Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

There’s always a bit of melodrama involved when a indie singer/songwriter or emo type in his early 20s writes about his life-destroying breakup: Dudes, you’re in your twenties, you’re supposed to have a horrible romantic life. Things get a lot more devastating to listeners when the songwriter is White Town’s Jyoti Mishra, an indie-pop veteran in his mid-40s and he spends an entire album sorting through the wreckage of his personal and romantic life after a decade-plus marriage goes down the tubes on Monopole. It isn’t quarter-life odes to The One That Got Away, but lamenting the irreplaceable loss of The One. For a guy best known for his 1997 mega-hit “Your Woman,” it’s a startlingly direct look inside his personal life.

It’s not like Mishra hasn’t attempted to distract himself from his loneliness. He started (and dropped out of) sociology and creative writing programs at the University of Derby. He buckled down and Monopole as the second release from his own label, Bzangy Groink, handling virtually everything from song inception to fanzine-level press. Still, there are events that define a life, and it’s hard not to come away from Monopole, with its start-to-finish chronicle of his wrecked relationship, with the feeling that Mishra will never be able to truly put the past few years behind him.

TIG: After all the misery that’s helped inspire this album, does it feel like it’s behind you with the release of this album?

Jyoti Mishra: It’s been a weird process, as you know. It would have been a lot sooner, because the last album was 2006, 2007. With divorce stuff and my parents being ill, it’s been difficult to get a continued bit of time to keep working. It’s taken much longer than I would have liked. I’m not like through the thing of being through it yet. It’s still in the process. It’s not like it’s a past album yet. When it’s a past album, I’ll be able to draw on it. It still feels too current. Everything I’m singing about on it feels too now, you know?

Is that because you’re so involved in every aspect of it, handling all songwriting, performing, recording, album art and running the label, are you more immersed in the emotion tied into the songs?

JM: I think if I handed it off to anybody else, even down to the videos and stuff. I know it’s my own fault, because I’m too much of a control freak. I want everything to be right. It’s partially based on bad experiences before, which were a long time ago. I’m talking about EMI stuff. When you work really hard on something and get a graphic design back that’s just awful, it kind of puts you off to working with other people again. [Laughs] I know there’s probably great people out there that I could use, but I’ll just do it myself, even though I’m not really a graphic designer. I just knock up something that will do.

After having problems with other people in the past, do you get to the point where it’s just easier to do everything yourself than try to explain your ideas and struggle with other people?

JM: I’m not a trained graphic designer, so it’s always going to be worse if I do it myself, because I haven’t got that knowledge or craft, but it will be better than someone doing a botched job, like a slick botched job. The same with videos; I’ve already made a few short films. I’m not a filmmaker. I’m sure if I had the money and the ability to hand it over to a proper director, I’d get back the videos that were vector-edited and all that kind of stuff. But, A)  who can I find to do it, and B) I can’t afford it. It’s like you just do it yourself. It’s partially political, and partially no money.

I think that’s why a lot of the original DIY stuff died off. A lot of people rewrite history and say, “Oh, it’s because they wanted to be independent,” and all that. Often, it’s because you couldn’t afford to do anything else. You just had to. People laid out fanzines on typewriters because who’s got the first version of Quark Xpress when it came out? You didn’t have that kind of stuff. You had to do it on typewriters.

The best way to force yourself to learn anything is to jump in the deep end and say, “This has to be a finished product,” isn’t it?

JM: In the end, I ended up doing the design for the EMI albums. They took me to all these graphics people and we went through the process. I got this hideous thing back. I just said, “Look, I’ll just knock something up.” Actually thinking about it, apart from a couple of EMI singles, which were horrendous designs, everything I’ve produced has been designed by me. You can tell. If you look at the very first album, which is very, very laid out in a word processing program, because I didn’t have access to (desktop publishing programs) up to now, I think it’s got better. [Laughs] I only do it once every three or four years, so I don’t get much practice. If I was designing an album a week, I’d probably be a lot better by now. The same with the videos. When I finally do the 10 or 11 videos for this album, by the time I’ve done those I should be a lot better at making videos.

Why did you choose to make a video for every track on the album?

JM: It’s a twofold thing. First of all, I love film and am an ex-film student. That’s part of my wanky background. I like thinking about narrative visual flow. I love the old “Your Woman” video. That was directed by Mark Adcock. He came up with all the ideas, but we talked about it loads. We were both into the same stuff, like German expressionism, and not having typical slow motion. Still, now 20 years later, I see so many videos that are slow-mo because they can’t think of anything else to do! It’s like, “Let’s have a shot of that band hitting some drums in slow-mo because it looks more expressive and powerful.” No it fucking doesn’t. It just looks stupid. Or the live videos! We know you’re not plugged in. We know you’re not playing the song. What’s that about? It’s OK if it’s Coldplay or U2 or something like that. You expect them to be shit and boring.

