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Mike Gent has been making great rock records with The Figgs since they started back in the late eighties. Their tenth LP, The Man Who Fights Himself, was released in May. Since 1996, The Figgs have doubled as Graham Parker’s band, and in 2003 they toured with Tommy Stinson as his backing band. As if that weren’t enough for one rock and roll resume, Mike has also played with Candy Butchers, put out three records with The Gentlemen, and last year he released his third solo album, Mike Gent.
I asked him about recent projects, playing live, and his recording style, and I got some insights into his creative process along the way.
Tell me about the new record. Where was it recorded?
MIKE GENT: We started the new record in May of 2008 in Los Angeles. It had been awhile since we’d gone to the west coast so I had the idea of booking studio time during the day and playing shows around LA at night. It turned out to be a horrible idea because we would spend all day recording, go play a show, hang out after the show with friends we hadn’t seen for a long time, then go back to the studio the next day and do the same thing over again. By the second day, we were shot! At the end of the LA sessions we had cut around 14 tracks, and 3 of them ended up on the record. Then we went to Philly and cut a bunch of stuff there through the summer of ’08. Most of 2009 we worked on the tracks we recorded in 2008, then at the end of the year we went to this really nice studio south of Boston that Scott Riebling (who produced the first Gentlemen LP) has in his house and cut 2 songs. We then finished all the overdubs at our friend Seth’s studio in East Chatham, NY. Pete Donnelly mixed it in NYC. It took much longer than I like. It was really one of the hardest records to make in my opinion. I think the songs are great; some of them could have been recorded and played better!
Did you have an outside producer?
MG: The last time an outside producer was used was on some of Palais and his name is Paul Kolderie.
I read a review that attributed the title of the album to a Bob Dylan lyric. Is that true?
MG: No, the man who fights himself is this old guy we always saw growing up who would suddenly stop and start throwing punches at the air, as if he saw someone or thing in front of him that no one else saw. I was looking at the thank you credits in Low-Fi At Society High a few years ago and we thanked “The Man Who Fights Himself”. I thought…good title.
How does the band like to work in the studio? Do you demo all the songs first or finish them as you go?
MG: The last time we made demos was for The Figgs Couldn’t Get High. We also did two weeks of pre-production for that record with Andy Shernoff, who produced it. For the two most recent records we would go in, hit record, and play. We would play a song until we were tired of it, then move on to another one and do the same thing. Then Pete D. will go through and find basic takes and we work on them from there. I like how we did most of Palais, which was to start a song and have it almost finished by the end of the night. The new record we just started a few weeks ago is going to happen like that I hope.
What can you tell us about that? When will it be out?
MG: I’m not sure. Hopefully 2012. Not certain what it’s about because we are just getting it started. I like the idea of doing another double album. It gives you a bigger gallery to show off your work.
What is your approach to songwriting?
MG: The way I write songs changes song to song. Sometimes I have a title and go from there. I like sitting on the couch with a guitar watching TV, all of a sudden, a song appears. What do you know? Sometimes I challenge myself and try to write a song a day for a week. If I’m lucky, one of them is good.
Do you collaborate with the band on songs?
MG: Usually Pete D. & I will bring songs in almost finished and, while we are learning them, we will suggest changes to each other. Occasionally Pete will have a chorus for something and I’ll write verses for it or a bridge. There’s a song called “End Credits” where I had everything together except lyrics and melody for the verse, so I told Pete to take a shot at it. Turned out to be a real nice song. One time I found a tape of us sitting around playing each other half finished songs and Pete had this chorus melody that was stuck in my head for years. Finally, I did something with it. Wrote some verses and lyrics. We started playing it and thought that it needed a bridge. I went back to the tape and found that Pete’s original idea had a bridge so I wrote new lyrics to that melody and bam- “Follow Jean Through The Sea”, one of my favorite Figgs songs.
You guys usually label the songs on your CDs as sides 1 and 2. Do you sequence the tracks as two separate sides?
MG: We sequence sides yes, because we release our albums on vinyl (all but two). We try to make the CD flow like an album. These days most people don’t listen to albums start to finish do they? It’s gone back to singles. I still like listening to complete records and I still enjoy making them so that’s what we do.
What are your thoughts about the way the music business has been evolving over the last decade or so? Is it harder (or maybe easier) to promote your music and stay afloat in the age of mp3s and file sharing?
MG: Has it been evolving or devolving? We have always been pretty lazy and horrible at promoting our band. We’ve been lucky that our life raft has stayed afloat in this big, polluted ocean we call the music business.
The Figgs started out as a trio, and have added a fourth member several different times over the course of your career, both guitar and keyboards. But for the last couple years you have been a three-piece again. Which do you prefer and what are the strengths of each?
