Colorado native Michal Menert is currently riding on one of the most successful and inspiring years of his musical career. 2015 has already seen the electro-soul innovator perform on the most sought after stage in the US, release a full-length album, and foster a visionary record label that aims to revert record releases back to the days when fans enjoyed full-length album experiences over short track releases common in the age of Soundcloud and streaming services. Aside from his musical career, Michal is one of the most down-to-earth artists in the music scene. I spent over half an hour not only discussing his musical accomplishments and visions, but also the kind of personality and mindset it takes to realize one’s dreams. Our conversation felt less like an interview and more like a couple homies analyzing the modern state of music and the degrees in which its evolved. Read through our full conversation below to get a feel for the extraordinary characteristics that embody Michal Menert.
So you just released a Big Band live album from Red Rocks on Bittorrent. Was that your favorite performance with the Big Band, and what went into manifesting that performance?
Yeah it was definitely our best performance. I mean, board recordings are always tricky because when you’re in a place like a live amphitheater there’s so much sound being created by the audience and other things so that mix was tricky to release but I wanted to give people something because they were asking for it and were releasing their own versions and we had our board recording. I think it’s the best performance that we’ve had and I think it’s only going to be better the more we go. That was our third concert and the first concert with that lineup, because we’ve removed people and had other people added so it’s been a shift in personnel. This time me and Jubee and Marcelo and Paul went to Washington and played with the other half of the core of the band. Basically everybody except for the string section and one of the vocalists and the DJ. We were able to have the kinda fusion that a band needs, the chemistry that allows it to actually feel like a band and not like you’re just in a high school where people come together to play music that’s just put in front of them. So this was like the first one where we had that chemistry, and granted it’s still an intimidating process because there’s so many moving parts and the way that things sound when they’re produced. When you’re automating faders you’re able to really control the precise levels of sound and that’s what’s able to make electronic music hit through a sound system so well because you produce things that are otherwise sonically impossible in a live setting and make it fit together like clock-work because you have really specific things on a grid and you take that grid away and play it live you’re trying to recreate that with players and find out what works there and what parts you would shift into a new existence that could be even better. Like what parts of the song are the core parts that keep the heart of the song. So this was the first show where we really had the time to do that with the songs and I was excited about it. The very first show we had, there was enough energy where I was just blown away that we pulled it off. The second one I was noticing a lot of the mistakes and realizing that we hadn’t had enough time to really have the chemistry that we needed, and that’s why I really took the time this time.
It’s never really about playing things perfectly, I like imperfections, I like an imperfectionist.
So I like when there’s things that rub wrong once in a while because it’s that part of live music and the records that I sample and discover through vinyl and fell in love with songs that are archived in thrift stores now. That sound was based a lot on the human element. Some of the best singers that I’ve sampled and the best things I’ve heard are from people whose voices are imperfect. Their voices crack a little bit, you hear the frailness in it. And that’s a big part of music to me. I don’t like things to be super clean and polished and electronic sounding. I’d rather have things kinda be like falling off a high wire act than just walking across a bridge.
Now that you have Red Rocks locked down, what other venue would you like to do a recording from?
I would love to do a really nice tuned room that had good acoustics, like a room that’s made for opera or for a more theatrical room that carries more of a live sound because I feel like the strings could breathe more. That’s where it would flourish, not having to push so much through a sound system but being able to have more of an orchestral feel for it where there’s natural reverb and the acoustics are great. But I’d love to play anywhere with that band, even a tiny-ass stage where we’re crammed together. I’d love to play at The Gorge, which is a place I’d definitely like to get a live recording from. It’d be cool to do a place like Merriweather Post Pavilion, cause it’s a historical place where you hear live recordings like the Dead. There’s plenty of venues like that that would be an honor. I mean we got to play at Red Rocks and that was such an honor to me. It’s very humbling, especially being from Colorado and growing up there, and having gone to shows there. I would be in bands growing up and always dream of playing at Red Rocks and then I’m actually up there and I’m like “holy shit I’m realizing this dream.” It’s not lost upon me about how grand it is to be able to look at all these people’s faces and be like “yes I get to share this experience with these people and play my music.” It’s a beautiful thing and it’s really inspiring. I was more happy after that set than I’ve ever been after a set and I’m still riding on the waves of that. I’ve been really inspired. I’ve spent the past two weeks locking myself in my basement and just working on music.
