By Brian Tucker
Temple5 and The Swimming Machine guitar player’s side project comes to life this weekend. Local musician Michael Buckley’s new album under the moniker Ekiim Ariara and will have a release show for his concept album called Dead Man’s Song Saturday night at Bourgie Nights. Buckley plays guitar in several local bands, including Temple5 and Justin Lacy and The Swimming Machine.
Dead Man’s Song is the culmination of several year’s work and Temple5’s Aaron Lane, AJ Reynolds and Keith Butler, Jr. play on the album. The band will be joined Saturday with electronic/hip-hop duo The Valedictorians and DJ TYNY doing performing a set of original electronic music.
A graduate of UNCW, Buckley has lived in the area for six years. Reynolds and Lane were some of the first people he knew in the area, meeting in the school’s Jazz program. He would meet Lacy and Butler a few years later.
This weekend’s performance is the first live show by the musicians outside of working on the album at Hourglass Studios. Buckley says Dead Man’s Song aims to discuss the issues of mental health through songs and instrumentals, subjects often hard to touch on in conversation.
“The story follows a character dealing with paranoid delusions, depression, addiction and the fallout and consequences of those traits,” Buckley said. “I like to leave things up to the interpretation of the listener but it remains ambiguous whether Dead Man’s Song is the story of a character’s actual or figurative death.”
Diverse sounding with a soundscape that wanders from dark to light and textured, it moves from gentle numbers to those caustic and exploratory (“Crying Moon,” the epic “Detachment“). They can be short or lengthy (“Dreamsick” is seven minutes), dark or sunshiny or both, like the country stride of the album’s title track. It’s a fun, shiny song but whose lyrics reveal stark under pinning from the opening lyrics – “I think I need a doctor, not just someone to hold me tight.”
“I think many of us know someone who has suffered from some kind of mental or emotional trauma,” Buckley said. “It is tragic knowing it could make a huge difference in a person’s life to be able to reach out for help, yet fear or embarrassment may stop them from doing so.”
This began in 2014 but what was the driving force?
Buckley: As to the driving force, for me personally, I think many of us know someone who has suffered from some kind of mental or emotional trauma. It is tragic knowing that it could make a huge difference in a person’s life to be able to reach out for help, yet fear or embarrassment may stop them from doing so. At this point I can sum up my songs as pieces to encourage people to be more open with each other, but when I was writing them they were more immediate expressions of what I was thinking rather than intending it to be advice for others.
What helped you as a musician/producer making this album?
Buckley: In the past couple years I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of recording experience. I’ve been in the studio with Temple5, The Swimming Machine, Dylan Linehan, Vanessa Lynch and some other groups, and I’ve worked with several different engineers like Trent Harrison at Hourglass Studios and Karen Kane. All of that, and my time working as an engineer at the UNCW Recording Studio, gave me a pretty good idea of what it would take to make a full-length album.
Without that experience I wouldn’t have been prepared to make this record sound the way it does now. Still, pulling this off was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and it was a huge learning experience for me. It’s a little premature to say, but I can’t wait to get back in the studio, as I know worlds more about the process than I did before I started.
Your guitar playing has a 70s feel.
Buckley: Thank you. It’s really cool to hear what people have to say about my style. I’m too close to it to really know what it sounds like; I just kind of do what feels right. But the great rock and blues players that I grew up listening to definitely have a huge influence on my playing, and that’s the kind of grittiness or raggedness that even years of music school can’t wipe away.
Getting horns on the album gives it a southern soul sound meets indie rock feel. Did playing with Aaron and AJ on the album still manage to surprise everyone ?
Buckley: I had always intended Aaron and AJ to be on the album. We are great friends and even though we have been playing together for a while, they manage to surprise me all the time. Aaron plays keys on this album and I am betting that people who are used to only hearing him on the trumpet will be really impressed and excited about how that sounds. And AJ has a bitchin’ saxophone solo on one of the tracks that is almost perpetually stuck in my head.
Also, since we recorded this album at Hourglass Studios, where we made the Temple5 EPs, we were pretty comfortable with the setting and sound we were going to get from the horns. Trent Harrison said that those EP’s were a good learning experience for him on recording and mixing horns, and we tried some new things this time around in terms of mic placement and panning to get some really interesting effects.
Did playing guitar, singing, and producing put a large amount of pressure on you?
