By Ryan Donnelly
Mpathy is a Boston based musician and scientist with a real feel for what makes an emotional and honest song work. Answering these questions is Mikael Hirsh, who goes by the stage name MPTHY.
RYAN: Band and musician names always have a story.How did MPTHY get its name?
The short answer is that I couldn’t decide on a solo name so I decided to go with my email address. The genesis of that email address was as a joke to someone who said I completely lacked empathy. I’ve been trying to come up with a cooler story as to why I chose MPTHY for the last hour and I can’t think of anything! Can we just say that I was hanging out with Martin Scorsese and he suggested it? Yeah, let’s go with that. I was hanging out with A-List Hollywood directors who said that MPTHY really suited my music as well as allow for a snappy email address.
RYAN: The process of songwriting usually has some personal rituals involved.Can you take us through a bit of your songwriting process?
This album took nearly 3 years of writing and recording and it was a SLOG! The songs came into my head as these fully formed, completely fleshed out and orchestrated pieces of music and I had to find ways to get it from head to paper to instrument. For years, I didn’t have a system to coherently do this so I decided to try using the same neurological pathways I use as a scientist to produce music.
In the lab, we reach our goals by researching and then testing and retesting various methods and analyzing what happened in one experiment in order to guide the next one. So I set music as the goal and applied those same principles of testing to songs. I would record a sequence on various instruments using different chord progressions or keyboard patches and see how close it was to this sound in my head. Eventually, I would get this perfectly concocted song that matched this sonic dream. It’s the first time I approached songwriting in this way and it was the first time a song sounded like the initial idea I had. Sometimes, the songs evolved but they did it in this natural and organic way. It was wonderful and freeing to realize that I could use the same tactics to write songs as I do to come up to science experiments.
RYAN: What other musicians does the band take inspiration from?
Years ago, Beck said that he records the music that he wants to hear on the radio. When I heard that, I thought that it was a unique and refreshing idea that totally makes sense! After all, Beck has made a career by successfully genre hopping and really showed me that there are no rules when it comes to recording an album. He can put a club banger and an introspective acoustic ballad within a couple songs of each other and make it work so he is definitely one of my spirit guides.
Otherwise, I love The National, Radiohead, Robyn, SigurRos, Aimee Mann, and R.E.M., without a doubt, my favorite band of all time. For this album, I also found myself listening to pop music they played at my gym and really analyzing the art behind those songs. Carly Rae Jepsen, Justin Timberlake, Demi Lovato have these slick, perfect sounding pop tunes that are so much fun and well produced. Their main purpose is to stick in a listener’s head so it’s hard not to get infatuated with these songs. I really learned that pop songs are as fun to write as they are to listen to.
Finally, most kids introduction to music is the Beatles or the Stones but growing up in the shadow of the New York City, I listened to a lot of Broadway and to this day, I love showtunes and consider myself a Broadway geek. People like Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein are timeless though it’s impossible to not be super impressed with the wonderful things that Lin Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) is doing. So, I really try to take in as many genres and musical ideas as possible and make them my own.
The music industry has gone through some major changes.
RYAN: How do you feel about the current Soundcloud/Rdio revolution?
I am very much of two minds about it. I love how easy it is to send your music to people and made the act of buying 1000 CDs to sell and mail out to people and clubs a thing of the past. I’ve been making music for a while and that production into physical form was the most aggravating thing about the post-release process. Have you ever tried to fit 10 boxes of 100 CD’s each into a 1bedroom apartment? It’s not fun!
On the other hand, it is now implicitly understood that musicians have to work for free. For a band starting out, the current ideology is put music up for free or for not a lot of money, especially if it is just an EP. While it’s not a full album, it still probably cost the band $1000 after tracking, mixing, and mastering. Paid downloads can net some cash for the band but now, people don’t even download; they stream it which is super problematic. When Pharrell is taking home than $3000 in streaming revenue from Happy, you know that a newly formed band is not going to make enough money to sustain their craft. Even playing live doesn’t net the artist that much.
No one plays music for the money but it should at least be sustainable. David Lowery’s comments from years back on the music business and how the free culture of music hurts musicians is still so apt. I hope that services that pay musicians become the norm rather than the exception.
RYAN: How did the band form?
When I was 14, I wrote a terrible song called “Suicidal Love Song.” I was a quiet, weird little art kid without a lot of friends, never had a girlfriend, and was looked at as oddity in my school. I was and am still on the autism spectrum but it was undiagnosed so I had a lot of trouble relating to other people and understanding human emotion as a whole. But music was one of the things I was obsessed with and I developed this encyclopedic knowledge of it.
I had just started playing guitar to feed this obsession and also get over my introversion. I brought my guitar with me to school and played my song for my little group of high school freshman acquaintances and saw that they were paying attention to me and that I felt comfortable with the attention they were paying me. From that moment on, I used my guitar as a crutch to help me meet people and get over my crippling sense of shyness. I’m still pretty introverted but I see music as a means of talking to people and allowing me to get out there and be more comfortable in my own skin. In many ways, I’m still that shy 14 year old though thankfully, my songs are much much better now AND I taught myself human emotion using pictures when I was in my 20’s! YAY!
RYAN: The theme behind the music feels very personal and focused in its intent.Can you tell us a bit about the theme running throughout the album?
A lot went on personally during the recording of this album. I lost my job, had a few existential crises, and went through a few really awful bouts of clinical depression and the songwriting really represents all these stages.
