Interview with Mike Van Porfleet, the man behind Lycia.
I caught up with Lycia after their performance on October 17, 1997 at Club Matrix inside The Cat's Grill in San Francisco. Opening for Lycia were The Shroud and Amber Asylum. While I was negotiating the interview, none other than Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson showed up. According to what was being said at the time, they were bored, heard about a show going on, and wanted to "jam" with Lycia's equipment before the show to steal the all the attention for themselves. Mike respectfully declined (you are MUCH too polite) and told them "NO!!!" Twiggy Ramirez (of Marilyn Manson) also broke glass all over Lydia Fortner's (of The Shroud) merchandising booth. They eventually left early into Lycia's set because the audience paid attention to the performers, instead. You heard it here first...
Lycia's current line-up is Mike Van Portfleet: guitars, synth, programming, vocals and Tara Van Portfleet (formerly Tara Van Flower): vocals. Previous members include John Fair and David Galas. After they finish this tour, they are going back to Ohio to record a new album, due sometime in mid 1998. What follows is an interview of Mike Van Portfleet, the man behind Lycia.
Rotwang: First, why don't you tell us what significance the word "Lycia" has to you. Why did you choose that specific word to describe your music?
Mike Van Portfleet: It actually goes back to my college days when I was really into Greek Mythology and the Classics. I especially liked Greek Literature. Looking back in retrospective, we were all a bit pretentious in college, trying to show off our intellect by our knowledge of literature, and all that, but at the time it seemed cool. I chose the word "Lycia" because that is one of the few Ancient Greek words that isn't all clumbsy and hard to pronounce. A lot of my early stuff had that Greek influence.
R: Going back to before Lycia, what kind of things were you doing musically? What is your musical history and training, if any?
M: Well, I had been in various band since the early 80's. Really, the only thing that they all had in common was that they were pretty bad. We would have five or six people in a band, and we would all be doing our own things, so we tended to cancel each other out. When I started doing Lycia, it was just my ideas, and all the people who have been involved in Lycia, I chose because we complimented, not contradicted each other. As far as musical training, I have had no real training. I'm pretty much self-taught. Usually, I just let my surroundings inspire ideas and go from there, just experimenting. That's how I've always done it.
R: You mentioned your environment being an inspiration for you. Where are you from originally, and how did it inpire you in your earlier works?
M: I'm really glad you asked me that, because the environment around me is the single greatest influence in my music. I'm from Phoenix, Arizona. A long time ago, I began getting into the natural environment around Arizona, and it really started to inspire me. That came at about the same time as I started working on Ionia (there's a little bit of that Greek influence still there with the name "Ionia") and you could see in that "desert" and "monsoon". In the desert, the summer monsoon is a big thing. You know, when the thunderstorms roll over the hills and you get a little bit of rain. It's really a rebirth. It evokes southwestern-type imagery. At that point, to "A Day in the Stark Corner" and really up to this day, the environment around me is probably the biggest influence. "Cold" was the first thing we recorded in Ohio, and we waited until the winter to do it; it's lyrically cold, and I think it's musically cold, as well. Some of that you can't explain because it just happened because we were there.
R: "Cold" evokes snow and other such wintery images, especially in "Baltica", which is one of my favorite songs. I was really glad you played that one tonight.
M: Yeah, you know, picking the live sets was hard for me because the last couple of years we've just been jerking around with the live set, back and forth. I hadn't really found anything that works until this set. This is the first set I'm really happy with and I trace it back to the equipment I'm using now; the newer equipment. "Baltica" and "Snowdrop" are the only songs that I wrote with the equipment that I'm goind to be using on the next album. It seems to work. I'm a bit anal about that stuff, but it seems to work if everything comes from the same angle. That's why there are none of the old songs on the set. Some people get a little upset about that, but every album was created in a very different way. Lycia was a studio band in the early days and to perform, say, some of the stuff off of "Ionia", I would need two extra guitarists and an extra synth player. To play something off of "The Burning Circle and Then Dust," we would need one extra guitarist, maybe two and a bass player. It's like all different styles, so I pretty much concentrate on the current style.
R: I heard a lot of songs that I wasn't familiar with during the set. Are these songs going to be on the next album, or are they live only?
M: They'll be on the next album, which we are going to start recording in about 10 days, as soon as the tour's over. Everything you heard was brand new, with the exception of the two songs from "Cold". Everything else is new. We're hammering the songs out live because I think in the past, we've had a hard time transferring the studio stuff to live because I approached them very much as studio albums. When you go live, you have to change things around and I was never comfortable with playing some of the songs in the re-vamping live because they seemed to lack the initial passion behind the songs because they were altered so much. I figured I'd finally do it right and actually create songs that work both in the studio and live. We wrote the songs, and now we're playing them live. Pretty much the way you heard it tonight is the new album, except for about three or four songs that I'm still in the process of working out.
