Michal Menert Gets Personal and Talks Super Best, the Pretty Fantastics and More [interview]
Having recently concluded their consecutive five-night Florida run earlier this month, Michal Menert along with live instrumentalists the Pretty Fantastics, brought heaping amounts of energy and rocked the house every night in every city. Michal and the crew had to be utterly exhausted by the fourth round back to back, but they performed with astounding rigor from beginning to end, executing each track with ease, as if the whole squad had this super cool air about them. Which they totally did. It’s undeniable that these gents know how to communicate and improvise on stage.
We caught up with Menert (who was rocking his signature black fedora) and Matt Van Den Heuvel of the Pretty Fantastics who took us behind the scenes of current projects, Super Best Records, future aspirations, and what it’s like to play in a live band.
SR: We’re sitting down with Michal Menert and Matt Van Den Heuvel of Michal Menert & the Pretty Fantastics, and I just want to start off by saying that you guys have absolutely been crushing it with the Florida tour so far. I was at the Jacksonville show as well, which was really great to see you guys perform there because there aren’t many amazing live bands like you guys that throw down in NE Florida.
Menert/Matt: Thank you.
SR: How has Florida treated you so far, in terms of show turnouts?
Michal Menert: It’s been good. It’s a market that I’m not super strong in – last time I was here was like 2013 on an extended tour, so coming with a project that expands the idea and the palate that people have when they walk in and having people experience music with the singing and the hip-hop and the different elements of the live performance versus just doing a DJ set with hard hitting bass is different.
Matt Van Den Heuvel: It’s very chill.
Menert: It is very chill. Presenting something like that for the first time on a tour like this and having anybody show up, let alone enough crowd to have a party, and to have it feel like ‘alright this is cool, these people had a good time and they’re going to tell their friends’, makes it feel like success. There’s definitely been hurtles, because every time that we do this we’re pushing ourselves with new songs and new mixes, and this time we have a new drummer, because AC Lao, our normal drummer from the last tour is on vacation right now. Cory Eberhard was my drummer back in the day in a band that we were together in called “Listen”. When I got stabbed and was recovering, Derek was touring and he was touring with Derek as Pretty Light’s first drummer, so there was a lot of history there and he knew a lot about what I was a part of. For like ten years we were in bands together and even when we were kids he was a couple years older than me, I used to go see his band play across the street when they would practice in his garage of his parents’ house. So it was cool chemistry, and because of that and the chemistry that evolves, it makes the first few shows always feel like you’re finding the things that are different when you play live as opposed to when you’re doing a DJ set. In a live performance someone could play the guitar part differently or horn parts or maybe switch up the drums a little bit or you might not hear things the same way in a different room.
Matt: Yeah it sometimes feels way better and then you just roll with it, and that’s the exciting part.
SR: You get to jam with each other and that’s amazing, I see you guys looking at one another on stage in deep thought and I think to myself ‘they’re scheming something awesome up right now’, and I know that is especially exciting when you are a legitimate fan who attends shows frequently or has heard the music before but always gets to see something new.
Menert: And that’s the fun part, that’s what I’m saying. After a few shows you start evolving and realizing that you can bounce off of each other.
Matt: So you have to be open to different outlets of creative energy on stage. When you pick up on something you can roll with it.
SR: So would you say it’s a very distinct difference playing solo and playing with your live groups?
