Geographer is an indie rock outfit that hails from San Francisco, California. The band got together in 2008 after college-friends Nathan Blaz and Brian Ostreicher met Michael Deni at a local open mic night. Deni, who had left the East Coast after family troubles, had already begun to craft his experiences into the sounds that would become foundations of the group’s first album Innocent Ghost, using a synthesizer he had picked up off the street. The release of Innocent Ghost won them some serious attention, praised by a number of music publications. They signed to Tricyle Records, a local label, and released a six-song EP Animal Shapes in 2010. For MYTH, Geographer moved to NYC record label Modern Art. The group have toured with the likes of Foster the People, Toro y Moi, and Stars, and played the 2012 festival circuit with appearances at SXSW, NoisePop, and Outside Lands.
San Francisco electro-pop three piece Geographer have built themselves a dedicated fan base. They make it look easy with their towering, emotionally resonant, electro meets guitar rock. Geographer began making waves in earnest with their 2009 single “Kites,” which still hovers in the top 100 most played songs on Spotify. Releasing Animal Shapes in 2010 and 2012’s Myth Geographer further cemented themselves in the upper echelons of electro-indie music makers, fusing dark atmospherics, danceable beats and beautifully earnest vocal melodies. But as frontman Mike Deni explains, it hasn’t been an easy process. They’re naturally shy guys, and adopting some the rock star attitude of his hero Bruce Springsteen is “easier said than done.” In a sprawling phone interview Deni explians what makes Springsteen so great, what they’re trying to do live, and the best part of being in Geographer.
Band of the Day: Question: What were you listening to really loud (he missed our initial call due to loud music)?
Mike: A live Springsteen concert. My favorite thing in the world. I go back to our practice space, 'cause we have big speakers there, it's just a better experience.
Band of the Day: What era Springsteen?
Mike: 75-86. I think right now I'm listening to the Darkness on the Edge of Town era.
Band of the Day: Do you have a favorite Springsteen era?
Mike: Oh man all of it. My favorite era, his concerts are the best around '75. He's just really excited to be a god, newly. Darkness on the Edge of Town, late 70s is awesome, and early 80s is so good too. So basically '75 to '86, that's my favorite Springsteen. But I love the guy now too. I saw him in San Jose and it was like, oh my god, changed my life. Watching him perform the way he does, he's the best at what he does, he's so energetic and kinetic, it's unbelievable.
Band of the Day: What is it about him that you think is so special?
Mike: The way that he uses lyrics, the way he can just cut into universal human experience. At the beginning he doesn't have very simple lyrics, mad men drummers, indians in the summer. I don't really relate to that stuff so much even though the songs are cool, things like “The River,” he tells a really simple story, and if you really feel the lyrics it stops you dead in your tracks. He communicates sort of like, usually people need something in between them and the magic of life. I feel like Bruce Springsteen has a direct line to the magic of life. He's able to call to mind those chords, melodies, lyrics that will make you think that you don't understand, that you can't really put just words to, he taps into whatever the hell ... not what it means to be human, but what it feels like.
He really understands the way people romanticize things, and I think he has a pretty good handle on the way that he is perceived by people and what he means to people, and he plays that up. He's a theatrical performer. He knows his story has relevance and power, and he knows where to fill in the blanks with some other things like fiction, he knows where to play up the reality of it. A lot of people are too embarrassed to do that. To recognize their own story, and they downplay it. The equivalent of putting your hair in front of your eyes even though you're playing some sick guitar solo. But Bruce Springsteen doesn't do that. He's like yeah, here's this amazing story about my life and now I'm going to say into the microphone that I'm a rockstar, because obviously I am. That's why you're here. And everybody loves it. But he doesn't come off as conceited, and if he does you can just be like, well, he's Bruce Springsteen. I think that's a lot of what I connect to too. The man, the way he's cultivated his image seems really pure and honest. In so far as you can do something like that on the scale that he does.
Band of the Day: It seems like lately as people put so much effects on their vocals and obscure lyrics and story telling it seems like it takes away from that personal-ness and theatricalness. Is that aspect of Bruce Springsteen something you try to emulate in your live shows?
Mike: Well I actually struggle with the whole story telling thing. I'm not a great concrete story teller, at least in written language. I tried to be a novelist in college and gave that up because I'm just not great at spinning a yarn like that. I find I shy away from completely concrete lyrics because I feel like they're a little too bald and open, I'm uncomfortable with it. The music I listen to is so simple. A Beatles lyrics I feel like you couldn't get away with in this day and age. Or at least in the genre that we make music in. But I don't know if that's an insecurity, that I feel people will negatively judge that so I don't even go there, but whatever it is, if I'm writing a line like that I erase it. It just doesn't feel right for me. Something about it. That feeling I'm sure is a product of my upbringing, things that happened to me in high school, things that happened to me in college, experiences that shape my sense and my taste. And that's what is reacting to those naked lyrics that I love so much in other artists but I've never really been able to do myself.
Band of the Day: Do you try to embrace that theatricalness you're talking about? Here's a story I'm, going to try to tell it. Or do you feel too self-conscious for that?
Mike: It's sort of difficult for me, I'm a very, very self-conscious person. When I walk around not a nano second goes by when I don't wonder what someone else is thinking of me. That's part of the escape of the stage, that I don't have to care in the span of the song. I can just lose myself in the song. That's what first appealed to me in music, create as much sound as possible coming out of the speakers. Yes, it's coming out of me, and that's important to people, but they also sort of forget that I'm even there. Or that I'm part of something bigger than myself. But I am trying to lose that self-consciousness, I don't feel like I can be the performer that I want to be if I'm as self-conscious as I am in daily life. Easier said than done.
