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29 September 2013

WTSH Interview: Young Light. Interviewed by Ellie Sleeper.

Photo by Emily Ulmer
When The Sun Hits Interviews 
Young Light
Interview conducted by Ellie Sleeper

Both in name and spirit, Michael Feerick and Micah Calabrese’s Young Light evokes a sense of dawn breaking, of a sliver of light before something even more spectacular appears. For those already familiar with both gentlemen, it will be quite easy to hear traces and vestiges of their past work in what they are doing now, but there remains something quite different in Young Light as well, a certain element that seems more intangible. Perhaps it’s a reclaimed youthfulness? Perhaps it’s rekindled focus?

To be sure, Young Light is surely more straightforward than its predecessors, Giant Drag and Amusement Parks on Fire, and the formula pays off. The songs Feerick and Calabrese have crafted brim with life and energy, insisting that listeners sing or hum along. Where Micah’s influence may keep things tighter and more visceral, Michael’s glowing high notes and seeming lightness of being are still present and accounted for. Together, their music speaks of a certain tension that has created a phenomenal end result; their debut EP, Great White Arc, is vibrant and full of spirit without ever seeming self-indulgent or overly cheerful. It would be incredibly difficult to think of a more solid introductory release.

In the midst of the joy of listening to what they’ve done together, we at When the Sun Hits were fortunate to have Michael and Micah sit down to give us a very candid, revealing, and friendly interview. Catch that and a taste of Great White Arc below. 

I think, for me, one of the biggest questions is the obligatory “how did the band form?”  What occurred to me while listening was that the more minimal approach of Great White Arc, of course, had some trails of the first APoF full-length, but I also wondered if the time spent in Red Shoe Diaries had any bearing on the goals for the band and how the two of you came together. Was there a conversation that arose out of Michael’s time playing barer music, or was Young Light born out of something more organic and circumstantial?

Michael:  I remember Amusement Parks' sound guy Ric Peet introducing us to Giant Drag while we were hanging out in Italy in 2007. I needed a girl's name for a couple of songs on Road Eyes, which I was writing at the time, so I used 'Annie' (Hardy) as it fit the phrasing perfectly. This story probably freaks Micah out now! When we got to LA to record the LP in 2009 we played a warm up show at Silverlake Lounge, and at the bar afterwards my friend Fritz, Silversun Pickups' sound guy, introduced me to Micah and we started chatting about music and what not. He came to the studio in Hollywood to tune the drums for the album, we hung out on his roof, he put the entire Lilys back catalogue on my iPod and at some point we decided we must have a jam some time! 

I guess we finally did in 2011, just as I was starting to do some acoustic shows. It was refreshing to play songs in an intimate setting, where the songwriting was the focus instead of the layers of sound. Micah came to see me play solo at The Bootleg Theatre and I happened to do a cover of 'Hospital' by the Lemonheads. He mentioned he liked the lower vocals on that song, which I could hit as I wasn't singing over loads of loud guitars! So, I went back to the UK and wrote a batch of songs with all that in mind, designed to be performed without a large band, fewer or no instrumental sections, the lyrics and vocal melody carrying the songs. I came back to LA in 2012, we had literally a couple of rehearsals and went to Chicago to record the EP!

There are definitely a lot of similarities between Great White Arc and the first Amusement Parks record. They both came to be the way they are out of a combination of stylistic design and financial limitation! Also, on both I feel like we were going for the 'Chicago' sound. When we were doing 'APOF' Dan and I A/B'd the drum sound with Albini's, and with 'GWA' we were actually in Chicago recording with Jeff Dean, the heart and soul of the Chicago scene! We popped in to Electrical Audio and hung out while we were there, it's safe to say he uses more gear than us! Anyway I guess with all debuts it's a case of making the most of what you have to work with, and that's where the tone of the record comes from. To put it in perspective though we recorded and mixed 'APOF' in 4 weeks, and 'GWA' in 2 days! On top of all that they both have lo-fi black & white sleeves, I guess subconsciously that's the way I like to do a debut! Naturalistic and noir.

Micah:  A friend of mine told me to check out Amusement Parks on Fire and that they were playing the Silver Lake Lounge. I listened on MySpace I decided I was definitely going to the show. I was not disappointed. After the show, our mutual friend and amazing live sound engineer, Fritz introduced us. It turned out APOF would be in LA recording for a while. Everyone pretty much became instant friends that night. At some point Mike and I started talking about working on something together. Eventually the APOF album was complete and Mike and I crammed as much song writing in as we could during his last two months in LA.

