Had the chance to interview keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen of Wilco, right before their show in Los Angeles at Theatre at Ace Hotel!
Below, Mikael talks about his first encounters with synthesizers, his live rig and more.
Photos by Max Flick for Synth History.
Synth History: How old were you when you started to play music?
Mikael Jorgensen: Pretty young. My father, Joe Jorgensen, was a recording engineer in New York City. He learned from Phil Ramone and worked at A & R Recording. Eventually, he became a pretty big part of the New York recording scene and in the 70s became the exclusive engineer of a guy named Bob James, who wrote the theme song to the TV show Taxi and subsequently would be the second most sampled artist in all of hip-hop. My dad brought me to sessions in New York when I was 6 or 7 years old. I got a very visceral first hand experience of what it was like to make records and make music and produce music.
Between studios in New York and our house in New Jersey, which is where I grew up, there was a synthesizer repair place. There was this one day when he left the studio, went to the repair place, picked up a [synth] that had been fixed, brought it home and put it in our basement for the night. He was like, "Here, put some headphones on." I sat down in front of the Minimoog and I was like, "Holy shit are you kidding me, this is possible?"
I spent hours and hours with it. I don't remember if this next part actually happened, but in the movie version of this story, my parents would find me asleep on it! That's what it felt like. That would happen periodically, where there would be another synth that came home. Once, there was an Oberheim 8-voice,
with certain knobs I wasn't allowed to touch, probably tuning and some finicky stuff, probably before DCOs. Once it was tuned, it was like, don't touch it, don't breathe on it, it's only a matter of time before [the tuning] is going to go out!
And then, when I was about 13, my dad inexplicably showed up with a Sequential Circuits Six-Trak. It wasn't my birthday, it wasn't Christmas, it wasn't a holiday or anything, it just materialized for some reason. I remember when I first started using it, I had no idea what ADS was, or any of that. I would just push buttons and turn the knobs. I would move one, then play it, and was like, "I don't hear a difference, but maybe when I get older l'Il develop a sensitivity and I'll be able to understand the nuance of what I'm doing. Of course, I'm sure I wasn't changing the sound at all [laughs].
Then, I got an IBM PC, dual floppy, 5150 was the model and Bob James gave me a Roland MPU 401 MIDI interface. Miraculously, this was before... I mean, it's hard to think of a time before the internet, right? Even for me. But there was a time when you only had the software that was on your floppy discs and somehow it magically worked. Like installing drivers. So we had that and Bob also gave me a copy of Roger Powell's Texture, which was this sequencing software that Roger Powell - from Utopia, Todd Rundgren's band - had developed. He was working with Bob when he was sort of beta testing some stuff. I also had Bob's project files. I don't even know if they were standard MIDI files, this was around 1986, '87. He also gave me a DX7. I would just sit in my room and play Bob's music and he had no idea this was happening. And he gave me an Akai S900. He'd get something and go, "Yeah... I don't need this anymore. Just give that to Mikael, he likes it, he enjoys it." He was in a financial position where it didn't matter, you know? I would sample Bob's records and mix it with hip-hop records in my house. I'm doing a documentary on Bob, so these stories are fresher in my mind because I've been going back and thinking of these times.
And then [while] taking piano lessons, I sort of discovered rock music. My adolescence was basically in front of a computer. While everyone else was out developing social skills, I was at home, staring at a computer screen, trying to figure out the secrets of the universe in there. I was like, "You know, I don't think
they're in there," so I thought, "I'm gonna start playing regular music." I started playing in a rock band.
So yeah, that's the brief version.
Synth History: Can you tell me about going from the side of stage with Wilco, to being on the stage with Wilco - how did that happen?
Mikael Jorgensen: So, in the late 90s, I was trying to figure out where I wanted to go. I went to art school, then I went to DeVry Technical Institute and started learning about computers, assembly language, some deep computer stuff, electronic stuff. When I finished my college time - I never really graduated, I have a lot of college credits but no degree [laughs] - the music I was drawn to the most was coming from Chicago, mostly surrounding the Thrill Jockey label, like Tortoise, The Sea and Cake.
I moved to Chicago in 1998 and I was like, "What I want to do is work at a really cool studio, ideally Soma and work on cool records," which was John McEntire's studio.
There's something about being really specific with your intention that makes all the decision making kind of easy in some way. Although, I had to get a job in the meantime. I was office-temping, doing Microsoft Excel for Morton Salt, like when it rains it pours, you know? Twenty eighth floor, downtown, wearing a suit
everyday. I was like, "Ugh... this sucks." Then, I met John and we built the studio from the ground up and when it was finished, a year later, this was like 2000, Stereolab came in and did their first record with John in the new version of Soma. I was a huge Stereolab fan and I worked on that record and went,
"Ok, this is kind of working out in a way that I'm very excited about." I was meeting the people whose music I really loved and I just had that moment of transitioning from being a fanboy, to like, "Oh no, they're colleagues." Sort of making that conceptual reframing of my relationship with it. Working at Soma was amazing. I'm sure you probably know about John's incredible modular synth collection. He was so far ahead of the modular synth trend, I got to learn so much from him there.
