Practice (Michael Tapper) is an NYC-based electro pop artist coming out with a full-length album, Not a Game, on February 19th. His solo work began way back in 2013, after returning from a 28-day sailing trip, which much of this album is based on. While his past experiences in music were primarily as a drummer for bands like We Are Scientists, Bishop Allen, Fool’s Gold, and Yellow Ostrich, he wanted to approach this project in a way that would allow him to recreate it live by himself. That goal mixed well with his newly found likeness for synthetic instruments, resulting in a very DIY, electronic sound. We discuss this project specifically, and the process of becoming a solo artist, in this brief interview!
Before any of your solo work, before you joined any band, when you were growing up, was music always a future you saw for yourself?
“I wouldn’t say it was a future that I aimed for but it was something that I always did. Because my dad was a music teacher, and my family was always very musical. My grandmother played organ in the church and gave lessons and her mother did all of that too. There are a lot of musicians in my family. My parents specifically didn’t want me to study music in college, because of my dad’s struggles with finding a career afterwards. So I didn’t ever think it would be my future, but it was a huge part of my life. From the age of six or so, my dad brought home a drum set for me, because I would always play drums in the kitchen with pots and pans, and it continued from there.”
Then how did things spiral in that direction later on?
“I was always playing music in all the school bands — orchestra, classical, jazz. I was always playing, but I was studying engineering too. I was assuming that was gonna be my career. But at the end of studying I was playing in an indie rock band with my friends, and I was just like ‘I really like this. How about let’s move to New York and play in our band?’ I decided to do that, instead of following an engineering job offer in Maui. I wouldn’t say it was a smart idea, but it was a thing that I did.”
When you eventually started your solo work for the first time back in 2013, did you immediately have a vision for a project, or did you have to find it along the way?
“I didn’t have a vision for it. That was kind of like… that took a while to figure out. And it kind of developed from… first I had been messing around with some songwriting. Saying, ‘If I’m gonna write a song, what would I write?’ I had never thought of those things before, like chord progression, what I’d sing about, etc., because I was a drummer. I brought my drumming ideas to the table, but let the others figure that out. It was a lot of experimenting, figuring out what I wanted to do.”
“When I was writing songs, I was like ‘what do I want them to sound like?’ Before, I was in an indie rock band with just a bunch of people. And I didn’t want to do that — bring people together. So I asked myself ‘What can I do by myself and still perform live, not just over tracks?’ I had just started learning about synthesizers, so I got a few of those, and figured out a way to program them with sequencers to play together. So I wanted to make songs like that, with a drum machine and sequencers and put it together like that. In figuring out how to do that, I was also writing songs for those setups. A lot of these songs sort of came together while figuring out these instruments and how exactly to do it. It was one big learning process, basically, and the creativity that spawned from those problems fueled everything. It’s still kind of a process right now.”
Are there any surprising differences between being a solo artist vs. a band member?
“The thing is… for me with this project, I am taking on all of the roles. If it’s a band of equals, like a lot of my bands, everyone would take on certain responsibilities — talking to a label, or whatever. For this, it’s just a lot of stuff to do… when you’re trying to do everything on your own. Not just writing, recording, mixing… but it’s just a lot of time alone working on this stuff, which is very different than collaborative work, where you’re focusing on making decisions. The amount of work is a lot less individually in a band. So, just the level of work and amount of motivation you need to get it done was a surprise. It takes a lot of self-motivation if I want to get things done. I hadn’t totally envisioned how much motivation it would take to do it all myself.”
Because it’s all your own, does it feel more rewarding?
“I don’t know if it’s more rewarding at all. I really like collaborating with other people. And I’ve been doing that more lately, especially after working on this album. I wouldn’t ever say it’s more rewarding but it’s a different experience and it pushes you in more ways. That type of thing is I guess rewarding, just figuring it out on your own. In the same way that any challenge you overcome is, though.”