Menert: Yeah, originally when I didn’t have the possibility of doing my own band or a project where I would have the ability to request people to play parts or write the things that I was kind of spirit-heading, it was nice coming to production and DJ-style sets because all of the sudden I didn’t have to worry about taking that dominant personality-type. I never liked that. When you’re in bands with four people and you’re starting out trying to do the equal parts thing where you want everyone to be able to do their own thing but at the same time there’s those moments where you’re like ‘hey, I wrote those basslines for this song, so play it like this’ and someone else is like ‘that’s hard to play I want to play it like my own way’. It’s things like that that you run in to when you’re first starting out and before you can have a project together and you’re like alright here, I’m not going to act as a tyrant but I want to have some say in some things. I did DJ sets that I enjoyed doing because I had control over everything and it sounded the way I wanted to every time. Long story short, coming full circle from being in band and feeling those frustrations in a band, sometimes I wish I was more dominant personality-wise and was able to be like ‘play it like this!’ and then I play my own stuff and think that it’s great, but I end up kind of missing playing in a band because like you were saying, you like seeing us on stage looking at each other and connecting, and that’s a big part of what I missed when I was doing solo sets. Even if you’re doing a show and your friends are there and people that you care about are there but you’re doing the show yourself, the things you’re experiencing on stage are very personal and you can’t really explain that to people. So you walk off stage and are thinking ‘man, I wanted to cry like half way during that set’ but people are like ‘oh that was awesome!’ but it’s not the same thing where if it’s good or bad or whether things went right or wrong you can still smile and laugh when you look at your bandmates if you play with a live group.
SR: Sounds like a presence thing, having your friends up there with you jamming out.
Matt: It’s like a pit-stop on stage! It refuels you when you get to connect with that other person even if it’s just for a second.
Menert: When you’re playing and you’re really into it and you look up at the crowd by yourself, sometimes you catch a little snapshot before you look down again and continue playing. When you get those little snapshots, sometimes it doesn’t look like the crowd is enjoying it the way they might be, and then you get to that point where you snap out of your little moment of zen and you look up and are like ‘oh, crap, people don’t like this’, when really that isn’t the case. So having a band up there with you is great, you’re all in that moment together regardless of if anybody else gets it. Music can be very personal if you do it by yourself, but sound carries between people, it’s a form of communication. So whether you’re communicating with the crowd or with your band if you have that communication it feels a lot better, it’s a reciprocation.
SR: Tell me a little bit about Super Best Records, how is that going? I know that was a pretty elongated process in the making for you because of all the focus on PLM (Pretty Lights Music).
Menert: Oh it’s definitely been a process. I think PLM is something that will always exist. But anything with labels that are digital, the hardest thing is having something tangible and having something that the artists involved can count on. That’s what we kind of struggled with for Super Best was not having the resources of an actual label. In terms of the label we don’t have contracts that keep people down or try to take rights or futures away, if we have an artist that comes up and is like ‘I have this chance to release with so and so’, I’m all for it. Because the whole idea is that we are a crew. Matt’s got an album coming out, Will just put out an album, a lot of it is becoming more musical, like less of the electro-soul direction that started out with like people like Krooked Drivers and Late Night Radio. We still have the same crew and same friends but we’re trying to evolve the sound more so it’s not one-dimensional, and so people don’t expect like ‘oh Super Best just sounds like this’, I want it to be more of a stone-thrower.
SR: Especially with the Colorado scene and all of the hype surrounding the electro-soul and glitch-hop genres, people love that but you definitely need some diversity.
Menert: People do love that but nowadays there’s not a huge expenditure of resources making digital free releases because there’s not the same leverage when we’re trying to sell a bunch of albums at the end of it. So, the upside of that is you don’t have to feel like you’re trapped in a sound, you don’t have to make singles or songs that are just for commercial sake of selling records or pushing and promoting. You can write stuff that is whatever you want, and I want to explore that and I want to explore albums that are putting out weird stuff, making music with a tin can and a string and a fork in their kitchen or something. I just want the common factor to be expressive and interesting and something that has a quality of genuineness.
SR: Aside from your work with the Pretty Fantastics and your solo gigs, you have so many other projects going on with people like Manic Focus, Paul Basic and more. Can you tell us a little more about your other collaborations?
