Michael Ocean interviewed by Gabe Durham
Michael Ocean’s The Manual will be released by Nanaki Records on December 11, 2007. It is available for pre-order.
Gather Round, Children: You said that The Manual was based on the conclusion that “for an album to be truly great, it must teach its listeners how to live.” Could you unpack that statement and give a few examples of albums that have succeeded in this way?
Michael Ocean: Now, the idea was that if an album is going to be really great, and really change your life, you’d have to learn a lot about yourself when you listen to it over and over again. “Pinkerton” was the first one for me. It taught me a lot about how not to live, actually. But it also taught me a lot about myself… like the extent to which a guy would go to get a certain girl. I mean, scaring the girl by writing a song for her like “Getchoo” is definitely not how to win her over, but it taught me just how far I might go sometimes… Queen’s “A Night At The Opera” is another one. That one teaches the listener a whole mess about vices. There’s songs like “I’m In Love With My Car,” which would be false idolatry, and “Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon” would represent gluttony, in a way. And what’s at the end of the road if you follow vice… I’m thinking specifically of “Bohemian Rhapsody” when I say, “the end of the road.” It goes to a lot of dark places, and hopefully, people can learn from that.
Yeah, the “Pinkerton” songs are either Rivers making a bad decision or chastising himself for having made bad decisions. Plus he saved many of us potential heartbreak by letting us know what pink triangle symbolized. But I do hear the “how not to live” in your own lyrics, many which are straightforward protests. Did you decide early in on in the process that you wanted to write lyrics as naked as, say, “Cin”?
Yeah, I really did. When I started writing “Cin,” I was on a train with a pen and a pad, and I had a list of the most awful things that I had ever done in my head, and without specifically going into details about them in the song, I wanted to address the few biggest ones, clear the air, and say, ‘see, a real man can admit his mistakes, and I want so desperately to be a real man. Can you admit to yours?’ And I hope that people learn from that.
In “Diet of Worms,” you compare the war protest in America to the Protestant Reformation. What does the subtitle “Polonius” refer to? Hamlet?
Absolutely. Once Hamlet kills Polonius, Hamlet tells Claudius that Polonius is at supper, where a “a certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him,” which is to say, worms are picking his brain, or chewing on his ear. Hamlet then says to the king, “your worm is your only emperor for diet,” and he’s doing a pun off of the Diet of Worms, which as you said, had to do with the Protestant Reformation, while also telling everyone that though Claudius may have taken the emperor’s place, that doesn’t make him the true king or Hamlet’s true father. I hope that makes sense… there’s a great “Fight Club” quote that sums it up a lot better that goes, “sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken!” I might be using Shakespeare’s pun, which is quoted in the lyrics, to tell a certain politician that just because your title is “our leader” doesn’t make you my leader. That’s something you really have to earn with trust… and labeling your own people ‘traitors’ for bringing up that fact doesn’t earn your any trust from us.
Nobody is going to fault you for ripping off the bard now and then. Shakespeare is a good argument for the pun in general.
Haha… I’m honored that you agree!
The Manual is about as musically and lyrically self-referential as an episode of “Arrested Development,” with close attention paid to transitions between songs. Why were these elements such a priority for you?
Well, when I was in grade school, my dad would play bootlegs from The Beach Boys’ unfinished album “SMiLE” to me, and that sort of changed my idea of what an album could be at a very young age. There was just something neat about listening to an album not as individual songs, but as separate movements that play off of one another. It’s in classical music and opera. As for “Arrested Development”… that’s hilarious that you would say that. I love that show… I’d sort of like to think it’s more like an episode of “Seinfeld” where everything that happens in the beginning comes full-circle in the end. I guess “Arrested Development” is like that too. I wish I could have gotten Franklin the hand-puppet to sing on the record.
Franklin would just spout off racial slurs anyway. How early in the songwriting process did you start working songs into other songs?
Almost immediately. I had just come fresh out of a batch of older songs where I tried to do a similar thing, and then I knew that with this new batch I would have to amp it up. So it was just a natural process… about three year ago is when I started. The lyrics all came later, because it was easier to tie them into each other that way. A good portion of the words weren’t even concrete until right up to their recording. A lot of times on this CD, I would actually just start with a song title, and then twelve months later fill in the words.
One of my favorite moments on the record is the guitar drop-out on “Tarantism” that leads into Matt Highfield’s trumpet solo. You and he seem like pretty natural collaborators. I recall seeing you guys play a rockin “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” in Malibu a couple years ago.
That was a really fun time!
Have you been playing this material live? How is your live show different from the album?
Matt challenges me in so many ways. I’d like to think that I can challenge him a bit, too. Most of my favorite parts on the record have to do with something that he did, whether it’s trumpet here or some great vocal line there. I really wish I could do the material live with him, but he’s working on a five or six year doctorate program at UC Riverside. Chris [Graue, who also performs on the album]… he plays a plethora of toys on the album… he and I are going to work on re-imagining the live set this winter. Right now, the shows are all-acoustic and semi-improvisational. I’ll start playing with maybe “Teachers? Revolution,” and instead of moving into “Negro,” I might slow down the beat and pick another song that’s in the key of “A.” It keeps it fresh… though it does screw with the continuity of how the movements were designed.
That sounds like what Jack White does at White Stripes shows.