R: Any expected date for the new album to come out? Any "spoilers", so to speak?
M: What I'm shooting for is that I've given myself until the end of January to finish the album. I'm really hoping for a late spring/early summer release. What they want us to do now is tour every summer, so I want to have a new album to support. I don't want to go out and support "Cold" again, or whatever. I want to have the album out by summer, so if we do a tour, or any shows at all, I want people to be familiar with the material, as opposed to hearing all new stuff. You'll probably hear the same set around here next time with a couple of new songs in there, with the difference being, if you have the CD already, you'll be more familiar with it.
R: Do you think the introduction of Tara into the band, which started with "The Burning Circle and Then Dust", but is more obvious with "Cold", had anything to do with "Cold's" very different mood, or was it entirely due to your move to Ohio?
M: I think it was pretty much environmental. Her involvement on "Cold" is hard to explain. Her voice does create a different mood with the music, but I think the same snowy feeling would be there whether she sang on it or not. I think that things consistently change with Lycia and it's just a part of the whole evolution. I have this goal of making no two albums ever the same. I want to have every album to have it's own feel and it's owm style.
R: What do you think is going to be the general mood of the next album?
M: It will have the lushness and a bit of the orchestration of "Cold", but more of the rhythm of the Bleak album or pre-"Ionia" Lycia. A little bit more rhythmic, a little bit more live friendly.
R: What made you decide to make Bleak an actual side-project, as opposed to just another album?
M: There was no way I could convince Projekt to do a double-album and a single album in the same year under the name "Lycia". I see Bleak as nothing more than a veiled Lycia release. Shortly after working on Bleak, I thought, "Well, this is something we could really explore and take in different directions." But, in retrospect now, I see it as just another Lycia album. Songs like "Theboilerroom" and "Theweathervane" really were destined for "The Burning Circle and Then Dust" in the first place. I just decided to explore that style a little more. It was a very creative time when me and Dave [David Galas, former member of Lycia] were writing a lot of music. We figured the only way we could get it out at that point was to have a different name for it. We didn't want t sit on one of the albums. Then, you're always behind on the release schedule. You want to have the stuff released to be reletively recent.
R: Too keep up...
M: Yeah. Whether you're doing shows or doing interviews, you want to be talking about something that't relevant to you at that given time. If we would've sat on the Bleak album or the "The Burning Circle and Then Dust", either one of those, for a year, by the time it came out, people would be asking about it and would be so out of that mindset, it would be really hard to discuss it. Everything that we've done so far with supporting "Cold" is so far removed. I mean a good portion of those songs were initiated in summer '95 and recorded in the winter of '95/'96. That's a long time ago. I'm in a very different mindset now, you know.
R:Once again, going back to that era, what made you decode in the first place to go through all the trouble of making "The Burning Circle and Then Dust" a double-CD?
M: That's another thing, in retrospective, I wish I really havn't done, because disc one and disc two have very different feels to them and they're really two separate albums. Disc one was the original "The Burning Circle and Then Dust". We had some odds-and-ends songs like "Nine Hours Later" and "The Fa┴ade Fades" that we liked a lot and were trying to figure out how to get them to fit on the album with the time limitations of a CD. Then Tara came down and sang "Nimble" and "Surrender", which we were initially going to part out to compilations, but they came out so well, I wanted to include them. We had too much for one album, and Projekt suggested that we do it as a double album, so I went and recorded some songs that were a little more electronic-oriented. Disc one of "The Burning Circle and Then Dust" was all very guitar-oriented, so we went back and re-vamped a couple of old songs and did some new songs and decided to do a double album then. To me, they are two different albums. They have very different moods to them.
R: How did Tara become involved with the band?
M: She sent me demos of her band. It was one of those bands that needed a little development because it was a brand new band. I really liked some of the things that she was doing with her voice. It was really different than some of the tapes that were sent to me; at times very beautiful, at times way out of control. I asked her to come out to Arizona to record a couple of songs, because I really liked her, and for years, I've been toying with the thought of incorporating a female vocalist, but I could never find the person that I felt fit in, because a lot of singers sing way too etherial, or they just get too crazy. I wanted something that would fit within the framework of Lycia, and it was hard to find someone. When I heard her tapes, I thought, "Well, this could be the person." So, she came out and sang on a couple songs, and then she decided to hang out in Arizona for a while, so when we were getting ready to do The Burning Circle Tour, we needed a keyboard player. She had never played keyboards before, so I showed her the parts, and she picked it up and evolved into the band at that point. She was much more actively involved with "Cold" and now, she's just an integral member of the band. On the next album, she'll sing more songs then I will. I think it will be an interesting direction for Lycia.
