I’ve literally known Mike Pace for half of my life: we met in the mid-90s when I was interning at a record label, and later reconnected after college, when he was one-third of the terrific indie rock band Oxford Collapse. That band called it a day in 2009, and Pace returned a few years later with two songs recorded under the Child Actors name, and returned to playing shows in 2014. A full-length, Best Boy, is due out next week; in anticipation of that, we talked over the phone about the album, Pace’s forays into comedy, and more.
When I saw you and Matt [LeMay] play at HiFi over the summer, that was the first time you’d played music live in the last five years, right?
That HiFi show was exactly that. It was the first live musical performance of my own stuff since the last Oxford Collapse song. The reason for doing it acoustically was that it was a nice “get back in the saddle” type of thing, rather than having the rigamarole of having a band, and a van, and equipment, and a practice space. With this, I just had to show up to the club with my acoustic guitar and nothing else. It felt very troubadour-like. Walking in with an acoustic guitar, playing, and then leaving–I didn’t even have to load out. I didn’t have to wrangle band members, parking, all of that stuff. Eventually, it would be nice to get back to that place, and hopefully that will happen. But the acoustic thing was a nice transition back into getting on stage and playing music for people.
Had you been writing music from the point when Oxford Collapse ended, or was there a break in there?
The emphasis on starting another band or doing something serious wasn’t there for a few years. This coincided with when I was living in Austin. The urge to keep creating new stuff never really left. It changed a little bit. It became a little more based in MIDI and computer programs, and trying to write stuff for commercial purposes, for iPhone apps and video games, for short films, stuff like that. I was continuing to create music, but it didn’t involve writing lyrics, having a band, having a ton of equipment outside of a MIDI keyboard and a computer…
Having said that, when I moved to Austin, I did buy a thirty dollar acoustic guitar, and I’d keep working on riffs and demos for things. But there was never any intention to do anything with it other than document it, and maybe come back to it at a later time. It was always there, but the context in which I was creating new material definitely had changed.
Was there one particular moment when you said, “Wait–I want to write pop songs again”?
When I moved back to New York and I ran into Matt LeMay at a big record fair in the area where they have Smorgasburg. This would have been in the spring or summer of 2011. I hadn’t seen Matt in a number of years. At the time, he wanted to work with more people to build up his producing and engineering chops. We had always gotten along, and he said, “If you ever want to collaborate on anything, definitely let me know.” I had these songs that I’d been working on; I had a couple of GarageBand demos floating around, but nothing serious. I sent them to him, and we started talking about them; he offered to produce the songs and play on them, and we ended up doing the “Summer Lawns”/”McKinley” digital-only single that came out a couple of years ago. After that, the flame re-ignited. I really enjoyed working with Matt; I really enjoyed the context in which we were working. I’ve always loved the recording process, but it didn’t involve putting a band together, playing any shows, anything relating to the physical works that you have to do when you’re playing in a band. It removed all of that and focused on recording some songs.
I know that Oxford Collapse did some tour dates with Matt’s old band Get Him Eat Him when you both toured with the Constantines. Am I misremembering that he also recorded a song for Oxford Collapse?
He did. It’s funny–I kind of equate it to the last song that Guns ‘N’ Roses ever recorded. It was a Rolling Stones cover, “Sympathy For the Devil,” in 1994. I don’t even think Slash played on it. It was after the band had been torn apart. They recorded it for some compilation…
Wasn’t it for the Interview With the Vampire soundtrack?
Yes! That’s what it was for. But it was considered the final song from the Use Your Illusion lineup of the band. By the time that the song came out, that band was totally done. So with Matt, similarly, we recorded a Christmas song called “Hester Xmas” for a compilation. That was 2008. At that point, all of the members of Oxford Collapse were living in different places; we got together and record that song in Matt’s apartment and practice space. It was a very DIY production–much like some of the stuff that I’m doing now.
We did play that song once–I believe it was a show we played at Maxwell’s, towards the end. I think it was the show we played with Spinto Band, and we attempted to play “Hester Xmas.” It was in a weird tuning, and never came to be.
The arrangements on Best Boy are all for full bands, and I know that both you and Matt play multiple instruments–how did you divide that up?
It was a no-brainer that Matt was going to play drums. I can’t play drums. The one beat I can play is the worst beat in the world. I’ve never learned how to play drums at all. I knew that Matt was a talented, smart guy, but what I didn’t realize was that he’s a session-caliber player. If he chose to go that route, I think he’d be very successful. If there was something that I needed to sound great that I knew I couldn’t pull off–case in point, the solo in “King of Corona.” I labored over writing that. I was really happy with how it turned out in the demo that we did that I recorded in my apartment. But when it came time to actually track the guitar solo, I could not pull it off with the finesse of a seasoned lead guitar player, which I am not. So Matt just ripped an amazing version of that solo that was better than anything I would have been able to play.