I think Mike was interested in something barer. I obviously like the simplicity of a two-piece. Ultimately, what I've found is that no matter what your intentions are, a particular combination of people playing music together already has a sound defined before you even start playing. You either find that sound or you force something else which is guaranteed to turn out terrible.

To linger on other projects, only briefly, would you be willing to talk about where you stand with Giant Drag, Micah? Michael, is there anything we should know about APoF too? If any of it is confidential or under wraps, no worries. 

Michael:  Not especially. I guess I just find it kind of depressing and unnecessary when bands have such a defined status, like 'hiatus' or 'deceased' or something! The idea of doing a 'farewell tour' sounds pretty miserable to me. Why not leave it open and see if you feel like doing it again in a couple of years?! I wonder what percentage of bands that have a big over-the-top send-off end up doing a big reunion, comeback thing? I don't see the need for all the drama; it's only rock music isn't it!  Wait, what was the question?! Oh, Amusement Parks toured Europe at the start of the year and that was great, we'll almost certainly record and tour more in some capacity we feel like it. Sorry to ramble at you, a dude tweeted at YL the other day and just put '@APOF RIP' and I thought that was uncalled for, I guess it stayed with me!

Micah:  Annie recently announced she's ending the band and doing a final tour. I'm sad to see it end, but glad that she's moving on to other projects rather than trying to morph Giant Drag into something else. Anything but Annie and me playing together just isn't Giant Drag.

As Young Light, Great White Arc is likely your top priority right now, as it’s only just seen the light of day and is still pretty fresh, but are there any other plans you can tease or that you’re hoping for? Can we expect tours or some other designs for world domination? 

Michael:  Absolutely! We're recording another EP this month, I imagine we'll push that one a bit more and build on the foundation of this one. At the moment I'm just enjoying the fact that this one's out there at all, when we were making it we had no expectations whatsoever. I got a kick out of making the artwork for it in a way I didn't with Amusement Parks, with an independent release you have control over the microscopic details, which I care about hugely, obsessively even! On the second Amusements record I remember the CD's coming back and the logo on the cover was squashed, it crushed me. That kind of thing just seems to cheapen the whole package, after spending so much time and money on it! With this one it feels like it's being printed up exactly as intended and it's super satisfying. I really like having Rafe Dunn's writing tying it all together, hopefully we'll continue and expand on that, up to something really special for the album, whenever that happens. And yeah we'll be touring the US and Europe, and wherever else will have us, as much as possible.

Micah:  We're dying to record and tour. Mike has to go back to the UK very soon but I'm planning to head over to his side of the world so we can keep the world domination rolling along.
In regards to tours and traveling, it kind of seemed like Michael, you were a bit of an international man of mystery and guitar feedback for a while there. Where exactly IS home for Young Light and for you both as people? Where could fans most expect to see a gig or two? 

Michael:  'International man of mystery and guitar feedback' is almost certainly the coolest way I have or will ever be described!! We've been talking about basing the band in Europe for a bit actually, I'd say expect a show anywhere in the US or Europe in the next year or so. Los Angeles is definitely home for Young Light as a band though. This is where we've done everything so far, our rehearsal space is in Eagle Rock, our first show was at Silverlake Lounge, Micah lives here! I feel like the music is grounded here, it's influenced by all our friends' bands we play with and go to see, for me it's fun traversing this scene as a kind of outsider on the inside. You see how Autolux, Radar Bros, Earlimart, The Movies, Happy Hollows, the Silversuns all slot together, and I feel like that's where it's coming from. Whether that translates onto the record I'm not sure. As for me personally, I'll have to get back to you on where home is! The world's so small now, I'm enjoying the luxury of not having to decide. I've been dividing my time between Nottingham and LA and they both feel very much like home, in differing ways.

Micah:  The band's home is where the next show is, which will most likely be in the UK or Europe.

As for home, what actually makes it home? What’s the best part of wherever you prefer to be? What keeps you comfortable and sane?

Michael:  I guess home is where your family and friends are. They keep me comfortable and are making a noble effort on the sane part, bless 'em. The only problem with having awesome family and friends on two continents is that you're constantly missing a lot of people. I suppose on the plus side they never have quite enough time to get completely sick of me before I'm off again, or so I'd like to believe. While I'm here though, for the record, the best part of Nottingham is The Lincolnshire Poacher.

Micah:  As long as I've got access to good friends and good food, I'm sane.

Do you consider your music to be part of the current shoegaze/dream pop scene, or any scene? From what I’ve caught, you both seem to have pretty diverse tastes, so do you classify yourselves at all? How do you feel about genres in music, in a general sense?

