The best artists continue to evolve. This is exactly what can be said about Michal Menert, the Northern Colorado native who continues to grow as a musician and expand his creative endeavors beyond the typical scope of what’s pursued by contemporary electronic producers. He’s helped pave the way for a new generation of sound makers, while simultaneously staying true to his own artistry.
But Menert is much more than that. He’s a visionary who has risen to critical acclaim and success, all while remaining a humble, introspective individual who sees his path in life as one that places him on stages nationwide, but more important, a path that exists after the Funktion-Ones power down and the crowds disperse.
With a new album out, a run of shows lined up (including a Jan. 19 show at the Aggie Theatre), and an academy coming to the Music District, Menert and his band, the Pretty Fantastics, are gearing up for a stellar 2019. We were lucky to borrow some of his time for this interview.
DF: How would you describe the inspiration behind your vision for your most recent release, “From the Sea”? What did your creative process look like in shaping this album?
MM: The creative process began with myself, Jason MacLeod, Nick Gerlach, and Matt van den Heuvel taking two weeks to sketch the foundations of From The Sea at my home in Anchor Bay, Calif., in August 2016. From that point, we kept gathering together here, creating and refining. Sleepy joined the band in December of 2016, with Jules Thoma joining us full time the following January. David Najarian made a trip out here in early spring, and we organically became a unit. There was no pressure on anyone, other than to give ourselves to the music. I would edit, write lyrics, add textures, etc., in between meet-ups, and send things to bandmates for overdubbing or writing, but I would attribute most of what this album became to the chemistry of the band, and our group sessions.
Coming up in the Colorado scene, and now living on the West Coast, what’s it like coming back to your home state? How has the scene grown since you started out?
Colorado is crazy. Everywhere I remember seems to have gotten or be getting a facelift. Which is good, I suppose, for the economy, for taxes, for consumers, but as is the case in any big regional boom, a lot of what allowed Colorado to be weird and wonderful gets displaced by those trying to capitalize on the wonder. I love coming home to Colorado, I have most of my friends and family there, and the fans are incredible. The scene is strong, and with the influx of high caliber players, the overall musical experience benefits. Jazz nights are becoming a draw, and a lot of collaboration comes from having versatile players who want to create. Starting out, there was no sense of a scene for us, 15-20 years ago — at least not in the sense of something that connected to bigger scenes or brought what we were trying to do into our community. House parties, local shows with friends, that was our scene. Underground hip-hop paved the way for a lot of what today feels like. In the early 2000s, the Living Legends, Def Jus, Atmosphere, Anticon, Heiro, etc., started coming through, which gave us a chance to expand past our circle of friends in terms of getting in people’s ears. You’d wait a week or a month for a show back then. Now, there’s something going on just about every night of the week, every week of the year. Kids have venues like Cervantes to call home, and up-and-comers have milestones like Red Rocks and Fillmore Auditorium to realistically dream about performing at. This is largely due to venue owners, promoters, and talent buyers being involved and interested in the local underdogs.
How do you compare being a solo artist to working within the group dynamics of a band?
Being solo is nice because you’re in full control. You can veer off without frustrating a bandmate. It’s also economically viable because bands always have issues covering expenses, but with one person you can take a low-paying gig without asking everyone to suffer. It’s beneficial for getting out on the road, but it’s also lonely. You end up by yourself in hotels, amped from the show, mind racing, eventually feeling like you live in an alternate reality where your career and passion are everyone else’s entertainment and escape. With a band, you feel like someone’s got your back, and like the music is bigger than just you. It’s amazing sharing the stage with people who elevate the experience and take the music somewhere undiscovered with you. Before this band, I really missed sharing the stage with comrades. Now, even if things go horribly wrong, you have someone to share it with rather than internalizing it and driving yourself crazy.
Tell us about your experience on the Dead & CO Tours? What was it like working with Mickey Hart?