Menert: Yeah we have Manic Menert, me and Paul Basic have Half Color together, Elliot Lipp and I have some music out there too. I have a project with Amp Live from Zion I that’s kind of some cool techno-house stuff, we’re both hip-hop producers, and we decided we didn’t want to make it just A + B = AB, we wanted it to be A + B = C, where people don’t expect this from us and it’s not just two guys who make rap beats. Living in the electronic world it’s fun to get out of your comfort zone. But yeah, I have projects that I work on with a lot of people, I have some stuff going on with Late Night Radio and Artifakts. Also there’s this singer called Fuck Boy Syndrome and she is amazing. I met her in Chicago and she lives in LA now, and I’ve been corresponding with her by internet. She’s a vocalist that ties together so many realms of raw hip-hop style.
Matt: It’s just so human.
Menert: It is human and it’s as genuine as the stuff you hear and are like ‘damn that makes me kind of feel weird but in a good way’. Some music can be fine, but if it doesn’t give you a little bit of discomfort or take you out of your comfort zone a little bit then you’re just reinforcing your own perspective.
Matt: Yeah you aren’t challenging your perspectives.
Menert: I think music always has that thing where it’s the curiosity of it all that intrigues you, like with psychedelic music. Regardless of psychedelics at all, the exploration of unknown territory is fun to do. And now with the endless possibilities of sound design you can sit there in your basement and find a million ways to make sounds and you don’t have to have a huge studio to create a big sound and a big story, which is a huge benefit that these generations have and I hope that mission statement translates. In the electronic world, there are so many resources and things that you can use to recreate a sound, and that’s a good thing, but I think that because of that there is a blurred line between creativity and repetition. Growing up in the hip-hop world people would call each other out if they were whack, and here it’s kind of like everyone is a winner, you get an A for effort no matter what. There’s a thin line between paying tribute and totally using something to be like ‘these kids aren’t going to know that this isn’t me and they’re going to think I’m a genius because they’re too young to know so and so’.
Matt: It’s a young genre.
Menert: It’s a young genre and it’s a young world. It’s beautiful but I hope as the resources become more and more available to make music that people still have that creative drive to make music that will stimulate your heart and mind and your curiosity, because that’s a beautiful aspect that shouldn’t be lost by chasing the dollar.
SR: I relate a lot to that because I got into the scene at a very young age, started going to festivals when I was still in high school, but even from that age I was open to the weirder less mainstream artists who played underground electronic music and not so much the headliners that everyone is there for. It became pretty easy to distinguish who was there to experience new music and step out of their comfort zones and who was there to get messed up and jump up and down at the mainstage.
Menert: Well festivals have a beautiful thing where they have the ability to cater and build a lineup with a lot of different things that you can stumble upon and see people and bands that you have never heard of. I remember when I was younger going to festivals, I would look at the lineups and there were so many people I didn’t recognize, and I had friends that would go to festivals and come back and be like ‘oh have you heard of this and this’ and it was cool cause they were discovering things. I think that discovery is a very good element of live music festivals and should also be paid more attention to. You see a lot of the same things going on, especially with electronic music festivals taking over. It’s so much easier to pay a certain amount for an artist rather than to fly out five people, and it’s less of a hassle at the festival because you can just do back to back sets with mixers. But I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old man, it’s fun, I can see why people have fun, and I understand why people are alcoholics too [laughs].
SR: Well as far as new tunes are concerned for you guys, and by you guys I’m referring to the multitude of projects that both of you are involved in singularly and collaboratively, what can we expect in the future?
Menert: Well Matt is finishing up his album, it’s coming out on Super Best, he’s just putting the final touches on it and it will be out within the next month or two. We’re working on the second Pretty Fantastics album, me and JuBee have a hip-hop project called Kid Again that we have all the beats selected for and a bunch of verses written together, a lot of stuff is going on. I’m really excited, we have new Half Color tunes coming out and I’m also working on Space Jazz 2. It’s exciting because we’re all creative forces that have our own outputs and we get together and have a lot of fun and I’m hoping that it can kind of be a collaborative project where eventually the Michal Menert will get dropped and it will just be the Pretty Fantastics and have it be our band. Right now it’s necessary because we’re our first band and it’s hard to get people to come to the shows with a new band name.
SR: Well, I’d say your time together has been ‘pretty fantastic’ so far, and good luck with the rest of the tour.