Michael Runion used to have a beard, now he has an almost-finished record. We met with a jet-lagged Runion at The Strongroom in London, right after he played a very good set to a crowd of loud hipsters.
We just reminded him a song of his, Red Pony, was published on Platforms Magazine a while back.
Michael: I remember. Issue 3. I pay attention to what's going on.
Roy: So what's next?
Michael: I'm here, playing shows for the next few weeks and then I go home and finish up my record, which is probably 85% done. Mix a few more songs and put some backing vocals on a song or two and that's it. It has a lot of old songs but I haven't played them live because I don't have a band to bring along with me. I probably play only two or three songs from the record. I always play a short set because I don't want to bore people, y'know? It's a lot to ask to watch a stranger play acoustic music. I'm not a good guitarist, that's why Tod [Adrian Wisenbaker, of Whispertown 2000] is with me.
Roy: He was very good.
Michael: Yeah, he's awesome.
Lila: He's got really small feet, tiny.
Michael: He wears like a 9.5 American.
Lila: That's like a 7 here.
Michael: I'll tell him you said that.
Lila: I mean in a good way.
Michael: So yeah, finish the record and then find a home for it. Originally the record was going to be on this record label that Rilo Kiley established, called Brute/Beaute but they decided not to put our record so I was like, well, I already kinda started making it so I decided that I'm gonna finish the record and not worry about it. Even though I do worry about it. So I'll make the record and then hopefully come back and go on a few tours. Right now, I'm happy to be here playing for the first time.
Roy: How long have you been making your own music?
Michael: I played my first show in May of 2004. So almost three years.
Bryn: What made you wanna do that?
Michael: Well, I've been in bands for so long, I just kind of... I was always irritated at the fact that I couldn't get a band to practice or do anything. So I figured that if I did it by myself I couldn't blame anyone, I could play shows whenever I wanted, practice whenever I wanted, write songs, do everything. I never sang or sung before, I kind of did it but not in a way where I thought I could do it all the time... but I was listening to Neil Young's After The Goldrush and the first song on it, Tell Me Why, that song is such a perfect opening song. There's nothing crazy about it, it's just a really good song. It made me want to try and write songs like that. I don't think I have written songs like that per se but I'm just trying it. So that's how it happened, how it got started.
Roy: Do you get influenced by poetry or visual arts?
Michael: The thing is, there is poetry but it's contained within music. Townes Van Zandt to me is one of the best poets that's ever lived but he's a songwriter so you can't say - I'm into poetry, I like Townes Van Zandt. I'm really lazy when it comes to pursuing other arts because I spend so much time on... 90% of my day is focused on music, being a student of the art. I've had phases when I've really hated poetry because it can be real pretentious, y'know what I mean.
Bryn: The line between is very difficult to gauge...
Michael: When I was in school, I never had a teacher that really made me appreciate it.
Lila: They always teach the worst poetry at school.
Michael: It's true. I feel they should spend less time on Beowulf and spend more time on things, maybe deviate from the standard stuff. There's some photographers I appreciate. I'm influenced by film makers more than I am by any other art. Like Woody Allen, as silly as it sounds. If you watch Manhatten, that's like a beautiful movie. There's a movie called Interiors that he did, It's like a drama that he did. It was right after Annie Hall and Manhatten and he wanted to make a serious movie and everyone was pissed at him because they wanted a comedy. He also made a movie called Stardust Memories, it's about a filmmaker who is going through a retrospective in upstate New York and he's recently made a really Fellini-esque heady work and everyone is kind of upset, "where are your comedies? we love your comedies" and it can be interpreted as Woody Allen responding to critics. Anyways, there's so much in his work and it's so rich. He's still only known as the dude who's married his wife's adopted daughter, to a lot of people. I just love how he'll just place a camera in the room and let the actors roam about and he doesn't need to be with them all the time and the only way... within a song, you can get really trapped by the structure of it, melodically, and the one thing that I really value about playing by myself is that I can change the time when I want to, I can hold down a melody when I want to, sometimes it doesn't work and sometimes it does.
