Daniel Martin-McCormick has an air of authenticity about him. Exuding an intense and slightly frazzled vibe which belies his unspoiled, youthful looks, it's easy to imagine him as a righteously angry punk of the late-70s. On the other hand, the way he punctuates his conversation with 'man' and the occasional 'right on'- added to the fact he will later indulge in some barefoot interpretative dancing during tonight's gig with his band Mi Ami at Leeds' Nation of Shopkeepers - makes it just as easy to sense in him a kinship with the free-wheelin' hippies who once roamed his home city of San Francisco.
That last comparison is something Daniel might not be too happy about, as I'll discover later, but what I'm trying to communicate is that he comes across as idealistic without being naive and something of an old soul in a young body. Throughout our interview, conducted while sheltering from the pouring English summertime rain, he frequently becomes a little agitated, jerking his gangly limbs a little, eyes flicking this way and that. This guy possibly has an overactive adrenal gland, I think to myself. But he directs this surfeit of energy into some likably forthright answers, just as he will later channel it into a blistering live set.
I was keen to talk to Daniel from the moment I saw the cover of Mi Ami's recently released second album, Steal Your Face. It featured a cut up and vandalised picture of Bob Marley and the juxtaposition of this with the album's title seemed witty and impish, making a salient point about appropriation and iconography without being preachy. In the best possible way, it was very punk, something that goes for Mi Ami's music if you take punk to be a mutable collection of principles and strategies rather than a rigid set of parameters within which music can be made.
Before forming Mi Ami, Daniel had played with bassist Jacob Long in Washington DC band Black Eyes, who combined hardcore punk with free jazz. After that band's dissolution, the two relocated to San Francisco where they eventually hooked up with Palermo to form Mi Ami. Mi Ami's music, beginning with 2009's Watersports and continuing with the excellent, incendiary Steal Your Face, is a thrillingly idiosyncratic collision of no wave, mutant disco, space rock, Afrobeat, hardcore punk, Krautrock, psychedelia and malfunctioning electronica. Most of it revolves around the insanely good drumming of Damon Palermo, who takes tom-heavy, tribal rhythms and creates something accessibly funky as well as infernally complex. The guy deserves to be up there with Jaki Liebezeit and Klaus Dinger in the list of all time great drummers.
So if you get the chance to see Mi Ami live, go for it. The live arena is where they make total sense. But, in the meantime, here's Soundblab's interview with Daniel Martin-McCormick for your edification. Right on.
I read your two albums were both recorded live in five days. Why did you choose to do that?
Our music is essentially live music. In some ways it's very meticulous but there's an element of it which emphasises the live dynamic and the subtle changes of live interplay. It wouldn't really be possible to do it track by track even if we wanted to. I mean, first of all I'm not really interested in doing that way. I understand some bands write their music and stuff in the studio but for me, you know, we play a lot, we practice a lot and so it's like, there's not really any point to "Oh, we'll do first the drums and then the bass". That's not how we work. If you work with a good engineer and you practice your music, it's going to be alright.
Sometimes on Steal Your Face the music sounds improvised. Do you improvise when you're playing?
Yes and no. We don't improvise as in "We'll make up this part as we go" but... I mean, at the end of 'Latin Lover' where there's this keyboard noise going on; we've played that song a bunch of times and each time the keyboard noise comes out it's different but it's not random, it's just in relation to however that performance is going. We do improvise in relation to how each exact thing is measured out but you always know where you're supposed to be and what kind of vibe you should be cultivating so you're not completely adrift in a sea of jamming. That's my least favourite musical thing. People are like, "Oh yeah, we'll just do whatever!" It's like, fuck you. I want know where you're going, I want to feel that it has some purpose.
Is recording that way - getting everything down in five days - a stressful experience?
No, it's cool because by the time we go in there we know we've practiced and we know what we're doing. We set up and we know how we want the amps to sound. We've also recorded every time with a friend of ours who's a really skilled engineer and he knows what he's doing and he knows what we're doing. It's about as stressful as going to the grocery store. You're like "What do I want to eat for dinner tonight?" You know? (Laughs) Some bands go into the studio and they need to come up with something there. I've never done that in my life.
Do you think it's an experience that other bands could benefit from?
What, knowing how to play your own music? Yeah, probably! I think every band should know how to play their music well.