Now that you mention it… you’re absolutely right. I’ve seen the “Under Blackpool Lights” DVD, and it’s just rad how he can start playing anything and Meg will follow. The song “Lady Liberty” was very-much inspired by the Stripes.
Are you marketing a single for The Manual? “Lady Liberty” and “Teachers? Revolution!” strike me as natural choices that wouldn’t lose too much outside of the context of the album. But singles are often moot in independent music.
“Teachers” would have been the obvious choice. Another requested one was “Fistful of Color,” but I made that one awfully abrasive. I didn’t market a single for a few reasons. First, there’s no chance in hell that anything from the CD would get any kind of play on the radio. The major labels have such a monopoly on that, and even when they say, “we play independent music,” it never is. Not to knock any specific bands – because the ones I’m going to name are favorites of mine – but Franz Ferdinand and Interpol are by no means independent groups, even if Warner Brothers or EMI says they are. So you’re absolutely right – singles are just moot for independent labels. I did have an offer from a friend at USC Film School to do a video for “Cin,” but I turned it down. Maybe I shouldn’t have. It’s weird enough having single songs separated by track on Myspace.
Plus if everyone rushed out to buy “Teachers,” no one would get the free pencil.
You’re right, and then there would be no point! We spared no expense; we include only the finest hand-crafted number two pencils inside the spine of the CD’s jewel case. They’re handmade by dwarves in the California desert… carved out of glowing ember.
Plug plug plug… Michael, is it true that your pencils have been known to improve SAT scores by as many as 60 points? If so, I’ll advise all those high school junior girls I hang around to toss out Kaplan books and buy Michael Ocean albums.
You know, I’ve heard that statistic before… I might have even heard it was 70 points. But I’ve also read elsewhere that listening to a Michael Ocean album… or specifically “And Now Fr. Something Completely Different…” before or after using that pencil dampers your IQ scores by around five points.
How could anyone concentrate with an evil-sounding robot voice in his head?
Exactly! That was a difficult decision to make… using the Speak and Spell voice. I wanted to test out that feature when I got my first Mac, so I opened up the most recent poem I’d written, which was called “The Power of God,” which as based on a dream I’d had. And the first line out of that robot’s voice was “The power of God to sing is within you.” And it just struck me right there… this robot talking, telling you, ‘anyone can sing.’ It just felt so right to have the robot sing the lyrics. But we ran the risk of having “Fitter, Happier” comparisons. That made for a difficult decision. I don’t think Matt approved of it much, but everyone else onboard told me to go ahead with it.
Which reminds me. I laughed when I saw that “Cin” was track 4. So not only is the song in dialogue with “Exit Music (For A Film),” but it comes at the same time on the album.
Wow… you’re right about that… track 4. I’m not sure if that was subliminally-intentional or not. The two songs definitely can have their comparisons, and that bugs me about it sometimes. “Cin” is based on this Civil War-era piano ballad that my voice teacher introduced me to, and I had to sing it every day in class for a couple months. But I can’t say with a straight face that the tone of the bass at the end wasn’t inspired in part by “Exit Music.” That part of the song was more really inspired by “Getchoo…” not in theme, like, scaring someone into liking you, but in chord structure and passion. The spelling of the song doesn’t help my case. Now it’ll always remind me of ‘cinema’ or ‘fin,’ and you know that was written before the ending credits rolled in old French movies… right when the exit music starts. Maybe that was subliminally-intended, too.
Yeah, an artist could go nuts trying make sure his work doesn’t resemble anybody else’s. Because it’s impossible. What have you been listening to/reading lately?
Hmmm… I’ve been in a David Bowie phase for about a year now. I just bought “Ziggy Stardust” on vinyl yesterday. The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” is always in rotation. This year has been great for music, because we got some amazing work put out from LCD Soundsystem, Animal Collective, Radiohead, Daft Punk… plus, I picked up a few rare dub and reggae compilations put together by some Jamaican record labels that I’ve been listening to a lot. I dig into a lot of jazz too… maybe more so than anything else. And as far as new books… my favorite this year was Dave Eggers’ “What is the What.” I’m involved with several different charity organizations and most of them send relief aid to the very same Sudanese refugee camp that the main character lived most of his life in. And I’m re-reading a book called “The Beatles: Day-by-Day, Song-by-Song”… do you know that one?
You would really enjoy it. The first half is a day-by-day account of what the band did for nearly every day they were together. I could read 1966 to 1968 and the India trip over and over again without getting bored. And the second half of the book is the story behind every song they recorded together.
I’m a sucker for “story behind the song” stuff.
Just reading that part is pretty inspirational… it might make someone try and build up a story or a myth behind their own songs. Every single one of theirs is packed with history. I’ve tried very hard to do that with my own.
Have you begun writing material for the next album?
No. Well… some. I’ve done just a few riffs here and there and some chord structures. Whether any of it is for another album, or maybe just an EP is up in the air right now. Whatever comes next will have a very, very different format. It’ll be much simpler and much more straightforward. I’d still like to do albums by concept… but maybe the next one would be a garage rock record, or maybe it’d be a dance punk one. We’ll see. I could just do a “Bitches Brew” cover album if Matt or Chris can to learn how to play like Miles Davis. Whatever the case, I’ll be studying more production techniques to keep my tacks sharp.