FEATURES Mild High Club Traces the Steps of American Music on “Skiptracing” By Phillip Mlynar · September 06, 2016
Mild High Club. Photo by Isaac Sterling

“I took cues from Miles Davis and Steely Dan and tried to surround myself with people I thought could really help me extrapolate my compositions,” says Los Angeles resident Alexander Brettin about the recording process for his second album under the name Mild High Club. Following last year’s psych-pop-infused TimelineSkiptracing is based around the idea of a private investigator who’s on a mission to retrace the “steps of the sound and the spirit of American music.”

Under Brettin’s direction, this fictional journey plays out via a seamless, 11-song soundtrack, built around breezy, relaxed synth lines, shuffling percussion patterns, and airy vocals that offer clues to move the narrative along. By calling on a team of musical allies who could help with technical aspects—like the tracking and mixing of the album—Brettin was able to free himself to focus on playing around with various instruments without “having to sit at a computer and agonize about clicking on too much stuff.” The result is a sumptuou,s, late-summer listen.

We spoke to Brettin about digging deep into the album’s overriding concept, striving to match Steely Dan’s level of production sophistication, and the fateful day he passed his demo tape to Stones Throw leader Peanut Butter Wolf.

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What was the first song you recorded for the album?

The first song we attempted to record was actually “Skiptracing.” Essentially, we recorded the album chronologically. We had made a version that was sort of a test run as to how we were going to work in the studio, and after that, we just went for it.

What does the word “skiptracing” actually mean?

Well, there’s a formal definition, which is the job of finding a fugitive who’s skipped bail. But for me, it was kinda like a nod to this XTC concept record Skylarking, which means “fucking around.” For me, Skiptracing is my own little L.A. fantasy with an L.A. detective—like a Philip Marlowe-type narrative that I feel sort of mirrors my existence up here, learning everything that came before me to try and get a grasp, or some inspiration. I guess it’s basically just being sort of like a crate digger without actually buying the records—I have the internet, and I have this massive world that is Los Angeles to draw upon. I figured I’d write about that.

You mentioned XTC’s Skylarking. While writing Skiptracing, were there any other albums that became reference points?

Pretty much anything from the Steely Dan discography, Supertramp’s Breakfast In America, and I guess various other little psych-pop nuggets. Those were things that made me want to try and attempt that level of cohesion. I thought they were pretty phenomenal records, and I hoped if I could get to that level—even if it became somewhat close—it would be better than the first record.

Mild High Club

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

Mild High Club. Photo by Jamie Wdziekonski

What is it about Steely Dan’s sound that influences you so much?

Just everything from the wit of the lyricism to the complexity of the harmony. It’s being able to present this ultra-sophisticated and complex music, and then make a joke over the top of it. It might go over a bunch of people’s heads, but it’s sort of ironic—not in a super negative way, but in a very subliminal way. I like that about it. Same as Supertramp: instead of tongue-in-cheek, it’s being able to whip something up that isn’t too basic, that’s layered, but also still crystal clear and you can hear all the instruments.

Is that the sort of thing you’re referencing on the song “Homage,” where you begin by singing, “Someone wrote this song before and I could tell you where it’s from…”

It’s basically the protagonist of the song recognizing that, with all these combinations of chords and such, there’s a specific progression in music theory that is laid out in that lyric: The progression is known as the circle progression, because it goes back to itself, and for some reason it’s really pleasing for us to hear. It’s in a bunch of songs. You’ll hear it in Charlie Parker and salsa music—it’s one of the most common progressions. So it’s a post-modern reflection that, here we are in the next century and what’s left? How can I expand on this? Or even can I? It’s that sort of question.

Do you think many listeners pick up on those sort of lyrics?

I don’t know. I would hope that some people pick up on them. I’ve talked about them enough that if you look and you’re curious, there’s sort of a picture of it. Hopefully people pick up on the hyperbole, and there are some songs that might take you a little more research to get what they’re about. But I don’t mind it also being open to interpretation.

Mild High Club

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

Mild High Club. Photo by Emily Quirk

You talked about attempting to record Skiptracing chronologically. Did it pan out like that? Or did you end up having to move songs around for the final sequencing?

No, it essentially happened. I guess the first side of the record was the first session, and I had written that chronologically and adapted it so that where one song ends, the next chord of the next song would somehow link and make sense. A lot of it had to do with harmonic sequences and trying to keep a steady beat or something with the mix. I had explored that a little bit on the first album, but this time, I wanted to create one long movement that’s all just one key.

The closing song, “Skiptracing (Reprise),” ends with what sounds like a sample of a train or some form of transportation.

I just wanted to get the city noise after the investigation, just kinda walking out of the cave—which is like the recording phase. For me, my investigative office is like a recording and writing place. I kind of enjoy that fantasy of feeling like I need to learn more and more, and romanticizing it as an L.A. noir thing, but without the bad stuff.

So if Skiptracing was turned into a movie, who would you want to play your character?

Ha! Damn. I wonder … Someone cool! Stephen Colbert or Bill Murray. It wouldn’t have to be someone younger, just someone with some charisma.

Mild High Club

Merch for this release:
Vinyl LP

Mild High Club. Photo by Sam Shea

The album artwork seems to also really fits the vibe of the music, especially the color scheme.

A friend of mine named Zack Goulet, a Chicago-based artist, did that.

Did you give him a brief about what you wanted from the album cover?

I gave him a brief on what the story was and mentioned certain items in the songs that should appear on the album cover. But it was a rough idea, like an investigator thing, and he came back with that. It was the first thing he did, and I couldn’t believe it. He doesn’t show his art much, but I’m hoping somebody gets ahold of him and goes and finds his stuff, ’cause he’s a hidden gem.

Like Timeline, Skiptracing was released by Stones Throw. How did you get involved with the label?

I was working on a record and basically just walked into Peanut Butter Wolf’s office one morning with a demo, and that was it. I went back to Chicago, went back to my job at a deli, and just hung out for like a year working on Timeline. The whole time, Peanut Butter Wolf would call me once in a while and remind me that he wanted to put the record out. Finally, I came out to L.A. and the rest is history!

What was on the demo you gave to Peanut Butter Wolf?

Pretty much almost everything from Timeline. There were just a few songs I had yet to finish, but definitely the first single. It didn’t change much from the demo; it was a home recording, and I didn’t want to try and re-record it and take away from its essence.

If you could collaborate with anyone else on the label, who would it be?

Probably Mndsgn. That’s my friend, and we’re in the same headspace when it comes to wanting to decipher the codes of jazz harmonies and understand how they really drive a composition, but from a very educated point. We’re about being able to take twists and turns without being blind.

—Phillip Mlynar

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