I lived in Los Angeles for about seven years now and I moved there because I wanted to work on film but I kind of got distracted by all these different hustles and then music is so much more immediate. I had a writing partner for a long time, we somehow hooked up with this producer and started writing this script for him and I was 18 at the time and I was really excited, the guy buying me dinner and having lunch with directors and it really felt like something's happening. When I was growing up I would read books that said, you can write a script or whatever but 99.9% of scripts written never get made and they discourage you. But when you get to a place like Los Angeles, you realise that all you need to do is to meet someone, and know people and be able to charm them and luckily, I am somewhat charming when I want to be and I'm not a moron, so it was easy to get into that position but then things happen and people say, "well, it's a little dark, can you change the ending. I can't do this film the way it's written, I don't like the structure" and then the producers are rewriting it and adding sisters and we got really discouraged and started making clothing. Screen printing clothing and selling that, I made stuff for Justin Timberlake and The Osborne's.
Lila: Were you designing them or just handscreening?
Michael: I was handscreening designs that me and friends came up with for these people who could pay ridiculous amounts of money for clothing and that got old and boring. It's one of those things that you just do to pay the rent.
Roy: Will you ever be tempted to get involved in films again?
Michael: I still write all the time, I just try to prioritize. Music's so immediate. When I first went to L.A. I met the people in Rilo Kiley and at the time they weren't a big band at all and you are around these people and they become more successful and you see how things are done and you... well I feel like I respect what they do and hopefully they will respect what I do and appreciate it. I toured with The Elected and played bass for a couple of tours, then I guitar teched for Rilo Kiley and they let me open. The first time I ever played live music, not a show, on The Elected tour we played Chicago in a place called The Abbey Pub and there were two rooms in The Abbey Pub and in one room they were having an open mic so I thought, I'm gonna go and play two of my songs that I never played to anyone before, I don't care . So I did it and that was the first time I played for strangers. When More Adventurous came out, I was a guitar tech, I don't know anything about guitars, I can barely tune them but y'know, they're friends so they were like "fuck it, let's take Runion, he's fun to have around" so I got to play shows, got to play in Germany and weird places around Virginia and prior to that Jenny [Lewis] asked me to play on her record on a couple of songs. Then the last year, I've been on tour playing bass for Jenny.
Lila: When I went to see you in Brighton, the [Watson] twins came from behind us with candles, it was really scary.
Michael: The twins will do that. The twins are tall.
Lila: Are they really weird?
Michael: No, they're just Southern. They're twins. You have to be like that when you're Southern and you shared a womb. So that's over and Jenny and Rilo Kiley are making another record so I got some time for myself and I thought, I should go to London. I think people would like my music. I just thought, they really really seem to like Jenny and I thought maybe they'll like my stuff and now I'm here talkin' to you guys.
Bryn: What are your musical influences? You seem to be bringin' a lot of real life into your songs.
Michael: There's this girl that I met when I first moved to Los Angeles and it's a really long involved story. Basically, I met a girl but I did not date this girl or even kiss this girl but it was a very emotional relationship and it ended. We stopped being friends because it was too much. I had a girlfriend at the time that I cared for and loved and I couldn't, I had to end my relationship with this girl. Years later we kind of crossed paths and she had a child and started this other life and we realised that we never saw it through so we tried to pursue what we did not pursue years before and it was a disaster but it was really rich and profound and a real life altering experience, it made me want to be an adult and change the way I live. I've only written probably two or three songs until that point and that situation was so crazy that I just started writing. My first record, 80% of the songs are just about what that experience was. I didn't want to write like a love song record but that's all I was writing about. If the songs are decent, I like them. That's the first record and I like it. That person still means a lot to me and we talk but it's not like how it used to be. My father passed away when I was younger and I've been writing about that a lot, not that I ignored him but I kept it so private for so long and now I kinda realised it's pretty valuable to who I am as a person. My situation with him shapes who I am in terms of my dealings with so many things. The fact that he wasn't there means that I was raised by my mother so I have this relationship with women that reflects that.
Roy: It's so strange how the first few years of your existence, that you don't even remember so well, have such a profound and lasting effect on the rest of your life.