The tour was work. A lot of hurry up and wait. It’s also strange to be on a stage, on a tour, for months, without being able to perform. Being a roadie isn’t for me. I was one of the few crew guys who was touring his own music, and the only non-dead member to be contributing material to the performance, so I was in this grey area, where I’m definitely not in the band, but I also didn’t feel like a tech because every night, for about 10 minutes, I got to hear and launch content I created with Mickey or for Mickey. It was weird. I like working with Mickey creatively. He’s driven to create and be in the studio, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, at 75 years old. That’s inspiring. He’s also full of so much knowledge about music from all over the world and works to keep his gear on the cutting edge of what’s possible. I can’t imagine another person I could work with who would expose me to so much of the past and so much of the future at once. He’s pushed me to become better at everything. It’s borderline insanity, the pace, and chaos involved in his creativity, but it’s expanded my world and ideas exponentially. The whole experience is unreal, and even though it’s a roller coaster at times, I’m eternally grateful that he and I have been able to connect, and that I’ve been able to help him realize some of the ideas he’s imagined.
Tell us about the “Vodka Menert.”
HA! it’s basically a cranberry vodka variation. It’s a way to drink without as much risk of hangover because the sugar is minimal. You put two shots of Vodka into a pint glass filled with ice. Fill 90 percent with sparkling water, then top off with a splash of cranberry and a lime. My friend Paul had a variation called the Vodka Basic, where you switch cranberry to pineapple.
You’ve made music with a multitude of musicians. Who’s an artist you’re itching to work with?
There’s so many. Anderson Paak is incredible and I’d love to be in a room with him, creating without any intended outcome. There’s a lot of other rappers I would love to work with, but outside of that I’d love to produce an established band outside of the electronic genre. I want to work with everyone right now and help people refine and express their vision. To produce in the traditional sense, not just making a beat for others, or collaborating on a song. Most of all, I want to work more with my band. We’re just beginning to grow together.
And on the same note, what would be a “dream collaboration” if you had access to any artist from the past century?
Bowie. I would love to be a part of his process, see behind the curtain and help him articulate the details and journey into the unknown.
Tell us about your early days, and your band Listen with Derek.
Listen formed in a garage on Broadview Street in Fort Collins. I could barely play keys, we all rapped, and we all wanted to create. We started off rocking house parties with a 1980s Peavey PA we scored at a pawn shop, blaring off the back of a truck. Locally we found love, even found it in the occasional away show. Then we tried touring for door deals across the western U.S., coming homing after weeks with about half of one person’s rent. We broke down in deserts, we slept on floors, we called and begged family to wire us money so we could leave whatever rest stop we got marooned at. We were young and willing, and we let it break us, only to go home, write more, and go out again. I loved it then. We were so hopeful. The idea of hopping in a beat-up van with three other guys and no money, playing for the door at a country bar in Wyoming on a Tuesday, getting booed, drinking more than we made — it sounds terrifying now. But when you’re young, it’s everything; it’s your only chance.
What should musicians expect to learn in your upcoming Academy at the Music District?
How to have fun exploring worlds you create yourself. How to escape the world through music, and how to make magic even when you don’t have pro gear.
What’s next for Michal Menert, The Pretty Fantastics, and Super Best Records in 2019?
We have a few bits recorded for a new EP, and we are writing more in 2019. Getting on the road in January and February will give us the time together we need to get tighter night after night since most of our shows have been one- or two-offs. SuperBest will continue to be home to those that want it, and I will keep making music with friends. I just finished a seven-track solo release due out in early 2019, and I’m hoping the Fantastics can put out three or four EPs, seasonally if possible, in 2019.
We’ll leave you with the final word. Anything else you want to tell your fans?
Thank you for taking the time with me and my friends. Don’t get caught up in fighting yourself. You’re the only person you are certainly stuck with, so work on being good to you and others. Don’t let the world convince you to be indifferent. Don’t be afraid to let people know you’re scared, broken or sad; we often think no one will listen, so we live with pain because we don’t want to complain. Look for ways to make the world better, especially if no one is watching. Don’t give up, and remember we’re all trying to shine in our own weird way, even if we don’t understand each other.