Mini Mansions’ Michael Shuman is in good spirits. He’s just celebrated his birthday in Tokyo, Japan, and is currently in Australia (where he’s touring with his band Queens Of The Stone Age), but can’t help but mock me (“Did you just yawn? Are you tired?”) when he answers the phone.
Gearing up to release Mini Mansions’ new EP, ‘Works Every Time’ (the follow-up to their underrated album ‘The Great Pretenders’), and with the rest of the year locked in touring with the Arctic Monkeys, the band find themselves on a new path - this time seeing Shuman take front-and-centre, with their friend Dash Hutton taking over drumming duties live, and with a new record label to release music under.
Earlier this month, we caught up with Shuman on the phone to discuss the highly anticipated release, the vulnerability he’s discovering in songwriting, and more…
In a world where labels don't mean much anymore, you can do whatever you want, like release records on your own, but I do still love that dynamic of having a group of people [at the label] that are creative and care about the music...
COUP DE MAIN: Hi Michael, happy belated birthday! How has Australia and New Zealand been treating you on this Queens Of The Stone Age tour?
MINI MANSIONS - MICHAEL SHUMAN: Thank you. It’s been really, really fun, it was definitely the right place to end this tour. It's going great.
CDM: I have a bone to pick with you. In the new Mini Mansions band bio it says that "ending the band was discussed" after 'The Great Pretenders' album cycle, which is obviously greatly upsetting. So please give me some reassurances about this.
MICHAEL: <laughs> Well, do you want me to reassure you that it's true? I'm sorry Rose, but it is true that we discussed it. It was at a time when we were recording new stuff, it wasn't actually right after ‘The Great Pretenders’ album cycle, but it was when we were recording new material. I think I might have been in the middle of making the Queens Of The Stone Age record and those guys were touring with The Last Shadow Puppets, and we just could not get on the same page - just because we weren't in the same town, so making new music was really difficult. I was alone a lot of the time, which is probably when I saw you guys last in LA, and you came over, and I was alone, right?
CDM: But you had your dog with you!
MICHAEL: That’s right, so I wasn’t totally alone. So that was going down and that didn't feel very good, being a band. They [Tyler Parkford and Zach Dawes] are my best friends, so it felt like it was leading to a bit of resentment and some arguments and I didn't really want it to get in the way of our friendship, so at the time I didn't know if it was worth it. But then, we had these EP songs that we'd written, and that was when everything came back together and we got to finish writing and recording the songs together. We had two weeks where we could all be in the same town, and then it felt really good, and we were like, "Oh, these songs are really good and it feels good to be back together, so I guess let's not end.’’ <laughs> So now, all is good in the world. We’re not stopping.
CDM: You told us when we last spoke that the new Mini Mansions music was going to be much more vulnerable and personal than your other releases. Was this a conscious decision you made when you were working on new music, or did it just happen organically?
MICHAEL: It was much more organic. We didn't sit down and be like, ‘Okay, how is this record gonna be different?' I don't really think that's the way to go when making music at all. I think it should all stem from real things that are happening in your life and real experiences, and it just so happened that personally I went through a relationship that had very high highs and then ended up in some low lows, and that's what all the new music ended up being about, for the most part. Since we’re talking about being vulnerable, I fell in love with a girl, and I got engaged, and I was ready for another life. When that happens to you, it makes you think about what's important in your life, and what you want to spend your time doing. That really changed me and opened up my eyes to a lot, and in turn it just really opened me up to writing - obviously lyrically, but musically too. I was just writing a ton of music at the time when I was with this girl, it was all pouring out of me. All the words were very real, because it was happening in real-time. I didn't want it to be a vulnerable record, but I'm glad, because I feel like it's the best tunes we have ever written and it's probably because we are being ourselves, and not scared to be ourselves and talking about it.
CDM: Did the Mini Mansions musical process change at all as a result of the songs themselves feeling more personal? You wrote more on piano, right?
