22 Questions with Mike Smith of Fiction 8
Some of the best things in life we trip over completely by accident. A few years back a friend of mine invited me to come see his band play a warm-up gig at The Snake Pit in Denver. The headliner was Plexi, a band he was really big on, so it was one of those two bird/one stone deals.
Plexi no-showed, so the third band on the card became the headliner by default. That was my introduction to Fiction 8, a band I’d never heard of, and I became an instant fan. Not only was the music really compelling, the front guy (Mike Smith), his lovely wife (Kelly), and the keyboard wizard (Steve Hart) turned out to be darned nice people.
Since then I’ve followed F8’s growth, and Mike has taught me a little about industrial music, which I didn’t know very well (still don’t, to be honest, but I’m learning).
Recently the band released their third CD, Chaotica, and in my estimation it’s the best yet. To mark the occasion, Mike agreed to field a few questions from the Lullaby Pit.
1: You grew up out in the suburbs of Denver back before the tech boom – in fact, when you were a kid, Parker, Colorado wasn’t even a suburb, exactly. It was a little place out beyond the ‘burbs, right? So how does a simple boy from Cowtown wind up as a glamorous industrial music artist? Also, how do you account for the fact that Denver generally has spawned a pretty vibrant little industrial scene? Of all the musical styles in the world, wouldn’t this be the last thing you’d expect?
MS: Did you just call me simple? [laugh] Yeah, I spent a few years in Parker, but I also spent a few years in Cincinnati, Louisville, and other places. My parents moved around a lot. So if anything, the influence was more semi-nomadic than purely Cowtown. Though maybe Parker explains my gay rodeo-like appreciation for the Revolting Cocks … hmmm.
But as far as Denver’s industrial scene, I’m not surprised at all. Back in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, we had a local public television show called FM-TV. It later devolved into Teletunes, but we’re going to pretend that didn’t happen. But at the time, you could catch videos by the Residents, Yello, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Devo … just about anything left of center, all in the span of two hours. It was amazing. So, I’m sure there were a lot of other local area 10 year-olds like me, just watching all of this and growing up thinking that this was pop music.
2: If they were to make a TV mini-series based on your life, who would you want to play you?
MS: Wow! That would be one short mini-series … eek! I’m thinking it would work better as an animated short. In that case, I’d like to be played by Squee. Have you read Squee? It’s a comic by Jhonen Vasquez. Squee is this bug-eyed little kid who spends his nights, awake in bed, waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. He’s frequently visited by the homicidal maniac next door as well as blood-thirsty aliens and other monsters. Through it all, he seems to have this edgy sort of “I’m okay … this is all perfectly normal” reaction to everything. Yeah, definitely Squee … or maybe Kevin Smith [laugh].
3: You’re a fan of some artists who are stylistically alien to the industrial neighborhood where Fiction 8’s music lives. When you’re writing songs or performing, do you feel a connection between your music and that of, say, The Church or Aimee Mann?
MS: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t really think too much about style. Once you’ve heard Laibach cover the Beatles, you can’t really get too attached to thinking that a song and its style are inseparable. I think that’s one thing I like about songwriting. You just have to worry about trying to convey a thought or emotion. Once that’s done, it’s a lot of fun to watch the way it gets fleshed out in the studio. The songs really take on a life of their own at that point. But as for a connection with Aimee Mann and the Church, why not? I generally write on guitar or a keyboard, as I expect they do. Between getting ideas, I’ll often stop and play one of their songs. Aside from the fact that they’re great, what’s the difference?
4: What can we expect from Fiction 8 during the coming year – you’re going to be touring, right? Anything else in the works?
MS: Yeah, this is already shaping up to be a busy year. I’m doing remixes right now for a couple of bands (The Azoic, Aiboforcen). Before the tour we’ll likely play a few shows to get warmed up. We’re probably going to create a compilation disc for mp3.com in the next couple of months … so that will mean more remixes. Then we’ll be on the road in June and probably back in the studio by September, working on the new album. It’s nuts and the whole thing seems pretty daunting but it’s just so much fun to do music again, that I’m looking forward to the challenge.
