March 31st, 2009 | Interviews

emily ryan

Download: Mi Ami “New Guitar”


(from Watersports on Touch and Go)

Members of Black Eyes regrouped into Mi Ami, a Bay Area-based band whose music might make one person think of Rage Against the Machine being eaten by George Clinton, but someone else thinks of Richard Hell running through a tropical jungle. Mi Ami’s album Watersports is out now on Touch and Go. Guitarist/singer Daniel Martin-McCormick speaks from the back of the band van as they traverse the West Coast. This interview by Daiana Feuer.

How does your van fare in terms of bad band smell?
Daniel Martin-McCormick (guitar/vocals): It’s alright. It was bad for a while. I had a bunch of fresh apples. For some reason apples smell awful when they’re in cars, to me. I find it kinda repulsive. I felt really bad but we had to give it to a friend of ours. Now it kinda smells like a combo of us and the wood of the loft we built for our gear. It’s not too bad. I’ve been in worse vans.
How do you feel about Touch and Go closing down?
It’s pretty intense. It’s more upsetting for us from a fan’s perspective. We were excited to work with this label that we have a lot of respect for. We just—on this tour—got the chance to meet everybody. And meeting them under these really intense circumstances was pretty heartbreaking. It’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t even believe this label is shutting down.’ It’s a shock. It’s more of a cognitive dissonance than anything else because I’ve been buying Touch and Go records since I was 15. I bought The Jesus Lizard, Liar, first. Or Atomizer—I don’t remember which was first. It’s really strange. It’s expected to always be there, and now it’s gone. We were just starting to get our feet wet. Watersports just came out, but it’s still going to be in print. They’re going to keep their catalog in print—they’re just not going to get anything new.
What would signal that civilization was coming to an end? ‘If this ended that means everything is going to end.’
I think civilization is a model of society where profit motives and conquests are the motivational factors—the pillars on which this society’s built. Pre-existing societies get wiped out by civilizer societies because they’re not structured in such a way that they’re trying to go out and conquer somebody else or constantly develop economically. I would say that profit motives would mean the end of civilization. It would change the way that you view your place in the world. I don’t know if that would necessarily be a bad thing.
What’s your favorite corporate pleasure?
If there was no Coke Zero, I would flip out. No, that’s not true! There are things I like, records and record labels…things are cool but everything comes and goes. The only thing about Touch and Go ending or any of this stuff is that it’s happening while we’re around to witness it. The only reason that something feels limitless is because it’s been lodged into your memory long enough without having any end in sight. Your perception of them is of something that’s alive. Everything is going to come to a halt at some point. To say that this corporation or this brand or even this idea is the one thing is putting your eggs in one basket. I think the only basket you can put all your eggs in is life. Life will continue in some respect or another. It’s strange to talk about things in such dramatic terms because in one sense it is dramatic—but in another, it’s upsetting. But it’s part of the cycle of the world.
Are you ready to live in a tree if we go there?
Well, no, I’m not literally prepared to live in a tree. But I don’t think it’s at that point yet.
The anti-civilizationists think that civilization has to collapse because it’s built on unsustainable structures. So we’ll return to nature and live in trees.
That’s sort of a statement of fact. The only downside is what do we do with all these people? It’s cool if you want to go live in the forest but the reality is there’s too many people on the planet. So something is going to have to be sorted out so people can still live. It’s a profound idea and there are certain aspects to it that are undeniable. Our society is built on an unsustainable model. But us living in trees isn’t going to be a quick fix.
What’s your favorite sounding instrument?
That’s a tough call. Deeply resonating bells. Human voice. Round, harmonious human vocal sounds. Sub-bass frequencies. Overtones. Cymbal. Cello. Negative space violin. Old electric piano. Bird calls—
If you could go study music in any country of the world, where would you go?
