Mystery Lights have the honor of being the first band on storied soul label Daptone’s new rock ‘n’ roll imprint Wick, and if you know Daptone, you know they know how to pick ‘em. Mike Brandon of Mystery Lights joins Lucas Fitzsimons—founder of L.A.’s equally potent Molochs, who have an album coming next year—to talk about why he feels so at home in the Daptone family and the backwards message his band tried so hard to send. The Mystery Lights play Tuesday, Nov. 22, with the Molochs and more at the Bootleg." /> L.A. Record


November 18th, 2016 | Interviews

illustration by dave van patten

New York City’s Mystery Lights have the honor of being the first band on storied soul label Daptone’s new rock ‘n’ roll imprint Wick, and if you know Daptone, you know they know how to pick ‘em: Mystery Lights’ new self-titled album is right-on garage rock of the highest order, with fuzz just where there needs to be fuzz and wild guitars that go backwards without warning. (Don’t miss the flexi 45 they did, either.) Mike Brandon of Mystery Lights joins Lucas Fitzsimons—founder of L.A.’s equally potent Molochs, who have an album coming next year—to talk about why he feels so at home in the Daptone family and the backwards message his band tried so hard to send. The Mystery Lights play Tuesday, Nov. 22, with the Molochs and more at the Bootleg.

Mike Brandon (vocals): I’m sitting in a Whitesburg diner in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and in the deep hills there’s this weird swim spot that this guy’s taking us to. It’s supposed to be really cool—waterfalls and stuff. It’s pretty sweet. It’s a day off for us. It’s kind of a strange idea to come out here and play, but then you’re thinking like, ‘Wow! Small towns are always kind of the most fun!’ We just did it, and it was awesome. There were a few locals at the show, but the guy immediately greeted us at the door and gave us moonshine in a really cool green room … and man, we got extremely twisted on moonshine.
Lucas Fitzsimons: So—I think with rock ‘n roll, a lot of it—if not all of it—is about energy. And it’s ironic that a lot of groups’ recording processes don’t involve too much actual live playing. It goes against the whole attitude of rock ‘n roll.
Mike Brandon: Right! Absolutely. I could agree with that.
Lucas Fitzsimons: Then I wanted to ask you about the live aspect of your recording process. I think a live album—to maybe casual listeners, maybe non-musician listeners—may suggest that the work is done in the moment. You get in, you record, you get out. But we know that there’s a lot of pre-production that has to go into it. How did you get ready to do it live?
Mike Brandon: Before we went in to record it, [engineer] Wayne Gordon and them had come to see us perform these songs live and take notes on what could be cool: cool tones and cool mics and cool ways to do it and how to set the room up to make it most comfortable because what we were really trying to do is capture the feel and the energy of the live show. That’s why the first song on the album is called ‘Intro,’ because usually in the live performance we do like a jam-out to get in the mode, you know? And then we kick into that first song. We would track the songs four or five times in a row—we just kept doing it over and over and then take a break, a few beers, hang out, get back in there, do another song five or six times over. At the very end of the week we had the album recorded. We had multiple tracks, like five versions of this song, six versions of this song, but they’re all done live. What you’re hearing is done live, including a lot of the vocals. Some of the vocals we had to re-track because it’s hard to lay down live vocals without all the bleed. But for some of the songs, man, we just kept the dummy vocals because it just sounded so raw and so real.
Lucas Fitzsimons: So it was very old school, in a way.
Mike Brandon: Absolutely, man; the way that it was done was the right way. It felt right. It felt good. There’s not many overdubs. It’s all tracked live, and you can feel it, you know? It’s the first time we’ve ever been able to do that. They were like, ‘Damn, if only we could capture the performances—we want it to feel the way we feel when we’re at a show. If we can capture that, that’ll be golden.’ And we said, ‘Yeah, man, us too—we’ve been trying to do that, and it’s been kind of difficult.’ I think they did a damn good job.
