Mikelangelo & The Tin Star
The Tin Star is the brainchild of prolific and critically acclaimed Australian performer, singer and songwriter Mikelangelo. He formed the band in Melbourne in late 2009, inspired by a love of 50’s and 60’s instrumental guitar ‘n Western sound. Meghan Player chatted to Mikelangelo about The Tin Star, The Black Sea Gentlemen and, of course, surf rock.
By Meghan Player
How did the band start out? What bought you all together?
The seeds of the Tin Star lie in another band I had over ten years ago called The Dalmatian Coast Surf Lifesavers Association (D.C.S.L.A). In the late 90’s I was running a music venue in Melbourne and really didn’t have enough time to focus on making music myself. In 2000, I moved back to Canberra (for love) and once there I set to putting together a new band.
The line up I put together included members of what was to become both the Black Sea Gentlemen and also the D.C.S.L.A. For short while we had a 6 piece band that included my surf’n’western instrumentals and my lyric driven bastard-euro Kabaret Noir stylings. Pretty quickly this sifted into two bands, the D.C.S.L.A. as my electric group playing the former and the Black Sea Gentlemen as a more acoustic group playing the latter.
The D.C.S.L.A was a 3 piece at the start, myself on nylon-string guitar and vocals with two young guns Fiete Geier on lead guitar and Pete Olsen on Drums. We played from 2000-2003, during this time adding a bass player and cellist to the line up and recording a bunch of tunes which were never released.
I moved to NSW in 2002 and got busier and busier with the Black Sea Gentlemen and the D.C.S.L.A. just kind of faded away. But I kept writing surf’n’western songs and instrumentals.
Fast forward to 2009, and after living in numerous other towns and indulging in copious amounts of international touring, I moved back to Melbourne (for love once again). Pete and Fiete from the D.C.S.L.A were now living in Melbourne and itching to play with me again. We enlisted another ex-Canberran Gareth Hill on bass and the new band was born. I flew into Melbourne from the UK and three days and two rehearsals later we had our first gig as the Tin Star!
– What influences your sound?
The heart of our sound is reverb drenched tremolo electric guitar. I just love that sound and always have. It was the first guitar sound I heard as a little nipper listening to my dad’s old singles and LPs from the early sixties. Though he has always loved music, he wasn’t an avid collector by any means, I don’t even remember him playing his records, he used to mostly listen to classical music on the radio.
But my brother and sister and I found his old vinyl stash and they made a great soundtrack to our young lives, exciting and exotic instrumental music from twangin’ western guitar tunes to go-go stomps, to mambos, cha-chas and sleepy, creepy Latino numbers.
I became very attached to two albums in particular – Al Caiola’s ‘Solid Gold Guitar’ and Arthur Lyman’s ‘Taboo Vol. 2’. Needless to say I nicked them both and they now sit proudly in my own collection.
– Does each band member bring a different influence/style to the band?
Definitely. The thing I love about the Tin Star boys is that they don’t actually listen to any old surf or instrumental guitar music of the 50’s and 60’s. It sounds funny I know, but I think the fact that they are not steeped in the music that I love actually makes our band sound better. I’m not into recreation just for its own sake.
Musically our palette keeps opening up to different possibilities. All of the band are great writers and well as great players, so while I mostly make them play my tunes (!) It’s good having different ways of approaching a song within the group.
– Was the original intention to have the lovely Saint Clare become such an integral part of the band [both as a singer and on stage performer]?
St Clare’s role in the group happened very naturally. She and I had started rehearsing a set of love songs together, just the two of us, around the time I got the Tin Star together. I invited her to guest with the group at our first run of shows, a residency at the Old Bar in Fitzroy in October 2009.
She has performed all her life as an actor, performance artist and dancer, so brings all that wonderful sensibility to the stage. Performing with the Tin Star was the first time she had sung live, and we immediately loved the sound of her voice as a part of the our sound and her great stage presence takes the whole show to another place. She has a voice that is floating and ethereal in one song and breathy and sexy in the next – what’s not to like about that.
– How does the Tin Star differ from The Black Sea Gentlemen? Do you approach each band differently?
The personalities of each of the two groups are very different, as is our repertoire, so yes, I do approach both groups very differently.
With The Tin Star they are very much my backing band, and are not interested in the spotlight – which leaves a lot of room for me as the frontman. With the Black Sea Gentlemen, each member of the group has a developed stage persona with back stories of wild and debauched lives that they have led, which makes it a really different show to the Tin Star, and most other groups for that matter.
With the Tin Star I aim to put on an amazing rock’n’roll show, and that’s why I bring in special guests like St Clare and the fantastic go-go group Go Girl Gadget Go Go!
With The Black Sea Gentlemen the other members of the group each have cameo songs and stories in the show, so while music is still at the heart of the group, they are all entertainers and the live show moves more towards theatre with its storytelling and humour. It’s really a treat to have two such great but contrasting bands – and the guys appreciate this too.
