Curtain Speech: An Interview with DM Stith

David Michael Stith is a quiet, modest musician of Swedish descent. The Asthmatic Kitty-signed artist was always a musician by habit, but the idea of performing professionally in the music industry didn’t strike him until friend and now labelmate Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) encouraged him to experiment with recording. Two years, five EPs, and two albums later, DM Stith is a coveted act in the indie world, playing frighteningly delicate songs to international crowds. He most recently finished a European tour with Sufjan Stevens.

PopMatters caught up with Stith before his show in Berlin. The artist spoke about his music and life in the industry.

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Heavy Ghost came out in 2009 along with a handful of EPs. That was a busy year for you. How have things been going since then?

It’s funny, I feel like I haven’t had much time to record in the last couple years. When I recorded Heavy Ghost I had never performed live … while in the mixing stages, I played my first show — it was at Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona. Since then, I’ve been doing so much touring that it doesn’t feel like I’ve had much recording time. So it has been a lot of stuff that I’ve released, but I do not feel like it’s a representation of where I am at the moment.

So from what I gather, you kind of kept your music behind the scenes for most of your life — you didn’t want to go public or something — is that right? What changed that?

I wasn’t recording at that point, but I was playing music. I was a visual artist and a writer … I moved to New York at some point and met Shara and Sufjan. Shara gave me some recording software and told me to record without having heard anything I’d done — it was kind of on a whim. It’s weird — it’s not like it was some pent-up thing for me. I was just a shy person and it never occurred to me to record music.

Wow. So you’d been playing music most of your life but had never recorded anything … was it hard to finally put everything down without having had that professional experience?

I took it way too seriously, of course. I’ve always listened to music, so I have opinions about music and how it should sound. I think digital recording made sense to me because I’m a graphic designer, so using a visual representation of the process made a lot of sense. It was kind of like my design programs. It’s a similar language. So Heavy Ghost was almost like a digital painting for me.

What was the process of writing and recording the album? I know you’ve played with a bunch of different people — did they have any part in the process?

No, it was almost entirely by myself in May 2008. I hadn’t involved anyone else until I added a string quartet, Sufjan played piano, Shara sang a little backup, and I added some brass parts. That was it — it was done. With the percussion, I went to a college percussion room where they kept all of the orchestral percussion, and I sat there for weeks and recorded percussion sounds. It was a very private endeavor … no one heard anything for a long time. For the lyrics, I had huge pieces of paper on the wall. I’d wake up in the middle of the night with an idea and I’d run to the wall and write on the paper. So when people would come visit me, they’d go out and come back with food and tell me I’d have to eat. I have really tiny handwriting, so it was just a lot of writing all over the walls.

That must be cool to have those as a part of your work.

Yeah, I’m doing the same thing now. I just moved to a new apartment in Rochester, New York and the same thing is happening again — paper all over the walls.

So you’re in the visual arts as well with graphic designing … how does that fit into your life with music? Have the two always existed simultaneously?

[laughs] Well, not like I’m singing while I’m painting. — I’ve tried that, though! I thought for the longest time that my destiny was to figure out how to use both parts of my mind at the same time, but it doesn’t work for me … they don’t communicate. But yeah, I design for money sometimes, but when I’m doing that, I’m not writing music. For Heavy Ghost, I didn’t do anything visual with the album at all until it was completely mixed and mastered. This time around I have the visual art already done and I’m writing the response to it.

I’m also doing another project which is a little bit more like marrying musical and visual aspects. I play in a band with my friend — it’s called The Revival Hour. It’s a dark, pop project. It’s very visual. We have costumes and music video ideas for every song. It’s like writing music for MTV — or a dream of MTV from 1987.

[laughs] Cool. So the photos on your website — I was curious. Those are photos of … ?

Oh yeah, that’s New Zealand. I toured down there with the Sufjan band and those were shots I took with my iPhone. It’s a dreamland there. Sufjan calls it nature porn.

Sounds pretty accurate. So knowing that music always played a big role in your youth and with your family, who were some of the musicians that your parents played for you when you were young?

Well, my dad is a college and high school band director. The music he brought home with him was not related to that though, because he was the music director at our chuch, too, so he brought home a lot of church music. We went to an Evangelical Wesleyan church. Next to the minister, he was second in command because the music played such an important role. So home music was church music. My dad listened to church cantatas for Easter and Christmas. It was the worst, most dramatic stuff … like nationalistic pride music or something. So that’s what I grew up with and I always hated it, so instead I listened to bands like Nine Inch Nails and other stuff to drown all of that out. So I grew up with most of that and then my dad also loves band music and wind ensemble music … so that was always around our house, too. I think he had some good music in his library, but he never listened to it. So I found that stuff on my own.

Did your parents force you to pursue music at all? Did you take lessons?