Lucas Fitzsimons: I wanna ask you about the song ‘Follow Me Home’: you got this cool reverse guitar part—
Mike Brandon: Yeah. That was an overdub. [laughs]
Lucas Fitzsimons: That would’ve been quite impressive if it wasn’t.
Mike Brandon: Yeah. [laughs] That was a funny idea. That song was originally released on a Panache cassette tape long before this one was released, but it was only on a cassette tape and maybe two hundred were made, so the song is out there … but on that song, I had a digital delay with a setting on that has a reverse effect. And L.A. did a solo for that, and it sounded so cool. So when we took it into Daptone, they were wanting to use all this fun analog equipment to try to chase all these cool sounds, and they’re like, ‘Let’s do a reverse solo for this. It’ll be cool. It’ll sound interesting.’ So we were like, ‘Well, what could we do that would be really funny?’ Like maybe we can play songs that already exist forward, and then have them as the solo backwards … so if you play the record in reverse, you’ll hear the cover songs. We tried doing Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’—we tried to play it in reverse and see if it fit to ‘Follow Me Home,’ but nothing really seemed to work. We did ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ and nothing worked. So we were like, ‘Alright, well, just do what feels right and we’ll reverse that and see how it sounds. Try to get a fucked-up guitar solo.’ And we finally got—it’s sporadic and it’s messed up and it doesn’t make any sense, but that’s kind of what we wanted for that solo.
Lucas Fitzsimons: It has its own live feeling because it wasn’t just this dead thing you did. It sounds like you guys really went through something to achieve it.
Mike Brandon: Yeah, man! It’s a lot of fun. It starts to become 2 AM and you’re a little delusional, and you hook your guitar up to some funny reverse delay box and just have at it. I really wish that one of those songs would’ve worked out. [laughs] Like if you play the record backwards, ‘Achy Breaky Heart,’ you hear that guitar riff.
Lucas Fitzsimons: So there’s a lot of throwback bands nowadays—I hear a lot of bands that struggle to find a way to be unique. The reason I ask about such a specific part of this reverse guitar thing is because it stood out to me as something cool and unique that really did set you apart from the million other bands that do a retro-type thing.
Mike Brandon: You know what it is, man? We are inspired by so much different kinds of music—blues, jazz, hip-hop … we’re never, ever going for a 60s garage rock psych band ever. Growing up, we were heavily inspired by that so that’s ingrained in our roots. You’ll see different kinds of weird sounds and synth-y sounds start to pop up more and more in our music, because we don’t just box ourselves into the garage psych category. I feel like a lot of bands that you’re mentioning do. They really try to get that, and that’s all they wanna be, and that’s just not us. That’s never gonna be us, you know? I’m counting down the days until we do techno and hip-hop records, to be honest with you. But you’ll always hear the influence of garage and soul and psych—we’ve taken that in, the same way we’ve taken in hip-hop and electronic and punk.
Lucas Fitzsimons: You’re from Salinas, right? So why New York City? Why not, like many others, didn’t you move to the Bay Area or to L.A.? Or did you try that and hate it?