5: What Web sites do you visit most often?
MS: Probably eBay. I’m such a sucker for trying to buy nostalgia and used music gear.
6: Chaotica is the first Fiction 8 CD with the new lineup, and the addition of Mardi Salazar broadens the range of what the band can do, both instrumentally and vocally. Tell us how you and Steve hooked up with Mardi and describe what her presence means creatively.
MS: We’ve known Mardi for a while … about five or six years. She used to edit a local music magazine, so we stayed in touch on that level. I don’t know, we just became friends over the years. And I knew she played bass … so it’s kind of funny, I have no recollection of her actually joining the band. It was just a seamless transition from friend to bandmate … but she’s still a friend [laugh]. But she brings a lot to the band. She thinks she can do everything and she’s usually right. She hadn’t played violin in over ten years, but when I said I had a track I was working on (“Stasis”) that could use one, she just pulled her old violin out of the closet, dusted it off, and started practicing. After that, Kristy at the label thought we should have a few remixes on the disc since this was our first American release. I kind of gasped because I felt so overwhelmed by the album to start with. But Mardi just stepped in and said “I’ve never done a remix before, but what the hell, give me some vocal tracks and I’ll come up with something!” Her enthusiasm has been really contagious and I think that’s a big reason why it’s been fun to make music again.
7: What are the last five CDs you purchased?
MS: Jeez … that’s a tough one. I just placed an order for the Cyberlab 2 comp that we were on last year. It looked like a good comp, but our chintzy former label failed to send us our copies. So, I’m looking forward to hearing that one. It’s hard to focus on things I already have. I’m more just looking forward to albums … like the new Church disc that’s supposed to come out this April. I’ve been tempted to pick up something by Wolfsheim. I really like their “Sparrows and Nightingales” song. I’ve thought about picking up Gary Numan’s new disc. The songwriting on the last one was great – really visceral stuff. But it was produced so badly that I’m hesitant to buy this new one.
8: What do you see as the most important trend/event/development in the world of popular music during the last decade?
MS: Probably Napster. People are just a mouse click away from downloading Ricky Martin’s new album in its entirety. They can decide on the merit of the whole album if it’s worth buying, rather than just sitting passively by the radio, waiting for them to play the single again. So, we may see a return to an era of album rock, where the industry puts more pressure on their rosters to come up with complete albums, rather than just being the hit industry it is now. It also puts people in touch with obscure artists with the same ease. I think the pop music world of the near future will be a really convoluted mass of so many different influences. It will be really interesting.
9: What was the last movie you went to see? Thumbs up or thumbs down?
MS: I rarely go out to see movies. I was hyperactive as a kid, so there’s still a part of me that just cringes at the prospect of sitting still for an hour and a half. We did recently rent Fight Club, though. That was great. It was nice to see a movie that was unrepentantly for guys, and yet wasn’t the usual testosterone or CGI-laden dreck. It seems funny to say that since there was so much fighting and so many CGI effects, but it was all done very tastefully and just served the plot rather than being gratuitous in any way. It was also nice to see a movie that was touted as a mind-fuck and actually lived up to some of the hype.
10: What’s the best make-out record ever recorded?
MS: Heh. You’re asking the wrong guy! You’re talking to the guy who lost his virginity to the Cult’s Electric. Hmmm … better file that under “too much information.” Hmmm … I don’t know. Do people actually make records for the expressed purpose of becoming make-out records? I expect Roxy Music probably did. That would go a long way toward explaining why I never liked them. I guess I think more in terms of songs. I would have to make a make-out compilation disc, I think. It would probably include stuff like Yello’s “Desire” … the New Mix in One Go version, probably some Recoil stuff, Xymox.
11: What non-musicians have most influenced your music?
MS: I’d say my wife, Kelly, but she’s more of a musician than she’ll ever admit to. But she’s really been the one that’s helped my songwriting more than anything. Not in any direct sort of way, but she’s just such a Pisces. She’s really taught me to work around problems rather than trying to bash through them – which has always been my nature. So, rather than ruining songs by overworking them, I’ll put things on the backburner and come back to them when they’re ready to surface.
