The Contortionist | facebook | twitter |
By: Gilbert Potts
Mike Lessard has been performing music half his life, and he’s not hit 30 yet. His current gig is with progressive metal / rock outfit The Contortionist from Indiana, USA, and they are about to perform the return, Australian leg of a recent US tour with Sydney’s sleepmakeswaves. Gilbert Potts caught up with Mike for a good, long chat about touring, being on a stage, communication, fans, other musicians, and lots of ideas about what goes on in our heads.
Tour details can be found here.
(((o))): What’s the most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard?
Mike: It’s probably…usually when you hit like really open landscapes, whether it be in the mountains or in the desert, just like the sound of the wind that you can hear, just the vastness of the area is always cool. Um, I also like big, big cavernous areas where like you can just kind of resonate a note or something like that, for me, to be able to like sing in a spot like that, um, it sounds great, it lets me hear my voice in a completely different setting, so those are usually the spots I like. Um, in terms of like music, I think broadly Sigur Rós probably created the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard.
(((o))): Tell me the story of your name: not the band’s name, your name.
Mike: That’s a good question, um, so very unoriginal at the time it was picked, I mean even in today’s standards it’s a pretty unoriginal name, um, my dad actually picked it, my parents aren’t the most creative people, but, the last name is actually French, “Lessard”, so I’m half French-Canadian. So other than that I don’t really know what my ancestry is too far back, I’m more of a live-in-the-present type of guy, so, I haven’t researched that too much. Great-grandfather was a painter, I know there are a few artists further back in the timeline, but uh, yeah, my name was kind of picked out on a whim, the doctor asked what my name was gonna be to my dad, and he had a couple of names in mind and he just went with Michael. Kinda yeah, I’m kinda happy they went with Michael, it’s a pretty stereotypical name, but I think it uh, I like it, it’s not pretentious and it’s not too simple, it’s not like Jack, or.. nothing wrong with the name Jack!
(((o))): In some cultures, like New Zealand’s Maoris, when strangers meet they tell each other the story of their name – their history and ancestry. The idea is you draw your opinion of the person by knowing about each other from the start. We tend to start out knowing little about each other and drip feeding our story over time. Why do you think we’re so different?
Mike: I feel like over time everything’s been so focused on time, so everything’s so fast-paced y’know? A lot of people feel like they don’t have time to tell everybody their story, or they don’t have the patience to, in this day and age where there’s so much media and there’s so much content, and there’s so many ways to get it, it’s a pretty crazy time to live in just cuz of the technology and the resources, you can pretty much learn about anything you could possibly imagine with the Internet. You don’t have to go to a library, you don’t have to take the time to walk down the street, you don’t have to take the time to drive a car, you can just sit in your room and learn about anything you could possibly want, and I think because of that, the convenience, things like that, I think people feel inconvenienced by having to give time to explain things like that, I think just as society as a whole has kind of drifted away from that because of that, how fast-paced society’s become, but it is nice to sit down and meet a stranger and you know, converse like that, and kind of exchange that information.
(((o))): Do we still love stories even though we’re so busy these days?
Mike: Yeah, I think the other thing is too is that the way the media’s distributing stuff like that what you see on TV, I think a lot of people are very skeptical of many things, so if you do meet somebody, and I’ve had it happen to me on a few different occasions, where ,whether I’m getting my hair cut, or I’m in a situation where I’m meeting somebody and I have to sit down with them for 20 to 30 minutes, and they don’t know me from anybody else, but they start asking what I do, and the second I tell them I’m a musician, their first instinct is to relate me to somebody else they may know, so they assume I play cover songs at a bar on Friday nights, or something simple like that, and then once I start to tell them that I travel the world and I tour Australia and Europe and Mexico and Canada and I tell them all this, sometimes you get weird looks as if you’re making it all up.
So I feel like in today’s society too that people, I mean it’s not a bad thing to be skeptical, I think it’s probably better in some ways to be skeptical of anything you’re told instead of being willing to take any information you’re given as truth, I think sometimes skepticism’s probably the better way to go. But, I feel like that might be the slight case as well, because there are a lot of people who wish they were something that they’re not, and wanna paint that story.
