Backstage with Geographer

This interview with singer/songwriter Michael Deni of Geographer, an indie rock trio from San Francisco, originally appeared on the Stern Grove Festival website as part of a series of artist interviews. The band performed alongside a quartet comprised of members of Magik*Magik Orchestra.

On singles such as "Kites" and "Life of Crime", Geographer's sound is very synth-driven. For their Stern Grove Festival appearance, the trio switches gears, performing an entirely acoustic set. Does this mean acoustic adaptations of electronic music, or music composed for acoustic instruments?

We're doing a little of both. A lot of the songs begin their lives on an acoustic guitar or piano. Most of them grow into a fully arranged and often electronic piece of music, but some of them feel like they don't need to change, and they stay relatively simple, acoustic songs. We haven't felt that any of those fit really into any of our recent albums, so they just sort of sit on a shelf. But we all really like them, largely because they are so refreshing. Often times I'll listen exclusively to that kind of music—Paul Simon, James Taylor, Neil Young—and the Stern Grove Festival performance is giving us a unique opportunity to bring those songs out from hiding, and the addition of the Magik*Magik Quartet arrangements fills in the gaps in a way that we really wouldn't on our own. The other side of the coin is taking a song like Verona or Kites and letting Minna [Choi, Magik*Magik’s director] re-imagine it for us. We just had our first rehearsal, and it was hard to keep playing the songs, because I was so excited at what I was hearing, and I was hearing it for the first time.

What has the collaborative process with Magik*Magik been like?

Well, first and foremost it's been incredibly easy for ME! I'm used to poring over arrangements for months at a time until it sounds right, meeting with the rest of the band, trying out everything under the sun until it works. And it was very liberating to pull myself totally out of the process, and just hand the songs over to Minna after a quick conversation. I exercise a great deal of control over my music, I know how I want it to sound, most often, and I'm very involved in getting it there. So it was nice to just say, "Another musician is going to interpret this music, and you're going to be just another player in that interpretation." Because control is great, but it does limit you in many ways. It limits you to YOUR vision, and oftentimes someone else's vision—outside the band—who's not locked into it every day like Brian and Nate and I are, will bring an extremely unexpected and dazzling take to something that's been the same for a long time. And just to be surrounded by that sound of strings. There's nothing like professional string players filling up a room with sound. It hits something very human, something pre-technology that is deeply and immediately satisfying in this day and age.

Geographer has played many of the clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area. How does the experience of playing the outdoor festival circuit differ?

There are very few experiences more exhilarating than playing for many many thousands of people in an enormous open space. The sheer magnitude of it is staggering to a band at our place in our career. I've always wanted to feel at home in the world, to feel like I belong, that I'm allowed to be here, if you will, and it's very hard to feel like you don't belong when you're creating something that all those people are physically, right in front of your face, and very audibly, enjoying all at once. It's an extremely rare experience for a human being, I think. To feel like a part of something, and to have that thing be positive. At the same time, playing clubs is more intimate; it's easier to connect with people. You can literally touch them, you can even hear what they're saying, you can jump onto them, you can meet them afterwards. We want to reach people with our music, and most of that occurs without our knowledge, while people are alone, or with their friends, listening to a record, and to actually see people responding to our music is very heartwarming and fulfilling.

With Kronos Quartet headlining, the July 14 Stern Grove Festival concert will draw crowds of all ages. Are you excited to play for new audiences?

I am! I'm looking forward to catering to both a crowd that will be mostly sitting down, enjoying a sunny day, and at the same time exciting our old fans with something new. Our Bay Area fans have done so much for us; they plucked us out of obscurity, essentially, with their excitement at our early shows. Our story is really a grassroots one, which San Francisco fans and promoters played a huge part in by believing in us. So we enjoy these opportunities to give them a special performance that may never be repeated. We have a really beautiful show planned that you can dance along to at the front of the stage, but will not make babies cry. Unless your baby likes Speed Metal. Then they'll be disappointed.

Copyright Stern Grove Festival Association, 2013