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Interview: Mini Mansions’ Michael Shuman on new album 'The Great Pretenders'.

Interview: Mini Mansions’ Michael Shuman on new album 'The Great Pretenders'.

"A lot of things in the last few years have really changed me based on relationships with all kinds of people - falling in and out of love - and those are the things that affect me the most," says Mini Mansions multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Michael Shuman, who is currently on tour in Europe with his fellow band-mates (Zach Dawes and Tyler Parkford) opening for Royal Blood.

Five years on from their debut full-length, Mini Mansions are set to release their second studio album 'The Great Pretenders' this Friday in New Zealand. The facts you’ll already be familiar with are of course: A) Brian Wilson and the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner both feature on the record and B) this is T Bone Burnett’s first release on his Capitol Records imprint label. What you won’t find in any press release however, are all the visceral feelings that lurk within the lines of these 11 tracks, creeping through lyricists Shuman and Parkford’s noir-tinged memories of the last few years.

Shuman (who is also bassist to Queens Of The Stone Age) says that "love, death, and existentialism are the big themes" of the new record, and is at his most vulnerable on the world-weary 'Heart Of Stone' ("I don’t want to give it up for nothing, living on the mend...") and recent single, 'Any Emotions' ("You could be lonely, but I don’t understand any emotions..."). Parkford and Shuman address heartache, anxiety and regret, but 'The Great Pretenders' is no pity-party. Mini Mansions go about their affairs so devilishly, that one can’t help but want to join their gang and root for them to win. You want 'em to get the girl and to discover true happiness and decipher the meaning of life - and if there’s anyone that can do it, it’s bound to be Shuman and his real-life best friends (he and Dawes have been playing in bands together since the age of 12).

"...you lose people and friends and all kinds of shit to do your art and to do bands. It’s weird, it’s a weird life I live."

COUP DE MAIN: Congrats on your new album 'The Great Pretenders'! It’s out here in New Zealand on Friday and it’s the first album I’ve heard this year that I’ve wanted to listen to in its entirety - like, I haven’t wanted to skip any tracks when listening. Was it important to you to make an album[!] as opposed to just some singles plus extra songs people can download if they wanna?
MINI MANSIONS - MICHAEL SHUMAN: That’s always really important for me, I have always been an album listener and I understand that the world of music doesn’t really care about records as much as it used to and it’s very single-centric and digital iTunes-centric and I totally get that, but as a music-lover and an artist that’s what we strive to do. Not necessarily to make a concept record, but to make sure that every song is the fucking best song you can possibly make. There should never be any filler - we actually recorded and mixed 25 songs for this record, and cut it down to make the best record possible. So yeah, I feel really strongly about that.

CDM: ’The Great Pretenders' is a lyric from your 'Freakout!' B-side, 'Ordinary Man' - what was it about that phrase that you felt so strongly about you decided to name your new album after it?
MICHAEL: Good question. For us, with images and certain things and words, they just stick. It’s just something that we all feel strongly about and gravitate towards. It does have some meaning to us for sure, but initially it was just like, ‘That’s a great lyric,’ and it does kind of sum up originally what we were trying to do with the record. Which originally was supposed to be an EP based on these certain characters - 'Ordinary Man' and 'Geronimo', and 'Sherlock Holmes' and 'Fiona' - and it turned in a couple of years later to what this record is now. But as an album-title, it’s just great and it sounds cool.

CDM: Listening to the album, there’s a big sense of searching for personal identity and the feelings that go alongside that. Do you think that’s a journey that never ends? That humans are always in a state of flux?
MICHAEL: Yeah, I do - at least for myself. I guess some people are more spiritual and more content with how they live their life and content with themselves and their partners or family or whatever, so maybe it is easier for some people and it doesn’t take your whole lifetime, but I do think that we’re constantly changing. I think for me, my twenties were a big roller-coaster emotionally, and although I’m an old soul - a lot of people tell me that - I kind of grew up quickly when I was young. A lot of things in the last few years have really changed me, based on relationships with all kinds of people - falling in and out of love - and those are the things that affect me the most, honestly.