– Do you have different personas [on and off stage] with each band? How do you ‘tap into’ those personas?
I think anyone who walks on stage is adopting a persona whether they admit it or not. The stage is a heightened reality, and with that comes potentially great power. At its best this power has a generosity that brings people to together – at its worst it is narcissistic and shallow, which is pretty powerless really. I feel comfortable to do and say almost anything on stage, I love surprising the audience, the band and myself.
My persona with the Tin Star is quite instinctive, I feed off the music and the crowd and, added to my own racing adrenalin, it’s quite a rollercoaster.
I have been performing continuously with the Black Sea Gentlemen for over ten years, and my persona in that group has grown into a more fully fledged alter-ego. Myself and the rest of the group have developed our personas into characters. We have back stories, we adopt Eastern European accents (mine is ‘borrowed’ from my father) and are always further developing the mythical world of the group. It’s a lot of fun. It’s also a more intense collaboration with the Gentlemen, we have long, excitable and heated talks about our characters and our world and we work with theatre directors to help manifest this.
– A live set for the Tin Star is as much to do with the music, as it is about the visuals – is that intentional? Is that something the band was always adamant about including?
The fact that half the Tin Star set is instrumental music lends itself well to visuals. I feel this is something that we are only just scratching the surface of. We have a had a few great lighting guys work with us, and Red Card Film Productions made some projected visuals for some of our songs. Also, our guests bring a great visual element to the stage – particularly St Clare who is captivating and spends a lot of time conceiving her costuming and make up for a show – and of course Go Girl Gadget Go Go! who have choreographed great moves to a number of our songs, and look amazing in their costumes. Lets face it rock’n’roll is all about sexuality, and I think that a good thing…
– What I noticed about your debut album was the focus on music over vocals – letting the music tell the story etc – was that an idea that came about naturally? Was it something that you might have wanted to try with the Black Sea Gentlemen, but felt it applied better to the Tin Star?
I am a vocalist first and always will be. But I love listening to, composing and playing instrumental music. The instrumental focus happened very naturally with the Tin Star because of the genre based western, spaghetti western, surf and instrumental guitar music that I love. I often hum or whistle tunes as I walk along, and more often than not they are the sort of tunes that end up becoming Tin Star songs.
I like mixing up our set with vocal songs as well, I think the contrast works well. That split is there on our album too, there are four vocal tracks and five instrumentals (one of which has some spoken word sections courtesy of St. Clare). But I could also quite happily just make an instrumental album with the Tin Star, and probably will one day.
Because the Black Sea Gentlemen show has such a strong aspect of storytelling, our songs are usually driven by vocals. The very sound of the Gentlemen singing together as a baritone chorus is central to our sound. That said, for many years we used to open our show with an instrumental called The Black Sea Waltz (which also opens our first self-titled album) and there are a number of short instrumental pieces that punctuate our 2nd album ‘Journey Through The Land Of Shadows’, and less so our 3rd album ‘Dead Men Tell A Thousand Tales’.
I am currently making a new music theatre show with the Black Sea Gentlemen. As well as containing songs, the show also has incidental music, recurring musical themes and pieces that are played out as soundtrack to stories and scenes.
– Does being in the Tin Star allow you to experiment more with sounds/styles that perhaps wouldn’t be relevant with the Black Sea Gentlemen?
Definitely. The Tin Star is a rock’n’roll band, and with that comes the volume and energy of rock but with my bower bird sensibility towards incorporating diverse musical ideas. The Black Sea Gentlemen are harder to categorise, it’s part band, part theatre, part cabaret – it’s a multi-headed beast. I love both groups equally, and each satisfies quite a different part of me. They also both draw quite different crowds, which is interesting, and ultimately a good thing I think.
– I know the debut album has been out for a little while, but can you tell us a little about it?- where it was recorded/how long it took/the writing process?
The album was recorded and produced by our lead guitarist Fiete Geronimo Geier. We started recording demos with Fiete in late 2009, not long after the band began. Some of the songs sounded good, so we thought we’d expand the demo sessions into recording an album.
I have been writing songs in this vein for almost 20 years, but never released any of them – except for Action (Is My Middle Name) which first appeared on the EP Tuff by my group P. Harness in the mid 90’s!! (I was always unhappy with that version, so I was keen to re-record the song with the Tin Star). So, as you could imagine, when it came to recording The Surf’n’Western Sounds Of… I had a huge back catalogue to draw upon.
The Tin Star set started out with a lot of songs that I used to do in the D.C.S.L.A. But pretty quickly I started writing new songs for the group. So the album has a few old tunes and a bunch of newer ones. There’s also a great track written by our drummer Pete Olsen entitled ‘Inspector Longboard’ and also one by Fiete called ‘Midnight Rip’.
