Microbunny’s Al Okada
interviewed by Terri-Ann Thomas
Starting out as nothing more than experimenting with computer technology, Al Okada’s hobby has become his career. With two successful albums under his belt, his group Microbunny is back with their third album, 49 Swans. A new look and a new sound, Microbunny makes a conscious decision to ensure that their fans not only play their album once, but also plays it over and over again. In just a week before their album release party, Al Okada talks with MVRemix.
MVRemix: Why the name 49 Swans?
Al Okada: It’s a fragment of a lyric the singer Rebecca Campbell came up with, that was part of a beautiful metaphor she used during the song to indicate some imagery, to indicate black and white. It had a nice ring to it and just felt right.
MVRemix: Let’s backtrack a little bit, because this isn’t your first album. As a member of King Cobb Steelie, your album, Project Twinkle was nominated for a Juno Award, what was that like?
Al Okada: It was an exciting time for us, flattering to get nominated for that. The most exciting thing was working with the producer, Bill Laswell, that was a real thrill for us. We were big fans of his music, so to actually get to work with him was real fun and that record was actually the one that was nominated, so that was icing on the cake.
MVRemix: And you formed that group in university, correct?
Al Okada: Yeah, we were quite young. I’ve known the other members a long time. The main guy, Kevan Byrne, I met him in high school actually.
MVRemix: What advice would you give to that young group right now, that’s driving their parents crazy in their basement or garage?
Al Okada: [laughs] Well, keep doing it, as long as it’s fun, keep doing it, that’s the whole thing. For us, there were no expectations really, we did it because we enjoyed doing it and if it seems to work then it’s usually it. If it becomes difficult and it’s a lot of hard work and that kind of thing, then something’s not right. When it’s all working, it’s a lot of fun.
MVRemix: So you were with them for seven Yeahrs, is that right?
Al Okada: Yeah, I think that’s right, yup.
MVRemix: What was the deciding factor for leaving that group?
Al Okada: Well, I’d reached kind of a crossroad; it was a personal decision. It was a financial decision as well. The touring would force me to have to leave my full-time job. It was a tough decision, I really wanted to continue on but I couldn’t do that. So I decided to part ways with them and do something on my own instead, which I could do more on my own schedule.
MVRemix: I read that some of your influences are Brian Eno and David Lynch, what would you say you’ve taken from them and incorporated into your own writing and performances?
Al Okada: Well, Brian Eno I think, first and foremost, I’ve listened to his music for so long, since I was a little kid, believe it or not. And it’s just the way that he approaches things. I think his musical ethic is the thing that I’ve really taken to heart. His thing was that he didn’t really have to be technically proficient at any instrument to make good music with it. Technical proficiency wasn’t terribly important and I found that really quite exciting because that’s almost like a punk rock ethic, you know? His music was some of the most interesting of all because he’s not bound by any of the normal trappings of a trained technically proficient musician, so he comes up with things that they would have never thought of because it’s something completely fresh and new. I’ve tried to incorporate that into my music as well. I’m not technically proficient at any one instrument either. A lot of times I just love trying new instruments because it’s something completely new and I just come up with things that I would have never thought of.
David Lynch is more of an abstract thing. He uses a lot of dream imagery [in his films] and that sort of style affected me in a certain way that I found really exciting and I often use dream imagery in my music as well. I’ve read his biography too, he tends to just let things evolve naturally and doesn’t really think about them too much, in fact he does the exact opposite and tries not to think about it at all, so that things will just come out naturally and I like that idea as well. I try to do that when I compose, I don’t try to think about anything actually. [laughs] [I] just let it come out.
MVRemix: In the midst of forming Microbunny, which I love the name by the way, what was your vision for the group?
Al Okada: In the very beginning it really didn’t start with anything more than just me goofing around with computer technology and trying to make music on my own. When I started, the home recording PC world had become affordable for the average person. So, it was a whole new world to me because before that you had to pretty much go into a studio and it cost a lot of money to make a multi-track recording. It wasn’t something that you could do on your own because that would take a long time. Once they developed computers that you could do home recordings on, you could take your time and do it all by yourself. So for me, it just became a way of writing and recording music and I thought well ‘this is fun,’ and some of it sounded like songs that needed a singer and since I’m not really a singer, I found someone to sing. Then we had to call it something, so we decided to call it Microbunny. At that time there were no intentions of actually playing, it was more like an after thought really.
MVRemix: You said you just “decided to call it Microbunny,” was there any real reason behind the name?
Al Okada: Well [laughs], it was a stupid nickname that I had picked up in King Cobb Steelie. Well, not exactly that, but a variation of a nickname that they’d called me and it was kind of a self-deprecating thing to call this band this name, Microbunny. Then they stopped calling me it [laughs].
MVRemix: You’ve successfully had two prior albums, one self-titled, Microbunny and the other, Dead Stars, what was different about the process of 49 Swans?
Al Okada: The main difference with 49 Swans is the collaboration with the new singer I’ve been working with, Rebecca Campbell, which was a whole different way of working and I found that really exciting. I did record a lot on this record quite a bit because the last two records I was still quite reliant on the computer as a means of creating some of the music. I tended to use a lot of drum loops so it had an electronica sort of feel to it. This album though, I tried as much as possible to not do that just because I found that a little bit limiting and I found myself getting into a little bit of a rut. So I decided to try and break out of that and intentionally try to remove that as much as possible, I think I’ve removed it [drum looping] completely.
MVRemix: Why is it important for you to have such a unique approach to your live performances?
