Interview: My Favorite and Death Party Records
Enduring class-act My Favorite release a great new single on the revived and relocated Death Party Records. Glenn Airey has a chat with main players Michael Avishay and Michael Grace Jr. Pic by Jenny Panic.
Michael Grace Jr. is the man once described in The Village Voice as ‘New York’s New Wave Cult Hero’. His friend Michael Avishay flirted for a time with similar status on the west coast, before decamping to New York last year in search of fresh adventures. You might have heard Mr Grace singing with his group My Favorite on their surprise comeback single a couple of years ago: the appropriately-titled Second Empire. Or perhaps they first caught your ear in the 1990s, or the decade that no one with any self-respect would ever refer to as the noughties. During that time, they were busy making the kind of expansive, literate pop that would inspire young Mr Avishay to have a go himself, most notably in the endlessly loveable guise of Heathers. Wearing his other hat, we also have Avishay to thank for exposure to the talents of numerous other excellent bands via his record label, Death Party.
As fate would have it, the two Michaels now find themselves living cheek by stubbly jowl in the east coast metropolis, and on a joint mission to recapture that all-too-fleeting buzz of pop perfection and turn it into something more personal, permanent and profound. For both My Favorite and Death Party are back. Either would give cause for celebration, but the news that Death Party is about to release a brand new My Favorite single satisfies like the click of a key in its lock. Or as a mutual hero of the Michaels might say, fits like a hand in a glove.
The new single, Christine Zero, is an addictive tangle of sleaze and glamour, with an improbably rabble-rousing chorus. The kind of single that’s been giving moody goths an excuse to shake their tail feathers since the dawn of the indie disco: a great tune with proper electro chops and a risqué singalong chorus, but one woven through with darkness and drama: sex, drugs, class struggle. All the big themes. While congratulating its writer on his richly poetic lyrical style, I admit to a default suspicion that both pop and poetry are often safest kept apart. ‘Why be suspicious ?’ counters Grace, ‘it’s not unheard of, just often unheard. We don’t really pay attention to proper poets anymore. Our songwriters are all we have left, and I think part of the reason hip-hop has continued to rise, is that words are still important there, the artists are still talking to their audience about their lives.’
‘Indie music has become increasingly vague and gauzey, as not to disturb its utility selling vague and gauzey lifestyles. But Bob Dylan cared about words. Lou Reed cared. David Bowie cared. Donald Fagan cared. Momus cared. Sinead O’Connor cared. Morrissey cared – probably too much. Those cats were my heroes. I taught myself to play music so my words would have somewhere to go. I thought there should be some way of remembering, of capturing the twilight language of our lives. So that’s what I try to do, which I know sounds awfully precious. I don’t really write poems outside of songs, but I do write fiction. I just finished a novel ostensibly for teenagers called The Detectives Of Suburbia, which I’m sure will be met with as much industry enthusiasm and broad public approval as my music.’
That self-deprecating pay-off can’t fool us. This is a man who believes strongly in the value of what he does. But he is working in pop-cultural areas – post-punk New Pop, ‘plastic’ soul – that are often assumed to function only as pastiche, or as a cynical inversion of their surface authenticity. Surely not everything My Favorite do is between gigantic, post-modern quotation marks? ‘It’s between giant Doric columns! I mean the idea of ‘soul music,’ ‘liberation music,’ has always been important to me…from when I was a wanna-be skinhead kicking around the edges of the hardcore and ska scenes to now. I related to Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Ghetto Child,’ even if I perceived my particular ‘ghetto’ as a mostly existential one. And I realize that’s the sort of appropriation of black art and experience that’s been going on since the beginning of rock n’ roll. For me, it’s just important to acknowledge it, and give praise to the original soul rebels, the geniuses, whether that means Miles Davis, or Peter Tosh, or Marvin Gaye or Chuck D. They are saints. For me, growing up in ‘80s suburban Long Island … New Romanticism, Plastic Soul… that was ‘roots music’ to me. And if I’m returning to it now, it’s in part due to its potential to disorient an audience. Because we’ve gotten too comfortable with cartoon transgression. Skinny white punks playing with fascism is just titillation for the tech class. But my hope in regard to the music we do, is that when you experience certain emotions, certain poetics, juxtaposed with this artifice… these glossy, worn out signifiers, maybe you won’t know exactly how to classify it… how to dismiss it. And in that fog of dry ice, maybe you will see something different, something you forgot about. Something that is yours.’