MICHAEL: Yeah. I think the difference was that Tyler and I wrote separately on this one, whereas in the past we'd have demos, then come in and be in the same room together and write everything. This was a little bit separate. We would write our own stuff and then come in, and of course everyone puts their spin on it and it becomes something different. I think that's what was different. It might be a more upbeat record, because we had a real drummer on it - this is the first time I didn't play drums on a record. So a couple of real drummers actually play, which also added to the different dynamic, and allowed me to-- I'm always focused on every element of the music, but it’s different, having someone else's feel on it.
CDM: Do you find the process of songwriting more cathartic now?
MICHAEL: Well, right now, I'm tapped out now.
CDM: You’ve emptied the vault?
MICHAEL: <laughs> Kinda. After I did a Queens Of The Stone Age record, and the Mini Mansions stuff, and then the ‘Feed’ score, I did another score. I'm just kind of like, ‘Okay, that's enough creativity for a couple of years.’ But at the time, it was extremely cathartic. Like I was saying, I had all these feelings and emotions, and that was the easiest way to dump it all out. I'd be at my house with my ex and be like, even though I was so into the relationship, ‘I’ve got to go write, because I've got all this stuff to let out.’ And then, even going through the break-up, it was a tumultuous year-and-a-half of my life. But that was the result - songs. I'm happy for that experience and what it led to.
CDM: What was it like debuting ‘Midnight In Tokyo’ live at your New York show?
MICHAEL: Really fun! We had never played the song before, and it's a hard song to play, so I guess there was a bit of nerves, and we also hadn’t played in a couple of years. But the reaction, and the feeling in the room of playing that song was something different than we had ever experienced. These shows in general, I’m not playing drums anymore, so it's different, and we felt very unified playing that song. It was emotional for me, but I think people really connected to it, and even though they never heard it before, we got some of the best reactions from that so I guess it means something - they like it!
CDM: I really love that song! What was running through your mind writing ‘Midnight In Tokyo’?
MICHAEL: A lot. It's very literal. My first trip to Tokyo was to propose to my ex. We went for New Year’s Eve, and it's very literal - at midnight on New Year’s Eve, I proposed to her, and it’s about that experience, but I finished the song when we had broken up. So it kind of goes through the whole journey in the three-and-a-half minute song.
CDM: How has it been taking on more of a frontman role in your live shows, with Dash playing drums?
MICHAEL: This tour we just did with the Arctic Monkeys is probably the best tour I've ever done. It was immediate, and I feel more connected to Zach and Tyler, being able to interact with them more. The frontman thing is scary, and new to me, but it felt really good and it felt very right, and it felt like we should have done this a long time ago.
CDM: We recently interviewed Miles Kane and he said he thought you would be a great frontman.
MICHAEL: There you go! He texted me the same thing, so I appreciate that approval.
CDM: You told us last year you had recorded 12 songs for the new Mini Mansions album. Were some of those songs what made it onto the EP?
MICHAEL: Well, wouldn't you like to know. I gave you some insider info... But maybe one of the songs is on the record.
CDM: Is the album fully finished?
MICHAEL: Yes, there’s an album fully finished.
CDM: When is the album being released?
MICHAEL: Sometime next year.
CDM: What was it about Edwyn Collins’ song ‘A Girl Like You’ that drew you to covering it?
MICHAEL: I think the first thing is [the 1995 film] ‘Empire Records’. Being a child of the 90s, when it came out it was kind of a big deal, because I was young kid exploring music and going to record stores, and finding out about new bands and sharing mix-tapes with your friends. That movie was a big one for me, about a bunch of outsiders, a bunch of freaks that shared this common passion for music. All the songs on that soundtrack stuck with me, and we were talking about doing a new cover and I remembered that song, and I remembered thinking that that song should've been a fucking hit - to me it is, and it never really crossed over in the States. So I thought, ‘Well, this would be great to do this song that I think is a hit,’ and to put our own spin on it, and make it ours. I never want to just do a straight cover, you want to make it feel like, ‘Oh, we wrote this song.’ I think, lyrically too, it fit really well with the rest of the EP, and it felt like lyrics that we could’ve written. Even though the track-listing when we did it was supposed to be cohesive, and even though the songs are all over the place, lyrically it should all make sense including a cover song - and that's what I liked about it. And not just doing a cover, but to make it a piece of this record.
