the AU interview: Michael Shuman of Mini Mansions talks the new LP, working at Vox Studios & personal songwriting.

Photo: Neil Krug

After branching out from his work as Queens Of The Stone Age bassist, Michael Shuman has gone on to perform with his band Mini Mansions around the world. They are now about to play Austin Psych Fest and a few gigs with Tame Impala. Having just released their second album The Great Pretenders, Shuman talks to us about translating the 9/10 NME-rated album into live shows, collaborating with Brian Wilson, and writing more honestly.

What are some Australian bands or musicians that you’re digging at the moment?

I really am thoroughly enjoying the new Tame Impala songs I’ve heard so as far as that goes, love them. Kimbra‘s not Australian, but she’s a good friend of ours and she’s close to being Australian and Australians like her a lot. And I was always a big fan of that band The Drones. Who else Australian? AC/DC – I just saw at Coachella which was amazing, but then I also found out that they’re not really Australian. They’re Scottish. So I’m striking out on Australians.

Have you spent much time with the Tame Impala boys before?

I’ve hung out with the Tame guys before, I met them at this Swiss festival a couple of years ago [when] Queens and them were playing, and we hung out. And then we became good friends. I mean, most of the guys live in Australia so it’s hard to see those guys ever but Cam, the bass player who’s also in The Growl and Pond, he lives in LA so we’ve become very tight and we see them all the time.

How does it work recording an album when all members of Mini Mansions are multi-talented instrumentally?

Yeah, we all do play different stuff. I guess there are certain things we play, even though everyone can play everything. I end up playing all the drums on the record and I play all the guitar on the record. Tyler [Parkford] is a great guitar player too but it’s just if I wrote that stuff, I’ve just been accustomed to playing it, so I end up doing it. Zach [Dawes] plays all the bass on the record and Tyler plays all the keyboards on the record and then the percussion, we’ll do together – Zach will play the vibes and I’ll play the glockenspiel and we’ll mix four different things and there’s no rules. If someone has an idea, go for it.

Can you tell me some of the instrumental production parts of the album?

On something like “The End”, it’s my drums without a snare on and there’s bongos and all kinds of percussion on that. I did timpani stuff. It’s a free-for-all though and we’re lucky that we recorded in this studio called Vox; this guy Woody Jackson owns it and he has the best collection of vintage instruments in the world and it’s insane. Anything you want, any pedal you want, it’s all there. And all the weirdest shit too, you know. It’s a big free-for-all and we got to experiment a lot.

The Great Pretenders has not yet been out for a month, are there any songs off the album that you’re most excited to play live or see the audience’s reaction?

I really like playing “Freakout” a lot, it’s a head-bopper and it’s fun for an audience.

I just love the transition from “Honey I’m Home” into “Mirror Mountain”, it sounds like you’re surprising a live audience with their favourite track. How are you thinking of translating the album into a live performance?

Yeah, we’ve been playing that live and we play those songs back-to-back because that’s the way we wrote them, to be like that. There’s not even an option not to do that; we’ve never played “Mirror Mountain” without “Honey I’m Home” before it and we’ve never played “Honey I’m Home” without “Mirror Mountain”. So that’s probably what we’ll stay true to.

There’s songs like “The End”… we haven’t even touched on it yet, we haven’t even played it live since we made the record because right now, we’re supporting and for the most part, no one wants to hear a five-minute slow ballad. You know what I mean? So for the most part, we’re playing the songs we feel are most comfortable for us and for someone who’s never seen us before to enjoy and dance to and bop your head to.

What is the value of getting the big old guns like Brian Wilson to perform on a contemporary album? (He sings on a Mini Mansions track “Any Emotions”)

The value is…expensive.

I mean it’s one of those things that now that it’s done and it’s on something that we’ll have forever, you know on our record, you pinch yourself every day. Because that’s amazing and we grew up with him, he’s a huge inspiration for how we write our vocals and do our harmonies and sing. He;s a big part of how we developed as artists. So that’s number one. Also, I can’t imagine our song “Any Emotions” without him on it. I mean it wasn’t like he phoned it in. I’ve heard stuff like that and big parts where that happens, but what I’m really proud about what he did and what Alex did on the record. They cared about it a lot and did a great job and I think it helps that song, it just gives it some other kind of wings – it helps it expand it a little bit, having that other vocal sound and timbre to his voice. It needs that. Otherwise we’d always wanted backup vocals, but obviously we didn’t know it was going to be Brian Wilson in the end.

Mini Mansions had a solid European/mostly UK fanbase before the release of this album: how do they differ from American audiences?

It’s just a different vibe, I think. Culturally, it is different, there’s no doubt about it. They tend to get more drunk at shows I’ve noticed [in the UK] and also I think because we have more fans over there and maybe they appreciate the music more in Europe, the shows just seem better. I don’t think it’s necessarily because they’re better, I think we have more fans there. I mean, we love playing to our fans in the US but it’s been tough for us in the US; it’s been hard to get journalists to write about us. And I don’t know why, but I think that we’re going to go where people appreciate us and want to hear our music.

Well I don’t know if you get told over there but we hear “Vertigo” on our alternative radio station triple j almost every day.

Oh yeah, we’re really appreciative of that too and trust me, I really want to be in Australia.

Are your songs written from the perspective of a character, or is there something more personal to them?

This record compared to the first one, it’s definitely personal and I wouldn’t say that every song is like that but speaking for myself, all those songs are completely about me and they’re very vulnerable. Now every word I use, a certain amount of people won’t know what I’m talking about, but it’s all very real and that’s different for us, it’s different for me. I didn’t expect to do it but once we were actually making the record, it felt like the right thing to do – to try and be honest. And maybe I’ve just been having more real feelings now. Who knows, maybe I was just dumbing it down before. And now I’m not.

Where or when would you prescribe an ideal time or place for listening to your album?

I would say night driving in Los Angeles. The only reason I’d say that is because that’s the way most of the ideas came and the way we listened to it when we were making it. That’s how I listen to music: I get in my car, I drive, I turn it up loud and I like to listen at night and even if I have nowhere to go, I just drive. And that’s just me being selfish and what you should do, but not everyone can do that.

What are you guys working on further into 2015?

I’m looking forward to trying to get more fans. We’re going to tour non-stop no matter what. But I would love to have more people be part of the Mini Mansions crew and try to understand what we’re doing.

The Great Pretenders is out now through Capitol Records/Caroline Australia.

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