A friendly catch up with Wellington musician and producer Mike Fabulous, aka Lord Echo, on the eve of the release of his sophomore album, Curiosities.
Curiosities is making some noise in America. Mike Fabulous’s second record made it to number two on KCRW’s prestigious playlist. Ahead of Friday’s Wellington launch at the Matterhorn, I inquired about the gifted Mr. Fab’s recent four months in New York, Berlin versus Tokyo, and why the arts are valuable. Photography by Daniel Rose.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: Last time I profiled you, you said: “Wellington markets itself on being the creative capital of New Zealand, but in reality that’s a fantasy. Increasingly there’s nowhere musicians can afford to practice and record; we all might have to end up in the Hutt.” You’ve returned from New York success to putting together a “professionally amateur” studio in Petone, World of Sound.
MIKE FABULOUS: It’s true, I have. That has happened and I must say that I’m all the better for it. It’s really quite lovely out there. I’m based in the industrial zone where I can make noise. I’m close to the beach. I’m close to the bustling main street, Jackson Street. I’m excited about it. I’m just so flat out trying to get this place together that I haven’t had a chance to really just take a breather and enjoy being out there.
AB: It’s hard making a living in the arts in this town, isn’t it?
MF: It sucks doesn’t it? It sucks on so many levels. It sucks because the arts are so valuable to humanity. It’s hugely important for human beings to exercise our powers of creation. Because that’s what makes us uniquely human, in my opinion. And also because it’s one of the big things that history judges cultures on.
AB: Indeed. I expect some good work from you out there.
MF: I really struggle to work around other people sometimes, on certain kinds of stuff, so there’s a secluded element to it out there and I’ll just be able to bring in people as I see fit. I’ll be able to do the next Lord Echo album out there. I’m producing Lawrence Arabia’s next record, so we’ll do that out there over summer. And it can just be my personal hub, rather than sharing spaces with other people, working out of my fucking garage or whatever, like it’s been in the past. I can finally be in a space that I’ve purpose-built from the ground up. Over all these years I’ve had all these ideas about how to set up a room for recording in, and I’m finally getting a chance to put my money literally where my mouth is, and put these ideas into place in a real way.
MF: Yeah, it came out all right. It’s one of those songs that I just struggle a lot with. It’s funny looking at the whole album. I like the songs that were the easiest to make the most. The ones that were hardest to make cause me pain still. But I got there eventually. She’s great. My drumming, however, is not. It was weird because the last time I didn’t release any singles. I didn’t do anything at all. Because I have labels on board and people helping me this time I’m doing more of the regular things.
AB: How is it going with your label Bastard Jazz?
MF: I went to Japan, I went to Berlin and I went to New York. I met these guys and hung out with them. I consider them as friends now, which is nice. I like having personal relationships with people I like and I feel like you can respect and trust them when you work with them.
AB: It’s essential, isn’t it?
MF: I think if you’re doing things on a small scale and you’re doing them for the sake of doing them.
AB: Yeah, you’re doing things because they’re intrinsically creative and worthwhile. It’s not about making a lot of money.
MF: Exactly. You’re not going to make a lot of money so why would you bother putting up with any bullshit or any dicks to not make any money? We are all doing good things. They proved to me the values of having people involved, things like hiring a radio plugger in the States. I was thinking it was going to be a big waste of money, but the record is number two on KCRW’s [the top independent radio station in the world’s] most played records.
AB: Is Curiosities being released in Japan as well?
MF: Yeah, Kenji [Sakajiri, of record label Wonderful Noise] is organising a tour for me, during March or April. So that should be really cool.
AB: You’ve been there but you haven’t done a tour of shows?
MF: No, I haven’t done a tour of shows. We just hung out. It will be good to do some shows there. Kenji’s released a lot of New Zealand music. The plan is to take over a bunch of us—me, Julian Dyne, Mara TK, Isaac Aesili—and have a night that is all about music. It something I’ve wanted to do for years. It will probably be four or five shows.
AB: Tokyo and New York are my favourites.
