Interview: Mustard Gas And Roses
Music has always been a really safe place for me and also been incredibly therapeutic.
Last Year Mustard Gas And Roses have released their new EP We Are One, the band’s first new music since their brilliant last album Becoming, and a release in which they reinterpret songs from that album as well as tackle a couple of covers of songs by Joy Division and Spiritualized in which they’ve put their own spin on. Gavin Brown caught up with Mike Gallagher to talk about We Are One and get a detailed analysis of how it all came together as well as talking to Mike about how Mustard Gas And Roses have developed as a band, what we can expect from their next album, memorable live gigs, his time with Isis and his respect for Kurt Vonnegut who inspired the band’s name.
E&D: You have just released the We Are One EP. How did the creation and recording process go?
Mike: The creation and recording of the EP happened in two parts. In 2017 Mustard Gas And Roses had recently put out the record Becoming, played some Southern California shows to support it and then not too much was happening after that. So I felt that setting another goal would be good for us. I presented my idea of covering the song ‘Cop Shoot Cop’ and reworking the song ‘Becoming’ to Bryan Tulao, Sash Popovic and J Bennett, whom I was playing with at the time, and thankfully they were down. We worked out the Spiritualized song in a couple weeks and booked a day in the studio with Sanford Parker. Bryan and I tracked ‘Becoming’ with Steve Kille a couple weeks after that. The other two songs on the EP came together few months later when we were asked to play Stumpfest in Portland and Bryan and Sash weren’t able to come along. I was able to enlist Marc Brandi and Patrick Crawford to play with Mustard Gas And Roses for that trip. They live in San Francisco and the first time I went up to practice with them I felt that we had established a really nice connection. On the way back to Los Angeles the music on my phone was on random and ‘Exercise One’ came on and I immediately thought that we should cover that song and play it on the road. The song ‘Shadows’ wasn’t really worked out at that point, but as the upcoming tour started to take shape, I refined it enough to work it out with the guys and it became the first original song that the four of us crafted together. The recording of these two songs happened super randomly. At Stumpfest I was introduced to to Adam Pike and learned that he had a recording studio in town. I kind of jokingly asked if he’d record us the next day. He agreed, we met him in the morning and tracked those two songs. It was like “Guerrilla Style” recording and super fun. Mostly because I usually have a much more controlled approach to recording, and It was really freeing to just kind of go with it and see what happens.
E&D: You revisit the title track from your last album Becoming on We Are One in a more acoustic version, what made you revisit this particular track?
Mike: ‘Becoming’ was written on an acoustic and I always loved how the song didn’t really need anything else. I’m really happy with what we turned the song into on the original recording, but I always wanted to explore that song with a more stripped down approach. Also, the original version of ‘Becoming’ was my first attempt at recording vocals and I never was very pleased with my performance. I’m not sure the vocals on the acoustic version are much better, but the performance was a lot was for me to achieve than the original version.
E&D: Was this new version a way of bridging the gaps between the last album and what’s going on with Mustard Gas And Roses now?
Mike: Kind of, I’m definitely expanding my palate. That said, the next release won’t be loaded with folk songs, but I am trying to simplify my approach to writing music, and I think these songs are indicative of that.
E&D: Is this new material a good indication of where Mustard Gas And Roses are going with your future?
Mike: It is. The new material is definitely more song oriented and stripped down that other records I’ve done.
E&D: You cover ‘Exercise One’ by Joy Division. How did you approach your interpretation of that particular track?
Mike: I took a pretty hands-off approach to that song. ‘Exercise One’ is so simple and well executed I didn’t feel that it would benefit from us changing it around. It just felt good to jump on the train that Joy Division was on and see what the view was like from there.
E&D: How much do Joy Division mean to you and how did you discover the band in the first place?
Mike: I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I didn’t find my way to them until about 10 years ago. I knew about the band in my early years, but I did really take note of them because I was so into metal and rock. I have however very much enjoyed my short time with them. When I rediscovered them I was in a friend’s car and he was playing Unknown Pleasures and I must have been ready for it, because it just took hold of me right away.
E&D: Are you a fan of New Order at all or is it all about Joy Division for you?
Mike: I enjoy New Order, but Joy Division does a lot more for me.
