Interview by Alex Burden
Mild Maynyrd, also known as Dan Black, is a multi-instrumentalist and producer from St. Paul, Minnesota, making and sampling electronic and hip-hop music borrowing inspiration from popular music throughout the 20th century and even earlier.
Dan picked up his first instrument, a guitar when he 13 as a direct result of Hendrix, Page and Dimebag Darrell, fascinated by the pitch bends, feedback and downright crazy noises emitting from the strings. He moved on to experimenting with recording a few years later, breaking apart a pair headphones and using one side as a microphone, dubbing onto tapes on boom-boxes.
Dan became “entrenched” in playing music, joining several teenage bands. “If we were just jamming, not practising for anything in particular, I was always the one who hopped around instruments,” he recalls, “I’d play drums if the drummer wasn’t around, or sometimes I’d sing (yelling, more like), or I’d play bass.”
During a difficult time in his personal life, Dan was regularly posting on Warren Ellis’ Freakangels board which led to further conversations with Bram Gieben (original co-founder of BLM). Dan remembers how Bram “took notice of these little EPs I was posting on Bandcamp,” and it led to Dan’s alter-ego, Mild Maynyrd, releasing with BLM.
Already drawing comparisons to DJ Shadow’s early work, his music has reached several corners of the world, featured on radio stations, playlists and podcasts from New York to Moscow. Along with a series of Notorious B.I.G. remixes (MMvsBIG, Volumes I and Volume II) and a mash-up project combining The Flaming Lips and Felt, Dan has produced several DJ mixes and remixed a variety of artists from Black Lantern’s own Texture to Aesop Rock.
MM has released two EPs via his Bandcamp page (Nordic Rust and Broadcast AM) and three full-lengths (Dead Herring, The Parallel, and Hills Run Red) since joining BLM. Hills Run Red, released in 2012, is a surreal trip through the American West, taking the concept of a coherent narrative used on The Parallel to new places.
On his most recent, self-titled album he comes full circle, reflecting on the circumstances which led to his involvement with electronic music. Here, he tells us the story behind his new album, and the genesis of his approach to music.
When did music stop being a hobby and become a realistic option?
After I moved away for college I stopped being a part of a band, but the fascination continued, if not grew. I was already listening to hip-hop at this point, but my listening expanded a ton. I got into jazz, electronic music, and down-home, original blues: roots blues, from the 20s and 30s (and even 10s). I experimented with classical and soul and whatever I could get my hands on.
At one point I had a keyboard I borrowed from someone; I would put lines on a loop and kneel on the ground making noises and patterns with feedback and my pedal board. The whole floor probably thought I was a weirdo. They’re all going out to party on a Saturday night and I’m in my room manipulating feedback. What eventually got me back into making music formally was its usefulness as a coping mechanism.
What sort of coping mechanism?
When I was well into college, my Mother was diagnosed with an extremely rare blood disease called amyloidosis. At the time, we really didn’t know too much about it. And we still don’t, though that is changing every day. Amyloid is something we all have inside us, but in small amounts. It’s made of protein. If you get too much of it, however, it can latch onto organs and vital areas of the body. My Mom got very unlucky and it attached to her heart.
For a while her body was actually coping with it very well, and the treatments (chemo, amongst a whole slew of medications) were working. What messed everything up is that she had a stroke, which weakened if not temporarily paralysed half her body. Eventually she was put into a home for physical therapy/rehabilitation, but it quickly became clear that was a very long shot. So they moved her upstairs and we found ourselves in a hospice situation.
At that point I just needed a release of some kind. I can remember sitting in my basement with my MPC that I still wasn’t very proficient with, my laptop, and a guitar and thinking, ‘well, who knows what’ll come out or if anyone will ever hear it, but you need to do this.’ So I just started making a beat with the drum hits I had and what came out was probably terrible… but it was like nothing I had ever made before, and very much so felt like me. Not the part of me that was obsessed with Pantera and Led Zeppelin, though he was buried in there somewhere, the part that had gotten into every type of music imaginable and had been coping with a family member’s terminal illness for a few years. And some of it - most - was awful. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.
