Interview: Morgan Geist
It’s been eight years since Brooklyn duo Morgan Geist and Darshan Jesrani released their eponymous album as Metro Area. Drawing on R&B, disco, boogie, house and techno, it not only stood the test of time, but is now rated as one of the finest underground dance albums of all time. After a trip to London for the Red Bull Music Academy, Morgan spoke to Juno Plus editor Aaron Coultate about Metro Area’s new “bubblegum” sound, his own solo work and the era of disposable music.
News surfaced a while back about a second Metro Area album – where are you guys at in the recording process?
Yeah Darshan (Jesrani) and I have been working on it for years, and it’s been coming along really slowly. But we’ve made some good progress this year. We want it to develop organically, we don’t want to rush it, but at the same time our last record came out so long ago we kind of want to get it done (laughs).
How does it compare to your debut LP?
Some of the tracks have a humorous, bubblegum feel to them. You know, a weird synth pop vibe. We are big Devo fans and we love Yazoo. The first album was moody and dark, and I think that appealed to a lot of people. Our tracks would end up on the Cocktail Songs 97 compilation or something on that because people thought it was dark and sexy, and that made us want to puke. So I think our next album will disappoint those people. A lot of it is in major key. It’s not silly, but it definitely has a new wave feel to it. If we simply picked up where we left off it would sound, and I don’t want to use the word dated here because I think our music can stand the test of time, but it wouldn’t sound fresh. There’s that struggle between not wanting to take too much notice of trends and what people are saying and remaining stagnant. You try and use an internal guide, otherwise you lose your creative compass.
What kind of reception do you think it will get?
I was speaking to Jeremy from Junior Boys and he said his first record was icy cold, and people liked it. Subsequently, and especially by the time the third record came around, people didn’t like what he was doing, they didn’t like his sounds. People don’t associate deep emotions with major keys, but you listen to Motown music and it’s so uplifting and major but you listen to the lyrics and it’s all about heartbreak, and it’s incredibly depressing. So I am a little concerned what people with think of our next record, especially if they listen to it superficially. I hope people realise the contrast, and I’m thankful when they do. In fact, I’m thankful and surprised when anybody gives a fuck!
Do you think it will be more or less accessible than your previous work?
I used to have this fascist underground attitude to music, where obscurity was an asset. But I’m not really like that any more, I’m psyched by the idea of someone of my parents’ generation liking the record, as well as a 16-year-old kid. I have listened to a lot of 80s R&B and pop, and often that kind of stuff would be in two charts at once. It appeals to the underground and the mainstream. I like the idea of making some underground record where only 500 copies are pressed, and I like the idea of making something like a Chic track that becomes massive.
“The first album was moody and dark, and I think that appealed to a lot of people. Our tracks would end up on the Cocktail Songs 97 compilation or something on that because people thought it was dark and sexy, and that made us want to puke. I think our next album will disappoint those people”
How much of the record is actually done?
Erm, 9/16ths (laughs). Usually one of us will start a track, then we’ll bring the other one into it. So at the moment we have this bunch of skeletons, with an arrangement and melody.
What are the notable differences so far?
Well this time we want to use vocals. Nerds like us have been doing house and techno for so long, that writing a song with vocals is like writing two songs in one. For a songwriter or lyricist, it is the same process, you write your lyrics and your melody. We write dance records and record that first, then implement the vocals which means a lot of tweaking and rearrangement. Half the reason we started Metro Area was because we were sick of house and techno that was loopy and predictable. But I have to admit, vocals are a pain in the ass. With our first record, people could take it wherever they wanted to. If you add a lyric, it pushes it in a certain direction. Ten years ago I didn’t like lyrics, now I like to listen to songs with lyrics… See, this is why we are taking so long to record the album … too much philosophical bullshit!
And are you working on any solo productions at the moment?
I am doing some solo stuff with this vocalist, I met him through a friend who heard him singing on the subway. He’s from the Bronx. He might end up on the Metro Area record so I don’t want to say too much yet. He’s a bit rough around the edges, which sounds unflattering, but he’s a natural talent and I like the idea of using him while he is still a bit rough and unrefined. He’s got this gravely smoky voice, and I think he brings this amazing raw ingredient. His mother was in Earth, Wind and Fire so he comes from a very musical background.
Will you release a solo album or just some singles?
The music industry is in a weird spot…singles are working again. I think I’m going to start another sub label to release this work. Metro Area was originally going to be the name of my sub label, but then Darshan and I started working together and it seemed to be the right name for what we were doing. We both live in NY now, but were both from the metro area. So yeah, I’m not good at leaving shit alone in other words. I try and make 12” dance records and I end up with a proper song instead. I’m really psyched about it though, it will just be a Morgan Geist release, hopefully I’ll have one single out before the summer.
And how is your Environ label going? Do you have much involvement in the day-today running of the imprint?
Well it’s my label so most of the work is up to me. It takes up a lot of my time, and it’s getting less and less fun. I’ve been doing it for 15 years now, and I probably sound like a broken record, but the music industry isn’t what it used to be. It’s fucked up. It’s not fun a lot of the time, a lot of administrative stuff. And then there’s the pressure of putting out a record. A few years ago even a relative failure would still earn you your money back, but that is not the case now, especially with physical products. But I still get excited about releasing a Kelley Polar or Daniel Wang release, because they are friends of mine. And I know artists are not supposed to admit this, but I have a definite entrepreneurial streak. I liked selling records, and not just the money, but because it used to be a real barometer of interest. That’s not the case these days – now people can just go and download this stuff for free. As I see it, there is no sacrifice on their side. It’s funny to think of money in that way, but there is a truth in it. I’m basing it on my experiences as a kid, were I’d catch the bus into the city to buy a new 12” and if you didn’t like it you’d still spend time listening to it and trying to like it because you’d spent all your money on it. Now if people don’t like the first 10 seconds on their iPod, they skip to the next song.
Does that make it harder to do what you do?
Having a label is weird, because you’re putting in effort, but still get put in the same category as people who churn out releases. I’m pretty strict, Kelley Polar probably hates me because we spend time mixing frequencies that don’t even come out on an iPod (laughs). Making music is a bit like handing out party fliers now, some people read it but most people just throw it on the ground. It’s hard to swallow if you’ve always taken pride from making non-disposable music. Obviously people do make disposable music and that’s fine, but it’s spirit crushing for the rest of us. There’s so much shit coming out. I hate feeling like an old grumpy fuck, but I can’t identify with this culture. My little sister is 16 and I can’t believe the way she consumes music.
“Making music is a bit like handing out party fliers now, some people read it but most people just throw it on the ground”
Will these changing attitudes towards music affect you at all in the studio?
No. We are doing what we want to do. The truth is we wouldn’t do an album if we were basing it on the way people consume music now. The way it stands, people will find their favourite track – or their favourite two if we’re lucky – and download them. I see it all the time with the invoices I get for downloads, there’s like five nerds like me downloading the whole album and then 500 downloads of “Miura” or “Atmosphrique”.
So you think the disposable nature of music these days is of detriment to the underground music scene?
It’s just that there’s so little payback and so much abuse. If people hunted it down, cared about it, that would be different. I shouldn’t be so cynical, because I guess that’s how it’s always been in one way or another, but at least people were kind of forced to check the other songs out when they bought an LP. It’s all there in wax so you might as well. Being able to pick and choose is great for the major labels, but we put in the same energy for every track, and with our album we tried to make an arch, an overall flow. Would you put a Pink Floyd album on halfway through, listen to one song and turn it off? It’s just that music is my whole live, and now it’s become a soundtrack to something else, a lifestyle thing. People are aware of music, but they don’t love it as much.