Mike Brandon: I’ve been in L.A. and San Francisco and all of those places many, many times and visited—it always felt like I lived there, because it’s a hop, skip and a jump away. New York City … my best friend Blake and his girlfriend lived out there, and they kept saying, ‘Hey, man, we have a room open …’ Me and L.A.[Solano, guitar] had the Mystery Lights, and it kind of died down—our original bass player took over his father’s business, our drummer went to college, and we were just laying low in California. Then my buddy’s like, ‘Hey, I have a room open,’ and another buddy of mine, a producer friend, was doing stuff with Russell Simmons of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and he said, ‘Russell heard your music and really wants to do something, maybe—wanna come out? You gotta meet him!’ ‘Sure! I mean, why not?’ There’s a room open, it’s super cheap—me and my girlfriend can split it, $500 each or whatever—let’s just do it!’ I went out by myself because it was fast-paced and it was fun. New York, the culture, the diversity … it’s the opposite of Salinas, California, where it’s like, really slow. I had to get out. I went out to New York City like, ‘Damn, this is so much fun!’ And L.A., I was like, ‘Man, you should come visit.’ So L.A. came out, and we had way too much fun, and he ended up not going home. He stayed on our buddy’s couch, and we worked with Russell Simmons a little bit, like, having some fun. Nothing really got released from that, but it was a nice introduction.  Then finally L.A. and I were like, ‘Let’s resurrect the band out here—it’s perfect. And plus maybe we can do it legitimately.’ When we did it in California it was just fun—we were in high school and didn’t take it seriously ever and didn’t really have big plans for the band. But in New York City, it felt like, ‘Whoa, we could bring this music out here, and maybe we could make a living doing it. Why don’t we do it?’
Lucas Fitzsimons: How do you start a band from the ground up in a place like New York City? There’s so many bands, you’re not even from there—
Mike Brandon: We didn’t even think about it, honestly. We just like playing music, and we met a guy who plays bass and he introduced us to a drummer, and we just did what we always did and got together and jammed—had a good time, couple beers and some good, fun music. We never thought, like, ‘Oh, there’s so many bands…’ To be quite honest, at the time, we didn’t know any bands in New York, really. As far as we were concerned, before we were there, there wasn’t really a scene. The truth is there was a scene—it just was a little bit more underground and we hadn’t discovered it. We weren’t really thinking that way, and I think that benefits us a lot to not think that way. We just do what we love, and if you do what you love passionately and continually, it gets discovered. If you’re not trying too hard to get it out there, which is really annoying when you see bands pushing their stuff … it’s like, just do what you do, man. Do it, have fun doing it, and people will come. Or not, and then who cares? Whether people are paying attention or not, I think we’ll always do this because it’s just something that we know how to do. And it’s really fun. But yeah, man, New York was a great choice. That’s how we met the Daptone guys and how I met the new members of our band. There’s always something to do in New York, and you get to meet a lot of people that you grew up listening to and admire—Richard Hell, Patti Smith … I mean, they’re all out there, and it’s really fun to get to finally meet some of the heroes that we grew up listening to. 
Lucas Fitzsimons: So being picked up by a subsidiary of Daptone—we’re talking Charles Bradley, Lee Fields—how does it make you feel to be brought into family? As opposed to getting on more of a garage rock ‘n roll-oriented label?
Mike Brandon: I can’t tell you how honored and how grateful we are to have finally found a home to release our record. For so long—I would like to say ten years, because L.A. [Solano] and I have had the idea of the Mystery Lights and the songs of the Mystery Lights for ten years with no place to put it, because Burger and In The Red and Goner … There’s a lot of bands on those labels, and we just never really felt like we really belonged. Daptone was one of our favorite labels. It’s the best soul music, but we thought, like, ‘Oh, well, they wouldn’t wanna release this cuz they’re a soul label.’ And we love that. But they came to our show and saw us and afterwards said, ‘Come to the studio and let’s listen to records …’ We went back and listened to a lot of super fuzzed-out raw garage rock, but it was different. It was more soulful garage rock, and we bonded on that level, and they said to us, ‘We wanna start a subsidiary based on this kind of garage rock—more fuzz rock ‘n’ roll type music.’ It couldn’t have been a better fit. It was like a dream come true for us because we always respected Daptone, and now they wanna start a rock ‘n roll subsidiary and have us be the first release. It was like ten years of searching finally paid off. I’m so glad we didn’t, like, settle for anything other than Daptone. I mean—heroes of ours. Charles and Sharon and Lee Fields … I can’t even tell you, man. They’re big inspirations on us, big time. We’re really into soul, so it’s very fitting. And we try to keep the music we write very … soulful music, man.
