Chasing My Tail: An Interview with Mild High Club
"It's less about participating in the scene and the who's who and more about leaving something for myself when I'm old, to say that I did this for the sake of learning and my brain, rather than the sake of going out and selling out."
There are a few bars on "Kokopelli", one of many tracks from Mild High Club's Skiptracing that manages to occupy the middle ground between shadowy noir and neon psychedelic grooves (for a visual depiction of this look no further than the album cover), which perfectly sum up what motivates his craft. Artists may muse on a seemingly endless number of topics, but it isn't that often that someone simply expresses a love for what they do so explicitly and broadly, free of genre signifiers, caveats, and the spoils that come with success.
"Music touches me / When you're choosing / Keep shuffling / Because tuneage beats suffering," Alex Brettin sings slyly, warbling ever so slightly on the vowels in "music" and "choosing."
Skiptracing is a record that could only be made by someone with the kind of musical appreciation that Brettin demonstrates. The songs are lush and dreamy, with just a hint of the occult; the album could double as a fitting soundtrack for Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Inherent Vice. The songs are rich and diverse, a blend of Mac DeMarco style melodies and laggard hooks with the instrumental diversity of Andrew Bird. There's an easygoing charm to much of the record, and a listener without a lot of formal knowledge might take Mild High Club's latest project as a pleasant, vaguely surreal trip back in time. Those in the know, however, will find smart interpolations and riffs on jazz concepts that belie the pseudo-slacker reputation that comes with the DeMarco association and reveal Brettin's extensive theory background and deep musical knowledge.
"I guess I've poisoned my own well in training because I want to understand more and write songs that I hear down without my instruments," he explains on the phone while noodling on the guitar, the occasional note lingering like audible punctuation. "Music education put me in a place where it's so much easier now to spot when people are recreating the past in a way that isn't quite challenging them."
Despite a strong foothold in the '60s and '70s and a level of musical knowledge that has grown increasingly uncommon, Brettin makes sure that his music isn't simply about longing to go back. He told AXS.com that his first record, Timeline, was a collection of thoughts related to being part of the last generation to know what it's like to be raised without the Internet and therefore not assaulted by content. For his new album, he has a similarly erudite goal.
"I think the point of Skiptracing was to highlight the post-modern era of being a songwriter in 2016," he notes. "It's very bizarre to be making revivalist music after it's already been revived once. And to be living between the times and choosing genres and choosing if you're going to be a Joy Division or Smiths type band or a '60s band or the next minimalist producer in the world of hip-hop."
For some artists, that sprawling mission statement would give them license to talk about anything and claim to be staying on topic, but Brettin truly explores the idea of what creating music means today. With his outsider's perspective, there's a certain endearing waywardness to Brettin's tunes, and it's fascinating to hear a singer dive into the significance of creating music without the distractions of the associated lifestyle.
"This tonality / Doesn't disagree / Ought to be chromatically pleasing me / All that I want is some good loving / Musical thoughts / I got to see / Learn this history / Pull another record from your sleeve," he sings on the title track's hook, delving deeper into theory than most listeners are used to hearing on a record this pretty.
Brettin has name-checked Miles Davis and Steely Dan as influences on Skiptracing, but he's also quick to point out that romanticizing the past too much can be creatively stifling. He jokes about peers who never moved past the two or three note power chords they grew up practicing in the garage but makes sure to note the importance of traditional rock. His task isn't to change anyone else's musical appreciation or awareness, just heighten his own.
"There's definitely some merit in nostalgia, but for me, there's more merit in actual deep musical understanding," he says. "For me, it's all about pushing the boundaries of what I can process in my mind."
When Brettin discusses his musical future, it almost sounds like he hopes to age backward, exploring arcane genres and styles while his contemporaries become more indebted to their DAWs. He says he can see himself doing "big band and orchestral shit" five years in the future.
"There's something that's changed in pop music and I don't know if it has to do with education or if people just aren't really that into jazz harmony, he said. "The way composers are seen today has shifted more towards the production end and people who are savvier with technology rather than theoretical knowledge."
Skiptracing has the otherworldly sound of an album that will be cited by the next generation of left-field musicians as they construct their own identities, but Brettin maintains that his motivation to creating vibrant, complex tunes is purely internal.
"It's less about participating in the scene and the who's who and more about leaving something for myself when I'm old, to say that I did this for the sake of learning and my brain, rather than the sake of going out and selling out," he explains.