Some bands blend serious, weighty, emotive music with equally serious, weighty, emotive lyrics, which sometimes works, sometimes can be a bit of a downer. Other bands blend much less deep but high-energy, happy music with subject matter that matches that music, which sometimes is great, sometimes smacks of saccharine sweetness that leaves you with an emotional belly ache.
In my experience, the best songs, the ones that stick with you long term, marry some healthy balance of sweetness in the music with a depth and thoughtfulness in their lyrics. San Francisco-based Geographer is like a factory for such songs, churning out music that can both get your feet tapping and leave you thinking about life, love, and everything in between.
We featured their sweepingly beautiful single, “I’m Ready”, on our February mixtape and recently got a chance to catch up with Mike Deni leading up to the release of his third album as Geographer—Ghost Modern—to talk about what inspires his writing, the changing scene in San Francisco, the ocean, and nihilism.
raven + crow: Alright, Mike, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. First question—myth or fact?—You started writing music when you found a synth on the street.
Mike Deni: A little of both. I’ve been writing music since I was 12. My Dad got me a four-track cassette recorder, and I spent an enormous chunk of my childhood down there layering acoustic guitars, saxophone, and an clay drum my sister made for me with stretched goat skin. That sounds like a lie, but it’s true! I soon graduated to really really slow computer software (it was cutting edge at the time) and then the songs got really over-blown. We’re talking 16 vocal tracks at times. I still have to rein myself in sometimes even now. But the fact portion is that I did find a synthesizer on the street when I first moved here while I was out for a jog, and I wrote “Can’t You Wait” on it, and a number of other songs that went on to be the first songs I wrote as Geographer.
Man. I gotta start jogging in better, more synth-heavy locales. What would you say drives the writing behind the new album thematically?
Being tired of feeling like an outsider, being ready to plug into life, to stop distancing myself from existence on intellectual grounds. Basically exploring what happens after you realize there’s no reason for you to be here, and you’ll never get a satisfying answer. But the best art comes without satisfying answers, so why should we want more from life?
Fair. I saw a quote from you talking about the album that “life has no discernable meaning or purpose, and your life is a dream.” Is that something you believe powers your writing…and living, for that matter, in a positive way, freeing up inhibitions or more of a Nihilist view?
It’s something I struggle with. I don’t feel quite set free by it. I envy people who don’t feel that way. But the way my mind works, I have a hard time taking things at face value. In the writing of this album, the lyrics, particularly, at the advice of a good friend, I tried to push beyond disbelief, beyond disillusionment. They don’t have to get the last word. Sure if a tree falls and no one’s there to hear it, you could argue that it’s not there, that you’re not here, that there is no here. But there’s certainly something…somewhere, and I guess I started to feel tired of thinking that other way. Before I started writing the album, I think I reached the borders of post modern thought, and pushed into something more dangerous, more lonely, which I call Ghost Modernism. Because I felt I had examined things so intently, deconstructed them so fully, that not only they, but I, had lost all meaning. It was as if everything just faded away. It’s very human to deconstruct, but the endpoint of deconstruction is, well, nothing. And I want to have something. I want to feel a part of things, full of life, not overwhelmed by it. So that’s the journey of the album.
Wow. I like that you’re putting that journey into the music rather than keeping it to yourself. I can only imagine that’s somewhat cathartic. I also read that you wrote much of it while sitting in the Presidio, looking out at the water. Was that something that fed your creative process?
Definitely. The ocean factors strongly in the album, and infected my thoughts ever since I saw The Master for the first time. In that film the ocean is this roiling, churning symbol of the obscured self, the raging animal under the placid surface, the unknowable forces of the world and our lives. And then there I was staring at the ocean, writing these songs. One of the songs I wrote on a deck of a house in Mendocino right on the edge of a cliff, just staring at the ocean all day long with my keyboard on the banister, working the lines over and over again. That one doesn’t have anything explicitly about the ocean, but it was just a powerful image looming in front of me as I tried to simplify this song.
I know what you mean. When I first started getting into photography, I spent a whole moonless night just photographing the ocean—I was obsessed with the ocean at night. It’s a powerful thing.
So ,what brought you out to San Francisco in the first place?
Two friends from college. They moved there right after we graduated, and I went to Boston, and then back home. I was telling them about my life back in NJ and they basically staged an intervention and said, “You’re moving to San Francisco, and we’re driving out with you when we come home this summer.” So we packed up the car and drove across in 3 days, and I lived on their floor for a month. That’s when I found the synthesizer, and started writing a bunch of the first songs.
