Well, Drill For Absentee never really "broke up" in some cathartic, rock-star drama - rather, it just sort-of fizzled out over an extended period of time. One day I came to realize that I was no longer actively making music. Strangely, at this same juncture I entered into an extended period of self-doubt as a musician. With the support-system of a band as closely-knit as Drill For Absentee pulled out from under me, I really questioned whether or not I could write songs and sing at the level that I aspired to in my own mind. I made the mistake of spending a year in another band where I was really marginalized by the other members, forced to play in a very limited guitar role and completely shut out of the song-writing process.
By the early Summer of 2001, things had really ruptured: my Dad passed away from a losing cancer battle, and as a result, I saw it as an opportunity to finally break away from the self-loathing that came perhaps as a result of tough personal times and get myself refocused. I started to pull together songs, demo them at home, and finally sent them to Dan at Minority. I spent nearly the whole second half of the Summer in Portugal for my wedding, and when I returned, I heard back from the label - they were quite excited about the demo and really wanted to release the album. I called up Geoff and the rest of the crew that recorded on the album, and we made the plans. It was such a pleasure to have the opportunity to work with the caliber of musicians as I did. In my opinion, they make the album such a success.
02. How does recording with a full band conflict with the songs being performed solo, stripped down and acoustic?
When you have a band - even a trio, like Drill For Absentee - you don't have to really write a song in the standard sense. Rather, you can bring a few unrelated ideas, put them through the creative mechanism of the band (provided it has one), and come out with a finished idea. Particularly in Drill For Absentee, we rarely came to rehearsal with fully-baked song ideas. Rather, songs were created from the ground up in a truly collaborative process. The songs I've written for The Voyage Out, however, were obviously written from beginning to end by myself, and were built around writing songs that could be accompanied simply by the acoustic guitar. As a result, the parts that I developed on the guitar had to incorporate in microcosm everything that a backing band usually provides: rhythm, dynamics, and melody, all at once.
03. How do you escape your own geography to incorporate the ethnic styles that you do into your music?
I like to think of different musical styles as being nothing more than aesthetics; a certain collection of stylistic tools that a particular culture of musicians and listeners come to use and reuse. So, when you sit down to color in a song, the more clusters of musical aesthetics you have to draw from, the better you'll be able to "amplify" the sensation that that particular song seeks to evoke in its prospective listener. This isn't to say that I have an expansive repertoire of different musical styles - but the ones I do know a little about I have tried to put to use. I absolutely love Indian music - particularly the instruments themselves. I hope to use them more in future projects.
04. How involved is the songwriting process, really? It seems that there are a lot of ideas vying for attention within each song.
Well, of course the actual process of writing a song always involves a largely sublime and intangible - almost spiritual - creative process that cannot ever be mapped and explained. You just sit down and start doing it, almost magically. That's why music is so personal: it reports in nearly un-translated terms the internal voice of the artist, who in turn manifests in his own consciousness the collective unconsciousness of the people he makes music for. If you really listen to just the vocals, lyrics, and guitar parts to these songs, you'll see that they are all quite unified. They aren't all in the same key or time signature or tempo, for sure, but they are built around one focused, stylistic objective. Everything else, such as the eastern flavor of "Perfect Place" or the jazzier approach on "Time Passes" are all just aesthetic add-ons; decisions that Geoff and I made on how we could amplify the conceit of that particular song.
05. Each track on The Voyage Out seems like almost like a piece of scientific equipment in a way. Like it funnels in all of these outside influences and somehow compacts them into a dense cube with nice, firm hospital corners. But the result is more orchestrated than technical. It has a warmth and personality to it that Drill For Absentee definitely did not have. How do you do that?
There was a very specific idea that Geoff and I had on how to produce these songs. Rather than arranging and accompanying them with a standard live band, or building them up in layers, similar to what you hear from a band like Spiritualized or even on Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks," we wanted instruments to be coming in and going out of the songs in a more narrative, impressionistic direction. So, you always have the acoustic guitar and vocals going, but all these other textures enter and leave in very orchestrated, directed spots. Most musicians and producers don't use this approach - if they're going to have a vibraphone or a mellotron on a song, they make sure to have it going from beginning to end. We just thought that, instead of having everything switched on all the time, it would be more interesting and meaningful to direct the sounds a little more, especially since the guitar parts are so busy and full.
06. There seems to be a theme of sorts running through The Voyage Out. Care to explain that?
On a purely esoteric level, I always loved Virginia Woolf's title, and wanted to steal it. This was her first novel, and interestingly enough, her characters reach a point at the end of the story where they transcend the syntactical nature of language and words; they switch to a more musical, paratactical way of speaking where the sounds of words mean more than their meaning. That seemed like a nice sentiment for a record. Of course, the title also has an obvious connection with a solo musician's debut work as being the starting point of a kind of journey - both personal and musical.
07. What has your music taught you about yourself that you would have never learned without it?
I suppose it has taught me that music really needs to do something more than just be purely entertaining ear-candy. I think that if one has a gift to make music, they are obliged to aim that gift in a direction that ultimately makes this world a better place. There are a few routes a musician can take to achieve this: using music politically, like in the case of Fela Kuti, for instance, is one way, though making my music into the shape of a political weapon has never interested me personally. The other option is to make music that genuinely makes a person feel good - creating a sense of joy. It can be done in the feel-good routes of bands like The Beatles or The Band, or it can be done in sad, touching way, as you find with Brazilian music and their untranslatable term saudade, but ultimately I hope that my music will make people who hear it happy and joyous, not angry, sad, or negative. Before, in Drill For Absentee, I never had this perspective - it was all about a very intellectual pursuit. Now, all I hope for is to connect with my audience on a joyous level - kinda' the exact opposite of, say, Marilyn Manson.
08. What do you think of Neutral Milk Hotel? Favorite record?
I actually know very little of them, and so far own nothing of their discography. There are just so many bands and musicians I'd like to hear, and so little time, not to mention money.
09. If you could change one thing about The Voyage Out, what would it be?
The album is a little "jangly." It comes from overdubbing everything. It's very hard to keep everything really tight-sounding and unified when you don't record live. So I guess that I wish we could've made the performances tighter, though I don't know how possible it is, given the way Geoff and I make records, and the indie recording budget.
10. What are you working on now? What can we be on the lookout for next?
Oh, I've written a huge amount of new material, and I am extremely excited about it! The newer songs are built around simpler musical ideas - maybe I have finally shed the bulk of my math-rock tendencies. The time signatures are way less idiosyncratic, the song structures are a bit more tangible and standard, and I think there is ultimately a much larger canvas to work on if I'm given the chance to record and release a second album. I think the next project will be a bit more "rock," in that the production will get away from this "narrative" approach I spoke of; it will allow for a louder, more dynamic album as well. I think it'll be a nice complement to The Voyage Out - something different - but I still hope to evoke the same things in these new songs - profound, almost overwhelming sense of joy.
Be sure to visit www.michaelnace.com and, for extended reading, www.drillforabsentee.com