This interview was originally published in issue #3 of the Korrupt Yr Self Zine. I interviewed Mr. Law while he was working on music that would become New Idea Society’s Somehow Disappearing. As you know doubt know by now, it was one of my top five albums of 2010. New Idea Society make rich, beautiful music and I am compelled to share them as much as possible with anyone who will pay attention.
KYS: My first question, what I’ve been thinking about in terms of New Idea Society is the transformations it’s had since it’s inception. The project started out as an outlet between you and Steve Brodsky to explore more traditional song writing and has now become a full fledged band with a fairly solid line up. As the consistent creative force how have you felt about all the changes?
MIKE LAW: Well it has all been very natural. We were roommates right as we moved out of our parents houses for the first time and moved to Boston. We both loved cassette 4trks and recorded in our apartment so it was only natural we would record together. I guess the thing is that the songs we released were always my songs so when I moved to NYC and he stayed in Boston it wasn’t so strange to play without him. That being said I think we would both agree the tours we did together and the album we made was just a fantastic experience. I have more respect for Steve as a musician than almost anyone. He has also been one of the most caring and reliable friends I have ever had. Making a record with one of your best friends is really special. Our idea was to take these kind of standard songs and record them in an interesting way. I feel pretty good about how they came out seeing as we didn’t even own a compressor or have any real knowledge of recording gear.
I suppose what you are getting at is that the band could have changed its name… I often think about that, but not for those reasons. I just never really liked the name that much. If I had known this would become my main musical outlet I might have planned it more carefully. But as EULCID ended, NIS just became my main thing. Music just exists in your head at first anyway. The way in which it is applied to the world outside ones head is kind of arbitrary isn’t it?
KYS: How have you managed to find an “identity” through all this change? Against a very fickle and fast changing climate, where being a musician is increasingly more difficult has it been hard to find an audience?
MIKE LAW: Well, once again these are things that I just don’t think about. I never felt lacking of an identity. The audience I have had listening to the things I make has fluctuated and I am not sure I could really control it even if I did want to. I mean think about it. The first Violent Femmes album sold a million copies and their most recent one probably didn’t sell a thousand. Most of us aren’t making music for other people… I mean, I am just not interested in trying to control how someone thinks of my music or me. Some people probably think I am great, some people don’t think I am any good and the overwhelming majority of people in the world don’t know anything about me. The majority of the people in the world don’t know who Elton John is! I never think about how people are going to hear something except when I sequence an album and even that is arbitrary these days as most people don’t even listen to albums in order. I mean, I have recorded hundreds of songs for myself that I never had any intention of releasing. I mostly make things I want to hear and even when I sequence an album it is mostly for me, but that is one of the examples I can think of where I consider the listener. But… it is not in consideration of finding an audience. I realize 90% of finding an audience is being in the right place at the right time and I have only ever been where I was and I am not sure that was the right place.
KYS: As you moved from Eulcid to New Idea Society it seems that the lines got blurred a little bit. When I first heard Hope: And Songs to Sing I couldn’t help but think of New Idea Society. How much of the similarities were coincidental and how much of the differences were intentional?
Mike Law: It took me a few minutes to even remember what the time line was on these. OK, by the time we finished Hope: And Songs To Sing I had already completed You Are Awake Or Asleep. I really don’t remember comparing the two at all in my head. But I can say this much. A few of the songs on that EULCID album were never played live with the band and probably should have went toward some NIS project, probably not The World Is Bright And Lonely though. They wouldn’t fit that. My thinking at the time was only about how to make the best EULCID album, the one that fit the theme and concept I was going for. “Checkbook”, “(I Heard It) On the Radio”, “Big Heart”, and “Word Of Mouth” were all songs that I had written after EULCID played our last shows with Fugazi. I chose to include those songs and not to not include one other full band song because I thought it fit the album better. “The Peoples Grocery Company”, which is partially inspired by Ida Wells, “Clip”, and “The Cost of Profit” were my benchmarks for that album. These other songs told the rest of the story. I just really wanted an exciting album that wasn’t difficult to hear after what seemed to me like a challenging listen of the first EULCID album, The Wind Blew All The Fires Out. So… the lines are always blurred in my head. I think that the application of a song to a certain name or project is kind of arbitrary.
KYS: I also wanted to ask about your more private output. As New Idea Society morphs and changes, you said you also have a lot of songs that never reach the public. Why is that? What is your editing process like?
MIKE LAW: I decided the best thing for me is not to edit what I create at home. If I do that I drive myself crazy wanting everything to be perfect, or a special song. I have found that if I let myself write as much as I feel like and record it to whatever quality I have time for I am much happier. Then, I find what songs I have ideas for that the entire band might be able to play in a unique way and go from there. For example on the new NIS album it was very important to me to try to create songs that will weave around multiple melodies and sounds. It was all about how the songs were mutated. I was profoundly tired of playing chords. There is nothing on the new album with a strummed chord progression on guitar. I have had enough of that. As for was what I record at home my rough count would be around 700 songs. I have slowed down a bit lately. I am getting tired of recording everything that comes in my head. I need a break from it sometimes.
