Mikey Brown (Outside In) - interview,
One of the most exciting progressive bands to come out of Aotearoa in recent years is Outside In, a band I first came across when they signed to AAA Records, a local label for which I write many of the press releases. I worked with singer Mikey Brown to pull together information for the release of their amazing debut album, ‘Karmatrain’, and to assist with the publicity. Now here we are later in the year, I was lucky enough to see them play a few months ago and am going again on Saturday, which led me think it was probably time to ask the question...
Kevin Rowland: Who, what and when is Mikey Brown?
Mikey Brown: Sometimes I wonder about that myself. As of right now, I am a dad to two young kids, I run a small print and graphic design business and am looking to start a small design agency by the end of this year. Being my own boss has always been appealing but I had never really actually decided to be a business owner. The previous owner of Pronto Print, who I was working for at the time, decided to sell up and the opportunity seemed far too good to pass up. Now, 10 years later, I'm still running the shop. Surreal. I’m a busy guy trying to give my absolute all to the kids, and music, all while trying to keep the business turning over nicely. I try to stay fit, particularly now I have children, and exercise and stretch every single day to stay sane. I have become more and more a routine person over the last few years. I am prone to getting depressed and anxious sometimes, so the routine helps me manage the ups and downs. I don’t drink that much at all as of this year, I’ve had more time off than on. I try to meditate and do my vocal exercises daily as well. I’m sitting on the exercise bike as I’m typing this while my family sleeps. Does that give enough info? I could also mention how left leaning I am politically, but I tend to avoid that conversation these days...although recent polls…
KR: What are your earliest musical memories, and how did you first become involved in music?
MB: I started playing the piano at age 5 after my interest in playing was encouraged by mum. I had my Gran’s leather bag with her initials embossed on it, to hold my sheet music in and I was off once a week to learn piano at a lady’s house, which weirdly, was the house my best friend lived in years earlier.
I never really had the drive to do the exams as a kid. Something I regret now as an adult. My lessons were sporadic as I went through high school, I took music as a subject and only scraped through. I remember my piano teacher getting really fed up with me when I was around 14 or 15 years old for not practicing. When I was around 13, I befriended Fyfe, who introduced me to playing guitar, which I was very excited about. He taught me a few chords and songs, and I started teaching myself to play and sing (badly). I was raised in a Christian home and even dabbled in playing guitar for the church band a few times, but really this was just an excuse to play. I have realised that Christianity isn’t for me and have more of an affinity with Buddhist practices. I had a band throughout high school and was bullied accordingly. I still managed to maintain some confidence in spite of being bullied often (and bullying others on occasion as well!) We played the RockQuest (Kev note: Smokefree Rockquest is a famous NZ youth band competition which over the years has been a launching point for many famous acts such as Anika Moa, Alien Weaponry, Broods, Leroy Clampitt, Kimbra, Aaradhna, Opshop, Evermore, Ladyhawke, Kids of 88, Die!Die!Die!, Joel Little, Tiny Ruins, Marlon Williams, Brooke Fraser, Chelsea Jade, Nadia Reid, Aldous Harding, Steriogram, Phoenix Foundation, Devilskin, The Black Seeds, Bic Runga, and The Naked and Famous), plus a few parties along the way and had an absolute blast. Being musically naive was actually so freeing! When I left school, I joined a band called Graham. We had started making a name for ourselves, but I was eventually asked to leave for having too much of an affinity to smoking pot (guitarist’s daddy was a policeman) and for being “too mainstream” musically. This was a massive blow to my previously pretty good self-esteem. My confidence was really shattered.
This was years after high school and I ended up calling one of the high school bullies up, as he was an epic drummer and a good source of weed. We started a band called Crash-Test for Favourite Things and became really great friends. I would say these were my musical development years. The band were still pretty musically naive, but we had the creative spark and wrote some creative songs. We ended up playing at the Dog’s Bollix a lot and I became good friends with the sound guy - Angel. It turned out that Angel was a musical guru. I took Angel on as a musical mentor during this time and had some piano lessons and vocal support as well as having his input on our recordings, helping with writing a few parts and playing bass on one EP. I improved musically enough to hear my shortcomings more clearly and my confidence continued to wane, although at least I was learning lots about musical discipline.
I remember being at high school and convincing the music teacher that a lunchtime concert for our band would be a good idea. We got stuff chucked at us as we played, and the odd kid would yell lyrics at me from around the place...what a bloody time.