When it’s a new band of twentysomething kids that are meant to be a punk band or something, you think, “Already? Already you’re doing this?” It’s like a genre convention. They’ve seen what rock videos are meant to look like, so they want theirs to look like that. The same with Auto-Tune. People hear Auto-Tuned vocals and they want their vocals to sound like that, whether they can sing or not. I heard, I can’t remember the band, a proper lo-fi, shambling indie band. They were sort of like an All Girl Summer Fun Band, which I love, they were that kind of style, but they Auto-Tuned the vocals! The vocals, which are meant to be a bit out of tune, a bit shambly and Pastels-y and Marine Girls-y were just in tune, and horribly in tune. Like, it made you want to tip your head sideways like a dog in tune.

Why do you think Auto-Tune’s become so widespread and accepted instead of being reviled?

JM: I think the basic reason is because people are twats. People are just imitating monkeys. They just hear someone. I’m not knocking the guy, he might be lovely and really good to his mum and all that, but when the Owl City thing came out, all these people who said they loved it, had they never heard Postal Service? It was just a slap in the face for anyone who’s ever heard Postal Service or anything that Ben Gibbard’s ever done. (Owl City’s Adam Young) just ripped his style completely. Then he Auto-Tuned it, and it was, “This is a modern thing! This band is like this.” Well, Ben Gibbard sings like that live. I’ve seen Death Cab live. He sings more in tune than he did on the record! The man’s a fucking tuning robot. He’s never out of tune. He didn’t need that. His records are a correct representation of how he sings. He’s a beautiful, wonderful singer

I’m not so good. I’m not so tuneful. When I’m recording stuff, I want it to sound like me. Otherwise, people hear the record and they come to the shows and are, “Well, he’s shit. He sounds nothing like on the record.” I know you can use Auto-Tune live now, but that just boggles my brain why people would do that.

I hate what I call ProTools punk now. Everything is beat-detected into time, everything is Auto-Tuned, all the guitars are looped about and jumped about. If you think about it, and I’m sure you have, the records that come out now are more electronic than the records Kraftwerk made. There’s less manipulation on a trance or house or dubstep record. People just get some sequences going, and just taped it. With modern guitar rock, I’ve seen bands with studios machine songs. They just take a second of one guitar from somewhere, and stick it on another second of guitar and take some feedback and make the start exciting, even though it wasn’t really there.

That eventually comes back around to haunt bands when they try to perform and can’t even approximate their album.

JM: It’s a valid artistic thing to do. I don’t mind Aphex Twin doing that. I find it a little bit weird when a rock band does it. Just record the shambling live sound, and leave it at that. One of the things that this album is about, apart from my horrendous love life, is just trying to do something that feels – I’m sounding like Neil Young, aren’t I? – that feels more raw and more real and less worried about how it’s received. If a musician says they don’t care what people think about their record, they’re lying. Every musician is always worried if you have half a brain thinking, “How’s it going to sound?” That’s just how you record stuff.

With this thing, I was thinking I just wanted to do it so it’s not fashionable or like a dubstep breakdown, you know what I mean? No ravey synths going on for no reason.

Was it difficult to break from all the modern influences that seep into your songwriting unconsciously?

JM: Yeah. With the songwriting process, I mostly write on guitar and transfer it to either guitar or keyboards. The song is just a song. I have to decide how to frame it. Is it a synth song or is it a guitar song? What serves it best? Then, you kind of think, “What should I use?” The electronic songs on the album, they’re pure electronic songs. How do I frame them? Do I try to make them sound more contemporary, or do I do things that I like, which is going to make them sound more ’80s-ish? In doing that, is it going to make them sound ’80s contemporary? You can go around in circles and go mental. You think, “Oh God, that sounds too ’80s. People will think I’m trying to be ’80s.” Then you have to stop yourself and go, “Fuck it. Do I like this sound? Does it suit the song?”

Is it tough to write a song on the guitar then take in in a direction on other instruments?

