Mike Bankhead – Anxious Inventions & Fictions (Q&A)

What was the moment you knew you were on to something? 

I was writing songs again right after finishing recording my first album.  I remember thinking that one of them, which I wrote in spring 2017, was the best thing I had ever written.  I’m not sure if I feel that way about that specific song now, because I kept writing, right on through the end of that year, and right on through 2018.  It was near the end of 2018 when the thoughts of what an album might look like began to come together.  

How did this record come together? 

I went to Reel Love Recording Company for a pre-production session with engineer Patrick Himes in February 2019.  I brought 25 songs with me, the best of the ones I had written over the previous two years.  We talked about how to approach recording them… tempo, instrumentation, how each song should feel.  I had the arrangements and ideas mostly thought out already, but the possibilities really began to take shape on that particular day.  As 2019 progressed, I released 5 of the songs that fit together very well on a split album with The Paint Splats called Defacing the Moon. Many of the others are on Anxious Inventions & Fictions.

When did you decide to start asking for opinions on the new songs?  

Sometimes that happens immediately after writing.  There are a couple of people who I’ll send my low-quality home demos to shortly after they are done.  It’s easier for me to ask for opinions once I get something professionally recorded, though.

As an artist, you chose to show your emotions to the world. Is it always comfortable to do so?

It is not. It would probably be better for my mental health to talk these things out with a therapist, but as one of my favorite songwriters here in Dayton says, songwriting is “cheaper than therapy”.  (Your readers from outside of the United States might not have the cultural frame-of-reference for that statement, so I’ll just briefly explain that health care is very very expensive here.)

Any ideas about how to turn this one into a million seller? 

As wonderful as that would be, I don’t think that’s possible.  I don’t write the kind of songs that are currently popular, and the instrumentation and arrangements I choose aren’t currently popular, either.  I like real instruments, not music put together “in the box”.  This is not to disparage that art form, if that’s the genre that someone wants to write for, that’s fine.   There are good pop songs and there are good pop songwriters. It’s just not what I want to do, it’s not how I want to express myself.  Making music with real instruments, recording vocals without using Auto Tune or a ton of other pitch correcting software… those aren’t the “in” things right now.  That said, I know that somewhere on this large planet of billions of people, there is some unknown number of people who would be very much into what I do.  The challenge is to find those specific people, and get their ears on my music.  

You can pick 3 co-writers to write new songs with. Who? … and Why?  

You didn’t specify if these folks have to be alive.  If I’m allowed to select people who have died, it’s Chris Cornell, Jeff Buckley, and Prince.  For the why, those are all great songwriters, and they all had their own unique styles, and didn’t write in the same genre.  That said, they wrote such great songs that you could play them with only an acoustic guitar or only a piano, and the brilliance of the song still shines through.

If I have to limit my selection to only people who are currently living, I’d start with John Legend.  He’s from a town very near me in Ohio, and is a brilliant writer and musician.  Next, Dan Wilson.  He is one of my favorite songwriters, really knows his way around a hook, and has a feel for memorable lyrics.  Third, Carrie Brownstein.  I know she would bring some awesome riffs to the table, and since I am not a guitar player, I don’t often think of writing songs structured around a riff… sometimes I do, but not often.  I’d like to learn from her process.

What’s the gig you will always remember? And why?

The release show for my first album.  First, since I don’t have a band, I don’t play gigs nearly as often as I would like.  If I am going to play a show, I have to recruit musicians from the area, and while people are generally willing, it is somewhat of a challenge when everyone has different schedules due to being in other bands.  That was my first gig backed by a band playing my own music.  It was frightening and cathartic, and it was also the night of the first significant snowfall of winter that year, which will make it impossible to forget.

When was the last time you thought ‘I just wrote a hit!’?  

There aren’t really “hits” anymore in rock music, but there should be.  The last song I had that feeling about was “Promise”.  Strangely enough, that’s the first single I’m releasing from the album.  When I was done with it, I kind of stood back a little bit and tried to imagine it after it was professionally recorded, with all of the layers of guitar that would end up on it.  I remember going back to do a re-write, and making one or two very minor changes, but I thought it was good immediately upon finishing.  That’s not a feeling I have very often.

Is recording a record easier than getting it heard nowadays? 

That is a fantastic question.  My answer is that it depends on your genre.  As you probably know, with the advances of technology, plenty of musicians record at home.  You can make an entire album on a laptop.  When you can do that, the recording part is surely easier than getting people to listen.  Speaking personally however, I don’t have the gear or knowledge to be able to record at home in the genre that I write in.  That being the case, I hire a professional recording engineer to record and mix my music.  That’s a high level of effort.  Despite all that effort, it’s still hard to get ears on the music.  Part of the drawback to there being SO much music available is it’s harder to get heard.  Also, because of recording techniques being more widely available, and because there are plenty of people who can make music in their rooms on a laptop, music is generally devalued by the public.  Many people don’t realize that writing and arranging and recording music is work.  It’s often enjoyable, sure, but it’s work.  What we produce is a work of art,  but we produce a work of art that too many people want to have for free. 

Which 5 records would you bring with you for your stay on Mars? 

If you ask me this same question next week, you’ll get a different answer.  Today’s answer is: OK Computer (Radiohead), Your Body Above Me (Black Lab), Euphoria Mourning (Chris Cornell), Fountains Of Wayne (Fountains Of Wayne), Ohio (Over the Rhine).

Recording music. What’s all the fun about?  

Experiencing an idea becoming reality.  Making something that used to only exist in my head into something that I can share with other people.   

Playing music in front of a crowd. What’s all the fun about? 

Sharing feelings. Sharing art. Connecting with people. Being heard.

Always proud to answer ‘I am a musician’ to the question ‘what are you doing?’?  

Definitely.  That’s probably not always the first answer I think of, but maybe it should be.

You can’t control the way people ‘hear’ your music. But if you could make them aware of certain aspects, you think, set your songs apart. What would they be? 

I do an interview series over on my blog, and that question is so good that I am going to use it.  I hope that’s ok.  I enjoy wordplay.  There are often plays on words in my lyrics.  Sometimes they are subtle.  Sometimes they are not.  As a bass player, I would hope that people listen to the bass in the song first, as I probably give that part of the song more conscious thought than most other songwriters.  This doesn’t mean that the bass line is always brilliant or overwhelming… at the end of the day, you have to serve the song, and if the song is a quiet piano ballad, then the bass shouldn’t be too obtrusive… but since that’s my main instrument, it gets a great deal of focus when I think about arrangements, and I’m always asking the engineer to turn it up in the mix.

Vinyl is back, Spotify is ruling, tickets for concerts are becoming more and more expensive, everybody can record songs, social media is the marketing tool, Coldplay stops touring … how will the music industry look like in 5 years? 

That’s another fantastic question.  I think about this… if someone asked that question in, say, 1987, would anyone have known that compact discs would be the way most music was consumed in 1992?  If I had a way to know if there was going to be a technological breakthrough, I would say that music will move to that particular platform, but I don’t know that.  I’ll say three general things… it will still be very difficult for someone to make their primary living as a musician, artists are going to move their tours to the digital realm and perform online concerts where attendees have to be from a specific region to attend, more songwriters will attempt to make a living by writing custom songs specifically for individuals or organizations upon demand.

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