KYS: You also played a lot of solo, acoustic shows, especially between Are You Awake or Asleep and The World is Bright and Lonely. I personally love acoustic music and the intimacy shows of that nature provide. Hush Fest being an extension of that enjoyment. I felt like those were an extension of your music and songs that a lot of people don’t get to see with the more lavish production of your albums. What I’m getting at I guess is how did that time period fit into what you wanted to do musically and artistically?
MIKE LAW: For whatever reason I hadn’t put the band together… or it was in-between incarnations… or I thought playing solo was a good idea. I can’t stand waiting around for people. I just didn’t feel like I was a very compelling solo musician. I have been thinking about trying again, but I never found it that satisfying. I could watch Liza Kate everyday for a week, but I was bored of myself by the second song. I think that as long as our piano player Chris is focused on music I will want to work with him. He is great and inspiring with his focus.
KYS: You have written some songs that are very stream of consciousness. For me it’s very unusual. I’m thinking mainly of “Part II: The World is Bright and Lonely” that sits in the middle of a lot of very catchy songs and a lot of very aggressive songs. Despite it’s length though, it’s very engaging. How do songs like these come about? Are they approached the same way as your more straight forward songs?
MIKE LAW: Songs like that just happen. Later I put thought into which key it should be in and how it should be presented, but those songs are even less planned than others. They are moments where I am a conduit for something else, scarcely a participant really. That song came in the form of a 30 page poem that I wrote on my typewriter over the course of a few hours one night. Everyone tried to talk me out of putting it on the album because of its length (and that is the edited down version). I knew that it should be there if not only just for me. I recorded dozens of versions of it, but I think that one is close to where I wanted it to be. “Drawbridge Kid” is another one like that, it just happened in two parts and that was it. I started it in Japan on tour and finished it when I got back. “Waking Dreams and Rooms” was also one of those songs that just seemed to appear… I mean, they all just appear, but it takes me longer to sort through what those type of songs should be. It took me awhile to really figure out how to play “Part II” though.
KYS: Your lyrical diversity is also something I wanted to ask you about. Some songs like “dress shirt” or “(I heard it) on the radio” are fairly direct, but other sings are more abstract. In some cases I feel like you have a very free form style, Joyce and Ginsberg come to mind. But you counter those with some very blunt, personal stories as well. That’s very rare. Most lyricists stick either with allegory or metaphor or are more or less literal, you seem to stretch out between the two extremes.
MIKE LAW: So by fairly direct you mean that they state things in a way that is not metaphorical or simply imagery? I think that “Dress Shirt” is somewhat allegorical although it does state things rather plainly, well, there are metaphors too… And when I think about “(I Heard It) On the Radio” there are metaphors and imagery used even though to me I agree that it is kind of straightforward. What I am trying to say by echoing those examples is that perhaps it is more of a scale and less a song being one thing or another. “Drawbridge Kid” is not straightforward, but the aforementioned ones are in comparison.
On “(I Heard It) On the Radio” I was making choices to try and be very, very, very clear what I was trying to say. Sometimes using a metaphor or imagery can make you feel more clear about something. Other times it gets in the way. On that song I was specifically trying to think about war from the three perspectives that might be the most important, the bystander in the country doing the attacking, the solider following orders, making the decision to press a button and drop a bomb, and the person whose house may be in the way of some political (that is code for financial) disagreement. It was stirred by a memory of being a pretty young kid and listening to the DJ on a radio station say in a very sad voice that the U.S. had begun bombing Iraq during the first Gulf War. Everyone else I knew was happy and felt as though they were getting what they deserved. My family, town, everyone I knew, felt that way, but I realized that something didn’t add up, I just didn’t know how to articulate it. The DJ only said a few sentences, he didn’t make an anti-war statement, but he sounded sad and then played “The Killing Moon” by Echo and the Bunnymen. I knew what he meant. That was a powerful thing for him to do. It spoke to me more than a few anti-war sentences could have. I just really wanted to finish the thought for myself. I wanted to ask “When my body falls will it be worth its weight”. NIS still plays that song live because I still want to know. I still want someone to explain to me that answer in a way I can understand because right now I cannot.
Recently I was thinking about the words to the new album which you haven’t heard yet I don’t think? I was a bit disappointed in myself that there was not as much imagery and exciting combinations of words as on the last record. But it was by design. I wanted everything more stark and lonely so I made the words that way too. The working title was called Alone. I wanted to really feel it in the songs so the words got kind of stark. I am actually having a difficult time trying to think of something that is really straightforward in any good music. It seems like most songs are more than a description of events without even allegory. Maybe some old folk songs? I think for me it is a scale but not really extremes… Well, I guess “Don’t Sleep” is pretty far to one end of the scale and even has some lyrics that I consider hokey. But I love to play that song and try to forget that when I sing them because I think they are worthwhile. Honestly, I could be wrong about the difference in the way the words are classified even though it is my own stuff. I don’t have a lot of literary knowledge. I have read some books… but I don’t have an understanding of classifications of these things.