Indonesia’s a top contender. It’d be great to go hang out with gamelan masters. I’d be curious to see what’s happening on the street level. It’s pretty locked tight against tourism. There’s a couple areas of the world with pretty amazing percussion traditions: Southeast Asia, all over Africa, but especially West African percussion. And North African guitar playing. Indian music is pretty amazing, although it’s such a classic tradition that you kind of have to devote your whole life studying it. That’s the same with a lot of traditional music from around the world. If I had to pick one tradition, it would have to be North African or maybe Ethiopian guitar playing. Those are the two most beautiful string sounds I’ve ever heard. It’s pretty much beyond compare when it comes to making music on your own with an instrument. It’s emanating the most excruciatingly wonderful sounds. I’d be into doing classical vocal training. I’ve done a little bit but not much. It’d be nice to be able to sing opera.
What’s the most interesting response you’ve gotten to your music?
One of my favorite things someone said after seeing us play is that it made them sad and I liked that a lot. On the record I tried—not to be mopey or melodramatic, but I embrace an emotional aesthetic in the music. A lot of people talk about it as something post-punk or world beat, which is kind of so shitty. The lyrics are personal but the playing is more about us playing together. The three of us having a personal dynamic. If you view the whole package, the lyrics are my sadness put alongside all of the energy and vibe we build. That was really nice. One person said they hear Rage Against The Machine in our music. I was surprised to hear that. I was curious to know what they were hearing. People’s comparisons speak more to their own taste and what they’re listening to in music and understanding. If they say, ‘that sounds funky,’ they’re following the bass line. If you want to hear the guitar, then it’s not funky. It takes a lot of contextual knowledge to be able to unpack music in an analytical way. To actually understand the intention—the essence of the music as it’s understood by the performer. Somebody hears an overlap of Rage Against the Machine in our music, it’s there—even if we didn’t put it there. In a sense, they’re not wrong. If someone was like, ‘Oh, I hear so much Joni Mitchell in your music,’ that’s a little stretch. But it’s interesting to see how people perceive it because most of the time we don’t talk about it—it’s mostly just us playing it and having our own internal dialogue about what it’s about.
What’s a sound you passed by recently and said, ‘Oh, if only I could get that into a song?’
The other day we were listening to Robert Ashley in the car. He’s this weird composer of TV operas and has weird speaking parts all over his songs. And I couldn’t really hear most of it and had to turn it off after ten minutes because it wasn’t very good driving music, but there’s this weird piano chord with him just talking. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, and the piano—I couldn’t tell if it was in cycles, or a continuous ebb and flow of spacious chords. But I really liked the frozen aspect to it. It felt frozen in time and I kind of sat with it and unpacked it, wading through the sonic space. A lot of the music I’m into has an aspect of that: being a sound in a space—as opposed to a big rollercoaster ride through all these different emotional experiences. More just holding a natural phenomenon. Another being that you have to interact with it in a more peer-to-peer level. Music that doesn’t try to lead you too much, and it just lives on its own terms. I was touched in a weird way. I wouldn’t expect to hear a lot of piano on our next record but a certain feeling… I don’t know. You’re always translating from something. Trying to translate a record you like or a feeling you got from something else. Reaching out into the ether and trying to pull something back from there and making it our own. It’s a little bit more mysterious.
Is music a language?
It is and it isn’t. Language is such a strange idea in a way. It’s an abstract language. In a sense it’s so clear but it’s communicating in the most abstract terms. It’s communicating on a direct emotional level. It’s communicating something that can’t be—yeah, it’s such a cliché—but something that can’t be put into words. You can point to it but it’s a much more complex emotional experience, listening to music. You can’t just say, ‘This is a sad song and this is a happy song.’ You can have a sad song with happy elements and you can just keep going on forever, dealing with all the associations and subliminal messages and stuff the performer, the composer, the songwriter doesn’t even know. It becomes its own life form and you have to honor it and play it on its own terms, with your whole being, and make it come alive. And it comes from you but it’s not from you in the way something more tangible is from you. You can’t say, ‘This is my intention and this is how you should understand it.’ And with language, ostensibly, what I’m saying right now is much more direct and concrete and every word I’m saying I’m choosing for a specific reason to communicate a certain idea. But with music, you play it and you’re communicating something similar to a sentence, but it’s very different, it’s on its own terms. That’s the only reason people keep playing it. Because you can’t ever say it’s one thing that’s going to be complete. It’s always an incomplete interaction with the greatness… or whatever.