(((o))): …as you say people relate the term “musician” to their experience. Humans tend not to think in concepts and abstract, but in situations and stories…
Mike: It’s weird, I mean obviously people can only, the only understanding they have is based off things that they’ve encountered, so it’s usually, generally they like to relate to anything they’ve encountered and it’s interesting that that happens. Like I said, sometimes it makes people skeptical when you tell ‘em something when they’ve never met anybody who does that, their first reaction is to not believe you.
(((o))): What are some of the different ways in which society, the world interconnects?
Mike: Well, besides just speech, obviously music is a…, there’s other things besides vocalising that you can do to make sounds. Like you can obviously convey an emotion by playing something that sounds sad or happy, or upbeat, or whatever formula you use to concoct some sort of sound. Obviously body language, um, and I think that the universe, I mean, your environment speaks to you as well. How your environment speaks to you is you speaking to yourself to some degree.
So, you know, if you’re in a room, and you know, there’s obviously, there’s studies shown that yellow makes you happy, and red makes you angry, and people use that in movies, like when they colour-grade film, a lot of directors are very, very meticulous about what colours, I mean, not a lot of, but, the top directors are very meticulous about what colour the scene is based off what emotion they’re trying to get, and then obviously the music follows suit, and the acting follows suit, but y’know, if something makes you angry, or something makes you sad, then you have to figure out why it makes you sad, and sometimes it’s things that shouldn’t make you made or angry, some things make people mad that don’t make other people mad, so sometimes it’s also you can have a conversation with yourself based off of that, um, I think that, yeah, there’s so many different ways of communication.
Um, in terms of how the universe communicates, that’s an interesting question, which is obviously pretty open-ended in terms of what a lot of people think, but I’m very open to a lot of things in terms of that like with synchronicity and things of that nature, cuz I don’t consider myself a religious person, I don’t consider myself an overly spiritual person, or any of those things, I find myself very interested in all of it, and I don’t close off any of the possibilities, because at the end of the day I’m just this quick blink in the universe, y’know like, my face is too close to the painting for me to be able to see the full scope of things. So for me to even begin to try to act like I understand even the smallest amount of it would be insane of me to even start to do.
But I think I find it interesting sometimes you know, I find synchronicities and I’d like to believe that it’s the universe talking to me, or it’s a path being laid out for me, and other times I like to think that y’know, I create my own destiny, and my actions and decisions create that, so there’s yeah, my brain goes all over the place, just thinking about it, like if the universe is communicating with me, and how I communicate with it, but at the end of the day, with making music, that’s my way of communicating with a mass audience, and with that, I have to decide what message I wanna promote, what message I’m trying to get across, whether it’s a positive message, or a negative message, or maybe it’s a positive message through something negative, but I usually choose to promote a positive message with a fairly positive… with fairly positive colours, because I have a niece and a nephew, and I have a younger brother, and the older I get, the more I realise that I want to influence people in a positive way.
I don’t want to promote drug use or anything crazy, not that I think it’s necessarily a bad thing if it’s done in moderation and in the correct, in the correct environment, context is everything. But, I don’t want to promote that and have somebody be influenced by that, and think automatically that it’s cool and then misuse that information, so I try to communicate my message in a very positive light, and something that my kids could, when I eventually have kids, that they can listen to, and that it’s something that I can be proud of that they listen to and follow, and that’s usually the way I try to communicate with just a mass audience, with what I do artistically.
(((o))): Thinking about live versus recorded music, to what degree is it a conversation and to what degree is it a speech?
Mike: It’s a mixture of both, and it’s also a mixture of a story, y’know, it kind of weaves in between all those things, and within the story it’s both of those things. Like, I’m a big fan of film, there’s a lot of writers and directors, and I love film because it’s got the onion effect, if you will, where there’s many different layers of what’s going on, that you can grab a hold of, and there’s, you can tell stories with a visual aspect, and the musical aspect, and the dialogue, it’s just got an extra layer that music doesn’t have.
