Morgan Geist’s first studio album in 11 years is a triumphant blast of pop electronics. So why is its creator feeling so fed up with the music business? RA’s Rich Juzwiak talks to the bald half of Metro Area to find out.
There’s a story there on Morgan Geist’s first studio album in 11 years (and second overall), though it might be hard to hear. Double Night Time rides on frequencies clipped by modern ways of commodifying sound. It whispers to listeners who could very well be going deaf from contemporary music’s incessant screaming. Inherently contradictory, it lays out its facts in the overlapping space between opposing forces (those concentric moons on the cover can’t just be a coincidence). It’s pop with little chance of widespread acceptance. Its sonic effervescence is cut with maudlin lyrical sentiment (Junior Boy Jeremy Greenspan’s sings on all five of the vocal tracks with a delivery that only adds to the gloom). Packed almost entirely with synths, it sounds like the future (or at least how the future seemed at some point), yet there’s something old-fashioned, quaint, even “standard-y” (in Geist’s words) about it.
And yet, there it is, the product of its 35-year-old, ready-to-bail creator-cum-label owner who speaks with equal passion and apathy. As a reflection of that struggle, Geist probably couldn’t have created a better character sketch. From all that I can gather as someone who knows the man personally, Double Night Time is the sonic equivalent of Morgan Geist, right here, right now in shitty 2008. The music industry is dying, but this album is alive.
How has the process of promoting this album been? Do you like talking about your work?
I did with something like Unclassics, but this album I feel really weird about. I’ve been venting a lot and that doesn’t come off as very fun. It’s hard to hold back. I’m ready to eject. I’ve been ready for a while now, but now I’m really ready.
Eject from music? Why?
The business side. Considering what music has turned into, releasing it today is like opening a transfat restaurant. I like doing recorded music. I don’t want to perform. I don’t want to DJ. I just want to record music and it’s getting increasingly difficult to do that. When I was 15, if there were an Internet that I could have posted tracks on, I would have been thrilled. But at 35, I would like to be able to make a living. Also, it’s easy to think about the art when you aren’t consumed by the business. Before I ran a label, I didn’t care if my records sold.
But then what do you do?
I don’t know. I’ve been trying to figure it out for a while.
Even if you aren’t releasing it, will you be making music? Aren’t you driven to do so on a primal level?
I don’t know. The problems with the business side have detracted so much from my creative side. So much of my energy gets used up by that that anything involved with making music just isn’t fun. It’s like, who am I making the music for?
No. Not only myself. I have to satisfy myself and then I release it to the public. I feel trapped. It’s like being in a bad romantic relationship. Even when you’re trying to be nice to each other, it’s not working. People write me now, like, “Oh, I love the new album.” It’s like saying, “Your mother’s so pretty. I noticed while I was fucking her last night.” Everyone who writes me about the album has taken it from somewhere and there’s no way they’re going to buy it. What do you say to that? “Thanks for complimenting my album that’s not out for three months”?
People are paying attention to my music, and I feel very lucky to be in that situation, but I can’t just sit there and be content with that. I have other people on my label to support. I have my own business costs. It’s all this mundane stuff, but it weighs on you. That’s why I don’t go to sleep at night. That’s why I wake up worrying. It’s hard to make music when that’s your outlook.
So, you’re in a rut.
Yeah, very much so. When I was making the record I was like, “I suck. I don’t have any ideas left.” So that paralyzed me. Then I’d be like, “The music industry’s collapsing.” That paralyzed me. I was coming up with all these reasons not to finish the album. And there was stuff that went down in my personal life that I don’t want to get into that made me not want to finish the album. It was a bad scene even after it was finished, because then, I didn’t want to release it. I forced myself, in the name of publish-or-perish. I didn’t want to die with one record under my belt from 1997.
But there’s a lot of sonic joy on this album. It isn’t miserable.
That’s nice to hear, because it would suck if I was just entirely miserable. Some of my favorite records are happy-sad soul records that are so upbeat but lyrically paint the opposite picture. Like a lot of Motown stuff.
The lyrics are pretty oblique.
They’re just not very good. [laughs] “Most of All” is a really sad song, at least in terms of what I was writing about. But the music is happy verging on dorky. I kinda wanted to be standard-y. It’s like listening to everyone being so cool and ironic, I just wanted to be honest. If you’re making a standard, it’s OK to be sad. It’s OK to be emotionally conventional instead of trying to do something cool.
What’s Jeremy’s input like? Did you write all the lyrics?
I wrote everything by myself except for “City of Smoke and Flame,” which he helped on.
So he’s basically a mouthpiece?
Sorta. Even when I’m trying to make something that works conventionally, I always try to sneak something obscure or weird in there. And Jeremy taught me that if something seems obvious, go with obvious. A lot of the time, he was right and I’d wonder, Why am I torturing myself? Why shouldn’t the harmony go in the obvious place?
Does embracing conventionality mean that you’re maturing into pop music?
I don’t think it’s maturing, it’s just accepting. It’s a matter of getting sick of what you do all the time. I was ready to do a record like this. I wanted to get better at doing pop music. But at the same time, there’s a balance. I’m not going to go “where music is going.” I’m not going to make a record for iPods or something that can slam as a ringtone. Fuck that.
You aren’t supposed to listen to this on your iPod?
Listening to music isn’t an event anymore unless it’s live. No one sits down and just listens. I think entertaining yourself on the go is turning into a huge problem. It’s like yogurt tubes versus nice Greek yogurt with honey drizzled on it. And it makes me second-guess everything. I’ve spent days setting up my home stereo, which transmits frequencies that literally do not transmit via today’s most popular ways to listen to music. There is no bass coming through earbuds under a certain range. Part of it is to feel it. You’re never gonna feel anything with stuff shoved in your ears.
How obsessive are you regarding the sound textures?
Very. I take them very seriously.
Nothing sounds like a Morgan Geist record. I’m too ignorant to even be able to verbalize why what you do sounds so crisp and nice and pleasantly tactile.
Maybe a little bit of the difference has to do with resisting going loud, like so much pop music does. If you listen to my record on your iTunes, it’s going to be a little softer than the rest of what’s on there. And it’s because I believe that you should have transients and dynamics. If you look at a pop waveform, it looks just like a block of sound. It’s crushed so there’s no room at all. It’s constantly loud, whereas mine looks like an actual wave. Part of it’s that I leave room when I master, and that’s usually when people crush the stuff, if they haven’t already crushed it when recording. They crush and crush so that the finished product is this loud block of noise. People think dynamics are a bad thing now. It’s sad, like if we just communicated to each other all the time without any inflection, always just yelling. That’s what music’s doing now, yelling at you.
You said you feel weird about this album. Why?
I’m self-conscious about everything I do. That’s just my personality. It’s the first time I’ve had vocals on an album and I’m self-conscious about people hearing my lyrics because I know they just aren’t great. It’s terrifying. But I hope people like it.
Do you like it?
I wanted to accomplish one thing when I started out and this album took me so long that by the end, I was bored with it. I felt like I lost focus. I am glad that it’s very electronic and synthy. I got to indulge my psycho, OCD programming/electronic side. And I do feel that it’s nicely at odds with what’s going on right now. It’s not sloppy disco and it’s not super-compressed stuff like Justice. It’s just kind of a soft album. It’s already a bad sign, I think, that both of my parents like it.