Interview: Mice Parade

words by Casey Boland | photo by Junko Otsubo
| Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Adam Pierce has made a career out of defying expectations — especially his own. He began Mice Parade (an anagram of his name) with the bedroom-recorded The True Meaning of BoddleyBaye. Pierce never intended for the project to become a substantial endeavor, let alone something others would even hear. Twelve years later, Pierce releases his eighth full-length under the Mice Parade moniker.

What It Means To Be Left-Handed expands the scope of Pierce’s musical explorations. Over the course of each album, he’s accumulated new instruments, tested different styles, and collected assorted contributors. His newest finds him at perhaps his most daring. From the West African Highlife and flamenco flourishes of “Kupanda” and “Do Your Eyes See Sparks,” to the kaleidoscope whirlwinds “Old Hat” and “Tokyo Late Night,” Pierce is at his best when defiantly crossing genre boundaries.

Though Pierce admitted some trepidation over the variety of Mice Parade’s new album, even a cursory listen reveals his apparent musical ADD to be a virtue, not a vice. Contemporary pop music fixates on niche markets. Artists willingly intern themselves to stylistic ghettos. It’s a testament to Pierce’s abilities and courage as a songwriter that he succeeds in molding a stream of disparate styles into something uniquely Mice Parade. While the effect can sometimes be jarring (the electro storm of “Remember the Magic Carpet” into the Lemonheads-worthy rock of “Even”), it’s always thrilling.

Has anything changed with the way you recorded your first album and the way you recorded What It Means To Be Left-Handed?
Well, it’s funny you ask that because for me, the process on the new one was sort of a 360 coming back to the first one. The first and second had this process and I diverged from that process to various other things, did a bit more writing for different albums, used some different instrumentation. This one, the process is sort of like bringing it back to way I did the earliest ones.

What is this process?

When I say “bringing it back,” I mean similar to the earliest ones — not a lot of songs were written, not everything was written before you go in. There’s just a lot of making it up as you go along in the studio. That’s what the first two albums were all about. Then we started touring as a band and I started trying to write for the band. The past couple of records may have been a bit poppy and some of it was songs that were totally written [beforehand]. So the “new” was kind of leaving it free-form in the studio, which for me hearkens back to the early days.

You didn’t go into recording the newest album with any sort of grand concept in mind?
No, no grand concept other than just trying to let it fly and trying to do some weird shit and maybe trying to keep it happy. At some points I was trying to make a happy-sounding record. (laughter)

Do you think you achieved that?
Well, sure. But I think my other records are happy, too, and some people tell me they think it’s sad. To each his own.

Did you write the material by yourself or was this more collaborative?
It was certainly as collaborative as we could possibly make it. We all live far away from each other. This one has Doug [Scharin, HiM] playing drums on a tune, various singers singing on it and just sending through the internet, basically. There are some tunes that are just me up there going at it in the studio. It was as collaborative as we could certainly make it, given people’s schedules.

It wasn’t necessarily you in the studio with other people for the entire record?

No, but there was some. A lot of it was done here. We had the kora player up here. Meredith [Godreau, Gregory and the Hawk] sings up here. But it wasn’t a full band recording all of the time. A lot of it was just me. Some guests came up here. Some guests sent stuff through the internet.

Was it a challenge wrangling everybody together who is involved with the record?
I’d been working on it here and there — not in one concentrated time, just piece by piece as it goes. It was a pain, but it wasn’t like we had some time deadline that we were fighting against.

For the first song “Kupanda,” how did you team up with Somi, the vocalist who sings on it?

I got recommended to her by Randy Weston. Do you know who Randy Weston is?

No, I don’t.

