In a noticeable evolution, Geographer’s new album Ghost Modern tells a story about what to do once you’ve realized life is meaningless – with melodies that range from delicate to danceable. We caught up with lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Deni, after his show on the last day of South by Southwest to talk about the new album, transitioning band members and the process of finding a new sound.
VM: What’s the story behind the name and theme of Ghost Modern?
Mike Deni: I was talking to my friend about Post-modernism, because I’m always trying to figure out exactly what it means. He went to a really good school – I mean, I went to a pretty good school, but he always helps me with the intellectual stuff. So he was explaining to me what post-modern really means, and I was like, “it sounds like this is ghost-modernism.” That was the first time I really said it, and then it kind of took on the meaning of when something is so post-modern that you erase all meaning from it.
It’s really deconstructionist – like if you think about something so much that you tear down its illusions so there’s nothing left. If you root through all those things then you find the core or the nucleus is nothing. That’s where I was at and it wasn’t doing me any favors to feel that way.
I had this other friend who was like, “I know you’re really into thinking life is meaningless and there’s no purpose, but I would challenge you to see where you can take that, because you don’t want to live your life just wasting your time until you die. You think you’re this dark person, but you’re a really light person who has positivity and drive.” So that’s really the thematic of the album – life is meaningless, but we’re not going to just sit here and sulk. What are we going to do? It’s not hedonism. It’s not, “let’s go out and party and do drugs and fuck.” It’s, “let’s find something other than meaning that’s also deep.”
VM: Why did you choose “I’m Ready” as the first single?
MD: I think that was the last one that I wrote for the album, and it came real quick, which is exactly what happened with “Kites,” our other biggest song. So when that happened with “I’m Ready,” I thought it was a really good sign. Then I finished the songs, and I finished the demo, and I realized this was my favorite song that I’ve written for this record, and I was just crossing my fingers that my manager felt the same way. And he did!
I had a different song up for the lead single, which isn’t even on the record anymore. The song was so cool, but I think he could see that we weren’t going to be able to pull it off, and I couldn’t finish it correctly – it was weird. So then “I’m Ready” was a no-brainer for the lead single. It’s so rare to have a label that’s on the same page as you, but they were like, “so lead single’s ‘I’m Ready’ right?” I was cringing for what they would say. I thought they would pick “You Say You Love Me” because it’s a little more of a dance song.
VM: Can you tell a little bit about your songwriting process for this album?
MD: I write like piecemeal – I’ll be walking around, and I’ll hear a melody in my head or a lyrical phrase, usually for a chorus, and I’ll just record it into my phone. So then I have this enormous list of recordings, and I’ll just chip away at those. If I have some down time, I’ll actually sit down with an instrument and flesh it out, and then it kind of builds from there. Sometimes I have time, if I’m at home and we’re not touring, where I can just write for five or six hours a day.
On this one I really wanted to finish the songs before I made the demos, because I think I got a little wrapped up in sound effects on the last album. The music I was listening to in between them where just real singer/songwriters like Paul Simon, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, and Jackson Browne. So that was the stuff I was really feeling a deep connection to – not that any of it sounds like that, but I think the ethos is the same.
VM: Why is it important to you for your albums to tell a story?
MD: I think it’s because I wanted to be a novelist. That’s the artistic medium that I respect the most. I mean, painting is the most artistic medium. If you think “artist,” you see a picture of painter. But a novelist can create an entire different life. When you’re reading, you’re in another world. That’s the greatest way to escape, much more so than even a movie, because you’re using your own mind to do the escaping- an active escape. I’m a failure as a novelist, but I do try to write like that.
I think it can be a problem, because in the beginning my songs were really overly complicated. That same friend who gave me that great advice about Ghost Modern said, “make each song about one thing.” He actually is a novelist named Nat Silverson. It was really hard for me to do that, but the first song I tried to do it was, “Patience.” That song started out so complicated – it was about aphorisms and how stupid they are, and then I was like, “Mike, this song is about patience.” So I made the song about patience, and it was so hard for me to do, but I did it and I’m deeply proud of it for that reason.
VM: You guys have really taken your sound to the next level; what was the most difficult part of that process?
MD: The big difference for me was the string arrangements on the album. I always felt afraid to try and do that, because I don’t have any training with that. I’ve been taking music lessons since I was little, but nobody ever taught me how to arrange music. I know people who do that, and at first I was thinking, “alright, I’ll just get them to do it.” But I also knew I need to control the output, because when you put it out there someone’s going to put different make-up on it – they’ll dress it up in a way you don’t like, so I just decided to try it.
I sat down at my keyboard, and I downloaded this application that has really realistic sounding strings. I wrote these really weird string lines where, when I brought them to the string players they were like, “are you sure?” So I think that’s a big difference people will hear at first. Also, I’ve calmed down a whole lot. I feel comfortable in myself, and I’m trying to make my music less and less. I think space is very beautiful, and I think a lot of my earlier music was really cluttered just because that’s how I’ve always recorded music since I was like 13 – just layering stuff and layering stuff. By the end you have this enormous Dagwood sandwich that you can’t tell one taste from the other.
VM: Geographer recently underwent some changes; can you talk about that?
MD: The other guys toured with me and recorded with me but didn’t want to tour anymore for different reasons – but they were good reasons. So they did record with me, but shortly after recording the record, our drummer left the band, and after a few tours the cellist left the band. So we sat on the record for like a year. I found these guys after six months of auditions. I needed amazing musicians, but I wanted really good people. When you’re on the road, you might play music together for 30 minutes, but you live together, you’re a family, you eat together, you sleep together, so I need to love these people.
VM: How many times have you been to SXSW?
MD: Four times. The first time, we only played one show, and that was fun. We were like, “we love South by!” The next time we played nine shows and it was like, “ehhhh.” Then the next time we went, we played seven, and I had a broken ankle. I was sitting on a stool playing dance music, because I got hit by a car three weeks before.
VM: How many shows are you playing this year?
MD: Six. It’s perfect I think. Right now, I’m ready to go.
VM: What are your favorite acts you’ve seen thus far?
MD: I didn’t see anyone. I wanted to check out Tobias Jesso Jr. because I’m a song guy, and I like that he’s a song guy. I feel like he’s trying to do the same stuff as I am but in a completely different way.
VM: Are you food truck or BBQ Joint people?
MD: BBQ. I love the sit down. That’s my favorite meal on the road. Driving through Memphis or Austin – and we’re not going to get any this time around. We have to leave, but we’re going to be back here in May.
VM: What’s next for you guys?
MD: Mohawk in May. We’re finishing this tour, going up to Denver, then cutting across the country and going down the west coast. Then we have to learn the rest of the new songs and videos, photo shoots, that kind of stuff. Then we’re going out again in May to hit the rest of the country that we didn’t hit this time.
You can catch Geographer live at The Earl on May 26, 2015.