MG: I like both. As a trio it frees you up to go places you wouldn’t normally go with more people in the band. On the other side of that, sometimes being a three-piece can feel very limiting. We’ve been able to have some great players fill the 4th position: Guy Lyons, Mike Viola, Jed Parish, Brett Rosenberg, Scott Janovitz. I prefer to have keys over another guitar but I do love playing with two guitars. For one tour we had a percussionist, which was really fun.
You have incorporated acoustic guitar into your live show in recent years. What was the inspiration for that?
MG: Being a trio for so long, after awhile I started to get bored with playing electric the whole show. I always wanted a J-160, because in Candy Butchers I would use Viola’s when he played electric. I finally found one for a great price in late ’07. It sounds and plays great and it’s really one of the best guitars I’ve ever owned. It really changed our live show because now we can switch it up a bit more.
How often do you use a set list? The last time I saw you headline it seemed like you didn’t have one; it was more like you were reacting to the crowd and the venue, like when your stage monitor broke and you played “Something’s Wrong”.
MG: We once used set lists, then at some point we stopped. Before the show Pete D. asks what we want to play and we take it from there. If we are on tour or are playing a bunch of shows in a row, we usually have a basic skeleton of a set that we remember. The first four songs we will keep the same and the last few songs will be the same. The stuff in the middle, I’ll read the crowd (and the band), and call songs out. I like to group songs together also, something I learned from Husker Du live tapes. They would always play maybe 2-3 songs in order like on the record, then move on to a different record and do the same thing. I enjoy doing it that way because it can give the set little shots of focus on different periods, if that makes any sense at all.
Yeah, it does. Another feature of your live show is “Pete Hayes Time”, where Pete comes out from behind the kit to sing a few songs. How did that come about?
MG: I think that just came from seeing NRBQ over the years. Their drummer Tommy would come out at some point and sing a song. Also, Hayes has written songs since joining the band. He writes great songs. The only problem is he writes one song every four years!
How would you describe The Figgs to someone who has never heard you?
MG: Hmmm…that’s always difficult. When asked what kind of music we play I usually say rock and roll, which confuses most people.
What record would you recommend to that person as the best introduction to the band?
MG: I would say get Palais or Follow Jean Through The Sea. Those records have a nice variety of Figgs music on them.
Most bands are lucky to last a decade, but twenty-three years later and The Figgs are still going strong. How have you guys stayed together so long?
MG: I think we’ve stayed together for so long because our goals from the start were very small and humble and they have remained that way. I’m still excited when I get a test pressing in the mail for vinyl. When we pull together a new batch of songs and a few people respond to them…that is complete success to me. Another reason we are still together is that we are friends and most of the time enjoy each other’s company.
Any more reissues in the works?
MG: There are always ideas kicking around. Sucking In Stereo is coming out on vinyl in December. It’s going to include a download card for a live version of the record compiled from that tour (2000-2001). At some point we are going to put together a full-length reissue of Badger. That EP had some really good tracks and was really a blink-and-miss-it release. We’ve had a film crew following us around for the last four years so someday there is going to be a DVD. There’s tons of live stuff and studio outtakes to go through for some kind of box set. Too much shit. I still enjoy working on new songs so most of these things will have to wait. There is also a live CD/DVD coming out from the tour we did last spring with Graham Parker.
What about another solo record?
MG: I have slowly been making a record with the band that I put together to promote the solo record from last year. The name of the solo band is The Rapid Shave. I’m in no rush. No one’s banging down my door bugging me about when a new solo record is coming out. I had a blast making the last record. I think it’s one of the best records I’ve ever made, if I do say so myself. There has been talk the last few years about doing a new Gentlemen record. Most of it is written; we need to find time to do it.
What determines if a song is a Figgs song or a Mike Gent song?
MG: When I bring a song to the band, I can usually tell right away if they dig it or not. If it’s something I feel real strong about, I might try to sell it to them. If they don’t like it, no problem. I can use it for something else or maybe they were right to begin with. It does stink! You can’t take it personally; it’s just a song. Go write another….
Would you like to talk about the “Victoria” b/w “Big Sky” single you recorded for the documentary “Do It Again”?
MG: Originally, I was interviewed to be in the movie but they didn’t use any of it. So the producer Geoff Edgers asked me to record some songs for it, which I did last summer with Scott Janovitz at his studio Moontower. We had fun doing it although I wouldn’t have picked “Big Sky”. That was Geoff’s idea, as was the idea to put it out as a single.
Is there anything else you would like to mention before we conclude?
MG: Please check out our record Slow Charm. It’s a good record. Even though some dipshit at Pitchfork thought otherwise.
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