„When you play everything, you play everything“ – John Chao von Misha im Interview

misha-16

Vor fast 10 Jahren veröffentlichte das damals als Duett aufgestellte Musik-Projekt Misha das Debüt-Album „Teardrop Sweetheart“. Ein popmusikalisches Kleinod zwischen Postal Service, Moby und den Junior Boys, das international zu recht gefeiert wurde. Wenig später allerdings führte die private Trennung zwischen den beiden Gründungsmitgliedern John Chao und Ashley Yao auch zu einem beruflichen Split. Fortan war John Chao das einzige Mitglied in der von ihm gegründeten Band. Folgerichtig brauchte er bis zur Fertigstellung seines nächsten Albums ein wenig mehr Zeit. Dass der eigentlich bei einem Radio-Sender angestellte MIT-Absolvent anders als beim Vorgänger diesmal nicht auf digital-elektronische sondern vor allem auf akustische Instrumente setzte, beschleunigte den Aufnahme-Prozess der neuen One-Man-Band auch nicht gerade. Mitte 2016 allerdings war es dann soweit: „All Will Become One“, das zweite Misha Album innerhalb von knapp einer Dekade, war fertig. Dass wir dazu jede Menge Fragen hatten, war klar. Wie gut-gelaunt, höflich und ausführlich diese von John Chao aber beantwortet wurden, hätten wir uns in unseren kühnsten Träumen nicht vorstellen können.

JOINMUSIC: One thing that immediately struck me after having listened to „All We Will Become“ for only three seconds is: there are a gazillion more organic and acoustic sound sources than on your debut. Why?
JOHN CHAO: I think it’s because the first album was written when I was with my Ex. She and I were living apart from each other: She was on the East Coast in NYC and I was on the West Coast in San Francisco. And the easiest way to send music back and forth was on the computer. And I don’t know if you know this, but the album, our first one was actually being produced by Mense Reents, who lived in Hamburg and is part of a band named Egoexpress.

JM: Mense Reentz from Egoexpress?
JC: Yeah: And Henning from Deichkind was on it. And DJ Koze lend us some instruments.

JM: Wait a minute: Egoexpress, Deichkind, DJ Koze – those are some of the finest music VIPS from Hamburg – you know all these people and you have worked with them?
JC: Yeah- I know. It sounds a little crazy. And we were a no name band. And looking back I wish for the album to be even a little more amazing because the guys we worked with were so much more talented than I was. Also I stayed at the home of a Goldenen Zitronen member.

JM: Ted Gaier?
JC: Yeah. Anyways, to make a long story short: Because of all these reasons the first album was very electronic. And “All We Will Become” was done with a new group of people. I am naturally an instrumentalist – I play everything on this new album except for a couple of drum parts and on trumpet parts. But everything else is done by me. This is also why – in hindsight – I now have even more appreciation for people like Prince or Stevie Wonder – because they know how to edit.

JM: Hehe
JC: Yeah – when you play everything, there’s a temptation to play everything. And that’s a balance I’m still learning. It was a chance to marry the electronic influences that Misha has with more of my actual background, which is in organic instruments.

JM: All right. And thanks for ruining my second question, which kind of went: “All We Will Become” sounds much more like a collaborative effort… Was doing all the instrumental work yourself something you had to do to get it out of your system or was there something like a lack of aesthetic trust towards the people you could’ve worked with?
JC: Hm. Actually it was the process of writing this album. And if I had to do it over again, I probably would be more collaborative. But the process of writing that album was a process of coming to terms with the separation and the break-up. To me this felt like healing. And as a result it took a lot longer. And I think it would have been very difficult to find a producer or an environment that would’ve been okay with that. And also, because it was so personal, I spend a lot of time messing with it. On the other hand, it is some ways collaborative, because the singer Ronit and I spend a lot of time over the nine month of recording the album in my apartment, hanging out, listening to music and building things piece by piece. In that way it is collaborative. But – to answer your question – this process was something I had to get out. It was something that I had to do. And I wanted to see of I could do it. And than the next album will be not that. The next album will be truly collaborative. With a band.

