I recently got to chat with Michael Minkoff and Phil Hodges of Physick, a chamber-prog duo associated with W\A\M favorite, the Nehemiah Foundation for Cultural Renewal. They are currently Kickstarting their forthcoming project, Death is Their Shepherd – a double-disc concept album with an accompanying illustrated written narrative centered on a Biblical perspective on mortality. In this interview, we talk about the recording and writing of the album, and we also take an exclusive listen to two of tracks from the album. This is a long one, so buckle up, and read on …
EJ: You’ve dedicated over four years of your lives to this project. How do you think this benefitted both of you personally, and how did it benefit the album?
MM: It provided me with the opportunity to exercise patience and contentment. I was working on projects for other people nearly the whole time while I waited for different parts of DITS to fall into place. The album sat nearly unchanged for about a year while we tried to convince a choir to record the parts for the “Fall Story” suite. I felt like the album was being shoved aside to some extent, but it also felt selfish for me to “speak up” for my own project. So I decided to be quiet while other things kept on taking precedence over DITS, and I was at times discouraged. But I put it in God’s hands and honestly tried to sacrifice my desire to see it finished. That was hard, but it has greatly increased my joy in seeing it come to fruition. I know that God has brought it to this point.
Ultimately, I think the long process with extended intermittent delays was actually good for the record as well. During that time, I was listening and re-listening and tweaking, and I was also coming up with the images and scenarios that would populate the narrative. DITS is a very delicate project with a huge amount of emotional and sonic dynamics. It’s also 81 nearly relentless minutes of music. To get the valleys and the peaks right and to strike just the right balances took an extraordinary amount of critical re-listening in various environments. I think I’ve listened to this record thousands of times already in its various forms. I have been the subject of my own almost perverse experiment to discover the perfect bittersweet combination of enthrallment and horror.
PH: Waiting this long taught me to trust in and appreciate God’s timing.
As long as Michael and I were working on the project and making steady progress, I was content with however long it would take to do it the right way. But when we got about 95% there, things stalled. We weren’t sure what to do with the choir situation, among other things. My family would ask when the album was going to be finished. I would cynically tell them, “Probably never.”
And during that time, the Foundation was growing and changing. It was bringing in more artists, and things were getting busy. That was good, and I was happy about it, but I felt Physick and our album being put on the back burner. The studio that we previously had easy access to was now being used by other incoming artists, and studio time needed to be reserved on the calendar, which was filling up.
Changing like this was difficult. I had gotten used to dropping by the studio whenever I could, recording demos, working on editing. I couldn’t do that anymore. I remembered Michael telling me when we first started working together in 2008 that we were “partners in crime.” I missed that, and it felt like it was slipping away. I started questioning whether the album was worth finishing, whether it was even good anymore. Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a recording artist after all.
Of course, a lot of those feelings were silly. Even though it was confusing, discouraging, frustrating and depressing at times, I knew that God was there, orchestrating things. I didn’t know why the album had stalled; why we were having trouble deciding what to do with the choir; why other, newer projects were taking precedence over ours. But I didn’t have to understand. I trusted Him. I had no choice but to wait. And I’m glad we did.
These structural changes in the Foundation had to happen in order for us to have been able to finish the record. If we had rushed its completion a few years ago out of impatience, we would not have been able to secure a real, professional choir that the album begged for. God made us wait until the Foundation had the funding and clout necessary to make it happen. To say that it was well worth the wait would be an understatement.
EJ: What was the most difficult song on the album to produce, and why?
MM: “Requiem Shark” and “Waltzing with Woland” were both quite challenging for different reasons. For “Waltzing with Woland,” the challenge was properly layering all the different instruments (acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums, vocals, oboe, tuba, trombone, French horns, synth, violins, viola, bassoon, clarinet, and choir) and getting the right dynamic swell in the end. I don’t completely abide by the production rules of either impressionism (“wall of sound”) or realism (where each instrument is clearly discernible). I tried to use the strengths of both approaches depending on what the moment in the album was asking for. I utilized both approaches in “Waltzing with Woland.”
