January 23

Interview: Mike O’Malley + Beastie Band

If I remember correctly, I first ran into Mike O’Malley a few years ago at the open-mic at SuperCollider, a now-defunct venue at the very very south end of Park Slope.  Mike was the host of the open-mic back then.  The closing of the open-mic was a bit unexpected, because music venues usually closed when they were in the center of the city.  (Cf. The Back Fence, The Living Room, Cake Shop).  To see venues like SuperCollider and Goodbye Blue Monday close was a reminder that it could happen to any venue.  In any case, it was nice to get a listen to Mike’s latest release, Growlers.  We discuss Celctic music, the open-mic scene and political music.


Andy: You talked about the EP featuring the mandocello.  Did you have a violin background before doing singer-songwriter oriented music?  I know a number of people who play the mandolin or the mandocello, and mandolins are unique because they tune the strings in fifths, so a lot of mandolinists also played the violin previously, which is also tuned in fifths.  If not, how did you get into picking the mandocello as an instrument featured in the EP?

Mike: I came to the mandocello from my principal instrument, the Irish Bouzouki, itself an instrument I actually picked up because I couldn’t play violin.  That is to say – I was drawn to it by my love of Irish music and the pragmatic-and-heartbreaking foreknowledge that attempting to pick up the tin whistle or fiddle in my late twenties, after only having played rhythm-section instruments, would be sisyphean.  I was alerted to the mandocello’s existence by some associative googling and fell immediately in love with its brooding, wind-through-dead-trees timbre.  I carry a lot of anger around, so it was thrilling to meet a folk instrument as salty as me.

Andy: There is a good bit of actual orchestration on the EP, correct?  You can hear it especially in a lot of the octave-doubling of instruments throughout, there’s a lot of planning of melodic lines – for instance, the Rhapsody in Blue reference in “Up the Ghost.”  Did you write out parts for individual instruments in this case?  Was this something where the orchestration came together just through practice?  A little of both?

Mike: Absolutely the former.  I wanted the EP to sound at turns like a movie sountrack, so I enlisted the help of my producer, Kate Copeland, to compose counterpoint for the album.  Incidentally, I’d first wanted each song to quote classical music – Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March #3 for Kindling Enough, Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 for Too Thin, etc – but eventually relented because it felt like a waste of Kate’s compositional talents to just borrow (steal?) a bunch already-written material.  We kept (but tweaked) the Rhapsody in Blue bit because of how Downtown-y it felt, which to me is absolutely where Up The Ghost takes place.

Andy: You mentioned that the EP deals with the issue of toxic masculinity.  So that’s a term that comes up in a social justice context in modern times – did you mean the EP as a kind of political statement?  I’ve been thinking constantly this past year about the intersection of music and politics.  Is the EP meant as a kind of dissection of the topic of toxic masculinity?  Do you mean it as a kind of revelatory or proselytizing experience for someone who might not understand the harms of toxic masculinity?

Mike: Political?  Yeah!  I guess the governing anxiety of the album is that at the core of every straight cis-man, or everyone who absorbed the cultural directive to “be a man” as they grew up, is a sociopathic monster.  A monster-of-circumstance – a nurture-monster more than a nature-monster, but a monster nonetheless.  Do I actually believe that?  No – fuck essentialism.  But I begrudge no one that worry, given the abounding evidence.

I think manhood, given the hegemonic directive to be a monster, is absolutely in crisis.  The album’s objective is to distill that probably alienating, likely boring, nonetheless necessary navel-gazing into something engaging and hummable.

And – to take an extreme position – I don’t think anyone doesn’t understand the ravages of toxic masculinity.  They just don’t call it that. They mistake it for the order of things.  So I guess I mean to draw attention to a big thing that evryone notices and might not know how to name.

Andy: So, my understanding of “Too Thin” is that it looks at the way in which toxic masculinity places unhealthy demands on people, and in particular women.  Is that correct?  

Mike: That’s definitely in there.  I guess I wanted to write a love song that focused in on the uncomfortable, posessive streak in love songs penned by dudes.  I wanted it to sound like a hug you didn’t ask for that you can’t get out of.

