Interview with Michael Durek of The Use
By Bob Gourley | Published on December 13, 2014
Listening to the music of The Use is kind of like opening a window into an alien world to see what its pop music is like. The debut album, “What’s the Use,” is full of intricately crafted electronic music that brings together experimental audio manipulation and structure with a strong sense of melody and mood. It’s unusual and sometimes eerie, but at the same time instantly welcoming and memorable. “What’s the Use” truly achieves the delicate balance of being highly experimental and also accessible to general audiences.
The Use is the solo project of Michael Durek, who has also been involved with such groups as Pas Musique, SK Orchestra, George Sand, and Ping Pong. “What’s the Use” features cameos and co-writing from Rachel Mason, Trinitron, and ex-Lumineers Drummer Jay Van Dyke. In an email interview, Durek discussed the making of the album and his general creative process.
Could you describe the process of making “What’s the Use”? Did you create it in a block of time/as a whole, or was it music you’d done over a longer period of time alongside other projects?
Snippets, progressions, and inspiration for the album were gathered over the period of a year or so. I’m always laying down sounds, beats and taking field recordings so at any given time, I have hundreds of fresh sounds to choose from. Usually I know when one is going to turn into a track. A sound will kind of make my day and I know it’ll turn into something.
When I got offer from Alrealon to release my disc I then focused on turning those ideas into complete tracks. The only two that were finished earlier were the two with guest writers and vocals, with Rachel Mason and Mark Weinberg co-writing and singing on their respective tracks.
What would you say the key equipment/software is for making music as The Use?
Ableton Live is the main creative stage on which I work, but field sounds often inspire or push something in a certain direction. Also most songs have theremin so that is a key part. Moog synth sounds are in heavy use as well.
Do you feel that the technology dictates the direction of the music to any degree? For example, does experimentation yield results that you may not have imagined? Or do you tend to have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish musically / sonically and then set out to accomplish it?
Good question. The spark of a track usually always comes by accident, while trying new audio techniques, or while I’m jamming. So the technology does indeed inspire the music. But when I start building the track, clearer and clearer pictures come to me, and those aren’t always related to the original idea. Sometimes I have to figure out how to make the new sounds I’m hearing, or play them on guitar or upright bass for example. By the end stages of What’s the Use? I was just sitting quietly with my eyes closed and listening in my head for how the track should be and then trying to match that as best I could. Sometimes I’ll toss out a section I made but doesn’t show up in my visualizations.
When creating music, do you feel that you start off thinking about the sound design or melodic elements first? Or does vary by track?
It does vary. Sometimes I’ll wake up and have a coffee and play an entire chord progression or a bass part and save it. I created “Time Burton” and “Slim’s Pursuit” that way. Sometimes I’ll try to make a fresh beat and really tweak the sounds. Rarely do I start with the melodies. Those usually come to me afterwards.
I’m always curious as to how primarily instrumental acts name their songs. How do you tend to come up with song titles?
Usually I’ll just think of something from my experience that the song dramatizes or expresses for me personally. For “Aunt Joanne’s Metaphysics” there was this ghost story supposedly from my wife’s Aunt Joanne – complete with bleeding walls. And at one point I said “Your Aunt Joanne’s Metaphysics aside – I can’t say if ghosts are real all I can say is I don’t think I’ve seen one.” At that time I was creating the track and it seemed to express the feeling that things aren’t necessarily as they seem. That place can be unnerving or it might be exciting. It then helped shape the direction of the track. Everyone in the family denies that ghost story by the way. Maybe I dreamt it up or a ghost told it to me. But for other tracks, I sometimes just think it’s a cool title that suits the mood of the track.
When you create music, are you thinking at all about environments where it will be heard? (home, club play, live performance, tec)
I usually only think of that when it comes to talking with the mastering engineer. For What’s The Use? I worked with Tarekith at Inner Portal Studio, and couldn’t have been happier with the results. Now I work with another great mastering engineer, namely Philippe Gerber of All Real Sound (who also runs the Alrealon label). I usually want the Use tracks to be loud enough to compete on iPods and laptop speakers, but also have good bass and dynamics on good systems.
What is your approach to live performances as The Use? Is it just you, or do you work with other musicians? Does the music differ much from the album?
Sometimes I have a drummer with me – mostly Christy Edwards on kit, and sometimes Jay Van Dyke who plays some percussion samples on the album. When there are drums it sounds more like electronic rock, but when I’m solo it sounds a lot like the album. I just love having people to bounce energy off of on stage with me, but when solo I still exchange energy with the audience and the room, and that’s more than enough.
Who would you cite as influences, for both starting out with your own music and currently?
Autechre got it all started about six years ago when I heard Amber. Also The Books were a big influence when it came to using field recordings. I’m excited I got to hang out with Nick Zammuto of The Books at Moogfest a lot, and I’m also digging Zammuto’s new album. Now I’m coming back to Terry Riley, another big influence when it comes to using different sounds and alternate tuning systems.
Is it important to you to be involved with various other musical projects? Do you think you’d ever want to focus 100% on The Use?
I do enjoy the low pressure aspect of riding someone else’s wave and it’s easy if I love the music and the people. The hardest part of a music project is often the business part. So it’s something I enjoy, but yes there could come a time where I need to reduce my focus. The other projects tend to requires my time in phases, so it’s manageable. And they all understand if I can’t make something. Those are the only kinds of other projects I could manage right now and thankfully I have two – Pas Musique and George Sand. In both projects, I am big fans of the music and also the people, so it’s really a big blessing.
What’s in the immediate future for you, both with The Use and other projects?
I am in the middle of a U.S. / Canada tour and am going to Europe in 2015.
Musically, I have a new track with spoken word and underground hip-hop artist Black Saturn called Divine Intervention, a collaboration with Mobius who just had a fantastic release on Alrealon Musique, and a collaboration with video artist Jim Tuite called Time Pieces. It took over a year to complete so I’m really excited since Jim is always pushing the envelope with his video techniques.
Other than that, I’m looking forward to largely taking the winter off from playing, so I can focus on making some new tracks with Rachel Mason, and think about my next solo release too.
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