JM: Well Congrats. You can do it. You can record an album almost exclusively by yourself – “All We Will Become” turns out very beautiful. There are a lot of facets to this record of which I’m sure I haven’t gotten them all. So if you allow here are specific questions to specific songs – okay?
JC: Of course.

JM: Why does it take more than a good minute before the vocals kick in on “Elater”? Did it just sound good? Is it a structural thing? Does it have to do with the lyrical content? What’s the sense and purpose behind it?
JC: Hehe. Can I ask you something?

JM: Sure.
JC: Are you a musician?

JM: If I’m a musician? Well, you see, I was never good enough for being a musician that’s why I studied musicology. Which is for people who rather talk about music than actually executing it.
JC: Okay. Because that is a great question, and one that my label asked me, too. Tomlab said: You know, it’s a pretty good hook, but it will not be released as a single because it takes forever before the vocals come in. – What are you doing? – But: specifically on “Elater” – and I should maybe backup for a second – this album is weird. And I really am grateful that you like it. Because I think it isn’t so immediately accessible, even though it’s pop music. But the form and structure of every song is very strange. As a musicologist I assume you know about form and everything. And almost every song except for two (“Everywhere and everything” & “In Reverse”) does not have the verse chorus verse chorus structure. Almost every song has a weird shape, if you draw it. And I picture things visually. And “Elater” is – because I study composition – half composition and half pop music. And I think this confuses most people. But the reason why “Elater” didn’t start with vocals until the chorus basically is because I pictured it in my head almost like “In The Day And The Life” by The Beatles. And you can hear the Beatles influences in the chorus.

JM: Oh – can I shortly interrupt you here?
JC: Sure.

JM: In an old Tomlab biography there was this hint to not mention the famous four piece from Liverpool before you but what I just wrote down here for the question was: “Elater sounds like a marching band playing songs the Beatles could’ve written.”
JC: Hehe.

JM: So the Beatles influences you just mentioned are pretty apparent.
JC: Yeah. And you know what – when I listen to the Beatles I hear beauty but I also hear a lot of sadness, there’s a hidden bitter-sweetness. Be it “A Day In The Life” or “Eleanor Rigby” or “Don’t Let Me Down”. There is certain sadness to it. And “Elater” was written around the time my grandmother passed away. And the marching band, it is specific kind of New Orleans marching band called The Second Line. And it follows a funeral procession. So basically the funeral goes and this band play this joyful mournful music. And so I wrote “Elater” like it was a journey. And in the beginning the marching band is getting ready. They tune their instruments. And then the rhythm is established. And then hopefully you’ll fell this burst of incredible rapture with the chorus, this feeling of letting go and bigness and kind of sadness and it goes away and you’re back in the marching band following the parade down to the cemetery in New Orleans. Then it happens again. And in the end, you end in a church – in my head that is. And it’s kind of like a journey of life. And then in the end – if you’re Christian, I’m not, I’m Buddhist – that’s where you end. In New Orleans you end in a church. So it’s a composition that happens to have this Beatles feeling to it.

JM: There’s another aural association I came across and it’s about the last two minutes of “Elater” – do you happen to know Tom Waits‘ “Anywhere I Lay My Head”?
JC: Oh my gosh, I love this song.

JM: One of the things tying “All We Will Become” to “Teardrop Sweetheart” besides you as a person is rhythm, with which you rather freely experiment for example using uncommon accentuations of rhythmical parts. But: Except for “Blood Is Hard Enough” which is in a three-quarters stroke (and a waltz is all but far out), all the songs on “All We Will Become” are in a four-by-four beat. Why? Was it your label suggesting keeping at least the rhythm straight?
JC: Damn, good question. You’re making me think really hard. When I was a kid going to composition class, I was really into King Crimson and Bill Bruford, Bill Frisell and some of the Bill Laswell stuff – like Material & Praxis – and Steve Reich and all these kind of things. But for now I like to believe that I’ve got it all out of my system. Like – when Radiohead does it well – it’s just amazing. Or whoever and it feels really natural. But otherwise, in most cases it’s sort of like a trick. It’s usually pretty obvious and the whole point is that you go: “Wow?! – I can’t believe they wrote a song in 5/4. And it still works.” And I don’t want to say that this is bad thing. But for me what was an important aspect in recording “All We Will Become” was that every single song of the album except for “Optical Illusion Of The Heart” can be played on an acoustic guitar and you can sing the melody with a piano or an acoustic guitar, no matter how complicated it becomes. At the heart these songs they are songs. But for the next album I’ll try to make an effort. Like 11/7 – how’s that?