So I always enjoyed that in music, but it switches between that, and sometimes its characters in the story having a conversation, but it might actually be a conversation that I’ve had with somebody, just amplified a bit, it’s not verbatim what the conversation was, but it’s the general outline. Or it’s a general outline of a conversation I’d like to have with somebody. Or, it’s that sometimes it’s a speech, sometimes it’s a speech to myself, sometimes it’s me having a conversation with myself, but I don’t ever really draw the line for anybody, and spell it out for them exactly what it is because I want it to be open for interpretation as well. I want the listener to have the ability to dictate what it is to them, what the story is.
That’s what I love about Stanley Kubrick, is um, he never really says what he was trying to say with us, just so much mystery around what he did with his work, um, and the way he shot things and why he shot them that way, and I think that itself opens up conversation, and that conversation has a snowballing effect, which is why he’s continued to keep momentum well past his passing. So yeah, I don’t want to ramble too much, but yeah, it’s basically a mixture of all those things. As a songwriter I try to explore all the different perspectives on how the conversation can go or if it’s a conversation, or, or what it is. And I try to have fun with that, cuz I’m always trying to try something new and push the boundaries on lyrics and how they’re delivered.
(((o))): There’s a view we need to stimulate adrenaline and dopamine to make art that works, so first you need to make people confused then they get rewarded when they find meaning or order or resolution. How mindful are you of finding a balance between explicit and implicit.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely. I’m mindful of it to a degree. Um, I can’t base everything I do off how it’s gonna be perceived by somebody else, um, or else I’d go insane, but I do keep that in mind, because I know it is gonna be viewed, it is something that I’m making, to put out there for people, people to uh, experience, cuz that in itself is kind of weird to me (laughs) that whole, that whole situation of creating art for the purpose of other people to experience.
I like to think of it more as to share than to, than that, it’s uh, an interesting concept, the whole, make something, do a giant promotion campaign, get up on the stage which is somewhat of a pedestal of sorts, for people to observe you while you try to imitate what you had already created in a new light, so that whole thing in itself is an interesting thing to me that I never really paid attention to until I was like, so immersed, then I started to look at it and dissect it a bit, start changing the way that I wrote and I performed and all that, and since it is a thing that I’m putting out there for people to experience, I do try to be pretty mindful of what I’m doing.
So it is more of an experience than me being like, “hey, check out this cool thing that I made.” It’s me trying to set some sort of tone that some people can latch on to. And same thing with the live show, when I step on the stage, it’s not, you’re not getting me like you’re getting right now, you’re getting a character of sorts, it’s a persona once I step on stage, because to me, it’s theatre, once I get on the stage, it’s a performance, and my job is to interpret what we do as music and try to visualise what I think somebody would do on stage and that would set an interesting tone and an interesting performance, so that’s what I do.
(((o))): What is the evolutionary journey for you in terms of making music, what was your relationship with music at the start of your journey compared to now?
Mike: Um, I still, it’s interesting, I still get the same feeling, depending on the situation, um, first time I played music, I, I was, I’ve been heavily fascinated by music since I was a kid, used to fall asleep next to the stereo with headphones on from the age of like, 3 until I was older, my parents used to have to carry me to bed, used to walk around with a cassette player constantly cuz to me what I used to do when I was a kid, I didn’t realise it then, is, I would listen to music, and I’d visualise scenarios, whether, random stories, or like, encounters, almost like, if you will, say if you get into a situation then afterwards you’re like, “ooh, I should have done that, I should have said this instead”, it was kind of like that, but in, not in a negative way.
Cuz I’m interested about things that could potentially happen, things that had happened and other ways that I could have done it, or, even at a really young age, I didn’t understand all I was doing was visualising options, and visualising, that’s, that’s all it was, it was me visualising and the music helped me do that. And it set a tone for my mind. I still do that to this day, the only difference really is sometimes, because now that it is my career, and this is all I do, this is my job, it’s, it can get, it can very much become a job, it can feel like a job at times. Y’know, when you’re flying – the last time I went to Australia for instance, the person who was supposed to book our flights for Australia waited until the last moment to book them (laughs). So, so essentially the person, a person that gets paid to handle these things kind of failed the responsibility slightly, booked the tickets last minute so instead of, doing the normal flight from the US from LA down to Australia (14 hours), we had to go from, we had to drive three hours to Chicago, fly from Chicago over, over towards the North Pole to China, down to Australia.
