Michael “Emby” Alexander, lead vocalist and songwriter of the Phoenix-based Emby Alexander, feels it’s may not actually be a coincidence that his experimental indie pop band premiered the single “Up in the Air” when it did.
Released in the midst of all that’s going on in the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the song is the result of Alexander’s attempt at writing something positive—or, he says, at least more obviously so than songs past, which he feels may have had their messages obscured by a more experimental approach.
“I think that a lot of my songs, I want the end message to be a positive message, but I think that sometimes I missed the point. I was a little bit, maybe, abstract with the point or sometimes intentionally hiding it to make it a little cryptic or something,” Alexander explains of his approach to songwriting, which includes documenting ideas for further explanation if they prove memorable, as well as sampling with a field recorder.
But with “Up in the Air,” he says, “I kind of wanted something more, I felt, at least for me, straight-forward, as far as no doubt that it’s a positive song. And I just hadn’t tried that. … Some people maybe experiment with getting further hidden, and for me it was an experiment to try to be kind of naked and out in the open.”
The song is the first in a pair of songs released earlier this spring, also including the more abstract “Morality of Accuracy in Photojournalism.”
Taking a musique concrète approach, the dense second recording is backed by choppy, sputtering drums; looped piano melodies; obscured recordings of people talking; among numerous other layers of pieces assembled as a sort of sound collage. One of those layers even stems from a spur-of-the-moment encounter with Animal Collective multi-instrumentalist David Portner, also known by the pseudonym Avey Tare, at a gig. Alexander says he asked Portner to provide sounds to a field recording he was conducting of a passing train in Tucson.
“It’s an experiment in itself to put these people on the spot and see if I could do it,” Alexander says, adding that he considers it a more next-level approach to sampling, in comparison with pulling from other artists’ tracks.
“I thought it was kind of a wacky idea, and that’s usually a good idea,” he adds.
But Portner’s ties to the track actually date back further in its origins. Prior to meeting in person, Alexander says he had reached out to the musician via social media for “technical advice” regarding how Animal Collective’s 2007 song “Cuckoo Cuckoo” was made.
Having contacted him previously with other questions to no response, Alexander can only speculate that it may have been “Morality of Accuracy in Photojournalism’s” inspiration that struck a chord with Portner and finally triggered a response—the untimely passing of singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston.
Alexander says although he usually likes to let ideas come when ready, this time he formally decided to write a song inspired by the late musician. His idea was to craft a Johnston-style tune but with an Avey Tare or Animal Collective twist.
“I feel like his approach to ballads is something that I really resonate with,” Alexander says.
It was purely intentional that the group released both songs when they did, as Alexander says it felt like a good idea to group together one that might be “more accessible and poppy” and another that’s possibly more difficult “to grasp on first listen.”
The two singles may wind up being a teaser of what’s in store for the band.
Having released five full-length studio albums, the soundtrack to the film “Chameleon,” some EPs and singles, all since 2012, Alexander says the prolific group this time considered doing something different and just releasing singles this year—no album. But the band’s other idea, if it comes to fruition, is to instead do an album called “Soars Era.”
COVID-19 may have thrown a wrench in those plans, though. Alexander says it’s “up in the air.”
“I don’t know what ‘Soars Era’ is right now,” he admits, disclosing that songs that could eventually comprise the album are far along and that “the first few test masters sound really, really great.” It just depends on how the band decides to move forward in the wake of recent tour cancellations.
“If we don’t go on tour, I don’t know if we want to release something while we’re all sitting at home or wait on it and maybe expand upon some of the ideas and make it something longer and release a little later when we’re able to go on the road,” he explains.
“I want the project to be what we want it to be, but the realities of wanting to hit the road while releasing a record is somewhat getting in my head,” he continues. “So, there’s a possibility we release the record and don’t go on the road, and then we’ll do a new record late this year or early next year … so we can go on the road with it.
“It really just leaves us in a weird in-between state,” he adds. “The album is perhaps done right now if we put a period on it.”
As to how the experimental pop outfit’s vocalist sees the group progressing with new tunes, he hopes the music is moving forward and becoming better while maintaining what made previous records special. “Exaggerated” and “manic” are his words of choice.
“I don’t want it to sound like it’s the same as the old records, but I feel like it’s the same spirit as the old records but in this extremely heightened way where the lows are lower and the highs are higher and the places that we explore,” he pauses, succinctly rephrasing, “It goes every direction I just hope a lot more.
“It’s been really fun to make it, and I usually don’t say that,” he adds, admitting, “I usually say I’m pretty stressed out.
“But the experiments are being fruitful right now.”