A Conversation with Composer Mikel Rouse

Photo of Mikel RouseMikel Rouse is a multi-talented, multi-disciplinary artist who’s been a vital part of the Downtown New York scene for 30 years. He’s done so much work, and such varied work, that it’s a challenge to try to squeeze even part of it into an introduction. So here’s a real whirlwind pass through some career highlights: With his ensemble Broken Consort, Mr. Rouse released several albums including A Walk In the Woods (which was listed as one of The New York Times‘s “Ten Best Records of 1985”). He has written three operas, directed and scored films, created a CDROM library of prepared piano samples from John Cage’s Sonatas & Interludes, scored International Cloud Atlas for multiple iPods set to “shuffle” (commissioned by The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the John Cage Trust and Betty Freeman), toured with a production of Cage’s The Alphabet playing the part of James Joyce, and he has released 29 albums of music.

Boost|False Doors is Mikel’s 30th album — and it’s a double album actually.

Mikel brought Boost|False Doors to Masterdisk’s Matt Agoglia for mastering, and after the project was done Matt brought it to my attention as something “really special.” And he was right — Boost|False Doors is a fascinating collection of music.

A couple of weeks ago Matt brought me into his mastering suite to play me some of the music. We listened to a number of selections (and I have to say it sounded incredible on Matt’s system), and then Matt gave me a copy of the CD to take away and absorb. Because, as Matt told me, the music works as an ALBUM. It’s not just a concatenation of tracks: it’s a thought out experience for the listener; a story with a beginning, middle and end; ups and downs; and a wide spectrum of emotions. These are the kinds of projects Matt likes to work on. His primary interest as a mastering engineer is in the art of the album. And he certainly had a satisfying time working on this one.

Mikel and I had the following discussion via email.

James: Hi Mikel. Good to meet you. Let’s start off with some basic background stuff. Where did you record Boost|False Doors?

Mikel: It was recorded at Center of the Earth. That’s the name of my studio, which during False Doors and Boost was located at 321 West 44th Street in New York.

James: I read in your piece at the Wall Street Journal that it took 960 hours to record Boost|False Doors — that’s over 3 months of 10 hour days! Can you describe a typical day working on this project?

Cover art of Boost False DoorsMikel: For False Doors, it started as a follow up to Corner Loading (Volume 1) which was a solo guitar/vocal record (sort of a country blues approach, hence the title, but with the guitar and vocal often doing intricate counter rhythms). So I recorded the guitar and lead vox live. But then it seemed to want some other stuff, like the prepared piano samples (I produced a John Cage Prepared Piano Sample library in 2000 — so I like to use those samples). Then it seemed to want mellotron. Then, quite a backwards way to work: drums and percussion. So I recorded the drums at 321 [West 44th Street] with Rob Shepperson, my old band-mate from Tirez Tirez. Now, I really exaggerated the tempos cause I thought it was gonna be a solo recording. So this presented a challenge. But it ended up giving the recording a funky loping feeling, similar to those 60s recordings that sometimes laid rhythm tracks after the songwriter had recorded his parts. I like that sound, as it’s odd and could only be done in a studio.

Boost is just the opposite (except for the unique sound of steel guitar with beats) and is a pure sonic electronic sequenced record. It uses all the kinds of sound so current today, but because of the shifting metric combination, it’s much more musical and interesting, well, at least to me. You might also notice that Boost is dedicated to Ron and Russell Mael of the LA band Sparks. They did some groundbreaking pop music in the 70s including a pop/disco record with Georgio Moeroder.

James: What is your composition process like? Is it connected to the recording process or separate from it?

Mikel: It’s both. A lot of stuff starts with a musical sketch or a lyric snippet. False Doors especially came out of songs in progress or songs composed while walking down the street. Then I fleshed them out. Boost on the other hand it a typical (well, not so typical 😉 ) made-in-the-studio recording. Starting with all of the formulaic beats, changing the metric structures and getting some really hard hitting and solid grooves, and then letting those grooves dictate the guitar and vox. I also continued my interest in sampling conversations (seen in Recess) and using dialog I overheard in cafes and bars. That whole diatribe in “The Movie We’re In” is from our local bar Rudy’s [on 9th Avenue].

James: Matt told me that Boost and False Doors were recorded at separate times and were not initially linked. Can you tell me how they ended up together?

