Introducing: Michael Cormier’s “Empty Mugs”

A track premiere, plus a conversation about it with guitarist Wendy Eisenberg.

Michael Cormier is the founder of Dear Life Records, the drummer for Friendship, and a songwriter in his own right. Here, he premieres his new track “Empty Mugs” — from his album More Light!!, coming out June 25 on Dear Life and Oof Records. To introduce it, he hopped on Zoom to catch up with his friend, avant rock guitarist and Editrix frontperson Wendy Eisenberg.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Michael Cormier: So, how you doing?

Wendy Eisenberg: A weird side effect of Zoom is, I also do Zoom therapy, so when someone asks me how I’m doing in such a confidential tone I’m like, “What’s up, let me tell you about my dad.” [Laughs.]

Michael: On my end, we’re just getting into anger, which I think I told you about.

Wendy: That’s huge.

Michael: Yeah, it’s a pretty deep mine as well.

Wendy: Yeah. But how you doin’?

Michael: I’m very good. I feel like a lot of life things are converging for me all at once in the next few months, involving marriage and moving to a different state. 

Wendy: It’s huge.

Michael: And still musical projects, like Friendship’s gonna be recording the week before we move to Maine. So I feel like I’m in this calm before a very positive storm of, like, categorically good life events — but still a dearth of them all at once. I don’t know. [It’s] all of that, and then inevitably then I feel like I have less time to engage with the creative things that I’m trying to do, which can lead to its own form of panic. Like, Why am I not ultra-prolific right now? And there’s a very clear reason.

Wendy: Do you ever think about fermentation, though, with this?

Michael: I think about it in a way that’s like, Oh, yeah, that seems to work great for a lot of people, and less in a way that’s like, This is fundamental to my practice, or something. 

Wendy: Yeah. I mean, I was thinking about it because I just started making kombucha in February, and I’m not really used to making food that requires a lot of patience — because I’m fundamentally totally impatient. And also, I like the dynamism of being in the kitchen. Because of this grace period of, like, a week-ish of when you have to wait for the first thing to ferment, and then this other smaller grace period, it’s like such a one-to-one relation for me of how to create after an event, and then how to then refine what you’ve created. Like, second fermentation is totally this editing process and I could have never conceived of that without starting to brew. It’s crazy.

Michael: Yeah, that’s a smart way to think about it. We make kimchi pretty regularly. I’ve had my kombucha period. I actually stopped making kombucha because it just was so much sugar being added into it. I like found some ways where, [for] the sugar to feed the scoby, I was just getting from actual fresh fruit. And that does work, but it still does require a lot of upfront sugar, and I got kind of discouraged. Like, yes, in theory this feels healthy. 

Wendy: It’s spooky. Does it get converted into alcohol? Or does it get eaten nebulously, which means it’s not fully gone? I mean, I have that same anxiety.

Michael: Yeah. But still, the process — I appreciate the metaphorical connection, and I think you’re right. I mean, baking bread is the same way, where tons of waiting is built into actually making good bread. Literally every time you try to make a decision in the bread making process that is trying to expedite any aspect of it, it just is worse. For some reason, when I think about creating, I feel like there’s this made up stopwatch, just like a timer that’s just ticking and is just saying, “Nope, time’s running out!” Which I don’t really have a reason to believe that’s actually happening, but… 

Wendy: It’s really weird, because I write songs really fast — like I sit down and I do it mostly in a one-and-done process. But recently it’s been shifting to take a little bit longer and to do this fermenting thing — which I cutely attributed to actually fermenting shit in my life for the first real time. But I don’t know. I think time is so strange that way, because you have to, like, vanish some kind of eminence in order to express something. But either way, this is all basically dancing around the fact that you might very well be too busy to write anything that doesn’t feel almost like it wills itself into existence right now.