“Requiem Shark” was a major juggling act. The rhythmic layers in that song do not inherently play well together. Each of them divides the exact same measure of time into various equal parts (the guitars divide the measure into 2, 3, and 4 parts; the bass and piano divide the measure into 5 parts; the drums divide it into 6). It’s a little hard to explain because these aren’t different time signatures being butted up against one another in succession (like with DRONES, which contains 13/8, 16/8, 5/8, and 7/8). They are actually different divisions of the same time being played on top of one another. When properly assembled, these parts create undulating and pleasantly deconstructed polyrhythms. But before the hours and hours of sonic alchemy that resulted in the right balances, the naturally “introverted” individual parts quarreled in tense, awkward, and actually nauseating cacophony. It was fun to see this song emerge from that chaos, as challenging as it was. My greatest hope is that most people never realize how profoundly weird and experimental it is. That’s how I’ll know I’ve done my job—if no one notices.
PH: Probably “Requiem Shark.” For the longest time, that song was such a mess.
The song started off more or less as an experiment in polyrhythms. You hear 2:3 (2 against 3) and 3:4 in music a lot. But it’s not often that you hear cross rhythms involving time signatures in 5.
I wanted the polyrhythmic parts to mimic glitch. The piano part was in 5/4 time, and I layered many single-note, staccato guitar tracks on top of that, with the intent of leaving just the tracks necessary to fill up each measure without any overlap between tracks. There were also some arpeggiated guitar chords in there as well, following different rhythmic patterns.
What you get is a wide array of cross rhythms. You can hear 5:3, 5:2, 5:4. The night Michael added drums, I assumed he was going to stick to 5. It was quite a surprise to hear him play them in 6. That added another cross rhythm. During the verses, the interplay between the drums and the piano (and bass) will give you 5:6. Even now when I’m listening to it, it’s weird trying to wrap my head around it.
You can hear these same cross-rhythmic ideas playing out in the next track “Anamnesia,” though to a much lesser extent. All the polyrhythms are in the piano. You’ll hear 5:3 and 5:4.
Here’s an exclusive preview of “Requiem Shark.” Used by permission of Physick.
EJ: Phil, what type of guitar do you prefer to play, and what are your favorite playing techniques?
PH: I go through phases. My background is in classical guitar, so I prefer playing my classical when I’m in more of a fingerstyle mood. I like Michael’s steel-string Babicz when I’m in a strumming mood. I also have an electric semi-hollow body Guild for when I want something a little grittier.
EJ: If you were going to spend another four years making an album, and you could eat only one type of food the whole time, what would it be?
MM: Probably some kind of pho. Not because it’s my favorite food, but because I think I could eat it every day for four years and not do extraordinary damage to my body. I thought chili dogs at first, since those are my favorite. But I’m assuming you actually want me to be alive for the album release.
PH: Buttered sprouted-grain English muffin halves topped with raspberry preserves, cottage cheese, pork shoulder bacon, and salted, slow-cooked, scrambled eggs. Sometimes, we have that for dinner. I don’t think I could ever get tired of it.
EJ: What is your favorite record from the last five years, and what makes it so good?
MM: I have a few that I keep going back to—Midlake’s last two releases, Metronomy’s English Riviera, and a few others. But my favorite is probably Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. RAM possesses basically the choicest musical techniques, approaches, and sentiments of the last thirty to forty years of popular music. It’s an obviously meticulous and thoroughly sincere record. Both of those qualities set it apart from most other records being made today.
PH: I’d have to concur with Michael about RAM. Michael helped me appreciate how masterfully recorded, mixed and mastered that album was. The music itself was actually quite simple, but it all sounded so beautiful. My favorite track is “Giorgio by Moroder,” especially when the strings come in around 5:20. They’re so rich and full. Even after all the other tracks come in right after that, you can hear everything perfectly. Nothing gets drowned out by anything else.
EJ: One of the last pieces of the album to fall into place was the choir recordings. What did it feel like to hear the Atlanta Master Chorale singing your pieces?
MM: Transcendent. I was so proud of Phil at that moment. I thought I knew how good his choral arrangement was, but I had no idea until I heard those parts being sung in that room by forty professionals.
PH: I couldn’t believe that it was happening. They made it sound so good.