KR: What led to the formation of Outside In?
MB: Jonnie and I were working with a new bassist and drummer under our previous band’s name Crash-Test For Favourite Things. I was the only founding member left, although Jonnie had put a few years into that band by now as well. The new bassist and drummer were pushing to relaunch as a new band, and Jonnie and I agreed it was time. We went through lyrics of a few of our songs looking for name ideas. I had been interested in Buddhism for a couple of years and had been dabbling with a few Buddhist ideas in a couple of songs. We had a song called “Break In”, with a line “Through trial we win, through suffering life begins, the outside is in.” This ended up being the line that we lifted the name “outside in” from and also kind of became almost the band's mission statement going forward.
Over time band members came and went and eventually we ended up with Adam Tobeck playing drums and Adam Willis playing bass, with me and Jonnie playing guitars and keyboards. We produced an E.P. – ‘The Nature of Dreams’ which was a more piano-driven E.P. with the main structures and chord progressions written by me for most tracks, except the standout tune from that disc, “Sophie's Ghost” which was written entirely by Jonnie. The E.P. was a challenge to write and record in many ways, as me and Jonnie were still learning how to work together as a writing team. There were signs of some real musical chemistry and we occasionally found some really exciting middle ground with writing together. The downside was that we would argue as we were both also developing our individual songwriting abilities and attachments to our own ideas.
By the time the E.P. was finally done, we were clashing more and more. We released the E.P. and did a few out of town shows which went well, but Jonnie and I were still clashing, and we ended up stopping working together for a few years. When struggling to develop demos for the Outside In album, things weren’t progressing as well as I’d hoped, and I decided to share one track with Jonnie and get his input. I sent him the piano/vocal demo I had been working on for “The Garden of Light”. What he came back with was a full-blown prog-rock arrangement of the idea! The band and I were very excited by this and decided to get Jonnie back on board to help get the album happening. It appeared there was still some really strong musical chemistry between Jonnie and I, and we immediately started work on the album tracks.
Writing an album is a long process, and not all musicians actually have the patience and enthusiasm to stay on board. A few players we had been working with came and went during the album writing process. Some players, despite their chops, do not have the patience to play the long game when it comes to writing, or are too used to being session guys to be enthusiastic about writing parts and developing them as a group. This meant that we were once again on the search for a second guitarist. Fortunately, Elliot had joined on bass by this point and suggested his good friend Joe would be a good musical fit. He was perfect. At last the band was complete and could focus on finishing the album.
Adam is a graduate of the University Of Auckland jazz program. Since finishing his studies in 2011 he has played with and recorded for a number of different bands & artists such as Batucada Sound Machine, Jesse Sheehan, Lydia Cole, Outside in, Bespin, Nomad, Nathan Haines, Mae Valley, Dixon Nacey, Jeremy Redmore, Alan Brown, Eden Mulholland, Sam Allen, Tommy Nee, Sal Valentine & The Babyshakes, Joseph & Maia and more. Adam toured with The Beths on their US tour. He has also played on a number of TV and musical theatre shows such as The Jono & Ben Show, X Factor, Dancing With Stars. Theatre shows include Billy Elliot, Tell Me On A Sunday, Lady Sings The Blues and currently Joseph & The Technicolor Dreamcoat. Adam has established himself as a sought-after drummer.
I have always been more of a traditional guitar player but with Outside In, I am trying to push myself to provide the atmosphere. With ‘Karmatrain’, I have been utilising extended chords and jazz voicings, and exploring the soundscape using different effects. I would like to think that it contributes to the musical elements that make Outside In unique and does not overlap especially since we already have such experts in the rhythmic side. I started playing when I was 11. When I first came to NZ and struggled with the language/cultural barrier, the guitar was my outlet and helped me build confidence. My major was music (jazz performance) at Auckland Uni, along with Elliott in the same year, Adam one year above us.