CDM: Royal Blood's Mike Kerr plays some bass on your 'A Girl Like You' cover, right? How did that come about?
MICHAEL: We met when they took Mini Mansions out, and we became really close. At that time, I was in a weird headspace, I didn’t spent a lot of time going out with those guys, but we became friends.
CDM: I did a phone interview with Ben [Thatcher] once, and he was just like, ‘We have so many stories.’
MICHAEL: Ben is a special character, and I love them both very much. When Queens Of The Stone Age took them out, we spent a lot of time together and a lot of long nights together, and I just love them. They're like my brothers now, so Mike was spending some time in LA, and all that shit comes natural. We don’t really think about it a lot, like, ‘Who could we get to be on the new record?’ But we’re all friends, and he was around, and we were recording, so we were like, ‘Dude come down and do this.’ He has a very distinct sound now, the chain of pedals and his bass rig that he has set-up is really impressive, so I thought it would be cool to have that reoccurring guitar solo be done through his hands, and that Royal Blood sound.
CDM: How have you been finding your experiences at the beginning stage of the Mini Mansions album cycle so far on a new label this time around, compared to around ‘The Great Pretenders’?
MICHAEL: With ‘The Great Pretenders’ it was cool because we had this big label behind us and it was fun to have ‘funny money’ to run with and do whatever the fuck we wanted to do.
CDM: As many music videos as you wanted?
MICHAEL: Yeah. <laughs> "Give us the money and let us do whatever we want!” Which was awesome, but in the end it wasn't the right fit, we didn't have the right relationships with the label people. There were a few great people, and with Fiction, we had already built it up from ‘The Great Pretenders’, but now we had to start fresh with them. In a world where labels don't mean much anymore, you can do whatever you want, like release records on your own, but I do still love that dynamic of having a group of people that are creative and care about the music, and having more brains and hands on this project as much as possible. I love everyone at Fiction and Caroline, everyone’s been really supportive, so it's a great way to start, and I feel like they are on the same page and they know what we're about and what we wanna do and hopefully they know how to help us get to where we want to go.
CDM: What made you want to work with Kii Arens for the new Mini Mansions art? Are they digital paintings?
MICHAEL: Yeah, I’ve know him for a long time and he's such a fucking weirdo, in the best way. He was supposed to do the art for ‘The Great Pretenders’ and maybe even stuff on the first record, I’ve been talking to him about it forever. I knew that he did these paintings and I thought that'd be a cool idea. I wanted to kind of have us on the cover this time instead of a bunch of weird images everywhere. I thought, in being vulnerable and putting ourselves forward--
CDM: It's like showing yourself metaphorically and literally.
MICHAEL: Yeah. I thought it was the right thing to do, but to have him put his spin on it, I thought would be really cool.
CDM: Last year, you and Zach co-wrote with Tangerine on their song ‘Fever Dream’. Have you been doing any other writing with any other bands/artists recently?
MICHAEL: They asked us to produce these two songs, so we did it. I did another couple of scores, so that's all I've been doing outside my bands. I did ‘In The Fade’ with Josh Homme and Troy Van Leeuwen. I have a new movie coming out in November called 'Welcome To Mercy’, with the same director as ‘Feed’, Tommy Bertelsen. I'd love to produce more stuff, but no one really asks me, so until someone does…
Mini Mansions’ ‘Works Every Time’ EP is out this Friday - listen to their latest single ‘Midnight In Tokyo’ below…