I was really nervous that night, especially when Dr. Nelson the conductor came in. I didn’t know what to expect from him, whether he was going to laugh and tell me I didn’t know what I was doing, or if he was just going to rush through everything. He treated the music with such respect, and he wanted to do it the right way. Even though he and the choir worked quickly, they didn’t rush anything. And it sounded pretty close to perfect.
It was probably the first time that something we recorded sounded the way I had imagined it. Michael and I were accustomed to settling for what was simply adequate.
Here’s an exclusive preview of “We’ve Been Misled,” the centerpiece of the album’s second suite, which prominently features the choir. Used by permission of Physick.
EJ: Michael, you talk in the Kickstarter video about the events inspiring both the overall concept of the Death is Their Shepherd experience and the song “Memento Mori.” What were some specific inspirations for the written narrative’s storyline?
MM: Aside from the event on the back porch, which was some kind of a mortality-induced panic attack, the inspirations for the written narrative were drawn almost entirely from the record itself. I listened to it in the dark a lot, and images would start to appear in my head. There were a few exceptions. I synthesized the funeral scene (of Zak’s dad) from a few actual experiences I’ve had. One in particular has continued to stick with me. A certain promising young man I knew died from an apparent drug overdose, but no one at the funeral addressed the cause of death even once. And the very friends who had encouraged (or at best allowed) this young man to sink into ruin were there at the funeral pretending along with everyone else. It angered me so very much that I almost stood up and started yelling during the service. I controlled myself, but that event really stuck with me. It struck me how gingerly we pretend about sin and death and how willing we are to fake it even right in the teeth of a contradicting reality. I wanted those sentiments and ideas incorporated into the narrative.
EJ: Did you guys ever seriously get mad at each other at some point during the process of making this album? If so, why, and what did you do to move past it?
MM: No. I was never even slightly upset with Phil. Phil is the meekest artist I’ve ever worked with. I feared the whole time that I might unintentionally run over him and his music and never even know it. He would never complain about anything, and he gave me almost unlimited freedom to make final decisions on the record. With this record especially, I wanted to honor and respect the internal demands of the music in spite of the fact that Phil would rarely if ever voice those demands in person. While we were making our first record (Songs for Friends), I tried soliciting Phil’s opinion on pretty much every decision I made, but he rarely had much to say. Over time, as our working and personal relationship matured, I learned that Phil was speaking to me clearly enough in and through the music. Honestly, I don’t think this collaboration would work otherwise. Phil and I very rarely worked on DITS in the same room.
PH: No. I like that we can stick to our own respective fields of expertise. That way, I don’t have to concern myself with the album concept, the lyrics, the EQ-ing, the mixing, the drums, all the things that I don’t really know anything about.
Michael’s a master at taking a drab-sounding raw recording and turning it into something beautiful. I always trust his judgment.
EJ: What can we expect from both of you in the near future?
MM: We’re currently writing music and lyrics for a third record. We wanted to do something more stripped down for this one—to focus on three-piece arrangements that we might be able to perform live. We also wanted a little bit of relief from the heaviness of DITS, so we thought it would be good to explore a little more of Phil’s pop sensibility—more approachable songs with a more danceable vibe. The record (for right now at least) seems to be hovering around the topic of marital relationships and the fear and love that defines them.
We also provide instrumental assistance to some of the other NFfCR acts. I play bass and Phil plays guitar in Brock’s Folly. That’s been fun, since we can’t play (m)any Physick songs with just the two of us. Phil has a credit on pretty much every record the NFfCR has produced, from string arrangements to backing vocals to guitar, piano, etc. That won’t be changing, so I’m sure you’ll see his name peppered in the credits of the NFfCR’s future releases.
PH: I’m really excited about the next project. It’ll explore dance, disco-funk, minimalism. We’ll see what we can do with more simple arrangements, instrumentation and a less-is-more approach.
Major-huge super-thanks go out to Michael and Phil for writing an interview that is proportionate in depth and density as their forthcoming album Death is Their Shepherd. The album is set to release digitally on All Hallows’ Eve, but the band is currently raising funds to produce a fully-realized physical release. There are some amazing incentives available, and they need your help to bring this project into tangibility. Check out Physick at the links below.
Here’s the Kickstarter project. You can also reach it by clicking the image at the beginning of this post.