Meet: Leon Michels / El Michels Affair on new album Adult Themes and more

Leon Michels is a talented man. Inbetween working with a who’s who of talent as a musician, including a brief spell as part of Wu-Tang’s touring band, he started making music under his own steam with the express intention that it be sampled by hip-hop producers. This worked, with songs by the likes of Jay Z & Beyoncé, Travis Scott and Don Toliver all using his work for their songs. These short snippets have expanded as time has gone on, until his recent album Adult Themes became Michels vision of an as yet unwritten movie soundtrack – part David Axelrod part Francois de Roubaix, with a touch of Moondog jazz thrown in for good measure, brushed up with his own magic into something that brings the funk to cinematic soul. Not forgetting that he co-founded the brilliant Big Crown Records in 2006.

After falling for his single Life of Pablo recently, we wanted to find out a little more, so we caught up with Leon to ask him about the album, the single, the way he works and more

Hey thanks for talking to us – firstly, how are you coping with lockdown? Has it affected any plans?

It’s taking some time for me and my family to figure out how to deal with it but i think we’re doing pretty good considering the situation.  I haven’t really been able to make music since it’s started.  I’ve been finishing stuff i had going before the lockdown but trying to create something from scratch has proven very hard.  I’m sure once this is over it’ll come pouring out, but right now i’m just focusing on my family and I’m gardening a lot. 

Life of Pablo was one of our favourite tracks of the year so far. Can you tell us a bit about that? Did it come together in the stufio easily? Were you looking for a particular vibe or sound?

That started as a jam between me and Homer Steinweiss who plays drums on the song.  That’s probably the oldest song on the album.  I’ve had that one for about three years or so and luckily it fit with the other stuff.  Once it was recorded i decided to put my newborn son’s cry at the beginning  because the main part of the song has this euphoric feel which sounded i imagined my son Pablo’s life was.  At the time, my sons life consisted of breast feeding and shitting which sounds pretty euphoric to me so I called it Life Of Pablo.

And its from your album Adult Themes – Tell us more about that?

My friend Eothen played me a record by Francois de Roubaix called Daughters of Darkness and it completely blew my mind.  It is soundtrack to a Belgian slasher flick but the arrangements and vibe of the record are incredible intense. Soundtrack records really don’t follow any traditional form because it is music meant for a visual.  But when you listen to it on its own it makes it more interesting because it’s so unconventional.  All soundtracks have to do is convey or enhance a mood.  I knew i wanted to make music with that sort of approach.  Less about writing catchy melodies and well-structured songs and more about creating moods that inspire some sort of narrative that’s different for every listener.

Who did you work with on the record?

The main group of guys on the record are Nick Movshon (bass), Homer Steinweiss ( Drums), Paul Spring (Guitar), and Michael Leonhart(Trumpet, arrangement). A lot of people i usually work with like Thomas Brenneck, Shannon Wise, Marco benevento, and Ray Mason are on the the record too.  Some of the songs I did by myself, namely the Adult Themes, but it was a very collaborative record.  Most all the songs started as a jam session.

As far as the title,  I thought the music sounded “adult” whatever that means.   I also like that Adult Themes sounds sort of provocative.  

How do you work in the studio when making records? What processes you go through?

It’s always different.  for example with Enfant, i had those chords written and the basic mood figured out, and then Shannon wrote the melody she’s singing on the spot.  A song like Villa, was four guys in the room with headphones on looking at each other like, “What should we do next.”  I don’t remember who came up with what, all i know is that once we decided we were gonna record a song, we had Villa 40 minutes later.  

Do you demo them first, and then work them up?

I’m not big on demos because i inevitably get attached to them.  If i’m gonna write a song I’d rather just have mics set up and record it for real.

What’s your favourite track on the record, or are they like children – you couldn’t possibly single one out?

I like Kill The Lights cause i’v never done anything like that before.  I used ableton to program some of the drums and instruments.  that one always makes me feel kind of emotional way when i listen to it.  I also really like Munecas.  I like how the super dark and emotive chords mixed with the really heavy trombone set up with mood thats really somber and then when the kids comes in it turns it into this weird mix of hopeful but still really sad, at least to my ears.  The sound of kids singing is the best no matter what type if music.

Difficult one to talk about, but any plans for the rest of the year? Would you like to get out and about, maybe play some dates etc?

One day at a time, I hope to play out live in the near future but mostly I hope to get back in the studio with my friends. I also have another record I recorded that will be coming out in fall called Yeti Season and we did a record with Freddie Gibbs and Madlib that doesnt have a date yet but is finished.

Adult Themes is out now on Big Crown Records.

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