Michael: And I mean, there’s this element, too, that is built into pretty much everything I’ve made. I’ve always had a fermentation period. I mean, in general, I’m not a one-and-done kind of writer. I generally write all the music sometimes over a year before I ever put words to it, and I demo that extensively. And then I just listen to wordless demos for, like, a year, and then eventually come up with some words. 

Wendy: That’s insane to me. 

Michael: That’s literally how I’ve made every record. And yet I have this lingering voice that’s like, “Get a move on!” And that’s completely at odds with how it’s worked for me every time.

Wendy: I’m so impressed though. I think the closest thing I do to that is write in bunches, where I write little sets of two songs all the time. But that’s not even close at all. I just can’t imagine — because for me, it’s so linked to improvisation that it’s like, the fermentation period for that is more like your whole life, and everything that attacks you. What you do to the pieces when you’re listening to them over a year is like you’re letting them grow. 

It’s fascinating to me, especially because there’s such a casual intimacy that feels kind of like… I guess dough coming together. It’s really loose. The lyrics are always expressing something that — I don’t know, it feels like you’re talking about something that just happened, or is just happening. And it feels very like, “Hey, this is emerging right now! Everything’s coming together!” Even if the lyrics are literally not expressing that, that’s how the way that they’re put together feels for me. To think about the fact that they just coalesce over a long period of listening to sound — that says something about sound’s possibilities that I’ve never, like, practically done. 

Michael: Yeah. I guess it is strange. I mean, there is an improvisatory element, which is all of the arrangements are just are completely made up on the spot. I’ve never been someone who sits down and charts out a part and how it relates to a different part. It’s, I write one part and then I just play to myself, and it’s all being recorded. It’s all through the demoing process. It’s an idea I think is interesting, because I don’t have much in the way of live improvisatory experience. It’s all existed in the context of recorded music, which has this effect of like, it’s made up, but now it exists forever. I mean, unless I delete it. But generally, I don’t remember how to play it. I often have to teach myself how to play what is on the finished record, because it wasn’t something that I really intended to do. I don’t even think I could say with authority, but it feels like maybe the looseness that’s preserved is that, though the music has existed for a long time before it becomes a finished song, I’m still surprised by it because in general, I don’t know what happened in the first place. It’s just a series of playing with myself until I have enough tracks that I’m like, Yeah, this is the this is the mood of the song.

Wendy: Wow. I think so much about improvisation from a defensive standpoint, because I’m like, “No, this isn’t just doing whatever!” — which somehow blows my mind that people still need to understand. But I do remember in our earliest exchanges, when I think you were trying to let me play in Philly or something, and you were like, “Hi, I’m Mike. I’m interested in improvisation stuff, too.” It was just this really gracious thing. So in my conception of you, like undergirding all of it, is just the idea that you’re an improviser. 

But even the way you’re talking about dealing with recorded material is improvisatory, because like, people say that things that are recorded exist or whatever, and I think that is true, but it may overemphasize the visual — like the fact that it can be a material thing, or a material thing that you can see on your computer. And so then you’re reckoning with something that seems ossified, because we assume fixity to something visual. But when you wrote it, you were probably categorically different. And when you first encountered it at the beginning of this proverbial year that you’re interacting with it, you’re still new to it. And then as you grow, whatever thing that we say is fixed in recorded music shifts along with you, and you start to overemphasize or underemphasize parts that were once important. 

It’s kind of like a kaleidoscopic way of dealing with received sound. Maybe this process — I think I was fearing it, because I think my total fear of the visual makes makes me actually do what I think this visual does poorly, which is assume this fixity. So if I recorded this guitar part and then waited a year, then I would assume that it was unchangeable. But you do that William Gaddis thing of changing a line without touching it by letting this thing grow over a year, and by demoing the process extensively. Whereas, as you see when we record, I’m very much making random decisions in the studio and then just going with them, like as if nothing matters. Which I’m not trying to say is meaningless, but it lacks the kind of grace that I hear in your music, I think.