12: The Internet, Napster, home studio software, digital effects processors…. Popular music is experiencing a period of tremendous change, and frankly, I don’t think anybody knows for sure what the landscape is going to look like when the smoke clears. What technological, social, economic, etc., trends in the industry strike you as most significant, and in what ways do you expect popular music to change over the next decade?
MS: I don’t know that things will change all that much. The legal system, so far, hasn’t been able to kill Napster. And if it did, new software would just pop up. The legal system is just as slippery and full of loopholes as computer code. Hackers and programmers will always find ways to exploit both. As for the music equipment, it will just be a bit cheaper to get good results. It won’t be any easier, just cheaper.
It’s amazing to me how, since the digital revolution, there have been some impeccably recorded albums, but the average recording quality hasn’t improved even slightly. People with no understanding of recording techniques can screw things up on a digital system just as easily as they could on the analog ones. It does really benefit the established artists that get labeled “over-the-hill,” though. You mentioned The Church and Aimee Mann earlier, and they’re classic examples. Their major labels abandon them or they jump, and yet there hasn’t been a big drop in the quality of their work even though the budgets have dried up. They still know how to write songs and play their instruments, so it’s just a matter of recording in the basement or going to a cheaper studio that can probably almost measure up sonically to the most expensive ones – at least as far as the average listener is concerned.
13: What’s the best concert you ever saw? What was the first show you ever saw?
MS: It would probably have to have been the Nine Inch Nails show in ’90. They were opening for the Jesus & Mary Chain and I didn’t know anything about them at the time. I was expecting some sort of languid alt-rock show and “bang!” – they just stormed the stage with so much energy. It was amazing. As for the first one … do you mean “saw” or “was present for”? If you mean saw, I would have to admit to seeing Kiss in ’79, but my “present for” is a little more respectable. According to my folks, I witnessed a Led Zeppelin concert in utero. I guess they were opening for José Feliciano on their first tour. I expect the dynamic was similar to the Nails & Mary Chain show.
14: Most of us have musical guilty pleasures, things we like but aren’t necessarily proud of. Is there anything in your CD collection that you hope people won’t notice when they come over?
MS: Hey! You already dragged Kiss out of me. What more do you want? Hmm … I suppose the “best of” I made of Pat Benatar songs would count. Uhh … I bought a comp specifically to get Maxine Nightingale’s “Right Back Where We Started From.” That’s pretty embarrassing. I’ve got a Metallica disc. In light of the Napster episode, I’m pretty embarrassed about that.
15: What’s your favorite song on the new CD to play live?
MS: Hmmm … probably either “Neverwhere” or “I Scare Myself.” They’re probably the most autobiographical tracks on the new disc. There’s something about exposing your weaknesses in front of an audience that is a little liberating or cathartic … it’s probably the old “rock star using the stage as therapy” syndrome.
16: Most musicians hate the process of labeling and categorizing bands, but your distaste for “musical taxonomy” is the worst I think I’ve ever seen. Why is that, and given the realities of the musical landscape these days, how would you describe Fiction 8 to somebody who has never heard of you?
MS: I like to call Fiction 8 “dark pop” and leave it at that. It’s not terribly descriptive but I don’t think it’s totally inaccurate. Our stuff does tend to have a lot of pop hooks and structures. We’ve gotten a lot of comparisons lately to VNV Nation, Wolfsheim and various other “synth pop” bands. Hopefully, being proactive and labeling F8 “dark pop” will keep us from being called “synth pop.” I really hate that term, I don’t know what it is about it. It just sounds so superfluous and disposable. Not to mention the fact that when I hear the words “synth pop,” it conjures up images of Erasure, the Human League, and Naked Eyes. I like all those bands but it’s a totally different vibe and time period.
