Getting the Poison-to-Punch Ratio Just Right: Mini Mansions Steps Into the Limelight

Mini Mansions discusses the band's current/future efforts, the sometimes-arduous process of writing compelling lyrics, and the intimate interrelationship they maintain to pop, music, and the wider culture of major-label work.
Mini Mansions
The Great Pretenders

A fairly unconventional power trio, Los Angeles’s Mini Mansions are oft billed as psychedelic pop music. Unconventional in that the band has not one, but three “front men” — vocalist and keyboardist Tyler Parkford, percussionist Michael Shuman, and bassist Zach Dawes. Unconventional in that there is no “lead guitar”, per se, with most of the guitar being played as either keyboard lines or octaves on bass guitar. Unconventional in that the band takes a polished, layered, refined approach to much of their sound, rather then a lo-fi garage ethos that so permeates younger bands in many of the genres Mini Mansions chooses to graze. Neither bogged down with gain or Auto-Tuned into oblivion, these popster gangsters deftly sonically prove they’ve got the moxy to mingle.

The band came into being when Queens of the Stone Age bassist Shuman was on a year-long furlough, following Queens’s completion of the Era Vulgaris touring cycle. Shuman wanted to stay busy, but desired a break from all of the “loud”, envisioning a pop rock band with no limitations. Enlisting two of his friends, studio session ace Dawes whom he’d known since grade school, and Mr. Goodnite main man Parkford whom he’d met through Dawes while in college, Shuman quickly saw efforts beginning to pay off. The band’s eponymous full-length debut was released in 2009 on Joshua Homme’s Rekords Rekords, and a short European tour followed. Dawes worked as a session musician for many of T Bone Burnett’s projects in the intervening years, and this connection proved vital. Mini Mansions’s second full-length effort, The Great Pretenders, was released in March 2015 as the inaugural disc on Burnett’s Electromagnetic Recordings, a new imprint for Capitol Records. Mini Mansions suddenly found itself a more cohesive and collaborative unit in a position of power: a band with a major label backing, A-list guest recording artists like Brian Wilson (the Beach Boys) and Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys), and an extensive supporting tour schedule selling out quickly.

Mini Mansions takes inspiration from Elliott Smith, Nick Cave, ELO, Brian Wilson, the Beatles, and a host of other heavyweights from traditional pop music of the 1960s through 1970s. As a band who’s signature style is still under development, six years between albums has brought maturity and focus. Parkford eloquently discusses music, the band, The Great Pretenders, censorship and culture, darkness, and inspiration.

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You guys are in a position to be (like) Rush or ZZ Top, if you keep the lineup stable. What quirks and angles are each of you adding to the Mini Mansions mix?

That’s funny. I was just blasting Rush on the freeway the other day to give it a second chance, and it turns out I still can’t hang. I think Yes blows them out of the ocean. Oh yeah, the question. I don’t think any of us have a consistent signature “hustle.” Michael writes just as much twisted pop as I do. We just swap a lot of hats, depending on what the material requires.

Why pop music? You could have sidestepped ‘loud’ and gone in, say, a Brian Eno ambient electronic direction just as easily. Is it because pop’s ingrained into your writing or listening minds? How has consuming pop music influenced you as creators?

Pop is just a big magic trick to me. It’s a way to make a condensed hybrid of literally every genre and weirdo sub genre that I love. I think even Brian Eno is pop – it’s just more of an acquired taste, since it’s so far out and intellectualized. I guess on that note, I don’t listen to modern pop for inspiration. Nine times out of ten, it’s completely uninspiring. I just use “pop” (whatever the fuck that really means) to trick people into experiencing something that’s out of the their normal day-to-day. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there that will never listen to Eno unless you douse nine layers of chocolate over Another Green World. That’s why cults use punch right? But the poison-to-punch ratio has to be just right, otherwise it’s pointless. That’s why most pop music, to me, just sounds like a hollow degradation of the human experience… soul-sucking clones of clones of clones, all spawned from a few original one-hit-wonder ancestors that never wanted to have children in the first place. Had to get that off my chest. Thankfully we’re not soul-suckers, just suckers for pop.

A lot of work went into the vocals, with a few different producers taking the reins. Was the most time spent recording, used for working on vocals, or the other facets of the music? There’s a lot going on, and a lot to absorb, as a listener. It sounds pretty complex.

What really ate up most our time was just writing those crazy songs. So when it came time to record, most of the elaborate detailing of each piece had been worked out. We really just needed to work with equally eccentric people that could shine a light on all the nuances, without losing scope of the bigger picture.

How long did it take to write the lyrics? Is it more difficult to write lyrics, or to compose music?

I don’t know; it’s hard to say. I can only speak for myself. Some songs took less than a day to write, like “Death Is a Girl”. Others took months to really find the perfect fit, like “Fantasy” and “The End”. The hardest part for me is writing material that is both meaningful and phonetically interesting. Like, if a listener doesn’t speak a word of English, the rhythmic pulse of each consonant and the character of each vowel should still resonate with them somehow. I think the Rolling Stones called that “vowel movements”.

You nail existential depression in “Honey, I’m Home”. How dark those nights can be. The music doesn’t necessarily mesh with the lyrics – those melody lines don’t sound like the depths of despair — and that contrast is invigorating. Have you incorporated contrast into the music to lyric mesh deliberately?