Then, through the Stereolab project - half of the songs were produced by John and half were produced by Jim O'Rourke - Jim met Jeff [Tweedy] and Glen [Kotche] from Wilco. They played a show in Chicago and Jim called me and said, "Hey, I need to book a couple of days to work on a song for this band Wilco," and I said, "Sure!" Because at this point, I was managing the studio, booking sessions. I had heard of Wilco and my impression of them at that point was like, "Oh, it's sort of a roots-y, Tom Petty, fringe jackets, country influenced thing." No offense to Tom Petty [laughs], but that was like... that's that music and I was into electronic indie rock. I had been learning about MAX/MSP and really synthesizing, figuratively and literally, my sort of college computer science stuff with this new technology and being like, "Wow, this is really amazing."
There's one MAX patch that, to this day, I've always wanted to reverse engineer. It's called Granular 2.5, by Nobuyasu Sakonda. You could feed it input and then drag your mouse in an XY-plane and make the grains longer, change the attacks and releases. I would do that to Jeff's guitar, his acoustic guitar. I was super excited about it, like fusing this old folk music - not old - but a traditional idiom, with this new technology. I was super insecure about it, because Wilco already had this big fan base and their sort of identity at that time was very much in place. I was coming in as this total - to me what felt like, "fly in the ointment" and it went well. Jeff asked me to start recording the follow up to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which turned out to be A Ghost is Born. In the process of making that record, I went from being just an engineer to migrating through the glass and becoming a full-fledged member.
While that was happening, we'd go out on the road. I started out being a roadie, pushing cases and stuff, then setting up my laptop station next to the monitor board. I would get inputs and would effect Glen's drums or Jeff's guitar or vocals, or, you know, add a few things. Then, there were these parts that I would remember from the records that weren't being covered and I was like, "I could play this..." and slowly my world moved onto the stage. I started playing more, and I think, really, what I wanted to do - if I had been honest with myself initially - was to play a lot of music. That was like 21 years ago and now we're, I don't know how many records... like 7, something like that, and thousands of shows, which is probably not an exaggeration at this point... it's crazy.
Synth History: Can you tell me a little bit about your live set up?
Mikael Jorgensen: So, I have 90 percent of the keyboard sounds that I play from my sort of weighted controller piano thing that's all coming from Ableton. It's a mixture of a lot of stuff: Keyscape, Sound Toys, a lot of it is samples. I have Sampler and Simpler in Ableton. It's great, because it's just built-in and I can grab an audio file from my session after we finish a record. I'll get the stems and l'Il go through them and grab [samples], then I'll spend like 20+ hours head down, nose to the computer isolating and figuring out things, mapping and trying to understand where everything should go. Ableton is the traffic cop in a way. I have a Novation Launch Control XL and a Launch Pad.
The Launch Pad, there's something charming to me about the fact that I have this 64-button grid controller that can do all of this amazing stuff, but I just write in sharpie on the button: Piano, Wurlitzer or the name of the song that has splits and stuff!
I've got a Korg CX-3 that's going through a series of pedals. A Box of Rock, a VEX. It's one of my favorite distortions for keyboards. It just does a really good job of being full range, there's still dynamics to it and the distortion overdrive is really great for organ. The Strymon Big Sky Pedal is so spacious, it's great. I have a Boss Phaser Pedal; the mode on it that I like does this 'rise'. It's sort of like a Shepard's tone, it keeps ascending, it doesn't go up and down constantly. It sounds like a phaser, but it's not doing the sort of expected phaser woosh. That's a big part of it. Then, that all goes through a Leslie [speaker].
That's my indulgence as a rock musician, I get to bring this big piece of furniture. Everything else, like piano, all the sort of synthesizer and electric piano, that's all DI, just plugged into the monitor board. There's not really a visceral quality to it, so the fact that I have this orb contributing to the overall stage sound is just great, I really, really love it. I've also got the Chase Bliss Generation Loss MKII, which is great. It does all these emulations of cassettes, VHS, I don't know how they do it, but they just somehow paint noise through it and get this sort of sound print convolution style. It's great. There's all these different lo-fi things. You can adjust the flutter, it's sort of dirty and unstable. The failure button is awesome. You hit that and it's like adding drop outs from tapes that have been crinkled up. I use that for a moment in the show during "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart", at the very end when the organ sort of sputters out. That's really fun, I look forward to that. I don't know if anyone else is hearing it or paying attention but I really love that moment.
