Interview: A Q&A with David Mikkelson and Nathan Hope of Boise, ID-Based Indie Electro Pop Act, Shades

Comprised of Louie Bash (synthesizers, samplers), David Mikkelson (vocals), Nathan Hope (drums) and Tom Racine (guitar), the Boise, ID-based electro pop quartet Shades derived their band’s name from the concept of synesthesia, the neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second. Those afflicted by the condition often describe experiencing the sensation of color when listening to sound or of experiencing the sensation of color while thinking of numbers, among other things. Interestingly, they employ this concept the most, during their live shows, which employ the use of a uniquely designed light display that flood the stage and audience with colors based on the song performed at the time — and the light display is carefully calculated down to each note and beat played within each song.

The quartet’s debut effort, Clear Motions was released in 2012 to critical praise nationally with Paste Magazine listing them as one of their “10 Idaho Bands You Should Listen to Right Now” and other blogs comparing their sound favorably to the likes of Animal CollectiveWashed Out and Ratatat. And with such attention nationally, the members of Shades spent the next three years writing and recording the material that because the material on the quartet’s recently released sophomore effort, Common Desire.

Written over the course of a couple of frigid winters and balmy summers, the material on Common Desire reportedly is inspired from and draws from the climate it was written in and from the personal experiences, thoughts, feelings and sensations of its songwriters — while sonically, the material seems to owe a subtle debt to contemporary acts including Beacon, Seoul, Bear in Heaven, and Cut Copy, as well as to contemporary R&B. “Balloon,” the album’s second single consists of finger snaps, layers of sinuous synths and wobbling bass paired with ethereally cooed, come hither-like vocals. Although bracing, the song manages to evoke jumping into a cold pool and gently floating towards the surface. “Gasp,” the album’s third single owes the biggest debt to contemporary R&B and pop as layers of undulating and buzzing synths are paired with boom bap-inspired drums; arguably, the song may be the most sensual song on the album, as it sounds like it borrows liberally from classic Quiet Storm-era R&B. “No Other Way,” begins with layers of shimmering, cascading synths, some hip-hop like swagger, wobbling bass, a burst of shimmering guitar, and anthemic hooks before ending with a the shimmering synths that began the song, Common Desire’s first released single “Time Back” consists of icily cascading layers of stabbing synths that evoke sleet and snow, paired with Mikkelson’s dreamily detached vocals. Sonically and thematically, the song revolves around the loneliness and regret that comes up when one looks back at their lives, and wonder how exactly they got where they are now.

Certainly, each song is propulsive and slickly produced electro pop but they come from a deeply sincere place, expressing uncertainty and in a variety of ways and ultimately conquering it without losing one’s vulnerability and honesty. And as a result, I think that the Boise-based quartet’s work will resonate with a number of people; in particular, the album reminds me of the uncertainties and awkwardness of the post-college years, when many people are beginning to truly learn who and what they really are and are about, and how that compares to what they thought they were.

I recently spoke to Shades’ David Mikkelson and Nathan Hope via email about their recently released album, Common Desire, their influences, their uniquely designed light show employed during their live sets, the best bands out of Boise that we should be paying attention to, and much more. Check it out below.

L to R: Nathan Hope, David James, Tom Racine, Louie Bash Photo Credit: Louie Bash
L to R: Nathan Hope, David Mikkelson, Tom Racine, Louie Bash Photo Credit: Louie Bash
Top left: Tom Racine Top right: Louie Bash Bottom left: David James Bottom right: Nathan Hope Photo Credit: Louie Bash
Top left: Tom Racine Top right: Louie Bash Bottom left: David Mikkelson Bottom right: Nathan Hope Photo Credit: Louie Bash

Common Desire Cover Art

WRH: Please tell us something cool about you or your hometown of Boise that my readers, based primarily in NYC and elsewhere wouldn’t have necessarily known.

David Mikkelson: People are actually happy when they say Hi. It is a friendly group which can be interpreted as fake but it isn’t. Some of the realest/friendliest people here.

Boise has a pretty incredible local music scene. There’s a lot of diversity and bands are really supportive of one another. The city’s administration is also really supportive of local arts and provides all kinds of grants and other avenues for broadening access to local music. Boise has been described as [a] sort of a miniaturized Portland (OR). We definitely have that sort of “gone-green Pacific Northwest” culture within the city, but less-so once you’ve left the city limits.

Nathan Hope: Treefort Music Festival is also a huge component in bringing new bands to the city who’ve never been here before and offers musicians like us a way to meet and network with bands from all over the country. We’ve made a lot of very close friends in other bands from within the U. and other parts of the world by playing the festival. The whole event itself is pretty cherished by the Boise community.

WRH: How did you get into music and when did you know that it was your calling?

DM: I was in 5th grade messing around with MTV music generator and that developed into an obsession which leads me right where I am today. There wasn’t a climactic moment where I realized this is what I wanted to do with my life more like a slow unveiling. Almost as if it was always there.

NH: I was always a band nerd throughout elementary school to high school. I loved performing in front of people. I was a T.A. for orchestra and jazz band, which let me get out of other classes and spend more time in the band room and at competition festivals. I was in several pop punk bands toward the end of high school (circa 2004-2005) and started playing house parties, and opening for bigger bands at local all-ages venues. Going to see bands like The Get Up Kids and Saves The Day in small venues with my friends are some of my favorite memories.

WRH: Who are your influences?

DM: My influences are always changing but as of right now I would say I have three to four. Phantogram, which is my most recent favorite band. Tame Impala, specifically with their latest album Currents. I have had that on repeat for a while now. And last but not least Boise bands Thick Business and Foul Weather. They are so damn talented and bring serious energy live it’s hard not to get inspired.