CDM: So you’d finished working on the album before T Bone Burnett signed you to his label imprint, and since December you’ve been rolling out this perfect schedule of 7" singles and B-sides and music videos in the lead-up to the album. How long have you been planning this all?!
MICHAEL: Well! Once we knew who our label was gonna be, it was easy. But we’ve been planning on releasing these songs and the other songs.... I mean, originally it was a six song EP called ‘The Great Pretenders’, then it became an eight song EP called ‘The Great Pretenders’, and then it ended up being that none of those songs are on the record and those songs ended up being the B-sides to the singles we’ve been releasing - like ‘Ordinary Man’ and ‘Geronimo’. We’ve constantly been talking about how we’re gonna release this and how we’re gonna do it, and just wanting to get the music out there - and we had plenty of music - and we still do wanna release all the songs we recorded. We recorded twenty-five, so whenever we get to release all of them we’re gonna do it. So I think that was just our best plan as far as, like selfishly, 'How can we get everyone to hear all the music we’re making?'

CDM: You have to release all twenty-five! Honestly, I love all the B-sides just as much as all the album-tracks.
MICHAEL: Thank you!

CDM: Alex Turner features on your new single 'Vertigo' - did he write the lyrics for his verse himself? Or was the song already complete when he jumped on?
MICHAEL: Both. The song was completed and recorded, but we were looking for a certain person and different voice to fill that second verse, because it’s very hip-hop based and West Coast hip-hop based, we always saw another kind of dude coming in and singing. So when we figured out that Alex would do it, we gave him free reign and he wrote all his lyrics and melody, the whole thing for that verse. That’s all him, and yeah he killed it.

CDM: It’s been five years in between the first and second Mini Mansions albums. Is it going to be a long wait again for the next record? Obviously you’ve also got Queens Of The Stone Age, so in terms of your life-priorities, how high up there is Mini Mansions?
MICHAEL: Mini Mansions is everything to me. I’ve sacrificed a lot and will continue to sacrifice a lot to make sure that this band continues and gets to do whatever we can; whatever people allow us to do. It won’t be that long until the next record, I promise you - like I said, we still have all this music to release. I’ve been trying to fit in this band in all the holes I can in my life - obviously we were very busy with Queens for the last two years, but it really is everything. My mind is constantly on Mini Mansions musically, business-wise, artistically with all the videos and content - we’re constantly working on it. It’s really important.

CDM: Do you even sleep? How do you find time to do everything?!
MICHAEL: I haven’t been sleeping very well <laughs> and I don’t know what’s going on. But yeah, life is crazy, and like I said, you lose people and friends and all kinds of shit to do your art and to do bands. It’s weird, it’s a weird life I live.

CDM: What happened to the dolls and bears mascots from your first album? Have they retired from this life?
MICHAEL: We put them to bed. I love what we did for that and that felt right for the record we were making on the first one, but that doesn’t feel like us anymore - just content and visually. Not saying that I don’t like those visuals, but just for the music we’re making now, it doesn’t fit. We’re doing a lot of videos - we’re actually making a video for every song on the record, plus some - so it’s obviously very important to us, and we have a new aesthetic in mind that fits perfectly with the music we’re making.

CDM: If the first rule of the Mini Mansions gang is that one must pre-order the MM denim jacket, then what are the second, third and fourth rules?
MICHAEL: <laughs> You’re cute. Good question. What are the rules? Well, as far as our Mini Mansions gang - no-one else is allowed in the three-piece gang, that’s kind of rule number one. We can have sister gangs in other cities, but no-one else is really allowed. Don’t stop working when you’re in this gang, you gotta go to work everyday, and work your butt off. And make sure that we’re always having fun is extremely important. And don’t take ourselves too seriously.

CDM: You all helped write a song ('Carolina') on Kimbra’s latest album, and Kimbra contributed background vocals to your cover of the Sparks song 'Sherlock Holmes'. How did that relationship with Kimbra come about?
MICHAEL: We were introduced to her through this guy Keefus Green, he’s an amazing piano/keyboard-player and producer. He actually works with T Bone Burnett a lot, so that’s where we met him. He was working on her record, actually some B-sides to her first record, and he was like, "Hey, there’s this girl Kimbra I’m working with, she’s really great and she’s a fan of you guys, so you wanna come over and meet her?" So I went over and just hung out with her and met her - I didn’t know anything about her at the time and then I heard what they were doing, which was insane. She’s on another wavelength completely, the way she works and the music she makes is really crazy. Then we just became friends and hung out a lot, and had a mutual admiration for each other. We opened for her one time, and then when she came to do her new record she asked us if we wanted to come do some songs - and it was with Keefus producing. We went in there for a day and wrote a bunch of tracks and we ended up finishing that song, and it was really great, and I’m sure we’ll do a lot more together. I think we have some other songs we’re gonna finish together in the future.

