Geographer Interview at Just Like Heaven - May 21, 2022
Interview & Photography by Nikki Neumann
Geographer lead singer Mike Deni took some time to talk through his music with us during Goldenvoice's Just Like Heaven festival in Pasadena, CA on May 21, 2022. Having formed in 2007 by Deni, Geographer's music can be most notably described as "soulful music from outer space." The nature of Just Like Heaven festival brought together indie music lovers from across the So-Cal region. Geographer's discography aligned with the festival perfectly. His live performance filled the air with deep synths and slick electro-violin riffs that layered to create an atmosphere of pure joy. During this interview our writer and photographer Nikki Neumann dove into Mike's experience coming up in the San Francisco music scene and what inspired him to create music in the first place. His latest single "The Reason" has been out for almost a month and this summer he is gearing up for a show with Cold War Kids in San Francisco and a headlining slot at the legendary Troubadour in West Hollywood. With synths in hand, we know Geographer will go on to contribute pure gems to the ever-evolving indie-rock catalog.
Nikki: Let’s jump right into it. I saw that you lived in San Francisco, what was your experience finding your people and music community there?
Mike: My music community came out of Hotel Utah. I went to open mics there. Just a bunch of weirdos, ya know, just like me. It was such a crazy experience for a guy from the suburbs of New Jersey, and then I went to college in Vermont. So like a very small town and then I went to San Francisco. I was like “wow” look at all these different kinds of people in the same room. Hotel Utah is a crazy smattering of homeless people who are poets and also kids fresh out of college or old-timers who shred on the violin playing “Star-Spangled Banner”.
Yeah that’s totally the scene there.
I looked forward to going there every week. That’s how I met basically everybody that I knew, friends and music people. So, it just expanded from there. Hotel Utah was where I played my first show ever in San Francisco too. Which was a huge day.
That’s amazing! So, when you were growing up, what did you connect with musically?
When I was growing up I liked the music that my parents were listening to like Fleetwood Mac, Paul Simon, and Cat Stevens was a huge one (still is). I feel like Cat Stevens doesn’t get the due that he deserves, he’s one of the best ever, with endless hits. When I was in high school in New Jersey, this is a little embarrassing, but I was really into Phish. [laughs]
I mean that’s just what my friends liked and truly in my heart, there was nothing better. I was just bopping around in my car listening to these insane songs. Then my friends were listening to Radiohead and I remember being like, “This sucks, why are you guys listening to this?” Then my friend gave me The Bends and Ok Computer on tape and that just changed it for me. Then going to college and having access to the radio station and their CDs. I had a friend who worked at the station and that’s where I learned about music. I was very sheltered musically. It was basically 60s, 70s, Phish, or pop radio. It was awesome to get everything all at once at the radio station.
Did you listen to Live 105 in SF?
Uh yeah, hell yeah!
I would listen every Sunday when Aaron Axelson had his radio show and would play new music, those were my early music discovery days.
Aaron played my songs played on there too.
I think I probably first heard your music on that radio show.
Yeah, that was so crazy, because the radio and tv, they’re like untouchable. You know when you’re a kid, you’re like this is a mystical land.
How would you describe the music you’re making now?
It’s influenced by a lot of 70s & 80s Italian music and 70s & 80s Japanese music, which I know couldn’t be cooler [laughs] and it’s not that I listen to that music a lot, but when I find myself sitting down and thinking what now, what’s next? I figured out how to tap into my love of analog 70s American music. I find my mind gravitating towards those weird polyrhythms and those bizarre choices that both those genres make. That’s my biggest influence right now, but I’m just trying to write really really good indie jams. I think I gave up trying to write a pop hit, which I kind of had always wanted to do, but now I just want to write a song that is undeniably very, very good. There’s nothing corny or overdone about it. There’s just this pure expression of whatever music is.
Can you tell us about your latest single “The Reason”?
That one was my attempt at trying to write something like “Skinny Love.” I do that a lot where I pick a song that I’m like “I could never write a song that good, but why don’t I just try?” I never make a song as good, but something new comes out of it. So, I started it with the same tuning as that song, which is an open G tuning on the guitar. Which is something I never do and I think it really shook me up. Right away I wrote the riff, then it just built from there and I knew I wanted it to be a heartbreaker. I also played the electric cello on that for the first time. I have one from when I had a cellist in the band. I was this is an amazing instrument. I had to record every note individually because I don’t really know how to play it. So, it was just a lot of exploration and throwing stuff at the wall.
What has been your favorite aspect of touring?
MD: Not getting any sleep. [laughs] My favorite aspect is certainly the shows. Touring is really hard. It’s a really crazy thing to do, but to be able to set up every night and just play for people who are receptive to your music… feels like such a gift. On this tour in particular I paid more attention to my performance than ever before. Like, "how does this feel, how does this song make me want to move" versus, "I wanna make sure I’m moving cool." I feel like that opened up something for me. It’s not about coming off “cool” which I think I have been really worried about my entire life. You realize very quickly, that is what’s cool; feeling a genuine feeling and being unafraid to express it. That’s all anybody really wants to see. Other than that I love going to New York, and Chicago, and seeing these other cities.
If you had to pick your favorite spot in New York, where would it be?
Oof! The Lower Eastside, Greenwich Village, I love it. The bars there are so exciting. They have frappe alcohol drinks on tap and negronis on tap. I’m not a huge drinker, but that stuff gets me super excited. I just love culture, even if it’s miniaturized.
Last question, name one song, any song that you think is a BOP.
I’ll say “Il mio canto libero” by Lucio Battisti. It is a jam. It’s on par with David Bowie.