Watersports, Early Singles, and Electronic Ascension
by Wade T. Oberlin
When I first heard Mi Ami, my ear was being trained in a way that focused on the living, breathing aspects of sound per expression. The focal point in Mi Ami's case, once the mercurial rhythms were carved out by drummer Damon Palermo and bassist Jacob Long, exposes a unique voice in Daniel Martin-Mccormick's guitar flaying and high pitched, inward yelps. Being lost in a world of post-punk, Krautrock, American hardcore, jazz and small band expression of all sorts, I took interest in the group, with their use of grooves and jutting solos.
Their style of playing translated well from what they were capable of performing live, especially on what is for me is their best album, Watersports. The trio would bang out that record in a matter of days after simply setting up, with extended but extemporary mixing placed after the fact. It made the finished product a sort of surging set of one-take rhythms and slight overdubs made on instinct.“We just set up and played. It’s how I’ve always approached recording. As a band, one of our strengths is the looseness/space in our songs to play off/with each other and there really would be no other way for us to get the songs “right" than to just set up and play. We did the basic tracks that way and then added vocal overdubs and a few other things (a little percussion, guitar, synth, etc). The mix was also approached as another performance element in a lot of ways and there was a lot of on the fly fx/mixing throughout. I think sound-wise we did a good job of capturing what we sound like live on record." -Once, I picked up Watersports for 6.99, and later both singles (“African Rhythms," “Cut Men") for about the same price. After some repeated listens, I read interviews wherever I could find them, searching frenetically for any sort of answer as to what music distilled made their sound work. For a while, when I read interviews of other bands, I'd see a sort of Simon Reynolds view-of-the-world in newer groups- so many would take ideas, snatches of influences fashioned from records wholesale. With Mi Ami, it turned out, genre lumping was intentionally never in the front of their minds. Performance was, as it usually should be, in a small band format.
Jacob, Parade of Flesh Interview
Digging into a Parade of Flesh interview with Mi Ami, I got the impression that their collective list of influences spans the world and all-time, but with focus on performance and not on how a record comes out sounding something like this that and the other. Nor were they punks spitting back heavy doses of African guitar reissues, which were in their rotation along with Gamelan, Disco, Techno, minimalist composition and everything else off into infinity. All this musical exposure was peripheral, but not exactly essential to their process, which when you get right down to it was all about individual betterment in a live arena, being a band working off one another, holding a groove, careening and improvising.
That being said, actual live footage of the group is unfortunately scarce. Other than the video above, the best clip you may find while they were still a power-trio consists of them playing the title track of the “Cut Men" single. It was shot around the time their second album Steal Your Face came out. Documented on a VHS handheld in Brooklyn, the trio blare through the number and move with determination. Totally rollicking, they seem to crest over and over with shifting guitar cycles and cymbal crashes set to an ecstatic wah-wah bass groove. If only this peak time for the group were documented more heavily. This one particular video (Live at Monster Island) only whets the appetite for more.
Mi Ami and its members had found a sound and space they could all agree upon. Two thirds of the group came from the D.C. freakout ensemble Black Eyes, and while I've heard and enjoyed those records to an extent, Daniel, Jacob and Damon had a more open and out idea of what they wanted to hear that's a bit more impactful. Black Eyes was a group of folks deciding whether they wanted to be more Free Jazz or Jawbox. With Mi Ami, all three members were essential, and Jacob and Daniel's continued work wasn't a pick up point with drummer Damon Palmero as a recruit:“Damon is a completely integral member of the band. Y’know, it’s not like if Jacob and I hanging out and being like, ‘What would we have done in Black Eyes?’ and then we take it to Damon. I mean each of us is one third of the band. Whatever would’ve happened in Black Eyes, which is impossible to say, I think it would’ve been pretty different because it’s like... we’re really much more interested in representing or exploring what we’re interested in now and this dynamic as a band rather than, sort of like, a perceived legacy or whatever. From like, six years ago." - Daniel, No Rip CordWhile Black Eyes were hot for a minute, no desire to light the old flame came about. Not that it would have mattered; as known as they were in D.C., it didn't help cred-wise one iota once Daniel and Jacob had packed up and left for San Francisco, where people could care less.
The time between Black Eyes and Mi Ami is important to note. Daniel and Jacob continued to develop personal styles in other groups, as well as together briefly in the duo White Flight, which to my knowledge is undocumented. Daniel also studied classical guitar at San Francisco State University. Damon would meet Daniel at a show and develop a friendship after talking disco. This shift in interest to more dance oriented forms wasn't especially new to Daniel, who had interest in go-go, Fela Kuti and Public Enemy already while growing up in politically conscious D.C.