Michael:  It's funny, this was supposed to be my 'definitely not shoegaze' band, I'm not sure how well that worked out! I've never been one for genres really. When Amusement Parks first started I was surprised that people described it as 'shoegaze' because I'd never heard of those bands and that scene, and it sounded like a derogatory term to me! Of course in hindsight I can see why we were described that way. I was schooled in music history a bit after that, and I really like a lot of those bands now. Obviously MBV were wildly original and influential... that magic moment where they went really Sonic Youth-y! With YL I guess people will see it as being part of that world and that's cool. The two of us definitely have diverse tastes though, we listen to everything and for me that sound is only part of what's going on. 'Abide' doesn't sound like 'shoegaze' to me. There's no delay on the guitars on the EP and not even reverb on the vocals for the most part. Saying that, the first song on the next EP is sounding super dreamy! But it doesn't really matter to me how it's categorised, if it makes it easier for people to identify with or to find out about that's fine with me.  

Micah:  I'm definitely a fan of shoegaze and dream pop. As far as being part of a scene or scenes in general -- that's getting harder and harder to define. Technology has decoupled music scenes from space and time, so now it feels like every scene that ever existed is eternally happening on top of every other scene.

What do you think of modern shoegaze/dream pop/psychedelia artists, any favorites? 

Michael:  I think there's a lot of exciting things happening. I like a lot of the lo-fi LA stuff like No Age, Health, Nightmare Air, the noisier stuff! A Place To Bury Strangers and Asobi Seksu from NY. I like Beach House, are they classified as dream pop? I like the poppier side of things too, M83 and Mew and such. There's a band here in LA, HOTT MT, who I really like. They describe themselves as 'Thai Surf-Gaze' which I thought was interesting and quite apt, definitely worth checking out.

Micah:  I'm not sure if these all fit into the "modern shoegaze/dream pop/psychedelia scene," but I really love Tame Impala, Autolux, Deerhunter, A Sunny Day in Glasgow, and a bunch of other bands I'm forgetting right now.

Can you tell us a little about the band’s song writing process?

Michael:  It differs from song to song but I tend to have chords and melodies ready, having strummed an acoustic for a time, then we'll hash out the structure and feel in the practice space. Micah is really good with arrangement ideas and with only two people that stuff can work itself out really quickly, there's a great energy with a duo which is different to bigger bands. Sometimes songs will get cut down brutally and with others, especially recently, we might add a few minutes' worth of a whole new section, depending on how it feels in the room. I think the next EP will sound more realised and expansive. We've had time to really explore the new songs, whereas on 'GWA' we had no time at all and for the most part were playing the songs as they were written acoustically, which hopefully was an approach that had its own charm!

Micah:  Usually Mike comes up with the song, and then we jam on it and try different directions until we're happy.

What is the most important piece of gear for your sound? Any particular guitars/pedals/amps that you prefer?

Michael:  I'd say Micah's Roland SH09 synth, as I guess our most distinctive feature is that we're using that instead of a bass guitar and there's one human playing two instruments! It changes the tone of songs and I write with that in mind. We want to make the most of the dramatic, sustained low end and I try to be conscious of all the work Micah will have to do! With this band I wanted a much cleaner, defined guitar sound so I'm using Fender amps, a DeVille mainly, and a Gretsch Corvette or, on the EP, a Fender Telecaster. I still use a couple of effects occasionally but much (well, a little) more sparingly than in Amusement Parks. I use a Marshall Guv'nor and a Russian Big Muff for gain/distortion, a Line 6 Echo Park for delay and an Electro Harmonix Small Clone for the slightly warped stuff. 
Micah:  For me, it's my Roland SH09 synth.

What is your process for recording your music? What gear and/or software do you use in the studio? What would you recommend for others?

Photo by Sara Reebles
Michael:  I guess your approach and the equipment you'll use always depends on what you're trying to achieve, and with this EP we wanted a very natural, roomy sound. We recorded with Jeff Dean at Million Yen in Chicago, and luckily they have a great live room, it's really big but you still have a lot of control. I suppose that's the first thing I'd recommend for others; find a good space. I think if you have a good musician playing a good sounding instrument in a good sounding room, the rest should come pretty easy. With this EP we lucked out with that studio, they have great outboard gear and it's just a fun place to be, like any good studio should be! Jeff says; "I wanted to go for a natural "live" drum sound. The big live room at Million Yen has an awesome sound so I wanted to capture that as much as possible... I just wanted to get a feel out of the music that if you closed your eyes, and listened, that it felt like the band was in front of you."

Micah:  Our process is to find talented engineers who offer to record us for next to nothing because they're amazing and generous people.

