"Oh no, this is sounding too beautiful, too seamless, and too much like it was planned. I have to unravel it."
Last December I spotted a surprising new release by Michael Morley, Moonrise—surprising because it wasn't credited to his usual solo alias of Gate, but also because of Michael's description of the contents: "After 30 years of playing the acoustic guitar in private for no good reason, I decided to record the activity." Just a month earlier, my own first-ever acoustic guitar album, Currents, had come out, which also documented a practice not previously shared with the public.
Both of us are known as noisy electric guitarists: Michael as a member of the long-running New Zealand underground rock trio The Dead C, and myself in various experimental and indie rock settings. We’ve been acquainted since the early '90s via his Dead C bandmate Bruce Russell, who released one of my previous solo albums on his Corpus Hermeticum label, and Lee Ranaldo, with whom we've both collaborated. I was intrigued that we had each "unplugged," and wanted to talk to Michael about our respective routes to acoustic music. As it happened, a Gate "disco" album, semi-ironically titled Saturday Night Fever, followed just after Moonrise. Given my own 2001 deconstruction of Donna Summer's "Dim All The Lights," this too seemed to merit further discussion.
— Alan Licht
Michael Morley So, when did you record your album? Because it seems it was done quickly, was it?
Alan Licht Yeah. The recording was two days, and the mixing was two days. It came out last November, and I had recorded it the summer before, in August 2014. It was gestating for a long time. There were years and years where I didn't have an acoustic guitar, then I got an acoustic-electric one, because it had a switch where you can go between authentic acoustic and semi-acoustic sounds. It's kind of a weird hybrid. But I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone. I was just playing it at home and then, after reading the Keith Richards book actually, started to fool around with the open-G tuning that he uses—except he cuts off the low E string, and I didn't want to do that. I just left the low string tuned to E, sort of an E-minor tuning.
MM Sounds nice.
AL I've always found that when I try the standard open tunings—like open G, open D, and DADGAD—I just end up sounding like Crosby, Stills & Nash (laughter). This was a little like that, but it's just off enough to let me do something that would be more me and less Crosby. (laughter) I never really thought I would do anything with this stuff, then slowly I began to write with this other tuning I really used more for solo electric stuff, and with Text of Light. Before I knew it, I had twenty or thirty minutes of material, and it became a project to try and make a whole album.
MM I recorded mine in like two days and mixed it pretty much simultaneously. But then I posted it to Bandcamp, and that's when Graham Lambkin heard it and wanted to release it, so I had to take it down after about four hours.
AL Had anyone bought it in those four hours?
MM Yeah. I posted it to a few people, then all of a sudden Graham was like, "Well, I wanna release it, so if you wanna take it off Bandcamp that would be really great."
But, same as you, I've been playing with the acoustic guitar for a while, not really for anybody else, just sitting in my room playing and not recording. But then I bought a twelve-string, and that got me going. I had some new recording equipment as well, so I set up a proper digital studio at home. My institution gives me research money, so I just spent maybe a thousand dollars to get ahold of new equipment, which was great. I recorded using two microphones, one above and one below. I was getting my placement sorted out—like how close I should be to the microphones, because I wanted the sound of the fingers on the strings. I wanted that noise that some people don't like (laughter), also my nails on the soundboard or on the front of the guitar.
AL They were kind of like mutual guinea pigs, the twelve-string and the recording gear?
MM Well, they were just to test things out and see what I could do that wasn't what I normally do. I got maracas, these quite beautiful old '70s maracas. I've been buying wind chimes as well. [strums nearby wind chimes]
AL I was wondering if those were bells, or what they were, on the record.
MM They've just been sitting around the house, annoying the children mostly. On a windy day, I'll stick them out in the garden and the kids hate it: "We're not hippies. Stop making that noise in the garden!" (laughter)
AL Would you ever write stuff on acoustic, then transfer it to electric?
MM No, probably not. I might come up with some chord arrangements that I might try on electric guitar. But I haven't tried translating any of Moonrise to electric. I just think it's not appropriate. And it's all twelve-string, and I don't have a twelve-string electric… Do you have a nylon-string guitar?
AL My partner, Angela, has one. But that's what I started off on, actually—a nylon-string Yamaha classical. And I sometimes wonder, because flat-top acoustics are such a beast to play, if as a ten-year-old I had started off on an acoustic steel-string whether I would have stuck it out, just cause I would have been like...
MM Too sore?
AL Yeah. The first month was hard enough, getting the hang of changing chords.
