Mike Lee sits at the intersection of twee pop and technology.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
“Vocorder.” That’s Mike Lee’s favorite sound in Untogether, the second full-length from the L.A. born but currently Austin-based electro-pop band Letting Up Despite Great Faults . It comes up twice, once in the single, “Bullet Proof Girl” and again in the closer “On Your Mark,” and if you can’t quite make it out, that’s because Lee’s bandmates — keyboard player Annah Fisette, bassist Kent Zambrana and drummer Daniel Schmidt — don’t like it nearly as much as he does. They and the band’s manager tried to convince Lee to ditch the robotic Kraut-into-prog-gish sound, but Lee only doubled it with untreated vocals.
“It’s a cliche, but that’s what’s so great about it,” Lee explains. “I’ve always been really attracted to that sound, because it’s a kind of disguise. You can’t make out who’s singing.”
It’s also another example of the way that LUDGF straddles the worlds of pop and electronics, pacing rain-on-windows twee-pop with booming programmed drums, lacing the bittersweet vulnerability of lo-fi guitar music with cerebral cut-and-paste. Lee learned to play guitar because of Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, but became fascinated with sampling after stumbling on DJ Shadow.
“DJ Shadow just basically would sample and cut up existing sounds, and even though he never put anything original over it, it sounded so original,” says Lee. “So I started sampling random things and making beats and got into that. And then I started listening to more stuff like Boards of Canada and Aphex Twin, and I was like, wow, all these guys are making incredible music from strange sounds. So yeah, I was into that, and I still loved playing guitar. I can’t get away from that completely.”
Lee blended electronics and guitar on Letting Up’s first single, “In Steps” filtering the main guitar-based riff through a gate effect, altering the sound so much that many people didn’t even realize it was coming from guitar. “I definitely like playing with any kind of sound, especially the guitar sound,” he says.
Untogether, too, balances electronic experimentation with six-string pop, though “Visions,” the first single, is pretty close to straight-up guitar rock. “That song definitely started with that intro guitar riff, which is a super easy riff to play. I don’t know if it was subconscious or not, but part of me wanted to have a song that was really, really great to play live,” says Lee. “I wanted to start a song with full chords, super full chords and play every string, and have as many open strings as possible, so it would ring out. So it’s basically comprised of two chords and the first chord has two open strings and the second has three.”
Lee says the songs on Untogether are very personal. “The whole album is about separation, but it’s not necessarily a breakup album,” he explains. “I really thought every kind of separation you can have in a relationship. Whether it be a breakup or a death, or someone going off into the military. My grandfather died while I was recording this album. I was thinking about all the ways we deal with separating from people and things we love.”
When I catch Lee by phone, he is getting ready for a trip to Japan and engaged in the painstaking process of translating a new batch of songs into performable material. “This is the only time I ever think what I do is work,” he says ruefully.
“When we first started playing live, we would use a lot of loops, and even a whole backing track on a couple of songs,” he explains. “While it’s definitely great for some bands, it didn’t feel right to me. I didn’t want the songs to be the same tempo at every show we played. I wanted it to be dependent on the crowd and our adrenaline. So I now have to cut up every single sample and make it playable. I have to tweak each sample so that it sounds like it is being played on a regular keyboard. So if you ever watch Anna play, she has a small keyboard but she probably has three different kinds of synths going on at the same time. So that can be a little time consuming, but I definitely think it’s worth it.”
Photo Credit: Landon O’Brien