But the reality of a new life while living in San Fran had Daniel seeking out other forms of music as much as in the noise/punk axis, mostly in dance. What becomes clear in interviews is that no matter the form, he and the rest of Mi Ami presumably like to hear from all musical genres at their purest, and later, like to dig a personal atmosphere that spans all genre niches:“I met Damon at an art opening we were both playing in 2006. We were both making noise-ish music, but after the show were talking about records and such and found we were both listening to a lot of disco, weird house and techno, italo and stuff like that. It seemed obvious we should start playing together. Jacob joined a year later when we decided to add a third person"- Daniel, Space Rock CityBy the time Damon entered the fold, they had reached new creative goals that involved being ever-changing, groove oriented and heavy. This would be very different from the Black Eyes Dischord/Free Jazz fashioning of styles that no matter how interesting it was at first glance, never really gelled. What Mi Ami achieved circa Watersports was a vibe that was dank, a feeling of political pressure, a sound that was deeply personal, and it gave the physical feeling of wanting to shed your skin. Watersports as an album title, along with its Mardi Gras-esque cover art, elicits all sorts of frustrated and hidden feelings. The reasons for its name were many:
“I was broke as shit, it was 2008 and I was 24 and I was like working at a data entry job two days a week and occasionally doing sound at this one shitty club … It’s easy to see divisions between genres and see how dance music is different from rock music which is different from blah blah blah. It’s easy to draw lines, but it’s really exciting when you hear something that sort of achieves things that you look for in any genre, across genres"- Daniel, Red Bull Music Academy
“There were three reasons. First of all, Jacob and I especially wanted a title that had a political aspect to it. In 2008, everyone heard a lot about waterboarding and the torture debates, as well as water conservation issues and the like. It seemed like the dialogue surrounding human rights and our place on the planets was getting more and more absurd and scary. At the same time, the people who were in charge seemed to be treating human welfare and the fate of the planet like some silly game. Watersports.I won't go into a full track description, but the aqueous sound is most present on the album's opener and closer. Other tracks have a labyrinthine murk, dubby drums, cavernous sounds that would be the defining sound if there was no contrast from Daniel's sound scape noise guitar and vocalizations. For me, the best album highlights are the one-two strikes of “Man In Your House / New Guitar," and on the flipside, the dirge of “White Whife."
But we wouldn't have picked it if it wasn't already a term, loaded with meaning and associations. Watersports as a sexual practice is fascinating to me, belonging to a whole repertoire that takes pleasure out of violent humiliation. A lot of the lyrics had to do with relating to my body, and feeling some tension and anxiety surrounding my body and my place in a society bent on its own destruction.
And finally, we wanted the record to have a certain aquatic sound."-Daniel, Space Rock City
Watersports received many great reviews and was the final release, I believe, from Touch and Go before they folded. Mi Ami went on to record for Thrill Jockey with Steal Your Face, their next best full length album effort by about an N-th in my book. It was recorded in a similar manner as Watersports but was tougher, tighter, more condensed. Still essential to pick up if you've read this far. It would be their last blast before the departure of Jacob Long. Also of note, their first single “African Rhythms" was released by Pissed Jeans frontman Matt Korvette on his personal White Denim label. “Cut Men" was released by Thrill Jockey. Not Not Fun released two more Mi Ami albums with Damon and Daniel as an electronic duo, and the results were intriguing but limited. This is mostly due, in my opinion, to their intentional use of primitive and clunky hardware, but they are of interest.
What is of more interest now however are the personal trajectories made by these three. Jacob Long is rarely interviewed, but he has been quietly and prolifically releasing ambient techno as Earthen Sea on Daniel's label Lovers Rock. Damon Palermo has been making enthusiastic house music as Magic Touch for years and has a slot called “Touched By Magic" on NTS radio. Daniel Martin-Mccormick briefly interfaced house, techno and noise as Sex Worker, and continually performs as the always-shifting Ital. He also collaborates frequently with event producer, visual artist and life-mate Aurora Halal, runs Lovers Rock out of NYC, and is a resident DJ at Bossa.
Their forays into dance and experimental crossovers of all kinds continues in all sorts of interesting tangents. When I think of the past decade or so and the nature of musical appropriation, interaction and just plain listening for my generation, I see Mi Ami as one of the best and brightest in exciting underground sounds.
photo by Andrew Kenower
- Mi Ami interview circa Watersports, “tribal" music, recording process and touring, influences, http://www.paradeofflesh.com/?p=530
- Great Daniel interview on live performance, Watersports backstory, non-musical inspirations, http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/artsdesk/music/2009/03/10/interview-mi-ami/
- More Watersports background, talk on live performance over being a recording act, etc; http://www.spacecityrock.com/features/mi-ami1.shtml
- Daniel talks Internet, punk/noise interface with dance as Ital, http://www.self-titledmag.com/2012/12/05/the-self-titled-interview-daniel-martin-mccormick-of-italmi-ami/2/
- Also Daniel, touches on Steal Your Face recording, cover art, not wanting to be fashionable or half-baked, Touch and Go/Thrill Jockey, http://www.noripcord.com/features/mi-ami-interview
- A fairly interesting interview with Daniel, talking band smells, Rage Against The Machine comparisons, “music as a language" talk, music studies, http://larecord.com/interviews/2009/03/31/mi-ami-it-made-them-sad-and-i-liked-that
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