So you would say the show really added a creative spark towards your recent work?
Yeah all of a sudden when it finally works the way you imagined it, granted there were hiccups and things like when our trumpet player was playing and his key went up somewhere like a half tone on the pitch towards the end of the set and didn’t notice it cause the monitors were so loud. He was hearing his trumpet one way and in the front-of-house it was tuned out. There’s little imperfections when you listen to it, but I didn’t feel that on stage. I felt there was chemistry and a connection and I think everyone watching could feel that. Just to go off a bit, in electronic music when you’re playing by yourself there’s an emotion that you’re exchanging with the crowd and you’re the only one on stage who can see that. You’re the only one up there who feels the dynamic and knows when things are going good or bad. So when you’re playing with a band you can all share that and in those good moments you can look over and smile at somebody and be like “fuck yeah we’re doing this.” And I was standing next to Paul, and we’ve known each other since the summer before ninth grade, and just to look over at one of my best friends and be like “this is awesome, look at what we get to look at.” It’s one of those things where I not only got to achieve my dreams but I was there with people that I’ve known for long enough where it feels like we’ve made it. Like we’ve accomplished something, it’s not just Michal Menert, it’s the whole thing. It just happens that my name is the one that people recognize but it’s really everyone involved.
Your mindset created that reality.
Yeah exactly, all of a sudden we were like we can do this. I can sing on stage, we can play these songs, I can play these parts, we can recreate these parts and make it sound good and just to be able to have that as a whole in one night and the celebration of just looking into that crowd..I don’t know, it can’t not be life changing.
It’s really inspiring just to hear that and know that it’s possible for anyone to do that.
Yeah, I mean there were a lot of people that I made music with growing up that were way better than me, and for one reason or another their life course took them in another direction, like they got families or times got rough and we had to hustle and make money and find ways to make ends meet. They bowed out of it or came to their senses. There was a long time in my life where I was like “I’ve been doing the wrong thing, I should give up. I’ve been doing this for ten years, still isn’t really paying the bills.” My whole family was like “what the fuck are you doing with your life?” But then to eventually achieve something out of that and be glad that I stuck with it, while not really compromising what I wanted out of music. Because there’s a lot of temptation to go on the easy routes in life, especially in EDM, it’s a genre where people can blow up in their bedroom before they’ve ever done a show and start making five figure festival headlining gigs before they can even DJ, and that’s a thing that I’ve seen in the past five years. It’s only in the EDM genre, you can’t do that with a rock band and be like “We don’t know hot to play songs yet but we’re gonna be headlining these festivals.” So because of that there are formulas and shortcuts to make it about branding and playing things that are familiar and easily digestible. Because it feels good to have people on your side and play things that get people riled up, but at the same time to me that’s not what music is about. If it makes people riled up that’s awesome, but if it takes me playing something that somebody else made in the short time that I have in my life to get people’s attention, I feel like that’s a waste. I’m not a DJ. If I was spinning vinyl and doing DJ sets I would totally embrace that but the whole thing is that the line between production sets and DJ sets is so blurred. That’s why I like playing with the band because it brings it to this part where it’s not this competitive, weird thing where people are like “your set wasn’t as crazy as the guy before you.” I’m just trying to be musical not crazy.
This leads me into my next question. How do you feel your audience receives your sets when you’re playing solo versus with the band? What kind of reception do you feel is different?
