Mike Johnson - Thinking Plague Dezember 2012

Nachdem Mike Johnson/Thinking Plague meine Review zu "Decline and Fall" gelesen hatte, meinte er, so könne das nicht stehen bleiben: "Ich befürchte, dass dies das letzte Lebenszeichen unter diesem Bandnamen ist." Dies sei mitnichten so. Einige Emails später kam dieses Interview zustande:

Ragazzi: At first - how do you feel about your new Thinking Plague record "Decline and fall"?

Mike: Pride! In my opinion, it's a very good album. Good compositions, good playing and good sound. Not "perfect", but very good, given the financial and logistical limitations.

Ragazzi: The band is already 30 years old - how many years was the band inactive in this span?

Mike: Hmmmm…. That depends on how you define "inactive". If it means not doing live concerts, then that has been true for most of that time. The periods of performance have always been brief and sporadic, mainly subject to personnel availability. So, probably more than 90% of the time we were NOT active in that way. But we may have been rehearsing - it takes a lot of rehearsal to do this music reasonably well. And / or we might have been writing or developing music. That has been going on MOST of the time, probably more than 90% of it, if rather slowly at times. Currently, we are somewhat active, as in rehearsing and writing, and we hope to be performing a lot more very soon. And I am developing a good foundation of material for another album.

Ragazzi: Today it's a very different situation in the avant-garde rock/progressive music scene than when the band began. What do you think about the different kinds of work during those years and the development of avant-garde culture from 1982 to 2012 in general and in Thinking Plague?

Mike: Personally, I have listened to less and less "rock" or "prog" or "avant rock" music since 1982, especially in the last 20 years. My main listening interest is and has been symphonic/orchestral music. There are some exceptions. I went through a small Albert Marcoeur phase around 1999-2000. I like a few individual tracks from different artists - most typically, though, artists with whom I'm involved somehow - like Science Group or David Shamrock, and certainly Dave Willey. I'm now 60 years old, so naturally the world looks and feels different to me, compared to 30 years ago. But I do believe that there are very real differences, especially with regard to the "music industry", which seems to be on its last legs. In 1982 there was no internet, and thus no downloads - free or otherwise. But also there was very much less feedback from listeners and fans. Of course, at that time we hadn't yet released any recordings, and had yet to establish a relation with ReR Records, Cuneiform/Wayside, etc. We were little more than a very weird 'garage band' at that time. It felt like we were working in isolation, in our own little musical world…And we didn't really know yet where we were going at all. There was, however, a lot of 'ferment' in the music world then - first punk, then 'new wave', then the "indie" movement - the appearance of many small record labels that were more open to unusual music. There were various 'underground' print magazines that would review almost anything you sent them, and had interviews and articles about "weird" and obscure bands. It was all very exciting.

Whereas now, with almost universal access to computer-based recording that can easily be published on internet, music has become so "levelled", as in democratized, that there seems to be no objective third-party arbiter of quality. ANYTHING can get on the internet, and with the decline of trusted record labels, it can get as much exposure as ANYTHING else. The democratization has resulted in mediocritization. There's no filter for the mediocre, and there's no income, much less profit, to be made in producing something of quality and rareness. Free downloads are killing ALL record labels, large and small, and MP3s have taught people to be oblivious to quality sound. Or so it seems to me, I should say. No doubt many of your readers will disagree, but I'd wager they are NOT serious musicians or informed listeners.

Meanwhile, as for the state of "avant-garde" culture now, frankly I don't really know. Thinking Plague, in my opinion, is not "avant garde" per sé, but more what I would call "advanced progressive rock" - so the term often used is "avant rock", which is OK. I confess I don't seek out the music of other avant-rock bands, although some comes to me, one way or the other. For example Yugen from Italy. This band has become a true powerhouse of complex, well-produced and performed avant-rock music, with a LOT of "avant"! But they are newer to the "scene", as it were, and while I respect what they do (and I mean especially composer Francesco Zago), I don't feel compelled to go back to their music again and again. It just doesn't touch my musical emotions very much, I regret to say, because I do admire them greatly and our two bands, and/or certain members, have been "partners" in a few projects or concerts.

I will say that, as far as I can discern, there is no wider appreciation for experimentation, as in the "avant garde", by rock bands or anyone else, than there was 30 years ago. In fact I suspect there is less. I feel that younger listeners have shorter attention spans and more superficial tastes, although some do like complexity - seemingly, for its own sake. Like "mathcore", with its over-the-top virtuosic playing, though largely in unison with minimal dynamic variance. For me, it sounds mostly like a lot of great musical talent being squandered on ephemeral exercises in complexity with purpose. But again, what do I know? I AM 60 years old!