Randy Weston is a great, old jazz pianist from New York. He did a bunch of awesome records in the ‘60s with a band called African Rhythms. He’s a great jazz pianist and one of the elderly guys in the current New York scene. He’s worked with her before. I held out hopes to work with Rokia Traore, actually — I had her in mind to sing. I had been in touch with her and her manager, trying to work out various schedules. But it was the last thing done for the record, and by that point we were on a deadline and had a time to release and whatnot. And schedules with Rokia suddenly didn’t work out at the last minute and I was bummed. So I needed someone else who could sing Swahili or any various language, and Randy Weston came with a great recommendation. He’s a great piano player. I was honored.

Is Caroline [Lufkin] the predominant female vocalist?
There are two. The frequencies of their voices might be kind of near each other, but their singing styles are very different. It’s probably about half and half. I don’t know if there is a predominant female vocalist. Caroline is our touring vocalist. She’s in the band. Meredith Godreau from Gregory and the Hawk sings on a couple of tunes as well. They’re probably split of 50-50 on the album.

Did you carefully plan out the vocal melodies and lyrics with them? They sound amazing.

Give them the credit for that. Aside from choruses where I’m singing along, they basically rocked it. They wrote amazing melodies and we have to give them credit for that.

Why did you decide to cover a Tom Brosseau song?

I don’t know, it was fun. We messed around with doing it a couple of times live. I just love the song. I thought it would fit well as a sort of dirge-y Pixies rock song. We tour with him all of the time. Why not cover a Tom Brosseau song? It’s a great song.

I think you gave it its own twist. Do you plan on collaborating with him?
We have. I helped produce about half of his record from last year. He did a record called Posthumous Success and about half the tracks he did up here and I did some stuff on there with him. So yeah, I have done so and it was extremely fun. He’s a great guy to work with and travel with.

Do you bring a big group of people when you go on tour?

Yes sir.

So how is it dealing with a large group of people on tour?
A huge pain in the ass. It’s expensive. We do decently on tour, but we’re not some huge hit band, obviously. It would be easier if we were a trio or a quartet instead of seven or eight people, but it’s really fun. Everybody in the band is an awesome old friend and they’re such good people. It’s basically a great excuse to spend time with amazing people and meet other people. That’s really what tour is for me.

Are you able to go in one vehicle, or do you need multiple vehicles for touring?

We can squeeze it into one van if we really needed to, but we’ll have two, I think.

I see you’re playing at Kung Fu Necktie where I’m at in Philadelphia and–

Yeah, I have great respect for places like Kung Fu Necktie and all these other places opening up. Johnny Brenda’s opened up and it was wonderful and we were totally psyched. And then a seven-piece band with two drum kits and vibraphones had to bring their gear up those stairs in the back. (laughter) And [at] Kung Fu Necktie, we can’t fit on the stage and anyone beyond the third row can’t see the band. I have great respect for these clubs for opening, but come on, Philly, let’s get an elevator into Johnny Brenda’s or something like that. But no, we can’t fit on the stage at Kung Fu Necktie. We’re trying to do a tour with two drum kits this time, and there’s no way we’re going to fit on that stage. I don’t know what the plan is there.

Is that something you encounter often on tour, spatial issues?

It depends. Last time we were in Philly we played this venue that was decent, but not in any way hip to the scene. It was where they do World Café Live stuff. That was a decent venue, but not as good a turnout. Philly has had its troubling venues, but it’s not like it happens everywhere. (laughter). I don’t want to take anything away from those venues. If I played in a three-piece rock band, I would love playing in Kung Fu Necktie — it would be the time of my life.

Do you play drums live?

Not a lot. Doug plays most of the drums; I do most of the guitar stuff. We’ve done a few tours without the two drum kits with just one kit where I play once or twice here and there. But now I’m trying to get back on the kit a bit more — I’m trying to bring it back to a former era of ours with the two kits.

To go onto an entirely different topic, as the head of Fat Cat USA, how does the music industry look from a label perspective?