I know that part of what led you to this sound was your vision for recreating it live, but have you always been a fan of electro pop?
“No, I used to not be interested in it at all. For a long time I was kind of ‘purist’ in sort of like a musicianship type of way. I was like ‘music should be played by musicians on instruments.’ Not like programmed with computers, you know? I wanted to see musicians playing music, and having that element in the show. And I just always thought drum machines were cheap, as a drummer. You’re just hitting ‘play’ on this thing, and not understanding rhythms or beats at all. I had a really negative attitude about electronic music.”
“It’s really a recent interest — just synthesizers — right before starting this solo things. I didn’t know much about the history either. As I was learning about all of this, I was learning about the music. As I learned more and was incorporating these pieces… as I was doing these things, I realized a lot of this was like a synthesis to synthetic music. Like way back in the 60s, the whole history built together. Then I embraced that idea while I was making the record. It was, and still is, a really rewarding process, appreciating all of these musical ideas that go into just using drum machines alone. Discovering things has been really fun, in addition to being a learning journey.”
Do you have any favorite artists/influences?
“I appreciate a lot of what Brian Eno was doing in the 70s into the early 80s. That was one of the things that brought me into it. Discovering Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, there is a lot of cool german synthesizer stuff going on. Harald Grosskopf, drummer for Ashra, then in the 80s he made a synthesizer record in his apartment, and called it Synthesist. It’s a really cool record. A similar type of thing where a drummer made a synthesizer record on his own. Arthur Russel is a big influence — another multi-instrumentalist electronic artist, who did classical and rock music too.”
“Club music, too, has been an important part and something I’ve been getting really into. I could go on and on about Mister Fingers, a really early Chicago House music artist. He was also a drummer, in some punk bands. When he heard house music, he sold his drum set and bought a synthesizer and drum machine. His early demos have become these classic house tracks, they’re all really cool. Those were a really special discovery for me.”
Do you think you’ll stick with your DIY mentality looking ahead, or was that something specifically for Not a Game?
“I don’t know — I just have a DIY ethic in my life in general. You know, I do my own plumbing, build my own house, if something breaks I fix it. But it’s not like I won’t work with a producer or something. I don’t have some type of ethos like that. I enjoy doing things on my own. I have worked with friends since I finished this project, we’ve gone to studios with mixers and producers and stuff. I’m not against it. But I enjoy doing things on my own, or at least making these videos and stuff. I enjoy doing it. All of these things I’ll continue to do in one way or another.”
While much of this project is based upon that sailing trip, I imagine there’s much more to it. Is there a singular message for the whole thing, or is it more of a collection?
“I wouldn’t say it has a unified message or something. I would say that with this collection of songs, I was trying to write them from a perspective… for it to be something that you could listen to either at a party and dance to it, or by yourself with headphones. I wanted it to be rewarding in both ways. Lyrically, I was hoping to make them about specific things for me, but that could still be relatable. I wanted to sing about something that’s sort of universal, so you don’t have to know me to understand. That was the unifying idea for the songs.”
What are your biggest goals for yourself in the next few years?
“In terms of goals, I generally think of them in terms of doing things as opposed to achieving things. So my goal is to make more records, both solo and collaborative. I have a couple potential ones that I’m hoping to get together within the next year. My goal is to keep making records and music, and making videos. The way I think about this project is that I’m building a body of work. I know that success in music is hard to control. I wouldn’t want to have a goal based on sales or streams. All you can do really is just keep doing it, and taking advantage of the opportunities that come. That’s just my focus. And it’s easy to stop or get sidetracked or lose motivation, so I’m feeling pretty good right now even though this year has been hard. Nothing has been going on in a lot of ways in the music industry, and I’m excited for it to be over. And I have a positive outlook on it.”
Find Michael Tapper on Instagram @tappermichael, and look for his music it release on Feb. 19th. He will also have two singles releasing this Friday!
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