If you don’t know of him already, Mikal kHill is a man of many talents, with a considerable amount of music to his name. In 2017 alone he released two solo projects – the rock flavoured things are looking up., plus hip hop-heavy Bring Back My Ghost. Not forgetting The TroubleShooters’ debut release alongside our own int eighty.
As a creator of ‘sadcore minimalist doomrap’, people may know Mikal primarily as a rapper or producer. He also sings, plays instruments, makes sounds with with turntables, and can probably fix your computer. c64 caught up with him on Google Hangouts.
We chatted nonsense for a while, which led to some musical recommendations…
Mikal: I thought I hated beer until I had Guinness. I think it’s pretty easy to drink…like a wheat smoothie.
c64: It used to be marketed as fuel for hard work – I believe the slogan was ‘Guinness – For Strength’.
Mikal: Yeah, there’s a punk band I LOVE (Against Me!). We played a song of theirs at our wedding called Pints of Guinness Make You Strong. It’s got the line “just like James, I’ll be drinking Irish tonight, and the memory of this last work week will be gone forever”. Basically about how their grandfather drank himself to death and their grandmother never remarried. It’s bleak as hell! But super good.
Baby I’m An Anarchist is (also) one of my favorite songs of theirs and we DEFINITELY played that and probably danced to it.
I draw a lot of direct parallels between punk and folk and hiphop…minimalist music with message.
We talked production tools in Mikal’s home studio, software and plug-ins.
My studio is real big, club speakers and turntables and s**t everywhere. My basement is semi finished, basically the size of my living room and dining room combined, and has a TV and game systems and a table and a treadmill. There’s a fireplace in it.
I have a fretless uke-bass that I use for all my basslines lately, it sounds like an upright. It’s sort of my secret weapon. I have a Gretsch hollow body guitar that I love, and I am usually running it into this Vox AC30 amp. And then I have a vox acoustic guitar. And behind me are my Technics 1210s and a Numark DJ mixer I bought from MC Lars. The mixer replaced my old Technics battle mixer that was just beat. I’ve got a little Akai MPD18 MIDI controller that I use to bang out drums sometimes. Those are a lot of my main instruments.
The Gretsch, the u-bass and the turntables are like, my favorite things to just play. I can just noodle on them and not do anything serious and still have a blast. ESPECIALLY that bass, though. I have stayed up so late I almost missed work because I can just lose myself for hours playing that thing.
About those DJ skills…
I’ve been DJing since high school. I didn’t know what I was doing though. I didn’t really have any idea what I was doing with it til I got this setup. I taught myself to beat juggle and stuff probably between 2000 and 2001, and how to scratch. I’ve scratched on a bunch of my records as parts of beats and stuff but I’ve never done a DJ set live at all.
I was really inspired by stuff like Beck and Elliott Smith, and even RZA (Wu-Tang Clan producer/rapper), where they were like, “I’ll just do everything, then I don’t have to teach anyone anything”. I started out doing these songs on 4 track and just playing everything and just taught myself that way. I’m pretty good at a bunch of things, but not a dynamo at any of them. My guitarist could play circles around me, same thing with my keyboardist.
I got good enough to write songs. I’ve never worried about being the best musician, I’m 100% always focused on just writing stuff I’d want to hear. I was kind of the same with scratching. Taught myself just about enough to record, chop up and manipulate for our songs.
Alongside a basement full of instruments, amps and turntables, Mikal puts his final tracks together using software.
Reaper lets you try it out indefinitely and then a license is literally only 60 bucks. I like it a lot. I used to use Cool Edit Pro 2 and then Adobe Audition, and it flows a lot like Audition. If I’m not mistaken it was basically created by the same guy that did Winamp originally, but when he sold the company he used the money to make Reaper. I don’t use any of the native plugins, at least I don’t think. Maybe the EQ.
I remember I actually stole your plugin presets at one point. The vocal presets on the Cold Winter album (by Mikal’s group The ThoughtCriminals) were entirely stolen from you I think. I actually still have them saved in my preset list.
Right on cue, Mikal received a phone call from Sulfur – his rap partner in the ThoughtCriminals.