Band of the Day: Do you use Ableton or any live software to bring your music to the stage?
Mike: Yeah, we use Ableton, we're also diving into MAX for Live.
Band of the Day: Pretty complex stuff, lot of crazy programming...
Mike: Yeah, it's very complex stuff.
Band of the Day: Must be a big shift from the normal rock and roll mindset.
Mike: Yeah, but we try hard to find ways to put that back in it. That's what we really want to do at the end of the day, and that's what people really enjoy watching. They don't want to just listen to the CD while you sort of play it through really loud speakers, even though that's what people pay a lot of money for a lot of the time. But I feel like what people really want to see is live music being created with the potential for a huge train wreck. There's something about the potential for disaster that people really enjoy.
Band of the Day: Have you been following the whole debate over button pushers that Deadmau5 started a few months or ago?
Mike: What did he say?
Band of the Day: He basically called out many EDM artists for just pressing play on stage, and not having many dynamic aspects to their live show. It started this big debate, a lot of people got really angry, a lot of people agreed, arguing yeah, when you're on a huge stage with a light show and video synched up and 50,000 people watching, it makes the most sense to play a static, predominantly recorded set.
Mike: That is a really powerful issue in the Geographer camp. We're constantly talking about that sort of stuff. Yeah, you have the ability to do whatever you want, but have to choose within that. Our trajectory has been, every time we revamp our live set or bring a new song to the stage, we try to make as much of it live and interesting and different from the album version as possible. The more you do that the more complicated it is and the more of a pain in the ass it is. Especially with those light shows. You'll have four computers running lights or other video things, it's really intense. For dance music it sort of makes sense to just press play and do whatever up there. The moves that they would do, it's just this miniature movement of your thumb and forefinger, you see people make this big motion with their elbows, sometimes it's because they're into it, a lot of times it's because they want people to know, I'm actually doing something about there, it's not like you can do a windmill like you can on your guitar. A lot of people are doing really badass stuff up there, but it's not transferrable to the audience. When I go to a show like that my expectation is just, I'm going to listen to this really loud pulsing music and I'm going to dance. I wish people wouldn't stare at the DJ at those shows. The DJ should remove themselves more, it's about the dancing, not about someone bobbing their head and twisting their fingers, even if you can appreciate it on a technical level.
Band of the Day: When you write, is it usually after something emotionally intense has happened and you're in a different mind space than usual?
Mike: It used to be like that. I used to use music as therapy, but it sorta doesn't work for me in the long run. I want to have a nice life. I don't want to have to be in these dark, dark places to do what I love to do. Now I sort of go in and try to create something. Sometimes I'll hear something in my head and I'll record it into my phone and when I get home I'll flesh it out. A lot of the time I'll go in, and I have an idea of what I want to do conceptually and try to make it happen. Like a low pressure creative situation, I may not do anything good today, but I'm going to come in the next day and the next day.
Band of the Day: That's the luxury of being able to spend all your time on music.
Mike: For real! That's the difference. Before I was always like, I wish I had the time to write, now I feel guilty when I'm not writing, if I'm having fun!
Band of the Day: Do you listen to very much electronic music?
Mike: Not that much. Mostly I listen to folk music or rock music. Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Radiohead.
Band of the Day: Could you see yourself making music that's like that? Or is there something about the electronic textures you use that you couldn't abandon?
Mike: I don't know, I don't really want to make music like those guys. Something about it just doesn't feel right. I write a lot of songs in the vein of Paul Simon, but it's like, ah well, that was fun. They come fast but I feel like, I don't see the point of adding to that. It's been done to such an extent. With the four artists I just named, you don't need more than them. As far as those albums go you're set. But I feel like there's something to be done that's new with synthesizers and technology and the crazy stuff that Nate does with his cello. Thinking about new song forms, and what you can do. How you can incorporate dance ethics, melding those things. What is it about Neil Young's songwriting that is good, what is it about Deadmau5's song construction that's good? When I get inspiration from those electronic artists I hear something and then I let it affect me. I don't really ever listen to it again. But that quick little jab into my subconscious my light another fire inside me that makes me inspired and makes me want to make something.
Band of the Day: What is the best part about being in Geographer?
Mike: Well, I'd say a lot of good parts, a lot of difficult parts. Being able to have an outlet for my creativity and my philosophy that people seem to care about. It's very, people want to have a purpose, and want to be relevant, and both of those things are sort of misconceptions, but within a circle, you can have relevancy. If you create boundaries around yourself you can basically have whatever you want. Within the schema of the human world, we have a little bit of relevancy. There are a few people out there who are hoping we create another album, hoping we come to their town. And are excited about what we're thinking about and what we're doing. It's a very good feeling for a guy who feels like he doesn't understand what the hell is going on, that he doesn't belong. That's the greatest part about what's going on for us right now.
Band of the Day: Did you feel that feeling right from the beginning or did it not happen until the band got bigger?
Mike: Oh yeah it definitely took, that is a recent sensation. We've been climbing the latter for a while and there was a couple of times there were we felt quite alone. We were like, “I mean our music pretty good! But it just doesn't seem to be catching on.” But we kept on trucking, because there isn't any other choice really, and people are enjoying what we're making.