R: Do you feel that having someone else doing vocalizations, as opposed to doing them yourself changes the way you express your own feelings?
M: Not really, because I have felt more strongly associated with the music than anything else. Music has always been the most important thing to me. I started singing mainly because I couldn't find a singer, and I was sort of forced into it. I never really enjoyed it. I'm enjoyng it more now. Just because of so many shows, I am beginning to learn how to do it with a certain amount of consistancy. But, my true love is the music. I create the music before I present it to her, and at that point, the mood, the essence of the song, is already created for me. I'm not a big person for words or lyrics, so when she adds whatever she wants to it, it works.
R: Let the music tell the story...
M: Yeah, and I think I could probably be more controlling and write the lyrics myself, and just have her sing them, but I feel very strongly that if I ask someone to be involved with Lycia, I'm asking them because I've found something appealing in their work. And so, it's more important to let her sing her words, because I know they're going to be heartfelt and they are going to mean something to her. So, it's going to benefit Lycia a lot more.
R: When Lycia went from being a studio band to being a touring band, what did you think of the experience?
M: It was hard at first. The A Day in the Stark Corner Tour, if you want to call it that, was a very short little California tour back in '93. It was clumbsy and difficult. We actually started the tour right here in San Francisco and it was a pretty disasterous show full of feedback and it was hard. We were having a very difficult time presenting the music live in a way I felt appropriate. I think that it's only come this year, really. It' hard. The way I used to approach it, is that I would create it in the studio, where it was vey open and free. I would like five guitar tracks on one song, and on another song, I would randomly make sounds on a keyboard, get loops going, and get background tones. Two years later, when you're trying to refigure that stuff out for live, and you've never played it, except for when you created it, it's hard. It's difficult. We had to really figure out what we wanted to do with Lycia. If we were going to be out and do shows, we had to make changes, otherwise it would be just clumbsy and difficult. We want it all. We want to have the studio stuff that really fo rus, but we also now want to be able to to take it out and play it live, so we knew we had to make some changes so that we don't have that clumbsy transition after making an album and going out and supporting it.
R: I've been noticing a trend with Projekt bands lately: studio bands going out and and touring, especially with the Projekt Festival and black tape for a blue girl going out on tour. Do you have any ideas as to why this is happening?
M: As far as a band like Attrition, which is on Projekt now, they've always been live-oriented. But the other bands, they've all be studio bands, and probably one of the reasons is that we've done it a lot, and other bands have been saying, "Well, Lycia's going out on the road and making it, maybe we can, too." Like black tape for a blue girl...I never thought I'd see black tape for a blue girl live, and now they're touring. Also, with the new distributing deal Projekt has now, it benefits us to go out on the road.
R: I have been noticing Projekt discs in more mainstream outlets like Tower Records or Borders Books.
M: Yeah, they came up with a new distribution deal with another company who's really getting the stuff into the stores. When the different Projekt bands go out on tour, the distributor will help with promoting the show by doing ads in the weekly newspapers and stuff, which helps. I noticed on this tour they did ads here in San Francisco, in Salt Lake City, and in Denver, and we got great turn-outs. Sometimes I don't know if I ever want to do it anymore, because it's very tiring, but it's beneficial to the band.
R: What do you like in an audience? What makes a "good" audience and a "bad" audience to you?
M: Attention is the big difference. I noticed tonight it was a good audience because people were listening. They were listening and paying attention. In the past, we've had a tendency to have people leave. We'd lose people. We'd play two or three songs of the more spacey material and people would get bored. They'd start talking and start moving around. That's very discouraging because you are up there, trying to give your best, and you see people getting bored. It's frustrating. We look for a group of people who want to just listen to the musicand get into it. It happened tonight. It happened two nights ago in Salt Lake City and that's all what we look for. Hopefully, we give a goood enough performance to keep people's attention, you know. It sounds kind of stupid, but there's a certain psychology to this kind of music in which people really need to be into it, or they get bored.
R: Where do you see Lycia heading for in the future?
M: I change my mind so quickly, God only knows where we'll be. All I know is that we have new material for the next album and after that, I don't know. I have so many different interest areas in music...there could be be an ambient album, and acoustic album, who knows. All I'll say is that thealbum after the next one will be different, and the one after that will be different, etc.
R: Any last things you'd like to say?
M: The tour is going really good for us. It's tiring, but this has been our best tour so far. Every show has gone good. I have a very positive about San Francisco now. We've had two bad shows here in the past, and we really wanted to come back and give a good show. I was really nervous before the show that we were going to have sound problems, and especially when we started, and there were "problems". I was really nervous. But when it got going and they were finally fixed so it sounded good, I was happy.
From left to right: David Galas (no longer in the band), Tara Van Portfleet, and Mike Van Portfleet
The Lycium (Official Website)
Lycia Site at Projekt