Michael: That is interesting, that the grace is generated from just the passing of time. Maybe there’s something there, but at the same time, too often the most lasting elements of any of the music that I’ve made — and often a lot of music that I engage with — is just like, they seem like mistakes. They seem really decided quickly without much scrutiny. Even if I’m letting a year ago by before I’m saying, “Yes, this is a finished song,” the spontaneity matters. It feels like I’m trying to hold both of those in my hand, like the approach that you’re describing of, Quick, make a decision right now, and also placing that within a larger process that inevitably involves passing of time, playing and replaying and replaying the same song. 

I mean, this new record, I demoed four times in its entirety. And then the fourth demo was just actually the recording. But then even that, my friend Lucas [Knapp], who produced the record and plays a lot of instruments on it — he lent me, throughout the process, nicer and nicer gear that I then redid all the parts.

I guess there’s a spontaneity within that, too, that I’m still reckoning with when I think about the demoing process. Like, when does the demo stop being the demo and when does it just become the real thing? But I do think it definitely challenges the fixity element of this. This music has existed for over a year before I was calling it a finished record, because I’m literally playing it over and over again. And if there’s a mistake that I love, I try to recreate that mistake. But I make a mistake trying to recreate the mistake, and then it’s a mistake that I love even more. Or I don’t! That feels really embedded in in the process. And it does seem to be balancing these two schools that we’re thinking about, of time molding what should be fixed, and also just spontaneity being given space to mould as well.

Wendy: Yeah. I mean, you could kind of just say that with every decision that lies to you and says that you’re making in the moment, it’s actually just — this is kind of like when you lick a toad, how you’ve licked every toad it’s ever been with, that argument. Fortunately and not, everything you do in your life kind of gears you to make these mistakes, and then these palimpsestic mistakes on mistakes. I mean, that’s just like a weird trickster generosity that we are afforded by living. Which is so fucking beautiful. [Laughs.]

Michael: Yeah. I mean, I say this in a way that, I can’t actually live what I’m about to say, but in music, I feel like I’ve landed in a place where mistakes don’t exist.

Wendy: Hell yeah. Welcome home.

Michael: [Laughs.] Thanks. Which, I mean, literally every other facet of my life, I’m constantly deriding myself for some real minute shit. Musically, though — and this happens a lot with self-recording, too — it’s just like, nobody’s breathing down my neck. I don’t feel this pressure of like, Oh, I’m paying all this money for this recording session. I gotta get it right. So often the process is just doing millions of takes. Not because I’m like, It needs to be perfect. But honestly it’s like, I haven’t messed up in the right way, so I do it again. Because truly some of the most interesting stuff is just like, my hands spasming or something, and then I play a rhythm that I can’t think about playing on guitar or something.

Wendy: Totally. It’s very funny when people pretend the instruments and your body, like your embodied wisdom, don’t actually have a part in the music you make. It’s very obvious to affix some sort of narrative to the way that gear can extract certain tones or whatever, but it’s really much more psychedelic than that. When you’re messing up on whatever instrument, and then it’s just making something interesting to you — that’s just your instrument talking to you. There can’t really be a mistake, because it’s just speaking its language through you.

Michael: Totally. I mean, there’s a great example of that on this record — on the track “When You Pass Through,” I was playing my dad’s old Guild acoustic steel string that he played in I guess the early ‘70s. It’s in horrid shape, and when I was playing it, the action was so high. Like, the glue has come undone, so the bridge is being pulled up by the strings. I mean, first off — even though I feel like Neil Young has really nice gear, when you watch Neil Young play, it seems like he’s deeply struggling to make his instrument do what he wants it to do. And I literally was struggling very hard to even keep my fingers pushing down hard enough on the strings. 