Mikal: We’re supposed to write a new ThoughtCriminals song tonight that we are guesting on. It’ll be for Dead Sea $crilla’s album.
c64: I remember the first time I really heard of you was when you had David (int eighty) guest on a ThoughtCriminals song. He did the fast double time rap thing.
Mikal: Yeah! He murdered his verse. To the point that I considered rewriting all my verses.
You should always be trying to do that on any guest feature. Like, you’re robbing the person you are rapping with if you turn in something that doesn’t roast them off the track, they trusted you to make the song better. If you fail to do that, then you’ve wasted their time. Also, a guest verse is a great chance to advertise your own music, so you’re robbing yourself in that fashion.
Frequently my guest verses just talk about how antisocial and/or mean I am. I usually try to subvert what I’ve been asked to do a lot of times.
Did you go full time with music at one point?
I did. I went back to school after a few months and then it was harder to tour and pretty stressful learning IT stuff while also going out of town for weeks. I probably would never go full time again, it sucked a lot of the fun out of creating because I suddenly had to do it. Also I am such a workaholic, it got to a point that it was all I did. I would get up, start working on music and not stop until I went to bed. It was a detriment to every other part of my life.
I feel like I’m in the perfect position now. My current employers found out about me through a fan, they knew what I do before they hired me, and they have been really supportive of my art and understanding about my need to travel for shows.
Also I think they get with the nerd stuff I do, it’s not like I’m not benefiting them by going to these security conferences and stuff. I’m in a position where my art can feed my career and vice versa, which is something I was very inspired by David about. I aspire to what he does, it’s the ideal situation.
How would you describe your music to someone who hasn’t heard it?
Sadcore Minimalist Doomrap. That’s what I used to have on my bio as a joke, kind of, but I think it’s also sort of accurate.
I’ve been trying to push for ‘the most fun you can have while being miserable’. I had a punk band briefly with Andy, my guitarist from my rap stuff. He and I wrote the music together, he wrote a lot of it alone. But I wrote all the words and it was songs like F*** It (Just Give Up) that were like these really happy sounding Weezer-y songs about being miserable. Eventually I hope we’ll bring back that stuff.
Describe the average fan – who listens to Mikal kHill?
Smart. Intelligent. Better taste than the average person. Haha. I think it’s a pretty broad spectrum of folks, different people that do like my stuff like it for different reasons. Some might initially get roped in because they hear some nerdy thing I did and then they hear how depressing my music is – then it connects more than some of the stuff other people do that is considered ‘nerdcore’. I have fans that are teenagers and fans that are moms and dads in middle age. It’s all over the place, really.
Mikal once declared on Twitter that he “would rather hammer nails into his d**k than mix vocals”. I asked what else he does for fun.
The only things I really do for fun is teach myself about computer stuff, make music and play videogames, for the most part. I enjoy movies and even TV but feel intense guilt when I allow myself time for them, so most of the time I just don’t. I guess I do watch anime, mostly with my wife and kids. On average I watch like 4 episodes of tv a week and maybe a movie every two weeks or something.
We talked about making music with friends.
Mikal: My live band is just Andy and Jessamine and sometimes Sulfur (who actually plays bass for me live a lot these days). It’s a sort of unfortunate fact about my life, but I frequently rope friends into my music projects because otherwise they will float away from my life.
All I really do is music, if people aren’t connected in some way to that they tend to fade away. Which I hate. But it’s sort of who I am. I think it’s sort of a combination of factors for me, also. Even before I moved to where I am now, I was an hour or more away from the city where everyone I knew lives and works…so it was hard to get up with people. Nobody wants to drive to the middle of nowhere to hang out.
c64: Apart from int eighty.
Mikal: Haha, yeah he flew out here. Which blew my mind but was awesome. It was a really fun week.
As mentioned earlier, Mikal recently teamed up with int eighty to form The TroubleShooters – releasing their self-titled debut EP earlier this year. Mikal handled the production on all 4 tracks, and shared microphone duties with eighty.
c64: I heard that you locked int eighty in your dungeon and forced him to record raps for the EP. Do you have any tips to help minimise the wait between future Dual Core albums?!
