Sometimes musical ventures are born out of good marketing sense; there’s money to be made (even in this day and age), there’s fame to be had, and, if you’re lucky, you might have a career that beats any ordinary nine to five job out there. Less frequently, youll have a band coming together out of friendship and the pure desire to make music they love, regardless of what the outcome is. And when one of the former ends up “making it”, the result is usually something pretty special.
Mini Mansions is one of those bands. Bandmates Michael Shuman, Zach Dawes, and Tyler Parkford are all united by their love of art and music and happen to be longtime friends. In fact, Shuman and Dawes met during a basketball match when they were only 11-years-old. On opposing teams, Shuman brutally pushed Dawes just as he was about to make the winning shot.
If he had made that shot, they would have won the game, laughs Shuman. They lost, so I made the right choice.”
From that memorable start, a friendship was born that ended up taking them from their early beginnings in the aptly named band Shove It, which they played in from the sixth to the ninth grade, to where they are now in Mini Mansions. (Shuman is also the bassist for Queens of the Stone Age.)
Sitting with Dawes and Shuman at the kitschy Rodneys Oyster House in Studio City, California, I can see theres a lot of love and sass between these two friends, and its apparent in the complexity of their music, as well. Mini Mansions self-titled debut is a quirky yet lush, harmonic journey through psychedelic pop and experimental soundscapes. Its different from a lot of things out there, but its still approachable and down-to-earth, much like the musicians themselves.
The trio first decided to get together and play when Shuman had some time off from his bass-playing duties for QOTSA. It wasn’t long before the jamming sessions evolved into something else entirely and Mini Mansions came to be.
Youve got to keep busy, so I think at first thats just what it was, Shuman notes. But once we started, we were immediately enveloped in it every day.
Its hard to listen to Mini Mansions without hearing a wealth of familiar influences from the Beatles to The Beach Boys to even modern Silverchair. But the resulting sound wasnt a conscious effort, says Dawes.
It was just the meeting of our sensibilities. We all have a huge soft spot for pop music and a hard spot for commercial music, you know, what is pop music now. I have discrepancies with it, so I was battling those and trying to make something interesting.
We were trying to make the best out of pop music, I guess, Shuman adds. What pop music was, was great. Its more than taking actual bands as influences I think we each brought what we did with each instrument. Theres a lot of fuzz and weird pedals for bass, which is on every song, and then the drum kit I used, just using two drums, it kind of hones in on something specific, rather than just a guitar.
The band has also been touted as being very cinematic, especially through their use of three Vignettes that tie the album together. Dawes notes that the phrase cinematic has been tagged on them because the music can be dramatic and powerful. But having Parkfords artistic background has certainly influenced it to some degree.
Thats where [the song] Majik Marker came from, says Dawes. It was sort of a film. Tyler and I were both in film school in Santa Cruz. We did a lot of short movies, and he would score them. So maybe thats where the foundation for his writing came from, because he didnt really play in any bands. He was always a more of a composite recording artist.
And then there are the ever-present dolls and stuffed animals that are visible everywhere from the album cover to their rehearsal space.
Once the band was formed and we were coming up with art ideas and using these dolls and other weird photos that Tyler had taken, those almost took over and became our mascot. Im not saying we wrote songs about dolls and bears (laughs), but they kind of became part of us. I always wanted to sit the doll on the piano and have her be a part of what we were doing. In our practice space, we had the doll sitting next to Tyler.
Though Mini Mansions has songs that stand alone, there is an atmospheric and epic quality to the album that demands that the listener give it their full attention. This wasnt an accident. In a world that has, as Shuman states, been roofied by iTunes, Mini Mansions harks back to the time when people bought albums, not songs.
Its how we like to listen to music, says Shuman. When were traveling usually for the first two and a half weeks of tours, its all records. So when people ask us how we prefer them to listen to our music, we say just listen to it from beginning to end and hopefully in one sitting.
Thats not an easy task in an industry that focuses on grinding out $.99 songs and one-hit wonders from artists, but the boys are up to the challenge and rolling with the technological punches.