And then, my friend Jon [Samuels], who plays in Friendship, lent me his nice acoustic guitar, and I could not emulate the performance that I got from the guitar that was actively falling apart in my hands. So that’s the take that I ended up keeping. What was torment for me — my hand was in pain playing this part — and I don’t think pain equals the best take, but for this particular song and this particular instrument, it yielded a vastly more compelling part than when I had the ease of a nice guitar. And a nice microphone, too — that take was a worse microphone with a guitar that was crumbling in my hands.

Wendy: You know, I like that you’re not at all evoking some idea of authenticity with that nonsense. Because nice gear has its own perverse aesthetic, you know?

Michael: Oh, yeah, no. I mean, most of the record is a redone version with all just nicer gear. [Laughs.]

Wendy: I learned jazz more or less on a Guild, from I think the ‘70s or the ‘80s. It was like that, an archtop, and it had that same problem. I put on 13s like a macho idiot — I think it was even set up for them, I’m not sure, but it ended up just ripping the bridge off and totally breaking the guitar, essentially. Which is one of many times in my life when machismo has ruined everything. Either way, I know in my way the Guild sound of destruction, and this kind of awkward tension that you have to play through. And it is beautiful. It kind of gives you a Thelonius Monk ethos or something, where decay dysfunctions without the same precision as a master instrument would let it. 

I’ve been playing with the same gear, or at least the same guitar, since high school. I mean, I got rid of that [Guild] for reasons that are probably obvious, but, yeah, every piece of gear I’ve had for at least four years, if not closer to 18. Because of that, I literally can’t conceive of writing an album on a guitar, and then switching the guitar and being like, OK, this! 

Michael: Yeah. I mean, I’m completely in debt to Lucas Knapp — I think 90 percent of what I was using was his. He lent me a compressor, which was my first time using a compressor.

Wendy: You two are a dream team.

Michael: We are dream team. [Laughs.] I’ll unabashedly say that. 

Wendy: You should, it’s beautiful.

The way that you said, “I don’t live this way, but I feel this way,” about not feeling any mistakes — I feel that way on guitar. Not really singing, but some aspects of the creative process I feel like. But with banjo, I’m just purposely decentering mastery. I have no idea how to do it right. And I’m trying to not do it like a jock, or to learn too much about it, because I do want to understand what makes my songwriting do its thing without just how easy the guitar is for me to understand. 

Michael: I feel like, at least the way I approach writing songs — and I don’t know if this could feel applicable to approaching the banjo — but I’m definitely trying to take feelings that exist inside of me in the moment, trying to write them and flip them outward. I like including the self-doubt and precipitous fear that it’s not working.

Wendy: Yeah, that’s an improvisational ethos, almost.

Michael: Yeah. I’m friends with and care deeply about the music of Kath Bloom, and she’s walked that tightrope her whole career. There’s so much strength in what feels like how much doubt she has, and how much doubt feels imbued in that music. Inversely, it ends up feeling really powerful. It definitely does not sound easy, it sounds very hard. I feel like there’s room for that sort of expression, in especially your approach to this instrument that doesn’t feel like a cakewalk.

Wendy: I feel like I take songs, not for granted, but just like as a given. Which is really funny considering how much struggle I know goes into it. But for me, I think it’s probably linked to the timeliness or whatever that I give my songs. I write songs out of a momentary emotion that probably won’t be repeated, exactly — definitely won’t. And then it’s like, that’s how I felt and then I’m stuck there. Which makes Dehiscence cool, but also pretty unlistenable for me. It’s just like, Damn, I was that sad? Wow. I’m not there anymore in the same way.

Michael: Yeah. I guess what what interests me is being able to move on from those sorts of moments, but still being able to get back in with some element of a loving detachment, I guess. Still remembering and caring about feeling how I felt, and not being so detached that I’m critical, but also being able to not be actively feeling what was felt.

(Photo Credit: left, Meghan O’Leary)

Michael Cormier-O’Leary is a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, the drummer for Friendship, and the co-founder of the prolific indie label Dear Life Records. His latest record, Anything Can Be Left Behind, is out May 5, 2023.

(Photo Credit: Abi Reimold)