Michael: Yeah, It's crazy. I have friends who have kids and when I see their kid, you could tell what his personality is going to be like when he's 20 years old. It's rough because what if your kid's a dick, what if he's a selfish prick? I guess that's an option. I don't know. I've suddenly taken location into account more, my surroundings. Because I've travelled so much in the past two years, it's hard not to write about the places you see and the people you meet. I would say that traveling and my relationship with this girl had the most profound effect on me in my adult years. You are shaped as... a child, then you have those adolescent years and then I just turned 25 and I thought I should stop fucking around and just be an adult. Two years ago I probably would have cancelled this trip thinking it would have been hard.
I don't have a car in Los Angeles so I ride the bus and that's good for riding, you see all kinds of different people. In Los Angeles it's different because the discrepancy between rich and poor is so big that if you ride public transportation you are surrounded by poor people and mainly minorities and that's just the way it is over there. Here everyone rides the tube and it's not such a big deal. That's just how it is and it's like that in New York too. But in Los Angeles if you don't have a car people say it's crazy. I've done it for seven years. It's a good place to clear your head and get your thoughts on paper.
Lila: Do you meet any interesting people on the bus?
Michael: I don't really meet that many people on the bus. No one has much to say to me. You have to start that off. Because of my job, playing music, I meet so many people that to go out of my way to meet people seems harder.I mean, I like meeting people. When I'm on the bus, there's a woman who cleans toilets in Brentwood which is the really nice area of town, she barely speaks English. We don't have that much to talk about, for me to pursue conversation is really trying. It's probably me being lazy. It's not that I don't want to talk to her but what am I going to accomplish? When I'm on tour I meet twenty people a day. You get to pick a time that you want to be personable and social.
I live in a part of Los Angeles that's predominantly Armenian and Armenian people don't like outsiders and don't really approach me. So on a daily basis I don't really leave Glendale. I go to the grocery store and see these people all the time and I don't talk to them. I wouldn't really hear my voice all day. People don't call me. My friends don't really call... not in a sad way but where I live is outside of everything. I'm not in a place where people can call me because I'm nearby.
Roy: Do you think that places you as more of an observer?
Michael: Yeah, I just walk around and these people don't care about what I do, they don't care about the music I make, they don't care about the music that my friends make, they don't care about anything. They don't care about anything that I care about. Maybe we both like basketball but that's about it.
Roy: You play basketball in your music video...
Michael: Yeah, I'm a huge basketball fan.
Roy: What's your favourite team?
Michael: The Suns. I'm a really big Steve Nash fan. He's a canadian player that's pretty amazing. I wouldn't know the comparable football player here but he's a pleasure to watch, he's probably the best team player in American sports. I can talk about basketball for hours.
Roy: In the 60's music was seen as a vehicle for change, do you believe that nowadays music has the ability to change the world?
Michael: Not anymore. I think music is too much of a commodity now. I think back then, you had one music, Rock n'Roll or whatever was brand new. As far as the hippy peace movement, that sound had only existed for a couple of years. It was exciting. It made sense that you felt it could change the world because it was changing the world, because it didn't exist before then and all of a sudden music culture had something that wasn't our parents. It was made by young people for young people, old people don't like it.
Roy: Many people credit Elvis with inventing the teenager. Before Elvis as soon as you turned thirteen you just became your dad.
Michael: It's like go to work, go and work at this terrible job in this terrible factory. You have to because you're getting married in two years and you need to feed your family. But now, I appreciate it but with media the way it is. you guys are constantly reminded of how many shitty bands there are in London. How many bands do you have that are popular that aren't good? You have the NME, because they're a weekly, they can't talk about The Arctic Monkeys every single issue. Being in America and reading the NME, you just go "who are all these fuckin' bands?". Because in America, Rolling Stone have their "bands to watch" but they stay within the pipeline. You have the internet and I can start a band and people in China can hear me tomorrow and it's awesome.
Roy: But don't you think that cheapens the music a bit?
Michael: It cheapens the music but people who were at the show last night said that they heard me on MySpace. That person heard me and I have no connection to them, I don't have a record and just because some motherfucker invented the internet, they heard me and that's really fascinating to me and I agree and it's over-saturated but you can't tell people not to start bands. A lot of people who will hear my stuff will think I'm terrible and I can understand that but I like the fact that people can find me. I like to know that if people want to hear me, they can. It really makes me appreciate the things that are really good, because there is so much more shit in the world. That's the only way I can deal with it all.
