Trust David Byrne: '80s downtown veteran Mikel Rouse still has lots to say
Musician Mikel Rouse moved to New York in 1979, at least partly on the advice of David Byrne and the rest of Talking Heads, for whom Rouse and his new-wave band had recently opened when Byrne & co. swung through Rouse's hometown, Kansas City, Mo.
"They were just very encouraging of us coming to New York," Rouse, now a three-decade-plus resident of the city, remembered. "And then when we came to New York and played our first gig at CBGB's, David came, so there was a buzz in the audience because he was there."
Plenty of writing about Rouse—whether about his band of that period, Tirez Tirez, which (along with R.E.M.) called the label IRS home, or about his solo work as a postminimalist composer—has made mention of this Byrne connection. It's happened often enough that it's natural to wonder how close the two men became.
"He's come to almost every major show I've done in New York, but he doesn't ever say 'hi,'" Rouse told me, while sitting at a coffee counter near his rent-controlled apartment in Hell's Kitchen last month. "People just say he was there. So I just take that as a nice note of confidence.… Back in the day when there was no Internet, I'd get a postcard here and there: like, 'I just got Quorum' or 'I just got Broken Consort: Great records!'"
You can trust David Byrne's ear on this one. Mikel Rouse (his first name is pronounced like "Michael") has made dozens of great records since coming to New York. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts acquired his archive in 2010—making it the easiest place for the public to see video recordings of Rouse's modern operas, like Dennis Cleveland, that have played at Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in recent decades.
"I wanted to have the structure that I loved in classical music, but I wanted it to sound like pop music, or vernacular music," he said of his breakthrough works—some of which take the form of genre-breaking multimedia operas, while others are content to merely exist as great, 40-minute pop records.
Because the collection at the New York Public Library is a "living archive," Rouse will be adding to the trove over time, as he makes his digitized way through an archive that runs back to the glory days of Downtown Manhattan's late '70s–early '80s heyday. Right now, the Tirez Tirez catalog—his most direct pop-music work—is mostly out of print; eventually, Rouse will have those titles up, via his self-distributed Exit Music label, on iTunes and Amazon, along with his newer works.
But Rouse isn't finished creating either. His 2010 C.D. Recess was one of the best of his career, marrying, as ever, his love for postminimalist rhythmic complexity with pop hooks and well-crafted folksong imagery based on field recordings the composer made while walking through New York and Missouri.
"Orchestrating those field recordings is the idea [of Recess]," Rouse said. "You know, cicadas from Missouri: could that be the rhythm track for the steel guitar? That was the most fun record I've done in years because I would walk around with an [Roland] Edirol recorder about the size of an iPhone. And I have headphones on, so everybody just assumed I was like every other phone monkey walking around, but I could walk right up to somebody and they wouldn't know I was there. And I would get the conversation of the couple arguing in the park. … There's something about New York. People use these devices to tune out the city, and I wanted to find a way to bring the city into the recordings. And walking around the city with headphones on is just a beautiful Cage-ian experience."
His 30th release, out this month, is actually a double album, titled False Doors/Boost. The first disc Rouse calls his "Buddhist record." The latter is a quasi-concept album about "the anticipation of love through the metaphor of hedge funds and banking."
Both rip past you in under 80 minutes, courtesy of Rouse's shockingly profligate gift for orchestrating rhythms and melodies. Percussion on False Doors was provided by his ex-Tirez Tirez bandmate Rob Shepperson (their first collaboration in 20 years). The beats on Boost were all programmed by Rouse himself, in the midst of what he describes as a "techno percussion" mood. But unlike a lot of his early, complex programmed percussive work, the beats on "Boost" authentically sound every bit as slick as their simpler brethren in the pop world.
"The early records weren't [well-produced pop records], because I couldn't get that density to sound like a real record. I could get that density to sound like interesting music—but I couldn't get it to sound the way records sound," he said of his earliest song-based works. (Though he's perhaps being a bit hypercritical; the Tirez Tirez album Story of the Year sounds very much a product of its early-'80s milieu, even as it points forward to something new.)
"One of the reasons pop records sound the way they do is because they're not very complicated," he said. "So you can really luxuriate in the sound of a snare drum or a voice or whatever. And you can use compression in all sorts of wonderful ways."
