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Interview: Mikael Jorgensen of Wilco and Pronto

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Mikael Jorgensen is a busy man. He has been working with the popular band Wilco since 2004 and is now the lead pianist/keyboardist for the group. In the midst of Wilco’s massive success, Jorgenen, along with collaborator Greg O’Keeffe, established a musical side-project called Pronto.

Although the roots of what would become Pronto were established as far back as 1995, Jorgensen’s debut album under this moniker would not be released until 2007. That album, All Is Golden was a collection of 70s inspired, singer/songwriter styled songs that were all written by Jorgensen, who also provided vocals. It received positive reviews and was lauded by critics for its well crafted melodies, exceptional lyrics, and quirky production.

Mikael and Greg have just released a second Pronto album that ventures about as far away from the style of All Is Golden as possible. The latest album, The Cheetah, is a collection of twelve synth infused, digitally crafted songs that create a mellow, atmospheric, and somewhat bizarre soundscape. Such a departure into the land of electro-music was a daring move for Jorgensen, who could have ridden the wave of critical success achieved by All Is Golden and delivered music from the same formula.

Mikael recently took some time out from his busy schedule and dual life as frontman and sideman to discuss the new direction he took with The Cheetah, his life as a musician, and what he has planned for Pronto in the future.

The Cheetah is radically different from All is Golden. Why did you choose to return with such an experimental album of electronic-based, instrumental material after having received such positive feedback on the singer/songwriter style of your previous release?

The Cheetah is a collection of music that represents another facet of what I'm curious about musically. It laid dormant for a long time, and once we had the opportunity to release a download-only version of it, I wanted to get it out in time to do another round of touring this past September.

It excites me to throw this curve-ball. The singer-songwriter stuff will certainly continue, but there's this whole other world of electronic stuff that I've been working with since high school that I want to send out too. The two worlds will likely get closer with the next Pronto record as now we have a space in Brooklyn to record and test out new song ideas and rip 'em apart.

Were you the primary source of musical ideas for the tracks on The Cheetah? If so, did these ideas come from artistic inspiration or from technological curiosity and experimentation?

It was a fairly even balance between my friend Chris Girard and I. The way these ideas came into being ranged from having a traditional song written on guitar, i.e. "The Cheetah" and "Einladung" to coaxing some music out of dynamic composition software triggering actual hardware, or soft-synths, and then applying guitars and drums.

There was a lot of trial and error involved – computer crashes that lost certain files – travails of working in the digital domain, especially back in the early 2000s, before OSX and protected memory, blah-blah… I digress….

Could you briefly describe your background as musician? as an engineer?

I began playing piano around 7 years old. Had a terrible piano teacher who screwed me up on sight reading and so I just played by ear. My dad was a recording engineer and I'd go with him to sessions in New York periodically.

When I was in 7th grade, he got me a synthesizer and that began my preoccupation with electronic music. By the time high-school rolled around I was surrounded by computers and synthesizers in my bedroom but was quickly realizing the limitations of technology and music, and then joined a pop band playing keyboards. From that point on I could only conceive of a life working in music. In New York City I worked at a place that rented Pro Audio gear to recording studios, and then when I finished "college" I moved to Chicago in 1998.

I wound up helping build John McEntire's SOMA Electronic Music Studio and worked on sessions there after construction was complete. It was there that I met Jeff and the Wilco family. Love story ensues…

When recording, did the musicians have freedom when creating their parts or were things more mapped out and "orchestrated" before the recordings began?

Well, like I mentioned, there was a lot of hunt and peck until we arrived at something we all found satisfying or unique. A few songs had some clear ideas that were present before we began recording, but for the most part only a vague outline existed before we started recording and then all the details slid in over the course of working on this material.

To clear up some confusion, who are the regular members of Pronto and who are simply guests on The Cheetah?

Pronto is Greg O'Keeffe and myself with very special guests.

How has the fan reaction been to this departure from the All is Golden style?

It's funny, because All Is Golden is a departure from The Cheetah, chronologically speaking. I think that the fans like it. I don't know though. Is that a bad sign?

How are you translating the tracks from The Cheetah into live performances, and what sort of audience reactions are you receiving?

We have only really been playing "The Cheetah" at shows due to an incredibly short amount of rehearsal time before the tour. I had hoped for more technology to infiltrate the show, but there just wasn't time between Wilco tours and the Pronto tour to really work the bugs out. It will certainly be there the next time we head out.

What is your favorite track from the new album and why?

"Marsella Rambla" has always been a favorite of mine. It came out of using the dynamic composition software "M" by Cycling 74. That was triggering a software synthesizer and the result was the muted wan-wahn-wah stuff at the very beginning. The bassline is not a regular pattern and the squiggly percussive granular stuff adds a contrasting frenetic energy to the somber tone – it's not entirely relaxing.

"The Monster" is said to be an early version of what would become the song "Monster". Are there any tracks on The Cheetah that might evolve into a song with lyrics for a future release?

Maybe…

The tracks for "The Cheetah" were recorded over many years. When and why did you decide that you had enough quality material to make a full fledged album of instrumental "musical experiments"?

When AIG came out, I was trying to figure out what to do with all these instrumental tracks that we've made over the years and it made sense to wrap them up together. They were never born with the intention of being put on an album together, but their instrumental nature tied them all together.

What is your response to some harsh critics who have compared "The Cheetah" to "elevator music" or "lullabies"?

I fuckin' love it. Bring it on. The Cheetah is part Henry Mancini, Exotic Guitars, Enoch Light, The Sound Gallery series, Dean Elliott, mixed with elements of Cluster, Kraftwerk, Plux Quba, Aphex Twin, Nobukazu Takemura, Autechre and Brian Eno. Go sleep to it right now!