I mean, being strict with themselves in that way?
But we're not strict. We get what we need. It doesn't take five days because it's cheap; we book five days because that's what we need. There's not any more time needed because an album's about half-an-hour long so we do one to three takes of each song and then mix it. I don't know. It's not very hard. Playing music is not a strenuous process, it's enjoyable. We like to play it and we like to work on it.
Steal Your Face's title and cover made me want to listen to it and really like it before I heard it.
Ah, right on!
Is there a meaning behind the cover image of Bob Marley with that title?
Definitely. There're a couple more images in there. There's Jerry Garcia and then Jim Morrison on the inside. Steal Your Face is a Grateful Dead record. It's the idea of these so-called radical cultural heroes who are so corrupted and their images are disseminated as tokens of 60s' idealism or the legacy of that. To me it's funny; Steal Your Face is the name of the Grateful Dead logo of the skull and the lightning bolt. That shit is so... For lack of a better word, douchey. You know, it's pretty fake and douchey and pretty corrupted and has so much more to do with selling the image of something as a commodity.
It stands for something revolutionary, theoretically, but it's all a commodity and has nothing to do with revolution. That's kind of the idea behind it: when you make something and you release it into the world, how much control do you have over it? What is truly radical? What is truly meaningful? Also, Marley was kind of an inside joke in our group. We joke about Marley all the time. I've got a Marley shirt for the tour.
Yeah, I was going to say! Do you like Bob Marley then?
It's kind of impossible to talk about Bob Marley outside of the hideous, bullshit culture that surrounds his music. And his music is fine, you know; he's got a good voice and it's sweet. I listen to reggae a lot (but) I've never owned a Bob Marley record. I'm not going to buy Legend.
I've never met anyone who likes reggae who's like 'Oh, Bob Marley!'
Well, I know! He's great, but it's kind of a different thing. And it's the same with Bob Dylan. I mean, 'Like a Rolling Stone' - I mean, that song is great! That song is so good! But you hear it so much and it becomes associated with so many negative things that you've got to say goodbye to it or somehow process that and find a way to step outside of that.
Do you guys have your own counter-culture references that you look to?
Personally, the big one is Black Flag. The way they ran their band and the intensity with which they played and their vibe is so stellar. But even then, man, they put out some shitty records. It's not like I'm a huge Rollins Band fan. But I think classic-era Flag is what it's about. That's what it's about, going for it so hard.
Are there other bands around now that you'd recommend?
Oh yeah, there're some bands. Zs from New York; Reggie Dokes from Detroit, Atlanta I think; Beautiful Swimmers from Washington DC; Psychic Reality from San Francisco. There are some good bands, man, but it's funny, I was checking out some shows and the stuff that was really hyped - I felt like it was kind of reassuring but I was like, "I have no feeling for this music." Generally, I feel like the music that is most hyped in the indie world just feels so alien to me, like unexciting, unimportant.
It's kind of reassuring to think I don't have to worry about getting on the cover of NME or whatever because that's a whole different thing, man. It's a strange time. Back in the day, it seemed like there were these bands who were underground, and they were huge in the underground, and nobody in the aboveground knew about them, but now it's like the bands who are the so-called underground are the new pop bands.
Is San Francisco a good, supportive place for bands that are more experimental like yourselves?
Sure, it's a really good scene. It's kind of like scenes within scenes. It's actually more a social institution than anything else. You want to do your thing, you just get a couple of people together and it'll probably work out fine. I'm not super-thrilled with the stuff that's hitting it big there right now but there're good bands and it's cool to be in a place with tons of shit happening all the time. I used to live in Washington DC and there was a very specific scene and when something wasn't happening with that, it was pretty much not happening. When those people moved away, up to New York and stuff, that scene collapsed.
With the Bob Marley image, did you have any trouble with copyright?
Well, you know (laughs)... Didn't really look into it. Keep my fingers crossed.
What's next for you guys?
Head back home and start to work on some new shit. I feel like Steal Your Face was the encapsulation of a lot of stuff that we've been working on since day one. I'm really curious to see what we do next because I don't think any of us have a very clear idea. I'm sure it will reveal itself. I think we all want it to be a change. I mean, not like (puts on mock dramatic voice) "Oh, now we all play keyboards!" But like - push it.