The Boston PhoenixMe Time
Matt Parish, Phoenix Staff
It’s a lazy weekday afternoon, and we’re finishing breakfast at Kevin Micka’s house in Jamaica Plain. The kitchen table is spread with drafts of liner notes. Micka, the beard and glasses behind Animal Hospital, has added a song to his new album, Good or Plenty, Streets + Avenues, since he first wrote the notes, and now he’s trying to figure out where to fit it.
”It should probably also say ’Mutable Records’ somewhere too, right?” The liner notes go along with the CD/R version of the record, which he’ll be selling at shows, in addition to the otherwise on-line-only release. The additions are getting pasted on top of the old version; the project will be hitting the copier glass at Kinko’s later on in the day.
Micka’s music develops in much the same sort of residual, countertop way. Animal Hospital has achieved a hermetic place in the city’s musical landscape with a deep collection of minimalist rock chamber pieces built from live drum-and-guitar loops. He’s been piling tracks onto his recordings for four years, and that’s culminated in two albums: Good or Plenty, which Mutable released digitally on February 14, and Memory (Barge Records), which he’s releasing next Tuesday at Great Scott in a show with Big Bear and Big Digits.
Micka, who grew up in Newton and who’s made a living as an electronics fix-it man, audio engineer, and part-time movie-theater projectionist, started Animal Hospital in 2004, toward the end of his time in the instrumental trio the Common Cold. ”I wasn’t lacking in anything artistically — I just wanted to go on tour more without having to rely on anyone. It was an experiment. It evolved into something I was creatively content with later.”
Outfitting his mini-van with a custom loft and gathering a small army of effects pedals and mixing equipment, he’s fulfilled that goal with Animal Hospital, going on several one-man tours. Two years ago, he traveled in the UK as Beirut’s soundman and brought his rig along to pick up some shows of his own. Next month, he’s leaving Boston to tour Europe in a rented car.
For recording, this mobility means the chance to turn any temporary spot into a studio. Micka recorded himself while hibernating in an abandoned bank in West Virginia, a studio in Oakland, the West Newton Cinema, and his living room. ”The recordings are all built up over time. It’s hard to remember where a lot of the tracks are from anymore.”
Memory is the more polished of the two albums, with songs like the tightly wound anthem ” . . . and ever” (with some triumphant climactic vocals) and the pulsing, orchestral title track. Good or Plenty is a bit more of a grab bag, with spacier melodies and more ambient arrangements.
Live, the idea of Micka sitting behind mounds of equipment and instrument cables with a guitar and a drum set might seem like a tech-fair demonstration, but his performances unfold at a natural, emotional clip that’s more primal incantation than one-man-band gimmickry. Which is fine with Micka: ”I really like it at shows when it’s too crowded for kids to see me and they just assume it’s a band.”
”I actually hate cables,” he adds. ”I hate tripping on them and getting them all tangled up.” He shows me his newest invention, which is a board-game-sized metal project box with dozens of knobs and lights and tiny switches — he’s taken the guts out of nine of his guitar pedals and hardwired them all together. ”It cuts down on the mess.”
The release of the two records is a transformative process for the music, more so than for most bands. It’s fascinating enough to watch the songs grow live, but their freestanding counterparts have their own allure. The looped repetitions take on a sense of careful precision, parts rolling in like patient tides. On the discs, Micka replaced several automated loops with himself playing the parts. You can feel it — some sections seem less like metronomic placeholders than carefully planned lines. It can be very dense music that sounds as if hordes of people were working on it, but the end product feels personal.
Still, he says, ”Sometime it would be great to try and do this with someone else doing all the engineering. Someone to look at me and say, ’What do you want to do next?’ You know, instead of just going, ’Hmm, maybe I’ll go read a magazine now,’ and putting things off.”