MM I bought a nylon-string last year from a junk shop, a really cheap Chinese one. The fretboard is larger, wider, and I like the way that you could form quite distinct chord structures. An electric guitar, being so narrow and small, you can kind of fluff it a wee bit, so you can get away with a lot more. With acoustic nylon, you’ve got to be quite precise. But it allows interesting types of playing. I have been collecting a lot of acoustic guitar recordings, mostly Spanish classical, but also some Bach.
AL All the John Fahey kind of stuff is big over here [in the US]. Are people listening to that down there [in New Zealand]?
MM No. It's really hard to find Fahey stuff. I found some Robbie Basho in Australia when I was there in October, which I got because it was twelve-string—interesting, really finger-picky stuff. He does some vocalization as well, which is quite…
AL An acquired taste.
MM I've been listening to a lot of gamelan as well. When I go to record stores now it's just gamelan and acoustic I try and find.
AL I can hear the gamelan influence, in a roundabout way, on Moonrise.
MM Oh really?
AL In the wind chimes and in some of the twelve-string.
MM I was trying to channel some kind of fake hippie thing. The maracas and wind chimes made it on there because I needed something else, just to color the compositions. Those sounds are all improvised as well. I was putting the recorder on and just playing, like I do all the time, though some of them do have secondary guitar overdubs. It was really just feeling my way around.
AL That's the other thing about my acoustic record—I didn't want there to be any improv, so that’s another difference to the electric solo discs I’ve done. There was maybe a teeny-weeny bit on one song, "Riding on the S's," where I'm playing some leads in the middle. But I wanted it all to be really composed in terms of the number of bars and things like that. Everything was worked out ahead of time, then I went in and had to play it as precisely as I could, in some cases it took two or three takes. I did put tambourine on one track and shaker on another. I think, like you, I wanted there to be something extra. There were a couple of parts where I did little reinforcement guitar overdubs, too. So it's not purely solo guitar.
MM Did you record it at home or go somewhere else?
AL I went to a studio that’s not far from my house. I sat in a tiny vocal booth and just played everything in there. The acoustic-electric was miked acoustically but also going through an amp and into the board, through a SansAmp, so there's really three guitar sounds at once for each performance.
MM You've been playing with Lee Ranaldo again, haven’t you? Or recording with him recently, is that right?
AL Yeah. Lee is doing a record that's not really a band record like the last one [Last Night On Earth], though each of us plays on it to some extent. He's actually finishing mixing that this weekend.
MM I saw a photograph on Instagram of a tape machine with some tape looping out. (laughter) Have you been playing by yourself a lot?
AL The last few gigs have been that way. The guy who runs VDSQ, the label that put out Currents, is into setting up kind of mini-showcase gigs, where he has three or four people that are on the label play. Even though it’s four acoustic guitarists, everyone's style is really different. You’d think by the third player you'd be ready for Jeff Beck or something, but it actually doesn’t turn out that way. But now I have a couple of electric shows, I've been playing with a film made by this artist Philippe Decrauzat, called Anisotropy. It's almost like a flicker film, all black and white Op-art type stuff, and he asked me to do live accompaniment to it.
MM Oh nice. Peter Kolovos is the other guy involved with VDSQ?
AL Yeah, he's the West Coast guy.
MM I’ve been talking to him about doing another album, a solo album, not on VDSQ but, I think, on Thin Wrist [Kolovos’s own label]. I don’t know if it's going to be an acoustic album. I've also been buying electronics recently. I got an Akai sampler that I've been recording guitar and synthesizer directly into, doing these really long ambient pieces that you can play for hours. The great thing about having it all here is that I can record all the time, and I'm able to review it all the time as well. It gets a little messy, because there are just too many kinds of projects sitting around in the system. I do tend to record in batches, then leave it for a while and maybe get sidetracked by something else.
AL So how come you released Moonrise under the name Michael Morley and not Gate? Was it because it was acoustic?
MM Yeah… I had set up this Bandcamp page and, initially, didn't want any Gate stuff going on there. I put Moonrise up and some music box compositions. I've been playing around with this music box, punching holes into a card and winding it through to make compositions.
But it was just under my name, really. When Graham offered to release it, I thought I’d just keep it like that and not worry about calling it Gate. I mean, I had done a Morley release in '94, The Pavilion of Fools, and that was all synthesizer-only stuff. But, twenty years later, it's not so bad to use my own name again. It's just one of those things—I don't know if Gate fits. I had another name, but in the end it was a really stupid and pompous.
AL At one point I thought about not releasing Currents under my name, just because it was acoustic and so unlike my other solo guitar records. But ultimately it did seem like that was going to be more complicated than it was worth.
MM That was the other thing—after years of playing and releasing music, do I want to complicate things by introducing another persona? I don't even want a persona, I just want to release this record and make it really clear what it is.
