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Cool With The Bargain Bin: Mike Pace Investigates The Pop Form On 'Smooth Sailing'

Thursday, 04 October 2018 Written by Huw Baines

A few weekends ago there was a sale at a record shop in the next town over. Their stock list had ballooned, taking over a small warehouse space on a suburban street. Pretty much everything had to go, and it was going cheap. The bargain bin has no respect for reputation, so nestled among the trashy cock rock LPs were rough diamonds and certified gems; ambitious works that shifted serious units and ambitious works that were chalked up to folly back when labels were paying for things like that.

I wandered out with an armful of records including almost the entire ABBA catalogue, a couple of early bits from the Walker Brothers, Linda Ronstadt’s ‘Simple Dreams’, and ‘A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night’. I’m reminded of this haul weeks later as Mike Pace’s voice crackles through the phone from his Brooklyn home. “I have no issue being part of the bargain bin of the future,” he says. “I'm cool with that.”

Pace used to play in Oxford Collapse, an indie-rock band who wrote noisy, hooky songs about beer and self-analysis. They were a little like the Hold Steady might be if a hangover finally broke Craig Finn in half and they subsequently signed with Dischord. During their time the group released four albums, a brace of them on Sub Pop, and they are fondly remembered by those who knew them. Since they folded in 2009, Pace has been keeping busy with real life things - work, family, bills - while putting out DIY solo records with help from his multi-instrumentalist friend Matt LeMay, who spent time in Get Him Eat Him.

The latest of them is called ‘Smooth Sailing’, released under the name Mike Pace and the Child Actors. It’s a lovely album packed with winning melodies and Pace’s endearingly wonky vocal delivery. It’s also a wide-ranging look at its creator’s recent preoccupations: ‘70s singer-songwriters like Randy Newman, prog-rock, and pop records that treat their work as though it’s a puzzle to be solved. Basically, things that might once have made their way to the bargain bin after someone in a suit set aside a stack of cash to finance them.

It’s 2018, not 1976, so no major label is going to pay for the guy from Oxford Collapse to make a record that investigates the vagaries of the pop form. But that doesn’t mean that the guy from Oxford Collapse shouldn’t make a record that investigates the vagaries of the pop form. Forty years ago, people used to write records with that MO all the time, and they tracked them in big studios with orchestras and stuff. Some of them even sold.

Pop and rock have been rebuilt and remodelled a hundred times in the intervening years (sometimes for the better and without white dudes hogging the reins) but Pace remains keenly interested in the forensic nature of that particular era. And, in a time of music-making through the medium of laptop and email, he was able to devote his down time to his research while crafting a delightful anachronism.

“It comes down to a couple of things,” he says. “I believe that classic rock, in the broadest sense, is classic for a reason, right? In order to get a record deal in the ‘70s you really had to be a cut above. People would put out private press recordings, and there were ways to get records out, but that stuff wasn't heard on a wide level.

“So Warren Zevon and Todd Rundgren, who I think probably had more commercial success but is still a complete weirdo, are guys that the record labels would write off at the end of the year because the Eagles or the big acts were really making all the dough. The label could afford to sign these guys who were still leagues above anything else. This is pre-punk, where you couldn't just be anyone and make a record. I'm personally fascinated by that academic approach to songwriting and the experimentation in the overall sound of those records.”

‘Smooth Sailing’ took a year or so to record, with files heading back and forth at semi-regular intervals. LeMay moved to New Mexico, allowing him to set up drums in his house, and Pace luxuriated in fiddling and analysing after his kids had gone to bed or on a spare weekend afternoon. “There were times where Matt would have to say, ‘No, we're good. This song is good. It's done. Let's move onto the next one,’” he says of his producer. “That's one of the double-edged swords of being able to do things on your own if you have a modicum of competency. You can tinker with stuff forever. You do need to have someone keep you in check.”

Pace is comforted by the fact that there’s a lot of stuff out there still left to investigate and ‘Smooth Sailing’ reflects that. It’s home to straight up piano-pop, a song that sounds like a bedroom synth Tom Tom Club and a few more that come across like bratty second cousins of Gerard Love’s Teenage Fanclub tracks. As someone who came up in DIY scenes and around punk bands, he is spending his early middle age putting pop hits back together rather than seeking to pull them apart as he once did. “Oxford Collapse was a much less commercial band than the things that I'm doing now,” he says. “The irony being that Oxford Collapse was considerably more popular than the things that I'm doing now.”  

“It's probably been in the past five or six years that I got really interested in things like progressive rock, which I'd always just pooh-poohed as someone who was heavily invested and informed by underground music,” he adds. “I really fell hard for Genesis, Yes, Camel, Gentle Giant, you know, kind of the pillars of progressive rock. I was blown away by the invention, but also the amount of pop ideas that they cram into one song. It's not a stunt, right? It's not like Mr Bungle or something, where they're trying to experiment for experimentation's sake.

“It's truly progressive music. And so I had a reaction. I had sort of a punk backlash where progressive rock led into jazz fusion, which led into ambient new age stuff. All that stuff is sort of a cross section there, and ‘70s singer-songwriters are level alongside that. I've always been sort of backwards thinking in terms of my listening habits and I'm always amazed by how much new old music there is. And that is to say nothing of funk and soul and things like that, which is also important when you're a white man making music steeped in whiteness.”

Pace’s lyrics have also changed ever so slightly. Replacing the sometimes oblique words that were stitched onto Oxford Collapse’s yelped melodies are vivid lines that work in isolation. They’re evocative, even if we’re not quite sure what we’re seeing. It’s a very Zevon thing, even if Pace laughs away the comparison, and it works well.

“I’m surrounded by angel investors but I’d rather I was left alone,” he sings on the opener Everyone Out of the Car, cribbing a phrase he first heard at work a few years ago. On the following song, Senior Statesman, he drafts a bloodier ending to a story from his high school days: “Star quarterback laying flat on his ass on the painted stripe in the road. In the dark of the night it’s the time of his life, a gaggle of friends cheer him on. Then a flash and a splash and a truck barrels past and tears his poor body apart.”

“I think my approach to writing lyrics has progressed over the years,” he says. “Definitely from the band days. One of the best pieces of advice that I got during Oxford Collapse was from a buddy of mine who said I should try writing more universally. When you're in a band like that, at least at the beginning, it's all about being a smartass and being clever with wordplay. You're still not confident and comfortable with your insecurities so you mask them in screaming or in obtuse or cool lyrics. I think you have to do a certain amount of growing up and getting comfortable in your own skin.”

Pace is starting to play solo live shows with an electric guitar here and there in New York - he calls it Billy Bragg-esque but non-political and Jewish - and will continue to make records in his own time. He’s proud of ‘Smooth Sailing’, and he should be. On Monday morning he’ll get up for work like the rest of us. “Everything that happens now is just gravy because I can make these songs the way I want to,” he says.

‘Smooth Sailing’ is out now.

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