We’ve lost the great appropriator this year of course. David Bowie was a towering influence on both Avishay and Grace. I asked them how they’re coping in a pop world that’s lost its leader. Avishay first: ‘I was catching up on Girls today and at the end of this one episode centring around Shoshana’s new life in Japan she walks down an empty illuminated street alone as the credits roll, soundtracked by a cover of “Life on Mars?” by Aurora. I started crying and at first I thought it was because Shoshana was lonely in a foreign place; but then I realized it’s just because I miss Bowie. Aurora’s cover of “Life on Mars?” is extraordinary, possibly the best Bowie cover I’ve ever heard. And I was thinking about how it was possible that one person wrote such unbelievable songs. I cried when the news broke on Twitter; I cried listening to Low on the train to work the next day… but then again there’s also this surreal quality to mourning his loss, and I’m hardly the first one to say that he felt so immortal that his death is almost an irrelevant fact of the body containing whatever Bowie was. I could wax maudlin and elegiac for hours about it, but at the end of it, he was the best that we’ve ever had, and even though he’s gone now we haven’t lost him.’
‘As soon as Blackstar was released’, adds Michael Grace, ‘I got this prickly feeling, like ‘pay attention to this.’ And I did, and it was stunningly good. I liked bits of The Next Day, but felt some of the praise was goodwill… like ‘Oh yeah Bowie, we missed him.’ But Blackstar is nearly flawless, and listening to it made me quite emotional, which isn’t particularly easy, especially the final two songs. It felt like he was aware of his mortality in this really acute way, and clearly he was. I’ve been critical of group-feel in the past, but this outpouring of grief and gratitude felt natural and necessary. “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me.” Just that line is like a year’s worth of theology. I haven’t even calmed down enough to really coolly consider all he left us on that record and in totality. I saw a list of things recently that Bowie was at least a corollary influence upon, and it’s like 70% of the worthwhile art of the last 40 years. I mean Morrissey helped me survive my youth, but David taught me how to be an artist… and thus in a way, how to survive the rest of my life. ‘
Grace, in fact, has an enviable Bowie connection in that he worked with Mick Ronson’s daughter Lisa in The Secret History between 2008 and 2013. Isn’t it difficult to breathe properly in the presence of Ronno’s flesh and blood, let alone function as an artist? ‘Ha, ha well…Mick Ronson certainly is a hero of mine. When I met Lisa, she was sort of like Michelle Pfieffer in Batman Returns… before she becomes Catwoman. You could sense this suppressed intensity, observe these uncanny instincts, but she was just a shy accounting student, who had never been in a band, or really even immersed herself in her father’s work, probably because she lost him at such a tough age. So when I see her now over in London, playing with Woodsmansey and Holy Holy, releasing a quite bold solo record, I take a little pride in being one of the gents who helped her get in touch with the music inside of her. The first Secret History record, The World That Never Was, that’s as good as anything else I’ve done. She’s a down to earth person whose head’s always a bit in the stars. I love Lisa.’
My Favorite’s choice of new collaborator seems equally appropriate. Michael Avishay and Death Party share much of Grace’s refined pop aesthetic and also his whole-hearted commitment to the cause. Was Death Party always going to be revived, or was it seeing renewed My Favorite activity that spurred it back into action? ‘I definitely had it in my mind that I’d somehow revive the label after I moved to NY’, explains Avishay,’ but it was definitely conversations with Michael that brought the revival on much earlier than anticipated. After I’d moved we talked a bit about joining forces on the label, which more or less naturally developed into the idea to release the new My Favorite single as a kind of initial stepping stone to larger rebirth and rebuilding.’ Given that NYC is the de-facto capital of the western world, I hardly need to ask Avishay why he relocated, but I have to say I was a bit worried about a California boy in all those blizzards last winter. ‘The snow was beautiful, despite lots of it! I’ve never been ankle-deep in anything before.’
And how different is running a label and making music in NYC compared to LA? ‘My situation was a lot more relaxed in California, what with family nearby and living in a family-owned building and working for the family business, but now that I’m on my ownsome my mental energy is stretched in all different kinds of ways. But it’s healthy and inspiring and invigorating in the long run. For one, I’ve got Michael in my webby corner, so whenever the need arises we can get together for manhattans and gloomy banter. The other thing is, now that I am removed geographically from the valley of my birth and upbringing and therefore removed emotionally, I have begun to discover or perhaps rediscover more honestly who I am, what I am interested in, what makes the strings of my luteheart shimmer. I think about Thin Lizzy and Iggy Pop a lot more than I used to, for what it’s worth.’