As much as it can be the norm to talk gear and physical stuff with this sort of music, I’m always curious just to hear about people’s live experiences, the behind-the-scenes happenings. Are there particularly memorable stories from the road, whether past or present, which you’d like to share? Have there been amusing disasters or absolutely incredible experiences you want to brag about? 

Michael:  Well, I am rather embarrassed to report that at the handful of shows we've played so far, everything has gone smoothly and there's been nothing wildly interesting to report. I guess most of the starting line-up of the LA Kings came to see our first headline show. Actually I did kind of mess up horrifically at that gig. I use a capo on a different fret of the guitar neck for almost every song and Micah (used to, until we learned better!) tune the synth to my guitar. So yeah, when I changed my strings before our set I guess I didn't really pay attention to the note I was tuning to, and for the entire set my guitar was tuned up a semitone. I don't imagine anyone in the audience would've realised but it just served to understandably befuddle Micah, meant I couldn't quite reach the high notes, any vocal muscle-memory I had developed was shot. ...and if there's a more rock n' roll story than that out there, I don't wanna know about it. 

Micah:  I'm sure I'm forgetting about something, but I don't think we've played enough shows to accumulate any great stories. But, check back with us in a few months.

How do you feel about the state of the music industry today? There is no doubt a massive change underway; how do you see it and do you feel it’s positive at all?

Michael: I feel pretty ambivalent if I'm honest, these infrastructures constantly change, people adapt, of course there are positives. Change in the abstract is positive, right? It's great that the entire spectrum of music is so accessible and it's exciting that musicians have to try that bit harder to get your attention. Recording software and equipment is more affordable so more people are using it, a lot of the time in a unique and innovative way. That's all been happening for a long time though, I suppose. On a business end, it's hard to find sympathy for an industry at large isn't it? Most musicians aren't making money. I'm not sure how much that's changed across the board. That poverty is inspiring has always bode well for me. I feel really lucky to have been able to record/release any records at all. 

Micah:  I feel positive. I'm not sure where the business model is going, but I know people will never stop making music. Paid streaming may pick the business back up some day, but it still has a long way to go as far as audience adoption and amounts paid to artists. I love the idea of Song Kick's Detour - a sort of Kickstarter for tours. I'm interested in seeing how that pans out.

When it comes to label releases versus DIY/bandcamp and the like, what is your stance, if any?

Michael:  I'd say whatever works best for the artist. The great thing about today's setup is that the possibilities for DIY releasing are way better and you can end up in a stronger position financially than if you were on a label. I guess the way people shop for music is one of the major changes we're seeing at the moment, it's gonna be interesting to see how that effects the artist/label dynamic and whether that will mean more people start self-releasing through their website or whatever or through a pop-up indie label. I hope so, that sounds much more fun and organic, and I hope will be better all round for musicians.

Micah:  The more quality people you have supporting the band, the better. If you've got a deal with a label you respect, then it's a lot easier than trying to assemble that support team yourself. If you don't have a deal, it's at least easier than ever to build your own support team with promotion companies and new tools built by people who used to work at big record labels.

Do you prefer vinyl, CD, cassette tape or mp3 format when listening to music? Do you have any strong feelings toward any of them?

Michael:  Besides hearing it live, I don't there's a more immersive or magical way to listen to music than on a well-pressed vinyl, on a decent set of speakers, ideally with a good vintage amplifier. The physical ritual and sonic superiority, it's so much better than any other medium and I feel sad that the younger generation might not know what they're missing. I'm glad the YL stuff is coming out principally on vinyl from the get-go. When we were recording the EP my friends there educated me on the Chicago scene, and I loved how the medium of choice was 4 tracks on 12" vinyl. It seemed like the ideal package and I thought it'd be awesome to do an ethereal take on that, like our 'en homage', coming out on a Chicago label and everything. Hence all the heavy set, photocopied typography on the sleeve, and the liner notes on an insert, etc. I feel like 4 tracks spread over two sides of a 180 gram 12" is pretty much sonically ideal. Saying all that I spend way more time listening to music on my phone these days! I love hearing music on interesting mediums though, a cassette on a good deck can sound really special, and I love listening to a decent 4-track recording on the deck itself, it's an art form within an art form. 

Micah:  I mostly listen to mp3/aac/ogg/whatever but I prefer vinyl whenever possible. I still have a soft spot for cassettes, but that's more about nostalgia than about sound quality or convenience.

What artists (musicians or otherwise) have most influenced your work?

