Michael Rault :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview


Michael Rault’s new album, New Day Tonight, lends itself to repeated listens. It’s not just that the Canadian musician continues to build on his distinctively retro-but-not-old sound, but the complexity and layering accomplished on the LP reveals something new with each listen. We caught up with Rault from his home in Montreal and got the lowdown on working hand-in-hand with Daptone and Wick Records, the long-but-fruitful gap between releases, and the fortuitous walk he took with producer Wayne Gordon to a Brooklyn music shop that ended up giving the record one of its signature sounds.

Aquarium Drunkard: Not to start too on-the-nose, but at times the record seems preoccupied with the dichotomy of night and day, and sleep in particular. Both in the title, some of the song titles, and the lyrics — and it’s even coming out on Sleepless Records in Canada… so to be frank, how do you sleep at night?

Michael Rault: Nothing particularly unusual happens to me when I sleep, I used to sleepwalk sometimes, I guess that’s unusual, but I don’t do that much anymore. I’ve always had this subconscious approach to writing music and writing songs — not to sound pretentious or like I’ve got any special method that I use, cause I don’t really. I tend to try to play things and come up with ideas and see what sticks without thinking about it too much. And then listening to what I sing, when I’m not really thinking about it, I start to see patterns and themes. Then I start to think more consciously and make sense of it without, maybe, making too much sense of it. I don’t want to kill it by organizing it too much.

I wrote “Sleep With Me” without really thinking about it at all. And it came together in a more cohesive way than most songs do. I think I sang the first verse and chorus and maybe second verse in pretty quick order. I didn’t think I was gonna make an album themed around sleeping, but the idea kept popping up in songs I was writing. As I started getting closer to finishing the album, I was coming up with a list of songs to concentrate on – I realized that sleep was a theme. I wrote a couple of more, consciously, about sleeping and dreaming to fill out the album. “Dream Song” was consciously written about it.

AD: When you were going through that process, was it important that the album have that kind of cohesion?

Michael Rault: In the past, I haven’t felt the need to make a theme. Listening to more and more records from the ‘70s, things that were more thematic and more planned — I was drawn to that idea. Perhaps without even acknowledging it, when I started making this record, I was beginning to do that a little bit, and I think I’ll continue to do that, more often. The themes can present themselves naturally – you start to work on something and come to realize that there is a theme there. I think that’s pretty common amongst writers — I could be wrong, I’m sure some people are very conscious and plan it out.

AD: A couple of the tracks on the record are ones you’ve been ruminating on for a while, some dating back to early 2015 — can you speak to the genesis of the record as a whole? When did you decide it was time to make this record, with these tracks?

Michael Rault: This album took a long time, it definitely did. I had an earlier version that was supposed to be a 10” single of “I’ll Be There” and “Sleep With Me” in 2015. That’s why there were those earlier versions, totally finished, but the 10” never happened. And I think I wrote those well before then, when we were making the last record (2014’s Living Daylight). I hope to not continue to do this this way — I hope I don’t take years at a time to figure out how to start working on new songs. It’s funny, the last record took forever to make and forever to get out, and then this record took forever to make and not quite as long to come out. But it took a long time to figure out how I wanted to get it made. The thing that made it take so long was that I was moving a lot. I was living in Toronto, we put out a record on Burger, and we started touring. After the first tour for that record, I started telling people I was working with, “I’m gonna go back to Toronto, I’ve got a home studio, I think I could just make a record really fast and we’ll put it out in the next few months.” And then in a couple of months, I found out I was evicted from my apartment — for nothing that I did! I decided to move to Montreal, it’s much cheaper than Toronto, but that move started a chain reaction of a bunch of different moves. And ever since I left Toronto, there was a couple of years where I really didn’t have a good home studio set-up. I made those unreleased singles there, and used my cousin Renny Wilson’s studio, engineering and playing everything myself.

Once I got a little more settled into Montreal life, and came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to have a home-studio, I started going back to Renny’s to make this whole album. I’d planned to play all the instruments and write the last few songs, and just do it that way. I wanted to do the whole Todd Rundgren, Emitt Rhodes style thing, of playing everything myself and having the bragging rights. But at the end of the day, I got Renny to help engineer and got pretty close to being finished, tracking-wise. But I felt like I was really dissatisfied with it, it didn’t feel special, or better than anything I’d done. I didn’t want to release this album, with songs I’d been kicking around for a few years, if it wasn’t knocking me out.