Ragazzi: Different styles and musicians have come and gone over the years, and the sound of the first Thinking Plague albums is very different from the later and last ones. What was your preferred band phase? Which musicians do you miss?

Mike: My preferred phase is generally the "current" one, as regards the music. I do, however, miss aspects of certain past line-ups. For example, in 1987 we had TWO synth players, one of whom played clarinet, in our live line-up, along with bass, guitar, drums and singer. We were able to get some very rich and strange textures. That specific line-up was never recorded, as such, although there were different combinations of it on Moonsongs and In This Life.

And of course, I miss aspects of Bob Drake's bass playing and sounds. He used to run his bass signal to the pitch control voltage input of an old Korg M-20 monophonic synth, by which means he produced these amazing deep growling or roaring bass sounds, such as you can hear in the original mix of Moonsongs, the track, at about 11 minutes and 40 seconds. He used this kind of effect frequently, both on recording and on stage, with both Thinking Plague and 5UU's. And of course, I sometimes miss Bob's immediate input in the creative development process. We had a lot of fun, often laughing deliriously as we worked out parts or recorded weird sounds.

I also miss Deborah Perry's ethereal voice, and Mark Fuller's authoritative and machine-like drumming. Shane Hotle's approach to 'organic' keyboards sounds was, for me, a big part of In This Life. And ironically he was using only the most pedestrian of keyboard technology at the time. Naturally, I could go on, but there's no point. People evolve. Their lives and needs change, and they move on. It's been a real privilege for me to have benefited from the talents of so many wonderful musicians. On the other hand, I'm very happy with the current line-up.

Ragazzi: Today the band isn't a real rock band. You all live in different cities, are not teenagers ;) anymore, have your own lives, families and work, outside the band. What keeps the band and your sound stable, what is the magic behind the band?

Mike: Well, actually, at the present it appears that we are all living relatively nearby - within an hour's drive. We've just added a second guitarist for the first time ever, Bill Pohl from Underground Railroad, who is a phenomenal guitarist. And for the first time we will NOT have someone on keyboards full-time, but rather intermittently as needed. This will mainly be vocalist, Elaine DiFalco, who I expect will also play ukulele, accordion, percussion and other things. We are working on existing material at present, rearranging and rethinking parts for this new line-up. Ands meanwhile, I am writing new material with this group in mind. Also, I hope we will have contributions from other members, like Elaine, who is a fine composer, as well as Dave Willey, mastermind of Hamster Theatre.

As for the "magic"…. Who am I to say? It seems to me that others, who feel there is magic, should try to describe that in our music. Otherwise, I can only say that, if there is a consistent quality in TP music over the years that some find "magical", I must assume that it is the result of my compositional style. I think it is safe to say that my approach is pretty unique in rock music that is "informed" or influenced by 20th century art music - a.k.a "classical", symphonic, chamber, electronic, etc. Compared to the best practitioners of THAT genre, what Thinking Plague does is mere dilettantism. But at least I think we present some types of polytonal harmony that are mainly absent from rock-based music. And if we sometimes manage that in an artful and expressive way, then that represents success.

Ragazzi: In my opinion, "In Extremis" was not only a new birth, but more of a great success in the progressive/R.I.O./avant-garde scene worldwide - an absolutely new sound for the band and most of the scene. Five years later you released the most complex and demanding work: "A History of Madness". Please talk about the difference reactions from fans and press, and the differences in success and recognition. What comes back to you, which reactions to both of those very different works? What is, according to fans and press, the best Thinking Plague song ever? Do you get that information back from the audience?

Mike: In Extremis was our first album on Cuneiform Records, and came out when the internet was really taking over. The reaction was wonderful AND we were able to get more immediate feedback than ever before. There were a lot of what I call "citizen reviews", by which I mean reviews by actual listeners, not professional critics or reviewers, who then had the ability to publish their thoughts via the internet. And we did get very good reviews by some "real" critics as well.

The response to A History of Madness, on the other hand, was pretty tepid by comparison, at first. Eventually, however, we did begin to see a lot of very positive reaction, which clearly shows that one can't expect to really "get" a TP album without numerous listens and time for it to sink in. Also, the recording approach on AHoM was pretty different, with a more organic and acoustic sound, at times, and more pure "atmosphere". I think this put some previous fans off at bit, at first.

