Interview and video by Kendall Brown
Images by Aubrey Trinnaman
“There was a real spirit of adventure. It was really fun.
I feel that anytime you embark on a record it's a sense of adventure.
It’s really exciting to take on a project like that.”
Mike Sempert is an artist; an artist who has decided to pursue his dream full tilt. Unapologetically. As an artist, he is constantly seeking to find the middle ground between pursuing a career and balancing a personal life. His new album, the aptly named Mid Dream, is born of this struggle; along with the sheer euphoria of creation. He was kind enough to stop by and speak about his record, his recent move from the Bay, and what it takes for an artist to succeed in this day and age.
Kendall Brown: Loved your album man.
Mike Sempert: Good to hear it. Thanks.
KB: When I was listening to it, it seemed stripped down and minimalist. Was that a conscious thing?
MS: Yeah some of the record is stripped down, some of it is a little more orchestrated and lush, just sort of depending on what the song called for. With this record I definitely wanted it to be sort of song forward, lyrics forward. Just like ‘here’s the song, no big deal.’ There’s more exposed raw organic stuff.
KB: It’s a definite departure from your work with Birds and Batteries. Did you have any collaborations with your band-mates?
MS: It was mostly me. I had a lot of help from a guy named Blake Henderson who has a project in Oakland called ‘Taught Me.’ He’s also a producer and a songwriter. I’ve worked with a lot of engineers before and this was new for me because he’s also a songwriter. There was kind of a special trust there and I happen to really respect him as a songwriter as well. He was a confidant. I sort of did the same thing for him on his record and we sort of just traded time basically which was really helpful. He was definitely a presence in the process. Yeah it was a departure from Birds and Batteries in a lot of respects.
A lot of the songs from Mid Dream were songs that had been sort of brewing over the years that just didn’t feel like they fit into the B and B vibe, which had kind of gone in a synthier, more experimental pop direction. This felt more like a songwriter record. It just came together in a sort of organic way.
KB: What were your inspirations? Was it environment? Life experiences?
MS: Yeah definitely life experiences. Just doing the band thing for many, many years and really slogging it out and touring. I think a lot of musicians in this day and age have to deal with some pretty harsh realities. A lot of artists in general. A lot of creative people. It’s tough out there and we sort of have to reconcile these different hopes and dreams and aspirations with other hopes and dreams like getting married and maybe owning a home someday. Simple things. I think they’re pretty universal. We all just want a decent place to live and a good job. At a certain point somewhere in the post September 11th era, music just stopped being worth money it seems.
“There’s just a lot of talent here. Just a lot of talented, hardworking people
and that’s inspiring.”
— Mike Sempert
KB: Do you feel like that was turning point?
MS: It’s an interesting thing. I’m not an economist but obviously there was a big crash and the rest of the economy essentially bounced back. I would never imply that September 11th was the cause of the music industry but timeline wise it seemed like the economy bounced back but the music industry didn’t. That more had to do with what iTunes was doing. Timing wise it actually kind of lines up.
KB: So how does today’s musician survive in this current situation with internet, Bandcamp, Soundcloud?
MS: I really don’t know. It’s a weird thing. I have mixed emotions about it. I’m finding other ways of writing music. Primarily TV, film stuff like that as well as commercial stuff.
KB: So diversifying a little bit.
MS: Yeah exactly.
KB: It is kind of hard out here. You just have to have your hands in a lot of different pots.
MS: I think so. I think it’s different for everybody but yeah I think unless you really hit the lottery and have an incredible career then anything below that is going to require some other source of income. I taught music for a long time when I lived in the Bay and I waited tables. I’ve been here for a year and it’s definitely been a positive change from the Bay.
KB: What are your thoughts on the LA music scene?
MS: I feel like there’s more of a music industry down here and that’s been really cool. There’s just a lot of talent here. Just a lot of talented, hardworking people and that’s inspiring.
KB: What pros and cons do you see working as an individual artist as opposed to working in a group? Do you have a preference?
MS: When I do the Mike Sempert thing, sometimes I do it by myself but I often have a band. We did like a three-week tour with the band this summer. For me that independence allows a lot of flexibility. I can play a solo show or if my drummer’s not available I can get on a plane and go do something else. There’s just a lot of flexibility that comes with that, and freedom obviously. I felt like I had a good amount of freedom within ‘Birds and Batteries’ as well but at a certain point we really wanted to like…the show was it’s own sort of sacred thing that we didn’t want to compromise and now it’s a little more loose it’s a little more relaxed.
KB: You can let your hair down a little bit?
MS: Yeah exactly.
KB: What was the inspiration behind the name Mid Dream? Where did that come from?
MS: I see music as a form of dreaming. Creating is like a form of dreaming. Dream as a word has a lot of different meanings. People have their dreams and their kind of aspirational dreams like ‘I dream to someday have done this or do that.’ There’s sort of a double meaning there but it’s mostly about dreams in terms of creating stuff. It’s the overlap of those two things. ‘Mid Dream’ being sort of like feeling halfway. A little bit like you’re half in in both worlds.
KB: How do you balance that? I read on your biography that you just got married. How do you balance having a life outside music with your music career? How do you find a medium?
