I had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing via email MFTJ (Mike Keneally and Scott Schorr) this past weekend. Their new album, My Mom’s Getting a Horse, features not only the talents of these two fine gentlemen, but also a sense of humor sorely needed in these strange times. Take a moment to enjoy this funky and delicious bowl of “prog soup.”
This is the second album you two have done together. How did you meet, and what inspired you to put together an album?
MIKE: We met while I was on tour with Joe Satriani in the mid-2010s, and Marco Minnemann was in the band. Scott was co-producing Marco’s albums and releasing them through Lazy Bones, and Marco introduced me to Scott when we traveled through his part of New Zealand where he lived at the time. We connected musically and personally – I knew of Scott’s work on the Levin Torn White album and the great reputation he’d accrued through that, and I was really impressed with the promotional video work he was doing for Marco’s EEPS album, so a few years later when Scott proposed to me that we work on some music together I was ready to jump in.
SCOTT: My inspiration to work with Mike was purely the results of the contours and finely groomed foundations of his beard. (His being a phenomenal musician and great dude didn’t even enter into the picture.)
Clearly, the two of you have quirky senses of humor. Who came up with the band name – Mankind’s Final Traffic Jam? And what inspired the titles of the tunes (“Donner Party Highlights”, “Lucy Has the Grip of a Crop Duster”, “Soft Teeth,” etc.)?
MIKE: The text/literature aspect of MFTJ is all Scott’s area; I get to give enough songs on my solo album weird-ass names so I don’t need to encroach on that aspect of MFTJ, which is more defined by Scott’s sensibilities, which are as weird as mine but arguably a bit darker. I have dark artistic impulses sometimes but often end up taking steps to brighten them up before release – Scott is happier to let things stay down there in the murk, which I love.
SCOTT: I’m perpetually stuck in the prison of sophomoric humor which I shall never be released from. Some partake in Korean Interpretive Dance as a hobby. I choose the art of naming songs and am grateful to Mike for allowing me the freedom to be stupid and weird. Although, he has shot down some of my favorite titles such as “When Your Ass Goes Lower Than Your Knees” and “I Wish Joan Rivers Was Still Alive.”
Mike, you have a reputation for working with some of the greats, including Frank Zappa and Joe Satriani. How much of your work with them influenced this album? Or were you looking to do something more “original”?
MIKE: I wasn’t thinking consciously about originality, I was just improvising along to the rhythm tracks Scott sent me, without much in the way of forethought or planning. Zappa, Satriani, and really everyone I’ve ever worked with had an impact on the process just because the experience of working with all of them had some kind of impact on my musical impulses – so, in the course of improvising over a specific texture or groove, something might come out which is redolent of someone I’ve worked with in the past, but it’s not conscious, it’s just me being me. And I think the longer I continue working in music, that process gets a little more refined and my improvisational impulses become more truly “me.”
After I send tracks to Scott, he sends me back his initial song construct – his choices of what fragments of my improvised tracks would become key parts of a song. At that point I enter co-producer mode and give my suggestions on instrument levels, stereo placement and song structure. Again, everyone I’ve ever worked with has at least a subtle impact on choices I make during this process, but it’s just me being me. Not thinking about originality or not, but just trying to make songs sound and feel as good as they possibly can.
Scott, I know you’re a successful producer, working with the likes of Tony Levin and Jordan Rudess, but I didn’t realize you were a skilled musician in your own right! Would you mind giving a brief background on your career as a musician? Any particular musical influences?
SCOTT: Can we use the term “skilled musician” loosely! I guess I’m proficient in drums as that’s been my primary instrument since before the wheel was invented. I can also noodle fairly well and come up with pretty melodies on the piano. In terms of bass and guitar, if it wasn’t for ProTools and the ability to loop, I’d be about as proficient as my dog. With those instruments, I’ll turn on a click track and jam for six hours until I come up with a cool four to eight bar riff to loop. I’ll also dig into sounds I’ve created from noises or grab stuff from various sample sites.
I’ve been in bands and recording projects since high school. In another life, a lot of my songs were licensed by numerous film and TV projects. My musical influences: YES (from The Yes Album through Tormato), Genesis (old to mid era), Rush, Crimson, Sabbath, Zeppelin, old school Hip-Hop, The Beatles, any great writer of pop songs and each artist I’ve produced and released on Lazy Bones as they’ve all taught me a great deal.
You describe the album as “instrumental prog soup flavored with art-rock, hip-hop, hard rock, and psychedelia.” These “flavors” seem disparate on the surface, but you guys blended them together quite artfully. What is it about progressive rock in particular that allows musicians like you to work with variety of genres and turn it into an album like “My Mom’s Getting a Horse”?
MIKE: “Progressive” is so non-specific as a genre name, but for me, anyway, it’s one of the few genres where there really aren’t any rules to adhere to. Prog fans all have different priorities, but my feeling is that there’s an unusual quantity of listeners who just want to be surprised, to be transported, and to have a lot of different sonic content to try and decode and just wallow around in with their headphones on. There are a whole lot of sonic layers and a big bunch of musical information in the MFTJ tracks, even if they can also be received as just basic 4/4 groove tunes if you want to make use of them that way. It’s multi-functional music and I think it really repays whatever amount of attention you care to bring to it, but it really stands up to scrutiny. I enjoy MFTJ’s music more and more every time I hear it, and I have a weird, kind of surreal relationship to it, in that my musical contributions are created completely quickly and spontaneously and as soon as I’m done playing them, I don’t think about them again. So when I hear Scott’s re-arrangements of my playing, I can barely remember having played any of it, which is both mildly unsettling and really, really fun for me.
SCOTT: We all know Prog sometimes suffers at times from pomposity. Of course, it’s one of my favorite genres but I appreciate all sides of the Prog argument. It’s generally such brutal and complex music that I try to balance it out a bit by adding humor whenever possible to any of those types of albums I’m involved with. Look at the Levin Minnemann Rudess album, “From The Law Offices Of…” and Marco Minnemann’s, EEPS. (Do you see how I deftly worked in that plug?!) Artistically challenging records balanced out with fun and humor. I think one of the attractions of MFTJ is the sometimes “in-your-face” humor. From my perspective, it’s displayed in every note and in my musical relationship with Mike.
As we’re all aware, the pandemic has made it more or less impossible for musicians to play live concerts (excluding virtual shows). Did you guys face any challenges recording and producing this album?
MIKE: This was the first album I did all of my work for on a new home studio, newly created last year after the pandemic got me off the road. So I was working out a lot of tech details constantly, and it was wonderful to have this project to get my act together on. As far as the workflow and our working relationship, it was fantastic.
SCOTT: Since I’m based in Australia and the majority of artists I work with are from the States, I was used to the remote recording we did for both MFTJ albums.
Once this passes, do you have plans for a tour? Or plans for a third album?
MIKE: It’s really not “live” music and it’s kind of terrifying to imagine how to perform it – the amount of musicians required would be daunting. It is possible to imagine playing over tracks, but I’m not sure how fascinating that would be. If the budget existed, it would really be something to imagine this music in a live presentation, but definitely no plans exist. In terms of a third album, this has been discussed! No “plans” yet, but the energy is afloat.
SCOTT: As I’ve told Mike, if I had my way, I’d do one MFTJ album a year until we reached album #10!
Where can prog lovers find your music?
SCOTT: Go to our Bandcamp page at https://mftj.bandcamp.com or https://www.lazybones.com.