[Portions of this interview appeared in Not One of Us #31 (2004).]
I became a My Favorite fan late in 2002, when I first heard “Burning Hearts,” with Michael’s wonderful lyrics and Andrea’s haunting vocal. I finally got to see the band in concert at TT the Bear’s in Cambridge (MA), and they certainly didn’t disappoint. They were about to begin a tour of the Midwest…
NOU: When you had finished the sound check at TT’s and were all headed out the door into the cold, Andrea said to me, “Hi John, we’re going to go have a meeting now.” That made me start thinking about your relationships, how often you rehearse, that sort of thing.
Michael: Aside from being my band mates, they’re my best friends. We don’t see each other all together on a daily basis, so we had that little meeting at TT’s to discuss the coming tour. We practice once a week in an hourly rental studio midway between where four of us live in New York City and two in eastern Long Island. It’s in a rundown suburban industrial park, and I think that keeps us grounded. It’s a glamour-free zone.
NOU: Reviewers compare MF to a lot of past bands, from punk to pop to New Wave to “Next Wave,” as if they can’t figure you out.
Michael: It does bother some people that My Favorite doesn’t seem committed to one style. There is a purity in what bands like The Strokes do, an intensity. Criminally speaking, it’s like mugging. Short, sweet to the point. We do something completely different. We use fragments of styles, never sign up, never move in. We take notes, see how things work. It’s more like espionage. You come just close enough to the music to use it.
NOU: The comparison of MF that I like best is with The Smiths. All the more so because Darren has some terrific riffs reminiscent of Johnny Marr. I love cheerful-sounding tunes with dark, personal, lonely lyrics.
Michael: I wouldn’t have made the music I do if it weren’t for The Smiths. When I was young, I read a lot—mysteries, young adult novels. I lived almost entirely in a dreamy world constructed out of fiction. I lived in a house which stood on a busy road frequented by large trucks from the adjacent highway. My mum rarely let me out. So books were my world. When I was 13 or 14 I gave that up to sniff glue and listen to heavy metal with the neighborhood rebels, which was my first social experience. Some three years later I was lost again, and The Smiths showed me a way to reconnect with those dreamy days spent alone in a hammock with my library books. The rebellious impulse and the imaginative impulse became one. And thus Morrissey’s merging of Oscar Wilde and James Dean. It was brilliant beyond words, so liberating. So I forced Darren to listen to The Smiths, and soon he connected in a different but equally profound way. Darren had a natural talent for music, especially mood and melodies. The richness of our sound has a lot to do with him. And he found a guitar player in Johnny Marr who cared about the same sort of things.
Morrissey leaves an imprint on people who listen. A lot of music since The Smiths has been a kind of negotiation with Morrissey. He’s a little insane, but he has an unwavering “belief” in himself and his heroes. Even when his point of view is destructive, it still’s pure, almost religious. I never had a point of view that pure because I had an almost pathological distrust of belief. That has been changing lately.
NOU: I like the idea that you write lyrics, as a male, and Andrea sings them without worrying about changing the gender relationships.
Michael: It’s not just that. Sometimes I write a song from the female point of view about myself. So Andrea is sometimes singing from my point of view, and sometimes she’s singing a song I wrote for a woman to sing about or to me. It’s all very confusing, but on some level that’s the point.
NOU: In a recent interview, you mentioned Jacques Derrida as one of your heroes—a bit facetiously, I take it, but with a grain of truth.
Michael: Derrida had a big influence on me, the concept of an unstable text. All that great subversive French thinking has gone into visual art, painting for the last 25 years, but in a sense that’s not very useful. Most people don’t get it, it’s mostly for the critics. But I think it’s more potent to do it in pop. Uneasiness in music resembles life. Meaning never settles down. I try to be subversive in terms of my methods, so I don’t have to worry about writing Political songs, having subversive content. I’d rather just write about love and life, and I think it becomes political by default.
NOU: I loved The Kids Are All Wrong EP, but I didn’t have the first two EPs in the Joan of Arc series. So I was overjoyed when you put the three EPs together with four new songs to make The Happiest Days of Our Lives. The opening song, one of the new ones (“The Happiest Days of My Life”), is a sort of keystone for the collection. It’s an infectious up-tempo tune with that zinger line, “A talent for my own destruction was all I ever owned.”
Michael: In the very beginning, we had done some garage-sounding pop as 7-inch vinyl singles. The song “Happiest Days” was a bit of a poke, not really at The Strokes, but the whole new garage rock scene. Just to show that we could do that sort of thing with our eyes closed and still be us. Still do something which simultaneously transcends it as it apes it.