Eventually, I remembered that I’d met Wayne Gordon [of Daptone Records, and founder of the in-house label Wick, on which New Day Tonight is released] through King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard when we were on tour with them. Lucas [Skinner] of King Gizzard was pitching pretty heavily that maybe I should record at Daptone at some time. I was like, “I don’t know man, I think I’ve got my own idea figured out.” So when my own idea had run its course, and proven to not be particularly fruitful, I returned to the idea. I sent him what I had, told him I had eight or so more demoed, and asked if I could rent some time in the studio. I went down to New York for two separate weeks at Daptone. After the first week, it ended up being Wayne pitching the idea of signing to Wick, and we talked about it over a couple of months. And then we just dove into creating this version, which is what’s being released.

AD: What was it about Wayne’s work, and Daptone’s sound, that felt like a fit? That seems like a big sacrifice, to go from being on your own to being part of a bigger team.

Michael Rault: It is a sacrifice in some ways, but in others it’s a huge help. I’m thinking about this next album, which will come out on Wick as well, I know that it’s going to be a lot easier, compared to this three-year odyssey of trying to figure out how to make this one. Before signing with Wick, I was completely unsure of what to do.

I’ve been a fan of Daptone since I was like, 12-years old, when Amy Winehouse came out. That was the first time I’d heard of Daptone. I already liked a lot of ‘50s and ‘60s R&B and soul. My dad did a radio show that was based around that, on an Alberta radio station. So when I heard the Amy Winehouse stuff, I was immediately interested, and found it so cool that a mainstream pop-record was doing that sound. Shortly after that, I became more aware of them, of Sharon Jones and their artists. We ended up opening for Charles Bradley, right when he was coming to Vancouver and Victoria. Through all these years, I’ve had one eye on them, and what they put out. I had a lot of admiration for the sound that they get. The day after our tour with King Gizzard they were going in to record there and invited me along. Getting to go there and see the studio was really surreal. I had no expectation that I would eventually be recording there, and sleeping on the couch during recording, as ended up happening. Talking to King Gizzard, they found it so cool to be able to go there and have it engineered well. There’s so few opportunities you have as a young musician to actually get stuff that sounds right, right when you get it off microphone and onto tape. The raw materials are exactly what you want them to be. So when I worked with Wayne, that turned out to be true, they weren’t lying. It was really cool to be able to work in a studio, to go back into the control room, and it sounds like what you want it to sound like.

AD: It must have been a quick learning process, to cede that level of control, both engineering wise and perhaps, partially, musically as well. But beyond that learning experience, was there an internal conflict of giving up some independence?

Michael Rault: I think partially, because I tried so hard to do an independent approach to this record at first, I came to see that that can be a dissatisfactory approach for me. It was the right time to go with a more experienced crew, get my eyes opened to how they did things. It wasn’t clear at first that Wayne and I would be co-producing it together. Originally, I was getting him to engineer — I was pretty confident that I wasn’t the ideal engineer for the record, so I was happy to get him on board for that. I was kind of curious, going down there, to have Mikey Post and Benny Trakan [currently of Reigning Sound] to play the rhythm section parts — I’d sent them the demos with me playing all the parts — to see what they did with it. I was open to their ideas, but it turned out they liked the arrangements. They definitely added their own flavor and played it better than I could have. But they thought what I’d done was good. After that, the arranging was still me, I did what I would have done otherwise, but the engineering was just a huge step up. After we decided to do the whole thing together, having Wayne as producer, giving me feedback, and putting his 2-cents in, it made it better than if I was just doing it on my own. More than anything, it was really good to acknowledge the things I couldn’t do myself, and it probably taught me a lot about those things. It was also really encouraging to see how many things I was doing were actually at a level that these people that I really respected and admired from afar were satisfied with, that they liked what I was doing. It was a big confidence boost, which I needed at the time — I’d ground myself down with the self-ridicule in the studio, alone.

AD: Can you speak to that self-doubt? Were you not finding the success you wanted, or was it purely in doubting the quality of what you were able to make on your own?

