The PMD + MR. OWL Interview
Pierre Michel, owner of the Miami-based graphic design firm Pierre Michel Designs, took some time to discuss with MR. OWL a bit about his history, past & future projects, influences and philosophy. Read the full interview on the PMD blog: http://pensouldesign.blogspot.com/2012/02/pmd-mr-owl-interview.html
Mr. Owl is one of the most versatile, skillful, knowledgeable and visionary DJ/Producers from Steel City (Pittsburgh, PA). He always delivers the most complex and concept driven underground/independent Hip-Hop mixes that die-hard hip-hop heads have ever heard. With great knowledge about his craft and love for music, his mixes are getting more and more spins in underground hip-hop communities state side and also overseas.
PMD: Thanks for stopping by PMD Mr. Owl, What’s the origin of the name Mr. Owl?
Mr. Owl: I’ve had several other musical personas over the years, going all the way back to middle school when I began experimenting with computer music, but I decided to take a new name as I got more serious about releasing original music and performing regularly as a DJ. When people ask what it means, I retell the story of the classic tootsie pop commercial, in which Mr. Turtle declares “ask Mr. Owl for he is the wisest of us all”, but you never find out if the Owl knows the answer because he just eats your treat. I aim for the music that I present to the world under this moniker to be intelligent, unpredictable and enigmatic, so the metaphor seems to fit. Also there is something about the creature itself, owls just don’t seem like they are from our world and that resounds with me in some ways.
PMD: What are some of the major people that influenced you to get involved with music today?
Mr. Owl: I grew up outside of Rochester NY, and my parents encouraged me to learn a variety of instruments throughout my childhood, including trumpet, saxophone, and guitar. From 5th grade on my best friend Nick Harkola and I were always getting together for jam sessions, going to whatever shows we could get into, playing in a funk band, and recording music as well as our sophomoric prank calls. It was during this time I began experimenting with audio manipulation and early loop-based software, which then developed into many years of making musique-concrete and ambient electronica. This developed my skills and ear for sampling and arrangement. For a long time I was really just making music for myself to listen to.
I moved to Pittsburgh for college in 2003. I was living in a city for the first time, and soon I was exposed to underground hip-hop. The first albums that I remember blowing my mind were Funcrusher Plus, the Cold Vein, the Dr. Octagon record and Aesop Rock’s Float. I began buying a lot of vinyl and then got a set of turntables. I was already throwing college parties and I decided to start spinning records and providing entertainment at my own ragers. All of these experiences pervaded my musical psyche and my production work became gradually more hip-hop influenced. Around 4 years ago, I met the emcee who now calls himself Mr. Jhak in a mutual friend’s squalid Oakland apartment; he heard my music and asked to rhyme over one of my tracks, and almost immediately I became resolved to get really serious about producing hip-hop while remaining firmly rooted in electronica.
Soon after, I met DJ Spaed when he sat down next to me at the bar at Harris Grill and we somehow got to talking about MF Doom. Within a matter of months we were having DJ sessions all the time, trading vinyl and digging for music together. My thirst for getting out and performing was now unquenchable. Spaed and I donned the crew name Dominant Force, and we started gigging hard together with the mission of sharing our deep crates in a variety of different styles. Through Spaed, I connected with poet & emcee Jack Wilson, and have been releasing material with him ever since. I started regularly making mixtapes to share all of the new music I was discovering through my extensive digging as well as to track my own development as a DJ. Then, I discovered Soundcloud and my musical lid was flipped all over again – nowadays my influences are spread all around the globe.
PMD: Presently what’s your thought on the state of Hip-Hop music?
Mr. Owl: At this point I am so engrossed in independent music, that for the most part I am not aware of what is on the radio so I can’t really speak to commercial rap much, other than to say that it hasn’t retained my interest for a number of years. As for the underground however, I am continually awed by how deep the talent runs. Hip-hop production is becoming more and more closely tied with electronic music, and there is a huge worldwide movement of producers and emcees putting out incredibly diverse, next-level tracks. I believe that this new sound and its combined DIY ethos is the future of hip-hop, and I feel very lucky to be enjoying this transformation first-hand as it develops, as well as documenting and sharing the best of it. I intend for the original music I release to always be engaging, educational, and simply to sound different than what you’re used to, and I think that’s the direction hip-hop is shifting towards in general. More synthy, intricate, risky and weird.
PMD: What are some DJs, Producers, and MCs that you would like to work with?
Mr. Owl: On the basis of being a successful underground producer and emcee as well as an independent-as-fuck businessman, I would love to someday have the opportunity to build with El-P. MF Doom, Del, Prefuse 73, Shigeto… I have dozens of other musicians that I have insane amounts of respect for and that I’d love to work with, but to try to list them all would be pointless. Instead I will describe the qualities of those whom I’m looking to collaborate with in the future: self-motivated, committed, clever, and socially conscious.
PMD: Can you drop a little knowledge on how you came up with the “They Don’t Care About Little Birds” mixtape ?
Mr. Owl: One day while digging on Soundcloud in preparation for a new mix last autumn, I began thinking about how many parallels could be drawn between the Occupy movement and the state of the music industry. We as independent musicians are growing in number every day, becoming more aware of our collective power, and we refuse to sit by idly while the audio-oligarchy continues to enforce sounds and ideas that don’t represent us. I kept the track selection for the most part to unsigned artists to symbolize indie music fighting back against the status quo. Soon after, I happened upon a really cheesy kids’ movie about kids defiantly opposing a construction company that wanted to destroy an owl family’s habitat… and the mix explains the rest. It was an important stepping stone for me in terms of realizing a socio-political vision for a mix, but presenting it in a way that was not preachy or alienating. At the end of the day, it’s also a bunch of beautiful sounds that work fantastically together.
