Michael James Tapscott | Interview | “Improvisation is best done in the dark”

Uncategorized February 12, 2024

Michael James Tapscott | Interview | “Improvisation is best done in the dark”

‘Charlie No-Face’ is the latest release by prolific singer-songwriter Michael James Tapscott, who has been making music for almost two decades now.

Since 2004 he has been recording and performing under the names Odawas; More Animals of the Arctic; Royal Geography Society; China the band; Pacific Walker and his own name. ‘Charlie No-Face’ is featuring contributions from Ed Askew, Aux Meadows, and Jeff Moller, in addition to contributions from longtime collaborators Raphi Gottesman, Isaac Edwards, David Glasebrook, and Josh Housh. The EP dives into MJT’s archives, serving to celebrate a productive year that saw the release of new full length album ‘The Beasts of History’ in May of 2023. It was released December 15th, 2023 via Royal Oakie Records.

“Balanced with instrumentals and experiments”

It’s lovely to feature you. How are you doing? How have you been busy promoting ‘Charlie No-Face,’ a brand new EP?

Michael James Tapscott: It’s been a long winter already. David from Royal Oakie Records & Tapes wanted to time the release of ‘Charlie No-Face’ with the holiday showcase he was hosting at our local bar, Little Hill Lounge in El Cerrito. My band played with Jeff Moller and Half Stack, two other acts from the label. It was a magical night and the place was packed with homies and the Christmas spirit. I held microscopic expectations for the reception of the EP, but have been pleasantly surprised by the steady increase in recognition. We’ll be playing more shows regionally in the coming months and hope to pack up the drummer’s mom’s minivan and head south in the spring, summer, or fall.

Is there any particular story behind the making of this EP?

The EP was the culmination of ‘The Beasts of History’ project, the full-length we released in the spring of 2023. It was made up of some of the baroque recordings that were cut from the previous album and some instrumental ideas I didn’t want to lose to the steady march of time.

How would you compare it to let’s say your latest album, ‘The Beasts of History’?

While both albums were me, I would say ‘Charlie No-Face’ is more me than the me of ‘The Beasts of History’. I love a pop song, … Harry Nilsson, The Beach Boys, and Maren Morris, but I like it even more when it is balanced out with instrumentals and experiments. An album that contains hit after hit of dopamine pop is exhausting, and listening to one voice for 40 minutes is a laborious lecture. Of course, this thought has a thousand exceptions, but I don’t hold myself in such high esteem. I much prefer to listen to a mix of the saccharine and the sour.

“I am not an inspired songwriter”

What is your process like when it comes to songwriting? Do you always follow the same process or it may depend on the mood, atmosphere?

I am not an inspired songwriter. I must set aside time to sit down and write and create. Ideally, this would be early in the morning before my son has woken up and the day must proceed, but it could also be after he has gone to bed. Outside of the times I create with purpose, little work is done.

Michael James Tapscott at Spire, the Church in Oakland, CA – January 26 2024 | Photo by Sean Olmstead

You often collaborate with other musicians, tell us who are some of the recent collaborators?

My main collaborators for the past decade have been Raphi Gottesman and Jeff Moller, both great, sympathetic musicians with their ideas of what sounds good and what sounds bad. They each have solo projects that are very much worth your time to seek out. In the last couple of years, we have been joined by Josh Housh on upright bass and vocals. He has great vibes and high harmonies. For a track on ‘Charlie No-Face’ we got together one night and jammed with Aux Meadows, an ambient country band from Oakland. They are a wonderful unit and proper gentlemen.
David Glasebrook, the owner of Royal Oakie, has helped mix, record, and release all of my work for the past several years. He has great taste, obviously.

Michael James Tapscott at Spire, the Church in Oakland, CA – January 26 2024 | Photo by Sean Olmstead

You’re not originally from San Francisco? How do you see the city slowly changing during the last two decades? How do you like to live there?

