Mike Lee Doesn’t Let Up
Published August 2, 2011
LETTING UP DESPITE GREAT FAULTS
Despite its ponderous name, Letting Up Despite Great Faults makes music that’s light as a feather and ephemeral as a dream. The band started as a bedroom project for songwriter and lead vocalist Mike Lee, who plays piano, bass, and guitar; after a sometimes-disconcerting recruitment process (more on that below), Lee acquired a band and released an EP, Movement, five years ago. After a self-titled full-length in 2009, the band is back this summer with a new EP, the short, sweet, and delicate Paper Crush. It’s the perfect album for the last month of summer: shoegazey electro-pop with a faded, wistful tinge. We spoke with Lee a few days ago about his beginnings, Craigslist roulette, and what it’s like to hear your own music on One Tree Hill.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: Tell me about how you first got started in music—I know you’ve been playing since a young age.
MIKE LEE: I’ve always been doing something musical with my life. I started this project, I don’t know if there was any specific reason other than I had this feeling that I could write something coherent. And when I showed friends, I guess I started getting somewhat better at my songwriting skills. I sent it off to some blogs—it’s actually crazy thinking about blogs back then; there were only a few of them—but I got a nice response. I thought, hey, I should keep going with it, I always liked writing songs, I always liked playing music. I don’t think it was anything specific, since I was always writing songs, maybe it was just a point in my life where I felt a little bit more confident in what I do and it made me want to take it a little more seriously.
SYMONDS: I know that it started out as a solo project, and then you sort of amassed a band that’s now a pretty cohesive unit. How did that happen? How did the others become involved?
LEE: That’s also hard; it’s been a long journey of musicians that I’ve played with, and most of them I still keep in touch with and I’m still good friends with. It’s just that if you start playing with a really good musician and you’re not really a popular band, they’re not going to stay with you. A couple of them are professional musicians, so they kind of have to go wherever jobs are. One of them is in Winnipeg right now, the other is in Amsterdam. Luckily we all keep in touch and people that I have currently, a couple of them, we kind of met through friends and we got lucky and it worked out. The drummer and our bassist I actually found through Craigslist. It sounds like, “Oh wow, that’s awesome, you got lucky, you found some good people through Craigslist,” but I just met a lot of people. Statistically, it was actually pretty poor. I met some crazy people through Craigslist. If you can imagine L.A. Craigslist musicians, a whole different breed.
SYMONDS: Was there anything memorable you can share from those auditions?
LEE: When I met Kent, I knew within the first ten or fifteen minutes that it was going to be a really good relationship musically, and luckily we’ve become really good friends. I’ve actually never played with anyone in a sense that I actually start to miss them musically when they’re not around, but it really helps to have him around. Especially when we’re on stage, it’s a really comfortable dynamic to me. When I met Chris, he went to the Berklee School of Music, so I knew he was a good drummer—I mean, unless he lied to me, so actually his audition was just about hanging out with us. We just talked about music for two hours, bands that we like, he likes everything. And again, we’re really close friends now. I just feel like, there’s definitely—you want to connect with someone musically, but there’s this whole intangible transcendence, when you can really be friends with someone and also respect who they are, it just feels amazing playing with that person.
SYMONDS: Was there anyone you met from the Craigslist ads who just totally scared you away?
LEE: There’s was a phase where we were getting people who didn’t really play, so that was really weird. I felt like, “Wow, I feel embarrassed for this person!” And I’m not a great guitarist or anything, but these people were just genuinely bad, and I did not understand—it can turn you off to the idea that anyone can be in a band, anyone can do music, why am I special? It’s sort of true, if you think about it too much, it can be weird to think that you’re more special than the next person.
SYMONDS: [laughs] Sounds like it was kind of an ego boost.
LEE: [laughs] Yeah, that’s true too.
SYMONDS: With Paper Crush, what made you decide to release these five songs as an EP rather than waiting for enough material to do a full-length?