Mikel: Thats correct. I saw False Doors as a recording whose theme revolved around accepting things you can’t change. And obviously, it’s a more organic sounding recording. But as the lyric content of Boost started to develop, I could see them, both lyrically and sonically, as bookends. They kind of reference each other in interesting ways. And I’ve loved the fact that the reviews have been very good thus far, but some people focus more on one disc than the other.

James: What were your primary tools used in recording the albums?

Mikel: Gear. Lots of gear. You can see from the photo [in the CD package]. I swear by the Barefoot monitors. The DW Fearn compressor is my go-to compressor for very clean sounds. And I love the combo of the Cranesong EQ with the Manley EQ. I used 414 mics on the drums. Just two as I wanted to go for that Ringo Star “swoosh compression” sound on the cymbal/bass drum attacks. I’m particularly pleased with that effect. U47 mic for the vocals and acoustic guitar. U87 for steel guitar and percussion.

James: A lot of your music is rhythmically complex, but the complexity is not “difficult” sounding or academic. Nor does it sound “organic” — one gets the impression, rather, of multiple radios or TVs playing different programs at the same time. Can you talk a little about rhythm in your work?

Mikel: I love that you notice that. I’ve always been interested in complexity, but through known vernacular music. So i’d hate it if it sound academic. I would make the argument that it is organic, as I use multiple metric combination to achieve a new kind of harmonic resolution. So think if you have a combination of 3 against 5 against 7. It would take 105 beats for all three permutation to come back together. And if you’re skillful (and lucky) you can make that metric conversion feel like a resolution, in the same way that a I IV V cadence has a harmonic resolution. I’ve been using this technique in pop music for 30 years. You don’t have to understand the mechanics (another reason it’s not simply academic noodling) to feel that something is ‘right’ just as ‘Ti’ resolving to ‘Do’ feels right.

James: I think I didn’t express my thought well in the ‘rhythm’ question, but I love your answer. What I meant by ‘not organic’ is that the rhythmic layers sound intellectually designed, rather than a product of chance or intuition or ‘feel’… they’re too consistently orderly and extended for that to be the case. And yet the result is a very natural “feel” anyway. Having worked with rhythm this way for a long time do you do it ‘off the top of your head’? What is your process of working these rhythms out in your songs?

Mikel: It’s become pretty intuitive now. I actually think of music this way. If I hear a tune on the radio, I’m always harmonizing to it in a different meter. I can play guitar and sing in a totally different meter and it feels natural. Like rubbing your head one way and you stomach the other. So I hear the ‘resultant’ combinations in my head and sort of write them down or program them from that.

James: Can you tell me something about your approach to mixing?

Mikel: I’m going for a very understandable sonic signature. I want the mix to sound clear, like a good pop production. That’s no small challenge, as my mixes are usually incredibly dense with metric information. Even with False Doors, which feels organic and acoustic and open, there’s a ton of metric stuff going on. Check out the acoustic guitar counterpoint in “Blow Dried Bodies.” It all locks together and has a nice warm analog feel to it. But listen closer and you see that the guitars are circling each other. It has to sound as normal as two acoustic guitars playing together even though it’s much more complicated than that. It took me a long time to figure out how to make the mixes non-fatiguing.

James: What led you to choose Masterdisk for mastering?

Mikel: I got to know Matt through the 3 years i was over at 321 W 44th St. [Matt’s mastering suite is down the hall from where Boost|False Doors was recorded.] I liked his very wide knowledge of music. I’d always wanted to do something with him, and as Boost was recorded quickly I thought it would be a great opportunity. He did a test of “Hurdle Rate” which I loved so I had him do the record. Then, when I started thinking about combining Boost|False Doors, I thought it would be great to get his take on False Doors. Also, as the two recordings are somewhat different, I thought a similar sonic stamp from Matt would help bring them together.

James: What are you working on next?

Mikel: Working on a score for a new piece starring the actress Olwen Fouere based on James Joyce text. Also working on a new theater piece with Ben Neill and Bob McGrath called The Demo, based on the 1968 demonstration given by Douglas Englebart which accurately predicted the work of personal computing and the internet. Also and always, working on the next record. Number 31.

Read more about Mikel Rouse at his website www.mikelrouse.com