Al Okada: It’s partly because I think the music itself is such a hard thing to try to recreate in a live setting that’s created in an isolated, personal environment. When we play live we wanted to try to make it an actual live performance as opposed to a lot of electronic music, which I found when you went to see the artist play, a lot of it you couldn’t tell what they were doing, you would just see guys up there behind black tops and you know they’re doing something, but you’re not really sure what they were doing. I wanted to try to actually perform the music and so hopefully someone who had the record would enjoy the record as one thing, but then when they saw us live it would be almost like an interpretation of the songs [on the record].
MVRemix: You mentioned adding Rebecca to this project, why the change in band members?
Al Okada: A few reasons really, but one of the main reasons was just becoming stale and not wanting to do the same thing. Tamara Robinson, who I was working with on the first two records, I think she felt the same way and we just decided that we had used each other up. [laughs] It’s kind of a funny way of putting it but we sort of fed off each other for a while and then we weren’t surprising each other anymore I think, we became predictable in a way. So, we just went our separate ways and decided to try to work with someone else.
MVRemix: What do you want to see happen with 49 Swans?
Al Okada: I’d really love to have a lot of people hear it. That’s what my main goal is. I’m not entirely certain about live performances and how much we’ll play or not play. We’re just getting started with starting to perform again so we’ll see how that goes, but I’d love to have this album heard as much as possible. I’d love it to be used in films and television as well too, that sort of thing. A lot of it comes from that idea of it being a soundtrack to something. It’s very interesting for me to see it used in that way.
MVRemix: What is the best part of performing live for you?
Al Okada: It’s hard to describe, but just when it all clicks. There’s something that’s very different from recording, which is when the whole band plays as a single unit. It sounds kind of corny, but that’s when it’s really exciting. You can just feel it when it’s working and it makes it all worthwhile when it’s properly conveying that feeling you had when you wrote the song, and even more so when the audience picks up on that as well.
MVRemix: How important is it for you to make good music and not just make music?
Al Okada: For me, that’s the whole point. I don’t think I would be doing it if it was just alright, or just music that’s not really exciting me, then I wouldn’t bother doing it. That’s part of the reason why this record took me so long to make because it took me quite awhile to become excited about it, in a different way that I hadn’t done before and to compile enough of it to make up a whole album. So for me, that’s the driving force behind doing anything at all, is the music itself and to have it be exciting to me.
MVRemix: What was that writing and collaborating process like?
Al Okada: It wasn’t that much different from working with Tamara Williamson. I just gave the bare bones of the track to Rebecca and she would sit with it for a while and listen to it and then she would compose lyrics in the melody line and then come back after a period of time and record it. So, it’s a very isolated, different approach and it was always an exciting day when she was going to come over and do her part because I hadn’t heard it before.
MVRemix: For 49 Swans, you mentioned you wanted as much people to hear it as possible, what do you want people to feel when listening to your album?
Al Okada: I’d like people to feel that it’s something that they hadn’t quite heard before. I think that would be interesting. The music is pretty dark, a lot of the stuff I’ve written it always comes out that way [new and interesting]. So, if they get that from it I think that’s doing something good.
MVRemix: Just a bit of trivia for you, which of your songs has the line, “How we love to laugh, just to hear the sound?”
Al Okada: (pauses) Oh, that’s September Blues.
MVRemix: What is the meaning behind that song?
Al Okada: It means a bunch of different things, but it’s a funny relationship that Rebecca and I sort of intentionally did. When she would write lyrics for the songs, I asked her to try to make them ambiguous so that it wasn’t overtly obvious what the songs were about. If she had a specific meaning for it, to disguise it so that for people that are listening to it, it would have many different meanings or it would be different for everybody that heard it. So it had that affect, I don’t know exactly what any of the songs mean and for me that’s good because I get a sense of what it’s about, but there’s a bit of mystery to it. I just get a feeling from it, which is what I’m hoping that everyone else gets as well.
MVRemix: A youtube member by the name of, SomeProudCanadian, referred to you as the “trip-hop master,” how do you respond to that?
Al Okada: [laughs] That’s very flattering. I really don’t know what to say to that. I think that when he hears the new record he’ll probably remove my crown [laughs], because it’s not really trip-hop anymore.
MVRemix: You collaborated with your former band member, Kevin Lynn, how did that come about?
Al Okada: He just called me up, kind of out of the blue [just to say hi] and I gave him sort of the latest things I’d been doing and he suggested that he wanted to remix something, so of course I said yes. I love what he does. And he sent me back something that knocked me on my ass it was so good. Then he asked me to do something of one of his tracks and we decided to do a couple and then release an EP. So it was just a natural fun thing that we did and it worked out really well. We’re planning on doing another collaboration, this time a more ambience sort of thing. It was a lot of fun, quick and painless.
MVRemix: Earlier you spoke about being on stage, if you had the chance to share the stage with anyone in the world, who would it be?
Al Okada: Oh geez, (pauses) I know, the trumpeter Jon Hassell. That guy is just a master, I’d want him to come and play trumpet for one of our songs. Through a weird email accident, I stumbled into a guy who repaired some of his [Jon Hassell] equipment and I gave him some of my music and he got it to him and he [Jon Hassell] sent me a nice note back, he said he really liked it. So, I’ve got it framed [laughs]. It was just flattering to hear him say he liked it.
MVRemix: What has been the most rewarding part of your career?
Al Okada: When someone says that they just really love my record, for me, that’s the whole reason for doing it.
MVRemix: What else do you want your fans and people who don’t know you as yet to know about Microbunny?
Al Okada: Just that we try to make honest music.