Starting out as nothing more than experimenting with computer technology, Al Okadaís hobby has become his career. With two successful albums under his belt, his group Microbunny is back with their third album, 49 Swans. A new look and a new sound, Microbunny makes a conscious decision to ensure that their fans not only play their album once, but also plays it over and over again. In just a week before their album release party, Al Okada talks with MVRemix.
MVRemix: Why the name 49 Swans?
Al Okada: Itís a fragment of a lyric the singer Rebecca Campbell came up with, that was part of a beautiful metaphor she used during the song to indicate some imagery, to indicate black and white. It had a nice ring to it and just felt right.
MVRemix: Letís backtrack a little bit, because this isnít your first album. As a member of King Cobb Steelie, your album, Project Twinkle was nominated for a Juno Award, what was that like?
Al Okada: It was an exciting time for us, flattering to get nominated for that. The most exciting thing was working with the producer, Bill Laswell, that was a real thrill for us. We were big fans of his music, so to actually get to work with him was real fun and that record was actually the one that was nominated, so that was icing on the cake.
MVRemix: And you formed that group in university, correct?
Al Okada: Yeah, we were quite young. Iíve known the other members a long time. The main guy, Kevan Byrne, I met him in high school actually.
MVRemix: What advice would you give to that young group right now, thatís driving their parents crazy in their basement or garage?
Al Okada: [laughs] Well, keep doing it, as long as itís fun, keep doing it, thatís the whole thing. For us, there were no expectations really, we did it because we enjoyed doing it and if it seems to work then itís usually it. If it becomes difficult and itís a lot of hard work and that kind of thing, then somethingís not right. When itís all working, itís a lot of fun.
MVRemix: So you were with them for seven Yeahrs, is that right?
Al Okada: Yeah, I think thatís right, yup.
MVRemix: What was the deciding factor for leaving that group?
Al Okada: Well, Iíd reached kind of a crossroad; it was a personal decision. It was a financial decision as well. The touring would force me to have to leave my full-time job. It was a tough decision, I really wanted to continue on but I couldnít do that. So I decided to part ways with them and do something on my own instead, which I could do more on my own schedule.
MVRemix: I read that some of your influences are Brian Eno and David Lynch, what would you say youíve taken from them and incorporated into your own writing and performances?
Al Okada: Well, Brian Eno I think, first and foremost, Iíve listened to his music for so long, since I was a little kid, believe it or not. And itís just the way that he approaches things. I think his musical ethic is the thing that Iíve really taken to heart. His thing was that he didnít really have to be technically proficient at any instrument to make good music with it. Technical proficiency wasnít terribly important and I found that really quite exciting because thatís almost like a punk rock ethic, you know? His music was some of the most interesting of all because heís not bound by any of the normal trappings of a trained technically proficient musician, so he comes up with things that they would have never thought of because itís something completely fresh and new. Iíve tried to incorporate that into my music as well. Iím not technically proficient at any one instrument either. A lot of times I just love trying new instruments because itís something completely new and I just come up with things that I would have never thought of.
David Lynch is more of an abstract thing. He uses a lot of dream imagery [in his films] and that sort of style affected me in a certain way that I found really exciting and I often use dream imagery in my music as well. Iíve read his biography too, he tends to just let things evolve naturally and doesnít really think about them too much, in fact he does the exact opposite and tries not to think about it at all, so that things will just come out naturally and I like that idea as well. I try to do that when I compose, I donít try to think about anything actually. [laughs] [I] just let it come out.
MVRemix: In the midst of forming Microbunny, which I love the name by the way, what was your vision for the group?
Al Okada: In the very beginning it really didnít start with anything more than just me goofing around with computer technology and trying to make music on my own. When I started, the home recording PC world had become affordable for the average person. So, it was a whole new world to me because before that you had to pretty much go into a studio and it cost a lot of money to make a multi-track recording. It wasnít something that you could do on your own because that would take a long time. Once they developed computers that you could do home recordings on, you could take your time and do it all by yourself. So for me, it just became a way of writing and recording music and I thought well Ďthis is fun,í and some of it sounded like songs that needed a singer and since Iím not really a singer, I found someone to sing. Then we had to call it something, so we decided to call it Microbunny. At that time there were no intentions of actually playing, it was more like an after thought really.
MVRemix: You said you just ďdecided to call it Microbunny,Ē was there any real reason behind the name?
Al Okada: Well [laughs], it was a stupid nickname that I had picked up in King Cobb Steelie. Well, not exactly that, but a variation of a nickname that theyíd called me and it was kind of a self-deprecating thing to call this band this name, Microbunny. Then they stopped calling me it [laughs].
MVRemix: Youíve successfully had two prior albums, one self-titled, Microbunny and the other, Dead Stars, what was different about the process of 49 Swans?
Al Okada: The main difference with 49 Swans is the collaboration with the new singer Iíve been working with, Rebecca Campbell, which was a whole different way of working and I found that really exciting. I did record a lot on this record quite a bit because the last two records I was still quite reliant on the computer as a means of creating some of the music. I tended to use a lot of drum loops so it had an electronica sort of feel to it. This album though, I tried as much as possible to not do that just because I found that a little bit limiting and I found myself getting into a little bit of a rut. So I decided to try and break out of that and intentionally try to remove that as much as possible, I think Iíve removed it [drum looping] completely.
MVRemix: Why is it important for you to have such a unique approach to your live performances?
