Psychic Rites frontman Mike Siemens opens up about what it means to struggle against your work.
? © Kentaro Murai
by guest writer Rachel Siemens
In 2001, Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo reportedly told Entertainment Weekly that Pinkerton was, “[…] a hideous record… It was such a hugely painful mistake that happened in front of hundreds of thousands of people and continues to happen on a grander and grander scale and just won’t go away. It’s like getting really drunk at a party and spilling your guts in front of everyone[…], and then waking up the next morning and realizing what a complete fool you made of yourself.”
We don’t often hear about the artist that hates their work.
It’s not that they’re rare; I would argue that we all hate our work at some point in the creative process. It’s an invaluable component that, if leveraged correctly, will push your work to better places. But it’s also a tricky emotion to navigate, because it requires an artist to pass the test of their own ego – which is arguably one of the more challenging aspects of the vocation, given the number of artists who quit their craft because of it. Cuomo tells us as much in this quote, and he’s far from the first to experience it.
Kurt Cobain famously hated “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and I can’t help but believe Chad Kroeger of Nickelback has some sonic regrets — though he has yet to publicly voice them. Franz Kafka is reported to have burned over 90% of his writings and instructed his best friend, Max Brod, to destroy the rest in his passing. Ultimately, Brod disregarded the request and posthumously published Amerika, The Trial, and The Castle. This led to a messy series of hand-changing over the ownership of Kafka’s work after Brod himself passed on.
Elif Bautman outlined the exchange in The New York Times: “The situation has repeatedly been called Kafkaesque, reflecting, perhaps, the strangeness of the idea that Kafka can be anyone’s private property. Isn’t that what Brod demonstrated, when he disregarded Kafka’s last testament: that Kafka’s works weren’t even Kafka’s private property but, rather, belonged to humanity?”
Kafka, Cobain, and Cuomo all held different surface motivations for their posture towards their work — lack of audience, the wrong kind of fame, shame — but they were all rooted in a dissatisfied ego. None of them actually failed; they had just perceived it as such. If that element is the tie that binds across creative fields, then why do so few talk about it?
“Yeah, I haven’t heard anyone else talk about hating their own stuff,” Psychic Rites frontman Mike Siemens tells me over a healthy pile of herbs he harvested recently from his garden. The space we’re in is large and low-ceilinged, ambitiously filled with the paraphernalia of a creative couple who chase variety — a wife’s kiln, oil paints, and screen printing set-up mingle with a husband’s woodworking tools, stack of synths mid-repair, and gardening supplies. Siemens picks through the flora and continues, “I don’t think most people like to talk about it. There’s a lot of mysticism in music and I think the general sense is if you are down on your own work, then no one else is going to listen to it.”
Coming from an artist who has been making music for well over 15 years, I find the statement surprising. Then again, who wants to revel in their perceived failure? As he and I continue down the path of wrestling with the work I recount the story of Cuomo’s reaction to Pinkerton. Siemens responds, “That’s funny. That’s exactly how I feel about this album.”
“This album” being Cult_Memo, Psychic Rites’ first full-length released in September of this year. Given the deeply personal nature of the work, it’s understandable that Siemens would identify with Cuomo’s feelings of overexposure.
Stream: Cult_Memo – Psychic Rites
“I’m kind of afraid that this sensation is not going to go away for any of my work ever. And that’s something I want to learn how to deal with, because I want to continue to write. I don’t think I have a choice but to continue to write. I do it no matter what.” Siemens takes an extended pause to clean a bit of herb before gently placing it in a quart-sized mason jar, “I’ve always known with previous work that it may not be perfect, but that there’s something there. Some kind of kernel of goodness. And I need to look at this album with that same perspective.”