I mean it depends on the audience. I go to some places and I get confused looks, and I go other places and people are eating it up and crying and loving it. In general, I’ve been very fortunate to have a fan base that’s growing and very willing to hear where I take music. They’re not like “We want more of this kind of song!” I can do things that are very much like “Cool let’s see where this takes us.” So whether it’s the big band or my solo sets I have faces staring up at me who are happy to see what I’m doing, I feel like they see what’s behind it more than just the way it’s presented. That’s the important part about music. Sometimes in live music sets like when I toured in the Northwest, sometimes it’s more intimate and sometimes it’s less intimate if it’s a bigger crowd. It depends on what it is. Sometime my solo sets will fit inside a small bar and it will be way more intimate cause I can talk and stop the train from running if it’s fucked up and have a conversation for a second. So I’ve been fortunate enough to have very but generally positive responses.
Yeah, I mean I’ve never caught the Big Band yet but from what I’ve heard there's an incredible energy that the band gives out.
It’s definitely more emotional I think. When you hear a recording of the drums it’s different than when you’re actually there and you see the sound being created. You’re not hearing a stereo mix down anymore you’re seeing other moving parts. You can wonder how the guitar or keyboardist is playing something and you can look over and see it being done. It’s no longer this one piece thing that you have to hear and pick apart, you can see it all for yourself.
So on the “Space Jazz” album that you just released, you have a bunch of collaborations featured on it. Was there any one collaborator who was most closely aligned to what you were trying to produce?
Production wise? That’s hard to say because I feel like it’s not finding out what’s most closely aligned but mores what the two of you can make that has its own signature on it. That being said, I worked really fast and good with Manic Focus. And that’s the track I did with Manic and Jubee.
Me and Manic have the Manic Menert side project that we’ve been working on, and it comes really easily.
Working with Borahm Lee, working with everybody it’s really crazy cause it’s come really naturally. With Jubee, we have an EP coming out. The thing is I’m friends with a lot of very talented and well-accredited musicians both in the production world and live musician world. I try to do what comes naturally and let collaborations happen when they happen. It’s a tendency when you’re a producer to meet people and be like “yeah we should work sometime!” And it’s totally heartfelt when you say it but I also don’t want to put that pressure on it. I’ve been friends with Grant [GRiZ] for a long time and we’ve been talking about collaborating. We went up to the mountains at the same time and we were talking about wanting to trade beats and stuff. The thing is like it’s about to happen for so long and we wonder when it’s gonna happen but I just know that when it happens it’ll be great. It’s not just finding the time in our schedules to collaborate, I also just want it to be the right vibe. Sometimes I’ve had friends come and stay with me, I’ve had producer friends come a night or two before a show, and the intention’s that we’re going to work on some stuff but it ends up being like “oh let’s just fucking kick it,” we never really get a chance to not be engulfed in music or a show when we see each other. I like to have a bond with everybody that I work with. I think that music is a relationship between you and the music, you and the audience, the audience and the memories. It’s just these connections and the stronger those bonds are the better the music’s gonna be. When you work with people as a producer there’s one laptop with a session open and you kinda have to tag in and out, and who knows if inspiration’s gonna strike at the same time. I’ve been in rooms with producers that I’m really intimidated with, and I’m just like “Oh shit I get the chance to collaborate” but it just turns into nothing because you’re just so under pressure to make something good. I think being able to give it a free flow and it’s own dynamic is the way to do it.
A majority of your songs have been released on full-length albums, including “Even If It Isn’t Right” which had 27 tracks. Do you believe releasing extensive-length albums expresses your artistic vision more so than releasing short EPs and singles?
Yeah I like doing EPs as projects where you can be more concise like these are five tracks that are kinda in the same vein or idea. With albums I like having a flow especially with production albums I think you can have this really cool narrative that’s settled within the music. “Even If It Isn’t Right” was one of those things that like, nobody was posting CDs anymore, everybody was posting playlists and just doing Soundcloud singles and shit like that. I just wanted to put out an album that had a flow that I like.
People were talking about how it’s too long and then I put out Space Jazz which is 47 minutes people were saying the album wasn’t even long enough. Traditionally albums are like 38 to 45 minutes long, because that’s what you can fit on one record, and that’s actually the definition of an album.
So when did you really get started on performing live in front of an audience?