MF: I think Japan is top of my want to go tos. Even more so than New York. I don’t know why. I enjoy it because it’s more foreign. It is really comfortable to be a foreigner there. I think in Europe I could potentially be a European and when I’m there I try to fake it and I’m self-conscious that I can’t speak the language, whereas in Japan it’s really obvious that I am a foreigner. I really enjoy it. I find it a very liberating thing to be a foreigner. It’s very safe for the most part. People’s manners are incredible and it’s incredibly well sign-posted in English and the transport system is just mind-boggling.
AB: It takes a day to figure out Tokyo, but once you do, it’s futuristic and rather easy.
MF: As soon as you experience that you suddenly realise this is how it could be. Public transport can be a headache to use.
AB: In many respects it’s a green, environmentally-conscious society.
MF: I don’t really know enough about Japanese culture to speak of it, but things like politeness implies a certain awareness of other people around you, doesn’t it?
AB: How do you find Berlin?
MF: On one of those fleeting trips to Berlin on tour I was like, “God I love this place! I want to live here, I want to move here! I can buy a beer from the dairy for 50 cents and drink it on the train!” But when I was there for longer, it was different. Perhaps it’s because of my particular personality type, which I think involves a certain amount of pride: I like to be good. If I’m going to be doing something in a public fashion—even if it’s just existing and buying milk from the dairy—I want to be good at it. So I really struggle with not being able to speak the language, and it deeply embarrasses me that I can’t do simple things.
AB: I know what you mean.
MF: New York was great. It’s different enough from New Zealand culturally to still be interesting on that kind of level, though perhaps not exotic, because we’re so familiar. It’s so culturally dominant; we grow up being familiar with so many aspects of it, so it’s fascinating to be at the source of all those things, to be there and see them all and hear them all in the flesh.
AB: Exactly! You’ve been busting ass as Lord Echo for over a decade, and you’re starting to feel like you’re getting some momentum, particularly when you get in the flesh recognition in New York?
MF: I do feel like that. I have worked really hard. I’ve been reduced to tears over finding the perfect high-hat sound, but not realising I had it at the time, then moving the microphone two inches in the other direction and never getting back that sound again. It feels like I’m not quite where I want to be yet, but getting close.
AB: That brings to mind Mara TK’s quote on how far you and Ricky Gooch go as producers to get the right sound: “As a producer he thinks outside the square. He has that sort of vitality that I think people need when they’re working in the studio to say ‘I’m going to climb the fucking rafters and hang this type of mic off the banisters, I’m going to risk my fucking life climbing this rickety fucking ladder, but I’m going to get up there and I’m going to hang this microphone in a particular way, and I’m going to drag the piano over and take the back off it and get the natural reverb from the piano strings vibrating,’ and then they go and they fucking pull the piano down and they scale the roof, and they do all those extra things that get you the type of sound that makes you go ‘wow that’s really something’ or ‘I haven’t heard that before’.”
MF: Absolutely. A while ago I was starting to freak about how I’m going to make money for the rest of my life. As soon as musicians are over 30 they start to really worry about how to keep doing this. I haven’t really had a backup plan. I was thinking things like what’s my passion? What do I do that other people wouldn’t do? And these are really the lengths I go to try and get new sound out of the drums. I’m obsessed with drums. The details are obsessive.
AB: Have you got a funny story for me about New York?
MF: My friend Victor had a good story. Last summer, there’s this girl whose eye Vic had been catching on the subway. So, he was on the subway with [DJ and producer] Diplo and they were meeting about doing some stuff. This girl’s on the subway and he says, “Ah, there she is.” She comes up to them and he thinks, “Ah finally, she’s saying hello to me!” but she recognises Diplo! So he ends up taking a photo of her with Diplo. Which is a bit of a shame, but that’s still good for him. Now she knows how he rolls.
AB: How is it rolling with Victor Axelrod, aka Ticklah?
MF: He’s been with a lot of cool bands like Sharon Jones and the Dapkings. So he hooked me with those guys. He’s part of that whole crowd. He’s a New York player. The best thing about New York was probably meeting him and making a connection with him. We are quite similar because we’ve struggled for a decade plus with audio engineering and trying to make great sounding records that we love. We could really commiserate with each other because of that experience. At times it’s a very lonesome pursuit. So it was really nice to meet someone who’s had the same troubles as I have.