JM: Sounds good. Have you heard of Royal Canoe?

JC: That ring’s something in my head.

JM: On their second album they had a single called “Bathtubs”. It’s in 15/8. And it’s just amazing how they pull it off. I’ll send you a link.
JC: Do that. Do you know Battles?

JM: You mean the instrumental guitar-trio?
JC: Yeah yeah. For their first albums they used to be a four-piece. And do you know Anthony Braxton? The sax player?

JM: Of course.
JC: His son Tyondai was in the band, he was in Battles for the first few albums. So it has pop, and vocals but with odd time signatures something in the vein of Don Caballero. Or math-rock like Tortoise, Isotope. So maybe for the next album: More waltzes. Hehe.

JM: Let’s back off from the technical stuff. Who was in charge of the lyrics?
JC: I was. You know, as a Chinese person who learned English second, I think lyrics for me are as much about the sound of the words as they are sometimes about the lines connecting to each other. I really admire great songwriters like Bob Dylan or Tom Waits who tell stories. I think my lyrics try to share a feeling more than trying to tell a story. With a few exceptions of course. One would be “In Reverse” in which I’m trying to say something. But many times I use lyrics to express or share a feeling. Maybe that’s why the album got a very different kind of reception in Asia and Europe than in the States. In Asia in Europe there are many people with different language backgrounds and they are hearing the sound of the words as much as the sound of the music. But coming back to your question: Yeah I wrote all the lyrics and they are all bittersweet.

JM: I will get to this shortly if you allow but my question had a different intention: Did your fellow musicians comment on or maybe even object to your words and if yes – were you open to this?
JC: I actually was really open. Best example: “Optical Illusion”. I did not come up with that name of the song. It was by Ronit’s best friend Sarah who was complaining about her love life. And so Sarah and we were standing on the platform waiting for some train and saw this couple kissing at like 2 AM. And Sarah just went: “You know, love is just an optical illusion of the heart. And I bet five weeks later they’re going to break up”. She was feeling quite bitter at the time. And my friend and I thought that was hilarious. And that night we wrote that title down and composed the music. So yeah, lyric wise I was pretty open for input. And most of the input came about when my lyrics felt too harsh, to mean, to hurting. And in some cases Ronit and Amy would say that the bitter-sweetness felt out of place, too cynical. Or too just purely sad. I took out some lyrics and I changed a few. All in all I was able to incorporate feedback. And although and because of all of the instruments it seems a collaborative album. But at one level lower, it really was or is a collaborative album. Much more collaborative than the first album.

JM: What does that make out of your fellow musicians? What’s their status? Are they temporary Misha members or what’s the deal?
JC: Oh, man. I would say this: Misha is like a family. And live Misha is a band. Ronit’s in it, there’s a woman named April, who studied with Esperanza Spaldings’ bassist, she’s a bassist as well, there’s a guy named Jonathan Rothman, who used to be in a band called The Long Winters. And a guy named Nabil Ayers who currently runs for ID and helps out every now and then. So we have a live band, people who come together to play live shows. And that’s almost the same always. In terms of the album I think it more comes and goes depending on the sound. So the next thing I do with Misha will probably be an EP. And it will be much more paired down. Even more organic – if Tomlab is okay with it. That one will have as I mentioned more people on it. But it may not be the same configuration as on “All We Will Become”. Jonathan, my bassist, just got married. A guy named Ron Lewis – who used to play with the Shins and Fruit Bats – and I wrote the music for the wedding and we talked about doing some music together. He may join the band for the EP and then leave. I feel I’m not answering your question very well. So it’s me at the center and there will always be somebody else in Misha. It will never just be me. If that makes any sense.