I wrote the second half of the album first with the intent of making a folk ep with some keyboards and my only rule was that the songs had to be real and represent me and what I was going through. Songwriting is very therapeutic for me and it’s a chance to be dark. In my real life, I’m a pretty silly person (I mean, just read my twitter. I’m a giant dork) so music is my chance to release the inner demons. Songs like “Scenes from a Marriage” was about my own marriage and the changing nature of love as inspired by the Ingmar Bergman movie of the same name. “What I Have to Say,” one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written, is about my introversion and how frustrated I get by not being heard but being too afraid to speak up. “I Blame the Stupid Ocean” looks at my life choices and what would have happened if I was born somewhere else.
Then I unexpectedly lost my job. It was ok because I really didn’t like where I working but I still felt like I lacked purpose and really went into this dark place but for only a couple days because I started writing about it. “Unemployment” “Live 2 Fly” and “Verity” all came from this feverish period. The songs all started as these “woe is me” sad sack tales of dejection but I had this epiphany: “Why am I letting this perceived failure define me as a person?” So, I rewrote the songs as defiant, positive, and anthemic though laced with moments of frustration, because those emotions were still very real. I started feeling a lot better about my situation and quickly got a new job that is infinitely better than the other one.
Also, I have always struggled with very lucid dreams. Though it’s not as bad as sleep paralysis, I do get night terrors or these very vivid lucid dreams and I’ve even occasionally dreamed songs. For whatever reason, during this period, my nightmares got really bad. They all culminated in people I really care about yelling at me and saying what a terrible and disappointing person I am so I would wake up feeling awful! “The Golden Boy” was entirely adapted from one of these dreams in which a friend of mine kept sarcastically calling me that. There were also some elements of these nightmares in “Verity” and “Momento Mori” too but “Golden Boy” was the big one. Since these dreams were so dark, I wanted to make the songs describing them to be sonically, polar opposites of these dark visions. All of these juxtapositions between words and music really focused the song writing and as I was writing, my night terrors subsided a bit which was nice!
RYAN: It is difficult trying to juggle both the business life and the artist’s life. How do you successfully manage your time between business and art?
A very wise scientist told me to do what you’re good at and surround yourself with people who are able to do what you can’t. I am not a business person and never took a business class. I know that I’m great at many things: teaching, science, skiing, and songwriting but not business. As an introvert, it’s mostly really hard for me to talk about my music to strangers; When asked, I get really awkward and stumble over my words. Writing this interview is hard for me and generally pretty anomalous with my personality. I REALLY appreciate Vents mag for asking me these wonderful questions and I’m trying to be really open and honest because The Golden Boy is the most real my songwriting has ever been and I look at interviews as a chance to expand on it.
It’s really hard for me to be so open and I lack that business savviness so I surround myself with people who can do that for me. Also, it’s hard being a naturally quiet and mild mannered person AND a musician, especially in indie rock, a genre known for its over the top personalities. By having a team that helps me with the business end, including the wonderful James Moore, I can concentrate on what I do well. I’m still largely DIY but I would love a full time label to get more of the experts handling the business so I can write more music.
RYAN: So far in your career, have there been any specific shows that stand out for you, and why?
I loved touring Europe and I miss it. UK shows have always been great especially Cardiff. The Welsh capital is filled with friends and one of my favorite shows I ever played. I also loved playing in Riga, Latvia. On a day off, my friend and I found ourselves stranded in the middle of an industrial park 20 miles outside the city after getting off on the wrong stop. There was no station or ticket office, just a platform and a drunk Latvian guy that was kicked off the train. He spent the entire time yelling in the most jovial voice, “LATVIA LATVIA OK!” My friend suggested hitchhiking back to Riga which I put the kibosh on immediately preferring to wait for the next train in either direction.
I don’t have plans to play any shows for The Golden Boy. If a friend’s band asks or if a cool opportunity arises, I might do it as the songs sound great live and I know how I can play them solo. Though I will miss those road stories and late night shows, I am excited to write more and get another release out soon!
RYAN: The future of bands can be divided into their short term goals and long term ones.Where does Mpthy see themselves in 2016 and beyond?
I always have to be working on something. My overarching plan is to complete a musical adaption of the German film/play The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. In my heart, I’m still a theater geek and I’ve always wanted to write a musical. As for Tears…, there is something so beautiful, frail, and heartbreaking about the story and there is so much there that I could relate to and make music from.
As I’ve been writing it, I realized that musical writing is hard and to practice I wrote an operetta adapted from my own night terrors. As I said before, I really let dreams and these night terrors guide songs for this album and this operetta is adapted from one of my more lucid reoccurring dreams. Some parts of it are pretty dark and were jarring to wake up to but ever since I started writing this, the dreams have desisted which is really, just great!
The other thing I’m working on are these short fast indie rock songs I started as I was recording The Golden Boy, but didn’t fit thematically. They are definitely more rocking and since the album was so keyboard heavy, I decided to really make them all about guitars. I don’t like recording the same thing twice. I always believe in developing and moving forward and to me, writing the same song over and over represents stagnation, which is one thing I really want to avoid so I’m putting the keyboards and acoustic guitars in the back of the mix for this next one.
RYAN: Lastly, and thank you for your time.Is there any news from the Mpthy camp that you would like your fans to know about?
Talk to me on the social networks! Since I am not playing shows, they are my outreach. I want to talk to people who listen to the album and my songs! I want to talk to other musicians, scientists, and dreamers and shy kids who use music as their voice, and anyone who wants to share ideas. This album is the culmination of so many years of work and I am excited to hear what people have to say and hope that they want to hear more from me.
Thank you so much Vents for the questions! I have really enjoyed answering them. It reminds me of those email and tumblr/facebook surveys you used to get and forward it along to your friends. – Mikael MPTHY