Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Musicians are People Too: Interview with The Russian Apartments' Mike Caulfield (Exclusive)

If you're a regular here, you know that most mornings I post "Today's Swell Tune," some track in heavy rotation on my current personal playlist. What you don't know is that the entire feature came about so I could put up songs with no accompanying article. Sure, it's convenient in cases of all night masked crime fighting  drug-and-hooker binges laziness, but initially it was devised as a means to feature The Queen of America despite having zero information about The Russian Apartments

Then lo and behold (what?) I was contacted by Mike Caulfield who is, for all intents and purposes, The Russian Apartments.  Our mystery man informed me that he was neither running from the law nor in the witness relocation program--he just had no idea so many people had been listening. 

How is that possible? Well, Mike sat down with me to talk about it. Just kidding. We emailed across 7,000 km, eight time zones, and one and a half holidays to discuss trends in music, his new single, and why people scattered across the globe suddenly want to know who he is.

You've been a bit of a mystery since the summer--there was nothing about you other than a download for quite awhile. What's the story there?  

Mike Caulfield:
Since about 2008 I've been putting up music I make on the Internet as part of one project or another, and I've just gotten used to the idea that I was releasing to a very small set of friends and fans and fellow artists.

So Joe Andreoli (of I Am This Big Black Cloud) and I put the Double Phantasm split up on Bandcamp, I think in August, and we kept saying crap, we should send this out to the music blogs, and shop it around to labels. But we kept putting it off because a) we work day jobs, b) we also have personal lives, and c) given a choice between marketing our music and making more music, we generally end up making more music. 

How did you end up with listeners all over the world? Would you call this an accidental sort of success?
Right, I really have no idea. Sometime in early December I'm sitting in a bar with friends, and someone says -- "hey I have a story for you". He says, "I'm over my girlfriend's house and we're listening to a playlist someone forwarded her, and your song came up." And he starts telling me that he likes that video I made with the monkey. And I say -- "Um, what video with the monkey?" I didn't have the slightest idea what he was talking about. But I went home and found the music was up on, on BIRP, in these various mixtapes and blogs, and that someone had made a video for it.

So yeah, accidental sounds right... I'm absolutely shocked. It's bizarre to see people in Italy and Serbia adding you to their favorites list.

This is never easy: How would you describe your sound?
Dyschronic, I suppose. There's some other labels that for what one song or another sounds like: retrofuturism, glo-fi, hypnagogia/hypnogogic pop, hauntology, bedroom psych... But if you look for something that holds (everything) together, I think it's a fascination with time out of joint. I'm really interested in how we live in a post-historical world. If you fell asleep in 1973 and woke up to the radio in 1983, you'd be like, holy shit, the future. If you fell asleep in 1993 and woke up to the radio in 2003 or 2010 how would you know?

It''s tempting to just blame that on the radio and the record companies, but I'm not entirely sure there's a future left to go to - at least in a modern sense. All our possible futures turn out to be alternate histories, and we're endlessly looping back into the past to find small spaces that weren't fully fleshed out when we rushed past them. I wish there was a term for people that deal with that in an intentional way -- how to mine the past without turning everything into one big hunk of present. But I don't have a term for that yet. It's very close to retrofuturism, I think, the music of the future that never came to be... music of the past that never happened.

What do you think the most exciting trend in music is? And the worst? What trends do you predict?
Well, this will seem really biased, but I think the most interesting things are all these things around dyschronia, time out of joint. And there's this other set of related things that revolve around presence and the lack of patina in modern life.

The patina thing is interesting.Technology makes presence of the past as real as the now. Maybe more real. That Beatles song that used to have that peculiar 60s mix, that record with the scratches that reminded you John Lennon had been gunned down and Harrison had been taken by cancer -- that's been replaced by an immortal remastered digital file that sounds perfectly at home next to the latest Katy Perry tune. There's no evidence of time passing, of distance, of the fact this was recorded on a particular day with particular equipment, we're given this as if it was released yesterday.

So there's this feeling of living in the infinitely reproducible and eternal digital present. Which seems like it should be an awesome thing, but it kind of sucks. A lot of these things around now are coping mechanisms -- cassette culture, lo-fi music, steampunk, maker fairs, various forms of retro-ism -- a lot of it is to escape from this eternal unbroken now. We want our transience back. 

