Mikael Jorgensen :: The AD Interview

Since 2002 multi-instrumentalist Mikael Jorgensen is best known for his involvement as a collaborator and member of Wilco, but the New Jersey raised and now Brooklyn based artist has done much much more. AD sat down with Jorgensen near his Brooklyn home and discussed his new/old band Pronto, a day before the release of their debut record, All Is Golden. Discussed were the origins of the group, the lengthy and informative recording process, Miami Vice,   regretfully selling off his Zeppelin and Hendrix records, and just how honest a songwriter can be. Pronto performs in Los Angeles, Saturday, May 16th, at The Mint with Nels Cline.

Aquarium Drunkard: This is your first release under the Pronto moniker, but (your labels press indicates) the group has it’s beginnings as far back as 2000. What was the form of your music then compared to now?

Mikael Jorgensen: Pronto has basically been in some quiet form or another since about then, just working with a friend of mine who lives in Chicago — really just sort of screwing around and not thinking about taking it too seriously. This formed out of the ashes of band in Chicago that started in New Jersey called Movere Workshop — most of us moved to Chicago. In Chicago everyone kinda found their own voices and influences — moving to Chicago to solidify the band kind of did the opposite. Out of that turned into what Pronto is now. Back then it was just “Let’s play some shows” and I was working at Soma (Electronic Music Studios), “Let’s just record some stuff at the studio, there’s some time that open and we can get in for free.” And then we played like, two shows, I think. If you’re familiar with Chicago there’s The Hideout, which is probably one of my favorite venues in Chicago. Then everyone was busy and I didn’t really know how to manage a band — not even as far as management, but how to musically direct.

It was sorted in an incomplete state. I got really busy working at the studio, and then started working with Wilco and that became really busy. Once Wilco was going strong, and I could foresee not having to work at the studio anymore, I kinda had all this time, which was newly available to play music in the off-time. It was during a very personally very difficult time, lost both of my parents to cancer in under a year; a messy, awful break-up with this girl. All of this stuff spinning, free-floating, free-falling and I just decided I needed to do something constructive and positive. And so that was the spark.

AD: Your 2000 recordings with what constituted Pronto have a particularly less rock sound and much more electronic sound – and also, a lack of singing. What transpired in those six years that changed the kind of music you set out to make?

MJ: It’s this weird development — when I was growing up lyrics were just this vehicle that tied a melody across. For whatever reason, (laughs) there are probably deep psychological reasons and sociological reasons or musical reasons, I just never really responded. Sometimes I would, it wasn’t until I had joined Wilco and the lyrics were given a level of importance. It all crystallized at that moment and all this other music I had been listening to was brand new again, like “Wow, there’s this whole other level of expression that is completely missing” or not missing, that I was missing. And what a cool way to have an emotional snap out of this moment. Like, Neil Young made more sense than ever, and so it was this discovery of the other side of song — not just the music, that was the part I was always good at. So to write lyrics was like (makes expression like, “whoa!”).

AD: When did you begin to write the songs that would become All Is Golden?

MJ: It was one of those things where I had some ideas that were born around the time the idea to start all this, about fall 2005 or so, or the summer of 2005. There were definitely songs that were written with the idea that would be on the record. After going through some of the songs and some of the recordings I did a while ago, there was material on there that I wrote in college that’s on there. I was sort of like, “Oh this is such a cool part was I never able to… hey! I’m making a record actually, it could go on this record.” And I started mining all the different demo recordings and sessions that are on my hard drive. Then I made a conscious effort to turn the computer on and microphone on and try to play, not as long as I could, but as long as it felt fruitful and improvise and play chords and make lots and lots of mistakes. Listen back to that, there were things I knew were good and things that were crappy, but I’d go back and think that something was a little more interesting than I’d felt. So some of it came from the beginning of the record and some of it from way back… like, 1994. A long, long stretch of time for some of them.

AD: Do you feel there is a certain lyrical theme that holds the record together?

MJ: It was all new, sort of by design, whatever I came up with was going to have to be okay, if that makes any sense. It’s not all true, but it was honest as I was able to be at that point. But it wasn’t until that sort of crystallized in my experience that I was able to sort of think of them as separate but equal. Thematically, I think it was just parts of things that were going on, the thread was just my experience at that time. Whether it was an emotionally true song about a certain situation or a complete fiction.

AD: The essence of your experience.

MJ: Yeah, definitely. (laughs) Sounds really pompous but unfortunately that’s what it was.

AD: Can you speak about the music you have done before your time with Wilco. Even though you’ve been involved in multiple projects and various areas, Pronto is really an introduction to your work.

MJ: I feel like the latest bloomer ever. I was in a band in New Jersey with Eric (Paparazzi) who now plays with Pronto. We had a band straight out High School, we released a record, an E.P. a 7”. It was during that really weird time where Indie labels were thinking they were gonna get rich quick as indie-band major label pass-off and we were definitely part of that sort of craze. Eric was the principle songwriter then, but we also held the same belief, “the lyrics are inconsequential, don’t pay attention to them.”

So that was this huge amount of energy to expend without very much in return that ended up being about six years or so. I left to form this other band, Movere Workshop, we sent a demo tape to Thrill Jockey — it got picked out of the bin – this was 1995, so this was the time when cassette tapes were the currency, with certain labels asking you to send your demos on the really nice cassettes so they could just tape over it, use it for their own personal benefit (laughs). We recorded a bunch of music, right before I moved to Chicago, the summer of ’97, we did a couple of shows in Chicago as Movere Workshop, could never find a steady drummer, a problem finding a rehearsal space or whatever.

It wasn’t until I started working at Soma and I started working on a lot more records consistently and that was like, playing on Stereolab. I played like three notes on a Tortoise record, this other guy Akito, this Japanese artist, and his band Great 3 from Tokyo. It was all this activity, very quickly, when I moved to Chicago, but before that I was in like weird suburban-weirdo land so all of these things which are now very commonplace were then very mythical. And so as far as output goes, it wasn’t really until I moved to Chicago that this burst happened.

AD: All Is Golden was recorded in 2006… how did it find its way to Controphonic?

MJ: We tracked all the basics in 2006, so it was maybe two or three sessions. I made the decision to move to Brooklyn, my back went out, it was a horrible medical problem, but it was super stressful to think about leaving Chicago, moving to New York, so I kind of lost sight of the record, Wilco started recording what became Sky Blue Sky and so I didn’t have time or energy to do it, or the space. At least in Chicago I had a room big enough for a piano, all my guitars, set up and ready to go.

And here I had to start all over from scratch, get a rehearsal space on 31st Street, carry all this gear up, and you only have two hours, it takes you half an hour to set up, so you only half an hour and half of playing time — it was like “Why get this space?” So I got a place in SLUMBO, which is right near the Manhattan Bridge hits Brooklyn — it’s not ideal, but we could set up our stuff, be ready to record demos, do overdubs there. So we did the vocals there, and then I took all that to Chicago and mixed it at Soma with their equipment… that was October of 2007. In 2008, January I mastered it in Chicago, all the while sending it out, trying to figure out, do I say, “Hey, this needs to be finished.”   But then I was like, let’s just get it done and I can be like, “Here, this is it. This is done, let’s make something happen.” I sent packages to every label I knew, friends that I knew, people that I just blindly emailed.

The thing that was really frustrating was the lack of response. I’d rather hear “I hate this album, no way, get off my record label” or “Hey, this is great” but when you don’t get a response, I don’t know what the fuck people think. I don’t care if it’s good or bad, I just want to know either way.

I’m really happy; they’re super into it [Controphonic]. Practically anybody can have a record label these days, you can get your music on iTunes — so it matters who, and so far, so great.

AD: You were very busy at the time, so what it a struggle to sit down and commit yourself to this work, will yourself to do it — or was it just, any moment you had you would.

MJ: It’s the 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration — like coming up with the ideas happened quickly, then it was just hammering it out. I’m lazy, but I’m not a workaholic, I like to enjoy myself and sometimes I get a bit crazy, but those bursts of energy are natural and good. With the Wilco scheduling, sometimes before the record comes out, we have two or three months with nothing going on, so that’s a nice big chunk of time to get other stuff done — and to supplement the income during dryer spells.

