, I thought it would be a nice change of pace.”
Being that Mi Ami’s direction maintains as exploratory a set of attributes as Black Eyes, I was curious as to whether or not Mi Ami could be seen as an evolutionary step in Black Eyes’ development, or if it’s a completely different idea.
McCormick responded, “I don’t know what direction Black Eyes would’ve gone in. I mean, I need to emphasize Black Eyes broke up in 2004. And then, Mi Ami started in 2006. Jacob didn’t even join until 2007. In between, a whole huge amount of stuff happened. Y’know we both (Daniel and Jacob) moved out to California, I went to music school and studied classical guitar.”
Then he moved from life-altering events to drummer Damon Palermo:
“Damon is a completely integral member of the band. Y’know, it’s not like if Jacob and I hanging out and being like, ‘What would we have done in Black Eyes?’ and then we take it to Damon. I mean each of us is one third of the band. Whatever would’ve happened in Black Eyes, which is impossible to say, I think it would’ve been pretty different because it’s like… we’re really much more interested in representing or exploring what we’re interested in now and this dynamic as a band rather than, sort of like, a perceived legacy or whatever. From like, six years ago.”
In 2009, Mi Ami released their first full-length, Watersports, for Touch and Go Records’ sub-label, Quarterstick. Soon after, T&G co-founder, Corey Rusk, announced the label’s dissolution, which more or less ceased production of new releases by new artists and affected distribution arrangements the label had with other indies like Kill Rock Stars and Merge Records. Consequently, Mi Ami was without a label until they were signed by Thrill Jockey Records, a partnership McCormick described as "a family affair."
“Y’know, we’re really happy to be on Thrill Jockey,” he said, “because they’ve been really supportive of us from before when Touch and Go came around.”
Their new album, Steal Your Face, was recorded live in five days in the same manner as its predecessor, Watersports. As their songs seem to revolve around one very consistent foundation, or loop, I asked McCormick about how they write their music.
“It’s not like we have this drum beat all written out and then we start to write parts around it,” McCormick answered. “But, it’s just something that usually starts to come together as we come up with melodic or, y’know, whatever… melodies and vocal parts. It’s really about just finding something collectively that clicks and then just exploring that as much as possible till it takes it own shape.”
Sounds improvisational, hence the oft-slapped “experimental” tag, but one can hear a methodology in Mi Ami’s output. “Live” is key: as a way to play, write, record and perform.
“We recorded both albums in five days; recorded and mixed, so it’s not like we spend all this time trying to craft these perfect, studio masterpieces,” he explained. “We just try to go in there and play with a lot of focus and energy and generate the best document, or something like that. I mean I like recording a lot, but the band, we write the songs together live. We perfect them live. The songs are about…. structurally there’s a practicality to the way we construct them and also a lot of the changes have more to do with building into a change together live, rather than learning parts that were written for you, outside of the live setting.
“So, I mean, some bands, the record is probably better or just as good as live because they made it in the studio or for the studio and then the live thing is an attempt to translate that. But, we do it all live and the record is an attempt to translate that, so I think you could a fuller experience when you play live because it’s still based on actually coming to you and playing for you.”
Most music genres are defined by elements, while other genres seem defined by specific bands. With not much of a reliable idea as to what Mi Ami constitutes categorically, despite allegiances to sound that one can hear, I asked McCormick how the band is viewed by critics and whether or not he agrees with their one-word descriptors. The brands “tribal” (“It usually means they use toms, instead of snare. Why not just say ‘tom heavy?’”), “multi-genre” (“And, I’m not sure if that’s just ‘cause maybe I listed influences on a Myspace page, or something. I don't really feel like we sound like a million different genres stacked up on top of each other. I think we sound like one band.”), and “world” (“And, I understand in a way, but it doesn’t super ‘wordly’ to me. I don’t know; it’s just the way it sounds.”), either offended or bewildered McCormick. In a way, McCormick’s reality as the band’s songwriter juxtaposing the perception of critic as listener and appreciator can be tied into Steal Your Face’s concept, which is the marketability of counterculture versus its actuality.
Steal Your Face is dressed in the cut up and crudely collaged countenances of Bob Marley, Jerry Garcia and Jim Morrison, all representatives of some supposed cultural revolution-turned-commercially viable persona. Talking to McCormick about the cover, he offered insight as to why he violated their faces and forced them together in such a haphazard way.