Buckley: Definitely. Producing an album is a lot of work on several levels. Luckily, the performance aspect of the recordings was the part I was most prepared for. I knew my guitar, bass and vocal parts intimately, which allowed us to work quickly. The other aspects proved to be much more challenging.
Some of the songs are pretty atypical in terms of form, so I had to write very specific charts for the guys to use in the studio. I also spent a lot of time collecting real-world sounds to put on the record. Add to that working with the Protools session outside of Hourglass and the business responsibilities and you’ve got a full-time job on your hands.
Can you share why the band is called Ekiim Ariara? The album’s title?
Buckley: Ekiim Ariara is a name I made up several years ago. I was playing with letters and sounds, trying to come up with something interesting. I did that because there are so many bands out there and I didn’t want to encounter the problem of having the same name as someone else. I also didn’t want to have my name be in the title because I wanted to keep this band separate from the other things I do in the music industry – teaching, weddings, for example. Now I just need to find an easy way to explain how it’s pronounced and we’ll be all set.
I had a few different reasons behind naming the album Dead Man’s Song. After the passing of close friends, I wanted to write a story about a ghost. It became about the story of a character and his own ghost and his own past. I sing from several different points of view as a way to convey that tragic element of the story. It’s almost like writing the music was therapeutic and my way of understanding during difficult times. The title and the music both try to reflect a sense of duality in which one character dies and the other lives, yet those characters are one in the same.
Is this really a side project for you, especially since you’re working with friends?
Buckley: Calling it a side project is just an easy way to explain why there are so many familiar faces in the band. You are right, this is my contribution to the music community and it is something I’ve wanted to say for a long time. In many of the bands I’m in I play a support role. This doesn’t mean I don’t get to be creative, but it does mean that I am not utilizing what I see at my strongest or at least my favorite skill – songwriting.
With this album I got to apply some valuable skills that I’ve been picking up on in terms of leading a band and I think that it was fun for the guys on the project to have someone else directing the big picture so they could focus more on their performances.
The album is all over the place, wonderfully so.
Buckley: I tried to see the album as one long piece from the moment I started writing the songs. I like music that has momentum, twists and turns, but I also enjoy repetition and stable harmonies. There are always so many possibilities within music from the moment you conceive of it. The studio allows you a huge range and I wanted to try to capture as many of my favorite sounds as possible.
I have a pretty wide array of influences and I have never felt limited to one genre. My imagination allowed these songs to all be part of the same story. The erratic nature of the album is intentional and it is reflective of how I feel about the current atmosphere. Dead Man’s Song is a long journey complete with peaks and valleys. The order of the tracks and the transitions between each song in terms of key, tempo, story line and emotional arch was all pretty meticulously planned out. I think my favorite part of every song is the end because of how it leads you in to the next one.
“Crying Moon” is two minutes long. Was it a free jam idea or planned interlude?
Buckley: Actually, “Prisms” and “Crying Moon” were both intended as interludes, but we performed them like free jams. Every other song on the album was multi-tracked. We recorded instrument by instrument, not track by track, but those two we performed as a live band in the studio. As opposed to some of the songs where I gave the guys three or four page charts, those two songs only had four measures written down. We did several takes where entirely different things happened and it was actually hard to choose one.
After those original rhythm section tracks were laid down, I went through and added more layers. For “Prisms” I recorded myself reading from “Moby Dick” at the cemetery and then we just placed that on top of the song. It was surreal how it lined up. Then for “Crying Moon” we got a bunch of different takes of me howling into the F-hole of my guitar to sound like a pack of wolves.
You follow with the country ride title track and the seven-minute “Detachment.” Both couldn’t be more opposite. Were you concerned about disparities on the album?
Buckley: In my mind, the songs on the album have always gone together for reasons related to their lyrical subject, chord progressions, rhythms and motifs. The thing that wasn’t really on my mind too much was style. I played and wrote how I felt but for example, “Detachment” was written almost four years before “Dead Man’s Song.” So already there’s going to be a difference in what I was listening to at the time, how I felt, what season it was, or any number of other variables.
I can see how some people might be confused by the “disparities” in the album, but I never really saw it that way. I think that the stylistic differences on the album are what make each song different and interesting in contrast to all of the other aspects that I was trying to keep congruous throughout the whole album.
The title track always makes the guys in the band smirk. The message in that song is one of the darkest on the whole album, but the music and lyrics sound incredibly upbeat and positive, as you said, “country ride.” That juxtaposition was a choice I made not to be funny, but to show how easy it is to have something sad buried underneath a happy exterior.