I was a great fan of Avishay’s last band, Heathers, so I’m hoping he’ll be releasing his own records again before long. ‘I feel like I ran away to New York and sort of cowered in the recovery position for a while, artistically speaking. I wanted to put everything I’d done before behind me. I ended up deeply unsatisfied with not only the LP we recorded (for Heathers) but the apparent trajectory of the band. I don’t want to be too melodramatic about it, but the soul of the band and, to an extent, my own soul, felt as if it had slipped away from me, and the music and the decisions I made or allowed to be made on my behalf no longer felt honest. I decided to just can it all and move on and strike out on my own. I still have a deep amount of love, respect, and admiration for Michael and Thom, and my decision to effectively abandon Heathers mid-stride had nothing to do with them and was entirely because of my own uncertain ground. And that whole experience – touring the US and the UK, signing with managers and lawyers, making a record – now is to me precisely that: experience. I am starting a new project and have started writing and recording for what I hope will be an honest and fully-realized album. I am deliberately allowing myself full creative freedom: if I hear a melody or a guitar line or a lyric in my head, I pursue it. I am trying to let my inhibitions or expectations go and just follow whatever I hear. It’s a work in progress but, then again, so am I. I hope to release some new music within the next few months and then sort of go from there. But what I’m doing now sounds nothing like Heathers and instead just sounds like me.’
And is there a mission statement for the reborn label? ‘We welcome the freaks, the ingenues, the dilettantes, the geniuses with a song to sing. I want to be a home for creativity and invention and innovation; I want to keep my eyes and ears pointed forwards, for that is the only way. Onwards, as they say, and Michael and I often say too to each other. I’ve been talking to a few bands about potentially working together, and of course I have some of my new material planned for the next year, so we’ll just see where time’s arrow flies I guess.’
Grace sees continuing partnership for My Favorite and Death Party, and indeed intends to contribute to Avishay’s own output: ‘I’m hoping to help in the studio when Michael starts recording, and he is actually going to be filling in on guitar in My Favorite from time to time. We are true chums, and the generation between us is really quite intangible. It’s not why we are working together, but it doesn’t elude me the positive resonance of our collaboration. As a culture we are fed a steady diet of youth worship, and I think that is one of the reasons why music doesn’t seem to resonate the way it used to… but the things of true value transcend that. And I think the work we do will also.’
And what can we expect next from My Favorite? ‘Well I’m afraid to alert the public I have written, and we are rehearsing and recording an album’s worth of new My Favorite songs. I don’t make records very often, but when I do I don’t mess around. So you you know… novel length autobiography as Victorian ghost story, rendered in disco and ambient bossanova.’ Ah, always the dancing with My Favorite. What’s that about? It does seem to crop up an awful lot in your songs. ‘Does the mind control the body? I dunno. I mean for those who have had some hurt put in them, some coldness… dancing is like a form of reclamation. I know it is for me. I often think about Ian Curtis’ suicide. I mean many rock n’ rollers have died young, but how many hung themselves on the eve of their first American tour whilst listening to Iggy Pop? Think about the pall that cast on what would become New Order! I think their swift evolution towards disco, towards ecstasy in Ibiza, was a matter of finding an equilibrium, a way of balancing out all the death that was the thesis of Joy Division. Dancing is life. Didn’t some glam rocker once say he ‘danced his way out of the womb?’
And at this point, the sad news reaches us that the great Prince has danced himself off this mortal coil. We’ll finish with Michael Grace’s thoughts on The Purple One: ‘And now we lose Prince. And well, it was daunting to be a completist about Prince, and I’m not, but anyone who had the misfortune to see me DJ recently knows things only get serious once I play I Would Die For You. When Doves Cry was one of those handful of songs I heard as a young kid that made me feel like pop could be as mysterious, as seductive as my treasured science fiction novels… but better because of the added mystery of sex, which I assure you was a quite a mystery to me. The genius of Prince was that he wrote about sex like someone who had never actually had it. The way a writer would describe some temple on Atlantis. I really love The Beautiful Ones too. I’ve always tried to use my falsetto more like Prince than, god help us, Morrissey.’