Synth History: Can you tell me about the pillow that you use on stage?
Mikael Jorgensen: There have been a few and the one that is in the magazine is a replacement for an old pillow that was some sort of macramé needlepoint owl. I just used that one so much that it just shredded, so I have it at home. I'm not sure what I need to...
Synth History: You need to frame it!
Mikael Jorgensen: Yeah, or like hire someone on Etsy to recreate it or make new ones and sell them or something. I don't know, but there's a song that we play, usually more towards the end of the main set, it's called "Shot in the Arm", there's this big chaotic section on the recording. It's these huge glissandos from
a synthesizer, so I'm just taking the pillow and mashing the keys up and down and Nels [Cline] is also doing a sort of similar thing. We sometimes synchronize and jump together. It's a bit of showbiz at that point.
Synth History: Like Keith Emerson!
Mikael Jorgensen: Like one inch in Keith Emerson's direction.
Synth History: If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring musician, someone that wants to be successful in the music industry, or perhaps something you would tell your younger self, what would it be?
Mikael Jorgensen: There's a lot. But the thing that I want to say is: learn all the rules so that you can then break them. That's something I wish I had. I wish I had practiced all of my scales and knew every technical thing about the piano with the knowledge that you don't have to do that, it's just a way to get you fluent in this language. From my perspective, I'd love to know how to do more than what I have to do, if that makes any sense.
Also, just be really clear on what it is that you want to achieve. If you want to be a producer, if you want to be a singer, a touring musician, if you want to be a singer-songwriter, you know. You have to fake it 'til you make it, that's the only way it works.
Also, it is not what you know, it is who you know. That was one of the things about working at the studio. I would meet so many different people. You just never know who you are going to connect with and who is going to provide you with an opportunity, or see something in you, and be like, "Hey, do you want to come out on the road with me?"
Being part of a community, being clear about your intentions and learning the rules so you can discard as much of it as you want.
[Editor's Note: Backstage at The Theatre at Ace Hotel, the interview ends, however we start recounting memories of gear not working on stage. Mikael starts recounting an interesting story, I hit record again on my voice memo.]
Mikael Jorgensen: So, we were playing in Arizona, outdoors, brand new venue. Soundcheck was murderously hot. Outdoor sun beating down. I couldn't see readouts, duvetyne over my head, trying to edit sounds and just change some settings on a keyboard. During the show, I went to go press the button for the song "Cruel Country", which has some samples that Nels played on the record that I trigger in addition to playing the organ. The light wasn't coming on, and [the light] has been coming on, for a solid two years now. Two and a half years, every time I press it, it comes on, and I'm like, "Why? How is this possible, what's wrong, what's going on?"
During the break, Jeff was talking to the crowd and I went over to the computer and looked through my scenes [on Ableton] and I was like, "Oh, the 'Cruel Country' scene that I would launch to make the sound happen or load is gone, and then, as the show went on, my main piano sound, I push that button and it
was gone, too! I was like, "What the hell is going on!? How does this happen?" So, I look over at the computer. There's a button now on the keyboard, too close to the delete button, I push it by accident all the time, it makes the emoji menu come up, so you can select an emoji. Then it dawned on me. The bluetooth
keyboard that I use while editing was still on, somewhere nearby, and the delete key is getting pressed! At the end of the show I walk over to Andy and I go, "Andy, I think I know what's going on here." He's like, "Why did you have the emoji menu!?" I was like, "Where is the bluetooth Apple keyboard?" And he
opens his work box, pulls it out and it's still on. And he's like, "OK, at least we know why!" So [during the show] I was figuring that out, going, "I don't have this sound, I don't have this sound!" So I just had to play a different piano sound. Nobody ever cares or notices, not that they don't care but like.
Synth History: I feel like when you're playing you're always you're own
Mikael Jorgensen: Totally. And then it was fine. Nobody even said anything, like, "Wait, what happened to the samples tonight!"
Synth History: [laughs] That sounds scary, but it sounds like it worked out.
Mikael Jorgensen: I mean, we're all doing our very best. That's one of things that everybody is trying to do. We fuck up and make mistakes, we're human beings, that's just how it is. Even with the slick program, the digital preset nature of using computers. They're still designed by humans who make mistakes, you know? I don't get super bummed out about that stuff. It's just like, "This is what happened tonight, we're going to fix it so it doesn't happen again." I don't lose sleep over that kind of stuff, but in the old days I would beat the crap out of myself for those kind of mistakes. Also, I'm the only one who really understands what's going on in the computer. I don't have a tech where I can go, "Oh hey, can you put this effect on the Wurlitzer or whatever?" I have to do it all, for better or for worse.
Synth History Exclusive.
Special thanks to the Theatre at Ace Hotel.
Interview conducted by Danz.
Photos by Max Flick.
Transcribed Matthew Reilly.