JM: It’s not actually something I invented. Depeche Mode used to do it. It was an old trick of theirs. When they started off, they were a guitar band and they switched to synths because they heard Gary Numan and liked it. It’s good to do that. Also, I will go the other way. I will write things on keyboards and move them to guitar because you end up with these songs that if you’ve been writing a long time, you have a specific way of approaching an instrument, a rut. It’s hard to keep out of those ruts. If I write something on the guitar, I do chords I wouldn’t do on a keyboard, and when I transcribe them, it’s all, “This goes to what now?” I’m trying to play them and it’s all weird shapes and vice versa. Things I write on the keyboard, when I move them to the guitar, I can’t play them because I’m a shit guitar player. I’ve now been recording myself for 29 years now, so I need to find ways of not being comfortable in the studio.

Do you spend a lot of time developing songs as recordings verses traditional songwriting?

JM: A lot of the time I spend is what I call mooching time. The only way I can describe that is, if you’ve ever read any books by or about mathematicians, they’re always going on about how they were trying to work on a problem and they couldn’t do it, and they went for a bike ride or walked over the river or went to the café and suddenly it clicked in their head. It’s the same with songs, for me at least. Every song on that album, or anything I’ve ever done, comes from this weird kind of feeling inside me that something is kind of wrong. I don’t know what’s wrong. It’s kind of disquiet. You feel unsettled. It’s like you can kind of see something out of the corner of your eye, but when you look, it’s not there. It’s a kind of weird feeling. Then I kind of know that’s a song. I’m feeling something and I don’t quite know what it is. You have to write the song to get out what the feeling is.

To a certain extent, once you’ve done that, that’s cathartic. It reduces or minimizes it, if you do the job well. If you do it badly, it’s still there. So, it becomes like a mathematical problem in my head. I’ll have this feeling, but I won’t have a handle on what it is that I feel. Then I’ll go and do mooching  time, which is going to a café or taking photos or doing something that is not related to music at all, and then the song will come out. Like, I’ll have a lyric just come into my head, or I’ll have a stanza or sometimes the whole thing will just pop into my head. Unlike a lot of people, I don’t sit in the studio bashing away at stuff. I have to have the feelings first, then the idea and then the song writes itself. It’s really easy.

So you need to have a weird feeling to seed a song?

JM: The more emotionally unstable I am, the more I write. It’s been a really bad three or four years, but in terms of writing, it’s been amazing because I’ve just been writing and writing and writing. Sometimes I’ll write three or four songs in a day. I’m not saying they’re good songs, but I’ll do them and they will mean something. I don’t know if they mean enough to play to other people, but they work for me. Out of those songs, I’ll pick things that I think are worth other humans’ ears. Writing isn’t a problem for me. I thought as I got older, it would be. In fact, it’s gotten easier.

After you exercise those weird feelings by writing songs, do you have emotional flashbacks when you return and listen to that song later?

JM: Yeah. Sometimes it does, especially when you’re mixing them. Doing the album was a little – a little? I’m exaggerating – it was hugely strenuous. If  I’m mixing a song, I usually listen to it 40, 50 maybe 60 times if it’s a difficult mix. Then, it comes to mastering, I have the body of songs and I have to master them. On the album, you know that there are electronic tracks next to feedback-y guitar tracks. It wasn’t easy to balance them all together and make them feel like some kind of whole, because they are really hard to have them sit next to each other. During that process, I had to listen to the songs at least 100 or 150 times each, altogether. When you go back, sometimes you go back and listen and go, “This is horrendous. I don’t want to listen to this anymore, but I’ve got to mix it,” and it’s like picking a scab. Other times, you go back and you listen and you hear it and think, “This is OK. I did OK on this.”

You’ve always seemed to be very straightforward with your music instead of dressing it up or complicating it.

JM: It’s not poetry. You don’t need a thesaurus to work out what I’m writing about. When I was doing creative writing in Uni, which I’ve dropped out of, I had this end-of-year project and you had to write about a book of poetry. You had to write about poetry. I said to my lecturer, “Can I write about a science fiction book instead?” [Laughs] She’s like, “Are you submitting science fiction stories? You need to write about poetry.” I’m like, “Well, I don’t like poetry.” She’s like, “Why do you write poetry?” “I write poetry that I like. I don’t like reading it.” Of course, her response, which is true, was, “You need to read more poetry. There will be stuff out there that you like.” What I said to her was, “I don’t want to read stuff that’s trying to be clever.”

I don’t want to read stuff where I have to rub my fucking chin and go, “Oh! Interesting!” Just say what you fucking mean. I don’t have time to hang about. Nobody else has time to hang about. Just fucking get on with it and find a way to say it.

{Photo by Natalie Barratt.}