NH: M[y]B[loody] V[alentine], RIDE, Botch, Pavement, Broken Social Scene, Sigur Ros, Prince, Pedro the Lion, Jaga Jazzist, and so on.

WRH: The first time I heard “Time Back” and the rest of the songs off Common Desire, my initial thought was “their sound seems to draw quite a bit from the likes of Beacon, Cut Copy, Bear in Heaven, contemporary R&B and pop and 80s synth pop — and in a similar way to many to the artists on Cascine Records. Did any of those acts of genres have an influence on your sound? And if so, how much?

DM: We are fans of them and love what they do but I wouldn’t say they were our primary influences. Although it’s hard sometimes to distinguish where the influence lies currently because the amount of music and listening that goes on every day.

NH: Cascine was actually one of the first labels we pitched the record to, haha. Their lineup is always on point.

WRH: How did the members of the band meet?

DM: I was making electronic music and found Louie in a coffee shop (we were friends of friends) and found out that he made very similar style of music. We collabed and formed Ghost Club, and that transformed into shades over time. Tom and Louie had mutual friends, as well as Nate, and slowly things just fell into place.

WRH: How would you describe your sound?

DM: We love to genre hop and make the music we want to make. However with that being said I say we would fall into Synthpop / Synthwave. Aaaand a dollop of R&B.

NH: Yeah, we’re kinda all over the place sometimes. Try to keep it a little dreamy and a little sexy.

WRH: From press notes, I understand that the band’s name is affiliated with the neurological phenomenon in which the stimulation of one sensory of cognitive pathway leads to an involuntary experiences in a second. In other words, the afflicted person may experience a profound emotional connection when they see colors (which is the most common from what I understand). Others experience colors with numbers, feelings with numbers or numbers conveying musical tones, etc. How does this concept influence your sound and songwriting approach?

DM: Well that concept is more prevalent for the live performance. The actually song writing is more standard. I mean we could start to explore different techniques of songwriting that incorporated the concept of synesthesia which would be pretty rad.

WRH: I also understand that the phenomenon of synesthesia also influences your live show as you use a uniquely designed light show with colors based on the particular song being played at the time, carefully calculated to the beat. Who came up with that idea? And how exactly do you manage to work out the beats to color?

DM: The idea was pretty collective and each had a part to play in making it into a reality. The lights all lead into a “Brain” which is then connected to a computer and manually synched up with each song/beat. It definitely is a time consuming process.

NH: To further expand on what David said, we use a custom-built midi controller (sort of like an Arduino) that synchronizes midi notes on the computer with the tall LED pillars that we have on stage.

WRH: How did you come up with the album title? Was Common Desire, the first and only album title?

DM: We all felt that was the closest concept that tied all the songs together. It wasn’t our first though. We definitely had a couple horrendous titles that might have gotten us mistaken for black metal band.

WRH: I’ve listened to Common Desire about 15 times or so while researching and coming up with interview questions for this Q&A and I noticed that the material on the album is extremely precise — to the point of being pristine. No wasted notes, no wasted beats. With such a precise sound, I was wondering, how do you know when you have a finished song?

DM: When the OCD is controlled. We will knit pick songs for days till we are all happy with it. There are a couple songs we have that have that have changed pretty drastically over 30 times if not more. It isn’t solely based on if the song does its job but the extra effort that makes it its own world.

NH: We had a backlog of around 100 songs that got thrown out in the process of putting the album together. Writing songs is actually pretty quick process for us, but making them actually sound like they sound in our heads when writing them is the other half of the battle.

WRH: Who are you listening to right now?

DM: Mac Demarco, Tame Impala, Sly Moon Sutra, The National, The Cramps, Dre.

NH: I’ve been listening to this Yacht Rock station on XM in my car a lot lately. The station is actually called Yacht Rock. Lots of like Rupert Holmes and The Doobie Brothers. It reminds me of hanging out with my uncle when I was younger. Also really anxious for this Ryan Adams record full of Taylor Swift covers to come out.

“No Other Way,” “Time Back” and “Brief Escape” are three of my favorite songs off the new album. What were the inspirations behind those songs? And generally speaking, how much does your own personal experiences inform the songs?

DM: It’s all personal. “No Other Way” is dealing with the acceptance of our own mortality through a more adolescent lens. Almost like we know but don’t feel the pains of it yet. “Time Back” is a more nostalgic song about growing up and the changes that take place with focus on relationships. Those nights you’re driving and reminiscing over your personal history. “Brief Escape” is the idea that the world doesn’t stop and finding that escape from this. There are times we fear this world and everything in it and want to find a safe place but can’t.

WRH: As a native New Yorker it’s pretty easy to disregard or not even consider the music scenes of some of the country’s smaller cities. As I first learned about you guys and your new album, I was at a music festival and randomly met the members of a band who were in town from Provo, UT. As you can imagine cities like Provo and your hometown of Boise, ID are kind of like alien places to many New Yorkers, so the idea of a music scene in Boise seems unusual. With that in mind, are there any acts out of Boise that should be getting love from the rest of the country but aren’t — and that the rest of the country should know right now?

DM: Thick Business, Magic Sword, Foul Weather, CAMP, Sly Moon Sutra. There are many more those are just the ones that come to mind!

NH: Same list as David, except with one addition. A good friend of mine from Boise relocated to NYC and is in a band called YVETTE. I just heard their record that’s going to be released in October on Godmode and it’s INCREDIBLE.

WRH: What advice would you give to bands who are trying to make a name for themselves?

DM: Know your art. The more you know what you’re giving the world the better. Everything else will become much easier and fall into place. A lot of people are incredible musicians but they bounce around instead making a unified coherent piece. (I love the strange and different so if that’s what you are going for then do it.)

WRH: What’s next for the band?

DM: Keep making music and doing what we love and see where it takes us.