Michael Shuman has had a pretty exciting career so far - bass player for Queens of the Stone Age, drummer and vocalist for Mini Mansions, and former co-frontman for both Wires on Fire and Jubilee. Contactmusic.com spoke to Michael on the phone whilst they were in the middle of touring. He spoke about 'The Great Pretenders' (one of our favourite albums of 2015) and discussed things like how to make it in the music industry, playing bass on the soundtrack for Grand Theft Auto V, and working Brian Wilson & Alex Turner on their latest album.
Hi Michael, how are things? Sorry for getting you up so early!
It's not that early, actually - we're on our way to Chicago so we're actually in a different time zone. We've just had a nice day off, and now we're going to play at the Metro now with Royal Blood.
That sounds great, how have the dates been going?
Every night has been pretty amazing and the fans have been really great to us. It's all good.
You've said 'The Great Pretenders' is a lot more fun than your previous album - and that really comes across in the music too - do you feel that that element of fun has come out because you feel more confident as songwriters?
I guess maybe there's more fun involved because as a band, we've evolved and that allows us more freedom to experiment and be comfortable in our roles. I think the fun part, though, about the music, is that we wanted to make a different kind of record. Our first record was a little more subdued and focussed on more psychedelic elements that we were influenced by, while this album was about being able to take a record out live and tour and have fun with it.
The music press, in general, love the new album - in fact a lot of us have had a soft spot for Mini Mansions since the first LP - though you haven't managed to push through to the mainstream as quickly as we thought you could. Is there a pressure live up to deliver on these levels?
Honestly, there's no pressure. I think from the first record and when we were making this one, we weren't really expecting a whole lot of mainstream success. I think that we know what kind of band we are and what kind of music we've been wanting and trying to make. We realise that it isn't instant recognition from the mainstream fans and media. But it's not discouraging at all, because we feel that it's going well, we're gaining fans and people are starting to find out about the record. Touring has been great: once people get to see us live, understand what we're doing and what we do, I think they turn around. But it's not discouraging at all for us.
The band produced both records yourselves, do you think keeping that complete creative control is the only way to deliver a true Mini Mansions record?
I never thought about it like that, but I think the reason for that was because we've always been such a private band and kept it to the three of us, instrumentally and production wise. I think we'd been writing these songs so much that we knew what we were doing so we didn't want to change too much. We're totally open to ideas, our friend Michael Harris engineered the album; he was the only other guy in the room the whole time. We would work together on production things, but if you bring in someone else, the whole dynamic changes. I'm not saying we don't wanna work with a producer - we're totally open to it and want to do it in the future - but once these songs were developed, it felt unnecessary to have someone tear them apart and reconstruct something that we felt 100% confident in.
You had a couple of HUGE collaborations on the album, Brian Wilson & Alex Turner. What drew you to work with them?
I guess saying that we're a private band would seem ironic with us bringing on guests like that, but the only reason was because they were such organic and natural occurrences. We weren't planning on it, I'll tell you that much; we wanted to make this record, we locked ourselves in with our engineer, and it happened. With Brian, it was an opportunity that came to Zach, our bass-player, to play on his record, and it turned around and asked Brian to come over as a favour in a much greater way. With Alex, it was just that he's a friend, and we had an idea for the song 'Vertigo', but we were trying to figure out what kind of voice would be on the second verse, because we always wanted it to be something different. He just happened to be there in the moment, so when we went to do the vocals, it just happened to be right time, right place, right person to fill that role.
Did both of them just collaborate on the vocals or did they have a hand in production too?
No, it was just the vocals. Both songs were done and mixed, up until their part, and that was just the cherry on top. Alex wrote his own lyrics and melodies for that verse, so that is all him, though we worked together to make it the best possible. There's nothing like his lyrics and the way he uses them.
While you all have a brilliant musical resume, Mini Mansions is still quite a young band - was it daunting to work with a living legend like Brian?