AL While we're talking about Gate, we should talk a little bit about Saturday Night Fever, your other current release. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was the second record I ever bought.
AL Right when it came out. I think it might have been the first and last time I ever bought a record that was so huge, as a pop phenomenon.
MM I have a really terrible memory of that record because at the first teenage party I ever went to the people there had seen the movie, and they were emulating the dance floor scenes. So I was completely at a loss as to what the fuck was going on. I couldn't appreciate the fact that everyone was dancing in unison. The cover of my Saturday Night Fever is kind of based on a t-shirt I have—on a photograph of a Saturday Night Fever iron-on logo on this pink t-shirt I got from Tannis Root in Durham, North Carolina in 1994, when I was traveling with Lee and Keiji Haino. I thought there could be a copyright problem with the cover.
AL I think the same logo was used in the original movie poster too.
MM I think so as well! (laughter) So, I sent the cover off to Henry Tadros [MIE Music], and he was like, "This is great!" But two days later he was having real worries about the logo. So I thought: Well, I'll just do a really bad Photoshop hatchet job on this thing, and see how it goes.
AL It's funnier that way. It tells you that the title's Saturday Night Fever without actually spelling it out. It helps to know that the title is Saturday Night Fever, but when you see "Gate" inserted into that logo, it makes it doubly funny.
MM I tapped into my teenage self, for a moment there. I remember as a kid drawing logos on my pencil case and on my books, doing Led Zeppelin and Stooges logos. I definitely didn't do Saturday Night Fever logos, but I certainly spent a lot of time on block lettering, for my name or for whatever fake band I was in that day. I have a friend who's a hardcore digital designer, and he looked at the cover and was like, "Michael, I could have done this for you and it would have looked so much better." (laughter) But I wanted it to look badly done, so it has all of the problems of the original photograph—shininess in some areas, holes in others.
AL In the one song you sing, "You should be dancing."
MM Well, in fact, all of the songs from that session—every single one—has a line from Saturday Night Fever. "You should be dancing" is one, and another is… something about a woman.
AL "More Than a Woman"?
MM More than a woman! (laughter). Every song has that kind of tenuous link to the soundtrack, that’s the other thing that drew them all together.
AL So, you were already thinking of it as Saturday Night Fever when you decided to put those lines in?
MM Yes. I thought I should really try and make it conceptual by using lines from the old one. It's slightly humorous, but I don't like those songs necessarily. I went back and tried to listen to the Saturday Night Fever motion picture album, and I can’t. It still brings up terrible memories. I like some of the Bee Gees, but certainly the Bee Gees from the late '60s. When they got big in the '70s with disco, I wasn’t really drawn to that stuff.
AL Do you know Robin Gibb's solo record, Robin's Reign?
MM No, I don't.
AL It's a super downer, almost maudlin record, but apparently it was a big favorite of Alex Chilton and an influence on Big Star's Third. And if you listen to it from that angle it can be pretty interesting.
MM (looking it up online) Oh wow, what a terrible cover.
AL (laughter) The other trick is that the second side is better than the first. So, I would recommend listening to the second side first.
MM Right. Thank you.
AL Your singing is so similar on both Moonrise and Saturday Night Fever, but the backing is so different. I found that interesting in listening to them back to back. How much do you think of yourself as a singer?
MM For Moonrise, I was attempting to use my voice more prominently. That was also the same with Republic—to try and make the voice an instrument rather than just being buried. So, maybe a lyricist? (laughter) I don't mind writing lyrics. Someone’s got to enunciate them at some point, so I guess it's going to have to be me. Some of those lyrics are just too terrible for other people.
Many years ago I worked in a library, and the librarians I worked with formed an a capella choir quartet. I was the male voice and there were three women. We would do Renaissance music, Samoan and Maori songs, and some contemporary New Zealand classical pieces. There was a composer in Dunedin, where we live, and we would use some of his pieces because they were really interesting, and he came to one of our performances. Our lunch was our practice time. We would drink wine and sing for about an hour and a half, then go back to work. We were basically just picking up paintings and moving them from one building to another. That was a good year of my life, where I became a singer—and an art handler as well, of course. But I learned a lot more about my voice in that singing environment, because we didn't have any accompaniment. We had nothing to hide the voice. It was quite scary, quite risky. I had to read the music. I remember being told off constantly: You've got to hit the right note! (laughter) These three women were really high achievers, all of them could play piano and sing really beautifully. I was really intimidated by all that and had to really learn fast to keep up. They wanted to learn new stuff all the time—one was always off to the music library in the university, finding really obscure pieces for us to sing, which was great. Have you ever done anything like that?