Elliott Seung Il Park
I feel sorry to everyone in Outside In, but I always go for improvising ideas if I have chance. Personally, I think music always sounds different every time I play. But of course, when it needs to, I lay simple bass lines to create tension. My goal for rehearsing is to hear how everyone is playing and create interesting (going for the best!) bass lines for that moment. It was quite hard for me to record each song during the album recording, because there were tonnes of ideas I wanted to try and record but there were limited sections for each song . If it was just another ordinary album recording, I would have just recorded the minimum required simple bass lines, but I don’t know, I guess I was passionate for my band. I started playing bass in 2004: I was a kid who was interested in playing in a church band and deciding which instruments to play. Guitars and drums caught my attention, however my mum and older sister persuaded me to play bass, because it was less competitive and looked easier to play (4 strings). In the end I fell in love practicing and playing bass until now! I came to NZ in 2002. All these green environments were very new to me because I used to live in Seoul where it was city- building based. My first impression of mince pie was so bad, but it became my one of my favourite junk foods here in NZ. I studied jazz at the University of Auckland. I do have to say, it was the first time that I had to train a lot of different styles of jazz music and I felt it was very difficult for a few years! I do not regret studying music though, I would recommend studying music professionally because studying music definitely opened my thoughts about appreciating every kind of music that has been out in the world. One of my best decisions in my entire life . I am in several tribute bands, the Chillies, INXS, and a few cover bands including pop (groovin!) and rock. I am also involved with jazz projects and working as a session musician also!
After about a year of constant hounding, Dad finally let in and bought me a 4-track tape recorder - the Tascam 414! It was probably helped by me blowing the input channel on his HiFi system. Finally, I could record more than just one guitar line. This was my first introduction into arranging. Soon enough an obsession ensued, and I have not looked back. Fast forward 20 something years and I’m still sitting in my studio on a Friday night arranging music. Realising the inter relationship between different timbres and tones is probably the most satisfying thing anyone could do. Sound design is truly an endless journey. Ultimately these compositions form the basis of our songs. Each member’s interpretation or rewriting of the initial idea takes our material far beyond my expectations or anything that I could have created solely. I am privileged to work with such skilled and creative musicians. I was gifted an old hacked up ESP from a family friend when I was 11 years old. Nick showed me a couple of chords and basic blues licks each time he would come and visit. Eventually I began to learn by ear, playing along at full volume to bands like Offspring and Pennywise.
KR: ‘Karmatrain’ has been incredibly well received within the prog scene, please talk us through the album.
MB: It is a strange feeling. I think getting any recognition for us has been so incremental that it is easy to not appreciate how far we have come. We are still small time compared to the artists we would love to align ourselves with. We have a lifetime of writing and releasing to get on with, yet we have definitely grown and progressed compared to say, where we were before we started releasing singles and music videos towards this album. I am learning to be more mindful of feeling gratitude for any development. It is easy to be so ultimate goal focussed that you miss the small milestones adding up.
A few snapshots from my point of view towards writing the album.
A few of the songs started as an idea I had written on acoustic guitar – “Pass On The Flag”, “The Lake”, “Let Me Go”. I wrote the “Blue Dragon” chord progression on the piano.
For the song “Mushrooms”, I remember I wagged work with the intention of writing a song. I took some shrooms a friend had pulled out of the depths of his freezer for me to try to start the day off. I wrote the whole song through in one sitting. It is the only song on the album written straight through like that. I remember this Chewbacca pop vinyl on my desk, and it was just staring at me with gritted teeth, bobbing to the song as I was recording the guitar. It was intense but with it. I realise now that he was spurring me on, I was afraid to stop the writing process and disappoint him. Thanks Chewie, I owe you one.
The oldest song on the album is “The Lake”. I first read Siddhartha some 10 years ago while on holiday with my wife’s family in Nice. That song has had a couple of incarnations but has essentially stayed close the same since its inception. When I wrote “The Lake” I had no idea it would later be a part of a concept album of a similar theme!
KR: Can you also describe the deluxe version of the album – why did you feel the need to make that available? It is very different indeed to what I have ever seen from any unknown band
MB: We love artists who put emphasis on the accompanying artwork, stories, behind the scenes footage and easter eggs hidden throughout their art. It is fun as a fan to discover things in our favourite band’s albums. It is even more fun putting things in the music as an artist for our friends to discover. Our label is big on releasing the album on vinyl and we saw it as an opportunity to add another layer of artwork, photos and ideas to the presentation of the album. Because our album is just over an hour, the release needs to be across 2 vinyls to hold the music in the highest quality. This has made the production costs quite high for us, so we are running a pre-sale campaign for the vinyl. The first 100 people to purchase a pre-sale get their names printed on the inside of the album sleeve as a way for us to thank them for helping us to fund this vinyl release. We have also added a bonus, unreleased track, to the vinyl release.