PMD: What are some future projects that Mr. Owl got in store for the Hip-Hop heads this year?
Mr. Owl: The Mr. Jhak & Mr. Owl debut full-length “Who Killed the Page Wizurd?” is the major project that I am finishing up right now, it will be the first album released on my upstart label Parliament of Strix. It’s an experimental hip-hop record which follows the story of Mr. Jhak’s quest to eliminate his doppelganger known as the Page Wizurd, who represents the materialism and lies of our modern age. I had originally intended for it to drop this month, but I’ve delayed release a bit to coordinate several other elements. We are shooting a music video for one of the tracks, with footage from both LA and Pittsburgh, headed up by filmmaker Jack MacIlvain. Also, in conjunction with Pittsburgh artist Danny Devine we are creating a comic-book style backstory of Mr. Jhak to be released with the album, plus several comics which each illustrate the story of one track to be released once a week after the album drops. In my mind, the multimedia angle is especially important for music with a multilayer conceptual meaning, in order to further clarify the creative vision of the artist.
I am currently putting together the followup to my well-received “Consumers Become Producers” mixtape, and this time not only are all of the beats going to be from underground producers, but the beats will be unreleased exclusives from producers all around the globe. This will allow me to create a truly one-of-a-kind journey comprised of never-before-heard music. But that’s not all, in addition to Jack Wilson who was featured on “Consumers”, riding atop this instrumental mix will be a selection of the best and brightest of Pittsburgh’s spoken word stars, because I feel strongly that our slam & poetry scenes deserve more dap for their skills.
I’m working on a “futuristic folk” EP with Casey Hallas, which will sound something like folky guitar-based radio-friendly singles combined with experimental synth-based beats. Casey is a talented multi-instrumentalist as well as a singer and songwriter, and it’s been an enjoyable challenge working on a project that’s a bit outside of my comfort zone.
Also I’m excited to announce that I will be releasing an underground hip-hop mixtape quarterly to coincide with Timebomb Clothing’s new fashion line every season. Look for the first edition in the next couple months.
PMD: What’s your view on technology’s current influence on the music industry?
Mr. Owl: The digital production revolution has lowered the bar significantly in terms of minimum investment to make nearly-professional quality recordings. Many lament that this means that there is much more bad music to wade through, which is true. But I say they’re not wading deep enough. The more time I spend digging for new music, the more incredulous I am at the quality and quantity of independent musicians bubbling just below the surface. If you are willing to put in the time, trust me there is an absolutely overwhelming wealth of great artists out there just waiting for you to discover them.
Nobody knows where the traditional industry is going to end up, however I do know that more and more power is shifting back to the hands of the musicians. You don’t need access to an expensive studio or an advance to be a “legitimate musician” anymore; you don’t need to break the bank to pay for promotion nowadays if you know how to make clever use of the internet. So the once-omnipotent allure of being signed to a major label is more and more irrelevant every day. I know for myself and many other artists, we just want to be able to make a living by doing what we love, positively impacting listeners with fresh sounds and maybe sometimes a message too.
Most importantly for me though, the internet allows me collaborate remotely with musicians on the other side of the nation or even the earth. A few months after I met Mr. Jhak in Pittsburgh, he moved to Los Angeles where he has been since, yet we remain in close contact and have found a very effective process for doing tracks together. Soundcloud has opened so many doors of perception for me, in terms of connecting musically with people from so many places. A terrific graphic designer, painter and producer named Dino Roesch that I met through Soundcloud is currently doing our Mr. Jhak & Mr. Owl album artwork from Switzerland. In the past week I’ve been communicating with producers from Russia, the UK, Italy, Australia, Japan, Chile, Austria, Serbia, Iceland and more. It’s really exciting when you connect with people who make and love music in the same way that you do, even when sometimes there are language barriers.
PMD: Can you tell us how you came up with the “mixOWLogy” feature?
Mr. Owl: In a late-night fit of insomnia just after I released the “Consumers Become Producers” mixtape a few weeks ago, I was struck with the notion that I create DJ mixtapes for the primary purpose of exposing music that I believe deserves to be heard. But yet, what was I actively doing to make sure listeners connected with the musicians’ catalogs beyond including their names in the tracklist? I understand that not everyone has the time and patience to devote to digging for tunes.
So I decided to start a regular feature called “mixOWLogy” to highlight one track at a time from artists who I’ve previously featured on a mixtape, in order to expose in detail the creative prowess of those who inspire me. It’s kind of fun to give a little insight into the way my brain works when I listen to and analyze what I believe to be a truly magnificent track. Also, I love to write and I don’t do it enough anymore, so it’s a nice opportunity for me to express myself creatively in another avenue.
PMD: What are some other industries that Mr. Owl wants to explore in the future?
Mr. Owl: I am very interested in cross-medium collaborations, so I would really enjoy the challenge of scoring original music for a movie or video game. Soon, the Pittsburgh video-artist team known as the Legendary Androids will be joining Dominant Force for some events, so in working with them to add original video to our live show I hope to learn more about the visual side of things.
This summer I’m going to be involved with creating an interactive sound-based art installation at the Rocking Horse Artspace. I’m also an electronics geek and love circuit bending anything with an audio output, so I’m planning to start designing and creating my own custom electronic instruments in small batches. There are some other plans in the works but they’re not far enough along to divulge details yet.
PMD: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to follow your path?
Mr. Owl: If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. Take your chosen craft extremely seriously but don’t take life seriously at all. Spend more time simply listening to tunes you haven’t heard before, and open yourself up to new sonic experiences. If you want to change the world, go to local events and spend a couple bucks here and there on independent music. Don’t experience life as a passive observer or take anything you are told at face value. Above all else, your reality is what you make it.