Yeah, that's still something we pinch ourselves about: it'll not only be with us forever on a piece of music, but the idea that we had such a master who has influenced us our whole lives on our record is surreal. I've had the opportunity to work with a lot of artist and older musicians that I look up to on other projects, so I'm used to being the young one in the group, so it's more about having such a legend. But we played the song for him and he loved it, so we had to feel confident about that and believe that it's true. He was a vital addition to the song. Once he agreed and said that he loved it, all the fear and stress melted away.
Did you know that Brian Wilson used to have a large sandpit in his house with his piano in it? I guess it used to put him in the right mental space. Without going to those extremes, do you have any idiosyncrasies that help when writing?
Not really. We just work hard, because a process stems from a demo or an idea for a song. Because there's only three of us and we have to be happy with the finished product, we have to produce the sh*t out of it, and look at it from every way and every angle until we're all happy and all give it an 'OK'. We don't have any mantra or environment that we need. The only thing that was amazing for us was being in the Studio Vox, which is a beautiful little studio in Los Angles. Woody Jackson, the owner, has a gear collection that is the most amazing collection of vintage instruments and weird instruments that you can imagine, so that became our funhouse and we were able to explore every day and we were excited to go there all the time. That was probably the only thing which changed the trajectory of how it would be produced.
Mini Mansions have a really strong dress style, do you think that image is important for a musician?
I don't think it is for everybody; I think people are gonna have an image or a style whatever they're doing, whether it's casual or fancy or outlandish - everyone has their own individual style. I just think that for us, when we're going onstage, we're going to work. We're onstage to put on a show and present this music in a certain light. I think that along with videos, artwork and all that stuff, the way you present yourselves along with the music is just as important. We want to feel good and comfortable and confident when we go onstage; that's why we do it.
You recently appeared on the show 'Jools Holland' I guess having your image already sorted is kind of handy for TV appearances?
Yeah, you don't have to think about it. I love the idea of a uniform - I do it in my everyday life. I put on a black t-shirt and black jeans every day with my black boot and black jacket. I don't have to think about it, and as I've grown older it just makes more sense to me. I appreciate people who can be fun with their wardrobe, but for me there's no time for that. I know what I like, we know what we like - it makes it simple.
You also play for Queens of the Stone Age - has that given you any specific knowledge to help with your Mini Mansions work?
I think not just from Queens, but every experience musically, on the road and in business changes the way you view everything. I've learned ways to pack my clothing from Royal Blood on this tour, I've learned new ways of recording from the last Queens record, I've learned ways of treating local crew from touring. I think if you're smart and you're serious about doing this forever, you will watch how other people do things and take something from every experience. Queens has been invaluable: I joined the band when I was 21, even though I'd been a touring musician, it opened my eyes immensely so it's invaluable.
I believe you've done a bit of video game work, having played bass for GTA V's soundtrack -how did that come about?
That was through Woody Jackson who owns the studios where we recorded the album. He did the scoring and soundtrack for that game. He just called me and asked me to come down for a few days to do this. It was a very casual experience; one of the days it was just me and Deantoni Parks who plays in KUDU and is an amazing experimental drummer, so we just spent a day together experimenting, feeding off each other, doing all kinds of weird freestyle sh*t. It's funny with those things because it's such a brief moment in time that you don't think too much about, so you get thrown into the fire and later it'll be there on this massive level. I haven't even played the game so I don't know what the soundtrack sounds like. But it was super fun; I love that sh*t but I don't get to do it all that often. Going into a room with someone you respect as a musician who makes you play differently, harder, and better, is always a good feeling.
Is scoring or soundtrack work something you're interested in doing more of?
Definitely. We love scores on films so we'd love to be a part of that. It's a hard world to get into and it seems like there're a few guys who have a monopoly on that world. It's another outlet for us, and as much as we love being a band and touring, we just love creating music and have all kinds of fun making records that aren't like Mini Mansions, so we'd love to be able to write, create and not have our work looked at as a Mini Mansions song. We'd like it to be something else.
You've been signed to T Bone Burnett's Electromagnetic Records - is that a good fit for you guys?