LEE: I actually wrote enough songs for a full-length, but I’m very picky about myself, and I feel like I wanted to have the best come out, especially since it’s been a couple years since we released anything. The main reason was because I felt like I had more written, and quickly. I was writing those songs, and then I sort of felt like the more I was writing, the better the songs were. And I didn’t want to stop, and I didn’t want to keep people waiting or whatever. I wanted to have the five songs that I felt were okay to put out, so let’s do that while I’m still writing. So actually, I’m almost done with the next album.
SYMONDS: Oh, wow! That’s unusual, I think.
LEE: Yeah. It all kind of was just coming out, a lot of personal things happened in my life. It was just a good time for me to keep writing, until I naturally wanted to stop—which I still haven’t yet, but I think I do need to take a break, because I’m pretty drained.
SYMONDS: It seems to me that on Paper Crush the importance of the lyrics kind of ebbs and flows. You go back and forth between this sort of shoegaze-y attitude, where it’s not as important what the distinct lyrics are, and something closer to electro-pop, where you can make them out more. Was that conscious on your part?
LEE: I think you have a good point. I don’t know how conscious of a decision it was, but it’s definitely something on my mind. I try not to have two of the same songs, ever. Sonically, I try to explore different things, whenever I’m writing a new song, and then lyrically, it can get a little heavy, so I do try to bring some lightness to some of the words. Not try to weigh it down and get too emotional all of the time. I try to mirror just how I think in general. I think for the most part I can just go with the flow. At the same time, if something is on my mind, it’s hard for me to let go and just have exuberance and happiness.
SYMONDS: [laughs] I don’t think anyone’s asking you to.
LEE: [laughs] Good. Some people ask… “Dude, we’re at Disneyland, why aren’t you more excited?”
SYMONDS: That must be really hard for you! It seems like so much of the album’s tone is mired in youth, too—and not just the song “Teenage Tide,” although that certainly comes to mind. Were you reflecting on high school when you were writing those songs?
LEE: I definitely cling on to that time when I’m writing, for some reason. Especially just the way I would think about things, and the way other people would. It’s just very innocent, friendship and love and crushes. That definitely comes out in a lot of what I write. I find that time, for me, really important. But I think maybe it’s just more of a nostalgia that I have, looking back at it more fondly than it really was.
SYMONDS: I think a lot of people do that.
LEE: Yeah, it’s hard for me not to do.
SYMONDS: So you guys just got back from Japan, right? Was that your first time there?
LEE: I actually have a couple of friends that live there, so I was able to visit before. This was my third time there. But this was, I think, a month after the tsunami hit. We were still debating whether we should even go out there. I am so happy we did. The reception we got was incredible. I think a lot of touring bands had cancelled. They seemed so appreciative that we came out there. It was wonderful, it was definitely the best crowd that we’ve ever played to.
SYMONDS: Did you have any life-changing experiences?
LEE: I don’t know about life-changing, but it was definitely very important to me. I got to see how something that I did, that I started in my bedroom by myself, could influence and affect people way across the ocean. It was a very humbling, and it was also very exciting. I never thought I’d be able to have something like that in me come out like that.
SYMONDS: I know that one of the songs from the debut album was on One Tree Hill. Did you watch the episode? Was that super weird?
LEE: [laughs] I did watch the episode. I watched it with some friends, they told us when it was going to be on; there were eight or nine of us at my friend’s place. And that was the first time that I watched the show.
SYMONDS: It’s really confusing, right?
LEE: Yeah, we were so lost! It was, this was our first release and we had just started this thing, and once they started playing it, it seemed a little surreal—even though it’s just a song on TV, it’s kind of not the biggest deal in the world—but they played it, and what’s funny is they actually looped it at a weird part. I was like, “Did you guys hear that? That was kind of a weird loop.” I guess because the scene was a long scene. It was actually a really emotional scene. Of course, I can’t really remember what happened in the scene, but I do remember the feeling I got from it. Something really dramatic happened, and then it cut and then it basically faded to commercial. So when everything faded, I sing one line at the very end of the song, and it was very cool to see that—I think some of my friends got chills. I’ve been making music my whole life but it was some sort of recognition to have that on there.