Mikal: Bring him to your frigid cellar, and keep him there like a prisoner. That is what worked for me.
I think with Dual Core albums what you guys experience is sort of similar to what I experienced with Human Disaster (2016 solo album). I started that record in like 2013, maybe before that. There’s actually a song on it I wrote right after The ThoughtCriminals’ Cold Winter came out in 2011. I really beat myself up on that record, second guessing everything. It drove me absolutely crazy. I became obsessed with the idea it had to be the best thing I’d ever done, and then that kept pushing the record back. I hope to never put myself in that position again on a solo album. it’s like, totally counter to how I normally do things.
I put out multiple albums while I was making that one. The Snuggle is REAL (2014) is entirely made out of outtakes of Human Disaster. So is Adam WarRock’s Gifted Student EP, that was entirely beats I made for Human Disaster.
We discussed his often downbeat subject matter and the creative process of making the TroubleShooters EP.
When we did the TroubleShooters stuff, it was David’s idea to do the sad song. I think everyone would probably assume it was my idea.
I was really inspired while doing the EP. There was a long period where I just couldn’t get motivated to write alone, I think it helps to have someone to bounce off in person. Working together, it was really easy to bounce stuff off each other and keep it rolling.
The intention was just to keep it at 4 songs. We’d definitely written even more than that. There was one I REALLY liked that was super chaotic with this pipe organ stuff I sampled off vinyl. I think that’s one of my favorite beats, but Cecil (Mikal’s engineer/co-producer/friend) SUPER hated it, and we ended up not tracking our verses we had written to it. Well, that wasn’t the only factor – we wrote a lot of songs over the internet that we ended up just scrapping totally once we were together. It’s hard to say because I work on so many projects at the same time, and we write drunk a lot!
Mikal has released joint projects with several artists, including the two weeks notice collaboration with rapper friend Tribe One.
We wrote a whole album in 7 days. Me and Cecil and Niles (Tribe One) all live in different states. We were in Cecil’s house and I think Niles did all his vocals for the album, in like 15 minutes. He had rewritten his verses like 100 times beforehand though!
On the opening track, Mikal starts by talking about the ‘cat hair tornado’ forming in his home studio.
Mikal: Yeah, I literally just saw there was cat hair on the mic, and afterwards we were like “leave it in!”. I love little details like that. When I was a kid I would listen on headphones for stuff going on in the background of music. Like The Beatles, you’ll hear like a door close mid verse, but it’s only audible if you have on headphones. Or someone will laugh or turn a page or something.
c64: There was a moment in your recent ‘garage rock’ project where I heard you cough…
Mikal: Yes! I love that kinda stuff. The vocals on that song are first take and I left that in, I thought it was awesome.
Mikal’s latest release is things are looking up. A four track ‘garage rock’ EP released shortly after receiving a diagnosis for testicular cancer. This was followed by surgery the following day, which fell on Halloween 2017. Mikal had a humourous way of dealing with it.
Mikal: I’m having meetings with doctors, weighing options. The cancer hasn’t spread but they wanna be sure and so that means SOME sort of treatment for sure. I mean, things are looking up. It’s not over but it’s not going to kill me. Ha.
c64: The way you dealt with it online was hilarious in my opinion. “They chopped off my nut”.
Mikal: Good. Haha. Yeah, I wanted to be super open and honest about it. I’m a very open person in general. So I was like, “I’m not going to suffer quietly with this, I’m going to talk about this like I talk about going through anything else.”
c64: Did you record the recent EP before or after the diagnosis? The themes sound like it was all written afterwards.
Mikal: I definitely felt that way too. It was like weirdly I had written this stuff before I had felt it.
The first three songs were already recorded. Just Trying To Have A Good Time (We All Might Die) was recorded after my surgery, I went back and tracked some extra guitar for the other three and stuff.
c64: Do you think it will affect your approach to music in the future?
Mikal: So far the main way it has actually affected me is like…it hurts to sit in this chair for too long, so that’s kept me from working on stuff. I’m fine when i’m standing up playing instruments but sitting mixing stuff and writing words kinda hurts.
c64: “I’d rather hammer nails in my d**k than mix vocals” now makes much more sense!
