Q&A: Michael Cera on DIY Album-Making and Identifying With Skrillex
"It's sloppy, the timing is strange, and the recording quality sucks. I have to embrace that."
Last week, the respective worlds of home-recording buffs and awkward-comedy fans were unexpectedly, thoroughly bridged when actor Michael Cera released his first solo album to Bandcamp. Dubbed True That, the 18-track set finds the Arrested Development star plucking strings, plinking on keys, and singing playful little ditties with a tinge of sadness and a hint of left-field folksiness (the melancholic “Ruth” made the SPIN Singles Mix).
It’s a fine set of songs, but we’re not surprised — Cera’s never hidden his musical inclinations. He’s played bass with Mister Heavenly, covered the Moldy Peaches for Juno, and starred as the titular band guy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. We even interviewed him in 2007 about his Clark and Michael musical duo the Long Goodbye. Still, this is different. It’s got his name on it, and isn’t attached to a screen project. True That is also about as intimate as music comes — certainly a rarity when it comes to song projects launched by thespians. So we emailed Cera through Bandcamp (really) and got a phone call shortly thereafter. When we told him his Blaze Foley cover reminded us of Magnetic Fields, we could actually hear his cheeks turn red. “That’s nice,” he said, and we knew he meant it.
How did True That come together?
The songs kind of sound exactly like what they are, I think, which is just me hanging out and trying stuff, recording at home. It’s really a hobby, something I’ve done a long time. I just got to the point where I’d piled up enough songs, but I’ve never shared that with people.
That piano you use has a real timbre to it.
Yeah. When I moved to New York a year ago I found this amazing piano but I didn’t think I would be able to get it into my apartment, because I live in this three-story walkup. I showed the mover pictures of my hallway and the stairs and he was like, “Look, I’ll try but it’s not going to happen and you’ll have to cover the cost anyway.” They had to bring this piano up and go around two corners, but they got it up there somehow and I’m so happy they did. I love this piano. And I’m sure I’ll never get it out of there. I’ll just have destroy it when I leave.
Did you have any help? I swear I hear a little girl’s voice at some point.
No, there’s no other voice on there but me. [Pause] Well, and audio samples.
Ah, okay. I was thinking of “What Gives (…I Can’t Live Like This).”
Yeah, I’d recorded the instrumental track and started to put lyrics over it, writing as I went. I kept saying the words “like this,” so I typed that into Youtube to see if I could find a sample of someone saying that, and I found this video of this little kid. Like, his parents had taken a Band-Aid off of his toe and he’s just screaming, “I can’t live like this!” I thought it was really cute, so I incorporated him.
The second track opens with a YouTube sample too — it seems like YouTube’s the second member of your one-man band. That might be the only thing you have in common with Skrillex. He used the cup-stacking girl on “Scary Monsters.”
That’s her doing that? Oh, that’s great. It’s so heartfelt. Yeah, YouTube is a great sound-bank. I record in GarageBand so I’m sitting at the laptop and when I get stuck, I either procrastinate or try and find something to use by searching videos. Like, I didn’t know what to do with that song and that kid kind of showed me the way.
“True that” is usually a rejoinder. What are you agreeing with?
Oh man. I really don’t know how I could even possibly begin to express how casually I made all of the decisions involved with putting this online. It was literally, like, you go to Bandcamp and there’s a box for your title. That was the first thing I typed.
But there’s charm in that casualness. Sound-wise, that’s worked for artists like the Unicorns, WHY?, Microphones, or Smog in their early days.
Yeah, they’re not real songs, a lot of these. It’s like a sketchbook, which maybe could be offensive to some people but a friend of mine told me I was being too careful with my songs. I thought that was a really nice criticism, so I put them online.
Are there similarly scrappy recordings that you like?
A lot of the home recordings of [the Unicorns’] Alden Penner. The early home recordings of Rivers Cuomo; all the Pinkterton demos. Other than that, I like Neil Young a lot and Roger Miller, Oscar Peterson. But in terms of recording and making songs at home, Alden’s music is what really made me want to do that.
There’s a certain playfulness in his sound and yours. Is that a quality you enjoy?
I do, but I didn’t particularly strive for that. It kind of just happens when you’re recording on GarageBand and you don’t know how to do the click track. I have to embrace that it’s kind of really sloppy and the timing is strange and the recording quality sucks. I have to accept those limitations within myself.
But you don’t have to. You could book a studio and hire a producer.
I guess this can be more personal than a really produced, clean thing. That’s why I like it; I’ve lived with these songs a long time, having them to myself and focusing on them, spending time and care on them. To me the goal is not to have a finished product. I don’t consider them a product so much as just an effort.
Will we see ever get to see you play these songs?
I don’t know. I had a whim that I wanted to create a Bandcamp page, which I learned how to do the other day, and I haven’t really thought beyond that. But I like really like playing music with friends, so any excuse I have to do that, I’ll probably do.
Here’s Michael Cera playing music with friends: