Mi Ami “If a song is laid down too strictly, then we’d just be following the rules.”

San Francisco trio Mi Ami have a distinct volatility. From the scratchy jungle-as-disco percussion and the feathered Mardi Gras album cover of new record Watersports to the wide-eyed falsetto vocals and the screechy and unpredictable guitar stabs, there's a massive and deranged vibrancy to their stuff. Comprised of two members of Black Eyes (amazingly thrashy hyperpunk on Dischord), Daniel Martin-McCormick and Jacob Long, as well as Damon Palermo, the group takes punk and infuses it with elements of dub, free jazz, and (almost) dance music.

Their debut LP Watersports is a surprise in many ways. Ditching the concrete relentlessness of earlier EP African Rhythms (which occupied a similar full space to that of Black Eyes grime) and focusing further on dynamics and more open spaces, it runs on with plodding dub and disco beats on a dancefloor graced with the ghost of Albert Ayler. And by allowing themselves space in which to move around, they're only building on that particular volatility, even if it's as much focused on the deft and the restrained.

I felt a little bad when I called Daniel Martin-McCormick: it was real early in the day, right before they were to embark on a (LONG) UK/Europe tour, and he had a bit of a cold. But that didn't deter what is obvious a super-enthused and lovely guy from exposing a lot of the inner workings of a band in an America that I'm sure would be many times as deranged as Mi Ami's sound.



I was really getting into the African Rhythms EP. I thought that sounded a lot like Black Eyes, but with this tropical kind of edge in all the rhythms. It's more relentlessly thrashy than Watersports, which feels much more spacious. I was wondering if there was any particular interest you were pursuing on Watersports in that sense?

I think, in general, one thing that happens with a lot of bands is in their early stuff, the space is all full up -- and then as they progress, it starts to open up and you get better at exploring the shading and different textures and more defined nuances. I mean, you can hear it in even Minor Threat, for example; if you listen to the complete discography, you hear this gradual opening up as they go on -- even every couple of songs -- and by the time you get to Out Of Step with tracks like “Betray” or “Little Friend,” these songs have a lot more dynamic to the earlier stuff. One thing about Watersports that a lot of people have commented on -- and people talked about the last Black Eyes album in this way too -- is that it doesn't really capture the live sound. Some people like it a lot, and some are a little disappointed, not so much with the songs themselves but maybe more with the production. I like the sound of it, but live, we are a bit more blown out. The thing with the record is it's really compelling to explore the space you can create in songs, but I don't know... I think we all like music that is powerful and intense but that is also spacious at the same time. With African Rhythms, a lot of people liked it, because that track, it's so bludgeoning in some ways, but then you flip it over and the B-side is much more spacious and more calm to me than any of the songs on Watersports. In some ways, Watersports is kind of halfway in between.

Yeah, it seems that way; you can certainly hear the spaciousness and the way you're playing off each other, and I was thinking, almost in a free jazz kind of way; it feels semi-improvised.

Well, the songs aren't improvised at all. Improvisation with a capital I is something we don't do. We do improvise within the structures of our songs, but it's more like, we basically write songs that are relatively solid, but then we can move through the parts with a great kind of flexibility, and some of the idea or the reason we do this is because we need space to play the songs, to access the essence of the song every time instead of being beholden to a rigorous structure and amount of repetition. So if we play, say, “Echonoecho,” to map out each verse would be silly, because the whole point of that is to use this minimalist approach and to repeat it until we get this beat and this feeling and it starts to open up. That's something I've heard free jazz musicians talk about a lot, playing one thing over and over again and eventually, like, the saxophone starts to let them play and be in conversation with the instrument and it would open up to the song. I think we have our songs written in such a way that we give ourselves room for them to open up to us. The songs are, in a way, very much alive, and we have to work with them and answer to them. If a song is laid down too strictly, then we'd just be following the rules. But yeah, none of the parts on the record are improvised parts; we didn't just start with a little riff and jam from there -- they're very much songs.

"I really detest the word tribal. I mean, it's so racist, if you look at it."


I guess the reason it almost sounds improvised is because it's super frenetic and there's a big tension for me between the volatile and the restrained, because it feels really controlled but then there'll be these flourishes of, say, your vocals being real loud or guitar shreddage. Actually, I saw an interview where you were talking about a Suicide song that totally let loose in the middle; that made a lot of sense in terms of Watersports.

Yeah, I remember thinking when we first started to write it that I wanted it to be like a weird boxing match or something. So you'd be engaged the whole time, but there are particular moments of attack and then you have to pull back. I think for me it's a little bit more interesting than just playing all attack all the time, although I guess we do kind of play with much more attack [laughs].

I was wondering, in terms of danceability -- because for me there's a post/punk feel to a lot of the rhythms -- how much you thought about dancing and dance music in terms of the sound you're making.

Well, Damon and I especially always do listen to a lot of dance music of one variety or another, and I like post/punk, but I don't really consider a lot of it dance music or dancey. And in a way, even if a lot of people dance at our shows, a big influence is, ah, well... I think a lot of post/punk bands come along and they've got these parts where it's like “this is the dancey part!” [makes disco bass line with voice], and it's this little arbitrary so-called disco beat. But I think with us, it's more being really into, well, I know there's a genre called "body music," but we prefer that term to cover a much wider sound, like any beat-heavy music that engages with the body and dominates your senses in that way, whether its dancehall or punk or disco or African disco or techno or whatever. A lot of the stuff we listen to at home is beat-heavy or groove-based music: body music. So, I think that's what it's about for us; finding these feelings, but it's very natural -- I mean, we never sat down and thought, well, it should be dancey and noisy. I think it is an influence, but people ask about it as if it's something we would've calculated, but we just play and when it feels good we go with it. I think a lot of people have appropriated dance music in this way that is garish or ironic, but for us it's much more about being pure; just making this music with respects for whatever genre, but it's not about us doing anything too deliberate, more feeling it. We just did this remix for Telepathe [that] is all electronic, but it still feels like us, even if it's more dance music-sounding.

Totally, I was thinking how it made a lot of sense you guys doing that remix. So in terms of that innateness that seems like dance, or body music, like you say, is generally about, it's kind of interesting how the word “tribal” gets chucked around about it, and it's always been problematic for me. I mean, it's kind of separate from you guys, because it's what people say or write, but I was wondering what you thought about that?

I really detest the word tribal. I mean, it's so racist, if you look at it. Because first of all, which tribe are you talking about? It reduces this huge spectrum of musical practices from across a couple of different continents to basically just [makes “tribal”/funny beat with voice], you know, just like beer commercial music or something like that. And yeah, it goes to show how little music writing in the underground is actually serious/thoughtful music criticism or is actually engaging with music on some terms. Because the fact that this term is in practice in our world is just kind of disgusting to me; it's just so broad to relate to this sort of music. I think what people are talking about, though, is a certain tempo that can be lulling or hypnotic and is not too fast, with drums in the forefront and beats that aren't kick and snare centric, that have toms. So fine, we have that, but to call it tribal is ridiculous. It's like this term that you use when you don't know how to actually talk about it.

Yeah, it's the ultimate white man kind of reduction.

Yeah, and we do like the stuff that people might be referencing when they use the word -- we like music from Africa, and we do like drums -- but yeah, we like a lot of stuff. I don't really feel like we're a tribal group. I mean, aesthetically of course we just look like regular guys. But if you listen to the music, maybe the drums will catch your attention as they should, because that's how we wrote it, with just as much bass as there is drums and vocal and guitars. It's not like the drums are in the forefront; it's like everything's in the forefront. We're not trying to be primitive or future primitive or kitschy or anything. I mean, I don't get super pissed about it, but it's just a bit wrong, kind of a nonsense word, you know.

"I think a lot of people have appropriated dance music in this way that is garish or ironic, but for us it's much more about being pure."


Absolutely, yeah. There is something that people love to write about, that primitivism thing -- it seems to resonate especially at the moment in a political way, some sort of humanism or something. But yeah, I was interested how much you guys felt the whole recession thing effected the stuff you're making or your lives in general?

It's been coming for a little while I think. Certainly on Watersports, some of the tracks and, well, the title of the record is a reference to the political climate, although at the time we were thinking more about the war in Iraq. Watersports has a couple of different meanings for us; one of them is, you know, you hear a lot about torture and there is this feeling of being sickened by sporting with other peoples lives for some profit, like Cheney and his cohorts, stuff like that. And very much in the same way, the housing crisis that's going on; it's just unbelievable in a way that someone could take that much disregard and be so reckless with other peoples' lives for a little more money, and to me that's what's so disgusting about it. It's not even to make a big amount of money; it's when you already have a lot of money, sporting with peoples' lives just for another little drop in the bucket. With the band, our jobs are stable enough, although other people's certainly aren't. There's a tiny little silver lining that comes with all the problems at the moment in that gas is cheaper at the moment so it's easier to go on tour, but I would gladly trade expensive gas for people having their homes back, you know. It's a really sad climate to be in, because everything is effected and you can trace it back to this get-rich-quick scheme that a couple of people have engineered in order to make that little bit more money. It breaks my heart.

It's pretty perverse. It seems like across Watersports there is this essence of despair, captured in this volatile sound; it's an interesting way to capture this contemporary feeling. And the idea of, say, rock music and “rocking out” -- on a more musical note now -- it seems like you guys do that in a similarly oblique way than say more mainstream rock music.

Yeah, speaking of structural or emotional content, we're really not interested in being some hips-thrust-forward rock stars or lyrically to tell people what to think; it's important that the lyrics are an emotional reaction to a certain situation, so like my experience of living in a certain situation. So, “African Rhythms”; it's not about Africa, but rather what it's like and how it feels to live in a nation that is this neo-colonial thing. And the songs on the record have a lot to do with feelings of living in America at this time or even just to be in my body at a time of personal crisis. Rock tropes as far as [makes funk rock riff with voice] like some Lenny Kravitz riff or some shit [laughs] -- to me it's just not powerful. I really want to access something that is powerful, you know, something that's a signifier, maybe not as traditionally but not trying to be weird, just trying to be real. Playing a sick riff might work for some people, but not for me. In some ways, we're fumbling around in the dark when we're writing songs, trying to find something that works, but they're intense parts for me to play.

It's funny, my job is doing sound at this club; I'm a sound man, and a lot of times bands will come in and be doing some cock rock or hard rock thing, and sometimes they're good, but sometimes they're just so bland. I've seen so many prime examples of people doing everything right and by the book, but they're still just going through the motions. It really has taught me a lot about what I want to do, like who cares about doing things the way you're supposed to do them? It's better to do the way they need to be done in order to access some heavy shit instead of wasting people's time and being generic.

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