For the last two and a half years, Alex Brettin has resided in sunny Los Angeles where he’s cooked up a bevvy of psychedelic, whimsical tracks under the name Mild High Club. His newest album, Skiptracing, comes out on August 26, and it’s a whirlwind of trippy guitar chords, atmospheric synthesizer melodies, and echoe-y, layered vocals. It’s the kind of stuff that is easy to get lost in, and that might leave you feeling a bit dazed and stoned after listening.
We chatted with Brettin about the origins of Mild High Club, noir detective influences, and what, exactly, he’s trying to say in this new album.
Catch Mild High Club at 9 p.m., Friday, August 26, at The Chapel. More info here.
SF Weekly: Why don’t you, just for the hell of it, give me a little background on when, why, where, and how Mild High Club started?
Alex Brettin: It started a couple of years ago, almost three years ago. It started out as just my own curiosity at trying to figure out how to record music, and this desire to have a record with my own music on it. It was kind of a challenge to myself to see if I could complete more than one song. That turned into the first record and yeah, that was it. It started from just bedroom recordings, and it has evolved since to trying to do everything that I can to make something.
SFW: So you’ve wanted to do the solo thing for a while?
AB: Um, I think it just kind of panned out that way. I think when I had bands in the past, I often found that it was easiest to do it alone for the sake of time and arguments and all that. I could basically do what I wanted without anybody telling me it was not good. You know? But that being said, I do love collaborating, but specifically for this project, yeah, it’s pretty internal.
SFW: Even though you have other dudes playing instruments in your music videos and in your press photos, Mild High Club is really just your project, right?
AB: It’s primarily, like, my baby. And I have a lot of, I guess, uncles and aunts that take care of my baby with me. But I’d say that there’s different levels to the whole project. It’s generally me recording as much as I can, and then I’ll have our drummer come and redo the drum tracks or bring other people in for the sake of bringing some variety. But it’s generally always my contributions.
SFW: Okay, but when you tour or have a show, you have other musicians fill in?
SFW: I hope this doesn’t offend you, but do you smoke weed? ‘Cuz the band title kind of hints at it.
AB: Yeah I do.
SFW: I mean, with “Windowpane,” I think the whole point of that music video was to seem trippy and like you’re stoned.
AB: Yeah, that sort of plays into my comedic realm of like how I approach some songs where it’s a little tongue-in-cheek or meta around itself or something.
SFW: Yeah, you definitely have a comedic streak to your persona.
AB: I try to be funny. I don’t know if I am. But I try. I have really funny friends, so I try to keep up with them.
SFW: With the new album, was there any song in particular that you were trying to be comedic in?
AB: Um, I think maybe not so much comedic in a traditional sense, but comedic in a Steven Wright sort of sense. I don’t know. It’s like absurd. Sort of psychedelic. Kind of turn you on your head kind of thing. But it’s not as obvious as that shit. I don’t know, I guess I just tried to get meta with it and writing songs about writing songs kind of shit like that, you know? Or writing a song about hearing a song, or writing a song about hearing a song and decoding the lyrics and then having the lyrics of that song actually happen in your actual life. Like, the narrative plays out into nonfiction, sort of as like an alternate universe type of thing. But maybe nobody will ever pick up on them. It might go by the wayside. It’s more or less for me to have. As selfish as that is. I really can’t tell how people are going to respond to some of the the the subliminal messages, the double entendres and the tropes and the hyperbolic slang. That kind of shit. Hopefully that comes through.
SFW: What does the album title, Skiptracing, mean?
AB: Skiptracer is like an investigative job where you search for someone who skips bail. It’s inspired by several characters, for instance Phillip Marlow by Raymond Chandler in the Big Sleep. The album revolves around a sort of neo-postmodern non-cop detective who is just sort of searching for some fugitive feelings that have arrived in the wake of popular music.