(((o))): …yeah that’s a really long flight…
Mike: Oh yeah, and, and at that point, most people would be like, “you know you should be very happy that, you’re even getting to go to Australia and tour”, and it’s easy to say that until you fly for 30+ hours (laughs), it’s a very easy thing to say.
So, I guess the negative is, is sometimes why you’re doing this gets slightly blue and, it’s, it’s, y’know everybody. It happens to everybody, no matter what it is, those things that you wish you had, once you eventually get ‘em and you have it for long enough, you start to find things wrong. The grass is always greener on the other side, um, so in terms of that, there’s nights where I’m sick and I don’t want to step out on stage, because I’d much rather be sleeping, because I’ve slept maybe a total of nine hours in five days (laughs). But you know at the end of the day, the positives outweigh the negatives by far – it’s not even close. It’s why I still do it. If it didn’t, I’d be working a regular job, and just be writing music on the side.
But it’s the only thing that I’ve really lost, and it’s not even lost, it’s just sometimes I lose sight of all the pleasure that’s involved, just when it becomes too much of a grind, y’know, because sometimes ya gotta throw yourself in the fire, there’s all this stuff, it’s easy from an outside perspective to go, “ah I’d love to make an album”, it’s like, alright, would you like to make an album on, three month’s timeframe, and you have to be in the studio and somebody’s paying for it so you have to make sure you deliver and then when you’re in the studio, maybe somebody hears something, they don’t like it, and you gotta adapt, and, it’s, there’s a bunch of stuff, but at this point, I’ve been touring for now eleven years, almost going on twelve years I’ve been touring.
I’m gonna be 29 in like, a month or two, so I’ve been doing it for a long time now, I’ve been writing and playing since I was 13, playing shows since I was 14, and sometimes I just have to think about how far I have come to like, fully appreciate it, yeah sometimes you just get, you get lost in the machine that is the music industry, cuz at a certain point you’ve gotta play ball by somebody else’s rules if you want to do what you want to do.
(((o))): Getting back to music as a language, when I reviewed the album Level 3 that you did with your previous band Last Chance to Reason it struck me how well the songs ended. It seems to me that song endings are so rarely done well. Why do you think it’s so hard for songwriters to end a musical conversation?
Mike: I mean, it’s probably one of the toughest tasks, to be honest, is to put the stamp on, it’s, I don’t know exactly why that is. For me, it’s, whenever I know, whenever I realise what the last song for an album is, the other thing too, with Last Chance to Reason, with The Contortionist is all the albums are concept albums. So it’s a little easier in that sense, where it’s not like this random talk, it’s not like, I’m gonna make a song about politics, like how do you end a conversation about politics, cuz it never ends, it’s a never-ending thing. And in some ways, even at the end of Language, it kind of toys with that message too, that, um, it never really is over – you are the infinite, you are the finite, it’s over if you perceive it to be over, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is, and it’s, I don’t know, maybe it’s just hard for people to end things just in general.
I think ending anything is always a tough situation, like a relationship. Sometimes it’s very satisfying, sometimes it’s like, oh, you know like, that experience is over. So I don’t know, maybe it just stems from that primal human instinct of like, the end is, some people you know, you can view it as the end or the beginning of something new, but some people view it as just the end, it’s over, there’s nothing after that. So maybe for some people, just their primal instinct is the understanding of that when it’s over, it’s over. They don’t want it to end and they want to leave it open for discussion.
But yeah, it’s really hard to tell, for me it’s, I guess, I’ve never really though of myself as being somebody who’s good at closing, I’m glad you believe so, at least with the Level 3 stuff, um, it’s something that I guess comes naturally. It’s slightly thought out, and all I can do is write and do things to the point where I feel like the conversation has ended, or it feels like it’s complete. Like I’ll listen to a song and go, this feel like it’s ended, it feels like it should be. Then I can do it, and if somebody else feels about it the same way about it, that’s awesome, if not, then, I can’t sit there and try and explain my rationale behind it, so yeah, that’d be my guess if I were to take a stab at it.
