Interview – Mike Tolan (Talons’, Superstorms, Trouble Books)

We recently took some time so speak to a Sparks and Nerves favoutire Talons’. Find out about old releases new releses and everything in between. It is, and always will be an absolute pleasure to interview our favourite artists, and also a bit daunting, which is why it took me so long to come up with the questions without making myself look like an idiot!

Anyway, we hope you enjoy, and remember we reviewed Talons’ magnificent Rustic Bullshit here.


S&N: Hello Mike, can we start by introducing yourself and what you do?

I’m Mike Tolan. I make music under the Talons’ and Superstorms monikers, I play part time with Trouble Books and Rolling Acres and was once a member of The Six Parts Seven and Tusco Terror. I have been playing and recording music since I was 14. I live in Chicago, but the majority of my musical career took place while living in Akron, OH.

S&N: You use a lot of samples in your music, such as background noise, what do you think this adds?

I grew up in the 90s and essentially all of the music that I listened to was studio-recorded. These records were made to be clean and clear and free of noise. I always felt so drawn to the tiny sections of those albums where someone would talk or an outside sound would creep in. I’m not talking about field recordings as much as the sounds that actually occurred when the music was being made.

Around 2000, I bought my first laptop recording setup. Before then, I had done everything with a 4-track and 1 Shure SM-57. The cheap recording interface that I started out with had +48v and I bought a very cheap set of Audio Technica condenser microphones. Suddenly I could capture a drastically larger range of sounds, with much less hiss. This was life changing for me. I became obsessed with just listening. I would put the microphone next to the window and turn it all the way up and listen to it full blast through my headphones. It was as though I was rediscovering my room and neighbourhood, experiencing it in a whole different way.

Talons’ has always been a deeply personal project for me but also a highly conceptual one. Much of my recording and songwriting is a reaction not only to what was happening at the time in my life but also to my own feelings about music, production, recording, etc. My decision to include and embrace background noises as essential elements in my music was partially a stance against the “perfect” studio recordings that I grew up with but more importantly, it was an attempt to capture the completeness of the moment that the music was made.

I wrote and recorded Rustic Bullshit while living in Akron. The songs were created and recorded in rapid succession and the use of all available sounds was essential to represent the mood of the music. Much of it was recorded with 1 microphone hanging in the center of my bedroom, with the window open. I wanted the listener to feel that space when they heard the record. I wanted them to hear me walking around, to hear the phone ringing, the wind blowing etc. The most extreme case on this record was the original version of Goodbye Portage Path. On this song, I recorded all of the music, burned it onto a CD and played it over my car stereo while my friends and I drove around the neighbourhood, singing the lyrics karaoke-style and recording it on Minidisc.

I explored the possibilities of field recording further on the subsequent Talons’ records, subtly on Songs for Babes and centrally on Dubai. I made the Dubai EP while living in Madrid, where I had no “gear” except a mini nylon string guitar and a computer and I used recordings of my neighbourhood as central rhythmic and melodic elements.

When I began to approach Songs for Boats, I decided to try to eliminate this additional noise all together, mostly because the songs were –for once- not written about what was immediately happening in my life so it seemed wrong to incorporate any outside sounds that would tie it to a place or time. It also kind of reflects another part of the Talons’ project, which is a desire to constantly evolve and reject what has been done in the past. By the time I was working on Songs for Boats, I started to worry that all of this extra sound was perhaps filling too much space and making it easier for me to get away with more, play less well, etc. So I forced myself to do the opposite and make a clean record, focus on singing and on my guitar playing. Was that me coming full circle with my musical past? Not really. It was more of an experiment in an ongoing recording path. The record I’m working on now is more like Rustic Bullshit than Songs for Boats but it attempts to embrace both character of the former and the clarity of the latter.

S&N: Rustic bullshit is quite an emotional and deep record (or it is for me anyway), was it about anything specific or was it just a “that time of my life” deal?

Rustic Bullshit was something that I made in a very difficult time in my life. It is (obviously) the story of a serious relationship falling apart and my difficulty in dealing with it. It is about depression, confusion, etc. I remember the summer before I started to write those songs. I did nothing. I was paralyzed. I would go to work at a pizza shop, come home, walk to the corner store and buy the cheapest, largest beer I could, walk home and sit out in the yard and play songs from The Glow Pt. 2 by The Microphones on guitar till it got dark. It was a sad time.

It may be hard to understand but I needed to write those songs to deal with what I was going through, and this has basically always been the case with Talons’. I don’t think, “Hmmm, I have a great idea for a song about everything ending, I think I’ll call it ‘Fuck Everything’”. It is more that these songs work their way out of me. They are the result of my brain spinning itself in circles for weeks, of persistent and specific emotions that I cannot escape and eventually they come out as these songs that I will then play over and over by myself, for myself. I eventually record them and listen to them over and over and this was how I deal with things. The songs on Rustic Bullshit are difficult songs. They are songs where I say and admit things that are embarrassing and shaming. I guess that by writing them into a song I can actually vocalize them, I can say things that I never could in conversation. That is why they come out the way that they do. Those songs specifically were meant not to rhyme and in general, I try to use my voice, I don’t scan the dictionary or thesaurus, I don’t try to think of “better” ways to say things. I need it to be me in order to portray the honesty that the songs deserve.

