“Look at David Bowie’s 80s work. He may wince at it, but ‘Let’s Dance’ is like steak-flavored ice cream… that works.”
Notable synthpop/indie rock purveyor Mike Deni (AKA Geographer) recently released Endless Motion, Vol. 1, the first in a series of covers of songs that have had a massive impact on him — and, to various extents, all of us. In this collection, released on Roll Call Records, he tackles the work of New Order, Kate Bush, Paul Simon, Arthur Russell, and Felix Da Housecat.
This month, Deni agreed to do a quick Q&A with yours truly, offering up some thoughtful and compelling takes on the enduring legacy of the inimitable disco/pop artist and cellist Russell. He also opines on the challenging task of covering classic, even legendary, songs and tackles the nuances of nostalgia.
Vehlinggo: This new collection of covers is excellent. The songs feel true to the source, but they seem infused with your own experiences. How did you decide to choose these songs and why? What do they mean to you?
Deni: I chose these songs because they are all integral into either my development as a musician, or to my life in San Francisco.
I titled the EP Endless Motion because I learned from these songs and now I’ve made not only my own music based on them, but my own interpretation of them, so the cycle of influence continues.
A piece of music is over after 3 or 4 minutes, or in my case 5 — wink — but it can gain endless life by being reinterpreted by another artist or by infusing someone’s life with a kernel of meaning that grows into an experience. They each have a little story in the quilt of my life.
“Cloudbusting” was shown to me by a woman I had a fleeting love affair with.
“Age of Consent” was one of the biggest influences on the first good song I ever wrote — “Can’t You Wait,” off my first album.
Arthur Russell was shown to me by a coworker when I had a day job as a special-education preschool teacher, and revolutionized the way I thought about the cello and strings in general.
“Ready 2 Wear” was the anthem and omnipresent crowd-pleaser at kitchen dance parties with my friends when I first moved to San Francisco. It was like the soundtrack to our lives.
“I Know What I Know” represents to me the penetrating power of Paul Simon in my life — from growing up as a child listening to Graceland to rediscovering the power of its lyrics when I had come of age and amassed enough experiences of my own to feel their emotional weight.
What’s the challenge with doing covers, especially those highly revered or pop-canonical songs?
The challenge is paying homage to the original, while making something worthy of a listen in its own right.
There’s no way you’ll make a Paul Simon song better than Paul Simon did. So don’t even try. But if you can make people see it from a different light — if you can approach it from an angle that isn’t displayed in the original — then there’s a reason for you to make the cover.
Just loving it and redoing it isn’t enough, unless it’s a song that was originally recorded badly or sung poorly but has a lot of heart. Since none of these songs fall under that category, I just pretended that I wrote them myself.
Let’s say I wrote “This Is How We Walk On The Moon.” What would those lyrics mean to me, and how would I orchestrate that song?
Arthur Russell has had a major resurgence in popularity these past couple of years. What’s his enduring quality?
He is a painting. He makes music that is unlike any other, because it belies the rules without indulging in its own eccentricities. It is not alienating the way a lot of avant-garde music is. It is inviting, it’s sweet, it’s gentle, it’s distorted, and at times achingly beautiful.
The non-linear song structures, and disobedience to the verse-hook-chorus-bridge mentality while still delivering up juicy melodies and intriguing tones, is a lot like watching the tide go in and out at the beach. You have to stand there for a while to appreciate it.
One thing I’ve noticed about all of your choices is that they are songs that sound of our time, as much as of their own. Why is it that the music, especially the 80s songs from New Order and Kate Bush, have so infused the popular music of the past several years? This is perhaps the longest nostalgia trip we’ve been on since the 50s nostalgia of the 80s.
The 80s were a fascinating time for music. It was the classic “sell-out” era, but also one of the most adventurous sonically. Eighties songs are essentially 50s sugar-coated pop songs thrown around in the gravel of cutting-edge synthesizer technology and “anything-is-possible” economics.
At the same time, you have a band like New Order that brings a post-punk mentality to that, and an artist as singular and unflinching as Kate Bush. When you put pop in the hands of minds as unique and driven as those, you get truly enduring and fascinating music. Look at David Bowie’s 80s work. He may wince at it, but “Let’s Dance” is like steak-flavored ice cream — that works.
What’s next for Geographer?
Next up is what’s always next up: Touring! [Editor’s Note: Deni’s touring band includes Joyce Lee, Duncan Nielsen, and Cody Rhodes.]
Gonna hit the road in the spring, doing headlining dates. It’s been a while since I headlined a tour, so it will be fun to touch back in with my new fans; play a cover or two for them.
And then after I do a lap around the country, I’ll come back to San Francisco to work on new, original material. Covers can be both a great tutorial and a palette cleanser, so I’m chomping at the bit to see what comes out of me next. But I think it’s going to involve lots of synths and beats. We shall see!!