I’m not originally from the Bay Area, no, I’m from the Midwest. I moved here 17 years ago. I only lived in San Francisco for about a year, I have always lived in what we call the East Bay. This is Oakland, Berkeley, et cetera. Honestly, I seldom venture into the city of San Francisco at this point. I love the East Bay and would like never to leave, but I’ve felt that way about everywhere I’ve lived, be it Chicago, Indianapolis, Bloomington, or wherever. It’s hard to say how things have changed. At one time it seemed like everyone was moving away, fancy condos were being built everywhere, music venues were closing, but now the music scene seems to be thriving, clubs thought to be dead come back, and people have made their peace with the ostentatious buildings. I’m not civically minded. I’m here for the weather and my friends.

You have been active for more than two decades now. Was Odawas your first band?

I was in a Doors cover band in high school. If that doesn’t count, Odawas was my first band.

Tell us about the music you made with Odawas?

Odawas was a collaboration between myself and Isaac Edwards, whom I met at the student newspaper at Indiana University. We shared a love of over-the-top production and atmospheric rivers of sound. Think Neil Young’s ‘A Man Needs a Maid’ or Joni Mitchell in the 80s, The Blue Nile, Popol Vuh’s soundtracks, Pearls Before Swine, et cetera. While Isaac and I still work together and remain friends, over the years we retreated to our polar extremes. He became more interested in electronics, production, and philosophizing about music. I became more interested in the lo-fi, the traditional song structures, and found sound. He was the mind and I was the body.

What about China The Band, More Animals of the Arctic, Pacific Walker, would love to know more about these projects and it’s output.

Let’s approach this question chronologically:

More Animals of the Arctic is essentially my first solo album. It was made between the first two Odawas LPs on Jagjaguwar. Isaac is a meticulous worker, which means he is slow. I was bursting with ideas in this nascent era, so I worked under this silly moniker for my home recordings.

China the Band was the project I started with Raphi and Jeff after we completed the Odawas run. They had been playing in the live version of Odawas and we wanted to create a band with less epic sonic ambitions. I was having a moment with country music at the time, and divorce and alcohol.

Pacific Walker is a project with Raphi and Isaac. This is a mainly instrumental, ambient project that expands on the more elegiac leanings of Odawas.

Michael James Tapscott at Spire, the Church in Oakland, CA – January 26 2024 | Photo by Sean Olmstead

You have quite some solo albums under your belt, what initiated your solo career and is this your main focus now or are you planning to form some new band in the near future?

Like many of my contemporaries, the logistics of having a regular band become untenable, and the thought of naming that untenable band feels hopelessly immature and silly. I’ve had enough unfortunate namings over the years to think that I’ll stick with my name for now. It is unfortunate that all the glory may come to me when this is the case, as it gives short shrift to my collaborators who are often as responsible if not more responsible than me for the finished product. Hopefully, they know the favor would be returned.

That said, Pacific Walker is working on a second album.

“Improvisation is the basis of creating a song”

How important is improvisation for you?

Improvisation is the basis of creating a song, even the most structured of songs, so it is very important to me. That said I am not a confident or competent musician and my improvisation is best done in the dark.

Michael James Tapscott at Spire, the Church in Oakland, CA – January 26 2024 | Photo by Sean Olmstead

What are some future plans?

I’ve been following my whims for 20 years now and I wouldn’t expect anything to change. I am open to new opportunities, but not desperate for them.

Let’s end this interview with some of your favourite albums. Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?

I’ve been enjoying: Jerry David DeCicca – ‘New Shadows,’ The Books – ‘The Lemon of Pink,’ Van Morrison & the Chieftains – ‘Irish Heartbeat,’ King Creosote – ‘I DES,’ Frog – ‘Grog,’ Duster – ‘Stratosphere,’ Wil Malone – ‘Wil Malone,’ Keith Hudson – ‘Pick a Dub,’ Robbie Robertson – ‘Killers of the Flower Moon OST,’ Emaoy Tsege Mariam Gebru – ‘Emaoy Tsege Mariam Gebru,’ Acetone – ‘1992-2001,’ Andre 3000 – ‘New Blue Sun,’ Dorothy Carter – ‘Waillee Waillee,’ Saguaro – ‘Saguaro,’ Grandma’s Cottage – ‘Grandma’s Cottage’.

Klemen Breznikar

Headline photo: Michael James Tapscott at Spire, the Church in Oakland, CA – January 26 2024 | Photo by Sean Olmstead

Michael James Tapscott Official Website / Facebook / Instagram / YouTube / Bandcamp
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