Throughout the album's development I have worked closely with New Zealand photographer and special friend Jame Fyfe. James’ photos form the visual aesthetic for the album, with his photo for the covers, James and I also selected from his collection, a photo to represent each song on the album. These are available as a set of postcards with the lyrics on them in a special display box from our Bandcamp. Just like our songs have melodies and hooks that become more obvious after multiple listens, there are meanings in the lyrics and themes throughout the visual and lyrical imagery of the album to be discovered for fans that want to dig a bit. Being able to offer some physical options to support that notion was important to me. It is cool to give people some visual suggestions to go along with the music and sounds.
KR: How would you describe Outside In to someone who has not previously come across you, and what are you trying to achieve?
MB: Outside In is musically familiar with some catchy elements, but still has a fresh new vibe thanks to the use of interesting times, colourful chord progressions and non-traditional song structures. The band is dynamic. The sympathetic playing from the rhythm section is the perfect swelling ocean to carry the hooks and melodies and textures of the guitars, allowing the band to lift the sometimes soaring, epic vocal crescendos across the pulsing ocean of the band beneath.
KR: Tell us about the theatre project?
MB: We are currently on a pretty special show for the ‘Karmatrain’ album. This will be a seated show in a theatre. The goal is to make a multi-faceted show, incorporating visuals, scene changes, dance, a choir, costume, and some live readings of passages from the novel Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse which inspired the album. We will be utilising our record label’s partner company Luma Audio Visual to help us with live production elements including their huge LED screens, so we can create some real scene changes and help to deliver the stories of the songs in a much more layered way. This will be the full experience of the ‘Karmatrain’ album story.
As the album takes elements and themes from the novel SIDDHARTHA by Hermann Hesse, we wanted to devise a performance with more enhanced visual storytelling concepts than you would expect from a traditional band gig in order to outline the unique approach of the albums concept and to make a show that is memorable to its audience. The plan is to have this take place in a theatre or similar venue where the audience are seated. This would allow them to be taken on a musical and visual journey where they can really listen to the lyrics of the songs which will be supported by a mix of video and live visual elements such as dance, movement, and some character performance (non-dialogue). There will also be readings from the novel itself between songs to tie the show together. At times, the band themselves will be immersed in the theatrics onstage while they are playing.
It is important to note this is NOT a theatre show or a “play” with a script and narrative. It is best to think of it is a series of “live” music videos that are linked by some small passages of text from the book that inspired the album. During each song performance, what happens both on stage and on screen will reinforce the ideas and themes of the lyrics in the song creating a more effective and engrossing experience for the audience. At its core, this is a band gig, but by creating visual and theatrical elements to support the themes of each song, as well as the addition and use of a choir and dance choreography, we hope to make this a more memorable and theatrical experience for the audience that’s stays with them long after the show is over.
We have Crescendo Trust interested in being involved. Crescendo is a visionary, unique and professional social enterprise that grows a community of young people by giving them access to careers and opportunities within the creative arts. We will utilise these guys as stagehands and for production help as well as potentially for characters in certain songs.
KR: What is next for Outside In?
MB: We are working on festival slots for 2021 and also approaching a bunch of bands slightly higher up the food chain than us for support slots. Once the borders re-open we will be really pushing the international opening slot envelope too. We just need to play some shows and let people hear ‘Karmatrain’ live. We are writing album two at the moment as well. Jonnie has already put together about 15 demos or ideas for songs, and I am currently chipping away at melodies, lyrics, and themes for them all. I also need to write some songs from scratch to contribute to the album, so it is a nice blend of jonnie and my ideas, which is what makes outside in unique. Our ideas, compromises, and tensions between us as songwriters. Usually summer holidays camping is when I do my best writing, and that is right around the corner now. We’ve set ourselves a deadline to be ready to record the second album by May 2021.
KR:The important question to end this all of is just to ask, why do you wear a dressing gown on stage?
MB: Because I am tired, and I want to be ready for bed as soon as I get home.
KR: Lastly, where can people find out more and hear your music?
MB: If you want to interact with me directly, Instagram is the best place to do that. If you want to absorb all our visual content best to visit us on YouTube. Facebook is our central hub for everything, and of course if you want to listen and buy physical copies of the album or t-shirts, Bandcamp is your best bet. If you want to discuss the philosophies of the album with other outside in fanatics, our Facebook group “Outside In Nerds” is a good place to begin!
The press shots are by Jonnie Bernard, the live shots are by Ginny C Photography.