Having mellowed out considerably following the brooding gothic glam-rock of his former band Dream City Film Club, Michael J. Sheehy took the high roads of minimalist rock while keeping a cautious eye on the always busy low roads. His observations on the questionable acts of lust and their poisonous aftermath were recorded with clear acumen that called out such deeds fearlessly. A string of solo albums presented the singer-songwriter’s capabilities with an open honesty, articulating every strength and weakness without the restraints of worry and regret.
Indeed, Sheehy’s music was impeccably crafted, every chord and note pulled together with utmost precision and care. But he laid his misgivings bare, and as uncomfortable as the truth sounded coming out of his mouth (“Everyone’s got their own cross to bear, but I don’t nail others to mine,” goes one pernicious line in his catalogue), it resounded heavily upon the most invested listener.
If Dream City Film Club was the blood and guts in Sheehy’s exploration of sound and his solo work the restless caged soul, what, then, does that soul sound like when it’s released? Perhaps much like the enveloping dissonance that is his latest incarnation, United Sounds of Joy, a band which reunites the singer with his former Dream City Film Club mate Alex Vald.
In the spacious, hallow atmospheres of his latest band, Sheehy observes a particular brand of minimalism reserved for Eastern scales of music. There’s nothing especially musically Asian about United Sounds of Joy. However, with their new band, Sheehy and Vald practice a far more delicate orchestration of sound where chords upon chords are thinly layered to produce aural illusions of constructed noise. Like Japanese Shinto, the emotions in the music of United Sounds of Joy are slipped into the spaces between the musical elements and they hover ominously, waiting to be discovered.
The band’s self-titled effort straddles the line between blues and electronica and each number is rendered with the poetic balance that has past troubadours like Nick Drake treading futuristic landscapes orbiting in space. Songs like the luminous blood-red pearl “The Sun That Hides a Darker Star” throb with echoing dub textures beneath the atmospheric haunts of electrified folk. On many of these tracks, like the sparse, sonic galaxy of the album opener “Seams of Sorrow”, Sheehy’s lyrical enigmas reverberate with mordant calm. The album is compact, eight songs in all—knitted with careful exactitude. But it opens up expansively, a Pandora’s Box of sound which stretches from the nebula of its hollowed space into an eternity unknown.
If beauty and horror were two parallaxes in the vast expanse of the galaxy, somewhere between those points you might hear these songs.
You’ve reunited with Alex Vald, your old buddy from Dream City Film Club. Meeting with him years later for this album, can you discuss what the working dynamics between you and him were like when you recorded the United Sounds of Joy project?
It was very relaxed. We’ve remained friends despite the ignominious fashion in which Alex was kicked out of [Dream City Film Club]. He realised it had less to do with me specifically and more to do with the group dynamic. In fact, he probably felt relieved to have gotten out of it before things turned very nasty, which inevitably they did.
We had been talking about doing something together for a couple of years and Alex sent me a bunch of soundscapes; I thought they sounded really strange and beautiful and I found myself torn between wanting to contribute something to them and worrying that I’d possibly ruin them. So we began tentatively, but it became clear that it was going to work after the first song was recorded (the last song on the album ‘Free To Fall’). For me it was a new way of writing; Alex’s pieces really set the mood as did the old Baldwin organ that he has sitting in the room where we recorded the album. Together we’d flesh out the skeleton. Then I’d take it away and try and write a song within a week and we’d reconvene and finish it.
United Sounds of Joy works from a more minimalist aperture than what you did with your other band Miraculous Mule. There’s also much more emphasis on the electronic elements, which provide much of the rhythm component of USOJ. Here the mixing board is used as an instrument. Can you describe the sonic world you and Alex tried to create on this album?
Alex’s approach to music is very different to mine; he is very much a master of sonic invention whereas I’m probably more concerned with melody, chord structure and groove. Some of our common influences would be Bowie, Eno, Moondog and Phillip Glass. Even back in DCFC, it was his guitar work as much as my voice that defined the group’s early sound. The surprising element of how he creates many of these sounds is that it’s often an acoustic instrument he has treated and sculpted into sounding unlike anything else.
I suppose we were trying to create something psychedelic, meditative and slightly unnerving. I think we’ve made something that rewards repeated immersive listening, which I know is a hard ask in an age of saturation and instant gratification. But hey, we’re dreamers.
Lyrically, I hear clearly literary influences – everything from Kenneth Koch and Henry Miller to Frank O’Hara… sometimes an appropriation on the Beat writers. Can you describe some of the lyrical themes here on this album, your influences?