JM: How did you hook up with Tomlab. You’re with the label for a number of years now. The first thing Misha ever put out, was already on Tomlab.
JC: We got on Tomlab a long time ago. I just came from grad school at MIT and I was doing all this dance music stuff. I don’t know if you know this Boston MIT scene in the mid 2000s.

JM: Not really…
JC: Yeah – there was a lot of dance music around. DJ Rupture came out of that, and there was a whole label basically just doing glitch house. Like Kompakt type music that came out of that area. And so I wanted to do something with pop and electronica. And at the time the Books were huge – a wonderful and amazing band. And Tomlab kind of launched them. So I think I just sent a demo and Jan who works at Tomlab wrote back: “We played one of the songs at a club and everybody went nuts. So, that seems like a good sign”. And that’s how it started. I’ll send you the song. It’s a really TV killed the radio eighties dance song which never showed up on either album and that was it. And I think Tomlab is amazing because they are truly like a family. They have amazing talent. And because Tom is personally involved in all interactions it really feels like a family. So whether you are talking to the Books, or Owen Pallet/Final Fantasy who used to be on the label or Max Tundra or Casiotone – it’s like a big loose family. And we had options to go with other labels after the first album but loyalty is something that Tomlab creates. They are wonderful. And Tom is a great nurturer of talent. He never rests. Plus – when I was growing up, my grandparents lived in Bonn. And so my family has a connection to Germany. Which made it easy for me to understand Tom and how he thinks. That’s how we got on Tomlab.

JM: Seems like you made the right choice. John, one last question. Before this interview you said you would have to go to meetings and I just assumed that these meetings have nothing to do with you being the center and frontman of Misha. What I want to know is: How is your stance on the opposition of being a professional but in a way dependent musician vs. having a day-job and being able to compose and play the music you like without depending on its success?
JC: Oh. I Just had this conversation the other night with a musician friend of mine – exactly about this. Because he has chosen to be a full-time musician and I’ve not always but most of the time had a day-job. Just in case you’re wondering. I work in media. I work at a radio station in NY that’s the biggest public radio station in the country and we make a lot of really famous podcasts like Radiolab etc. If I was articulate enough to answer your question I would say: It’s not that I don’t think of myself as a professional musician, because music is somehow intertwined with my identity, there’s no way to turn it off. It’s more that I’m able to help cover some of the costs of my band mates. I’m able to not worry to get an album out at this minute and then I have to hit the single. We can be more choosy when it comes to what commercials license our music and that kind of stuff. And when you do that I think it can be a good thing because it makes you competitive, But if you hit a bad creative stretch and that’s all you do and you have nothing else to think about – I wouldn’t know how to get out of it – do you know what I mean?

JM: Totally.
JC: I’m kind of seeing this person right now. She’s in arts. And we were talking about our different creative approaches. And my approach to writing songs – and Thomas, this is really embarrassing – I sit with a guitar on my lap, I have to screens up, one is Ableton or Pro-Tools, the other one being some foreign movie, like some Italian or Wong Kar Wei Movie, and I have it on silent and just let it play. And then I strum the guitar and sing nonsense till something works. That’s my process.

JM: That’s your routine? That’s awesome. You got two wonderful albums out of this!
JC: Well thank you. But the point is: I can’t do that if I have to Deng deng deng, get something out of it, you know what I mean? So that’s my process. Her process involves running. So she runs to create. Which I found interesting and odd. Anyway: With that kind of process what you need is time. And I was talking to somebody who knows Grizzly Bear, you know, the band. And they wrote a very famous article four or five years ago for a magazine in NY that talked about how much money they made. Basically the point being they made very little money even with “Yellow House” which is their most successful album. And I just thought: Man that’s really tuff. That’s why you see so many bands go like this: They do one album and then they just can’t do it no more. But I’m rambling, I’m sorry.

JM: Don’t be. Thank you for the interview.

Foto: Anthony Cucculelli

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