S&N: Two of your albums have had a major theme, one being girls in “Songs For Babes” and the other being boats in “Songs for Boats”, do you class these as concept albums? Like do you set out to write songs on a certain subject? Or does it happen naturally?

I love albums with strong musical and lyrical themes. I am a person that listens through albums entirely. I love the flow of records as whole pieces of music. I listen to a lot of instrumental and ambient music and in these recordings the ideas of “concept” and “theme” are essential. To be honest, all of my albums have been concept albums. The first real Talons’ album, “Falls’ Chagrin” originally had each song written as a month of the year. Rustic Bullshit is by far the most conceptually sound of all of the records, with everything tied to specific events within a 6-month period of time. Songs for Babes and Songs for Boats play with the idea of concept recording a little more, setting a general theme but then deviating a lot in the content of the individual songs. Songs for Babes was meant to pay tribute to the women that had a strong place in my life but the specifics of the songs themselves varied. Songs for Boats used the object of the boat (and its many incarnations) as a jumping off point for my hopes and fears about the end of the world as the economy collapsed in 2008.

Concept is central to me though as a musician, especially an album’s flow. I don’t like “collections of songs”, especially as done by any sort of folk singer. I need what I’m listening to to have a consistent emotional tone throughout and so that is what I aim to make with my own records.

S&N: What sort of recording process do you go through? Do you do it yourself?

I wrote about this a bit earlier as far as my “beginnings” with computer recording but not much has changed. I record at home, always. I think that I always will. I am not great at it but I enjoy it as much as playing music so I’m not really interested in going into a studio to do it. I am also extremely particular with the sounds that I make and I do a lot of writing while I am recording so I could never afford to work in the studio. I use an Apogee Duet and a couple of Rode NT 1000 microphones. I generally record direct into my interface (no preamps, no compressors) and I do all of my EQ-ing and mixing in Reaper. Most of my past recordings were made in Cubase, recording through a taped-together M-Box. All of Rustic Bullshit was recorded in 16 bit though a terrible, glitch-y M-Audio interface. I don’t really use any software instruments, mostly because I don’t really feel like I can connect with them. I need the physical object to interact with. I have a tiny studio room in our apartment in Chicago with some half-broken guitars, pedals, a Wurlitzer, old tape players, etc. I have always worked in the tiniest spaces, no matter where I am living. When I record, I like to have every option at arm’s length, so that I can record quickly, without leaving where I am sitting and just get lost in the songs that I am making.

S&N: What do you do other than music?

Right now, I work at a Bakery. I hang out at home with my wife Sommer. We cook food, work on our tiny garden, work on projects, stuff like that. I have been really into making strange MIDI controllers lately out of Arduinos and rewired computer keyboards, a MIDI pillow, a MIDI windchime. I cannot really afford any of the cool gear that I want so I’ve been really into the idea of making these shitty flawed versions of them. I made a plate reverb with my furnace, I made some junky Echoplexes out of cassette decks.

S&N: Can we look forward to any new material in the near future?

I am working on the next Talons’ album now. I am not rushing it. I don’t feel the same emotional push to finish it as I did with my past records so I am just letting it happen more naturally. It is also harder to write songs now than it was when I was 25. It is not that I “give a shit” now or that I have no issues with my life or the state of the world, it is more that I am always pushing myself towards honesty and away from what I’ve already done. Everything gets greyer as you get older. When I was 20, everything was arranged in clearer terms. There was good/bad, happy/sad etc. Now my brain won’t let me make declarations like I would. My songs are full of contradictions, of “but’s”. It is an interesting challenge.

S&N: And a daft throwaway question:

Have you heard of Talons the British band, and are you a fan of their music?

I have heard of them. I have only heard a few of their songs but I thought they were doing some interesting things. I like it when people take classical instruments into new contexts. I think we are doing different enough things that we don’t really get in each other’s way though and I would never change my band’s name. Talon was my nickname around the beginning of this project (it was based off of my last name, Tolan). The band was called Talons’ (with apostrophe) because it was meant to reference the songs, like Talons’ Songs basically and it was a nod to one of my favourite bands, Rachel’s.

S&N: And finally, if you had to recommend one record to listen to right now what would it be?

Hmmm, I don’t know. I feel like I am in this weird spot because while I make this “folk” or even “emo-ish” albums, I don’t really listen to any of than music so I don’t really know what to recommend for people that like my music. I can tell you what I like though, ha ha. I am really jamming the new Robert Lowe (Lichens) record on Type. I really like the Hallock Hill LP that my friend Henry just put out on MIE. My wife and I have also been listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk a lot lately.

Thats a wrap, thanks for reading and please follow us on Twitter!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s