Yeah, I took lessons and I guess I was forced, but it was kind. I played piano for three or four years and don’t remember much about it other than exercises. I also played trumpet from sixth grade through high school, and that was the majority of my music education.

So your relationship with Asthmatic Kitty is pretty interesting. Can you talk a little more about that?

Yeah, well I met Shara at an apartment party of hers in New York the first weekend I moved to the city. She was playing some music by Clogs and I said something to her about how I liked their music, and we struck up a conversation and at some point she found out I was a graphic designer. We got to know each other pretty well and she hired me to do some artwork for her first record. From there, I started doing design work Asthmatic Kitty and it was after that that they eventually heard my music. Shara had passed it on to them.

Wow, what a unique story.

Yeah. I’m learning that the music industry is a lot about who you know. I used to be so romantic about it, but it really is a lot about who you know. It’s about learning how to put your energy in the right direction, and you don’t really learn that unless you have the right connections.

So were you first a fan or a friend of Sufjan’s and Shara’s?

Well with Shara, I met her before I saw her perform, so those two things happened at the same time. And with Sufjan, my roommate was the one who said, “You need to listen to Michigan by Sufjan Stevens,” and I had already decided I didn’t like him. I saw him open for Danielson years before and I loved what he played. After the show, I wanted to buy the music he had played (from Michigan), but he hadn’t released it yet, so I bought his first record instead, A Sun Came, and I went back to my dorm and thought it was terrible. I didn’t want to listen to it — I thought it was self-obsessed. The thing is, he had these huge polarized parts of his personality, and they’re balanced now, and things are coming out so clearly, thoughtfully, and beautifully, but that first record had a lot of arguing parts and it was harder to listen to. So I sold that CD and when my friend told me to listen to Michigan, wasn’t so sure, but … then I loved it.

You’re recording with Shara right now, right?

Yeah, she’s working on the new record. It’s amazing — so good. It’s mostly her with a six-or-seven-piece ensemble. The ensemble is on every track … she writes their parts but it really feels like they have developed their own voices. So she had me come in and we wrote a song together, and we also have several duets on the record, and she had me do the choir-vocal thing on a few songs … so that’s what we’re working on together.

And how long have you and Sufjan been playing music together?

The first time it happened for his music was in September, for this tour. I went to New York, and we started rehearsing. I was on tour last summer doing my own thing and he emailed me and asked me to sing with him on his tour. He said, “Don’t just agree because you think it will be cool — it’s gonna be a lot of work! I’m gonna kick your ass!” And so we had long rehearsals — a few days of 14-hour long rehearsals … but that was trying to get everything ready. He was a great leader.

How’s the European reaction to this tour?

Very different. The first few shows in Scandinavia were a bit jarring because the Scandinavian people are more reserved, but they were beautiful venues and we had a good time. Denmark was amazing. Poland was a lot of fun … it’s been great. From our perspective, we’re more focused on our own parts than the audience reaction. We’re adding a lot of new elements all the time — a lot of new costumes, and we’re all getting really good at doing the costume tape.

And how do you feel like the reaction has been to your performance?

It depends on the show. Some days I’m not really feeling it and I think the audience picks up on that, but I’ve had a generous reception. I was surprised by it in the US. People were encouraging and enthusiastic. I’m really skeptical because it’s a one-man show followed by a much bigger show, but people respond really well to it.

What have you learned from Sufjan since you started touring with him in September?

I think because I’m not a trained musician, I didn’t come into this thinking about music in form or register or key, or anything like that. I never thought about it — it comes naturally to me with my songwriting. But the way we’re working on his songs, I have to know the notes I’m playing so that I can communicate with other members. And then, there’s a lot of technical portions of the show that I’ve learned, like pedals and lighting, and I’m learning how to dance. We dance a lot.

Awesome. And now, about stuff aside from tour — I read that there’s an artspace in New York paying tribute to Nick Drake and they’re featuring a song of yours. Can you tell me about that?

Yeah. I was approached to create something that could be presented in the same environment as paintings and sculptures commemorating Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. The curator gained access to the original painting that was done for the cover of Pink Moon, and they asked me to create something that mediated on Nick Drake’s work. So I took “From the Morning”, which is the last song on that album, and I took the lyric “And we rise and we are everywhere” which is actually the epitaph on Nick Drake’s gravestone, and I created a dirge of a major key with 20 layered acoustic guitars and 30 tracks of voice, about nine minutes long. It’s cool. I’ll release it someday, but I really want people to go to the gallery and see the exhibit first.

And post-tour plans? More touring?

No, I’m going to be recording the heck out of things. My writing partner for The Revival Hour will be coming up to my town when I’m back from tour and we’re just going to put up blankets over the windows and record like crazy and finish the record. We’re very close to finishing the record, but we just need to go mix it. We have a 7-inch single coming out this summer.