Good friends. There’s been a lot of talk of late of the city changing a lot, mostly in terms of the cost of living sky-rocketing. Have you seen a lot of change in those terms lately?
Yeah, I mean, it’s real. I’m not really qualified to talk about that in an intelligent way though. I’m an emotions guy.
Hah. How’s the music there these days though?
A lot of my friends have moved away, so a lot of our “local” artists either have no home, are on tour all the time, or they call home somewhere else. But I’ll always think of them as locals.
Man. Kinda sounds like New York of late. Any SF bands you’re liking a lot?
I’m just a big fan of Waters. I feel so invigorated by that music. Songs. That’s what gets me going, not doodads, as much as I love those. I need songs, and Waters provides them.
Yeah, we’re fans. Now, I saw Geographer described as “romantic indie pop” somewhere. I don’t think I’ve seen that particular sub-genre up until now. Can you break that down for me? Is it just dudes in a band who like The Notebook a lot?
That’s it. If you look up “Romantic Indie Pop” that’s exactly what it says. We can make up a genre right now. It’s fun. “Garage Folk”. There’s one.
I don’t want to want to hear what garage folk sounds like…but I do want to, despite myself. In the studio, is Geographer essentially a solo project at this point?
Yeah, I mean, it’s always been like that. The idea of a solitary artist, though, at least in music, is a myth, for the most part. Even if it’s just your producer, or your manager, or the musicians around you, everyone’s interpreting your thoughts, even if you write them out on a page. That’s what’s so exciting about the studio. It’s like playing telephone. You have to pass your ideas through everybody else’s brain before it hits the tape. Or the hard drive, as the case may be. Sometimes I write every single note in a song, down to each drum fill, and the band members or studio musicians will just play it. Other times I’ll utilize their creativity, like wave my arms around and hum the kind of thing I want them to play, but I’ll want it to come from their own mind, you know, so I can stretch outside the limits of my own conceptions. Most of the people on the record, the horn players, the string players—there’s a harp on one song—the fans will never even meet, which is kind of strange. I like keeping the core of the band small, I like using the same people for touring and recording when I can, but sometimes people just don’t want to tour. That happened with Nate and Brian recently. I was lucky enough to have them with me for 6 years, but they reached a point where they were like, “I hate to say it, but I just don’t want to tour anymore.” So I got a new crew to take the songs on the road with me. I really went over this city with a fine-toothed comb, and I am overjoyed with what I came back with. I added another guitar, which I’ve wanted to do forever, just didn’t have the means. And we’re doing things on stage I’ve always wanted to, it really frees me up to concentrate on what I love about live performance and not be tied to making so many of the sounds myself. We played our first three shows together a few weeks ago, and it was the most fun I’ve had on stage in a long time.
That’s awesome. You seem to pull in a lot of traditional bowed string instruments in the music—is that keyboard-based or old-school?
You mean are they real? Yes, they’re real stringed instruments. I write the parts using midi on my computer, but with string sounds, you really need the real thing, at least for the sounds I’m going for. There’s nothing like a violin hitting those high notes. It’s the most delicate, almost death-defying feeling. It’s crazy how good these people are, the control and prowess they have with their instruments. It’s very humbling.
Agreed—I’ve always thought that’s one thing synths just can’t replicate that well, strings. It’s like finding an awesome vegan cheese. So, I saw that St. Vincent’s listed as an “associated act” on your Wikipedia page, but with no explanation whatsoever—is there a connection there or is that an Internet flub?
Well, it’s a stretch. Nate, the old touring cellist, was in Annie’s band when she was just Annie Clark, at Berkelee School of Music, in Boston. So it’s more of a 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon than an association.
I mean, I’ll take it. You toured last year with Tokyo Police Club, right? How was that?
I loved it. I’ve never made so many friends in one band, their tour manager and merch guy included! It was just a party. They’re just the sweetest, most fun guys. They’re giving Canada an even better name in my book.
Yeah, I don’t know those guys, but they seem fun. I didn’t see an LA date on your 2015 tour. Soon to come?
You just missed it, man! We blew the lid off the El Rey. It was such a fun show. But I’m sure we’ll be back real soon.
Damn my luck! We’ll keep an eye out then. And thanks again for talking, man.
My pleasure. It’s my second favorite thing to do. Thanks for the thoughtful questions.