While Geographer's Mike Deni isn't given to pretense, he's been known to wax a little philosophical from time to time. One such pearl of wisdom: "You never want to accomplish what you set out to do. That's when you've really failed." Granted, the Jersey transplant was referring to his attempts to reach the "incredibly high standard of synthesizer work" set by Prince. But you get the sense that the guy doesn't exactly let himself off easy.
Deni's been teamed up with like-minded obsessives, cellist Nate Blaz and drummer Brian Ostreicher, both chums from their days at Berklee College of Music, since 2008. In the last three-odd years, the group has become one of San Francisco's best-kept secrets on the back of its hazy, retro-futuristic arrangements of cello, synthesizers, electronic beats, and Deni's heartfelt tenor. The resulting sound invites a whole host of comparisons, with Andrew Bird covering early M83 seeming particularly apt.
I sat down with the trio at John Vanderslice's Tiny Telephone studio, which is tucked in a corrugated shack in an unremarkable corner of Potrero del Sol Park. Despite the studio's ramshackle outward appearance, its interior reveals a magical and thoughtfully constructed space: the analog recording connoisseur's, er, analogue to Doctor Who's TARDIS. The group recorded its new full-length, Myth, in the studio last year and, according to Deni, the members have "never had as much time to craft songs."
That said, the "home-field advantage" of recording in San Francisco proper appears to have kept the band from working round-the-clock. "It was important for us to be able to go home and sleep in our own beds after a day in the studio," says Ostreicher. Adds Blaz, "A large part of our agenda was determined by when Eli [Crews, who engineered tUnE-yArDs' w h o k i l l] was available. He's a family man, which helped us keep a more regular work schedule."
Deni waffles a bit when asked about his process creating Myth, which is out Feb. 28 on Modern Art Records. "I would love to say something more interesting than 'We wanted to make better music,'" he says at first. Once the band members reach back to their memories of recording, however, they reveal an intricate, almost obsessive conceptual process. "There's more of a desire to really sculpt songs, sculpt sounds, and we've had more time than ever to do that," Blaz recalls. "There was also a sense of figuring what the song wants, as if it were an entity."
Deni continues, "We wanted every sound to be as specific as possible. It's not like every sound can be perfect, but we really wanted to take time with each sound. We had to have just the right amp, just the right pedal, the right room, everything."
Taken at face value, the assertion can sound a little like standard band-speak, but listening to Myth, the mandate of specificity takes on a dynamic meaning. Deni points out Blaz's moaning, compressed cello on "Vesijarvi" specifically: "It was so harsh by itself, but within the context of everything else, it fit so well. Opening ourselves up to that distortion, that harshness, that feedback, was just so fun."
"Fun" is not a word that many of the band's previous profilers readily associate with Geographer. It's well-documented that Deni wound up in the Bay Area soon after the untimely deaths of his father and sister. In the past, Deni has acknowledged the catharsis in his lyrical process, and he's no less thoughtful regarding Myth.
"This is the first time I've had a notion behind the whole album," Deni says. "The album's about the myths that people live by so they can cope with their lives. That was a very powerful idea to me.
"I was struggling with the notion that life doesn't make any sense, so I was asking myself: What are the things that people do to cope? People act as though everything is fine, but things are crazy on a very basic level. Dealing with that was very emotionally powerful."
Indeed, the lyrical content of "Blinders," "Lover's Game," and "The Myth of Youth" explores themes of existential escapism, and Deni's vocals sound as haunting as ever. But Myth seems looser, jammier, and yes, even fun: more a band at play than in any of its previous recordings. When asked about artistic inspirations for Myth, Ostreicher gleefully exclaims "BROOOOCE!" and indeed, the Boss' influence reigns. Lately, Deni's been having strange dreams about joining contemporary groups such as Outkast and the Flaming Lips, though his respect for Springsteen apparently relegated him to backstage manager in that one. Nevertheless, "[The dreams] all rocked!" Deni says enthusiastically. "Except when I was with the Flaming Lips. I ruined the whole show."
An armchair psychologist might assign Deni's dreams to a subconscious awareness of his band's impending breakthrough. In addition to their growing, loyal, and increasingly geographically diverse set of fans, Geographer has already begun to win mainstream attention, even if it doesn't quite follow the standard Indie Rock Guide to Success. In 2011, producers at MTV nabbed the band's music to feature in two shows in their teen-oriented programming block, The Buried Life and Awkward. Steeled against any ridiculous claims of selling out, the band was enthusiastic about being included. "I think it's cool that, y'know, we're not really a huge band and [yet] they put our songs on The Television," says Deni, the prosody of his T's emphasizing a detached awe of MTV's particular brand of boob tube. Then he flashes a sly smile: "And teen angst never hurt a band."