Mike Deni’s musical project, Geographer, was born out of tragedy.
Deni moved to San Francisco around 2005, started performing at open mics, and soon formed the band Parasol with Kacey Johansing. That morphed into Geographer around 2008 after the sudden deaths of Deni’s sister and father.
“All the songs on my first album are about that, basically,” Deni says of the debut Geographer LP, Innocent Ghosts. Though he found it difficult talking about his father and his sister, he believes it was important to sing about them, as it prevented him from bottling up toxic emotions. “Music was my therapy and that was the underpinnings of what Geographer is all about, which is taking the sadness and confusion of life and putting it into something that is beautiful.”
More than a decade later and under siege from COVID-19, we could all use a little help finding beauty amidst the confusion, fear and anger.
His forthcoming new album — Down and Out in the Garden of Earthly Delights — is Deni’s first full-length since 2015’s Ghost Modern. It was intended for a mid-year release, but the pandemic has delayed the record until December. In the meantime, Deni is dropping singles monthly. Typical of Geographer, the sound is hard to nail down.
“I always want to evoke an emotion from my songs,” he says, explaining how he layered a piano, steel drum, harp and a muted guitar and a Rhodes electric piano to create a somewhat disorienting sound that is at once familiar and foreign on “Slave to the Rhythm;” it’s all part of a strategy to keep listeners on their toes. “When you hear acoustic guitar, it’s gorgeous and you can lose yourself to a degree, but you can picture someone playing the acoustic guitar. With Radiohead, you don’t even know what to picture. That’s an extra layer of losing yourself to the magic of music. That’s always at the forefront of my mind.”
Ultimately, Geographer is about orchestral and lush indie rock — and toying with classical arrangements, pop melodies and post-punk experimentation. The new album comes hot on the heels of 2019’s New Jersey EP, and even Deni is surprised that he worked so fast.
“When I was mixing one of the songs on the new album, the engineer at the studio was surprised to see me so soon after the New Jersey EP, because I had said that I wasn’t going to make another album for a long time,” Deni says. “Maybe because I gave myself that false sense of time, I started making songs that were very different for me. I was left with these compositions that I really loved. I had recently moved to Los Angeles, so I had all these new people to work with. I was able to finish it very quickly because I didn’t get bogged down with people trying to fabricate variation.”
Deni finished the album in about two months, wrapping his recording sessions with 15 songs and four bonus tracks, which makes for the longest album he’s ever assembled. It was an exciting moment, but then his momentum was halted by the virus. It’s been tough coming to terms with all the uncertainty, but Deni is doing the best he can.
“The main thing was the postponement of the tour — for me it’s all about touring,” he says. “Then the music industry ground to a halt, so I couldn’t get the distribution deal together in time. I just had to let go and not care. You get so focussed on your release date, your tour, your life. The tour gets pushed back and back, and then you’re like ‘When is this tour gonna happen? What if I have another album’s worth of material by that time?’ But I’m not going to be able to record it because I can’t go into a studio. It’s really crazy, because the music industry is so focused on cycles. The album cycle. I had to divorce myself from that idea.”
In the meantime, Deni has begun figuring out how to showcase his new material during quarantine. He’s been webcasting live performances every Monday of the lockdown and this Tuesday, May 12, he will perform as part of the Noise Pop streaming series No Place Like Home. Though they aren’t the same as performing in a club, Deni says these shows have provided him with a much needed release.
“It makes me feel good and gives me purpose,” he says. “I have something to practice for and it gives my fans something to look forward to, which feels good. I’m connecting with the world. It evolved from me just playing an acoustic guitar and singing to now I have this cool setup with a bunch of keyboards, a guitar and a bunch of loop pedals. There’s certain songs I can make intricate loops with. I’m playing the flute, I’ll play the saxophone. It’s really fun. If it goes off the rails, I just laugh and it doesn’t matter. I was supposed to be on tour and I really miss crowds of people, but that’s a nice way to stay connected with my reason for being. It’s a very beautiful experience for me. I love doing them.”
Geographer performs alongside Fast Times and Rituals of Mine (DJ set) from 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 12 via facebook.com/noisepop.com.