(((o))): We were talking about touring earlier – is that a bad career choice for a person who suffers from anxiety?
Mike: Um, I don’t know if I’d necessarily say that, but um, I’ve had periods in my life, where and actually, I’m only gonna speak for myself, and I’m not gonna mention names to you for other people, but, I know so many musicians who suffer from anxiety. Some of the best, some of the top musicians in this joint that I’ve toured with, that have suffered anxiety issues, or, it doesn’t matter if you’re the best player, everybody has doubts and everybody has anxiety when it comes to it. And at the end of the day, the higher the pedestal people put you on, the bigger that fall is if you mess up, and, for me it’s, I don’t really have that issue, but yeah, for somebody who has anxiety it’s definitely gonna be a little trickier of a task, but at the end of the day everybody has anxiety to some degree.
I don’t worry anymore about getting on the stage. When I, like I said about me having a certain persona when I hit the stage, that persona that I have when I step on stage doesn’t give a, pardon my Fr-, my English, but he doesn’t give a shit about anxiety, he doesn’t care about going in that room. I have a very interesting take on things once I get on stage to perform. But yeah, it is a tricky thing, and it’s hard to deal with too, being in a band, if you feed in to what people think of you, which a lot of people do. I don’t, like I said I’ve been doing this a long time, and I got over the ‘what people thought of what I was doing’ when I was like 17. At a young age, playing in a band in high school, if you can get past high schoolers judging you, you can get past anybody judging you (laughs).
It’s a little trickier in this day and age, with the Internet, people can y’know comment anonymously, say whatever they want and they can say the crudest things they can possibly say because there’s no repercussion for it. At one point in time, they had to say it to your face, or print it in a magazine with their name attached to it, so for some people, yeah, it’s definitely a tricky thing. But, if you want it bad enough you’ll make it work and you’ll figure it out, but just know that , if somebody’s listening or reading or whatever for this interview and um, they believe anxiety is something that nobody else deals with at the top level, they’re wrong, it’s something everybody deals with, um, to the point where I, I was… I made a comment about I find it interesting having to step out on a stage which is in a sense is a pedestal. They elevate you above the rest of the crowd for everybody to watch you, put you on display, um, sometimes I make jokes about the idea of, it’s almost like going to the zoo, y’know (laughs). You’re the attraction and people come, and you do your tricks and I’ve made that joke in front of bands that I’ve toured with, like, some top level bands. I could tell that some of them have never thought of it like that, and got really scared when they thought of it that way (laughs). So that’s, it’s an interesting take on it, that’s just my view on it, sometimes it can be interesting, sometimes it can be fun, it really depends, depends on what my mood is for the day and how I’m viewing it.
(((o))): Behn, the drummer of Tangled Thoughts of Leaving who you’re touring with was telling me how he likes to laugh about the fact one minute there’s these adoring fans cheering him like he’s this rock god, then after the set he’s just another sweaty guy in the crowd…
Mike: It’s insane what just an elevated floor will make people think of you. Like, I’m serious, like it’s crazy, it’s insane, even, like you can go back and break down the English language and stuff, I believe, I could be totally off on this, it’s been a while since I’ve researched any of this stuff, used to be a term for ‘god’, but the E L is used to reference getting closer to God, so like, ‘election’, ‘elevation’, things to lift up, and get closer to God, so when they elevate you off the floor, it is to try to put you at a God-like status, it makes you seem larger-than-life. And it’s all part of the show, part of the smoke and mirrors, but at the end of the day, everybody that hits that stage is just a normal person, who battles, whether it be anxiety, or relationship issues, or family issues, everybody’s one and the same, and the only difference is that some people have put their time and energy into something else, and become good at it, and it’s something that helps you get through your life on a daily basis, so you appreciate it heavily, so it’s like you have put those couple things in and you start to view these people as superhumans if you will, some people like to think that, gods are men that minds are full, it’s, they just have all this information that nobody else has, but I don’t think that’s the case.
