Today we’re joined by none other than Michael Gagen, guitarist extraordinaire at bands you may have heard of, like hazards of swimming naked and (ex-) Arcane, and bands you’ve probably never heard of, like Echotide, agrammeofsoma and more. We don’t know which of those bands you’ve heard of, but we do know that if you remotely enjoy post rock and/or progressive music with guitars then you should hear all of them because they’re great. We’ve covered three of these bands before, and it is known we only cover the good shit, so without further ado let’s hear from the man himself on his projects, crowd funding, the Australian music scene, books, and a whole lot more!
Thanks so much for taking the time to join us today Mike, I really appreciate it. Our readers are most likely to have heard of you from your work with Arcane (R.I.P.), so let’s start there. Known/Learned was my album of the year for 2015, and it’s up there as one of my favourites of all time. We were all very saddened to hear of the end of that project, though there was consolation in the fact it was an amicable split and that we can listen to your collective works in a myriad of other projects. It does beg the question though, do you plan on being involved with a project with a similar musical direction to Arcane in future? Or is that an aspect of your musical identity which, for the moment at least, you feel belongs in the past?
It’s my pleasure, thanks so much for your kind words, I’m glad that you’re enjoying Known/Learned. Due to the whole double-disc thing it was obviously a pretty big process to write. The guitar playing in something like Arcane, which is so all over the place aesthetically really comes from a place of just writing and not worrying too much about what style that writing falls into, so it’s a difficult question to answer as to whether I will write like that again. As for your sadness, I feel that too—Arcane’s dissolution was a sad thing. It was difficult to walk away from something that was basically my first band and had been a part of my life for 10 years. Whatever I contributed in the end to that album is kind of a culmination of what I’ve learned over those formative years of becoming a musician with my closest friends. There’s obviously some negative emotions tied to it, but as a summary of the band’s work I’m proud of it. I don’t know what’s in store for the future, I can only keep writing and see where that takes me.
Moving into the present-day, let’s talk about your current work. You play guitar for the post-rock band hazards of swimming naked, so how and when did you join that project?
Joining hazards has been unreal. I’ve loved their music since I first saw them play in 2006, and since that show, I’d made my way to every show of theirs that I could get to. The three guitarists; Adrian, Gareth and (former guitarist) Chris had a special chemistry, and the rhythm section in bassist Cam and drummer Rick was killer. Hazards had that type of live sound that could go from almost silent to staggeringly loud in a second. I was a big hazards fanboy basically. In 2013, Chris’ work with Brisbane band Osaka Punch took him overseas for a few years of touring Europe, and I got the call up to join hazards, and suddenly we’re touring Australia with This Will Destroy You or supporting Jakob, or Pelican or Katatonia, or playing live original film soundtracks in art galleries, the whole thing has been crazy and surreal. Working with Gareth and Adrian has definitely sharpened me as a guitarist—they both play really differently to me, and I’ve never had to play in a band with 3 guitar parts at once. The only way for it not to be a mess is for all 3 of us to be completely on top of micro-dynamics, phrasing and tone.
Hazards have been saying new music is on the way for quite some time now. The debut album came out way back in 2009 and I’m sure I read somewhere that a new album was meant to come out in 2015, yet here we are in 2017 with still only one full length to treat ourselves to. Why is it that the process has taken so long, and do you have any idea on when we can (realistically) expect new music from you guys? Could we even get some clues as to what it will sound like relative to what we’ve heard before?
I’m listening to a mix of one of the tracks as I type this actually. It’s so close. There’s been a lot of delays due to our live schedule, there’s been a lot of tours that have gotten in the way. It’s a good problem to have. We rounded out 2016 on a high note, supporting Katatonia in our home town, and we’ve finally had a few months to solidly work in the studio, so the next album is almost there. As for what it sounds like, it’s a very solid album. It’s a more streamlined and punchy album than (previous album) our lines are down but there’s still some beautiful moments of exploration. I’m on 4 of the tracks, and recording with the guys was a lot of fun.