Mikal: Yeah, hahaha. But nah, I just am gonna keep doing what I already did and just write about whatever is happening to me.
On the musical direction of the new EP…
It’s definitely a departure from what I normally do, to a lot of folks, but I do like just following my weird whims. I was sort of nervous about releasing it as a Mikal kHill project but then I thought about my other output. Most of my records are really different from each other, this is just another weird detour. I have these experimental electronica EPs (the vHanity EPs), so it’s not that different, I don’t think. Also my live shows, sometimes I just play on acoustic guitar and do my rap songs as folk/punk songs.
I basically started doing The vHanity EPs because I’d have to put the kids to bed, and then we couldn’t put out presents on Christmas til they were asleep. So I’d try to write three new songs in that time, with nothing written in advance and as few samples as possible.
On Mikal’s quantity of musical output…
I have an overwhelming amount of material. On my website I actually summerize each album’s concept and recommend the order I think people should listen, just because I have so much stuff. I also fully expect there are some folks that might love me with one of my projects and not like some of the others, and that is okay, also.
I have a ton of stuff that doesn’t get released, too. I’d say like in terms of beats I never do anything with and nobody uses on their albums, probably like at least 50%. I think NOFRIENDS (one of Mikal and friends’ musical collectives) is a huge part of why so much does get released, though. I am not just waiting on me to rap, or for that matter just waiting on Tribe One, or Sulfur, or Adam Warrock. Or any of the other people I end up doing little projects with.
About Mikal kHill’s musical alias, and if the similarity to ‘Killer Mike’ is purposeful…
Not at all. I came up with it because I needed a name for chatrooms in the early ’90s over at a friend’s house. My real name is Michael Kermit Hill, so Mikal kHill is just an abbreviation. I love Killer Mike for sure. His stuff has a personal confessional edge that I like. When I saw Run the Jewels live the first time, his solo set floored me. Felt like church.
We talked recent hip hop discoveries.
The last rap record I really discovered that impressed me was Kevin Abstract’s American Boyfriend. He’s a gay rapper and it’s a concept album about his relationship with a white boy (whose parents hate him more for his race than for the fact he’s gay). I’ve only really listened to it once or twice, but was super impressed.
I recently discovered another record that isn’t exactly new by Ka, this firefighter from NY. He made waves a few years ago because he had some song dissing cops, and the cops tried to get him fired from his firefighter job. A producer called Preservation did a project with him under the name Dr. Yen Lo. It’s this super minimalist stuff, him flowing sometimes over just a bassline. Really dark, but really good. I don’t think there are any drums for maybe 70% of the record, but really cool, minimalist melodies and great rapping.
Tomorrow Kings is this group from Chicago. Really experimental at times. I really like Lamon Manuel from the crew, he’s an album called Music to Feel Like S**t To. A weird concept album about a messy breakup. He reminds me of a cross between me and Tribe One. He’s got this one line that is like “Truth is I’d rather fail, and cut my teeth on the thick skulls of alpha males”. I was a fan as soon as I’d heard that.
In his music and online, Mikal has been open about struggles with depression and social anxiety. I wondered if this makes live performances difficult.
I’m fine on stage, usually it doesn’t affect me there. I might have initial nervousness but it fades once I’m in front of people. Usually it’s this feeling like I just will myself to think, “I belong here, on this stage” and then it’s fine. Performance is, in it’s way, like a defiant act for me. I’ve always had social anxiety and I’ve always felt like I don’t belong – almost anywhere. So it’s like, “f*** you, I’m here and you’re going to listen to me or I am going to show my ass, either way I belong here.”
What songs does Mikal enjoy playing live?
It depends on the crowd, but I definitely love doing Inside the Box, The Moon, and Punch Up. I like doing the songs I can do just on acoustic. Some of my favorite shows are ones where I just do a bunch of the stuff on acoustic and emphasize the depressing stuff.
I want to make people cry. And when I make people cry it is my favorite thing on earth.