Contrast is everything to me. It’s the only way I can navigate through the in-betweens, or warp the song’s own sense of identity. Like artificial intelligence. That’s what really pushes me through it.

You mentioned how you’ve “chosen” your lyrics pretty carefully. What does “space” connote and mean to you?

Space: the distance between two sung words to create a sense of endlessness or, in some cases, suspense. Sometimes when this distance is lengthened, the listener’s awareness of the moment is heightened, allowing him/her to further contemplate the words of the past to the sound of the present.

The Great Pretenders. You guys have mentioned in the past that there’s more to the album’s title then just a witty phrase. That you’ve sort of identified with it. Who or what are you pretending to be? Or is it… a state of being, like “put your game face on,” or “be a diplomat”, no matter how cruddy you feel that day?

I don’t know. It’s like if Nostradamus revealed the name of your future unborn child… the words just felt bigger than even our own unclear understanding of why we gravitated towards it. All I can say definitively is that the tone of the record felt like a cast of fictional characters in an unwritten play, which we titled The Great Pretenders.

Mini Mansions has an explicit tag on Amazon and Spotify, but death metal band Deicide does not. (laughs) What kind of world is this, where basically benign California dark pop music is seen as less kid- or family-friendly then rabid anti-Christian death metal?! One little swear word in “Double Visions” landed you guys in the bad boy bunch. Was that a planned move, or accidental? Have you felt any repercussions?

Yeah, there was no way of getting out of that. I even tried to argue that “fucking” was used as a verb and not a gratuitous adverb. The whole “explicit” indicator is pretty ridiculous and archaic; we just got unlucky. A lot of the protocol for labels (especially majors) really hasn’t changed since the ’90’s. They must still get sued a lot for that kind-of stupid shit. If it deterred anyone from listening, then I’m glad they’ve stayed true to preserving their purity.

So, you’re actually three gangsters disguised in loud suits… Why Alex Turner for the “Vertigo” cameo? His part has been described as “thug,” but he sounds more like a modern day crooner then someone you’d avoid in a dark alley. Has his involvement overshadowed the band, or helped push its message into more ears?

It’s definitely put that song into a lot of heads that normally wouldn’t have known of it’s existence. So yeah, it broadened the scope, or it’s appeal, but that was never the intention. He’s just a good homie of ours, and his skeez just fit perfectly for what the song needed.

Speaking of shadows — not to ignore the gorilla in the corner. Are people (at least the music press, who seemed the most guilty of applying the dreaded “side project” label) beginning to realize that Mini Mansions isn’t Queens of the Stone Age 2.0? Are you guys finally being allowed to free-fly; a band to be enjoyed on its own merits?

Who knows? We just make records that we want to hear; how it’s received and framed by people is totally out of our hands. I think the further we push, the more people separate it from it’s big Q affiliations altogether. It’s always been a totally different animal to all of us.

When artistic freedom and merit meet censorship, 2015 edition: You’re baiting ’em with the visual aspect of your art, too. Who came up with the concept for the “Vertigo” video?

Our friend Jesus Riveira (the director) wrote this insane treatment, paying homage to all our favorite Giallo flicks and Euro-trash horror films from the ’70s. You can’t really pull that aesthetic off without a weird mix of explicit nudity and implicit violence… with a heavy dose of that shameless ’70s male gaze. It’s romantically ‘not safe for work’.

Did you actually end up making a full video for every song on “The Great Pretenders”? It seems natural, with two-thirds of the band having the film school background, but it’s still a huge, ambitious undertaking.

Yeah, it wasn’t necessarily taxing trying to make videos for every song, but it was pretty overwhelming trying to make each video stand alone. We’ll be sprinkling those around forever.

This is obvious. You’ve put your 10,000 hours in. When did you begin playing piano, and how much formal training do you have?

I studied classical piano all the way up to high school, then I dropped it for years because I hated it, and knew I couldn’t start a punk band or get girls to like me without a guitar. So I played guitar for years in punk bands and janky projects, then got sucked back into piano when I realized it was the perfect instrument for me to write with.

Can we talk touring? You’ve had a heck of a year: full tour “legs” with Royal Blood, Tame Impala, Arctic Monkeys, and others. Do you feel that each band was a good match? As in, the audience could appreciate both acts?

It’s kind of hard to find a good match for us, since our set is somewhat off-kilter, but Tame Impala was the closest in my opinion. Just a more wacky psych crowd.

You mentioned touring for a year and then writing a new album. Is that still accurate? Are you planning on reworking the The Great Pretenders b-sides, or start fresh?

Those The Great Pretenders b-sides are in the vaults for now. We’re already writing new songs, in between touring, for another release that we’re already planning.

Inspire us perhaps: as ‘rising stars’, through this daily grind, how do you stay motivated?

I don’t know what I’d say to ‘rising stars’, because I’m not – and never wanted to be – one. The only thing that makes me happy is writing music, even if it’s just for one person to hear. If you take away the tours, the record labels, and the transcontinental email interviews, I’m just as happy (if not happier) to be alone in my room with a microphone. It’s something I have to do, to keep me connected to not my life, but (to) life in general. Otherwise, I’d completely eliminate myself from this world, or do something equally as stupid. So there’s no motivation involved; it’s just a necessity.

Okay, what’s next for Mini Mansions?

Well, this next Mini Mansions record that we’re writing is the next phase, and lots of touring in between those writing sessions.