Michael:  Yikes, this is a tough one! There are so many I'm not sure where to start. With AmPoF, what I felt were my biggest influences were seemingly the ones that no-one picked up on, with this band maybe they'll become more obvious! With this stuff I wanted to go back to simple and succinct songwriting, and try to subvert it a little, a skewed Evan Dando or psychedelic Robert Pollard. An enduring influence is Stina Nordenstam. Like all the greatest artists she's unique, completely uncompromising and wildly underrated and unknown to most, she writes hauntingly beautiful, honest songs and with every one creates a new world for her stories to exist in. I get inspired by graphic novels, 'Black Hole' by Charles Burns, 'King Of The Flies' by Pirus & Mezzo, novels by Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Coupland, the films of David Lynch & Cronenberg to name a couple of heroes, people whose art transcends the medium, not that I'd put anything I'd do up there with those guys obviously.

Micah:  I feel like everything I've ever heard has the potential to come out in my work, but the majority of influence probably comes from classic rock and 90s alternative. As far as specific artists go: The Beatles (of course), Jimi Hendrix, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Stereolab, My Bloody Valentine, The John Coltrane Quartet, The Breeders, Neil Young, James Brown, Fela Kuti, Nirvana, Cocteau Twins, Lilys, The Zombies, and on and on and on.

Can you tell us a little about what you are currently into (books, films, art, bands, etc.)?

Michael:  I find myself re-reading John Fante's 'Ask the Dust' every year or so, it's probably my favourite LA novel and I love wandering around downtown in search of Arturo Bandini! I tend to re-read a lot of Bukowski while I'm here too. I'm reading Levon Helm's 'This Wheel's On Fire - The Story of the Band' at the moment, which may account for some of my drawn-out, whimsical answers earlier! It's fascinating to read someone's experiences in music who essentially started out before rock n' roll even existed. This came about after seeing Bob Dylan, Wilco and My Morning Jacket on their 'Americanarama' tour last weekend, the whole show was very reminiscent of The Last Waltz. Big name guest stars kept appearing, MMJ covered The Band's 'Don't Do It', Jeff Tweedy and Jim James came out and played 'The Weight' with Bob Dylan... I listen to a lot of stuff from that era; Neil Young, America, Big Star, The Eagles even! I never thought I'd be saying this but I like those last couple of Kanye West records. I was excited to hear the new M.I.A single. I was just as in to 'Get Lucky' as everyone else, really like the latest Phoenix record. I never tire of Jim O'Rourke, Wilco, Yo La Tengo. I love Sub Pop's recent output; No Age, Pissed Jeans, King Tuff. Movie and TV-wise I love Lars Von Trier's latest stuff, anything by Charlie Kaufman... I'm obsessed with Breaking Bad and Mad Men of course. Stewart Lee is my hero, comedic and otherwise... I'll leave it there for now!

Micah:  My brain is half music and half technology. These days I've been reading books on artificial intelligence, Ray Kurzweil's How to Create a Mind and Jeff Hawkins' On Intelligence. I've also been learning 3D game engine programming. I just submitted a simulation I wrote to the Oculus VR Jam contest. 

Photo by Sara Reebles
If you had to choose one track that was the ultimate definition of your sound, which would it be and why? Since the project is fairly recent, if you haven’t got one yet, what do you both hope to sound like? What would the perfect Young Light song resemble or how would it feel?

Michael:  For the purposes I would say 'Giant Fire' as it was the first song we wrote together at our first practice, hence the goofy name! Everything we were setting out to do is there. With this band I wanted to get away from the 'wall of sound' we were going for with the Amusement Parks stuff and try and emphasize the space around the instruments, while still incorporating the warped, full chords. The lyrics are abstractly talking about the catharsis and excitement of shedding your old skin and starting fresh, moving forward and making a friend of the future. Not all our songs are or will be that positive in scope or blissed out melodically but that's how I'd want the perfect one to feel... or something!

Micah:  I think we just recorded that definitive track ("Blank Dice") a few days ago. Hopefully it'll come out later this year.

Is there anything else we haven’t covered that fans and followers should know? Are there any shout-outs, plugs, or random anecdotes for us?  

Michael:  If anyone is actually a fan or follower than I am truly grateful!! As far as plugs go, if you fancied checking out all the bands I play with or am loosely involved with I'm sure they would be very pleased! Oh Boy Les Mecs, JC Decaux, Neil Gold & His Girls, We Show Up On RadaR, Seabirds, Lights Over Phoenix... While I'm here, buy everything on Underground Communique Records, Invada, Hello Thor!

Micah:  Nope, you've asked all the relevant questions.

Lastly, what philosophy (on life), if any, do you live by?

Michael:  'Stay Slayer'.
Micah:  Strive for greater awareness.