Roy: What music have you been listening to? What are you excited about?
Michael: It's hard for me to keep up with bands because I'm so busy. I can't remember the last time I listened to a record and thought I wanted to listen to that record all the way through.
My favourite band is The Smiths.
Lila: Do you want to see something really cool? That's the boy with the thorn in his side.
Michael: That's really sweet. By who?
Michael: I'm fortunate to have a lot of good friends that make music. I really like Feist, I think her voice is incredible and her record's gonna be awesome. Tod plays in a band called Whispertown 2000, which I really love. Morgan is a crazy song writer. The new Bright Eyes is really good. Conor's crazy. My room mate Jason who is in Rilo Kiley plays drums. There's other stuff and I can't think of it, it's disappointing.
Lila: The Smiths or Morrissey?
Michael: The Smiths. But I love Morrissey.
Lila: On his own?
Michael: See, listen you Brits hate Morrissey solo and I don't understand! Everytime I talk to people from England about The Smiths they say they love The Smiths but Morrissey's stuff is rubbish.
Roy: It's not rubbish.
Michael: It's not rubbish!
Lila: It doesn't have that thing.
Michael: It doesn't have Johnny Marr. It doesn't have the best guitarist alive for twenty years. We got to hang out with Johnny Marr for a while, gave him a ride from a Modest Mouse show.
Lila: That's amazing.
[At that point, loud noise is coming from the table behind us, a girl is standing up on the table, maybe about to strip. Her friends cheer. Michael turns around. They notice.]
Michael: When you hear something you turn around, it's human nature.
Girls: Oh shut up! We'll let you know when she strips, Ok?
Michael: I'm just a simple man.
We gave him a ride from Orange County to L.A.
Lila: You were in a car with Johnny Marr????
Michael: I have to say he's the nicest dude I've ever met. The Smiths are a deep love, the deepest love.
Roy: Tell us a joke?
Michael: Jokes are hard because I rely so much on sarcasm, I don't make jokes so much.
Lila: You do have a dog on your pocket, or is it a cat?
Michael: It's a dog
Lila: It's really sweet.
Michael: I bought a shirt in Japan and they gave me this button. [trying hard to think of a joke]
Lila: Do you want to hear the best joke ever?
Lila: So one turtle says to his friend the other turtle [pulling her lower lip out, to mimic Turtle A] , "Does your mouth get wet when it rains?" and the other turtle says [pulling her upper lip out, to mimic Turtle B], "No".
Michael: That's gonna be hard to transcribe online.
Lila: Draw a picture of the two turtles so they'll see.
Roy: What's the craziest thing you've ever seen?
Michael: I've seen so much stupid shit in my life. Crazy in what way? Crazy in "Oh my god, I can't believe you just did that" or crazy in "that scared the shit out of me crazy"?
Roy: The first one.
[trying hard to think of a crazy thing]
Michael: Man, I'm really failing this second half of the exam. I can remember little things that are really insignificant that I can really appreciate but they're not crazy. If you said what's a really insignifacnt thing that meant a lot to you then I would say, me and a friend were riding the subway to New York to a show and we missed our stop but luckily there were these three Puerto Rican girls that were riding the train and they were standing next to us and they were drinking Mad Dog which is this really really cheap fruit-flavoured malt beverage that you can get in the states. Like kids drink it because it's two dollars a bottle and it will give you a headache and it's strawberry flavoured and they got it in this little plastic bag and they were drinking it on the subway and they were talking about boys and one of the girls was doing pushups, so tough. Just on the bar, the subway bar. I remember that more.
Roy: Can you draw a self portrait?
Michael: Yeah. [starts drawing]
Roy: Last time I saw you you had a massive beard.
Michael: Yeah, I had to shave it, I freaked out. Here:
Half-whale with lobster hands.
Roy: Apparently lobsters hold hands on the seabed, romantically. They're the only animal that does it apart from us. What's your favourite word?
Bryn: Mine is "Shoestrung", it's not a real word.
Michael: Shoestrung is good. Favourite word? I don't know. I really like stereotypical Californian words. Like "awesome"and "gnarly" and I really like using those but in a legitimate way and giving them validity.
Roy: What question would you like to be able to answer?
Michael: When is your record coming out, goddamit?