After spending a decade as the driving force in the art-rock band Tirez Tirez, Mikel Rouse began to feel a disconnect between his form of composition and the modern world of pop music. "I was feeling [that] I wasn't merging my love for complexity with my love for pop music and the sound and production of pop music," Rouse says. Pushing forward with his own vision, the St. Louis, Missouri native launched a new era of crafting songs by more experimental means for operas, multi-media musical works and albums like Quorum.
Rouse's latest work comes in the form of a project called Metronome, whose release, Take Down, has been garnering fantastic reviews from a wide range of media outlets. We sat down with the composer to talk about his incredible career, his early adoption of drum machines, his methods of picking out studio gear and what he used on the Take Down album.
What led you to working with the drum machine on Quorum?
To my knowledge, in 1982 or 83, there were only a couple of LinnDrum machines in NYC and one was at Toy Specialists. I got to know and work with TS owner Bill Tesar (a remarkable drummer). I wanted to make this long-form percussion piece that relied on the sequencing technology of the time. Since the basics were pretty crude back then, I would measure lengths of 136 beats to accommodate the multiple rotating meters of the score.
It’s still one of my favorite pieces. No one would release it when I was shopping it. They thought I was crazy. So I pressed 100 copies and distributed it through New Music Distribution Service, the wonderful place that Carla Bley had on Bway. Long story short, it was picked up by a number of dance companies, but it was Ulysses Dove who took the music to a new level with his ballet, Vespers. The Alvin Ailey company embraced it and it’s been in continuous repertory for 30 years with a new production in 2016. I still get letters from Europe asking if Quorum is the first techno piece!
When did you get more involved in the studio aspect of things?
I did the early NYC Tirez Tirez and Broken Consort recordings with Martin Bisi at his brilliant BC Studios. A lot of the great stuff coming out of NYC was recorded with Martin. When I programmed all of Quorum (even though we tracked it to 24” tape with Martin), I saw the future, meaning I had done all of that programming in my apartment. So I started slowly building a studio in the late 80s and early 90s. It was slow going with MIDI and sequencers, but things really picked up with computers and recording/sequencing platforms. It doesn’t look like it, but it's a fairly portable rig so I can move it around as needed. I’ve had it located in a number of places over the years.
How do you go about choosing the gear that you will fill your studio with?
I was an early adopter of digital technology but after archiving all of my analog work for the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center (LPA, which acquired my entire archive in 2010) I started noticing a certain warmth missing. Especially from the sound of tape compression. So I kinda went on a quest to find gear that would help compliment the new hybrid studio. The editing and sequencing control of digital and the sound of analog.
What was the inspiration behind your new record and the Metronome project?
Take Down has so many influences and ideas going. I’m pretty happy that it comes across as somewhat cohesive because it spans influences as diverse as Abd El Halim Hafez, FKA Twigs, The Postal Service and Delta Blues. I think of it as a Kafkaesque soundtrack to America's future. The lyrics cover topics from lost love to water shortages, from mortality to Mayan ruins, from toddlers to allergies.
How’d you come to start working with Vintage King and what gear have you picked up from us that made its way onto the record?
My mastering engineer Matt Agoglia from The Ranch Mastering, turned me on to Barefoot Sound monitors. I was blown away and consequently set out to meet Thomas Barefoot and learn more. I believe Vintage King was the first to carry them and Vintage King was super helpful in getting everything set up and running. Always available to answer questions and provide helpful advice.
When I got the Barefoots [MicroMain27s], I soon realized I needed to up my monitoring situation to get the full benefit of the Barefoots. So I got the Crane Song Avocet and it was a major improvement. Along the way, I just kept sculpting sound and acquired D.W. Fearn compressors and Manley Labs gear as well. Also, I got the Telefunken U47, which is my go-to vocal mic. I like the effect of this gear on the Metronome recording because the composition and sequencing is so stark and electronic. There are steel guitars and acoustic instruments, but it’s so driven by hard relentless beats that the analog gear adds a really nice patina. I tend to use a lot of these boxes for color and width and that’s pretty evident on TakeDown.
What's your favorite part of going into the studio every day?
You just never know what to expect. I guess if that ever changed I’d do something else. But there’s always another way to make a sound or combine words and music. I guess the gift of starting fresh every day is the best part.