Lucas Fitzsimons: I hear Stooges fuzz, I hear Seeds, I hear Pebbles, but what stands out to me is that the singing is a bit of its own thing. You’re really wailin’ out there, and it stretches a bit further than ‘retro singing’—to me, it sounds very contemporary. Did you find your voice without a specific end goal in mind? Did you stand up and say, ‘I will not be the hundredth singer to try to sound like Van Morrison singing ‘Gloria’’?
Mike Brandon: [laughs] I grew up listening to Van Morrison and I grew up listening to James Brown. I love ballads—I’m a ballad man. I love soulful singers. I was really inspired by Keith Relf of the Yardbirds—these people who just project. When I first started singing, I was in a Misfits cover band called Darlin’ Darlene and the Attitudes. If you listen, the way that Danzig and Michael Graves project their voice, it’s a very ballad-y feel. I don’t really know how to describe it. Buddy Holly had it. Being in a Misfits cover band was where I was first like, ‘YES! Singing like this feels good.’ It felt right, and it felt soulful because I was able to dig deep down and project that voice.
Lucas Fitzsimons: It’s very active and not passive.
Mike Brandon: Now it’s gotten to a point where I think I’ve definitely found the voice that makes me feel comfortable. I couldn’t sing any other way, man, you know what I mean? It definitely spawned some inspiration. When Charles sings, you know, that feels good for him to sing. That’s how I grew up singing, you know? 
Lucas Fitzsimons: The music, you know, on the album, is very riffy, you know? But with that said, who writes? Is this a songwriter-oriented band, or is a collaborative process? Do you all jam and slowly carve out a song and then you add singing, or is it you?
Mike Brandon: It always changes. Sometimes I’ll pick up an acoustic or something and I’ll mess around with some riffs or some chord progression and a melody, and I’ll be like, ‘Oooh, wow, this melody is nice!’ The musical composition is very collaborative. Sometimes I’ll come with a song already written, but the guys’ll be like, ‘Maybe we could do this.’ So ultimately, everybody has a say. Sometimes when we’re jamming live, I’ll shout out gibberish over the microphone and record it on the phone and be like, ‘Whoa, that melody that I shouted out made sense! That sounds cool!’ Then I’ll listen to it over and over and start to improvise some lyrics. After the song’s kind of got the groove, I’ll take that and I’ll listen to it over and over and I’ll have an idea. Sometimes it comes immediately. Sometimes I have an idea before, but usually the music and the way that the music feels creates the lyrics—whether it’s gonna be a violent song, a party song … it all depends. I have a lot of the writing process in my phone. Every little idea that I have, if I wake up and I have a riff in my head, I’ll take it out and I’ll record the idea in my phone. Two hours later, I have a bass idea and I’ll record the bass idea on my phone. Three hours later there’s a melody—the whole process of songwriting’s on my phone to the point where I one day wanna like release the writing process just because it’s always interesting, you know? I love when bands show the process of how everything came to be one thing. It’s very interesting. The melody for songs like ‘Candlelight’ on the record were so different when I first wrote it. I would love that if someone released something like that, you know?
Lucas Fitzsimons: The Mike box set!
Mike Brandon: [laughs] Yeah, the Mike box set. You know, ‘Dazed and Confused’ is funny, because when you hear the original with the Yardbirds … there’s like a bunch of different versions that were so different to when Zeppelin made it very popular. It’s funny to trace that kind of stuff back. I love it.
Lucas Fitzsimons: Especially when you hear those folk songs that became rock ‘n roll songs—‘Hey Joe’ or one of those?
Mike Brandon: Yeah, that’s a good example. Wow, we are here at the top of a mountain right now, man, and the view is beautiful! I wish you could see it. It’s crazy.
Lucas Fitzsimons: I wish I could see it, too! I think outside my window there’s a street sweeper and some kind of large stuffed animal somebody abandoned.
Mike Brandon: How depressing. [laughs] We never get out here. We live in New York—when I look out my window, I … I don’t have a window! I live in a basement.