Interview: Morgan Geist
Fri, 10 Oct 2008 13:19:21
Turn off your radio then close your eyes. Not too tight though, just enough to block out the light. If you sit absolutely still and listen closely, you just might hear the drums in the distance. The faint pounding isn't coming from far away though. It's your pulse pumping quietly, indispensably. The sound comes straight from the heart, producing a frequency that resonates across the emotional spectrum. Electronic producer Morgan Geist tuned his antenna to that exact frequency on his new collection of nocturnal pulses, Double Night Time.
The Environ label head, and one-half of disco infiltrators Metro Area, has fashioned a subtle collection of R&B flavored techno with this release, getting a big assist from budoire crooner Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys. Soft stepping his way through grooves that might be called heady, if not for their visceral underpinnings, he conjures up the ghosts in the machines to tell the story of a trying time in his life. With the recently released album still coursing it's way through our veins, we caught up with Geist for an interview, where he shed light on his process, schooled us on some industry lessons and cautioned against pointing the retro finger.
Double Night Time really casts a shadow with the sexy dimness of its production. Do you do anything to set the mood when you're producing?
It’s funny, I never really do much to set the mood in the studio. Often I’ll do the opposite. To use your example, if the production environment is already “dim and sexy,” you wouldn’t really need to do much to achieve that feeling, and chances are the feeling wouldn’t translate to an outside environment. But if you achieve that feeling in an incongruous environment, you’re onto something.
Jeremy Greenspan's vocals fit perfectly with the vibe you're creating. Do the two of you record in the studio together, and what's the dynamic like if you do? Do you come with tracks and a preplanned melody or do the two of you collaborate on the entire construction of a song?
Jeremy wrote the lyrics to one song (“City of Smoke and Flame”), and I wrote the rest. I wish we collaborated more fully, but we were both too busy, so he was more like a hired gun eighty-percent of the time and just sang my lyrics and melodies. The dynamic when we record is much the same as the dynamic when we hang out. We have similar senses of humor. Jeremy would make fun of how controlling or obsessive I am in the studio sometimes, which was good for me to learn to laugh at. But the truth is, I think he takes music-making just as seriously and just pretends not to!
A lot of the instruments on the album—strings, guitar, piano—sound so organic. Is the instrumentation live, and do you play them yourself or bring in outsider help?
Jeremy played guitar, Kelley Polar played strings. I “played” everything elsemeaning I sequenced or recorded and edited myself.
I read that the album is your ode to the days when you used to head to Detroit to hear the city's signature brand of techno. What's your fondest memory from those trips?
Well, that’s not true. The album is an ode to a really challenging few years . Maybe you’re thinking of the song “Detroit,” which definitely is an ode to the days of going to Detroit, but it isn’t an ode to that music itself. It’s more a memorial to the optimism and naïve enthusiasm of my younger self (who indeed drove occasionally Detroit to hear the inventors of techno play their music).
There's an air of longing in the songs. Is it the music, the times or something else altogether different that you miss?
Sort of everything, but it’s getting better. I think I needed to put an album out and just move on. This album definitely book-ends a kind of tough period, at least creatively. The song “Detroit” is definitely about longing and loss. Actually there are a few songs about that on the album. Very lighthearted stuff!
Is there a particular story that you were trying to get across with the album?
See above. I wouldn’t say it was a story per se but more a palette of emotions, primarily based around the colors of longing, loss, worry, anxiety...definitely a document of inner struggle, though I don’t think it’ll sound like that to anyone. It will probably just sound like a bunch of synths and drum machines and Jeremy singing.
Wig-splitting electro was the sound de-jour for the past couple of years, but I feel like people are rediscovering melody and subtle grooves. Would you agree, and why do you think that is if so?
I just came back from a tour of Australia. We played each day in front of tens of thousands of kids and saw what they responded to (and heard what other people on the tour were playing). So maybe you’re asking me this question at the wrong time, but I would give a resounding NO to your question. This album is a bit of a protest against all music screaming at people all the time. It’s my opting out of the loudness wars.
I feel like you helped people rediscover the beauty of disco with Metro Area, but now there's a risk of it becoming trite for the second time with all the boring takes on the genre recently. How do you feel about people mining the sound, and is it still fresh in your eyes?
It’s kind of hard to rail against this without sounding hypocritical, since we mined the sound too. So I won’t. I will say we were earnest with our explorations and tried to do something new, and our records definitely did not fit in for a few years, which felt good. Now it’s quite easy to fit indisco is acceptable, even for modern laptop rockstars to use in their band names or on their party flyers.
You have an obvious ear for pop music. Ever have any thoughts of trying to go all the way and just drop a pop album for the masses to see if you could?
Haha, this was attempt number one! I have no interest in making music for the masses, but I’d like the masses to like my music. We’ll see.
What have you learned about the music business in your time as the head of Environ?
Stay out of it.
The label has cultivated a certain aesthetic over the years even though each artist has their own flavor. Where do you see the label and its sound going in the years to come?
I hope it metamorphoses and is perceived as diverse within reason. I say “within reason” because my favorite indie labels of the past (say, Prelude or West End) did music that crossed over into multiple genres but still made sense as a release from whatever label it was. I like that. The music defines the label, but you can definitely hear the tastes or tendencies of whomever is doing A&R and making the label’s sound distinctive.
I have noticed some criticism from certain geeky dance music circles regarding the fact that Environ artists have the gall to continue to slowly explore certain sounds at their own, chosen pace without regard for what’s going on elsewhere in the music world. It’s confusing, because many of these same critics will buy (for example) heaps of so-called “minimal techno” records that sound exactly the same, month after month, without protest. Oh well...perhaps people hold us to a higher standard, and if that’s our own fault, we must be doing something right.