This year, Lord Echo aka Mike Fabulous, real name Michael August, has released the final album of a trilogy of albums. This latest album, titled ‘Harmonies’, follows ‘Curiosities’ released in November 2013, and ‘Melodies’, which came out at the end of 2010. Aabir Mazumdar talked with him about some of his musical goalposts.
Formerly with The Black Seeds for over 15 years, Mike was exposed to music early in his life. His mother’s large Irish family ensured that singing was always part of the deal. She was also responsible for his first few steps as a musician.
“My mum first taught me to play the ukulele and then guitar when I was about 10 or so,” he remembers, adding that looking back now he understands the value of starting young.
“It’s good learn before you start being concerned about what’s cool and what’s not cool because that can be an obstacle.”
His main instruments are the guitar and bass, but he also dabbles in percussion, keys and drums. Mike studied music at school, going on to study music composition at Victoria University of Wellington for just over a year before dropping out.
“There’s a whole world of sound out there and whether you call it noise or music depends entirely on your perception,” he says, recognising that his brief stint at university exposed him to a lot of music and sound art that he might not have otherwise come across.
During this time, a close family friend with an expansive record collection was also introducing Mike to a wide range of music.
“He lent me his 4-track cassette tape recorder and I started recording my own music and the bands I was in myself. And that’s essentially what I’ve just continued to do.
“That had a huge impact on me. I had that 4-track for quite a few years and released a bunch of albums on my friend’s cassette label.”
The friend he is referring to is the Mysterious Tape Man, Dylan Herkes, of Palmerston North, who runs a label called Stink Magnetic Records.
Growing sick of guitar music he started exploring reggae.
“Then I fell in with the Black Seeds crowd, started playing with them, and then 15 years went by, hahaha”.
His time with The Black Seeds came to an end for a number of reasons, one being that he felt he had been doing the same thing for too long. However, the main reason was that he restlessly felt the compulsion to take a risk, jump into the unknown and continue to grow.
“If you’re compelled to do it then you should allow yourself to do it,” he explains. “Because in doing that you keep your creative channels open, and often if you don’t do that, you don’t get to find out what’s on the other side of that idea.”
Since leaving The Black Seeds, Mike has found the time and space to reflect on his process, his goals and the intentions behind the music he makes. He has begun to pay more attention to audio engineering and the technical side of making music.
“I love studios and I really love engineering and I love all the gear and I love the whole mix of technical and creative that it is. I’ve spent so many countless hours of my life shifting microphones around drums!
“A lot of my favourite records still work everywhere. They somehow manage to ride this line between being technically on point, but having a feel that’s rough and tough, and I’ve only realised that’s what I’ve been trying to do recently. It’s a hard thing to figure out, why certain records work the way they do.”
He’s evidently determined to keep trying to resolve that dilemma.
“I like music to feel rough and rugged and tough and a bit nasty, and it’s easy to do something that’s bright and shiny and transparent and expensive sounding and translates well everywhere, but I really don’t like the sound of that. I know what I’m trying to do and I haven’t been able to do it yet. I’ve been getting closer and closer to it, and I’ve had some major breakthroughs in the last couple of months
He reckons the advantage of being the composer and engineer is that since there is no need to communicate a musical idea verbally, nothing will get lost in translation.
“Audio, and how you hear it, and what you do with it is a totally personal thing. You can get taught techniques by other people, but if you’re going to be any good then you have to be able to hear it.
“When you create something, you hear it in a way that no one else will probably ever be able to hear it. It’s very hard to get across because it is so vague. It’s ephemeral. You have to try to find words to describe it, and words are pretty inaccurate ways of describing something that’s ephemeral. Nobody else can hear what I hear in my head.”
His ‘Harmonies’ album, out in early April this year, was primarily recorded in the industrial zone of Lower Hutt, Wellington where Mike had a large room to work with. Only later he came to realise it was not the right kind of space to record his music, but all part of the gradual nature of his learning process.
“For the kind of music that I make it would be really great to have a nice room to work with. I think it’s something you discover after a while, there’s that chain of importance of all your elements in-between the musician and getting recorded. The most important things on an equal level for me are the musician, the instrument and the room.
“The only way I seem to get better is just by failing over and over again at certain things until I know all the ways not to do something, and then whatever is left over, I’ll follow that for a while. Sometimes it goes to a dead end and it’ll fail and eventually, hopefully, you’re left with some stuff you can rely on. I’m hoping that’s where I’ll get to.”
The album was mixed in Mike’s home studio that houses a vintage Trident 80 series console, previously owned by Mike Gibson, who sold it to Mike before relocating to Park Road Post as a mastering engineer. Mike Gibson was mastering engineer for the ‘Melodies’, ‘Curiosities’ and ‘Harmonies’ albums.
Some of the other musicians involved in the ‘Harmonies’ album are Mara TK (Electric Wire Hustle), Lisa Tomlins, Toby Laing (Fat Freddy’s Drop), Lucian Johnson, Nick van Dyke, Chris O’Connor, William Ricketts and Julien Dyne, all of whom Mike has known and worked alongside for a long time.
Another key contributor is Victor Axelrod aka Ticklah (Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Easy Star All Stars) who Mike says he often seeks advice from, both artistic and technical.
“Julien Dyne, Toby Laing and my friend Victor in New York are the people I send my stuff to for feedback. They’re an important part of the process.”
“The people that I work with generally are people that I’ve known and worked with for a long time. You’ve got to have a certain amount of trust because you just have to trust that whatever they’re going to do is going to be good, and if you don’t think it’s good then you can tell them and it’s going to be fine – which is something you learn with experience.”
The thinking behind the entire trilogy was surprisingly simple.
“The intent was working with the kinds of music I really liked, reggae, East and West African music, disco, soul, some jazz and various sonic elements and trying to make an album that would be useful to DJs but also make albums that you could put on as a listener at home and would still be useful in that context as well.”.