Koch and O’Hara’s names are familiar to me but I’ve yet to read them. Funny you should mention Miller; I haven’t read him since making the first DCFC album, which is almost 20 years ago, but I was pretty obsessed with him for a while so perhaps some residue is still floating through my brain. I read a lot; a good week will be a novel, a book of poetry and some non-fiction. I went back to Blake, Yeats and Burroughs while writing this album more by accident than design. Other authors that probably figured were Jean Genet, Yukio Mishima, Walt Whitman and Milton (“Paradise Lost”) all of whom were new to me. It’s hard to say to what extent I can claim any of them as an influence; often one line in a book can trigger a whole song.
In the past I’ve set out to write a song knowing exactly what it is I want to say. But this time I’ve tried to allow the song to lead me somewhere. Songs such as “Seams of Sorrow”, “The Sun That Hides a Darker Star” and “Wounded Moon” started with just the titles and nothing much else. “Dust Veil” and “Queen of 7 Dials” were the only ones where I set out to write about something very specific. With the former I wanted to write about a cataclysmic event set in a dystopian future not too unlike the world we’re currently living in.
“Queen” is about a dear friend who died suddenly a few years ago, but rather than writing something mawkish and sentimental I tried to vividly describe the kind of drunken nights we spent together. Funnily enough, his death proved to be one of the catalysts for my getting sober; it was the anniversary of his death I’d been marking when I passed out drunk and nearly ended up dead in the fire at my apartment.
Your solo work is mainly blues-based, some Americana folk… USOJ pulls much from the glammier elements of Dream City Film Club, and then distills them down to an essence of atmosphere. You could say that Dream City Film Club is blood and guts… United Sounds of Joy is more about the spirit and psyche. I think this translates visually, as USOJ is very visual music (the artwork is very exemplary of this). You get that sense of spiritual/psychic transcendence in the music from the artwork. Can you go into detail about the about the visual component (meaning the imagery the music conjures, and perhaps its extension depicted in the artwork) for the album?
I’m agonising over this question. It’s difficult for me to answer without sounding like a crackpot but I will certainly try. I agree there has been a shift from ‘blood and guts’ to ‘spirit and psyche’ or rather that’s what we’ve tried to achieve.
Two books about mysticism also figured (F.C. Happold and Aldous Huxley) while we were working on the album, both of which contained anthologies of mystical writing, everything from St. John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart to Rumi and Lao Tzu. I’m very attracted to the mystical idea that God is Nothingness, that It can only be a subjective experience deep within the ground of being.
I also found myself drawn to books on the occult as well as psychology and anthropology. I read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (to be honest I wish I’d gone for the abridged version—it was hard going) and an anthology of Jung’s writing (which I loved). As drugs, alcohol and religion are off the menu for me these days, I have to try and find other ways to tap into the ‘numina’ and, to be honest, I find it extremely difficult.
As I understand it, any mystical insight requires a huge amount of hard work and patience as well as a brilliant imagination and none of these things come easily to me. That’s probably why my drug preferences leaned more towards hallucinogenics. I was trying to take the fast train to a transcendental experience but it didn’t take me too long to realise it doesn’t work that way. I’m a novice in these matters and I don’t believe I have the required gifts to continue down the path. And yet I can’t leave it alone.
My journey as a musician is plagued by the same doubts and fears. Many would see a lack of commercial success as a message from the cosmos telling you to quit and I’ve walked away a few times but I get dragged back. When I’m feeling philosophical about my commercial failure I see it as an opportunity to keep growing as an artist; I often see artists create something and then settle into a pattern of tautology. I’m consciously trying to avoid that pitfall.
Music and poetry probably mean more to me now than they ever have and I’ve come to realise that as it is with spiritual insight so it is with art: one has to work hard sometimes to get the true value both in the creation and the appreciation of a piece of art. Many of the ideas from these books have fed into the album, no doubt, but I find it hard to be precise about what it is that I’m trying to say, as I’ve already said. I allowed the songs to lead me rather than trying to bend them to my will. As clichéd as it sounds, the amateur psychologist in me can see the references to heavenly bodies throughout the songs are probably metaphors for what’s going on deep inside me.
The artwork for the album is a painting by a Russian artist called Aleksandra Laika, who lives in London. I was walking by my local hospital and glanced at the artworks that they often have hanging near the reception area which one can see from the street and I was immediately struck by the image’s resonance with the album we were creating. As well as the obvious mystical quality of the painting, I was also struck by how one of the figures looks brave, open, muscular and strong while the other looks closed, frightened and weak. I really like that juxtaposition.