So your creative output was focused during that stressful time…
Eventually I had enough of this stuff to make a project, so I figured what the hell. The first EP I put on the internet was recorded leading up to her passing. Actually, looking at the release date now I put it up the month of her passing. This was early 2010.
What does your latest release, ‘Mild Maynyrd’ mean for you?
This album is particularly personal for me. All roads have been leading to this. It’s self-titled for a reason. It’s a concept record, which, apparently is what I do, with a sort of meta-twist in that it’s about that time in my life when Mild Maynyrd became a formal thing.
It’s the total opposite of my last record (Hills Run Red): which was a three-track Western based on a three part dramatic structure, telling the story of a farmer/rancher who goes off to the Civil War only to find his family killed by a greedy land owner when he gets back from the War. Not very personal stuff. I wanted to go the opposite of that both with content and structure. Structurally, the album is a lot of tracks that are fairly short. Most of the tracks are about two and half minutes or shorter, with the exception of the last track, which is I think about eight minutes.
It tries to chronicle that whole period of my life from my Mother getting diagnosed, through the stroke, meeting my wife, through me making my first beat, and her eventual passing, which is why the tenth song is a remix of the first song off my first EP. It’s also a bit special in that I’m expecting my first child, so this may be the last LP I do for some time. Eventually I’m sure I’ll come back to it. It’s self-titled because it’s sort of about the creation of the entity.
There’s a lot to like about the new album…
I’m really excited about it and I hope people like it. It’s perhaps the most accessible thing I’ve done, and not in a bad way. It’s fairly sample based, and special in that 90% of the musical samples are classical. I’m doing a lot of sampling of classic female jazz vocalists, which for some reason has become my thing. But there is guitar and synths and breakbeats too. Sometimes it gets a bit dance, and other times it’s melancholic or just plain weird.
What percentage of your music is emotion and what is imagination?
Interesting question and I’ve got to say I’ve never thought about this. I think as a whole, emotion probably trumps imagination - about 70/30. When I look back those tones and moods and things are, or were, buried somewhere deep inside me. Even without lyrics it’s easy to tell where I was at during any given period through music alone. Naturally the western (Hills Run Red) was more imagination… shit, almost all imagination. But I think generally I’m speaking from my heart than any sort of imaginary landscapes inside my head… I think if you can successfully meld those two, or even kind of switch back and forth, that is ideal.
The Parallel was also quite a bit of imagination because I was trying to paint a sort-of depression era world of weary travellers… but even with those two albums I’m sure some of those moods were still coming from inside me, and how I was perceiving the world around me. There’s just no way you can completely block that out. Even with a conceptual, dramatic-structure based, narrative driven album telling the story of a western!
How fast do you work, or how long does it take you to put together an idea?
It takes a long time. More than people would think. It sort of depends on how I’m going about it, what I’m starting with or what’s the spawn for the idea for the song. Generally when I’m knee deep in it I like to be working on stuff everyday if possible. Sometimes I’ll spend three or four hours just trying to get a guitar lick right or a run with a turntable.
I’m always in the mood to make music. Of course some days aren’t as productive as others, and part of that is I need to realise when to relax, step back, go for a walk or eat a chimichanga or whatever I need to do before getting back into it.
You talk about the beginning and ends of chapters, part of that moving on with your own family and new addition soon to come, after the loss of your mother; do you feel the reasons you make music now may slightly change from being a coping mechanism when the positive things in your life grow?
Oh, absolutely, yes. There is doubt in my mind that the next time I go to write a song, whether the seed is a synth or a chord progression or sample, that it will have a different, likely more cheerful, sound to it after my baby is born. You can hear that a little bit in [MM] at times. Of course I wanted some of the tracks to be quite beautiful, because seeing someone die can be a very beautiful thing, surprisingly.
The custom-printed CD and sleeve includes an immediate download of the full album along with extensive liner notes and exclusive flash fiction pieces written by Dan Black, previously published on his blog.
Mild Maynyrd online: