Interviews

“We never want to play it safe”: Michael Shuman talks emotional new Mini Mansions EP

Life is full of unsolvable mysteries. Perhaps the greatest of these is why LA trio Mini Mansions are not yet a universally celebrated name. They share members with Queens Of The Stone Age and The Last Shadow Puppets, their music has featured such artists as Brian Wilson and Alex Turner, and above all… they make incredibly interesting psych-tinged, nostalgic pop music that’s not quite like anything you’ve heard before.

So ahead of a huge Sydney show at The Hordern Pavilion with his other band (Queens Of The Stone Age), we caught up with Mini Mansions’ vocalist/guitarist/drummer Michael Shuman (aka Mikey Shoes) to chat about their upcoming EP Works Every Time, how Adam Sandler maybe kind of influenced his career, and his love of Australia’s favourite dart-punching sons The Chats.

dani hansen mini mansions young henrys michael shuman
All photos: Dani Hansen

It’s scary, but that’s what it’s about… it’s about taking risks“: We caught up with Michael Shuman of Mini Mansions and Queens Of The Stone Age to chat new music, Adam Sandler, and his love of The Chats.

HAPPY: You’re about to release the next Mini Mansions EP next month… what made you choose an EP over another full-length album for your next release?

MICHAEL: I just think its been a while since we released anything or played any shows, and I just thought it’d be the best way to sort of re-introduce ourselves to our fans and to people that might not have heard of us. It’s a little easier for new people to digest a few songs than to wrap their heads around a whole record.

And also, we want to be touring for a while, so we thought this could extend that whole process – because we have more music to release later.

HAPPY: Was all the other new music written around the same time as this EP?

MICHAEL: It wasn’t, no. We wrote a bunch of songs and didn’t really know what to do with it. All the guys were really busy. So we didn’t really know how far to commit ourselves, so later we had a few more songs that we were really excited about, and we thought “yeah we’ll put these out first without so much pressure”.

Because it’s a lot of pressure putting out a full-length record. With a full record you’re kind of putting all your eggs in one basket.

HAPPY: So this EP’s kind of an introduction to a ‘new’ Mini Mansions?

MICHAEL: Yeah, and I think these songs… while they still sound like Mini Mansions… I think our production style changed a little bit and our lyrical direction changed, and so this is probably a good segue into whats to come.

Mini Mansions

HAPPY: It’s always interesting, that evolution of a band. Do you find it gets easier to write songs as the band progresses? Or does it get harder to keep things fresh and interesting?

MICHAEL: Yeah, it can be difficult to keep things fresh. Like if you write on a guitar, and you’ve spent your whole life writing songs on a guitar… picking up that same guitar again can be like “what am I gonna do now? I’ve done everything that I can”. So sometimes going to a different instrument can spice things up.

So we kind of switched the roles a little bit… I wrote a lot on piano and Tyler spent a lot of time on guitar, so that helps.

But I think the only way to keep lyrical content fresh is to be inspired by either something out in the world that intrigues you, or personal experiences you have that can trigger a new creative flow. And I think for this record, that’s what it was.

For me it was a relationship, and in that relationship, personal growth. Like most songs are love songs, right? They’re either about heartache or falling in love… because it’s real. It’s easier for things to flow out of you when you have that outlet.

HAPPY: The EP does sound a lot more honest and emotional than past releases… did you sit down and make a conscious decision that you wanted to make this kind of EP, or was it something that emerged naturally?

MICHAEL: Yeah I think it was natural, because at the time we wrote those songs there was some serious personal shit happening… so it’d kind of just flow out of you. You need to put that energy somewhere, and we put it into these songs. Then you look back and you think “oh shit, I’m kind of being really vulnerable.”

And I’m usually a pretty private person… I don’t like to divulge that much personal information about myself… but I’m 33 now and I know myself pretty well, so I don’t really care. I want people to feel something from these songs… and I really hope they do.

HAPPY: Do you ever find it difficult to release these kinds of songs?

MICHAEL: It’s a little scary. Because it’s easier for people to judge you – you as a human being, rather an a performer. So it’s scary, but that’s what it’s about… it’s about taking risks. If you don’t take risks you’re not going to get any rewards. We never want to play it safe. I don’t think you’ll gain anything from that.

HAPPY: I love the Edwyn Collins cover on the EP…

MICHAEL: Yeah…

HAPPY: What was it about this particular song that made you want to put it on the EP? Why cover that song?

MICHAEL: I’ve always thought that was such an amazingly sexy song, and also a great love song, but in this semi-perverted way, you know?

HAPPY: Yeah it’s so sleazy…

MICHAEL: It’s very sleazy, yeah. But he’s like professing his love, and he’s got this feeling of never having met someone like this person before in his life. I think I related to that in my past relationship. I was like “oh yeah, I know that feeling… I know what that’s like,” so it wasn’t just some cover of a random song. I thought that this makes sense within the context of the songs, and it becomes part of the EP.

And doing a cover, you want to make it your own… you want to look back at it and think “wow this could’ve been my song.” You want to feel close to it.