“I mean, Bob Marley is kind of running joke in our band,” said McCormick. “On paper you could say, ‘Oh, Bob Marley’s this revolutionary musician and he crossed genres and he’s this reggae superstar’ and all this stuff. And, you could be like, ‘Woah! He sounds amazing.’”
He continued, “This is not even a critique of music, but the image and the idea of Bob Marley has been so… I mean, when I think of Bob Marley I don’t think of any that shit. I think of every kid in a dorm room having Legend on CD, I think of frat dudes, I think of lame parties, I think of dads driving around, listening to Legend. It’s this total fucking shitty, commodified, non-revolution. And, y’know, I don’t even think the image of Bob Marley has anything to do with the man or his music. I think it has to do with this idea of being like ‘I am hopeful and free’ or something, and it’s like, ‘No, you’re just buying a t-shirt.’”
Moving to Garcia, McCormick added, “I mean, I’ve read about their early concerts and apparently they were amazing. But, every fucking Grateful Dead song I’ve heard is shitty, first of all. Second of all, Deadheads are super annoying y’know? And, it’s the same thing: 'Oh yeah, what a free love, free vibe jammin’ band.' But, the culture has surrounded it in a way that the image is reproduced and reproduced and reproduced and what they’re in service of is this corporate nostalgia campaign, this idea of counterculture, this idea of being free and hippie that has nothing to do with actually exploring possibilities for any kind of real freedom in our world.”
“And, Morrison is in there,” he continued, “because I feel like he’s sort of the third, darker version of that even whereas he’s just like bloated, gross… Y’know, he’s supposed to be this poet of the young generation and he just kind of seems like this bloated, gross, disgusting letch and then he just dies.”
Taking a moment to possibly withdraw some of the vehement disdain away from his targets, he stated, “Y’know, it’s like we could theoretically have something in common with these people.” But, he finished with, “But it’s like the whole thing is actually a giant fucking lie.”
With bands seeming to surface at an enormous rate, independent and unsigned bands with music out there begging to be downloaded, streamed or stolen, I asked McCormick what he thought of online music.
“There’s a lot of it. (Laughs) Which part of it?”
Yeah, a bit vague. I clarified that I wanted to know what he thought of online music and the continual deterioration of the physical model.
“I think it’s fine,” he began. “I remember six years ago, I could hardly think of any band. And, now I can think of twenty or thirty that I think are pretty cool. I feel like, in a way, it’s taking away the ability to easily make money off of being in a rock n’ roll band, paradoxically it pushes people to more creative or open up ways to be more creative or interesting or personal because it’s not really possible for some of the bands to make even a little bit of money.”
He continued, “And I think that the dissemination of ideas, the access to ideas, is good. I mean, I like records, I like collecting records, and I remember geeking for records that I really wanted to hear, and not knowing how to find them, and then you find them and you’re excited and all that stuff.
“But, I don't feel like my interest in music has become sluggish because free access to it, or that my ability to listen to music’s been effected by it. I know there are people out there that are going through iTunes like a mile a minute and don’t ever listen to anything really, but I bet they probably wouldn’t have really listened to anything really if they had a bunch of records and that was all they had. I mean, I just think it’s kind of awesome. It’s like if there’s some fucking kid that can’t afford Steal Your Face and I wouldn’t be like, ‘Huh…glad he didn’t get it for free.’ I wouldn’t be like, ‘Tough luck, kid. Go get twenty bucks or whatever, ten bucks from your parents. I want what’s coming to me.’ No, it’s for people and they should be able to have it. I mean, I like making money off of music and I like being able to pay practice space, rent and being able to live on tour and stuff like that, but I also like people hearing what we’ve made and I like to be able to hear what other people have made.”
So, with a new album out, Mi Ami is on the road. As far as what McCormick and Co. have in terms of goals, he said this:
“I think the main one is to just keep pushing the sound, exploring new ideas. I think one of the things about this record that I’m excited about is that it crystallized a lot of stuff that we were exploring leading up to it. But, then you start to feel like, ‘Alright, now that we’ve done that, we can’t just do it again.’ Y’know, I mean, it’s a pretty classic story. You just want to keep pushing the sound.”
“It’s mainly just to make the best music we can make and then share it with people. I don’t want to just dick around, or be fashionable, or half-baked or whatever. It really matters to me a lot, y’know: making music that I think is worth sharing with other people is worth making again and again every night on tour (laughs). I would like to explore more melody, or more abstraction too, I don’t know. There’s a lot of… a lot of things to explore, y’know? Probably enough to fill up a lifetime.”