Michelles’ Michael Daly Builds a Bigger Sound with ‘The Empty Promises of Rock and Roll’ (INTERVIEW)

Photo credit: Chuck Przbyl

Chicago-based Indie entity Michelles recently released their third album, The Empty Promises of Rock and Roll, which was their first in five years. While the time it took to make the album stemmed at least partly from the global situation, it’s also the result of composer, vocalist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Michael Daly carefully building a bigger sound for the new work while following a developmental path from their previous LP, Dark as a Daisy. Recording almost all the parts himself, and joined by drummer Ryan Farnham, Daly took the album further in a Psych-Pop direction as well as making the videos that have been released so far to accompany the singles “Never Gonna Get It” and “Magical Thinking”.

Daly has been fairly outspoken about the difficulties that a constant demand for “content” on the internet creates for artists, taking away from creative time or simply taking time away from just experiencing human life. I spoke with Daly about this balancing act expected from artists, the pros and cons of recording so much of the album himself, why there might be a lighter side to this new work, and about the making of these striking, and at times surreal, videos. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: I understand that you played many different musical parts yourself on this album. Was that quite a challenge in terms of time and energy? 

Michael Daly: There are certainly pros and cons. Obviously, it’s more work if you’re doing everything. I’m playing all the instruments and writing all the parts, so that’s about four times more work. It’s more labor-intensive, but it’s also emotionally exhausting because you’re dealing with yourself all the time. Me dealing with myself is exhausting. But I have played in bands that were more collaborative before and there are great things about that. It’s not that I’m opposed to it, but I started making the music after a previous band had imploded and I had to figure out what to do, so I started doing it all. Then I kept doing it all. It’s worked out relatively well. If you are multi-instrumental, it does give you different options.

HMS: Because you had recorded on your own before for previous records, have you progressively tried to bring in things you haven’t done before? Is that something we can see on this album?

MD: I’d say that this album is just more of everything. That was a goal of mine, for it to be bigger, and louder, and have more stuff. It was a maximalist approach to make a big Pop record. I don’t think it turned out like a big Pop record, but that was sort of the idea in the back of my mind. It was a challenge to make that sound without hiring anybody else. I think you can still hear that it’s still my music and comes from the same place as the other records, but I think it’s bigger and shinier. There’s a lot more synths going on in some places. There’s a lot more acoustic guitar for some reason. There are lots of vocal harmonies. It’s the same trajectory as where things have been going, though, following the path. 

HMS: I was looking back through your previous album, Dark As A Daisy, and I can see a lot of continuity, but to my mind the songs on the previous album were a little denser or heavier, whereas these new songs have a bigger soundscape and seem to spread out through more layers.

MD: Yes, the last record was definitely more of a lo-fi affair with a rawer sound to it. My idea that time was almost the opposite of what I’ve done this time, where I wanted it to be crunchy and rough. Part of that was recording circumstances, saying, “I meant for that to happen.” You wind up with a sound like it’s coming from the bottom of a trashcan, but in a good way. It has a dark crunch to everything.

HMS: I wanted to ask you about your thoughts on how much content artists are expected to pour onto the internet these days at a fast pace, since I had seen you comment on this in the past. It jumped out at me because you have been pretty direct about it.

MD: The music business has always been a terrible and exhausting business, probably since Edison, but everything has been spiraling in this arms race of keeping yourself out there constantly. It is driven a lot by streaming, I think. Obviously, you used to be able to put out a record a year or every two years, and you could press some copies and it was done. You could take some photos, and do some interviews, and play some shows, but now you’re expected to maybe cut that record up into twelve pieces and chunk it out a month at a time. And then you take that month and chunk it up into thirty pieces where you take a picture of yourself practicing it every day. 