Kids being born now, maybe they won't miss that sense of receding history, they'll just be born into this world where everything is now all at once. Me, I need my coping mechanisms. I need history, loss, absence. So I don't know what the trends will be, but I think they are going to continue to deal with this issue for at least a little bit. As for me, I'll be just taking whatever others come up with and trying to do it with a better hook.

With all the new attention are there any plans for a full-length album?
I actually have a dozen or so songs in the can, but I'm not happy with them. I haven't explored some of the style on More Than Passion enough yet, and I want to go back to that... I feel if I hit my groove I'll be releasing three or four EPs this year. We'll be releasing Double Phantasm on a limited run of 100 through Gnar Tapes in late winter/early Spring. If those clear fast there's probably more physical media in our future. 

Who are you listening to right now? 
Blank Dogs right now. A lot. Coma Cinema**--Mat has such a great sense of lyric and rhythm, he's like a young Ben Gibbard. It's songwriting as craft & architecture, which I'm always a sucker for. Dead Gaze and Nice Face. Bedroom electro-psych. That Nicole Kidman & Greenspon collab, Already Dead. 

I also go through phases where I listen to the Rubble Box Set incessantly, and I'm in one of those now. If you don't have this, you need to get it -- all these obscure lost singles from the late sixties, pop-psych, freakbeat, stuff released on limited pressings of 45s, financed by the bassist selling his Vespa or someone's Mom putting up the money. And early stuff from people you didn't know went back that far. 

What advice do you have for other DIY artists?
I'd say do it because you love to do it, not because you want to make it. Do it in a way that if you never find success you'll have no regrets. If you manage that, success is just an excellent day you have, and failure is impossible. If you're doing it staked out on some future massive win where you're making a living doing it, you're an idiot. 

And the Lightning Round:

Quick and honest--what's the last song you listened to?
Cloud Nothings, "Cool Kid"

What is the first album you ever owned? And the last album you got?
I bought the Kinks "One For The Road" at a yard sale. And immediately after answering these questions I'm going to order a 5 CD sampler pack from Bridgetown Records, which at $22 is unbeatable. 

Who is your favourite artist of all time?
Oh, geez. I used to say Dylan. I think that's still true, though maybe less so. I've got pretty traditional heroes -- Lennon, McCartney, Dylan, Bowie, Ray Davies. I think the main thing is I have to connect really deeply to the lyrics. 

I think the other thing I like about older heroes is when you pick one you are picking such a broad variety of music. I mean, Stuart Murdoch is probably a hero to me, but there's less variation in a decade of Belle and Sebastian than in a year of John Lennon. My modern heroes tend to be people that embrace a variety of styles, people who give you a bit of whiplash album to album, where you wonder what they are coming up with next.

Oh crap, this is lightning round, right?

Do you have a musical pet peeve? Something when you hear it, you turn off the music immediately?
You'd need days for me to catalog that. I have a lot. I suppose the big one is that fake gritty vocal style you'll hear in Nickleback, truck commercials, and various indie singer/songwriters. Gravel voice. If you sing like that I'm going to do more than turn off your song, I'm basically going to lose respect for you as a person. 

You are stranded during the zombie apocalypse with only three albums to listen to until the end of the earth. What are they?
If I had to survive with only three albums I'd do myself in. My weakness and my strength in music is I get bored really, really easy with stuff. 

MP3s: Death of the music industry or music industry wild west?
Hopefully both. 

Would you like to say hi to your mum/primary caregiver?
I'll say hi to my wife, who puts up with me moping when I can't find time to do music.  Or when I'm answering interview questions at breakfast.


A very big thanks to Mike for answering the questions, waxing awesome on the subject of musical patinas, and insulting Nickelback. And while this interview was the bees knees, I do have to admit I'm a little sad to let go of my visions of him as crazed brilliant recluse/serial killer/Batman. 

To contact Mike Caulfield/The Russian Apartments:
And here are the two latest releases, available from that bandcamp page:

**Mr Shuffleupagus notes that she was listening to Coma Cinema at the moment she read this sentence for the first time and was promptly freaked the fuck out.


  1. Thanks! There's another interview today with SanFrancisco/Toronto duo The Conduits:


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...