As for the "best TP song ever"….The one song that appears to have had the most plays on the usual sites (Last FM, Myspace, etc.) is Dead Silence, the first track on In Extremis, which again shows just how popular that album was, I think. People don't actually tend to communicate directly to us about these things. Personally, I have no "official" favourite.

Ragazzi: "Decline And Fall" sounds more like the 14 years older "In Extremis" than as a follow-up to "A History of Madness". Is it a step back to that time of reorganization for the band in 1998, because of the success of "In Extremis" - or is it your personal point of view to make THE sound you prefer today?

Mike: We have no predefined "sound of today". However, I did feel like the songs on D&F were related in ways to In Extremis, perhaps stylistically at times. But to me, this was mining deeper in the same vein, with maybe a few detours. It was not an attempt to do something altogether new and different. For that matter nor was A History of Madness. When I was writing that material, it also felt to me like I was digging farther along the same line. Of course, as the album developed, and especially during the mixing, it began to take on a definite identity of its own. For the most part, over the entire career of TP, my aim has always been to just create music that I like, that I think is "cool". During the Bob Drake era (80s, mainly) there were always some songs or creations contributed by other members, and there was more of a band development process than there has been since the band reformed in the mid-90s. I do hope this will change on the next release - every member of the band is a composer in his/her own right.

But to get back to D&F, I did have the goal from the start to create a definite "rock" album, that is to say, "songs" that feature the primary rock ensemble-plus reeds, with a cleaner and more crisp "rock" sound than previously. I also wanted to explore the idea of using "modified" mellotron sounds that were more granular and "messed up", so to speak, than what one normally hears. I always had this love for the itchy, raspy weirdness of mellotron, ever since I heard King Crimson's "Devil's Triangle" in about 1970 or 71. So, I'd wanted to exploit that sound more thoroughly before letting it subside fully into the "misty past". heheh I expect that it will be totally absent from the next album - or if it makes an appearance, it will be very "altered".

Ragazzi: Is "Decline and Fall" the younger sister of "In Extremis"?

Mike: I can go with "younger sister", but I would say she's a more "mature" younger sister! heheheh… If that makes any sense. 'She' knows herself better and is more sure of herself. She knows more about more things, and may be more cynical. But she is less concerned with being strictly 'original' than with just expressing herself. ...So, I think I have overused that metaphor quite enough! One main difference between IE and D&F is that the songs for the latter were all written during one period of time, and they were all recorded by the same people using the same facilities, with a few exceptions, during the same period of about a year or less. This alone should make sound somewhat more homogenous. In Extremis was a compilation of recordings stretching from 1990 to 1997, made in a number of different studios in Colorado and California, and featuring various combinations of players. It represented compositions that were written from the late 80s up through 1997.

Nevertheless, each song on D&F has a different style and flavour, and from my perspective, there are plenty of changes and "weirdness" happening. But perhaps it is more "refined"? More purposeful? I don't know… And, as in the case of Climbing the Mountain, there are moments that are more sort of "classically progressive". But that does not constitute some kind of "new direction" for TP. It was merely a stylistic decision for that song, and is not very likely to recur in future.

Ragazzi: I was writing in my review of "Decline and Fall" that I was afraid this will be the last album by Thinking Plague, because the album sounds like the grand old "In Extremis" work. I was meaning that "A History of Madness" was too strong for the audience. I was also thinking too few fans/avant-garde gourmets hear the album and talk about the band and their concept of work and sound. What do you think about? Am I wrong?

Mike: I think you might be right about that last point. And as I say, it does have similarities to In Extremis. But it is Thinking Plague music, which always sounds like Thinking Plague. As for being "too strong", I guess you're implying that we may have taken a step 'back' from AHoM, because it was too difficult for people? And I would say that we, I, never think about whether it's going to be "too strong" for anyone….except ourselves! Do I, and does the band, like it? Does it excite us, and pique our interest enough to follow through with it, and make CD? These are the only questions that really matter, when it comes to writing and recording a bunch of demanding music.

Ragazzi: Which work of Thinking Plague do you like more?

Mike: I always like the most recent release the best, at least until I tire of it, which does happen when you have to hear it so much in writing, recording, mixing and performing it. Of course, I can always go back and find moments I really like in the older albums. But I can't really point to one specific favourite work.

Ragazzi: On "Decline and Fall" there is no song like "Dead silence" or the grand "Les Etudes D'Organism" - nothing that unbelievable and incomparable, and at the same time so avant-garde and strong and convincing?