HAPPY: I love how with your last album The Great Pretenders, you released like fourteen videos for it…

MICHAEL: Yeah, too much…

HAPPY: I thought it was great. How important is the visual element of music to you? Because it feels like such a big part of your band…

MICHAEL: I think, not to sound pretentious, but it’s all art. Music is just one part of it. There’s live shows, artwork on a record… and artwork on a record used to be so much more important in the 70’s and 80’s when we didn’t get to see these people until they rolled into your town. There was no TV… you just had this photo to look at. It all felt so foreign… and that’s why they felt like rockstars, because they didn’t feel real.

But now, I think videos can kind of take over, and you can have that art form be part of your music too. And looking back I don’t think we would’ve done that. I think we over did it. Our label was just like “we’ll give you this amount of money to do one music video,” and we were like “can’t we do like fifty,” and they said “you can do whatever you want.” That seemed more fun to us.

It was a huge undertaking though – it became a lot of work. But then yeah, out fans enjoyed it. There was more content and it kept things fresh for them… so I guess in the end it was worth it.

HAPPY: So we’re not going to get another run of videos for this EP?

MICHAEL: We’ll have a few. But we’re definitely not doing one for each song.

HAPPY: Going back to that last album again… the roll-out for it was insane. You had a billboard with your own hotline number on it and you had your own wine… where’d the idea to do these things come from?

MICHAEL: I mean, I honestly don’t know. The good thing about teaming up with a record label or other creative partners, is that they can allow you to do things that you might not have been able to do otherwise. So when someone says “do  whatever you want,” we decided we were going to do all these things.

And in a time when record labels are dying, and they don’t seem as important… these are the reasons I really like working with other creatives. But I don’t know why we did these things. With the wine, we were just talking, saying “The Grape Pretenders”…

HAPPY: So brilliant…

MICHAEL: Yeah, well that was just funny. So it was like “well know we’ve gotta do it.” That was hilarious. I think not taking yourself too seriously is great too… so things like that keep it all lighthearted.

HAPPY: How did the wine taste?

MICHAEL: Oh it was delicious. It was our friends family’s vineyard… so we knew it would be good.

HAPPY: And with the billboard… I imagine you would’ve got some pretty strange messages after putting a number on a billboard in the middle of America…

MICHAEL: Oh there were some good ones. We’ve logged them all.

HAPPY: Were there any particular good ones?

MICHAEL: I know there was a friend who did a prank… which was pretty good.

HAPPY: I love also on that album, you’ve got two consecutive tracks featuring Alex Turner and Brian Wilson, respectively… how did Brian Wilson come to be involved with the record?

MICHAEL: Yeah well again, the record label came through with that one. We’d been picked up by Capital Records, and a lot of our favourite classic albums – including some Beach Boys records – were through Capital. They were doing a new Brian Wilson record, and they asked some artists to play on the record… and they asked Zach, our bass player, to play bass on one of his songs.

So he was in there playing on Brian Wilson’s record, and he was like “fuck it, I’m playing on his record… let’s ask him if he’d want to play on our record.” And it turned out he was more than happy to. I never actually got to meet him because it turns out he’s a really private dude. He was like “I’ll only do it by myself.”

HAPPY: He was isolated?

MICHAEL: Yeah. So we were like “ah okay… here’s the song, this is what we’re thinking.” Then two days later we got back like fifty vocal tracks, and they were all amazing.

HAPPY: It’s funny how even a guy like Brian Wilson won’t do things like that in front of people…

MICHAEL: Yeah it’s crazy man. Like good music is good music… it doesn’t matter how big or small you are. That’s why I love taking smaller bands on the road.

HAPPY: Yeah well tonight, with the Queens Of The Stone Age show, you’ve got The Chats opening for you… what do you think of them?

MICHAEL: Dude we watched them last night and they were fucking awesome. They were really great. And they’re so Australian. I’d only heard the Smoko song, but they’ve got some really great songs.

HAPPY: Now you’ve done a lot of cool shit throughout your career… but perhaps nothing impressive than your show-stealing performance in The Wedding Singer

MICHAEL: Oh yeah

HAPPY: Oscar worthy performance…

MICHAEL: Yeah totally

HAPPY: How did this come about? And what was it like working on that set?

MICHAEL: Honestly, I don’t really remember. I was like eleven years old. My dad’s in the film business, so I was just in the right place in the right time.

HAPPY: Did you get to meet Adam Sandler?

MICHAEL: Once my dad took me to his trailer, and he was just jamming playing guitar… and he was like “come on in, we can play.” And we played The Beatles’ Do You Want To Know A Secret, because that was the only song I knew. Then the next day, I went to school and I came home, and Adam had given me a guitar and an amp. Which was so sweet. I still have the guitar.

HAPPY: Could it be said that Adam Sandler kick-started your music career?

MICHAEL: I wouldn’t go that far. Maybe I’ve influenced him a little bit though.

Mini Mansions’ Works Every Time EP will be released September 28th. You can pre-order now here.