(((o))): What do you get out of the discussions you have with fans?
Mike: Um, I mean, it varies, it really depends on the fan (laughs). It’s great, I like somebody that can approach me on a level playing field as me and just treat me like, what I am, just a normal person, and engage in a conversation, like this, like we’re having right now. Pretty normal conversation, we’re going back and forth, that is what I prefer, and you get some people that are, there’s nothing wrong with, complimenting somebody and some people get nervous and over-compliment, whatever, that’s your own way of dealing with the situation, and I can understand that to a degree because I’ve been, you know when I say this that, I’ve met people that I’ve watched on television a bunch or listened to their music a bunch, and it’s very surreal, to be put in a situation where you’re eye-to-eye with that person, because that person’s made you feel something, they’ve made you feel a certain way on many occasions, and now you’re getting the chance to talk to them, it does get weird but, to me when I can just talk to somebody on a level playing field and we can have a conversation, it’s great, you know what I mean, it’s cool, it’s cool that people even give a shit enough to talk to you in general y’know.
Like I said, I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve done, most of the time, spent doing shows where nobody did give a shit. I did seven years, eight years of touring with nobody at any of the shows, like just touring and touring came out of pocket year after year after year with nobody coming out to the shows, if that gives you any idea of how persistent I am (laughs). Sometimes I think making it in the music industry has nothing to do with talent, but how long you’re willing to wait at the door (laughs).
So it’s one of those things where it’s like, at this point, I’m still just thankful that people give a shit about what I’m doing, and I try to give those people as much of my time as I can, even if like, whatever mood I’m in. Maybe I’m not feeling like talking to somebody, I mean, I, you’d be hard-pressed to ever hear anybody say something bad about me in terms, if they’ve actually talked. If somebody’s taken the time to talk to me, I’ll never turn them away and I’ll never act like an asshole. Because I was that kid at one point, and I’ve told this story in a couple of interviews, I used to be huge into like, radio rock and nu metal, stuff like that, so, there was a band called Cold that was like, had their 15 minutes of fame in the early 2000s, um, they toured with like Stained and all those bands. Well, they were like the band that really pushed me to start playing when I was 13, to make a band, so I went to see them live, and they were on tour with another band called Breaking Benjamin, and um, this day and age a lot of people would shun you for mentioning those band names as bands that you listened to.
The thing is that I went outside halfway through the show to try to find Cold’s bus to try to meet them and get autographs, cuz I was such a big fan, and in the process of doing that, the singer and guitar player for Breaking Benjamin walks off his bus, and it was, y’know, this was another band I listened to, and I went up to him, as a 14 year old would, and I was like, “hey man, awesome job tonight, sounded great”, and I feel like I kept my cool pretty well for being a 14, 15 year old kid who just watched some guy play in front of 6000 people. And he sat there for 20 minutes and shot the shit with me. We talked about movies, we talked about everything y’know and, that changed my perspective on how somebody in a band should act. Since that moment on, if anybody has ever come up to me, I’ve given them the time of day, because that was one of the coolest moments, I’m still, I don’t necessarily agree with what they do artistically, I will still support Breaking Benjamin to this day because of that. Because I know that they’re genuine people that give a shit, and they’re normal people. It just changed my perspective. And so I try to do that as much as I can.
(((o))): If you were an animal, what would you want to be?
Mike: Well, king of the jungle. I mean, outside of music, like my music is very, y’know, if you were to listen to Language, you’d probably take me as a very peaceful, relaxed person, which I am, but I’m also very competitive, very alpha in many senses. And um, I kickbox, I do jujitsu, I’m very aggressive when it comes to mixed martial arts and my style, when I do that, and I train and I fight people, um, so I’d say that y’know, and I think a lion is a good mixture, a good balance between fast and strong, y’know, very aggressive, and they’re peaceful too- you’ll see them laying in a field. So I think a lion is a very good balance of predator and all of those things.
(((o))):…and they do both harsh and clean vocals!
Mike: (laughs) exactly, and I’ve always been drawn to cats, they’re very independent creatures that do as they will, that, will still show affection y’know in their own way. So I think a lion would be my choice.