Friday, February 05, 2010

Q & A with Mike Smith from Muskox (and many other things).

This is the third installment of my interview series with Toronto music scenesters. Read the first (with Ben Mueller-Heaslip) and second (with Randal Ball) ones.

Mike Smith is nearly-ubiquitous in Toronto's music community. Find him at Soundscapes most days, and performing with his main band, Muskox, as well as appearing and recording with a slew of others. In 2009 Muskox put out its fourth EP, titled 5 Pieces (Standard Form). You can pick up a copy at Soundscapes, or from the band at a show. The other three---Gallantries (2008, self-released), Fever Dream (2007, self-released), and Caveman Caveman Crystal Skulls (2006, self released)---are available in digital format from wherever you like to do your online music shopping. Visit Muskox's "hindquarters" here.

Jen: First off, I know that in addition to musical projects in which you play a big part---Muskox, of course, but also the rock 'n' soul band Steamboat, and your freelance work as a composer---you've contributed to the live and recorded output of many, many bands and solo artists. Want to give us a list of some of these?

Mike: This is a tricky question, as I'm bound to forget some. 2009 has seen the release of albums from Muskox, Steamboat, Canaille, Isla Craig, Bruce Peninsula, Lisa Bozikovic, TorQ Percussion Ensemble, and MV/EE, all of which I was involved with in some capacity. I've been performing with all those folks, plus Mark Laver's Earthtones, Gabe Levine, Jessie Kussin, and I Am Robot And Proud. More casual performances abound as well, mostly in the improvised music and jazz departments.

Jen: How do you characterize the Toronto music scene? I call it expansive, mostly-unknown, ever-changing, and inspiring, but my perspective on and relationship to it is pretty different than yours.

Mike: The music scene in Toronto is never-ending! There are so many sub-pockets and communities around that you could see a different band play every night for a year without ever listening to the same folks play twice. I mean, you may have to go East of Spadina to pull that off, but you've had your shots, right?

Jen: You spent some time in Montreal. Comparisons between the music scenes in the two cities are often made. Do you have any thoughts on this? Or how things have changed in Toronto in the past few years?

Mike: I'm not so sure I can be judge on that, as most of my time in Montréal was pretty anti-social. I dipped my feet into the jazz scene a little, and was playing some early music, but I didn't really get out to many shows or establish any lasting musical relationships. I moved there right when Arcade Fire went bananas and got a little weirded out by the entire bands that moved to town together to get something happening. I was definitely more into staying at home and pretending to write music.

I came home to Toronto in 2006 with a bit of a mission to reinvent myself as a musician and become more involved with the music community as a whole, as I had previously been attempting a sort of super-pro career thing that really didn't fit with my actual personality. I kind of dove in to the Toronto scene and have been getting deeper ever since. I don't know if it's changed at all---I've kinda been too busy trying to take everything in to notice any sort of trend.

Jen: What's your motivation for participating in all these projects?

Mike: I love playing music, and I love spending time with musicians. There are so many people making beautiful sounds in town, and I'm learning that if you hang around long enough, you may get to make those sounds with them. Also, I have a total inability to say no.

Jen: I want to know more about Muskox. How do you classify the band's sound? (I like labels.)

Mike: Man, I'm so terrible at this. I've had this band for three and a half years, but I still haven't come up with an elevator description of our sound. Andrew Zukerman called us prog-americana, which made me laugh a lot, so I used that for a while. A gentleman named Curran Folkers called us post-folk, which was pretty cool too, although that "post" shouldn't really mean post, but rather it should be a nod to the "post" in "post-rock". Is this difficult? Yes.

Generally I just spout off the list of instruments (banjo, harmonium, saxophone, vibraphone, cello, double bass and electric piano), then make a vague reference to Steve Reich or something. Ideally, the band should sound like an over-caffeinated Town & Country plus this awesome record that Ensemble Ambrosius made of Frank Zappa music on baroque instruments. It sounds like I'm trying to be obscure, but this is the real deal. Reviews seem to say we sound like Tortoise or Sufjan Stevens. We don't.

Jen: Are their other bands or artists you know of that are doing similar things as you do with Muskox?

Mike: No! I want to!

Jen: At one point I know you were putting out your EPs on these little mini disc things. How come? Are you still doing that?

Mike: Nope. The 3" Muskox CDs are gone gone gone. I have a few left of the first one, but Fever Dream and Gallantries are out of print. Mostly, it is because I'm sick of assembling them, but also it is because that format is really difficult to deal with. No one has CD players anymore!

I was drawn to that format with the concept of releasing twenty minutes of music every three months. It totally didn't work that way, but I did my best. The music will reappear sometime soon, however - I am very proud of Gallantries and would like to have it available---either as a 10" record or an LP with a rerecording of Fever Dream on the other side. Anybody got any money?

Jen: What's on the agenda for 2010, for Muskox and for you, personally?

Mike: 2010 is going to be amazing! I'll slowly be writing stuff for the next Muskox record, which is going to be a crazy studio kind of project with some new sounds involved - particularly in the keyboard department. Steamboat is already recording tracks for a full length record, which is thus far moving a long beautifully. I'm very very excited to be working with Sandro Perri on his new project along with all my favourite musical pals in town---Tiny Mirrors is one of my favourite albums of the past ten years, so it's a real trip to get in on the next one. Brodie West's tropical-music supergroup Eucalyptus is recording next week, and should be performing fairly regularly as well. AND I Am Robot And Proud is heading to Japan in April. My mind is blown. Plus, plus, Caitlin Smith and I are launching an insane 21-piece pop orchestra with strings and fake Jordanaires and everything that should be playing sometime in the fall.

There are a few very exciting recordings on the way, as well---Gabe Levine's album was recorded in the fall and should be appearing in the spring. From what I've heard it sounds amazing, and is probably the best experience I've ever had recording. I got to do some string arrangements that turned out super, and that really jazzed me up since I love doing that sort of thing, but folks rarely ask.

Muskox collaborated with Bruce Peninsula on a new version of their tune "Shanty Song" which is coming out as a 7" backed with a collaboration between the Gertrudes and PS I Love You. Both tracks sound amazing, and Muskox on wax makes my toes curl. It's at the plant at this very moment, so keep your ears open . . . .

Jen: Will do, thanks Mike! Good luck with everything this year. Sounds like life will, as you say, be bananas!

Download: "Ghost Ride" (5 Pieces, 2009).

Catch Mike performing next at Holy Oak on 13 February as part of a calypso band.


Mechanical Forest Sound said...

Joe likes this interview.

historyjen said...

I like it too!!!