NOU: I want to discuss some of the recurring motifs in your music. First, dance seems to act as a metaphor for loneliness, setting the disco metaphor on its head, especially in “Homeless Club Kids.”
Michael: You can think of it in terms of food allergies. Sometimes you crave something that’s bad for you. Going dancing is that kind of compulsion/repulsion, feeling like you have to be among people, but then ending up feeling worse. I mean sometimes you feel this beautiful connection, but most times the disco just amplifies your own sense of loneliness. Being alone within a crowd can be really depressing. You start to think it’s better to be home alone because at least then you can maintain the romantic notion that you’re just one person away from being happy. Besides, when you’re alone, you can sometimes still feel part of some vast network of bedsit souls.
NOU: You said in an interview I read recently that you were using horror-related metaphors in many of the new songs you’re writing.
Michael: Yes, the next CD will be filled with vampires, ghouls, and werewolves. Genre jumping can be useful, like Ziggy Stardust. Bowie used trashy sci-fi, actual aliens, to get people to think about alienation. Jean-Luc Goddard, the great French film director, used a combination of sci-fi and noir in “Alphaville”. By the way, Andrea and I were devoted fans of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” [which I certainly was, too—jb] and “Twin Peaks” [which somehow I never managed to see—jb]. If you used to edit a zine called Doppelgänger, you would have loved “Twin Peaks.”
NOU: One horror metaphor you often use is the haunted house, e.g., in “The Radiation.”
Michael: Every place becomes haunted, charged by things that happen inside them. They begin to have a magnetism that holds you through longing, not love. Ghosts are desperate creatures, sad, unstable, not evil, but desperate. So the haunted house is a kind of metaphor for a place in your life that you can’t quite escape from, and all the voices that try to bind you to it.
NOU: The religious themes in your lyrics appeal to me, too. A friend of mine calls herself a “recovering Catholic,” and she thought she recognized that in “The Lesser Saints.”
Michael: Maybe “relapsed Catholic” these days. I entered the Joan of Arc series with a secular take on her, seeing her as just a metaphor for messed up, self-absorbed teens. When I was a teen myself, I thought religion was condescending and ridiculous. I studied philosophy in college and became a devoté of my own imagination. The Joan of Arc EPs coincided with a long nervous breakdown I was having. I didn’t know if I could do an entire record, as we had done with Love at Absolute Zero (1999), but I figured I could handle four songs at a time. But going to France, reading about her, I started to recognize a kind of divinity in her. So the Joan of Arc EPs ended up being a way to get this arrogant hipster to see things differently. Working in mysterious ways I suppose. I surrendered to the notion that I don’t know everything, started to become aware of things outside myself. By the end of the trilogy, the religious themes became kind of spiritual in addition to metaphoric. And that is kind of where I am at now.
NOU: During the concert at TT’s, you held a weird-looking teddy bear while you sang a new song, “God Bless the Runaways.” What’s the story?
Michael: Tod [MF’s drummer] gave it to me for my birthday, it came with the name “gloomy”. I spent many years not being very close to my friends or band mates or anyone. But I’ve been working hard to get closer. On my birthday, the whole band trekked out to Queens and we had a big dinner together at this famous joint, The Jackson Diner, in the “little India” district of Queens. The teddy bear has obviously mauled someone, it’s covered in blood. I’m sort of like him: I need to be hugged but you take your chances. Besides, it makes me look more sympathetic.
NOU: You and Andrea have words written on your arms when you play concerts. Somehow that reminds me of magical prophylaxis, a way “primitive” cultures ward off demons by putting sacred or off-putting signs on objects. [Andrea had “committed” written on her arm. I couldn’t read Michael’s—jb.]
Michael: I think I saw that on “Buffy,” but I never thought of it that way. It started as a way of separating ourselves from rock n’ roll tradition, while acknowledging some of what the riot grrls were doing. Maybe it is a counter-culture ritual, freaks marking themselves to ward off the normals… But mainly it seemed to ward off record labels. [Not completely, since Double Agent hasn’t been scared off yet.—jb] It’s an attempt to turn ourselves into works of art. Porn actors are the ultimate artists. They make a full commitment, fully empty themselves, sublet their flesh, way beyond tattooing. It’s sad, but in a way I admire it. Our sharpie markings wash off in a day or two. But the poetry, that lingers for a bit.