Michael Rault: I’ve always set a high standard for myself, sometimes unrealistically. It’s easy for me to feel like I want to make something that sounds classic — the quality of a classic record, but unique and different. And those types of records were probably made with huge budgets that I couldn’t dream of having myself — it’s an unrealistic place to work from. It’s kind of hard to accept your own personality in your music. It’s like looking at yourself in a mirror — it’s the rare person who’s continually happy looking themselves in the mirror every day, saying “I look great!” So much of your overall vibe can be on the record, with your voice, your guitar, your playing — making harmonies, there’s 82 me’s layered together on a single track. It’s easy to become lost in the hall of mirrors, you’re seeing so many reflections of yourself, and so many different times as it takes longer and longer to complete. You’re seeing so many different aspects of yourself from the past, like looking through a photo-album, but thinking that photo-album entirely made of pictures of you will hopefully be released to a wide audience. It weighs heavy on you as you try to be comfortable with who you are.

AD: What sticks out to me, as a current throughout all of your music to date — in particular now that you’ve changed the method of how you produce — is that they are extremely well-arranged records. Many bands can be tight and sound full, but that’s different than arrangement. Do you see yourself as an arranger, or as a  singer-songwriter who adds arrangement? Do you look at it as an overall picture, or are you of two minds, creating a demo and then adding more later?

Michael Rault: I definitely think of myself as an arranger, as one of my titles, and that seems to the one I spend the most time on and doing the most. I try to expand my skills in there as much as I can. I think there is a balance between something arranged and something not too arranged. You need to be able to do something that’s completely spontaneous, but things that are spontaneous don’t get to where I want them to be often. You can make a spontaneous thing that you throw together, but it doesn’t often achieve what I’m looking for. Then it becomes a matter of needing to arrange it and plan it out. On the other side, if you’re only doing things that are planned out, without spontaneity, without inspiration, it ends up flat. I’m always trying to find a balance.

AD: You mentioned emulating the sounds of some older records, and name-check people like Emitt Rhodes — and now you’re working with Wick and Daptone, a label known for its “throw-back” sound. Was that something you were aiming for?

Michael Rault: I like old, ‘70s drum sounds, I like how raw, rhythm sections sound in that style. I wanted to grab some of that. I generally try to update the sound, to find ways to make it current. I’m definitely not trying to come up with period pieces. There are bands of that type, that only use certain recording qualities and techniques and equipment of an era. I’m not like that. I feel, to make something authentic, it needs to be rooted in the time that you’re in. It is an interesting thing to balance, cause like I said, I like those techniques drawn from the ‘70s, I also really connect to musicianship and live-performances, that how the person played it is actually on the record — there’s a lot of expression that comes from that. I’m torn, because I don’t want to be making period pieces, I don’t want to be a museum-guy off doing his ‘70s thing. But I also don’t want to lean too far into the modern world, where no-one values rhythm sections. People don’t think about how stuff made by people like Daptone is actually played that way, by a rhythm section that can actually pull off that groove, live. You go back to the ‘60s, to have a dance club, you had to have a rhythm section that was good, you had a drummer and bass player, and then some other guys who could add to it. Nowadays, you can program that on a computer, from anywhere — people don’t think about how playing it, really, is its own skill. And I would argue that that skill is not replaced by the various modern methods of creating instrumentation. It still has its place in the world, that you have recordings that are based around real, live musicians — but to each their own. There is a place for fully electronic music, but I haven’t found it in my own music.

AD: Are there contemporary influences, an artist or sound, that influenced this record?

Mochael Rault: I guess, it’s sort of funny, they’re maybe a bit retro-inspired themselves. We toured with Whitney, I was really blown away by the record that they made. My record doesn’t sound like that, but I admire their ability to make a good pop song. They’re able to write something that, when you think about it, is not really modern or old. I really like the Lemon Twigs record as well, I thought that was really, really impressive. Those guys really seem to know what they’re doing — I can’t believe they’re so young. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, too. I wanted to try to be a part of that type of world as much as I wanted to be part of the ‘60s, ‘70s, fully old-school style.

AD: There’s a guitar sound, a fuzz, that you hear at the beginning of “Sleep With Me” and is present on a lot of songs on this record. To me it’s the cornerstone of the record and one of the cohesive elements, sonically. Do you see it as distinctively?