It’s not hard to find the time, there’s no deadline, which kind of contributed to making it take three years. It wasn’t like, “Okay, we gotta put out this record XY date.” Since we didn’t have a label, I could finish it when I can, and when I want to, not because I have to. And I hope that shows, that it contributes to why it sounds so… good (laughs). It was very gently considered, listened to a million times, I feel like I know every square inch of that record.

AD: I wanted to know a bit about your influences going into this record and in general. The record seems to have a very consistent sound, perhaps anchored around your voice and the driving piano of most songs, and yet there is no particular genre it really settles on, straddling indie, 70’s rock, and pure rock. Is this a sound you feel you’ve been cultivating for a great deal of time or more a reflection of your more recent interests?

MJ: I’m sure there is a theme, but I don’t know if it’s the technique, or the songwriting influences — but I think it has a lot to do with the studio practice itself. The rhythm section is me playing piano and guitar, Greg [O’Keefe] playing drums, and Matt Love’s playing bass. The three of us would just try to get takes, not use headphones, allow a lot of bleed… how little can we do, how sparingly can we approach these songs… prevent yourself from cracking the code and present yourself this problem.

I think taking the approach of just playing it live — and then overdubbing onto it, with instruments and voices that feels… real to me. It’s not really laptops and synthesizers, there’s a machine to that. I think I was just trying to make as basic of a record as possible from the start.

And as far as popular music goes, I just sorta picked the 70’s as a starting point. The next record will be like a Yan Hammer, Miami Vice soundtrack (laughs).

AD: The record was recorded at The Loft (Wilco’s recording space in Chicago) and mastered at Soma, but this is your first time as The Dude, like you said, the guy giving directions.. Do you feel that you have become more comfortable in a recording environment through this process?

MJ: Well, a little bit. I definitely feel more comfortable when I’m calling all the shots. Not necessarily comfortable… but, say, the Wilco process, ultimately it’s Jeff’s call. So I’d be more than happy to provide a variety of different options, many as I’m technically and creatively able to, but ultimately, he’s going to say, “Oh I like that one and that one, but not that or that.” He’ll sculpt to his satisfaction, which is great, he’s really good at it and I really enjoy the process. But to flip into that role is tough, to give the “I don’t like that” scootch or “this is really good, but this isn’t working.” It’s a tough skill to cultivate.

AD: Your press says “Spring 1995: In that golden year of Indie-rock, Mikael Jorgensen was growing weary of the limitations of pop music.” Well… have your feelings changed at all?

MJ: Oh, absolutely. I was in art school, I sold all my fuckin’ Zeppelin records and Hendrix records… now very regretfully. That time was so, removed, so emblematic of “forward thinking” music… it’s was more a reaction to the aesthetics I was in with Lizard Music [Jorgensen’s pre-Movere Workshop band] it was very quirky pop, XTC and Beatles. The band I was starting was trying to be an ambient band. Talking to my friends, saying “imagine if you walked into a bar and an ambient band was playing.” I’ve examined it psychologically and it’s very weird (laughs), the idea was sort of to get rid of all the baggage you had growing up and trying to start from a new slate. At least to make the attempt to forget everything I know… what can I do that I haven’t heard?

And then as I got older, I was kind of bashfully admitting to myself, “Zeppelin is kind of awesome.” Like, “When the Levee Breaks,” I would really challenge to honestly say, “this sucks!”

But it’s not like the end all, it’s not the focal point of where music should wind up. They really sharpened and focused to that point. It was like, listening to Stereolab and Tortoise and getting enamored by the appearance of the community that existed in Chicago. And when I got out there it did exist, but maybe it wasn’t as chummy as I was dreaming it to be, but it was pretty amazing that all these people knew each other, and would work our record together.

But then at a certain point, and this all is a part of being in Wilco, being a part of this thing where you could play the song with an acoustic guitar, and their portable. And learning more about folk music and how that helps people’s lives beyond writing a band name on your book cover. It’s not necessarily just a badge of honor, music has actually meant something to people above and beyond “Oh, I’m very cool. I know who this is and you don’t.” and beyond liking to walk your dog and listen to your iPod.