You post a snippet of this new part that you’ve developed to keep people interested and keep eyeballs on you because there are too many places to put eyeballs. It’s the “throw spaghetti at the wall” approach to creativity, which, I think, is detrimental to creativity. Every second that you spend trying to figure out the best hashtag so that people will see a post of your new song is a second you’re not spending becoming a better guitar player, or reading something that inspires you, or taking a nap. It can be challenging. But at the same time, this is the world that we made. No one did this to us. We wanted free, easy, cheap access and someone figured out how to give it to us. Now we’re getting it and this is where we are. Some of us handle it better than others, but I’m probably the world’s worst networker. I’ve tried the maximalist approach to blasting out content and sometimes it can be rewarding. 

HMS: Timing also plays a much bigger role than many people realize, and you’d have to be a supercomputer to predict all the timing elements accurately. It’s also supposedly an egalitarian system to release by streaming, but all in all, the people who seem to keep their musical lives the steadiest are people who develop a grassroots connection to their fanbases and can rely on that. It’s a crazy landscape. 

MD: It is. We all complained about the gatekeepers, the labels, and the A&R men and wanted them to go away because they were blocking our access to fame and fortune. Then they did, and we’re left fighting it out while the same big dogs are still calling the shots on who gets the plays. We’re led to believe that because it’s easier than ever to bring access for your music to a worldwide audience, it’s going to happen, but that’s not necessarily the case. In some ways it’s more difficult. It’s a tough playground, but what hasn’t changed is that connecting to a local scene and having actual human people who enjoy your music via all the old-fashioned stuff, like local radio and college radio, is still the most important and beneficial stuff. You need to make a connection, as difficult as it can be. 

HMS: Are you someone who likes a longer period to work on songs, or are you just speaking more practically, that the current torrent of content is not humanly possible, really?

MD: I think the amount of time that I, personally, have taken between records this time is excessive. I’d like to put out things at a faster clip. It’s partly doing everything myself, but it’s partly perfectionist tendencies that I have where I will redo something way more times than it needs to be done. There’s no one telling me to knock it off. I’ll suddenly realize that a song needs twelve more guitar parts. Then two years later, you wonder, “What am I doing here?” [Laughs] Things do take time and patience is important. I admire artists who can crank out records, like Bowie writing, mixing, and recording within a two-week period in the 70s. I would love to jump in that river. But lots of these songs have been in various states of genesis for a long time, and took that long, whereas some of them took a month. It’s frustrating but it’s how I work.

HMS: Based on listening to the album, I can see how the maximalist approach can contribute to the album taking a long time, since it has so many layers. 

MD: There’s some density for sure. There’s a lot of guitar parts, keyboard parts, and vocal parts. It’s pretty thick. But I’m glad it doesn’t sound overworked or dense to the point of muddiness.

HMS: One of the things that I think keeps that from happening is that the songs feel open-ended. The song structures are not traditional or rigid. 

MD: I can dig that. I try to occasionally make something a little unconventional in terms of format just to keep myself entertained. Also, what can I do to make my songs a little different from so much other music coming out? Song structures, or unique instrumentation, or whatever you can do helps to get your head above the forest. 

HMS: I see the term “psych” used in association with your music, in terms of psychedelia. Do you like that term, or do you find it misleading?

MD: It’s hard because in the classic sense of psychedelia, I’m a big fan. I love early Pink Floyd records and whatever psych of 1967 and 1968 is a big influence. There are definitely things today that are neo-psychedelic, bands that are operating today but sound like 1967. Then there’s stuff like my music. Genre-izing is something I find difficult, but I don’t mind “psychedelic” because I think it hints at a swirling sound of textures and colors, which I would agree with, and I think about. I like the term “Psych-Pop”. I think it’s close enough. 

HMS: What do you think about the relationship between “Psych-Pop” and “Psych-Rock”? 

MD: I’m definitely a Rock person as well, but in my mind, Psychedelic Rock connotes heavier, big guitars and wah pedals and a more jamming sound. Whereas with Psychedelic Pop, you could take this song, you could play it on an acoustic guitar, and it would sound like a pretty little ditty. It can be earwormy. But then you pile on a bunch of stuff that makes it more interesting and colorful. If you take Magical Mystery Tour and you take away all the mellotrons and the backwards guitars, you still have songs you can play on the piano that wouldn’t have been out of place a few years prior. In this new context and filter, you get something different and it’s Psych-Pop.