KYS: Mostly what I want to talk about in terms of labels is where you see them fitting in regards to your music. I haven’t quite framed it, but largely these days labels that had a real strong identity seem to be acting conservative, taking less chances and becoming less risky. I was listening to an interview today with Mary Timony and she was talking briefly about Matador and how after her solo records didn’t sell that well she had to find another label. She said she didn’t want to run her project like a business. So I guess what advantages doe working with a label have these days as they become less risky? And I want to ask you this specifically because you said earlier that you largely create for your own satisfaction. But I also felt that your new music was reaching beyond just playing songs with friends. There felt to me like there was something bigger you wanted to convey. For me, your music with NIS felt more personal, what I heard felt like it came from somewhere more universal.
MIKE LAW: Labels really are the ones that decide where I fit in with them I suppose. It doesn’t really matter what I think. If one does work with the right label they can potentially be very helpful and organize things for you in a way that many musicians (myself included) are not good at doing. OR… they can be just as useless. If you are asking about trying to become more well known most musicians that do are in the right place at the right time. Maybe 10% of them are so overwhelmingly talented it would be difficult to ignore them. Prince might have had a difficult time NOT getting popular.
Being friends with the people in the band is nice, but I am there to play music and so are they. I mean, it wouldn’t really work if we were not friends but music is my only interest so they need to be focused and they are. I respect each of them for different reasons. What do you mean that there is something bigger that I want to convey? Bigger than what? I am not sure what you mean by that. It is all NIS so I am not sure what you are referring to? Which songs felt more universal and which more personal.
KYS: In part I think it has to do with two things. One is your approach to the music. You said earlier you were tired of playing chords, so you are relying on playing scale progressions or even playing within single notes. It seems to have created a lot more space. I agree that chords can really seem stifling. I went back and listened to the Euclid records today and I was pulverized in a sense. They are very dense songs. But even some of the more straight forward songs are built on structure and that structure can be limiting, no matter how catchy it is.
The other part, for me, may just be my own reaction. Hearing the new songs I instantly thought of the Cure. I don’t mean to say it sounded like The Cure, but that space created was reminiscent of Disintegration for example. It also reminded me of Ida. It was both intimate and yet opening. Breathless and stark and yet comforting. I wonder if this has to do both with your new approach and working with other people consistently over a period of time?
So what I mean when I say I feel you are trying to communicate something bigger, the music itself is more open, less confined. For me, as a listener, The World is Bright and Lonely is a very personal, singular perspective. The new music I heard just felt like it came from a desire to communicate something more abstract. It’s hard to articulate this. Oddly enough this all is relates to the music itself. Not having any recollection for the lyrics, I can’t speak to that. This may all be a moot point in that regard.
MIKE LAW: OK, I think I understand what you are getting at now. The World Is Bright and Lonely was more centered around the lyrics. These new songs are in fact trying to say more without words thus making them more ambiguous and perhaps more universal…? Words mean something to everyone individually even though they don’t mean the same thing to everyone. Music without words is even more undefinable and maybe even more universal as you said. The World Is Bright and Lonely could very well have been me and an acoustic guitar for many of the songs. The new album we just finished is trying to make a different kind of statement and spaciousness is a huge part of it. These would sound like different songs if I played them on acoustic guitar. Since Chris is so good and Alan is such an unselfish drummer we can get away with all kinds of things that other bands cannot as far as space. No one in our band overplays. That is saying a lot. There is reserve on display at all times. In fact we are going into the studio next week and the newest of our songs are truly minimal. Even more than the ones you heard live. It is a complete antithesis of most of the EULCID stuff. EULCID was total chaos in my mind. It has more in common with Converge than New Idea Society at times. I don’t even know how I physically played and sang that stuff at the same time. That was a whole different thing. Someone told me once at a show in Chicago that we were like an evil three piece orchestra written by William S. Burroughs in cut up form. I agree, they are super dense to an extreme degree.
So yes, I am tired of the bulkiness of chords for the moment and I like all the space we have on these new songs. I don’t know scales or music theory so I can’t speak to if I am playing scales, but I am trying to have our three instruments that play notes, create the songs without guitar chords. I like letting those implied notes hang in the air.
So you think the new songs sound like The Cure… I mean Pink Floyd, I mean Brian Eno, I mean Joe Meek’s space stuff?
KYS: With this new chapter in NIS, how do you want to present this next batch of work?
Mike LAW: I am interested in releasing these songs digitally and on vinyl. I enjoy listening to records so I assume other people might. I suppose I actually still prefer listening to things on CD more than MP3 because there is no debate that it sounds better, or closer to the original but I don’t think that people like dealing with CDs anymore.
KYS: So are you optimistic about NIS future?
MIKE LAW: Well, I just arrived home from the studio. We have the basics done for four NIS songs. I also feel pretty good about a new song I was thinking about on the way home, so since it is only 1 AM I still have time to demo it on my 4trk before I go to sleep. In that sense I have no reason not to feel optimistic.