AL I sang in chorus pretty much all through high school, and tried being in chorus my first semester in college. But the choral director brought in a Morton Feldman piece, which was too hard to sing. I was just like: Forget it, this will remain a high school extracurricular activity.
MM Wow, that would have been amazing, to have attempted a Feldman piece.
AL I would probably have more of an appreciation of it now than I did at the time. My ear for harmony is pretty decent, but the Feldman was so abstract. It was hard for me to get a footing on where I was supposed to be. My sight-reading isn't great, but because my ear is good I could usually fake my way through—in this case, it wasn't really an option.
MM I wasn't allowed to just fake it, I had to be on point with them all the time. I became quite good at sight-reading with the vocals, but couldn't do it and play guitar.
AL Most non-classical guitarists are not good sight-readers, I think because of fingerings and things like that.
MM I would really like to go and study classical guitar and learn how to play some of those pieces. That would be a challenge. There’s a guy I met recently who plays some really beautiful classical guitar pieces, here in Port Chalmers. His daughter runs a small bar, and he comes in sometimes and will just set up and play in the evening or late afternoon. He plays from memory, really beautiful. I don’t think I can do that—I'd like to, and I think I can do it sometimes. There are moments on Moonrise where there's this lovely lyrical little section at the end of a long piece. I remember when I was playing it I was starting to freak out, thinking: Oh no, this is sounding too beautiful, too seamless, and too much like it was planned. I have to unravel it. Whenever anyone hears it—like Sarah, my partner—they'd be like, "Oh, that's amazing. Why can't you do all of your records like that?" (laughter) Of course I can't do all my records like that because I can't even recreate what I did on that recording. There’s something in me that goes: It sounds too nice, and it's too conventional. It sounds like it's being plucked out of somewhere else, inserted into my playing by someone else. I look at some guitarists and am amazed at the ease with which they can create very beautiful melodies. I'm sure you could get a really good gig somewhere, being an accomplished classical guitarist—but maybe not in Dunedin, right? (laughter)
AL It takes a lot of practice. Cory Arcangel, an artist who I've done some work with—he was originally a classical guitarist. He went to a conservatory, then came to realize that he couldn't spend the rest of his life practicing twelve hours a day to learn and recreate these pieces. That’s when he switched to—
MM Video games! (laughter)
AL Media art.
MM I've always liked his sense of humor. Super Mario Clouds was the first thing I saw. I just think that was brilliant. And I love the connection to video games because I do a lot of that myself—playing video games or using effects from video games to create images for paintings. In the other group I play in, The Fuck Chairs, we make installations. In the last big installation, we had VHS tapes of us playing really old video games. We've moved through a disco phase, which is ironic, I guess, at this point. At the end of last year we did one show in a bar, where we did a disco set, and people went crazy and were dancing. They wanted us to do it again, so we did the entire set again. At the end of the night they still wanted to hear the material, and luckily I had the lyric sheets. I handed them out to people so they could do the karaoke version of The Fuck Chairs. It was hilarious—people were taking turns to do versions of our disco songs, which was kind of insane. I've never experienced that actually—having the audience participate in the music-making, getting so engaged and wanting to sing along.
AL I did a few performances like that. It's been over ten years ago now, but it was called The Digger Choir. People showed up and really had to be the performers. We did this piece, "Sustained Piece" by John Stevens, where everyone holds a note until they run out of breath, and then they start that note again. It's a nice ambient type of thing. I had a piece that I came up with called "Subway Piece," where everyone had to pull out and read aloud a magazine or whatever they would ordinarily read to themselves on the subway. I did two or three of these at Issue Project Room, in their very early days. It was a fun thing.
MM Do you remember going to that Henry Flynt performance?
AL Yes, at the Emily Harvey Gallery.
MM That was such a wonderful experience. Henry gave a talk, then played a piece.
AL I loved that loop that he had going behind him. It was a sample from a metal record. His whole playing style sounded like someone who had only been playing guitar for four months, even though he's probably been playing for forty years. But at the same time, he was doing some things that no beginner guitarist would ever play. So it was this weird combination of totally primitive technique and decades of experience.
MM Yeah, I loved his technique, absolutely. Mind-blowing really. He's still alive?
AL Yeah, but I don't think he's doing music.
MM I visit his website every now and then because he's got quite a lot of great writings embedded in there. I like using the readings as source material for students. (laughter) This is the guy to read.
AL (laughter) That’s one way to warp young minds.
MM Yeah, because they all want to be visual artists, be able to make money somehow, and I always kind of think: Why? I don't know why you want to make terrible paintings and think someone's going to buy them. It's not really a good way to set yourself up. (laughter)