MS: I think that’s the ultimate thing actually is finding that balance. I think that’s a continual process, figuring out what that is. I’ve been fortunate to meet some people who were very successful and done very well and who were completely imbalanced in their life and not even that happy. I think that finding balance is the ultimate goal always, and it’s hard.
KB: Definitely. What are you inspired by? Who are listening to now? Do you have any favorites past or present?
MS: Neil Young is a big one for me for sure. Randy Newman is a guy for me. An artist named Donny Hathaway. Ultimate dude. I’ve been listening to this Brazilian singer named Ellis Regina. She was like a pop star in the 70s. Really incredible voice. I love that 70s production. Actually she sings some songs that were written by a guy named Milton Nascimento who’s like one of my all time favorite singers and songwriters who’s also from Brazil. He made a record called Native Dancer with Wayne Shorter that’s a really cool jazz fusion Brazilian record.
KB: Bossa nova?
MS: Yeah it has that element to it for sure. Man it’s just beautiful. His voice is incredible.
“Just do the stuff that moves you. Do the stuff that you feel is beautiful and follow that ‘cuz at the end of the day that’s all that’s going to be left really, the music you make.”
— Mike Sempert
KB: Brazilian music has always been a scene but we’re just now getting put on to it. Are you familiar with Marcos Valle at all?
KB: Yeah he’s another one. It’s more upbeat and poppy but definitely has a fusion jazz kind of feel to it.
MS: Oh cool I gotta write this down.
KB: So are you going to come out with another independent album or are you going to do some work with the group?
MS: I think if the stars align and I’m fortunate enough to have the time to do it I’m hoping to make another record of songs. In the meantime I’m doing an electronic music project right now called ‘Volcanic Legacy’ that’s sort of like this other side to my world that I’m really excited about. It’s like experimental world music jazz fusion influenced house music.
KB: That’s a lot of different genres!
MS: It’s a lot of different things. It’s basically my little playground for making music that I get a kick out of. It’s fun.
KB: Are you using any gear? Synths?
MS: Yeah I have a pretty modest collection of synths. I have a Juno 106, I have a Nord rack synth and then I use the Alisis Micron for some stuff but not a lot. I’m actually using the contact library for a lot of my sounds. Do you do production stuff at all?
KB: I’m more of a DJ. I want to eventually get into production but I have to kind of build to that point.
MS: I hear you. Do you use Ableton at all?
KB: I downloaded the trial version and then my trial ran out. Ableton is awesome though I feel like that’s the go-to program now for a lot of people.
MS: I don’t use it but I know it’s very pretty popular tool in that world. I feel like a nerd now talking about this but I use Protools for a lot of what I do. I sort of developed a weird Protools complex because I really enjoy working in that world and it’s kind of like this universe that you get to design. You have a lot of power. It’s very fun but it’s also very nerdy and it can get in the way of something really genuine happening.
So an album like ‘Mid Dream,’ even though it was made in Protools and there were times when I took advantage of that, for the most part it’s more of an organic kind of thing. With ‘Volcanic Legacy’ I’m just going to have fun. I don’t care if it’s anal to move the kick drum around, I’m going to move it where I want it to go. It’s a double-edged sword, the whole digital analog thing. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to make a record.
KB: I guess it’s just how you’re feeling.
MS: Yeah and what the music calls for and all that.
KB: Absolutely. This is kind of off topic but still has to do with music; what are your fondest artistic memories?
MS: That’s a really cool question. I think they almost always involve recording music. The first time I decided to really make a ‘Birds and Batteries’ record, I took a bunch of gear out to my parent’s garage, there’s like a little area above the garage, and set it up. It was like ‘I’m just going to record every song I possibly can this summer’ and I ended up doing 18 songs. There was a real spirit of adventure. It was really fun but I feel that way anytime you embark on a record it’s a sense of adventure. It’s really exciting to take on a project like that.
KB: Is there any dream collaboration you have? Past or present?
MS: It’s tough. A lot of my heroes, I wouldn’t even know what to do with them. The people I admire most, I don’t necessarily put myself in that category.
KB: They’re kind of in the stratosphere.
MS: Yeah like Miles or something. Let me think. Maybe I’ll get back to you on that. It’s weird that I’ve never really thought about that. I mean there’s producers that I would really love to work with.
KB: Any in particular?
MS: T Bone Burnett. He’s produced a lot of really cool albums.
KB: Are you familiar with Jonathan Wilson at all?
MS: Yeah that guys’ great!
KB: Yeah I kind of heard some through lines between ‘Mid Dream’ and his latest album.
MS: Thanks man! His record is a great sounding album. A really cool album. Yeah there’s this guy, Bryce Gonzales, who engineered a bunch of those records and is a friend. I’ve often thought about trying to do something with him, but the thing is for me it’s all about back to reality. I’m always trying to figure out a way to make a record inexpensively and that requires doing a lot of stuff at home and just cutting corners where you have to. That’s probably one of the reasons that I haven’t ventured into working with producers but yeah… Joe Chiccarelli. That would be really cool. David Fridmann. It’d be nice to record a record and just send it to Fridmann to mix it. That would be amazing.
KB: Do you have any last words for independent artists? People trying to make it in the biz?
MS: Just do the stuff that moves you. Do the stuff that you feel is beautiful and follow that ‘cuz at the end of the day that’s all that’s going to be left really, the music you make.