Mi Ami: Skittering Guitars, Subversive Disco, Gamelan, and Grooves

Mi Ami: WatersportsMi Ami: Watersports (Touch and Go / Quarterstick, 2/17/09)

Mi Ami: “New Guitar”
[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/mi_ami.mp3|titles=Mi Ami: “New Guitar”]

For Daniel Martin-McCormick, the difference between his old band, the prickly DC-based punk outfit Black Eyes, and his new band, Mi Ami, is simply put: “I like this band.” Though tension and friction can result in entertainment for audiences, it can wreak havoc on the psyche of a musician simply looking to express himself without impediment.

“Being in Black Eyes was cool,” Martin-McCormick says, “but the perspectives among the five members were so different. It was difficult. We were trying to do five different things at once. I wanted to be playing crazy free jazz, another person wanted to be in Jawbox — stuff like that.”

Shortly after Black Eyes dissolved, Martin-McCormick sought to escape the insular DC music scene and found a comfortable niche all the way across the country in San Francisco. Though his initial motivation for moving to the West Coast was to enter music school and study classical guitar, he quickly became enamored with San Francisco’s open, artist-friendly culture.

“Being here is great,” he says.  “I love DC, but as far as the musical scene, my impression from when I lived there was that things were pretty insular and that although there was an interest in music from outside DC, that it felt ‘other’ and inaccessible. Since then, it seems like things have perhaps changed somewhat. But it’s been a while since DC has been a city that people have looked to for music.” By contrast, he perceives San Francisco as a place where there is more exchange with artists from other cities.

It’s that openness that informs the music of Mi Ami, and Martin-McCormick’s voice is full of obvious relief when he begins speaking about the band. “The sound of Mi Ami is the sound of people being free together,” he says, “and I really feel great about it.”

On its first album, Watersports, Mi Ami dives headlong into deep, hypnotic grooves and trance-like rhythms that draw from the subversive disco of Arthur Russell and the exotic repetitions of gamelan, with liberal doses of skittering, jagged guitar and falsetto courtesy of Martin-McCormick. His bandmates, drummer Damon Palermo and bassist Jacob Long, form a solid rhythm section that lays out patient and intricate patterns that ground the tracks and allow Martin-McCormick to launch into dizzying shouts and fanciful riffs without completely unraveling the focus.

Finding that foundation was essential to Mi Ami’s success, but it was not initially part of the equation. The first incarnation of the band featured only Palermo and Martin-McCormick, who says that they almost broke up after a year for lack of ideas. “We were at a standstill,” he says. “Our setup was very limited; Damon didn’t even have a kick drum. We had no bass player. It was really funny. We couldn’t figure out why we were having trouble writing songs. Finally, we decided not to break up but instead to get a kick drum and a bass player.”

A longtime friend of Martin-McCormick who had played with him in Black Eyes and, for a time, been his roommate, Long was a natural fit, but again, moves that seem obvious in retrospect were not so apparent at the time. “I put an ad on Craigslist looking for a bass player who was into some techno, gamelan, and weird punk, and I only got two responses. One was from a guy who told me to ‘fuck off and die,’ and the other was from Jacob, who had been reading Craigslist at work. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to ask him — we had been in five bands together previously — but after that, everything came together.”

Watersports is proof positive that Mi Ami is a band whose members are working entirely in sync with one another. The music conveys a patience that is unusually calming, even as Martin-McCormick shrieks his way through tracks like “Echononecho,” his frenetic vocals offset by the smoothness of the rhythm. Contradictions and double meanings are items in which Mi Ami has significant interest, and though the music is excited, energetic, and optimistic, there’s a dark streak threaded through the album.

“It has a heavy undercurrent of paranoia and anxiety, hopelessness, being afraid for the future of the planet,” Martin-McCormick says.  “‘Man in Your House’ is probably the most political song, and it’s based on a dream that my mother had when I was a kid that really stuck with me. She dreamed that she picked my sister and me up from school, and when she got back in the car, there was a driver, and it was a stranger that she didn’t know. It terrified her. I was about six when she told me about this dream, and it really freaked me out. It’s viscerally terrifying. And it’s kind of what the last eight years [under the Bush administration] have felt like, politically.”

Though much of Watersports is lively, danceable, and riotous, it’s on “White Wife,” a slower track near the album’s close, that Mi Ami demonstrates its true range. Long and Palermo operate on a steady wavelength, a subtle and effective groove that slowly and methodically hijacks the body’s natural rhythms until the oscillating motion of the song can be tangibly felt. It’s true resonance — a tidal force, one that speaks to the primitive, rhythmic nature of the human body.

That’s the kind of deep, meaningful connection that Martin-McCormick wishes to foster with his audiences. “You can’t explain it,” he says. “You ask an audience to accept the sounds that you make, and that’s like a form of nakedness, of intimacy. Playing music for a crowd is such a crazy, intimate experience. It’s really strange. That’s what people gather together to see music for.”

For Mi Ami, the performance doesn’t, and shouldn’t, end at the edge of the stage. “The best shows are where people are engaged on a personal level. I’m really excited to play to a larger underground community.”

Despite the interest in the darker aspects of modern culture, Watersports is an album meant to bring people together at clubs and parties to share a common rhythmic denominator, whose persistent and provocative flow erodes away the differences and divisions that have separated us. Mi Ami, Italian for “my love,” is greeting its crowds with open arms, looking for people to join its members in being free together.