HMS: I love that you call Magical Mystery Tour Psych-Pop. Certainly from today’s perspective looking back, that’s what it appears to me, whether or not they intended it to be.

MD: Who knows what anyone intended in 1967? They were too busy having a good time and wearing cool clothes.

HMS: They really were. But I can see the Psych-Pop ideas on The Empty Promises of Rock and Roll, with the lighter layers. “Illusions” makes for a great first single. I think the sound is a good representation of the album, with some of everything.

MD: That was one of the later tunes that came together rather quickly, and I think by then the album had developed some sounds and things I liked. I like some cohesiveness or else you can’t really call it a record. It’s got a medium, forward-looking tempo, it’s got some fun vocal harmonies, it’s got sparkly synths. It does sort of grab the vibe. I have a problem with extended outros. I always want to keep going. It’s a live performance feeling with a big final chorus feeling. You just want to play it one more time. I like that feeling.

HMS: This one would be really interesting live as a longer song, and as you’ve said, the way it’s structured means it can be extended. An extreme example of that is “Hey Jude”. 

MD: [Laughs] That’s a fine example of an extended outro. It sounds good, just play it again, and every time you come back around, the drums get a little dizzier, and everyone gets even more into it. It’s great.

HMS: This song does build up in a pretty positive way. Is this the most positive song on the album? I notice the song-order seems to go from lighter, to slightly darker, to lighter again. The lyrics feel like that, too. 

MD: It’s an emotional journey, an emotional whiplash. There is, and always has been, a very dark current in everything I’ve done. Lately, I’ve been feeling almost like that’s been a crutch. So I’ve been seeing what other feelings there are. You have to have some room for revelation and change, and that popped out in some songs on this record, I think. They start in a dark place and take a more optimistic look, or at least express the possibility of a better place, even if you’re not there yet. 

HMS: “Not Gonna Get It” has a lot of mood and drama. Is that a song that’s more about resignation, or is it darker than that?

MD: I think resignation would be dark. But there is this idea of acceptance, that you can’t rely on people to understand where you’re coming from. You can’t rely on other people for validation always, either because they are not going to give it to you, or they are going to get it wrong. You have to have a good sense of self to proceed through life, especially in any creative pursuit, because you’re going to spend a good amount of your time getting told, “No.” Or you’ll just be ignored, which is the worst kind of “No.” The song hints at that, saying that’s just what you’re going to have to deal with.

HMS: The video for that song is really interesting. It reminds me of ink-blot tests and silent films. It looks similar to the album art. 

MD: There’s some consistency to the look of it and with the sound, I think. There’s a sparseness to the song, a monochromatic vibe. A lot of my songs are really just conversations with myself and this video took that to a literal place. I think it turned out pretty cool looking. It has a mix between lo-fi grit and digital crispness that I think is also inherent in the music. It’s very Buster Keaton-esque. [Laughs]

HMS: The approach to the video for “Magical Thinking” is very different, using found footage from the 1970s. It’s totally strange stuff and great editing. The whole vibe is surreal.

MD: I like that it tells a little story and finds a narrative that’s not from the source footage. The original was some kind of industrial safety video that I stumbled across. I found my protagonist there and said, “She has a story to tell.” Her story didn’t get told in the original version, so I wanted to make sure that her truth came to light. [Laughs] It turned into a surreal, ridiculous story. 

HMS: What on earth is the source of the second video that’s used? They both have an equally strange atmosphere. 

MD: We’ve got the workplace video and the fantasy sequence of beautiful people in nature. [Laughs] That was definitely of the era of nudity in nature and big hair. It was something about finding your inner zen. Somehow those pieces of video fit together and made sense. It’s a kind of fever dream of our two selves, our daytime selves and our fantasy selves and how they work together and interact. 

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