To get a sense of what he's up to with the programmed rhythms on one of his new records, Rouse advises listening to the track "Orson Elvis."
"You're getting to rhythms that most people who are influenced by minimalism would never be able to comprehend. You're talking Elliott Carter kind of complexity. But no one will get that because it's not attached to classical instruments: it's all sort of techno percussion. And that's the thing that's been so interesting about how conservative certain press outlets have become, is that they hear a record and they don't listen any deeper. So if it sounds like a pop record—'well, why would we review this in classical? It's a pop record.' And I just say: 'Okay!' The people who get it, get it.
"I'm not doing complexity because I want to say 'look how clever I am,' I'm doing it because it's interesting to me. Those sounds in 'Orson Elvis,' when these rhythms compete with each other, tear my head off. And that is an interesting feeling to me—it's like having a food or a spice you've never had before." (A free-to-stream version of both new albums is available on Rouse's BandCamp page, for anyone who'd like to sample all those spices.)
The composer's committed fan base, indeed, will get this music. But it's almost frustrating to think about how many more people might sing along with the bluesy vocal canons of "Words Are Missing" or burn some time off a treadmill run with the kinetic, competing beats that work against one another in "Professional Smile"—if only they knew about them. Rouse's music has utilitarian uses in addition to meriting close study. It feels generous and multipurpose: willing to meet you where you are, and able to stir interest over the long haul.
One change over time in New York's contemporary music scene, Rouse noted, is the way that art is talked and—and written about—in town. When speaking about the period from 1979 to 1985, after he first moved to New York and before his work was well known to any significant audience, Rouse admits to a certain romanticism—though it's hard not to get carried away, along with him, when he describes it.
"There was a thing going on in New York City where there really were no categories. For a second, they really were broken down. You came in as a young person and thought: that's the future of art, culture and music. Like Arthur Russell is getting fired for booking the Modern Lovers at The Kitchen. Philip Glass is playing, you know, the 'Spaceship' from Einstein on the Beach at the Peppermint Lounge, at rock volume. Robert Ashely's doing a show at Danceteria. It was just everything like that. It was just this beautiful moment."
Here, Rouse pauses for a second, thinking about the way the city has changed.
"I obviously still love it even though it's like, talking about that five years, it's like the girl that you fell in love with and no matter what happens—you can even have a better life, you may have kids or whatever—but it's like that's the one that broke your heart. And New York City between 1979 and 1985 is the city that broke my heart. And it's probably very naïve of me. And everybody you talk to will go: 'Oh, I see what your problem is: you thought the New York Times was always like this. They were never like this before and they will never be like this again.' … Nobody wanted to be here; New York was coming out the fiscal crisis, with a depressed economy. People like Giuliani would say people like me romanticized it, but they never had to live through it—but I did live through it. And it was a very scary city to be in, but it was just so creatively exciting."
Fittingly for someone who is still writing love song-cycles filled with banking and hedge-fund metaphors, Rouse's analysis of the spirit of the city does come down to a spiritual understanding of money and cultural valuation.
"I don't think most artists [in the late '70s] had the expectation that they were going to be famous," he said. "It's no different than the real-estate bubble. If you lived in New York in the '80s, as an artist or whatever, all of a sudden there's this expectation that 'I'm going to be a millionaire by the time I'm 25.' Well that's not the way Willem de Kooning thought; he didn't become even known until his forties. … I don't know if you read the Patti Smith memoir, but in it she said something that could easily sound like she's just being cool or whatever, but I don't think so. She said 'we didn't come here to be famous; we wrote this for each other.' And I believe that sincerely."
On the one hand, Rouse needn't worry about long-term reputation. His value to New York culture is already signaled by his archive's location in the city's Performing Arts library. His contributions to modern contemporary composition are noted and recorded in various music textbooks. And his future projects, including various stage works currently in the planning stages, are likely candidates to pop up in future Next Wave festivals at BAM. But even if all that weren't also true, it would be gift enough to see Rouse remaining in town, sincerely writing his own complex-but-vernacular pop music, and self-releasing it for his fellow city dwellers.