SFW: I think it’s interesting that you’re kind of mixing the noir pulp vibe from the first half of the 20th century with the band’s sound, which is very psychedelic a la the ’60s and ’70s. It’s like two styles in one.
AB: Um, yeah. I mean, I feel like it’s,like, less of a decade sort of like thing and more of, like, a location thing. It’s more of a Hollywood thing. ‘Cuz I’m not from LA, so there’s, like, an element of fantastical to it, sort of a Disney mentality about it. I think this whole new record is, in a sense, just sort of looking through a rose glass at the past and picking apart pieces of the Los Angeles recording arts world. I don’t know. It’s just sort of, like, making nods here and there. Never claiming to be anything.
SFW: One of the cool things instrumentally about your music is that there’s a lot of emphasis on the background details, the minor touches, like the cymbals or the hi-hats. Is that something that you tried to do and were aware of?
AB: Yeah, definitely. I’m pretty particular and pretty, um, I guess, detailed when it comes to that stuff. Especially on this new record because I was working with people who could actually, um, facilitate my needs, rather than me trying to figure it out from not really having any technological experience of my own. So, yeah, with this album, I was able to actually do almost everything I wanted to when it came to editing and sound design and that sort of thing. I had a lot of help from my engineers because there were things that I’d hear, but wasn’t able to actually do myself because of my lack of engineering skills.
SFW: Can you tell me what those things were that you weren’t able to do in the album?
SFW: That might be hard to answer though, so it’s okay if you don’t have an answer.
AB: U, probably just more time in the studio. Nothing’s ever finished. And I could mess with it forever. But I feel like maybe, if I didn’t push so hard to fit all the sessions in between touring and such, it might have been a little bit less of a stressful situation. There was some moments of file organization that were just like, you know, time consuming. If I could go back, I would just stop the clocks, stop the rotation of years and all that, and just kind of get lost in it and come back.
SFW: I feel you. I work best when I have a big uninterrupted chunk of time and sometimes it’s hard to do stuff in the time between. So what instruments did you play for the album?
AB: I played everything from drums, all the bass, all the guitars, most of the pianos, and sang it all. Did a lot of the synthesizers and effects, too. So pretty much the bulk of it. I had some of my other friends come in on tracks to lay down some saxophone. Another band member laid down some really cool synth stuff that he had created.
SFW: So apparently you spent, like, three years working on the preceding album, Timeline?
AB: Close to three years, yeah.
SFW: Why was that?
AB: Um, I think it had to do with my stubbornness to have anybody else touch it, and, like, change it. I had attempted to work with some people who, yeah, I was just not pleased with the result. I guess it didn’t take me long to finish, but it took me three years to let go of it, I think. It was a period where I had just moved to LA, where I was living in a warehouse, and sort of still getting my shit together. So yeah, it was more or less just a personal struggle with letting go of it. And trying to be an audio engineer and mixing and doing all this stuff without having any education. And that’s what took forever.
SFW: How did you learn it? YouTube videos?
AB: No, I just did it by trial and error. It took a long time. You can hear the difference between the first record and the second record because I didn’t engineer the second record. And that’s just because the people I had engineer that’s what they do.
SFW: So with this one, you were just more open to letting people help you with it, basically?
AB: Um, yes. I really shied away from suggestions, unless they were things that I guess were sort of remedying situations that were recorded poorly. But a lot of it came from an engineer. Here’s an example: I wanted to, um, create this effect on my voice. Instead of it being a delay that came after I sang, it would come before I sang. So it kind of sounded like a reverse trail, which was supposed to emulate a skiptracer. If you can imagine a guy with a detective hat and a magnifying glass just looking at steps and tracing steps. But the idea was that we could do that. So he helped me engineer it. Basically, what we did was we took the track and then we reversed it and then we reversed it and then put it through a reverse effect and then reversed that. So the end product was sort of impossible. It’s something you couldn’t do live. We just did all these things because you can. The other goal with this record was utilizing the studio to the max and really being able to organize the sounds in a way that’s as clear as can be.