Well, we're the only band on the label so we're the perfect fit. Going into it, it felt perfect and it still does because it's through Capital Records and they're a big part of our team and who we deal with. But having T Bone guide us into that, he's like our shepherd. He's allowed us to have complete freedom, creative control, and allowed us to do things that other bands on a major label maybe wouldn't be able to do. I think we've been very fortunate because no one has said anything about our music. He asked us to go make a record, we did, and he helped us once it was recorded with sequencing and mastering. Otherwise, we got complete control, even with artwork and videos. We were very fortunate because you don't really get that with major labels. He's such a great person, producer, and lover of music, so he knows everything. As far as all that goes, we can't beat it right now.
You seem to be constantly on the road at the moment, how's it going?
This tour has been the best we've ever done. We're getting the best response from fans, and it's been really exciting. It's hard to go on the road and do the same thing every day, playing the same songs to different groups of people, so you sometimes lose sight of what's going on in the real world in the big picture, life, and how it's translating outside of this sweaty club. But we've been having a lot of fun, the shows have been great, so you can't really complain.
A lot of bands find touring really draining, do you handle that side of things well?
I think we're just a pretty mellow bunch of dudes, but you can get really burnt out and we've done it before: if you over-party, you'll get burnt out; if you don't party, it'll get boring. You have to have some kinda balance in that, because you need things that make you feel normal and like a human being who's not just this robot out on the road. I hear people saying all the time 'I can't tour because of exhaustion', and I never really understood what that meant, until I realised it probably meant burning out from no sleep, partying, not taking care of yourself. Not to sound like a hippy, but that sh*t's important if you want to sustain. I've been touring pretty much non-stop for about eight years, so I've figured out how to make it work.
I read somewhere that you're moving over to the UK, is this correct?
We have a friend who lives there that we love staying at in London, so we've thought about moving there - maybe this year. We just love being over there, we love playing over there and we're looking to enjoy it.
Do you think you're a better fit for the UK music scene than the US?
That's what it seems like. The US has always been really difficult for us. I don't know why - maybe because it's such a huge country and market - but the UK has always been kinder to us and what we're doing. Maybe they understand the style that we're trying to make more. I don't know the reasons for it, but we feel more comfortable and happier over there, so why would we deny that?
Being a member of two highly acclaimed bands, what's the best piece of advice you'd give to someone pursuing a music career?
There's a couple of things: one is to be extremely disciplined in what you're doing and what you do, especially early on if you're young. You need to be focused and willing to put in the work, because I know tonnes of musicians who quit after two years due to it being hard. It takes everything, and part of that is sacrificing things that seems normal like relationships, family and having a normal life at home - those are all things you might have to sacrifice. Friends may go away; you'll have to accept that is the life you're gonna lead if you wanna do it all the time full-on.
The second thing sounds cliché, but make sure you're true to yourself and the art that you want to make. If you get led astray and start doing things you don't want to do, I think you'll get lost and confused, but if you really know that you love the music you're making, you're all good. That's why we're not getting discouraged that we're not hitting pop radio because it doesn't matter to us. We believe in what we're doing, and I think people will eventually catch on and believe in it too.
Before we finish, tell me a couple of interesting things about yourself, do you have any hobbies?
I'm really bad at hobbies, because there's only room for being in a band. I'm a big basketball and NBA fan. I kinda love tour managing as well, because I'm into organisation and researching.
What's your favourite cartoon whilst you were growing up?
I think it would have to be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I think we had this conversation the other day in the van - I guess I'm Raphael. But they're kind of like the rock-star animated characters.
When you need cheering up what record will do it for you every time?
Y'know, I dunno if it cheers me up, but I feel really good listening to 'Figure 8' by Elliot Smith. When some of the piano riffs in that start, it puts me in a good place.
Do you have a life motto?
There's nothing that I say to myself every day, but being humble and being nice to people is a big thing for me, and I learned from watching my dad work and being out in the world. You wanna leave a good taste in other people's mouths, when you leave the work you've done with them.
What's next for Mini Mansions?
Touring, man. We're just gonna keep trucking on the road and keep playing to people who wanna see us.
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