Music serves a function, and serves a purpose, and finding out how it comes into my life… like, I’ll always love The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest and that’s not gonna go away. I still listen to that record even though it’s almost twenty years old. I mean it never gets old, there’s one track that’s questionable but aside from that one track it’s pretty perfect.

It’s like I’m fourteen again, I’m still discovering music but at the same time having these grown-up concerns — like, someone hacked into my bank account and took a whole bunch of money — grown-up crap (laughs). And then like, “music is a nice anecdote.” When you’re younger, you don’t have vast cross-reference, experience… like, “I have to get changed and buy cigarettes” that’s your challenge (laughs). So you’re free to screw off… but now it feels great to discover and learn about what I like.

AD: Most listeners know you not for songwriting but for piano playing. Were many of these songs written on the piano, or were they on guitar? How do you sit down to write a song?

MJ: I have a keyboard at home and sometimes when we were in the studio and I was with Wilco and we had a nice piano, I’d set up a little recording station and use a DAT tape — now they’re outdated. But it was done on acoustic guitar primarily and trying to improvise.

I’ve always been writing — some lyrics and some pretentious poetry (laughs) that nobody will ever read or see. But just sitting on the bus, listening to the instrumental track and on the word processor and just typing out words that flow together and then you get home and it’s like, “This doesn’t make any sense, it’s really hard to say.”

So there’s a learning process of all the very basic processes for making a record. And also a little embarrassing to go through these growing pains.

AD: I peeped some of the music on your blog. that you made during the ’80s at home.

MJ: That sounds more like Miami Vice!

AD: Exactly! What was inspiring the aesthetic you were going for at that time? I know your dad was involved in some television music work.

MJ: He recorded with this guy Bob James, who made the theme for “Taxi” [the ’78-’83 television show] and he went on to make more records, jazz records, but that was my introduction to music – through that. Everyone else was listening to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and smoking dope and drinking beer and I was perfectly content playing with my computer. As tough as it was swallow, when I saw that tape I knew what it was going to be… nothing but chorus and reverb. It’s not terrible; it’s very different than what anyone else in Wilco was doing at the time (laughs). I hope it’s better… but that remains to be seen (laughs).

AD: What do you feel the recording process from the standpoint of your own band taught you about the creative process and about recording?

MJ: I guess the thing is that I feel like I know… I have more of a reactionary idea and approach cause I know what works, cause I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work and it’s tough to hold that balance. When I was in the studio I could work from eleven til two in the morning, sleep five or six hours and get right back to it and just keep hammering away. But I know that nobody else holds the same kind of investment I do, and I can’t financially afford any other way to do it. It would be if we’re making gobs of money, like, “it’s gonna be a really intense two weeks, but I can pay you, so it’s okay, right?”

I think working on tape is a really great practice cause you have to commit to ideas, there’s no undo, or let’s use that one from two times ago. You just have to sit there, listen to it and you’re either with it or against it. And if you’re against it, you have to play it better. The computer is a valuable tool, as long as it’s not abused, I suppose. I’ve worked on records where there’s an immense amount of tinkering involved to the point that I don’t actually know if it made it better, but it affected sales (laughs). But who knows? Sliding that kick drum cause it fell wrong on that one beat makes the artist feel better and more confident about it.

But have you ever noticed all the mistakes in Rolling Stone’s records? At least one a minute! But the meta-data, the overall encapsulated experience of the song is so much better than one snare hit, I think in the studio you’re very focused on the small — it’s great to listen to it in the car, in the context you listen to all other music. Just knowing and keeping sight of the context is the most import part. You can get really produced by the technology that exists today, and the culture of being in a recording studio, making devices that don’t add or detract from the song.

I’m planning on going back into the studio with Pronto this year, but it’s very sort of up in the air — and I’m very curious to see how it’s going to go. I don’t imagine it will take three years this time for the record to get done. But if it’s out by the fall of 2010, (laughs) then I’ll be satisfied. I have about half or two-thirds of the new record under way so it should go pretty fast. But you go to the studio and think you know exactly what you’re going to do and then, “Oh fuck!” (laughs).   words/ b kramer