Michael Rault: I got really into the idea of guitarmony — a jokey term — just layering guitars together; string section-lite, cause it’s not as complex as that. I had a little bit of a hand in arranging the string stuff, but I had a lot of help from Gabe [Roth, founder of Daptone] in terms of what technically made sense and worked — I didn’t go to music school, I don’t know how to arrange strings — yet! But doing the guitarmonies was a cool way to focus on how you want a couple of lines of single note melody to harmonize and counterpoint each other. I think “Sleep With Me” was the first song I ever did that on — I was into that, and wanted to keep doing it. So when something was missing in some part of the record, I’d add that in, in the style I do them. It was a fun and enjoyable thing to add on. I like that it made it feel cohesive.

The other thing, specifically, and we didn’t do it on every single track, was we used this Heathkit fuzz pedal. It’s somewhere between a fuzz and a distortion. Heathkit is, like, a company from the ‘60s and ‘70s, that did different home-build, public-patent build-your-own stuff. On the previous record, in Edmonton with my cousin Renny producing, he came and brought in this Heathkit that was his friends, and his dads before him. We used that as the main fuzz on Living Daylight. I liked it so much, I wanted to buy it off him, but he wouldn’t sell it to me. I could have gone on eBay and tried to find it, but I just never did, and there was all this other gear I wanted to buy. I never thought about it again. When I got to Daptone, I started doing the guitarmony parts with this pedal that I have, a modern fuzz pedal. I wasn’t really happy with it, so I suggested to Wayne that we run down to the music shop in Williamsburg and see if they had something that might be cool. I walked in that day, and there was a Heathkit pedal in the window. The guy in the store hated it, “you really don’t want that. It’s not a full out fuzz, it loses volume when you plug it in.” The guy was asking something like $700 for it — I told him no one was going to pay that. I asked to try it and he told me I didn’t want to! But I insisted, and it was exactly the same fuzz as I’d gotten on Living Daylight. But I told him it sucked and offered lower – I bought it right away and that’s what’s on the record. I guess that’s like my signature fuzz or something. I didn’t actually plan on using the same one — it was just luck of the draw.

AD: What did it feel like to give over some of that creative control, to add strings, to add that layer?

Michael Rault: It was amazing — I wanted to do that with the entire record, but it ended up that a lot of songs didn’t need it — and it was very expensive to do. So we chose the four or five that needed it most, or we had the most ideas for — I was really excited to do it. A couple of times, when I’d attempted to make the record, I got close to doing it, thinking maybe I would arrange it, maybe with someone else’s help. I was nervous, because I knew I wasn’t a string arranger. But the way it worked out was the best possible way it could — Gabe is an amazing arranger and knows a lot about music. I ended up doing rough arrangements of all of the string parts that I had in mind, and showed them to Wayne, and he threw in ideas. It was actually the day that I met Gabe, he came from the West Coast to arrange stuff with us. We started to make these arrangements, and some of the songs were heavy on the stuff that I wrote, and he clarified and put to sheet-music things that I don’t even know what they are. Certain songs, like “Sleep With Me,” I knew that I wanted to do something pretty far out, for certain sections, and I didn’t feel confident that I could write it myself. I gave him some ideas and references, and he took it as a starting point, and went off into another room and carved away at it. Eventually, I joined him in there, and he’d ask me about different parts of the song, and I’d replay certain parts to him. He showed me lines that I’d bounce back off of — there was quite a bit of collaboration there.

AD: The record does have a fuller-production. You’ve always leaned on large production and arrangement, but now you’ve got more resources, and more you seem to be able to do around your music. But you’re not quite yet at a place where you can bring that with you to a live setting. So how do you transition this fuller, larger sound to the stage?

Michael Rault: We added an extra piece, we’re a five-piece now. But we’re three-guitars, bass and drum now. Someone might wonder why we don’t have keyboards, but it was more important to have all the guitarmonies, and have those as much like the record as possible for the live show. I actually really enjoy striping everything down. It’s a really cool process. I just go through and take the parts that are most important in each song and then split it up amongst the players, and jam it a whole bunch between us and let it take on a life of its own. You know, you listen to Zeppelin records, and there’s orchestras on it, but when they went out and played live, it was just four guys. They probably had the money to make an orchestra happen if they wanted, but I kind of like the idea of the live version being the basic, raw, rock ‘n’ roll backbone of it. | b kramer  

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