Matt is definitely the not-so-secret weapon, in terms of his musicianship. On certain songs, he’d play bass; on certain songs, I’d say, “Can you come up with a guitar part on this,” if it was a more keyboard-centric song. He’s a co-writer on a number of songs on the record. I played a lot of rhythm guitar, and all of the keyboards. We split the bass 50/50. A lot of the lead guitar parts are Matt’s. He’s an amazing musician, and one of the best that I’ve ever played with. Whatever the song needed, Matt would, without fail, deliver.
I’m used to seeing your music as part of a classic power trio lineup. So hearing these songs with very distinctive guitar parts is very interesting. How did that end up coming about?
I love the recording process, and my favorite part of the recording process is guitar overdubs. Whatever the thing I was going to do after Oxford Collapse was, it was going to need to have two guitar players. I always wanted to play with another guitar player. The nature of Oxford Collapse–it was a power trio. The three of us in that band worked really well, musically, and there was never a thought about adding an additional guitar player. But every time a friend would jump on stage and play along with us, which happened periodically, I’d think, “Man–to have another guitar would be amazing.” When I was recording all of these demos, I never put any thought into how it would be performed live. I’d always put at least three guitar parts on every song, because I like things that sound full and dense and have multiple things going on.
I was always going to have multiple guitar parts in the songs. When it came time to translate them to an acoustic setting, it made sense, because Matt is so versatile, to have the two acoustic guitars: one twelve-string and one six-string. It was a really nice alternate version of the full-band stuff. It was something I had never really done before, and I think it was nicer than me just going up there with an acoustic guitar myself and playing basic chordal versions of these songs. It’s not a solo guy, it’s not a band; it’s something in between, which was perfect for where I was coming from.
There’s also more piano-driven songwriting on the new album. Had you always been writing on both, or was this the first time you were actively building songs around pianos rather than guitars?
In the old band, there was very little that was written on piano. I grew up taking piano lessons. I’ve always loved piano-based pop music like Billy Joel or Elton John or Warren Zevon, Randy Newman, any of that stuff. Playing in a punk rock-inspired power trio, there was no room for that. Dan [Fetherston], the drummer, was never a big fan at the time; he thought that piano was superfluous in a live show. I think there’s an argument to be made there. Maybe part of this was a subconscious reaction to that: this is my own thing now, and I’m going to be delving into keyboards. A lot of that, also, was from the years I spent in Austin writing MIDI-based computer music, which was all done with a keyboard. After the band, I re-taught myself how to play the piano, or at least how chords work on the piano. That was also something that I wanted to do: in addition to multiple guitars, I wanted there to be multiple keyboards: acoustic piano and organ and synthesizer.
How have you been translating all of that to the live setting?
It’s been a trial and error process. For the acoustic shows, I’ve been playing the guitar-centric songs. The song “Kiss and Fly,” which sounds unlike a lot of the stuff on the album–I was able to figure out how to play it on the acoustic guitar. There are songs that I can’t play acoustically, but we have been practicing them as a full band; the easiest thing that I’ve found so far is to bring my MIDI keyboard and my computer and use my acoustic piano sound in Reason and use a line 6 digital delay panel that has a 14-second loop on it, so I can actually recreate the loops live, Ian Williams/Battles-style. It seems to be working out. I’m sure it’ll be a disaster at some point. I’ve actually been able to figure out ways to tweak the songs so that they can be played live. And it’s nice, because I actually have a lead guitar player in the band. It’s not just me against the world; I can delegate parts to other people. It’s kind of nice. I am planning on playing the full record, more or less, at the record release show.
Who else is in the band, now?
The band contains three people named Mike and one guy named Matt. The lineup for the show on the 16th is me on rhythm guitar and keyboards. Mike Jaworski on lead guitar–Mike used to be in the band The Cops, and then in the band Virgin Islands, and currently he books at the Bell House. Super sweet guy. I met him randomly when I opened for Scott from Frightened Rabbit a couple of months ago. We knew people in common; I said that I was looking for players, and he offered to try out. He’s great. My buddy Mike Henry is holding things down on the bass, and Matt LeMay is playing drums. I think the name might be the Mike Pace and the Child Actors Nights and Weekends Electric Bands. There’s a lot of full-time jobs, kids, that sort of things. Getting out; a “working for the weekend” kind of thing.
For a lot of the time between bands, you were doing the Worst Gig Ever podcast. Was there anything that you picked up from doing that that you applied to the Child Actors?