CDM: The concept of 'pop' music has really changed since the 60s and 70s and when The Beatles represented the sound of pop music. What do you think changed between then and now, to have completely redefined pop music and left it soulless?
MICHAEL: Well, I think there’s a couple things. A big one for me is... ‘cuz I try to think about it, I was like, ‘Why does pop music sound so bad to me?’ And a big thing for me is the production. It’s so overly compressed in a bad way and not recorded with real gear a lot of the times. Just the way it’s all processed, it’s almost like every song in commercial mainstream pop is filtered through the same fucking shitty filter. That’s why it all sounds the same. And that’s also why it sells, because people want the same sounding comfortable music. And that’s just not what I want. I want to hear stuff that’s creative and inventive and constantly changing and pushing the boundaries sonically - especially sonically. That’s a big thing for making records, the song has to be great, but production is a big thing for me. I don’t really have a great answer as far as why good music doesn’t sell anymore, I really don’t. That’s not for me to figure out either, I just gotta keep my head down and keep making music I wanna make and that we wanna make. Do you know? <laughs>

CDM: It feels like it's a money thing. There’s a handful of top pop producers and they produce literally everything, so they can be lazy if they want to.
MICHAEL: It’s always been about money; it’s always a business in some way or another. They have figured out a formula... Even in the 60s, all the girl-groups they had formulas too. It’s just a different, easier, digital world. And I think people get lazy.

CDM: I was watching YouTube videos of your recent Rough Trade London in-store performance, and it seems like the entire front row was recording the show. Is it weird having people watch you through their camera lens?
MICHAEL: Yeah, I’m not really into that. I could never get myself to hold a phone up or camera up while I’m at a show ‘cuz I don’t even take pictures in general - I’m really bad about that, holding onto memories. But I was at a Father John Misty show the other week in Glasgow and I really wanted to send this one song to somebody, and I was like, ‘Fuck, okay I have to do this but I feel like such a dick,’ but I held up my phone so that no-one could see and I took a video ‘cuz I wanted to show this to somebody. But I don’t think that’s the reason that all these people are holding up phones, I think those are because they wanna post them on YouTube - I don’t understand that world either, ‘cuz who wants to watch music that sounds like that? That doesn’t sound the way it should? I don’t get that. It’s awful. I’m always thinking about it when you see a bunch of phones and cameras - you have to think like, 'We’re gonna sound awful on the Internet,’ and not because we do, but because the way the compression is on all these digital devices and phones is just really awful and shitty. It’s not a good representation of what’s really going on in that room, and that moment that’s happening that no-one will get to experience except those people that were there. I’m not a big fan of it, but I’m not gonna yell at anyone for doing it.

CDM: Lastly, I know you’ve been to New Zealand with Queens Of The Stone Age already, so when are Mini Mansions gonna visit us?
MICHAEL: That is a good question. To be honest, whenever someone asks me, ‘Where’s your favourite place to go?’ - New Zealand is my favourite place in the world. It really is! I just wanna go - number one, because I want to go on vacation and hang out down there, and also I wanna play for people that haven’t gotten to see us. Hopefully more than three or four people wanna see us down there, and if it’s only three or four I’m still willing to jump on a plane today and go. I want to play for anyone that wants to see us, and obviously especially New Zealand. It’s more about how we can get down there and who’s willing to... it’s all business, really. Like of course we wanna come play, but someone has to be able to get us down there, and enough people will have to want to see us. So I hope people will, and then we’ll get to come down!

CDM: I was reading an old 2010 interview earlier today, in which you said you were planning a tour to Australia back then. Did you get there?
MICHAEL: Yeah we did, we went to Australia which was good. We were opening for Spinnerette, which is Brody Dalle’s band. So we got to play Australia, but unfortunately not New Zealand.

CDM: I’ve never seen another band with an upright drummer and just cocktail kit drums before, so I’m excited to see how it all works live one day.
MICHAEL: Well, I can’t wait to see you down there. Let’s figure this out.

MINI MANSIONS’ new album 'The Great Pretenders' is out this Friday, March 20th - featuring the singles 'Death Is A Girl', 'Any Emotions', 'Freakout!' and 'Vertigo'. Click HERE to pre-order now via iTunes.

Watch the 'Freakout!' music video below..

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