Mike Wexler answers the Questions of Doom
Mike Wexler's new record 'Dispossession' hits you slow and quiet. It's an uneasy build, coming in a day where the obvious, is obvious - Dispossession plays in your mind, quiet - but not - soft, the lyrics draw you into a narrative that reflects upon your own unconscious, you make what you want from Wexler's music and as he stated: 'but I’m setting my sights on the shadowy hidden bulk of the iceberg, not the part that’s visible.' We are very pleased to have Wexler as part of our Questions of Doom.
Who is Mike Wexler?
I think it might be too soon to say. We just met. Anyway, once I have the definitive answer to that it's 'game over'.
Dispossession is an interesting title. How does it reflect on the musical narrative?
I've been struggling with how to answer this question without writing an essay. Let's say I like to use a word like it's a shape with many dimensions, and those dimensions are definitions, associations, implications, resonances. That said, you can think of it simply as the state of having nothing, which is painful but sometimes also preliminary to awakening. It's a word that exists at a crossroads for me--everything converges on it.
Your first release Sun Wheel was 'quiet' - during the height of freak folk - in retrospect, are you pleased you weren't attached to that particular media tag?
Well, yeah. I think any artist will tell you that labels are uncomfortable. I can see their efficacy from a communicative standpoint--for marketing etc-- so I don’t begrudge anyone the use of a genre tag, but I never conceive of what I do in those terms. The world is wide, things are complicated, contradictory, multiple. You try to write in a way that feels real, and the real never sits still long enough for you to pin a label to it. I mean, you can, but it’s not the label that’s real. We forget that.
The album is quiet, and seems to draw me into listening to the words, was this intentional?
I was going for something of an undertow, yes. We mixed the vocals low. It’s democratic, nothing is really privileged, or the whole entity is privileged over the component parts. I’m not trying to hide what I’m saying—the lyrics are printed in the inner sleeve. But words are just one element, and when you divorce them from context the meaning changes. It’s not writing for the page. Think about a word like “love,” which is in pretty much every song ever written. But it means something different, or in a different way, every time it occurs, depending on the music, the delivery, the context.
Your instrumentation seems to draw on more British influence, than American? Would you say this is correct? Or do you feel there are no geographical boundaries with your music because of the internet?
I don’t hear it as tied to any one place. Of course, nothing comes from nothing, I’ve spent a long time with music from here and there and many other parts of the world, and influence doesn’t just stop at music. The internet has created a situation where there’s an unprecedented ease of access. Suddenly everything seems like fair game. And it contributes to a feeling of placelessness which precedes it in time. I know because I’ve had that feeling all along. But place is arbitrary—it’s where we find ourselves. Not that one should live a disembodied life with no connection to physical space, but without pride of place things like nationalism, factionalism, jingoism begin to break down. It’s closer to the truth I think, definitely to universality, so the challenge is to make a home there.
You recorded Dispossession over a space of two years, was there initial planning with the songs, or did you write and record, as and when, or was there a 'manifesto' or 'master plan'?
The songs were written beforehand, but the arrangements came together as we recorded, and there the players and producer/engineer were really important. I don’t have a manifesto or master plan, but when I’m writing and then with recording & arranging, the songs definitely have their own inner logic. You have to listen carefully to be sure you remain true to it.
Your press release considers the album "A rite of exorcism, a casting out of spirits; but also a state of extreme economic marginalization" - would you categorize the album and songs as 'protest'?
I think the reason much protest music has not worked so well for me, although there’s no lack of things to get up in arms about, is that it has largely taken an approach which I would tend to save for the op-ed column. Songs are capable of dealing with the world in all of its variety, but they do so best on their own terms. In protest songs where the message is foregrounded at the expense of a thorough integration of all the elements, I come away feeling that there’s an aesthetic imbalance. Also, there are many dimensions to politics. When music or the arts intersect with the political--and like it or not they always do-- I think it happens most naturally on the level of ideology or myth, which is a little bit subterranean. So yes there’s a species of protest involved, but I’m setting my sights on the shadowy hidden bulk of the iceberg, not the part that’s visible.
You drew on guest and session players during the recording. What do you think they brought to the atmosphere and the playing?
I’d like to name check at least the core band: Brent Cordero, Andy Macleod, Ryan Sawyer. They brought to the record exactly what you hear them doing. I don’t tell anyone what to play, beyond trying to convey my feeling for structure and vibe. They’re all amazing players and I think we became a band in the process of doing this, even though we’d never played together before. But, having seen them all in various contexts I had a hunch it would work, and I think we're all pretty psyched on how it turned out. Plus we’re good friends.
Matt Marinelli, who engineered and co-produced this and my last record, is another key player. It’s my name on the jacket, but I feel a little like a film director with an all-star cast.
The songs are almost spiritual, like you are holding a tent revival in the middle of NYC -- do you feel there is an element of spirituality in the record?
There's an element of it, an engagement with it, an interrogation of it all at once. If we take a hard look at the phenomenon of spirituality, it's clear that like most things in the human universe, it's a double-edged sword. We have spirituality to thank for some truly remarkable and outstanding human behaviors and insights. It's equally likely to be trotted out as justification for the absolute worst of what we're capable of--wars, pogroms, persecutions. The spirituality on this record is troubled and tentative. It belongs to no creed or orthodoxy but that of spirit as it comes to us, standard issue. What we can’t understand inspires awe and wonder, but it’s not without menace. The only spirituality that's vital to me at this stage is one that persists by calling itself into question.
What would you consider to be a surprising influence on your songwriting?
Hard to say. It may or may not be surprising that "Prime" is a song that has to do with things I was reading about mathematics. You can plot the occurrence of prime numbers in a spiral, and it’s a beautiful image:
A really complicated, even chaotic pattern. Mathematicians have been trying unsucessfully to describe certain key qualities of primes for as long as math has been around. I love the idea that this image makes visual sense to us, scans as a pattern, but it's a pattern we can't fully predict and a type of number that resists our effort to sum it up in a theorem. The point where we brush up against the limits of understanding--I like the view from there.
What records/bands should we be checking out?
Amen Dunes, Mountains. Byron Westbrook/Corridors, Date Palms, Nymph. The Hiro Kone record on a new label called Bitterroots. Also Brent Cordero, who plays keyboards and synths on Dispossession, is working on a solo record of piano jams. I’m helping out with lyrics. Keep an eye out for that somewhere down the line