On a personal note, how are you able to balance your duties with Wilco and your time creating and promoting with Pronto?

It's not easy, but the Wilco schedule is rather firmly mapped out several months in advance and we can find little gaps here and there to work within. The name of the game here is "tactical efficiency."

Does your involvement with Wilco help or hinder your work with Pronto?

It helps both. I learn so much by playing with the guys in Wilco. The aggregate wealth of knowledge about music from everyone else is at times, intimidating, but an absolutely amazing resource. Not only limited to records, but questions about chord voicing and other technical musical things that pop up every now and again.

I've found it's really important to move between sideman and honcho, because it sharpens both identities. I don't always know what I want in Pronto, but learning how to formulate the right question is a really important aspect to being a musician that I don't necessarily get to exercise in Wilco.

Having had this new-found experience of being "the leader" it further clarifies to me, how to be an even better Wilco member.

Lastly, what can we expect from Pronto in the future?

We're configuring ourselves out of tour-mode and into record-mode to begin work on the next record which we'd like to see out by summer / fall 2010 and then a short run of dates to support it.

*The tracks from the new album were recorded between 2000 and 2004, and in addition to Jorgenson, Girard, and O’Keeffe, guest musicians on the recording include Rob Mazurek (cornet) and Noel Kupersmith (bass). The Cheetah was released by Contraphonic as a digital only album and is available from all major music sites. An expanded version that included animated videos and visual effects from artist Michael Lascarides is available exclusively from Contraphonic.

For more information, please visit Contraphonic's website or Pronto’s official website.

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About Jason Spraggins

Jason was born in Bells, TN. As a high school musician, Jason achieved membership in the All-West Tennessee Honor Band and, as a senior, received the John Phillips Sousa Award. He was also the 1998 recipient of the Joe Kincaid Memorial Scholarship for Musicians. He later earned his Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education with an English minor from Lambuth University in Jackson, TN. As a student at Lambuth, he participated in and was a featured soloist for the University Jazz Band (playing first alto sax). He also performed with the school's Brass Ensemble (on tuba) and Wind Band (playing first sax and tuba). Over the years, Jason has served as a summer camp instructor for various high school band programs in the area and has arranged concert band, small ensemble, and marching band music for a variety of ensembles. As a church musician, he has served as pianist and has directed vocal and hand chime groups. He has also taught instrumental music privately since his graduation. In 2004, Jason wrote the script and songs for a two act Christmas musical entitled Beyond Bethlehem. The musical has been performed twice locally and has now been submitted for publication. He is currently preparing the scores for two new shows, Elizabethtown: A Musical Western and Adventures in the Closet: A Children's Musical, both of which he is co-writing with his long-time friend and collaborator, Andy Brown. The two are also busy developing a cycle of songs for a concept album entitled Garfield County. In addition, Jason is working on a musical, "Beneath the Surface," based on the John Wayne Gacy murders of the 1970's. Aside from these projects, Jason is also preparing a set of instrumental pieces for a solo piano album called Daydreams and Reflections that is to be recorded in the coming year. Along with his current theatrical projects, Jason is actively writing stand-alone songs to be pitched to publishing houses and studios and is working to earn album placement and the inclusion of his music in T.V. and film. As a writer, Jason has a variety of approaches when crafting songs. At times he writes alone, creating both the lyrics and music himself. He most often writes with Andy Brown, setting Andy's lyrics to music. One of their new stand-alone songs, "Yours," just received a glowing review and was nominated as "Best of SongU.com" (an online songwriting community/music industry website based in Nashville). Recently, Jason has collaborated on a number of songs with composer Matt Glickstein from Hawaii, providing lyrics for Matt's compositions. The very first collaboration by Spraggins and Glickstein, a song called "Ghosts," was also nominated as "Best of SongU.com" (an honor several more of Jason's works have earned) by an award-winning professional songwriter with over a hundred cuts to his credit by major artists in country, rock, and contemporary Christian music.
  • http://www.riddledphantasms.com R.P.M.

    Wilco is Wilco. The difference here is Stewart Copland side projects or James Iha side projects. They aren’t the Police or the Smashing Pumpkins and anyone who has seen Wilco and before that Uncle Tupelo knows that it is Jeff Tweedy. Sadly this is no Jeff Tweedy. Nice review though and giving this guy some side pub., but using the Wilco name to push what is and never will be YFH or A.M. is walking a fine line. I don’t blame the guy, I would be my left leg that this is something his MGT. pushed and then secondary his label and if he is one of the rarer and rarer artists to have an agent…they like the Dodo seem to have left the building akin to Elvis (a good thing in my opinion b/c in Hollywood and the making of I’m Trying to Break Your Heart def. had one and that sucks, agents have certain guidelines and managers do too, only in music the agent gets replaced by the label generally though they wield a lot less huff puff type lil piggies stuff.

    Again nice pub. for this guy, as a Wilco supporter since I dunno their first tour and even before they all need to get a little more than just being the Tweedieetes (again another guy I adore). He has set such a high standard for them and after they won a couple of grammys they get the Barry Bonds (before we thought he was a cheater) or the Babe Ruth type thing where if every hit isn’t a towering homer, Mantle too, then -sigh – cough – sigh.

    There are worse things :)

    Nice…oh and one more side note not really related to Pronto, but more to ISBN numbers that put 0 minutes or some crazy running time for albums we know are not 231 minutes or 0 minutes. I had an EP say 888 minutes. It was 4 songs. That needs to be fixed (not by you or Pronto or even the Chicago boys).