Interview – .michael.
by Maria Bobbitt-Chertock on August 13, 2019
Posted in: Jazz, Music, Other
I first saw .michael. when they opened for Big Thief at Brooklyn Steel—an 1,800 capacity venue, completely sold out for the night. The clarinet and guitar duo (Michael Sachs on clarinet, Mikey Buishas on guitar) walked on stage in colorful sweaters and stretched out their joints, then settled in with chaste confidence. They took their sneakers off and played sitting down. No distortion, no bass. Under one constant beam of light, they whispered into the mic (‘mikes’ truly abounded) about Amazon prime orders and hating their day jobs. The crowd cheered.
Who were these Michaels, playing such lighthearted counterpoint for a rock-concert-ready audience just reaching to take the Js out of their shoes and briefs?
After some deep searching—basically a long game of keyword association in the Google search bar—I found them at dotmichaeldot.bandcamp.com. A few days later, we met up at Cafe Madeline in Flatbush.
Q: Your Bandcamp bio describes .michael. as “a clarinet/guitar duo that plays sometimes instrumental love songs and sometimes non-instrumental love songs, often about or told from the perspective of a person named Michael, no relation to the band or its members.” How does this fictional Michael differ from the two of you? What does this Michael want? What does he fear?
Mikey: The Bandcamp bio is a tongue-in-cheek, multiple clause way to poke fun at ourselves. [Michael] shows up in our songs, and it’s a way of relinquishing or dismissing any song lyrics that aren’t directly about us. He’s a convenient person who happens to have our name.
Michael: We try to avoid ‘I,’ but we end up saying ‘I’ in lyrics a lot. These first-person scenarios—it’s just like, why not just embrace it, incorporate the whole name in it?
Mikey: As to the love song part: I once asked somebody what kind of music he played, and he just responded, ‘Love songs.’ This probably happened 20 years ago, but it stuck with me because it totally sidestepped the genre question.
So do you try to ‘sidestep the genre question’ with regards to your music?
Mikey: I’m bewildered even when my own parents ask me to characterize it. [Instead of] getting super long-winded about it and getting to the point where I’m sick of talking about myself, I prefer to say, ‘It’s love songs.’ Or ‘pop music.’
Michael: It’s easier to resort to something more comical.
When Brooklyn Vegan wrote about the night you played Brooklyn Steel, they called you a “comedy / music duo” —
Michael: An oboe and guitar comedy duo.
Right. How do you feel about incorporating humor in your music? Especially since your most recent album, Crumb Devotion, seemed to pull so much humor out of disappointment and drudgery. There were a lot of really funny lines in it—for instance, in “I really wanna quit my job,” the turning point of the song seems to be, “I almost wrote a song / Michael, can you clean that up??” Do you think that self-deprecating humor is essential to your music? Do you think it’s important to humble yourself routinely?
Michael: We talk about this all the time, about not wanting to get stuck on this self-deprecating route. We tried to play a game where we couldn’t be sarcastic for a whole day. It failed.
Mikey: The truth is, a lot of our songs come out of song-a-day projects that Michael and I do together. We’ve probably sent each other, I don’t know, a hundred songs, and a lot of these end up being .michael. songs. So maybe something that seems goofy at first will suffice for the song-a-day, but maybe there’s something nice about it, so we turn it into song, and the next thing you know there’s an album of things that seem too goofy.
I feel like I don’t listen to goofy music. We’re goofy people, but I don’t consciously try to inject humor into something to balance out more serious lyrics or whatever. If it works out that way, it’s fine because I don’t want to be super dark either…
Michael: It isn’t our intention, but it’s great when people laugh. (laughs)
Mikey: I will say, when it happens live—when people laugh—it’s a double-edged sword. On one side, it’s proof that people are listening and engaged in some way. But on the other side, there’s some shows we’ve played where people are laughing more or less the entire time. Then you finish that set and it feels like, ‘I didn’t think that song was actually that funny.’ (laughs) Whatever.
What does .michael. listen to?
Mikey: Our friends.
Michael: Creed. Korn. (laughs)
A lot of classical jazz.
Well, what’s at the top of your ‘recently listened to’ on Spotify?
Mikey: Nick Llobet. This is our friend, he’s gonna release an album in January. He’s got an album called youbet. His music’s incredible. We’re in a song-a-week club with him, and he’s just writing a continuous greatest hits album.
Michael Hurley. Arthur Russell. Sibylle Baier. Éthiopiques. And world music, and old music.
I don’t know if that shit influences stuff that we make. My biggest influence is .michael.’s songs.
How has .michael. grown since the show at Brooklyn Steel with Big Thief?
Mikey: What’s new for .michael.? Really nothing. We’re recording in October, and we need to write songs. Usually the way it works is, we set a recording date and then we freak out, like, three weeks before and write all the songs.
Michael: (laughs) A last-minute splurge.
Mikey: That’s unfortunately the way it works. That’s the only way we write songs.
Michael: Deadlines and holding each other accountable.
Mikey: There’s going to be harmonies on the new album.