I didn’t start performing solo live until 2009. I performed with Half Color from 2008 to 2010 and intermittently after that. I performed with bands since ’97 in high school and college. We started hitting shows on the West Coast like once a year and did little Colorado tours with our band Listen, and I was in that till about 2008.
Even before that I was a signed rapper in an underground label in Colorado from 2002 to 2005 I was performing with that. So I’ve done a lot of different styles of performing but me doing production sets and live beat sets was around 2010 and I’m still doing that.
So with your label Super Best Records, would you consider that more of a collective than label company?
Yeah man we don’t even have a website *laughs* People are like we need a website but really, when’s the last time you went to a label website to hear music? If I want to hear a label’s music I’ll look on Soundcloud or Spotify, I don’t find out about a label’s music from websites anyway. We’re gonna have a website eventually though. We’re just a young collective that’s just trying to help other artists. Like what is a label? We say “hey, you’re on our label, put a song on Soundcloud and I’ll repost it. That’s really what a label can do right now in the digital world. We’re getting into pressing more albums from here on it and I want to be more selective about what we release and officially releasing it with a bunch of stuff. So everything’s slowly coming together. It’s really an alliance. It’s a label that’s put out a few things right now and we’re gonna put out a lot more not just digitally but on physical record.
The goal is originally to put out releases through records and vinyl mostly to keep the idea of an album alive because I feel like when you have something physically you don’t skip through it as much as when you have a playlist.
I don’t know why that is, but when I have a CD in my car I’m not like “nope, nope, nope, not listening to this one.” I’ll give it a lot more of a listen than I would on Soundcloud. Even more so with vinyls because each side puts you on an adventure. Maybe it’s an archaic way of seeing it but I think there’s an art in making an album and keeping someone’s attention span for more than a song. I don’t want to be part of a culture that only watches trailers, like I want to be able to watch full-length films and be able to pay attention to the stories. I think that we’re in that “I can have it now and get rid of it as soon as I want” kind of culture with things being digital. You can be on Tinder and fuckin’ swipe people left. Like we can literally swipe people out of our lives. I don’t want that to happen with the art of making an album. It’s sacred to me. There’s albums in my life that have healed me, there’s albums that have become part of my story. Think of albums like “Dark Side of the Moon,” that album as a whole has touched so many people. I listen to that album and I just start welling up in tears because it reminds me of my dad and the times I’ve had growing up and the people I’ve listened to it with. It just becomes a chapter in your life and in the age of disposable music we’re losing that. We’re losing the ability to have songs that make us think of our childhood cause are you gonna fuckin’ listen to “Bubble Butt” and be like “ah man those were the good ol’ days!” I feel like in a way it’s sports versus arts in school. Art is just as important but the sports are the ones that people want go see and that’s where people make money with their stadiums. I feel like EDM is a lot like sports, it’s this very easily digestible energy and vibe and hypeness. Like “Yes immediately I’m fuckin turned up!” Like it sucks that now you don’t pay any money for music. The only way for it to succeed is if it gives you a hard-on in the crowd because headphone music can’t make money for being in headphones for free. Like music that is beautiful in a way that doesn’t fit in a festival setting when everyone’s all jacked up, it doesn’t deserve to die away just because there’s no way for music to make money anymore. I just want to be able to give back a little bit of that by keeping albums alive and encouraging artists on my label to put out releases that are thought out and have a dynamic.
Yeah you want to give it multiple facets so it’s not all just high energy.
Yeah and I love having high energy shit but I also love songs that make me cry, just as much as I love songs that get me hyped up. I think there’s an equal place in the minds of the youth.
I think of EDM and the big festivals like Ultra as being a lot like WWE, where you know it’s a big gimmick and fake but you’re just there for the hype to see the big hits, or in music’s case the big drops.
Yeah have you seen the Swedish House Mafia documentary? They’ve got three pioneer 900 mixers and there’s no song that any DJ would require three mixers playing at once. It’s all just for show.
Well thanks for taking the time out to chat, man. Look forward to all the work in store!
Thanks man, it’s a pleasure.
Words and interview by Julian Rodriguez