Al Okada: Itís partly because I think the music itself is such a hard thing to try to recreate in a live setting thatís created in an isolated, personal environment. When we play live we wanted to try to make it an actual live performance as opposed to a lot of electronic music, which I found when you went to see the artist play, a lot of it you couldnít tell what they were doing, you would just see guys up there behind black tops and you know theyíre doing something, but youíre not really sure what they were doing. I wanted to try to actually perform the music and so hopefully someone who had the record would enjoy the record as one thing, but then when they saw us live it would be almost like an interpretation of the songs [on the record].
MVRemix: You mentioned adding Rebecca to this project, why the change in band members?
Al Okada: A few reasons really, but one of the main reasons was just becoming stale and not wanting to do the same thing. Tamara Robinson, who I was working with on the first two records, I think she felt the same way and we just decided that we had used each other up. [laughs] Itís kind of a funny way of putting it but we sort of fed off each other for a while and then we werenít surprising each other anymore I think, we became predictable in a way. So, we just went our separate ways and decided to try to work with someone else.
MVRemix: What do you want to see happen with 49 Swans?
Al Okada: Iíd really love to have a lot of people hear it. Thatís what my main goal is. Iím not entirely certain about live performances and how much weíll play or not play. Weíre just getting started with starting to perform again so weíll see how that goes, but Iíd love to have this album heard as much as possible. Iíd love it to be used in films and television as well too, that sort of thing. A lot of it comes from that idea of it being a soundtrack to something. Itís very interesting for me to see it used in that way.
MVRemix: What is the best part of performing live for you?
Al Okada: Itís hard to describe, but just when it all clicks. Thereís something thatís very different from recording, which is when the whole band plays as a single unit. It sounds kind of corny, but thatís when itís really exciting. You can just feel it when itís working and it makes it all worthwhile when itís properly conveying that feeling you had when you wrote the song, and even more so when the audience picks up on that as well.
MVRemix: How important is it for you to make good music and not just make music?
Al Okada: For me, thatís the whole point. I donít think I would be doing it if it was just alright, or just music thatís not really exciting me, then I wouldnít bother doing it. Thatís part of the reason why this record took me so long to make because it took me quite awhile to become excited about it, in a different way that I hadnít done before and to compile enough of it to make up a whole album. So for me, thatís the driving force behind doing anything at all, is the music itself and to have it be exciting to me.
MVRemix: What was that writing and collaborating process like?
Al Okada: It wasnít that much different from working with Tamara Williamson. I just gave the bare bones of the track to Rebecca and she would sit with it for a while and listen to it and then she would compose lyrics in the melody line and then come back after a period of time and record it. So, itís a very isolated, different approach and it was always an exciting day when she was going to come over and do her part because I hadnít heard it before.
MVRemix: For 49 Swans, you mentioned you wanted as much people to hear it as possible, what do you want people to feel when listening to your album?
Al Okada: Iíd like people to feel that itís something that they hadnít quite heard before. I think that would be interesting. The music is pretty dark, a lot of the stuff Iíve written it always comes out that way [new and interesting]. So, if they get that from it I think thatís doing something good.
MVRemix: Just a bit of trivia for you, which of your songs has the line, ďHow we love to laugh, just to hear the sound?Ē
Al Okada: (pauses) Oh, thatís September Blues.
MVRemix: What is the meaning behind that song?
Al Okada: It means a bunch of different things, but itís a funny relationship that Rebecca and I sort of intentionally did. When she would write lyrics for the songs, I asked her to try to make them ambiguous so that it wasnít overtly obvious what the songs were about. If she had a specific meaning for it, to disguise it so that for people that are listening to it, it would have many different meanings or it would be different for everybody that heard it. So it had that affect, I donít know exactly what any of the songs mean and for me thatís good because I get a sense of what itís about, but thereís a bit of mystery to it. I just get a feeling from it, which is what Iím hoping that everyone else gets as well.
MVRemix: A youtube member by the name of, SomeProudCanadian, referred to you as the ďtrip-hop master,Ē how do you respond to that?
Al Okada: [laughs] Thatís very flattering. I really donít know what to say to that. I think that when he hears the new record heíll probably remove my crown [laughs], because itís not really trip-hop anymore.
MVRemix: You collaborated with your former band member, Kevin Lynn, how did that come about?
Al Okada: He just called me up, kind of out of the blue [just to say hi] and I gave him sort of the latest things Iíd been doing and he suggested that he wanted to remix something, so of course I said yes. I love what he does. And he sent me back something that knocked me on my ass it was so good. Then he asked me to do something of one of his tracks and we decided to do a couple and then release an EP. So it was just a natural fun thing that we did and it worked out really well. Weíre planning on doing another collaboration, this time a more ambience sort of thing. It was a lot of fun, quick and painless.
MVRemix: Earlier you spoke about being on stage, if you had the chance to share the stage with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Al Okada: Oh geez, (pauses) I know, the trumpeter Jon Hassell. That guy is just a master, Iíd want him to come and play trumpet for one of our songs. Through a weird email accident, I stumbled into a guy who repaired some of his [Jon Hassell] equipment and I gave him some of my music and he got it to him and he [Jon Hassell] sent me a nice note back, he said he really liked it. So, Iíve got it framed [laughs]. It was just flattering to hear him say he liked it.
MVRemix: What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
Al Okada: When someone says that they just really love my record, for me, thatís the whole reason for doing it.
MVRemix: What else do you want your fans and people who donít know you as yet to know about Microbunny?