Michael: Yeah, vocal harmonies.
Mikey: It’s gonna be crazy. It’s gonna be like Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Michael: On acid… I guess they were already on acid. But like, we’ll probably add different instrumentations—
Mikey: More of the same.
Michael: I got a Cassio. (laughs)
Is .michael. ambitious?
Mikey: That’s what my therapist asked me yesterday.
Michael: (laughs) Do you even care?
Mikey: I basically concluded that the most important thing to me was to continue finding my own language, playing music with friends, and retaining a community. As corny as that sounds. Or maybe it’s a cop-out for saying I don’t want to play arenas, even though I know our music would never be suited for that sort of thing.
Michael: I feel like our ambitions lie in having this be slightly more sustainable? We did a tour where we didn’t lose money—
Mikey: Yeah, we did one good tour for three weeks.
Michael: I would love more of those. And to be happy with the music we’re putting out—that it’s new, not just the same old shit.
Mikey: I’d just like to learn more. To not write the same types of songs. Develop a better attitude toward my music. To not be afraid of sharing stuff. Erase all self-doubt around it. (laughs) Take myself out of every song, or my stupid meaningless situations.
Do you feel as if your creative process is moving forward positively all the time? Do you have a lot of setbacks?
Michael: I feel like we play really comfortably together, and it’s easy to fall into the same routines. The challenge is to constantly say, ‘Hey, let’s not do the same thing.’
Mikey: What was the question? ‘Are we floundering creatively constantly?’ I do other things too. I got obsessed with ceramics, so I’ve been making tons and tons of mugs and plates. Yesterday I returned my [rented] cello. I find little diversions from guitar playing or songwriting. Conveniently or inconveniently enough, there’s other things to occupy my time or distract me. Returning the cello is an attempt to quit messing around and focus on the things I could have a future in.
How do you challenge each other musically?
Mikey: Michael’s harmonies are insane, and always non-diatonic. The first time you hear it, you think, ‘Oh, did he play a wrong chord there?’ Every song he sends me, it’s like, whatever you think the chord should be—it’s a half step down. These weird, deliberate ways of making sure someone’s paying attention. I know it’s just his natural vocabulary, but when we send songs back and forth, I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I should try to use different chords in different keys.’ The other thing is, we have quirky things, .michael. sound things that become incorporated into songs.
Michael: And I feel like I can’t tell who started what first. When I hear your [Mikey’s] stuff, I’m like, ‘I wanna do that,’ and then that gets incorporated, and I can’t remember who started the thing-we-always-do-now. That continues to happen as we experience our own individual growth; we infect the other person with our disease.
Mikey: If we suck at guitar and clarinet, and we suck at songwriting, and we suck at singing, one thing I’m confident about is that we share the same language. I hope that’s worth something, you know? Because you notice it when you go play with someone else. You’re like, ‘Wait, we have to count off a song?’
Michael: Yeah, I take it for granted.
Mikey: Now we’re boasting.
Do you feel like your knowledge of music theory ever gets in the way of your songwriting?
Mikey: That’s the number one thing that gets in the way.
Michael: We’re constantly trying to undo that. One challenge was to do a song in 4/4 that was all diatonic—
Mikey: We’re incapable. That’s the sad truth, is we’re incapable of writing an eight bar phrase, or a song that has verse-chorus-verse-verse-chorus with no modulation, no funky, like, ‘Doo! Doo-doo, doo!’
Michael: No weird jumps, weird harmonic somethings. I guess that’s the goal.
Mikey: But I also can’t imagine having a song that’s like that. It would be so bad. I don’t know.
Michael: We can’t force it, but I guess we can try to make it more accessible and not come from a place that’s trying to display, like, intellectual aspects.
Mikey: That balance is, Do you want to be really clever and cute and show people that you’re good at music? Or do you want to write a conventional song that’s potentially boring? So it’s often like, ‘I think my own innate language is quirky and angular and weird, so I’ll inject a little of that.’ Then the next thing you know, you have this super dense minute and a half long song that’s unlistenable for, like, my own parents for instance. And yet, it’s supposed to encompass my personal—
Michael: Your soul?
Mikey: Yeah. (laughs)
What does your community look like?
Mikey: All my best friends are my favorite musicians in the world.
If you could put together a festival line-up that consists of only friends, what would it look like?
Mikey: It’d have to be in a backyard. It’d have to be an intimate festival. Not because of ticket sales, though.
Michael: Dig Nitty.
Mikey: Our friend Renata who lives right around the corner. Kim Moonheart. This band Scree. Alena Spanger. Twain. Joanna Sternberg—they just released an incredible album.
Michael: This would be insane.
Mikey: Our friends Buck and Adrianne [Buck Meek and Adrianne Lenker, of Big Thief]. (laughs) They’d headline.
Nick Llobet. Flashlight O.
Any tips for where to find .michael. in the future?
Mikey: Don’t type “michael” into Google. Because you’ll never find it.
See .michael. play live at Rough Trade on Thursday, August 22nd. You can buy their music at dotmichaeldot.bandcamp.com.