Mini Mansions: 'We'd be a pop band in an alternative universe'

The LA rockers are releasing an EP that is 'a different animal' to anything they've attempted before

Roisin O'Connor
Music Correspondent
Friday 21 September 2018 15:56
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Moonlighters: Zach Dawes, Michael Shuman, Tyler Parkford are best known for their roles in other bands
Moonlighters: Zach Dawes, Michael Shuman, Tyler Parkford are best known for their roles in other bands

Mini Mansions don’t get a lot of time to record music together. It’s understandable really, given that the trio also happen to play in some of the world’s biggest rock bands.

Formed in LA just shy of a decade ago, the group are made up of Michael “Mikey” Shuman and Zach Dawes, bassists for Queens of the Stone Age and Last Shadow Puppets, respectively, and Tyler Parkford, who has been touring with Arctic Monkeys since he recorded keys on their latest album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino.

Shuman and Parkford are chilling on the terrace of their palatial (literally, a former palace) hotel in Lisbon, ahead of their bands’ sets at NOS Alive festival, enjoying a pint in the sun and a few cigarettes. They explain that their latest work, a four-track EP titled Works Every Time, is Mini Mansions dipping their toe back in the water after a summer on tour with their main bands – and also something of a reintroduction to their fans.

The new release arrives three years after their second record, The Great Pretenders, which received critical praise and featured guest appearances from Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner and The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. It opens with the title track: a perfect slice of Eighties-influenced pop-rock that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Drive soundtrack, complete with a dry, pulsing synth beat.

“Midnight in Tokyo” deals in the same drawling sleaze as QOTSA’s Josh Homme, with Dawes’s jaunty bass line the perfect fit for Shuman and Parkford’s harmonies. Elsewhere, Darkness looms on the heady “This Bullet”, and there’s a scuzzy, industrial rock interpretation of Edwyn Collin’s 1994 track “A Girl Like You”.

Fans of The Great Pretenders are likely to have picked up on similarities between that earlier record and the Arctic Monkey’s Tranquillty Base, thanks to their mutually sprawling psychedelia, space-age synths and suave lyrical quips.

The comparison has not gone unnoticed. “I was listening to Tranquility Base, which I love, but who knows?” Shuman shrugs, smiling. “We toured with the Monkeys a couple of years ago, and Zach was in Last Shadow Puppets [Alex Turner’s band with Miles Kane], so they were playing together… I’m not taking away from an amazing record, but you do get influenced by being with your friends.”

Works Every Time, however, is “a different animal”, Shuman says. “It took about a week to record in Hollywood with [producer] Cian Riordan, and we did some other songs that will probably be released later on. It’s funny, we were busy with our other bands so we couldn’t do the EP for a while, but at the same time, it’s only been a few years. A lot of bands now have four or five years between records.”

He nods at the suggestion that this “take your time” approach between releases seems to be most common among rock artists, where pop and hip-hop acts tend to bash out single after single, or a steady album every two years. “And I don’t think there’s a gazillion good pop or hip-hop tracks coming out every f***ing day,” he says. “There’s a lot of garbage… [strategy to break streaming records]. Unlike us,” he adds with a laugh. “We’re not gonna get s**t. No records broken. No money made.”

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Works Every Time is much more guitar-centric than Mini Mansions’ two full-length albums: “The Great Pretenders was like our ‘concept album with no concept’,” Shuman says with a laugh.

“I think this is the closest we’d come to making a record where in an alternative universe we’d be a pop band,” he continues, referring to the change in sound from their previous albums. “It’s definitely the closest in terms of what we consider ‘good pop’.”

He and Parkford agree that Mini Mansions, and their other bands, are in “the best zone we’ve ever been in”. Though Shuman acknowledges that the QOTSA tour, in support of last year’s Villains, has not been without controversy.

“Yeah, a lot of people weren’t happy with that,” Shuman says, referring to the incident where Homme was criticised for kicking a female photographer’s camera, which struck her in the face and caused her to spend a night in ER, in December last year. Homme issued two separate apologies, calling himself “a total d**k” and saying sorry to his bandmates and family for embarrassing them, as well as the photographer Chelsea Lauren.

“Without diving too much into it, it was taken way, way out of context,” Shuman says. “He’s got an amazing, strong wife and three kids. Not in your wildest dreams would he ever do it [because it was a woman]. It was unintentional. We have our own photographers that we’ve worked with for years who are pretty much all men, and they might get kicked in the face. They might get hit. If you wanna be on stage with us, that’s kind of the deal.”

“Bruce Springsteen, when he slid at the Super Bowl, crashed right into the camera with his crotch,” Parkford recalls.

The Boss, of course, hasn’t released an album since 2014. And despite the appearance of a small cluster of acclaimed rock albums this year, Shuman is unsure how healthy the genre is right now. “There are only a few bands who are doing it well,” he says. “There’s a big hole, where rock should live. Who are those rock bands? I think our bands are doing a good job of it, but I don’t know many others. I think it’s the fanbase. A generation of kids with streaming and digital listening, it’s being fed to you. Rather than going to a record store and seeing what you’re drawn to.”

“It’s great that hip hop took up where punk left off,” Parkford says, “and I guess there’s independent hip hop just like there were independent punk bands. But all you’re hearing is the Drakes and Kanyes of the world.”

Meanwhile, Mini Mansions are happier trying something new, whether it’s this band or one of their others, because it keeps both them and the audience on their toes.

“That’s kind of our thing, changing things every night, doing things different,” Shuman says, talking about QOTSA’s varying setlists. “It makes it fun for the crowd but it makes it fun for us too. There are bands who do the same s**t every night which is cool but…” he trails off, and Parkford throws in: “But also that ain’t cool.”

It was hard to pick a cover to add to the three original tracks on Works Every Time, he says, because “you could do an obscure song, and then it’s almost like your song because no one knows it. Or you can do one that you’ve heard a hundred times and try to put your own spin on it. We did Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ when we formed the band, to connect with an audience that didn’t know who we were,” he recalls. “Instantly they feel connected in some way. So, with this ‘Girl Like You’ cover it’s kind of the same thing.”

The other three songs of the EP are all “relationship-based”, according to Shuman, although he says they’re about different people: “Midnight In Tokyo”, for example, is largely based on his experiences with his ex-fiancé, following the lifespan of a relationship from its beginning, as two people fall in love, to its eventual end.

What’s admirable is that the band explore ideas of female sexuality and power from a male perspective, testing the boundaries of what a traditional love song can be, without allowing their own egos to take over. Shuman is pleased with this interpretation, recalling how the band received a very different reaction to their controversial video for “Vertigo”, which was inspired by Italian horror films. “We got a lot of flak for nudity... but to us, that wasn’t the intention at all,” he says.

“I feel like we were trying to be more concise, on this record, and objective, and have a core that we’re all revolving around,” Parkford says. “This is genuinely a lot more human. We’re different writers at the moment, and I think we’ll always be exploring.”

“Our past songs all meant something to us, but we were putting a bit of a mask on,” Shuman says. “But whether that was because we were scared to be fully vulnerable, I don’t know. I think we’re just older.”

“‘Works Every Time’ is the breakdown of a relationship, basically, a universal experience of one, which doesn’t end well,” Parkford suggests. “But then that’s like every great tragedy.”

The ‘Works Every Time’ EP is out on 24 September; new single ‘Midnight In Tokyo’ is out now

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