E&D: You close We Are One with another cover, of ‘Cop Shoot Cop’ by Spiritualized. What was it about that song that made you want to put your own spin on it?
Mike: Originally, I wanted to cover ‘Cop Shoot Cop’ to kind of give a nod to Jason Pierce’s epic use of dynamics. Something I’ve been borrowing from him, and people like him, for most of my musical career. But when it came time to record the song things turned a little heavy for me. It happened that my ex-wife was moving out the day we tracked ‘Cop Shoot Cop’ so the vibe of the song and the tone of the lyrics felt pretty intense that day. It was pretty challenging singing those words about loneliness while in the throes of that, but this studio session helped me through that day and gave me a little light in a really dark time. Music has always been a really safe place for me and also been incredibly therapeutic.
E&D: Which artists would you love to tackle the work of in the future?
Mike: I have one that I just demoed at home the other day but I don’t think I’m going to give up what it is just yet, but I will say that it’s from a record that I’ve loved since I was barley 10.
E&D: You work with a host of musicians on the EP, can you tell us a bit about them and what they bring to the music?
Mike: Yeah, it’s been a lot of fun playing music with all of them. For ‘Cop Shoot Cop’ I worked with Bryan Tulao, Sash Popovic and J Bennett. Bryan brings a wonderful sense of freedom to whatever he is working on and he’s always looking for different ways to play his parts. This was always exciting for me because he has so much talent to pull from, his exploring would always bring amazing things to the songs. Sash is a monster of a player, hits super hard and writes fantastic beats. His playing is like Animal from The Muppets only incredibly well crafted. Bennett is a rock-solid player, always comes rehearsed and he is ridiculously well versed in rock and roll and that makes his a great asset with arrangement. For ‘Shadows’ and ‘Exercise One’ the players were Marc Brandi, Patrick Crawford and Bennett. Marc and I have a similar background regarding music so he often knows where the song should go and can edit me so that I don’t pull us off target. His textural playing and leads are totally amazing, he is similar to Bryan in that he plays with an incredible sense of freedom and has the talent and good taste to give the songs what they need. I’ll often leave parts open or intentionally have parts go on a little long and ask him to put some of his magic on it. Patrick is full of happy surprises. For example, we were going over some new parts a while back and when we came to the crescendo of the song and I expected him to come in with some really aggressive beat. and he came in with a total ZZ Top beat that was way more laid back than I expected, and it brought everything together really nicely. In addition to being an amazing player he is always thinking about the songs as a whole and that has been really helpful in making changes that help both the parts and the whole.
E&D: Who did the striking artwork for We Are one?
Mike: Nicole Momaney did the cover painting for We Are One. In addition to being a fantastic painter, I feel like her superpower is reading people and understanding what needs to be done. I shared the music with her and said a couple things about how it came together, and she came back with what you see. Of course, I’m not in her head, but it seems like these concepts just come to effortlessly.
E&D: What has the reaction to the new material been like so far?
Mike: It’s been good! I haven’t really taken the time to dig too deep into what the reactions are online, but it seems positive! I’m at the point now where I’m really just trying to get music out of me before it yells at me too much. Meaning, if ideas come knocking from the ether and I ignore them because of work or laziness, a disconnect is created that causes a fair amount of unrest in me. So basically, I’m not creating music to make money or for validation, I’m doing it because it keeps me balanced, and that has been pretty liberating.
E&D: Have you got any plans for more new material, another EP or full-length album, at the moment?
Mike: I Just finished writing what I believe will be the last song for the next LP. We have 13 songs demoed that need a little tweaking but are close to done. There is also one cover that we’ll look at next time I practice with the boys in San Francisco. I imagine we will start recording within six months, or sooner if all of our schedules line up.
E&D: Are there any tentative plans for live dates once it is safe to do so?
Mike: Currently there aren’t. I will try to get something going when things turn back on, but I feel like trying to work that out now would be a little premature. Playing live is truly one of my favorite things to do. When it’s going well, there is a sense of sharing and connectivity that is really special.
E&D: How do you feel Mustard Gas And Roses have expanded as a live band since your early days?