I was just emailed, Hey your record is up on Amazon for $5.99. You know you can buy the whole record for like $6, and you get all the songs. Its pretty killer, says Shuman.
I bought it a couple of times it was such a good deal, quips Dawes.
Though the guys may be old-fashioned when it comes to their view on releasing music, it doesnt mean they dont appreciate the new tactics some artists are using. I bring up the topic of Billy Corgan and the way The Smashing Pumpkins are putting out the 44 songs of Teargarden by Kaleidyscope over the years.
I think thats a great idea, Dawes says to me, because people want music now, and that’s why iTunes is so successful. Instead of putting out a record and touring for a year and a half, you can slowly release songs while youre touring. It keeps you exciting. Its like a TV series instead of a movie.
But what if you do want a whole album? I ask.
Sure, but thats the point because most people do not. I think its a smart thing.
I think everyone is scrambling, adds Shuman. Everything is controlled by blogs. Like at our level, its a very specific market that is still run by the dot com world people dont tour the way they used to either. Unless you really blow up like Girls or MGMT and people want you in their city, theyre offering you good money or perhaps a good audience, then you dont have to tour for a year and a half or two years on your record. Then you can do it in nine months and hit everything that you need to. Or unless youre supporting really good bands and then you can get by by doing that. But for us, we do all our booking ourselves. Up until recently, our management has just been us.
But thats good, right, to do things your own way? I ask.
Shuman nods, I love that. But we havent really gotten offered any tours. Even if people like the record and like the band, we havent had anyone reach out for us. And except for QOTSA fans, we dont really have a group or scene that would want us on the road.
The band has been on the road, though, touring around the USA and Canada over the last year and playing a wide variety of shows. Sometimes theyll pop up in tiny clubs in smaller cities, and other times theyll be opening for bigger bands such as Them Crooked Vultures. I ask if their intimate sound is received well live, especially since the trio will constantly switch instruments throughout the performance.
It depends on the show, says Shuman. When we are opening up for bigger bands, sometimes we are not received well or people are like what the fuck’s going on? because we arent the headliner. Weve had some shows where people are dancing their ass off and some shows where people just take it in. Either way is fine for us. You just go out there and do a good job and play for yourself, basically.
Dawes adds dryly, Sometimes they receive us like a letter from the IRS. And sometimes its like a big stocking on Christmas morning.
I ask if opening for Them Crooked Vultures was any easier. They exchange a wry glance.
It got better Dawes trails off.
Yeah the first show was rough, laughs Shuman. I got a beer can thrown at me before we even played the first note.
Being that his QOTSA bandmate Josh Homme is in Them Crooked Vultures, it makes sense for Mini Mansions to open for them. I note that it seems like theres a healthy open marriage concept when it comes to QOTSA members going off and doing their own projects on the side.
Were like a big family, Shuman agrees. Everyone helps everyone. Everyone is supportive of everybody. It really is a unique thing. I dont think anyone else has it.
Were like Mormon (wives), and Josh is the husband, adds Dawes.
Currently Shuman is still a wanted man, jamming with Queens of the Stone Age as the band is just starting on the feel of their next, highly anticipated album, all while finishing recording the follow-up for Mini Mansions. In between all of that there will be some international tours for Mini Mansions on the horizon.
We wont do much in the States, Shuman says. But we are definitely planning a trip to Australia. Anything that is short enough. Being in two bands is hard. Wed like to do Europe, too, though the record isnt even out there yet. Were going to try and do as much as we can when theres stuff to do, without losing all of our money (laughs).
Any hardships that come from getting a band off of the ground havent slowed them down. When I ask Shuman what the next Mini Mansions album is going to sound like, Dawes jokes that its going to sound like Queens of the Stone Age. And when I ask about the sound of the next QOTSA album, you can guess what the answer was there:
“It’s going to sound more like Mini Mansions.”
They may have come far from Shove It, but they clearly havent lost their wit.