Mike: I'd have to disagree, at least with part of that. Dead Silence is no more unbelievable or incomparable than than Malthusian Dances, in my opinion. Nor is it more challenging or "avant garde", musically. Malthusian begins in 19/16, simultaneously felt as 5x3+4 and 4x4+3, and gets very complex in the middle section and at the end. But some effort was made to cause it to "rawk", in an "avant" kind of way. I Cannot Fly is also very "avant" rhythmically and harmonically, and is rather "incomparable", wouldn't you say - what you compare it to, convincingly? There is nothing more complex, arcane or "incomparable" anywhere on In Extremis - again, in my opinion. Decline and Fall features many more tuplets or "irrational rhythms" in the instrumental parts. It might possibly be that the music has more assuredness than IE or earlier albums, in that things are not presented as "tricks", but rather as logical musical extrapolations, and are therefore perhaps less jarring. I don't know about that for sure. It's very subjective. The aim was to make complex music that could be accessible with enough listens. And I believe we have succeeded. The people who's opinions I value most all seem to think so.

As for Les Etudes…, well, frankly that song was the result of our attempt to create a live performance hybrid from 'Etude for Combo' and 'Organism', from the previous two albums, and originally not intended as a new studio piece. We did it mostly as a group project in rehearsals, during which time we had a lot of fun combining incongruous and sometimes silly ideas, just for the humour of it. And we rehearsed it a lot and played it live a number of times before recording it, which caused us to make various modifications and improvements as it was recorded and mixed, between 1990 and 1994. All this makes that piece really an anomaly, and impossible to reproduce - something I'd never be interested in doing anyway. It wasn't really what I considered to be within the TP ethic.

Ragazzi: Was Decline and Fall the the result of the full band, cooperation, jam sessions, the new band, new ideas? And - in the same vein - what is THE best song at "Decline and Fall" in your opinion?

Mike: Sadly, it was not the result of much band interaction, other than certain aspects of performing the written parts. All of the music and lyrics were written by me, including "fake drum" parts. The real drum parts were created by Kimara Sajn, based on his working to get an overall personal understanding of the music. He also created the keyboard sounds, though these were modified during the mix. But his parts were all written in advance.

So, in a nutshell, any disappointment anyone has with this CD will have to be laid at my own feet alone. As for the best song on D&F, I couldn't say. I think they're all good, but all different. It's a matter of taste, mood and how much listening you give each song.

Ragazzi: "Decline and Fall" is less weird and humorous than "In Extremis". It is more quiet and serious, but does not have less ideas and complex compositions - in my opinion. What do you think about?

Mike: Hmmmm. The only humorous things I can think of in IE are the "silly" themes from Les Etudes… and maybe Bob Drake's odd pitch shifted spoken part in This Weird Wind. The conceptual theme of Decline and Fall is obviously very serious, the self-destruction of humanity. However, the chorus from the Gyre is kind of funny:

"Swirling on the currents of the deep blue sea - thousand miles of plastic debris.
Nurdles and bottles and PCBs, compliments of you and me."

As for ideas and complexity, yes, I agree. D&F has at least as much as In Extremis.

Ragazzi: What do you wish for your work as a musician in general and the next future?

Mike: Only that it receive whatever recognition that it may deserve. We know that this music is never going to reach a huge segment of the population - they're just not equipped to "hear" it. They haven't had the preparation and exposure. And thus, we know we'll never make much money form this. So be it. I do hope to see more people attempting to perform it, and I am glad to provide scores or charts to anyone making a serious effort to do so. There are a few university professors of music theory, musicology, etc, that have used some of the music in their course curricula, and this is very exciting for me, although I haven't witnessed the process nor had any feedback from students. But I believe the only hope for having huge numbers of people listening to our style of music lies in education - or so I believe.

Ragazzi: "A History of madness" is a great but very strong work. What do you love on it the most? Will there be more compositions in that style(s) with that kind of complexity from you in the future?

Mike: As I say, I don't believe there is anything on that album that is more complex musically than what you find on D&F. In fact, AHoM features quite a lot of quasi-improvisation in the "soundscape" pieces War on Terra and Le Gouffre. I think what people mistake for complexity is the kind of more "dense" sound we achieved, mainly in the mix. We used a lot of "space", as in various complex reverbs and delays, layers, etc., because we were going for a certain other-worldly character. I think we achieved that for the most part, though perhaps at the expense of some clarity and crispness. Also, there are more actual acoustic, especially reed-based, instruments on the album, in particular a lot of accordion and harmonium, in addition to clarinets, saxes, etc. And also more acoustic and nylon-string guitar parts.