AB: And that’s in the centre of it all, the biggest market.
MF: Yeah, totally. You just try to live up to your own standards and what you want to achieve. He’s cool because he’s a couple of years along. He is further along the path than me and really generous with his knowledge. He gave me some great insights to things that I would never come to on my accord and wouldn’t have got from anyone in New Zealand. We recorded quite a few sessions for him. It was just me and him and the drummer. We probably recorded an album-worth of stuff for me. It was amazing. He was taking care of all the engineering, with a little bit of input from me.
AB: When will those tracks come out?
MF: I’d like to say tomorrow. But being realistic, most things that I release tend to take a couple of years to materialise. If I got to spend just my time doing that it would be a lot quicker. But because I have a lot of other responsibilities and other things to do I get round to it when I get round to it. It has some benefits to it too. It’s good to have space.
AB: Responsibilities like touring, which doesn’t necessarily make the money some think.
MF: I don’t like the lifestyle of touring. I’m not a huge waster, it doesn’t really do much for me on that level. I’m the type of person that needs to spend quite a lot of time on my own to build up the energy to be around other people. And so for the first couple of days on tour I might be quite personable but pretty quickly after that I just shut down into my own little world. I guess you’ve got to save up enough energy for performance as well, to project your energy out to thousands of people at a time.
AB: For the live moments that make it worthwhile?
MF: You have this five percent moment of euphoria that might last for a number of hours, or even a whole day. The other 95 percent is toil and struggle.
AB: In New York there’s an abundance of great free/cheap gigs.
MF: It’s life and art, and all these things seem to be happening all the time. It’s funny, though, because there were a lot of free gigs over summer. I was making a good effort to see stuff initially. But after a month or so I felt more at home there and slipped in my usual role, like over here. I realise that I’m definitely more of a producer than a consumer. I find it really fatiguing to go and see stuff. Just being around people or taking sensory information in I find tires me out. I guess there’s only so much. You have to preserve all the different faculties for making your own stuff. Different people have different capacities for that. When Jeff Henderson was there he was out every night of the week and knew what was going on. Some people can do that. But I find it tires me out. You learn to be selective about what you’re going to see. The best stuff I saw there was probably three North African bands.
AB: Are there any gigs you’re looking forward to seeing over the summer, and at the New Zealand Festival, say Charles Bradley?
MF: As a working musician, I don’t see gigs so much, either because I’m busy, or if I’m not, the last thing I want to do is go out and be in a bar full of other people. I think I rely mostly on other people to get me into stuff. In terms of the Festival, I’d love to go and see some dance. As much as I would enjoy Charles Bradley, ideally I’d want to see something from another discipline. It’s a double-edged sword when you become knowledgeable in a certain field. It simultaneously makes you able to be able to appreciate things more but it also makes you more judgmental to a whole range of other stuff. That’s why I like to have other things that I don’t know anything about. You just go and enjoy it, even on a surface level.
AB: You’re doing some production work on the anticipated Data Hui album?
MF: I was planning to do that when I was in New York this time, but I didn’t anticipate how much work releasing an album semi-properly would be.
AB: Mara’s version of Billy TK’s poem ‘Moon Song’ is lovely:
The moon moves high into the sky
I watch it like a dream
Your love falls down like firefall
But, I ain’t got time to see
When you call my name out loud
You know that I can hear
Long distance is my enemy
Until I have you near.
MF: Yeah. There’s one on Data Hui’s second album that might be tentatively titled ‘Open Letter to Captain Cook’ that I really like. I think Mara has got the poet streak in him, and it’s really refreshing to hear that, because I think it’s really lacking in a lot of lyrical content. I think the real test, in a way, for lyrics, is if you can put them on a page and as a written word they can sit there like a poem, they sit there in the weight of themselves. And they translate to this other discipline, they work in the song as well, then that’s quite an achievement.