But I think the underlying problem is just that I see labeling as having a really negative effect on bands. After a couple albums, a band gets pigeon-holed into a certain category and then it’s just human nature to try to fit that cage like a veal calf. Look at U2 – with the first couple of albums, they gained a reputation as a political rock band and then slowly tried to expand within those confines by bringing in Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to give them a more atmospheric edge. Then they got labeled as an atmospheric political rock band, so they had to move to Berlin for a year to come up with Achtung, Baby! After that, the media pretty much wanted to hand them a medal of honor just for breaking the confines that the media set up for them in the first place. It’s really warped.
And that’s just the success story. On the other hand, you have bands like Skinny Puppy who, by the release of VIVI Sect VI, had become the noise trauma kings of industrial music. But rather than expanding past that, they just kind of withered into that mold and produced crap like Too Dark Park and Last Rights. It was almost like some twisted “Weird Al” Yankovic lampooning the band, rather than legitimate releases by the band itself.
17: What artist that you absolutely cannot stand to listen to do you respect the most?
MS: Probably Bruce Springsteen. His music still makes my skin crawl but he’s had so many opportunities to be predictable and yet he seems to keep finding new directions to go with it.
18: What artist that you have zero respect for do you listen to anyway?
MS: Kiss, hands down. Not that I ever had a lot of respect for them, but they just took their whoredom to a whole new level with this last tour. Pepsi may be a good sponsor for a hockey arena, but Jesus Christ! A metal version of “The Joy of Cola”? That was a bit much, even for them. I guess they don’t expect their mutual funds to earn enough to keep them plump through their retirement.
19: In the wake of the Columbine tragedy, the world all of a sudden was looking at “goths” and “trenchcoats” in the Denver area, and thanks to some of most halfwitted reporting in history the term “goth” was generalized to apply to just about anybody with black in their wardrobe. The whole affair had to hit a little close to home, especially since your wife Kelly is a Columbine graduate. Tell us what you saw, what you heard, and what you felt when the blamestorming started.
MS: I think it was particularly tough for Kelly. We were never the popular kids in school so I think we related to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold a bit. I know I kept a baseball bat and Chinese stars in my locker in high school. Our culture is just so blood-thirsty and Roman now that violence seems like a good retort to just about any injustice. We were horrified like everyone else, but then we’d stop and think “you know, if we were back in high school now, those two most likely would have been friends of ours.”
On the one hand, the carnage was devastating and on the other hand you’re thinking “god, a couple of those fucking jocks got what they deserved.” So, I think it was unnerving for both of us to feel like we understood the violence so well. The fact that Kelly knew the teacher who died and could picture the hallways and rooms where all this took place must have been horrifying. High school is such a vulnerable, painful time to deal with anyway, so to have the memories tainted with this is just hard to relate.
What made matters worse were the reactions that the victims’ parents had. They were accusing the police of not acting quickly enough. I have a friend who was in Special Forces who was amazed at how quickly they secured the building. He was sure that the police took a lot of dangerous risks to move in as quickly as they did. And now I see that the parents of one of the victims are accusing the police of being directly responsible for their son’s murder, claiming they shot him. They’re pushing for the release of the autopsy and everything. Where does it all end? Where is the healing? This is exactly the sort of intolerance and bullying that probably got those kids killed in the first place. It’s sad to see that they came by it honestly.
20: What’s your favorite TV show?
MS: Wow, that was a switch! Hockey is pretty much all I care to watch on TV, speaking of violence. Does that count? “Jackass” on MTV was fun for about 10 minutes. Though sometimes I’ll just turn on IFC for background noise.
21: Besides this one, what’s the dumbest question you’ve ever been asked about being a musician?
MS: You know, the last interview we did was pretty horrible but I can’t for the life of me remember any of the questions, and this was just last week. I must be trying to block it from memory. The questions were all so bad, we were all pretty much speechless. I remember one of the questions wasn’t so much a question. We were asked to relate a funny story. That was it. But for the most part we’ve been pretty lucky. I suppose that will change when we’re famous [laugh].
22: What was the best live show of your career?
MS: Probably the last one – the release party in December. It seems like each show is better than the last. But I remember that a show we opened for Switchblade Symphony and Razed in Black in Colorado Springs a couple years back was pretty electric. I think most shows with this lineup are our best ones.