Awesome, I look forward to hearing it. Now let’s switch gears to another post-rock project of yours: Echotide. While they share the same genre and are cinematic in nature, there is definitely a clear difference in sound between hazards and Echotide. The former’s use of samples is nowhere to be found in Echotide, where you also seem to have a greater focus on ambience and a different guitar tone, which helps set you apart. Your debut album as our floodlights gave way to dawn came out in 2012 and featured Matt Martin (ex-Arcane) on piano/keys and Geoff Irish (ex-Caligula’s Horse) on drums/percussion. This is another one where fans have been waiting quite a while, so is that still the current line-up? And I understand that a new album isn’t too far away on that front, so do you know when it might be ready and whether there will be much of a shift in your established sound?
It’s also being mixed right now, and we’re all currently getting ready for a film clip shoot in February, so it’s not too far away either. The lineup for album two is myself, Matt and a new drummer, Sam Mead, who stepped into the band really seamlessly after Geoff left. Sam plays differently to Geoff, and that brings a different feel to the new material. He’s a seriously good drummer, we loved hearing what he did with the song structures. Matt and I have worked really hard at this one, we wanted to make the new album more impacting, and more consistently heavy than …floodlights. We’ve embraced Matt’s piano playing more on this album, we wanted the piano to really drive the softer sections forward. One of the good things that came out of Known/Learned is that together he and I have now got a really strong idea for our roles in Echotide. Whilst …floodlights” as a record was really about learning our musical faculties and making a statement about who we were as a band, the new album is more about settling into that mould and making a strong, bold and vibrant record. We’re all really excited to share it, it’s coming soon.
Ok, ok, I’ll stop pestering you about overdue albums, haha. I recently learned that you also have an ambient solo project called agrammeofsoma, and you’ve been quite prolific on that front with three albums in the past two years. Tell me about what that project means to you, and why you started it on top of all the other things that you’re doing.
I’m a pretty introverted person; I’m quite driven, and I tend to focus too much whilst writing or practising or recording, so these three things together tend to make me ignore the world and sit in my studio, writing music for hours on end. Often times I’ll record a loop or ambient track just to take a break from something I’m working on, as a way to clear my mind without leaving the room or going to relax or watch TV or something. I try to stay in the zone with it as much as I can, I find creativity to be a fickle process, and it rewards you if you stay focused. Anyway, for a long time these little jams were always just noodling around. But in about 2009 or so I started to write ambient things that felt good to me, I felt like I could release them and be proud of them. And after 8 releases now, I’ve gotten it down to a real process, and agrammeofsoma album is now something I’ll do in under a month or so. The most recent one everything old will become new again in time was completed in about 10 days from beginning to end. When I started the project it was always around December or so that I’d have time to work on agrammeofsoma things, when my bands were powering down for the year. So now that time of the year makes me start to feel nostalgic and I always want to work on ambient stuff.
Nice. As a writer, I can definitely relate to what you said about being introverted, driven and ignoring the rest of the world for your art. So on a related note, I really like the track names for agrammeofsoma. Taken together they essentially form poems, and I’m not sure I’ve seen anybody do that before. What inspired you to try something like that, is it at all influenced by the instrumental nature of the music? Is poetry an interest of yours and, if so, who do you like to read?
I often find myself titling a track or series of tracks early in the creative process. A lot of people like to name a track retroactively, looking back and giving the song the title at the end of writing it. I like to get the titling out of the way early so I can shape the song around the message of that title. So after I get an initial melodic idea for a track, I’ll give that melodic idea a name. This is odd to say, but I have melodies that I could sing to you right now that I’ve never released on a finished song that are named. Not finished songs—just melodies. It sounds weird and esoteric, but it helps me create. As for the literature part of your question; I’m not too into poetry but I read a lot of American fiction: Williams, Steinbeck, Hemingway and McCarthy are my four favourites. I read a lot of different stuff as well, mostly in pop-psych and pop-science (Pirsig, Sagan), beat-gen (Burroughs, Kerouac), fantasy and sci-fi (Adams, Gaiman, Pratchett), etc. I’m currently reading Camus’ The Outsider and Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day. No spoilers plz.