Mike: In Mustard Gas And Roses’s earliest incarnation the live show was me sitting down and performing with my guitar, ebow, effects and a loop pedal. At that point, the band was a mostly ambient experience and in the live show I attempted to reinterpret songs from the records by making loops on the fly and building on them until I found my way to where I was going. I had a great time crafting those songs and it pushed me to rethink how I perceived arrangements and to find ways to create captivating moments in very sparse songs. And now Mustard Gas And Roses is essentially a four piece “rock” band with vocals. These changes all happened very naturally and I’m happy with the band’s trajectory. I may find my way find my way back to incorporating a more cinematic approach to my songwriting again, but for now I’m just kind of following this path that seems to be laid out for me.
E&D: What are some of the most memorable gigs for you so far? I saw the band at the Temples Festival in 2014 and it was a stunning performance.
Mike: That’s great you were at that show, it was a lot of fun! It was also one of the first shows that had other people playing with me in Mustard Gas And Roses. I recruited members from A Storm of Light to join me on that trip. They invited me to open for them on their tour of Europe and I asked Josh, Josh and Billy to join me because I wasn’t feeling like I wanted to play solo. I think the most memorable gig I did was the first Mustard Gas And Roses show. Red Sparowes asked House of Low Culture (Turner’s band) and Mustard Gas And Roses to open for them at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood and as the date of the show approached, I became pretty nervous. Playing loud music with three for four other guys is pretty easy, one, because there is a lot of volume to hide behind and two, if you mess something up there are enough other things going on that it’s likely the flub will go unnoticed. But playing alone in an ambient band, by constructing loops that I could easily ruin by accidentally “looping in” un-editable sour notes seemed really daunting to me. But after all that concern the show went really well and it felt great to face that fear.
E&D: What were some of your most memorable moments in your time playing with Isis?
Mike: Meeting Buzz Osbourne when we first played with the Melvins in 2002 was a really exciting thing for me. Also, Playing Koko In London in 2006 was the first time we did well in England, and it felt like a really nice accomplishment.
E&D: After you left Isis, was it daunting playing on your own as Mustard Gas And Roses?
Mike: After Isis split up in 2010 I wasn’t sure that I wanted to play music anymore. I was absolutely ready for the band to end and was very supportive of that decision but it was still a big change that was difficult for me to process. So other than doing some MGR shows I didn’t play music for a while. I avoided music altogether and threw myself into working long hours as a carpenter. I guess I felt pretty daunted about playing any music. That changed when Josh asked me on that EU tour. This was in 2014 and by that point I had become eager to play so I wasn’t really nervous about what would come out or how it would be perceived. I just knew I needed to get the wheel turning again to get my balance back.
E&D: What was your intention musical vision with Mustard Gas And Roses and did you always want to add more vocals into the music as the band developed?
Mike: For better or worse I never really set an intent with Mustard Gas And Roses, it’s always been a “see what happens” vibe. But I’m pretty sure I never saw vocals as an instrument of the band. That started when I was working out the song ‘Becoming’. As I was playing it, I felt that it would benefit from vocals. So, having never sung before, I started trying many horrible sounds with my voice. Since then, I’ve gotten a little better with vocals but getting to a comfortable place when singing has been a very difficult journey for me. We Are One was recorded three years ago and I feel I’m better now than I was at that time, but it has been, and continues to be a daunting but rewarding challenge.
E&D: The band take their name from Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel Slaughterhouse Five. How much of Vonnegut’s work is an influence on you as an artist and what is it about his work that you admire?
Mike: He’s basically my hero. His ability to see, and express the beauty, sadness, humor, and futility of this world is amazing to me.
E&D: Have you been reading any books recently that you recommend?
Mike: Work has been very busy for me, so I haven’t made the time for books as much as I’d like but I did recently finish the Blaze Foley memoir/biography and the Mark Lanegan memoir, and they were both great.
E&D: Have you been working on any other new music during this pandemic period?
Mike: I tried writing when things were shut down and I wasn’t working but nothing new was coming to light. So, I spent that time practicing vocals and learning the guitar parts to Judas Priest and Metallica songs. It was pretty fun!
E&D: What have been some of the highlights of your musical career so far?
Mike: I think one of my biggest highlights in music is, as I alluded to earlier, connecting with people though music. For me it’s this weird deep thing where all these emotions and feelings are channeled through sound and if someone is open to accepting that, it can create a really special connection that people share with each other. I feel like both receiving and giving that type of connection has been a big part of my musical journey and it’s been nice.