Mikey McCleary, Bartending and Plotting World Domination
“I really didn’t know anything about music in India and I had no idea what would be considered Indian or appreciated by Indian ears. So I went with my instinct and did whatever sounded good to me.” Mikey McCleary’s instincts have fared him well if the popularity of his music is anything to go by.
I sat down with him to talk about his journey and experiences so far and the way ahead.
As I am chatting up with you, a part of me is reminiscing your music from 90s and work you did with Lucky Ali.
“I was in my twenties and had my own studio in London. I met Lucky then and offered to make music for him. We just had a weekend when we did O Sanam and Sunoh. On those albums there is a certain part of me trying to use Indian instruments and make the sound more exotic and also at the same time experimenting with other instruments from the world. I didn’t know what I was doing but I am glad it turned out nicely”
Major music labels don’t dish out non-film music as frequently now. There is a thriving independent music scene now though, which seems to have changed the soundscape around.
“Yes. And it should keep changing. When Lucky and a few other artists had put out albums back then, it was a good period for non film music. These songs were very songwriting oriented with much emphasis on melody and lyrics. Even bollywood started to reflect that. You know even though bollywood dominates the economics, it’s mostly what is happening in the indie scene that gets picked up by bollywood. They start to mimic and try out those ideas. Often the arrangement these days is completely western. Even the production techniques reflect a lot of western trends. You hear item songs with autotune on voices all the time. But I think we live in an age when there is so much fluidity and everyone is trying to combine many different things. You find Indian instruments and melodies popping up in DnB tracks so I don’t think there are any particular rules or trends now.”
Long before you found success, you studied music at Wellington Conservatorium of Music and Victoria University in New Zealand.
“I had a fantastic time there. I had the opportunity to compose classical music, jazz, pop and many styles. That experience has been valuable to me because now I don’t have a particular style that I work in. I recommend music school to everyone who wants to make a career in music or want to make it quickly as a composer. A few of my friends are starting a music school called True school in bombay to train young musicians for a professional career in music and I feel its a good initiative in India”
From being an executive overlooking the song making process to being involved in the process to the point of composing parts of the song, a music producer can don many hats. There must be some traits that an aspiring producer should try to cultivate.
“A good producer has to be very musical with a fine ear for details in a track. These days you can sit in a bedroom and make a song on your laptop. Because production has become so easy, it actually trickles down to enough emphasis on the content. What goes into the microphone and what the guitar plays is the most important thing. Aspiring producers should see how they made those old songs sound so good with 4 track or 8 track machines. Artists like Queen, David Bowie and even The Beatles, they had such limited equipment but made some amazing recordings because so much emphasis was laid on the content – what was recorded, how did the instruments work together etc.”
Besides spanning many domains, your music covers a lot of styles as well. You are as much at ease doing a Rajasthani tune pop song I Can’t hold it any longer, as with composing a choir song for David.
“There are people who specialize in a certain style of music and sometimes I feel that since I am doing so many different things I can’t do one thing really really well but then I don’t think I am the kind of composer who could specialize in one style of music. Changing styles excites me a lot. And so when I am working on TV Ads, I get to work on a jazz piece one day and electronic music the other day.
The LSD song was a little different for me but I actually like being out of my comfort zone. Actually I hope that I don’t have too much comfort zone because once you are in one, your music can sound predictable so I like the challenge of trying different styles and India is a great place for that.”
After being flooded with remixes that all sounded the same, everyone had probably reached a consensus that remixes do more harm than good to the original song. In a saturated scene like that people took surprisingly well to your attempt at Khoya Khoya Chand.
“There are two separate words for it – remix and re-interpretation. A remix is when you take the original audio and you lay a beat over it, chop it up and whatnot. You’re actually using the original song that was recorded. Reinterpretation is when you are taking the Intellectual property – the composition and the lyrics and you are completely re-recording the song. You get dance music versions of songs in the west as well. Its just a reality of the world that we live in that these remixes happen. What I’m trying to do with old bollywood songs is to show that there is a difference that is very important to understand between the song and the recording. The song is the intellectual creation of the composer and the lyricist. That song doesn’t have to stay in the body of the recording that was made 40 or 50 years ago. When a song is beautiful, it is timeless. But when it is in a recording that sounds old, for the younger generation it is not timeless, it just sounds old. When you take a song like Khoya Khoya Chand and re-record it in a way that is keeping true to the soul of the original, its like dressing the song in new funky clothes and making people see that the song is timeless even when it was written decades ago. My goal has always been to treat the song beautifully and hopefully a younger generation will come to appreciate the song and be interested in the old songs.”
Its not just your re-interpretations that steer away from electronic dance music genres. Electronic sounds seem conspicuous by their absence from your songs with a notable exception of the background score of Shanghai.
“I am not a non electronic music guy. In fact I do it myself and enjoy it as well but I am not really into it. I guess its more to do with my preference for live instruments and band type instruments than anything else. I like brass, for instance. I tend to prefer that kind of music over electronic music. But I am working on a new film for Rohan Sippy called Sonali Cable, then there is this electronic dance music act and an upcoming album which is sort of urban rap music based in India and all of them have electronic sounds in them. There are no rules as to whether there should be a distinction between the two. In case of Shanghai’s background score we needed a lot of dark ambiance and I thought we could achieve that with electronic instruments.”
Even if one were to quickly go through your oeuvre, one would notice the unique female voices in your songs. It does not get any more varied and distinctive than Suman Sridhar, Anushka Manchanda and Saba Azad when it comes to female vocalists.
“I am not a fan of generic voices regardless of how perfect they are. I like unusual voices. It is a conscious decision to rope in voices that stand out. I love it when a singer has their own unique sound.”
Producing albums, making TV jingles, putting out independent albums, composing for Bollywood movies and background score, one almost wonders if all this is not just mere coincidence and that there is a bigger well thought out plan at work.
“Composing songs is my biggest buzz and if it’s a good film I also really enjoy doing orchestral music for background score. I would love all the projects that are coming out soon to do well but ultimately I would love to do be doing background score for big international films that have an Indian connection. It would obviously take me awhile to achieve this but I would love to do background score for a movie like Life of Pi.”
His recent successes have ensured that he is kept busier than usual for a long time now. And as far as the dream goes, as he mentioned casually in the talk “India has changed my work ethics. I work faster now.” The dream would hopefully soon be a reality.