That naming thing is super interesting for me, and I’m sure fans of our “Cool people” section on the podcast will be happy with those book recommendations, thank you!
Now, I know that you also do a lot of the album artwork yourself. We love talking about great art here on the blog, and so I’d like to know how important the overall package of an album is to you, with the artwork, music and, if applicable, lyrics all coming together. Also, given you have a few records which are only available digitally, do you feel that lessens the importance of the artwork from the fan’s perspective?
I love good album artwork and I think a digital album definitely lessens the importance of artwork, sadly. I remember pouring over Beatles or Led Zeppelin album sleeves from my parents’ record collection when I was a kid, and I think that was an important part of my connection to the music. I think people now are more likely to think of an album as being essentially a digital playlist and the physical media of the album is just a way of transporting the music to you. For mine, one of the best things about the resurgence of vinyl is that an album’s art is literally on a huge canvas again. I haven’t got a huge vinyl collection or anything but I have a few Godspeed You! Black Emperor vinyl (because they’re a favourite band of mine and the artwork is just so punk and so great). As for lyrics, even though I’ve played on 12 or so albums now, I’ve only ever released a handful of lyric booklets in my life as most of my projects have been instrumental. I do love a good lyric book though.
Yeah, I’m with you there. Now I’d like to talk crowd-funding, because with Arcane you successfully crowd-funded Known/Learned, achieving your goal and raising over $10,000. Talk us through the decision-making process in terms of whether or not to turn to your fans for that kind of support? Once you met your goal, did you feel added pressure for the record to be a good one, and if the band had persisted, how do you think that experience would have impacted the way you funded albums in future?
We argued a lot prior to taking the crowdfunding plunge so to speak. I was one of the people in the band who was against the idea, and I had to eat my words, and quickly. My experience of our Pozible campaign pretty much turned me entirely around on crowdfunding. It was terrifying in the weeks leading up to it, and then it went live and we were pretty much overwhelmed. Within 4 hours or so we’d hit the 50% mark, and we made the target in about 72 hours. If we had continued, I’d say we probably would have used crowdfunding again, our fanbase really enjoyed taking part in the album, they got behind it immediately. I can’t speak for the other guys, but I don’t remember feeling much pressure for the record to be good. I suppose I had a lot of confidence from working on those songs for a long time, and workshopping many of them live before we recorded them. The first two tracks we wrote off K/L “Promise” part 1 and part 2 had their live debut in 2010 and “Instinct” and the two “Keeping Stone” tracks weren’t far behind them. The only untested songs really were some of the studio compositions; for example, we never got to play “Unturning” live—the metal player in me would have loved that.
Oh god yes, “Unturning” would be amazing to hear live, it’s definitely one of the album’s highlights. Though I do remember reading a certain someone’s Facebook status asking “Which song do you want me to play for my next guitar playthrough? Please don’t say Unturning”. Haha.
I don’t know if I’m ready for the YouTube scrutiny dude, as I remember that string skipping bit in the middle is pretty nuts
Fair point, YouTube will undoubtedly crush your soul without mercy. Speaking of crowd funding though, what do you think about campaigns like that of Ne Oblivscaris’s Patreon, and do you think these types of funding models can remain sustainable as more and more bands (like Allagaeon and Shining) begin turning to them?
It comes down to post-capitalism. Because music is in transition; from a tangible good to an intangible, downloadable, virtual good, and because communication is now easier than ever, art and the way we interface with artists is getting decentralised. As music gets pulled away from the corporate interests that have long served as a gatekeeper between artist and consumer, businesses like Patreon or Pozible are cropping up in this weird corporate void, facilitating direct contact between artist and consumer. People have always liked bands, but had no way to give them money directly, bands have always had to struggle financially, and record companies have always cleaned up. Now there are business platforms out there trying to circumvent that. I think that’s cool.
As a platform, Patreon makes a lot of sense for Ne Obliviscaris—they’re a band with an absolutely rabid fan base [author’s note: 10/10 can confirm], they’re world class players, and they’re producing world class art. Arcane and NeO’s working relationship stretches back a long way. I’ve supported the guys on stages around Australia; they’re good people and their fans are good people. The reaction against them since they announced the Patreon thing proved to me that in heavy metal, tall poppy syndrome is alive and well. There’s a live BigSound presentation floating around on YouTube somewhere where Tim lays the band’s finances out on the table, shows exactly where they’re at, where they want to be and what Patreon means for them. Even if you’re skeptical of NeO’s crowdfunding, or Patreon in general, that video is really worth a watch. Also, I don’t think people who are detracting from them understand how expensive a world tour is, how expensive band life can be. If financing a world tour is so distant a financial goal that it’s basically an abstract concept to you, of course you’re going to be envious that NeO are trying to crowd fund a minimum wage. You’ll see it as band who’s got their hand out asking for money, not a band that’s lived out of a van, that’s done insane amounts of hard work and has got an agenda to make a living out of being a musician. There’s an old adage that if you find your tribe, your 1000 people who’ll buy everything you do, you can make it as an artist. You’ll have a lot more people who are just casual fans who appreciate your art, and won’t buy all of it, and they’re great people too. But your 1000 insane fans are the core of your funding. That’s not a new idea. Ne Obliviscaris set up a website to find those 1000 people and now everyone’s having a cry, it’s ridiculous. Just let them do their thing, for fuck’s sake.
As for whether the Patreon model can remain sustainable as more bands jump on board, I don’t know. I’m 31, so I’m not really at a time of my life where I’m vehemently passionate enough about a band to give them a monthly payment. But I pay micropayments monthly for ad-free versions of podcasts because I’m old and boring and don’t want to listen to ads and I want to support the podcast guy. Podcasting as an industry hasn’t keeled over and died because of paid subscription based service, and last time I checked the people who don’t want to pay still don’t have to. I can totally understand being a 20-year-old music-diehard who contributes to their favourite band’s longevity by micropayment, and enjoys the perks that that kind of club membership brings.
Really well said Mike, I couldn’t agree more. Let’s now take a closer look at Australia. The last 15 years or so I feel like Australia’s reputation within the metal community has soared, and we keep seeming to get more and more amazing bands coming out of here. Why do you think that is?
Australia is obviously a geographically isolated place. I think European bands and American bands can tour a little bit easier. I don’t want to diminish any achievements of US or Euro bands, but when young Australian bands get out of Australia, and go tour somewhere else in the world it’s a big deal. Our country is geographically enormous, and it’s a huge flight away from anywhere that isn’t New Zealand or Japan. So the first logical step for a young, first time touring band from Germany might be, “hey, let’s take a few guitars, jump on a train and go play a show in France, or Switzerland or anywhere else in the EU”. And suddenly, you’re playing in a whole different country and your band’s street-cred has levelled up exponentially. Australia doesn’t have that; we have this one enormous place, and it takes five-and-a-half hours to fly coast to coast. If you’re in a young (for example: Brisbane) band, your first step into the world of touring is to go play a show in Melbourne or Sydney, or a few regional centres along the east coast. So you spend most of your time and money and resources in your first 5 years trying to conquer the Australian gigging scene before this pipe dream that is an international tour can happen. I think as a result of this everyone in the Australian music scene is really supportive of one another regardless of musical genre because we all get it, we all understand the frustrations and the toil of living in and touring this land that’s geographically so far from the epicentres of musical culture. As for heavy metal: metal as an industry is always going to have that underground thing; by definition it’s built on human interaction and networking. When you’ve got a scene full of people who are all supportive and far away from outside influence, things are going to start churning and developing on their own. Also, the quality of Australian heavy stuff has been there for years (see Alchemist or Astriaal or Portal for example), but now with social media, and Youtube and Bandcamp, a band can find an audience no matter what country they live in.