That album had a certain musical and sonic mission, and there is no reason to think that in future, there won't be other "missions" that we undertake, which may or may not be reminiscent of aspects of AHoM. Who can say. No TP album, yet, has been the "final word", as it were.

Ragazzi: About which song do you wonder, "Why is no one talking about it, nor recognising its composition?"

Mike: Well….I have a couple favourites that I feel are sort of "quintessential", for which I have never read or received any specific positive reaction. These include Malaise from In This Life, also The Aesthete from In Extremis, which has some moments that I'm particularly proud of. I also like The Underground Stream from AHoM quite a lot, although I think our mix might have obscured some of what I like about it. But on the other hand, I have been often surprised by the level of appreciation some people have expressed for our first two albums, which I have always thought were somewhat weak or incomplete, being more "developmental" as they were. The first album, A Thinking Plague, always seemed to me to be pretty arcane and somewhat of a hodgepodge. But I guess it did capture a certain ethic that was able to be communicated to listeners many years after the fact - most people never heard it until the Cuneiform re-release in 2,000, nearly twenty years after it was recorded.

Ragazzi: And there is no Dave Kerman on drums - why not?!?

Mike: Quite simply, Dave moved to Switzerland to live and work, and he was no longer particularly interested in being involved. Also, there are obviously other gifted drummers who have much to offer.

Ragazzi: Not that many Thinking Plague albums came out over the years, with long breaks between each of the albums. There is much more composed material than issued on CD - right? When you work today on new music for a upcoming Thinking Plague release - how will this new music sound? Is there any chance of knowing when the next Thinking Plague album will be released (and at Cuneiform records?)?

Mike: There is certainly a lot of mainly unfinished material - some merely motifs or themes, some grooves, and some well developed ideas that somehow lost momentum, or that have simply never been finished. As for the next TP album, I am at work on music, but the "mission" has not yet become fully clear. We are experiencing more personnel and instrumentation adjustments, and I can't say yet exactly how that will be reflected in new music. We are also experimenting with some new techniques, different instrumentation, and as I say, we've added another guitarist who plays very differently from me. I'm also encouraging my colleagues to write some material specifically for TP. This hasn't happened in quite a long time, and perhaps we can rectify that. As for the label, I have no reason to think that it would not be released by Cuneiform.

Ragazzi: Please say what no-one has asked you about the new work? What reaction have you missed?

Mike: Well, no one has really asked me why the focus on such a negative theme - the end of civilization, as it were. It has been commented on at length, but it seems like no one really wants to delve into it. Maybe, and hopefully, it's all too obvious and self-evident. Down deep almost everyone knows we've made a mess of the planet, and are seemingly stuck in an economic and political model that appears to be leading to extinction. It is an unpleasant topic, but what could be more urgent?

I'm also, as usual, a little disappointed that critics and listeners don't seem to want to talk about the elements of the music, itself. They use lots of the usual descriptors - complex, dense, disorienting, intensity, chaos, bleak, austere! - hehehh - but no one comments about, or asks about the actual structure or the harmonic and rhythmic content of the music. Of course, most people are not musicians or musicologists….but many are very sophisticated in their tastes and understanding. But, as they say - for us, the music is everything.

Ragazzi: Guitar, clarinet and (a kind of) Mellotron are the main melodic instruments, besides the grand vocal lines. Partly it sounds a lot like the old 70s sound - in you own style. Is the aesthetic of the band sound your personal arrangement or the work of the whole, or part, of the band?

Mike: When I write the music, I create a midi version of each score that utilizes a very basic General Midi palette of sounds, which I tweak and adjust a lot to get a good demo of the piece. These sounds are only intended to get the band members an idea of what the song sounds like, so they can learn the parts more easily. I always put some notes in their charts about the type of sound I'm imagining, but it is never a rigid requirement. I talk and email with them about my thoughts, but I don't "command" anything - at least not as a rule…hehehh. Also, lots of adjustments can be made now in the digital mixing environment. The use of mellotron samples was something that Kimara and I discussed in advance, and for which we devised strategies for altering and modifying the sounds. As I say, I've always loved the "weirder" use of mellotrons. We just wanted to try to get some of the "weirdness", using some samples we had, not with any intention of evoking the 70s, but rather because we wanted to see what we could do with them…because we liked them.

Bilder: Lutz Diehl (sowie zwei Pressefotos, Cuneiform Records) http://www.progrockfoto.de/index.php?id=3&album=0836.Rock%20in%20Opposition%20-%2012%20France/6.Thinking%20Plague/

Herzlichen Dank, Lutz, für die großartigen Fotos!