My whole detour into the podcast and the comedy world and UCB was definitely me trying to figure out other things I wanted to do creatively. When the band broke up–it was my identity for so long, and it’s still a huge part of my identity. I’m very proud of everything the band accomplished, and I have incredibly fond memories, and am still very good friends with Dan and Adam. When the band ended, there was a big void in terms of what I was going to do. Music became more of an occupation. It was also an opportunity, now that I had the time–I had always really liked comedy. I decided to take classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade. I had always liked podcasts; I saw that there was a whole community of comedy-centered podcasts. It blew the doors open for me; I decided to give it a shot and see what I could do there.
Everything that I did with Worst Gig Ever was also a great experience, and a great collaboration with my buddy Geoff Garlock. I love collaborating with likeminded people and friends and creating something. I went from the band to doing my own stuff to working with Matt, working very casually, and hooking up with Geoff and making all of that stuff happen.
One of the things that I realized in terms of doing comedy stuff was that, when it came down to it, in my heart of hearts I’m a music guy. I spent my twenties getting in the van, touring, putting out records. That’s what I love. I wasn’t a 22-year-old going to open mic nights five nights a week and immersing myself in the comedy world. And that’s what I found that a lot of comedy people were doing. They’d been doing this since their late teens–that’s what they love. And I realized that what I really love is doing music. The podcast was a really good opportunity to produce something, to meet with really interesting people. We split it down the line: we talked to comics and we talked to musicians. I had Freddy from Madball in my apartment, for christ’s sake! I don’t know if it was a highlight of my life, but it was amazing. But it ran its course. We were approaching a hundred episodes. We had spoken to a whole bunch of people. Geoff and I looked at each other one day and said, “I think we’ve gotten what we wanted to get out of this.” And it exists; it’s online, people can check it out and still enjoy those episodes.
Timing-wise, that really nicely dovetailed. Worst Gig Ever ended in the spring, and Matt and I were putting together the album. It went from that into the record. Worst Gig–I needed to do that stuff and put that notch in my belt to make myself realize, “This is awesome, but what I really love is making my own stuff.”
(Some discussion of the ordering of the album followed. -ed.)
The song “Kiss and Fly” was originally written as an instrumental piece for a buddy of mine who I know through comedy who was making a pilot for this contest. I did the music for him. It was the final scene, the closing credits, and they wanted something kind of triumphant. I put together what was the basis of that song, and it worked for the show. I thought, “I think I could turn this into an actual song for this record.” I brought it to Matt and we workshopped it a little bit, and I put vocals on it. I was on the fence about it; it seemed out of place on the record. And Matt said, “No–you have to put this on.” So we did, and because I put that on the record, I needed a little segue between some of the more guitar-based rockers and this electronic-based thing. So I put together the song “Best Boy,” which is an ambient piece based on a delay experiment that I’d done a few months prior as a delay of the amp and recording equipment in my apartment. I used that as a bridge, or a pallet cleanser, if you will.
It was definitely an ongoing process up until this summer, when we finalized what the record was going to be.
How long of a process was it to get the track order in place?
The “Summer Lawns” single was recorded in November of 2011. I can’t believe it’s three years old already. Those songs came out in March of 2012, and that’s when I think we started putting things together. There was a period of time when we weren’t recording anything. But the record took about two and a half years to make, because I was doing other stuff. I didn’t know what was going to happen with it; I didn’t know if I was going to put it out. It probably started congealing in the beginning of this year, when we started going to studios to record drums and piano. Earlier this year, we started getting elements into place and putting a timeline together and figuring out the track listing.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that Self-Starter Foundation was going to be releasing it.
That was one of those things that came together… I played a second acoustic show at Pete’s Candy Store about a month after the first. Chris [Newmyer] came to that show, and he had managed the band. After the show, we were talking; I said, “I don’t know how this record is going to come out. I’m shopping it around to labels, but I’m not touring, and I know that’s going to limit me.” He said, “I’m thinking about resurrecting Self-Starter Foundation. And even if I don’t do anything with it, if you want to use the logo…” We met again the next week, and the idea was–he wanted to be a little more active. So we’re splitting everything down the middle. It’s a perfect kind of low stakes, low expectations–I’m saying that in a realistic, not a self-deprecating, way–thing for him to get back in after not having released a record since 2004.
What’s great is that he’s updated the Self-Starter page, but he didn’t change anything. So the last update is, like, “February 2004: New Palomar record!” And then it’s “November 2014: New Mike Pace and the Child Actors record!” There’s no mention of the site being defunct for ten years, which is great. I’m pressing 300 copies on vinyl, so it’s digital and vinyl with a download code. And if Chris is happy with the experience, maybe he’ll put out some more records. It could be really nice for both of us. And it’s kind of the most realistic but awesome way. As you said, Self-Starter put out some awesome records, and it’s nice to be a part of that.
Image: Ben Rayner