Michael Shuman: “This moment has been a long time coming”

Queens of the Stone Age bassist talks to about his acclaimed side project Mini Mansions with fellow band member Tyler Parkford

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Image: Michelle Shiers, courtesy of pinpointmusic.com

Michael Shuman, California rock star with all the trimmings and front man of Mini Mansions, is probably the only musician to have headlined Reading and Leeds and also played support slots for the likes of Royal Blood and Arctic Monkeys. It’s for the former that he, Tyler Parkford and Zach Dawes are preparing to take to the stage in the outer reaches of Yorkshire – Royal Blood chose to bring their 10 date UK tour to Bridlington of all places, and Mini Mansions have the task of warming up a rain-lashed, sold-out crowd at the iconic Spa.

“This moment feels like it’s been a long time coming,” says Shuman, not on playing a support slot in Brid, but on finally giving the sidelined project the attention and lease of life it deserves. We’re backstage, and Mini Mansions’ dressing room is decorated with an untouched chiller full of Budweiser and a cluster of iMacs. The rock n’ roll life on the road is painted as the ultimate marriage of work and play, but the reality always seems to be a clear division between the two, particularly in the case of artists playing a high profile, sold out tour. Parkford absently rifles through his emails as we chat, but I have Shuman’s full attention, and his unwavering, unnerving stare.

“As a band, we haven’t really stopped working, privately,” he says. Shuman has been QOTSA’s bassist since 2007’s Era Vulgaris, Parkford releases solo material as Mister Goodnite, and Dawes has worked in-studio with everyone from T Bone Burnett to Elton John, but Michael insists their collaboration isn’t just an occasional pick-up or a distraction. “Since Mini Mansions, (2010’s self-titled debut) we haven’t stopped writing, we haven’t stopped playing. It’s an ongoing thing – it’s just that we haven’t had the time to be in the public eye, to release music and have people see us play and have them buy our records.

“For the last few years we’ve been writing most of the songs which are on the latest record and a lot of other material that isn’t. We have a pretty decent library going on right now. It hasn’t felt better than now.” Talking to Shuman is, initially, discomforting. He is the image of a rock icon: leather-clad, slicked back hair shaved at the sides, with hard yet soft features and an imposing form. I feel as though he should only exist elevated, or from a distance, or on a screen. It’s arguably even more unsettling that he isn’t intimidating at all – just politely forthcoming, and maybe a little bored. He becomes more animated throughout our meeting, but the air of a caged creature is tangible; encountering one of the Queens outside of the Stone Age is reminiscent of watching an athlete give an interview. I’m hyper aware of any cues he gives, half expecting him to unleash the chaos and carnage of ‘My God Is The Sun’ at the wrong prompt.

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Image: Michelle Shiers, courtesy of pinpointmusic.com

Parkford, thoughtful and big brotherly, is a stark counterpoint, chatting from behind his laptop. He comes across as the band’s musical authority, detailing the shape and scope of recent release The Great Pretenders as it went through its formative phases. Superb lead single ‘Death Is A Girl’ won some commercial radio play for its skittish dance-psych sensibility but, as Parkford notes, the track is something of a red herring for the rest of the record.

“It’s kind of all over the place,” he says with a smirk of self-deprecation. “We wrote a lot of material for this record, and we chose out of that a collection that showed the extremes of every side that we were trying to touch upon. ‘Death Is A Girl’ doesn’t represent the bulk of the material – the album draws on West Coast hip-hop to italo disco, to ambient pop and dream pop, a lot of psych. It’s all over the map because we always write material that, as a listener, we’d want to hear. It’s always within this Mini Mansions world, and this record is an instance where we broadened our scope. This is definitely like a buffet of every part of the baseball field,” he concludes, with fitting creative abandon.

Parkford also calls The Great Pretenders a personal album, and thinks that “anyone who does connect to this will take it very personally, not just as a catchy record.” In respect of this, it’s intriguing that, for their follow up, Mini Mansions have departed the small independent label owned by Shuman’s close friend – a chap you might’ve heard of called Josh Homme – in favour of a much larger multinational outfit. In an age of artistic domination by big labels, it’s surprising that a band like Mini Mansions, already with established reputation and little to prove in the way of conquering the world, chose to leave behind Homme’s Rekords Rekords in favour of Capitol.

“It’s actually awesome,” says Shuman of working with a large label, taking me by surprise. It’s not uncommon for sycophancy to creep in when labels come up in conversation in interviews with bands – it is, quite literally, more than their livelihood is worth to badmouth their paymasters – though Shuman doesn’t strike me as the type to tend towards false flattery. “I’ve never had a record on a major label,” he continues. “Even Queens [of the Stone Age] records were never on a major label. And the label’s been amazing. There are hoops because of fucking corporation, but they didn’t tell us one thing about what music we should put out, and how to make it.”

“Josh is one of my closest friends – but he’s not running a record label anymore,” Shuman says with some clear evasion. “[Being with Rekords Rekords] was a great thing because no one told us what to do and they were fully supporting us. But honestly, this experience has been just like that, but with a bigger team to help us get our music out there.”

The band’s single-minded music and their energised attitude to it does spell that the project has remained as close and, indeed, as personal as they might have hoped, though the Royal Blood support slot is an incongruous one that hints of heavy-handed overhead management. Yet Shuman’s contentment seems genuine, and he appears to concur with Parkford that The Great Pretenders has been a refreshingly intimate, personal project – perhaps more so than his work with QOTSA. Josh Homme is the only permanent fixture of a band with revolving doors (Queens has had fifteen members in its twenty year history, each with their own colour coded timeline on Wikipedia) and, though Shuman seems to have stuck, it’s the case that QOTSA is often half-jokingly seen as a solo project with an interchangeable backing band. Now, with Queens on haitus, Shuman takes centre stage in an evidently tightly knit triumvirate.

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Image: Mini Mansions

“The reason we do this is because it makes us happy and we get off on writing music together and listening to it back over and over again,” says Shuman. “I still listen to our music because I think an important part of being in a band is to be in a band that’s basically your favourite band – what your favourite band would be – and make that kind of music. And that’s what we’re doing. [Zach and Tyler] are like my two favourite musicians, so being in this band is so great.”

A continuation of this logic saw Shuman secure Alex Turner in a feature spot for a verse on album track ‘Vertigo’. His Sheffield drawl, sensual and indifferent, is a personification of the qualities Mini Mansions pursue in their music: urgency and complacency, rock that is at once all frills and none. As Shuman says of the collaboration, “there was no-one hounding each other to do this thing, it was just the right time and the right song and the right verse, and it was organic”. It’s this attitude that makes Mini Mansions one of those rare bands with music bigger than their name, as far from Homme and the QOTSA machine as Shuman could hope to get. The distance becomes him, and he seems to think so to.

Onstage half an hour later, Shuman’s leather and grunge is gone, replaced by a crisp white suit. “Let’s have us a dance,” he says to introduce ‘Death Is A Girl’. The crowd is bemused, having been poised to start moshing to Royal Blood lite. Michael, Zach and Tyler live every minute of their short set, jumping and dancing in a blaze of flair and finesse. Royal Blood’s hour is stuffy and self-conscious. Such is the joy of having plenty to give and nothing to prove.

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