Andy: The EP has a certain Celtic musical influence to it, is that right?  Not just the instrumentation, or the fast triplets, but my thought is it’s in the vocal delivery?  Is there any background in Celtic musical performance, or is it that it’s a significant early influence?  Or maybe it’s not Celtic?

Mike: Oh, the Celtic influence is all over my stuff.  My day job’s playing Irish music in bars in Midtown and Queens.  I hadn’t made the conscious descision to sing in a particularly Irish manner, but it’s pleasurably unsurprising to me that one might hear it that way.

I am devoted to jig-time, fast triplets and all.  I find it pefectly rousing.  I’m not sure I believe that one’s ethnicity has a causal relationship to one’s taste, but that’s an instance where mine line up.

Andy: Where do you see your lyrical influences coming from?  My thought is that I see different rhyme schemes being important to how you structure lines, is that correct?  And metaphor (and I feel your writing has a heavy dose of it) is a useful tool for expressing thoughts in that rhyming structure?  Or how do you see yourself as a lyricist.

Mike: I always write the melodies first.  I find myself wishing I didn’t, but at every turn the melodic content of a piece is more intuitive for me.  The rhyme schemes are for the most part subordinate to what I find myself humming over the chords I’m screwing with.  As such, metaphor becomes the important mediator between the soapbox I’d stand on all day and the necessarily briefer phrases the melody demands.

Influence-wise, if it’s any other lyricist, it’s probably Stephen Sondheim.  The most compelling lyrics for me are passionate expressions of doubt, ambivalence, or not-knowing – big themes for Sondheim.  Too, he concieves of his lyrics as being structured as sets of “jokes.”  That is – each stanza is an estabishment of circumstances and an answering punchline.  I disorganizedly aspire for all my lyrics to be organized as such.  Finally, they’re unafraid to be pretentious – which is a thing I guess I’m doomed to.

Andy: Where did the EP title “Growlers” come from?  And the EP cover?  Is this more of the Celtic influence, or is there a relation that the terms have to this idea of toxic masculinity?

Mike: Ah, an easy one! The title’s meaning is threefold.  First, it means “Four songs with a low, growly timbre,” since they were written on mandocello.  Second, it means “Four jugs Of Bubbling Liquid.”  That’s because I used the theory of the four humors (yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, blood) as an organizing principle for my toxic-masculinity soapboxing.  Kindling Enough is Yellow Bile (choleric) – millitant, angry.  Too Thin is Phlegm (phlegmatic) – doting, smothering.  Goblin is Black Bile (melancholic) – depressive, slothful.  Up the Ghost is blood (sanguine) is gleeful, drunk and entitled.  Relatedly, the third meaning is “Four monsters at the center of manhood.”

Of course – there are five songs.  “Jack” was an accident.  I played it for Kate as an afterthought and she insisted we put it on the record and I’m glad she did.

Paul Swartz’s fantastic cover, then, is another distillation of the organizational scheme. Each icon’s a song on the album – a direct reference to the lyrics of each.

Andy: You used to host the open-mic at Supercollider.  How was the experience for you, and do you have any advice for musicians who go out to open-mic?

Mike: I enjoyed it!  I drank too much and found that I wasn’t patient enough to shush folks with consistency, but I loved it and its effects on my life – my band’s made almost entirely up of folks who attended that open mic.  I’ve got too much to say to folks who attend open mics, but briefly –

  1. Do you like this open mic?  Buy drinks there!  Give them to someone else there if you don’t drink.  That tells the owners that they were right for taking a chance on an open mic.  Too many good open mic nights go belly-up because the bars that host them can’t justify paying for them.
  1. Stay for the whole thing and listen.  You’ll learn something even if you don’t enjoy it.
  1. Entertain the idea of shutting the fuck up, even if folks make a habit of talking through performances.  It’ll make this open mic one of the good ones.
  1. Be self-contained.  Make it so your set up involves the plugging-in of one thing.
  1. Have one song you always play and make the other (you usually get two) a new one each time.  Keep it fresh for your own sake.