We recorded a fair bit throughout 2010, putting down versions of most of the songs that were in our repertoire at the time. The recording process was slowed a bit by Fiete getting a nasty and debilitating illness (Krone’s disease). But he struggled on bless him, and is alot better now.
He recorded and mixed the album in three different bedroom studios in just over a year. Then we mastered the album with William Bowden and released the it in June 2012 through Sydney independent label Laughing Outlaw records.
I was very keen for the album to be short and sharp. That’s why its only 9 songs and a running time of just over half and hour. It’s easy for rock’n’roll albums to outstay their welcome, and I wanted this one to leave people wanting more.
– You recently released the new video for ‘No Sign of A Pipeline’ – again, can you tell us a little about how it came about? Why did you choose that song for a video? Did you have much to do with the creative processes for the video [ie concepts, theme etc.]?
I love great clips, but I have rarely ever made film clips throughout my career. This is weird because all my bands are so visual. I think because I have been so focussed on live performance and touring that I have never put the necessary time and energy into making clips.
That said, between myself and St Clare, we have alot of concepts for clips. Often they are so involved that they would be impossible to make without a big budget, but we still love dreaming up ideas, and I’m sure alot of them will come to fruition.
The idea of the clip for No Sign Of A Pipeline came from meeting James and Ez who star in the clip. I first came across these two fine fellows at the Gem Bar in Collingwood late last year. I was inside and I could see them through window outside with their great quiffs, smoking cigarettes and looking impossibly cool. The window made a cinematic frame, and I was struck at how much I felt I was watching a movie. The scene reminded me of the feel of what I love about Jim Jarmush’s early films, Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law.
I’ve always thought of clips as short films, and that it’s a such a shame just to film a band lip syncing all the way through. So I thought, how about a clip starring these two guys with a Tin Star instrumental as the music. I had the one concept that they should be walking through the streets and perhaps never getting anywhere, or perhaps ending up at a Tin Star show. I didn’t really know what song to use, I just thought Ez and James had a great look to go with my music. I asked them if they’d be happy to star in a clip and they were cool with it.
So I enlisted my good friend, the multi-talented artist/songwriter/filmmaker Konrad Lenz to shoot the clip (Konrad often guests with the Tin Star as a vocalist and also did the fab design for our album).
I thought the title ‘No Sign Of A Pipeline’ would work well with these two guys walking the streets but never really funding the action. They are searching for something, maybe they don’t even know what it is, but it always eludes them. I told Konrad, james and Ez the concept and then left them to their own devices to do most of the filming of the clip.
A few weeks later Konrad finished a first edit, and I came in and did the final edit with him to get everything working with the music. I love the clip. I have immense trust in Konrad’s eye as a cameraman and a director, and I love his textural approach and his use of color, which is heavily saturated at times, and quite drained of colour at other times. Konrad understands the rules, but he breaks them all the time, either accidentally or on purpose, and that’s what I think makes him a great artist. He works quickly and instinctively and that’s what got the clip done. And the stars of the film, James and Ez are brilliant. I think they are going to have to cameo in every Tin Star clip we make!
– You’ve also got a little tour coming up – is that the focus for the band at the moment? Do you have any other touring plans for the rest of the year? Is there a new album in the works?
Yeah, the tour will be fun. We do have a number of other shows coming up too, but beyond that our focus is definitely shifting to recording our 2nd album. We have plenty of strong songs and instrumentals that I am dying to record. I’d like to free Fiete up this time, so he can focus on playing and arranging and not have to engineer the recording. We are discussing studios and producers and looking forward to getting to work on the record.
But before we put out our next album, I want to make some more clips for the ‘The Surf’n’Western Sounds Of…’. Action (Is My Middle Name) is calling out for a clip, and I’d also love to make a clip for the instrumental track ‘Balkan Beach Party’ featuring Go Girl Gadget Go Go! and one for ‘Midnight Flower’ with St. Clare, who sings the track with me on the album. We will be releasing ‘The Surf’n’Western Sounds Of’…’ on vinyl in the next few months which I am very excited about.
We will put two extra tracks on the vinyl release that were recorded at the time of the rest of the album. I was unsure about the ‘bonus’ tracks idea for a while, I can be quite a purist about these things. But I’ve listened to the album with the two new tracks at the end, and it’s actually sounding great and gives a bit more of our Western sound to the album, which can never be a bad thing. There’s also a nice spot of whistling in one of the tracks…I want to bring whistling back!
A huge thank you to Mikelangelo for taking the time to answer our questions. Be sure to check out the video for ‘No Sign Of A Pipeline’ here. You can catch the band on their current tour at:
Sat 5 May – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne
Fri 11 May – ANU Bar, Canberra
Sun 13 May – The Vanguard, Sydney