Cult_Memo was written over a five-year period within which Siemens lost his religion (a process that for many requires a passage through the stages of grief as much as any physical death), graduated from college, moved to a new city, signed with the label Waxploitation, and welcomed his daughter into the world. Each song serves as a pearl drop memoir of this time – all strung through with crunchy synths, hollow honeycombed vocals, and heavily flecked with textural pings, zaps, and bell tones. At its heart, it’s an album made for anyone looking to dance through the horror that is the human condition. (Hot tip: Take “Concrete” for a spin if you’re looking to party through a bout of seasonal affective ego death).
While the feeling of exposure is one element of Siemens/ discomfort, another issue that he keeps coming back to is how long the process took. “I think the time it took is mostly what killed this album for me. I think if I put it out five years ago and then looked at it now I’d probably feel a lot differently about it. With any good art, it always happens really quick. It may take a while to refine it, but there is something about that initial guttural feeling that you get when you’re making, which is why you continue to work on it. Having to sit with it for so long made me second guess a lot of what I was doing on some of the songs. They took on an overworked quality. All of the immediacy and urgency was kind of removed.”
Siemens’ vulnerability in discussing his work is refreshing. Not many artists are willing to work through perceived pain points in both process and product and how they plan to avoid them the next time around. He notes that the root of his dissatisfaction lay in his concern over the intimate nature of Cult_Memo. “My biggest problem with the whole album is the vocals. I think I was really afraid to express emotion because of how personal these songs were. I don’t know why I was afraid. I love emotive music. I love it. I’ve been listening to all of Stephin Merritt’s catalogue for a week now.”
I think I was really afraid to express emotion because of how personal these songs were.
Listening through Cult_Memo, it’s easy to hear the truth of the matter. That Siemens’ opinion, much like Kafka and Cuomo before him, is wrong. The album has more about it that works than doesn’t. “She” is a prime example: A vaguely industrial track with cold, shimmering vocals as dark and drawn out as a shadow in winter. From the tight-synthed bravado and surf-inspired guitar licks peppered throughout dark disco hit “Alone at Night,” to the subversion of form that is the meditation on forgiveness in “Alter Call,” to the gorgeous breathy dream pop of “Wake,” Cult_Memo carries the listener from dark to light through the spectrum of human experience and emotion.
It’s a solid effort, and one that turns somber themes danceable for fans of Depeche Mode, The Cure, Giorgio Moroder, and The Knife — certainly not one worth embarrassment.
But ego isn’t rational, which is something Siemens is aware of.
“If I could take my ego out of the whole process, then I think my work would benefit. What I’m going to do next is not write about myself,” Siemens says with a laugh. “I think that’ll give me enough space to not be so involved in the song personally and to also not feel like a fuck-up when things don’t necessarily go my way musically. Making music or any kind of art is, you’re just like a channel. If you’re out the way, it’ll be able to flow a lot more easily. I’m still trying to figure out how to remove myself, I’m not good at it yet.”
As Siemens points out, removing the ego may be the best course of action for an artist. It allows the work to stream unfettered by premature judgment and opens up a viewpoint for one to look objectively at a thing that, by its very nature, fights definition. I understand the struggle myself. I’ve never been happy with creative output that’s tied too closely to my vulnerabilities. Regardless of how it was received. Isn’t that always the way, though? That we are, every one of us, our harshest critic.
Twenty years had to pass before Rivers Cuomo was able to make peace with Pinkerton. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he was able to describe the thing he had hated for so long as, “super-deep, brave, and authentic.” Separating yourself from the perception of failure is a difficult task, but it’s not impossible. While Mike Siemens may still be in the thick of it, what Cuomo’s embrace lets us know is that it’s possible to, for lack of a better term, just get over yourself. It’s a vital practice for all, despite discipline.
In the meantime, artists can take heart in the lesson of Kafka and Cobain — that good work stands despite its creator’s opinion. And Cult_Memo is good work.
Rachel Siemens is a writer living in Portland, OR who , coincidentally enough, happens to be related to the subject of the piece. #FullDisclosure. Follow her on Twitter @_RSiemens and Instagram @siemensrachel.
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? © Kentaro Murai