So I did some research of Australian bands, where in the country they come from, and the style of music that they play, and I got some interesting results. I found that, generally speaking, Perth & Brisbane had a much higher proportion of alternative/progressive rock bands compared to other parts of Australia, bands like Karnivool, Dead Letter Circus, Caligula’s Horse, etc. However, the post-rock scene also seems relatively strong there too, with bands like Tangled Thoughts of Leaving and of course your own projects. Can you pinpoint something specific or unique about Brisbane that makes it so conducive to producing the style of music that you play?
I’d guess that because Australia is a cultural melting pot, the interests of people in the arts are diverse. And as for me, I’m all over the place with the styles I play, but I have noticed a little bit of a thing with Australian post rock, even if it’s a bit of a stretch. Australia has a lot of space, our skies are vast, our flora is quite sparse and we’ve got a lot of emptiness between cities. A lot of Australian post rock music to me has this same huge atmosphere and huge space to it, and I get a similar vibe from This Will Destroy You, who are from Texas, another place with big skies and big lands. Whether that’s geography manifesting in art, or just a coincidence, I don’t know. Probably a coincidence, right?
That is an interesting theory, I like it! Now as you may know, we have a thing for terrible segues here at Heavy Blog, and a book and TV series which has a lot of super detailed fan theories is Game of Thrones. I’m sure that you and your mates must be huge GoT fans because the Brisbane music scene has to be one of the most incestuous ones I know of. Why do you think that is? Is it just a case of hard-working people having a great breadth of musical interests, or is there more to it than that?
Hahaha, yeah, there’s been a few articles on metal pages basically saying ”wait, these 4 bands are like the same 8 people in different configurations” haha. As state capitals go, Brisbane is a small town, everyone in the music scene knows everyone else. You hit the nail on the head in your question, the collective of people behind all of our bands are basically just good friends and capable musicians who love to play music together. Plus most of us can turn our hand to a couple of different instruments.
Cool. So this is a tough one, but is there a characteristic about the music coming from Australia that really stands out to you? For example, a lot of people familiar with melodic death metal might hear a song and go ‘this sounds like it’s from Gothenburg’. So is there a certain sound that you hear and think to yourself, this sounds like it’s Aussie?
Not really, but we have a few producers that have a trademark sound. Getting away from metal or post or anything like that and looking at just Australian hard rock, for a while, that super slick Forrester Savell produced sound was the “Australian sound”. But there’s nothing that I know of that production wise is as cut & dry and definable as Gothenburg or the Motown-sound in the 60’s or LA in the 90’s or anything like that.
Did you want to highlight a couple of Aussie acts that perhaps don’t get the attention they deserve?
Osaka Punch are the best band in Australia. I absolutely love this indie rock band from Brisbane called Golden Age Of Ballooning, check them out, they’ll break your heart. Devel, Flynn Effect, Toehider, Weightless In Orbit, We Lost The Sea, Meniscus. In the metal world, Vipassi, Hope Drone, Graveir, Moon, James Norbert Ivanyi, and Plini. Plini’s a cool guy.
There you have it folks, Plini = cool guy, confirmed. And a bunch of awesome artists as well, some great picks there. But that’s not the most important thing we’ve learned from this interview. Oh no, that’s coming up now. Tell us Mikey, how do you like your eggs?
Benedict all the way baby, hold the Cumberbatch.
Delicious. Thanks again for taking the time to chat with us today Mike, we really appreciate it and wish you the best for all your upcoming endeavours.
Remember to follow all of Michael’s projects on Facebook, and if you haven’t already checked out the bands he is involved in, you’re seriously missing out.