That’s such a broad and general question. There’s a million music industries. There’s the indie music industry, there’s the major music industry. It’s hard to tell. I’m thankful to work at Fat Cat, which is a team of great people and great ears. And I think that if you have great people and have great ears and work with good stuff, then some of it is going to do well. People are going to buy it and that will never change. I forget the exact figures. There was something like 58 gold records in 2006, yet there were only 11 gold records awarded in 2009. The same amount of money is being spent on records. It’s not that people are buying less, but it’s that there are more out there. People are spending the same amount of cash, but there are more and more bands to choose from. It boggles my mind — where is the industry going? I could talk for hours about that. We could talk about the effects of big retail with what is going on. But at the end of the day, there’s always a new crop of kids.

Did you ever want Mice Parade to pay the bills? Did you or do you want to live off it?
There was never, ever a goal. Mice Parade does okay these days, and I’m really happy for that — but that was never a goal. I see it in bands. If you’re starting a career with dollar signs in your eyes you’re on shaky footing to begin with. Mice Parade was just home recordings and wasn’t even recorded in the beginning intended to be released. And then years later ended up releasing some bits. Then it just sort of developed. The most exciting thing about Mice Parade is getting to see friends. I’m not going to start worrying about writing a radio hit or something like that. That’s what you gotta do. (laughter)

Do you tend to tour a lot?

No, not at all. Everybody else in the band is extremely busy. The schedules in this band are insane. The average age is probably over 35 at this point. We’ve been averaging a full tour once every three years. We’ve been averaging yearly trips to Japan with a bunch of different festivals each summer. But no. We’ve been seeing each other once a year for a few days or every three years for a tour.

So you’re content with the way the band’s been running?
It would be nice to do it more, of course. It would be nice if we all lived in a compound together. (laughter)

Do you play in any other projects, like The Swirlies?

Not really. Various projects just sort of went by the wayside. Swirlies haven’t played any US shows for a while. No, not a lot of consistent touring with other bands these days.

Mice Parade is the focus, and that’s enough for you right now?

I think so. I stripped it down. It’s not like those bands made a lot of money touring or anything. (laughter) There’s talk of my high school band — Philistines Jr. — doing a reunion with a couple of shows, hopefully, but there’s nothing confirmed yet.

What was that band like?

That was a hilarious high school band. It was very fun, a little bit silly. It was a trio. This guy Peter Katis was the guitar player and singer. He’s now a big-shot engineer. He worked with The National. He did the Interpol stuff. His list goes on. But now he wants to get his own record out, like 10 years later or something. So maybe we’ll play some shows. That would be fun.

Are you writing new songs or revamping the old ones?

I think he’s got a whole new album in the bag that is going to come out.

Back to Mice Parade, I still see you get tagged as electronic a lot, and I’m wondering if there are electronic elements to the new record?

Where do you see it getting tagged as electronic, like retail places right? That’s databases. The first record is labeled electronic and that was even wrong. But I can at least understand it. Some parts sound like some ghetto wannabe Aphex Twin or something. But I think this is the result of databases. There is some sort of “file under” that goes down when retail enters your new upcoming release into its computer system and I feel like that got attached to the first record and because of that has just simply always trickled down. It’s really weird and terrible.

So in the one-sheet bio for the new record, there’s the mention of Alan Douches’ [mastering engineer] daughter dancing to the new album. Were there any particular songs she was dancing to?
It was the first song, “Kupanda.” It was fun. You can have your doubts and bad moments and whatnot. Is it weird if you’re doing this or that? We didn’t worry about it until we got to the mastering studio. We didn’t know what kind of record we had. We finished up a track like the night beforehand. Then sitting there, listening back to this record, starting to worry a little bit, like, “Is this kind of too weird? What’s going on? This is sort of all over the map. People are going to hate it or trash it.” But who cares? You go out and see some 10-year-olds dancing around. They haven’t read Pitchfork. Who the fuck cares? It was one of those moments, just, “Yeah, fuck it.”

That confirmed you were doing the right thing?

Fully. They were having the time of their lives and that made me feel really good.