Name: Michael A. Muller
Occupation: Composer, Producer, Songwriter
Current Release: Lower River on Beacon Sound & 1631 Recordings. Also available directly from Michael A. Muller's bandcamp store.
Recommendations: Essay: Pauline Oliveros - Quantum Listening: From Practice to Theory
This topic and her grace in conveying this theory in a simple way really resonated with me and helped form my own ideas and modes on listening and getting all I can as a listener and lover of music.
Music: You’re Not From Around Here - a previously unreleased soundtrack compilation from Numero Group. This is an intriguing and unique collection of rare and obscure surf, folk, and desert music from the lesser-known 1964 noir film of the same name.
If you enjoyed this interview with Michael A. Muller, visit his personal website, which offers a perfect and in-depth introduction to his work. Michael is also part of duo Balmorhea together with Rob Lowe. Together, they have answered (different versions of) the 15 Questions before. (Balmorhea interview #1 here and Balmorhea interview #2 here)
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I began writing music on guitar mid-way through my time at university - around 2002. I would (very) crudely record riffs and some intact songs on my friend’s (giant) desktop pc. Some of these pieces morphed into a few tracks that ended up on the first Balmorhea record in 2007.
My dad played guitar when I was growing up, and he’d sing my brother and I old folk songs every night before bed when I was really young. At age 5 I started guitar lessons on a little 3/4 size classical guitar, but I didn’t have the attention span to really get too much out of it at that point and gave it up after a few months. I got serious about learning how to play the instrument around age 12 when I got my first electric guitar and started taking weekly lessons.
Backing up — I started listening to and collecting music at a very young age as well. By the time I was in first or second grade I had a good-sized tape collection and some vinyl I’d play on a little Fisher-Price plastic turntable — mainly heavier music like Iron Maiden and early Metallica in addition to some hair metal and 80’s punk rock. I learned about most of my music from a babysitter and my next door neighbor, both of whom who were in early high school at that time. I would save my meager allowance and buy a tape every couple weeks at Sam Goody at the mall.
I have always been really drawn to sound and specifically music as long as I can remember. There was always music in both of my parent’s cars every day my whole upbringing. In my dad’s car was a mix of classic rock, 50’s doo-wop and namely, a new age artist named Ray Lynch, who’s album Deep Breakfast was and still is massively influential to me. My mom pretty much exclusively listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland on repeat for ten years. I knew every note and lyric of that album by heart by age 6.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
As a kid I would memorize the melodies and structures in the music of songs I liked. I have strong memories of walking home from school or being on the bus and kind of playing back these songs in my head. This exercise must’ve paved the way for my ear being trained. When I started guitar lessons I was allowed to bring in a song once a month and my teacher and I would learn it together by ear. This was a massive stepping stone for my musical brain and a practice I still invoke today. With the wide mix from new age to metal and everything in between I had listened to, the dynamic range in styles and techniques was helpful when I started composing my own ideas.
In my own experience I’ve found learning other people’s songs was a conduit that progressed my skill level to a place where I could eventually step out on my own and move forward confidently into my own work. Of course, every once in a while I have a riff or a progression stuck in my head for a new song, and weeks later it would dawn on me, that, oh - this is the exact same melody as xyz artist or song. Luckily, this is happening less and less in recent years as I settle further into my own language of writing.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I think my biggest challenge in some sense is being a perfectionist. I spend probably far too much time trying to get something just exactly as I see it or hear it in my brain and sometimes this literally just isn’t possible and/or not worth the massive amount of time and stress it’s taking to get something perhaps only 3% closer to perfect. Working with my musical partner Rob in Balmorhea has helped to see music as a more malleable form. He is freer than I am in terms of being detail-obsessed — it doesn’t have to be just one, exact way. Often after spending time with what I thought was perhaps incorrect or flawed will arise to it have its own life force, where I end up liking it better in the long run this new way after all.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I’ve never had a proper studio, per se. For my solo music I have a simple room with my gear (amps, guitars, a couple synths and a minimal mic collection) and a computer with Pro Tools and some good monitors where I record. I have just enough gear to make the music I want to for now — but the allure of better or interesting tools to expand the palette is always looming.
In my work with Balmorhea, we write and rehearse in a space where we can record demos but for the actual recording session we’ll always go to professional studios (aside from our first recording, which was done in Rob’s living room).
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
There is no replacing the human element in music. The beautiful slightly off-time sway or the timbral qualities of a human’s breath or voice in music can never be exactly replicated by machines. Technological advances really do make getting these aspects across much easier, of course. And a healthy mix of digital assistance coupled with the human-based interaction is a nice balance to straddle. I, for one, yield a far deeper and richer emotional reaction and relatability to music that is (at least partially) coming from a human’s breath or hands.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
For me, having limitations of a certain instrument or a certain set of tools or a limited number of inputs or mic pre-amps can really help to narrow the focus and move a piece forward easier. I like to get a new instrument and explore all I can from it. It’s also so fun to gather various tips, tricks and gear recommendations along the way from collaborators or friends also in music production who may be approaching from slightly different angles.
On my new solo release Lower River, I used a some of the same tricks on a number of the compositions, which lent a very cohesive sonic world to the album. I tend to learn only as far as I have use for with certain software or instruments. I know there is so much more I can do most times but unless I actually need to use a deeper formula or set of tools, I always stop with what I need to make the track just as I envision.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I’ve never been able to get anything out of ‘jamming’. I like to present an idea to someone and have them react to it musically, as well as start a discussion about the vision behind the idea. The back-and-forth with a trusted and like-minded collaborator is always my preferred method.
I worked with an amazing bass clarinetist named Jonathan Sielaff on Lower River, and for the tracks he played on I had placeholder melodies of what I wanted already arranged - but we decided to have him do a few passes of purely improvised playing as well - which gave an amazing palette of sounds and tones to edit into the final pieces. I think the real key is finding people that share a similar vision of sound with. Moving together and playing off of each other will only yield good things, because you both respect and admire the other’s instinct and skills.