Thursday, May 6, 2010

Omaha’s music man: Mogis balances performing, producing, family

Mike Mogis sits in the control room of studio A at ARC.

By Kevin Coffey
Story and photos © 2010 Omaha World-Herald

Working in his studio, Mike Mogis wears a military cap, flannel shirt and jeans. With his beard and horn-rimmed glasses, the clothes make him look like any indie-music scenester at Slowdown or the Waiting Room.

But none of those music fans is in Bright Eyes or indie supergroup Monsters of Folk. They aren’t nationally recognized producers, they haven’t appeared on the “Tonight Show” and they aren’t buddies with Jenny Lewis or Spoon’s Brit Daniel.

And they didn’t help start Saddle Creek Records.

But Mogis? Yeah, he’s done all that.

In his midtown studio, called ARC, he’s quite literally at home. It sits about 20 yards from his house and only a few feet from the small playground where his daughters play on the swings.

But he feels at home there mostly because he has been recording music since he and brother A.J. learned to play instruments as kids and recorded each other on cassette decks, before they were even teens.

Not many people recognize Mogis’ name. His work has been mostly behind the scenes. He’s never been the frontman. He wasn’t on band posters or album covers until recently with the Monsters of Folk. Still, he is as important to the formation of Saddle Creek Records and the attention given Nebraska’s indie-music scene as his friends Conor Oberst and Cursive’s Tim Kasher.

He’s a jack of all trades, able to play innumerable instruments and born with an ear for music that few possess.

“Mike is an international man of mystery because the moment you think you know how many talents he has, he unleashes a new one,” singer-songwriter M. Ward said in an interview. “I didn’t know he played drums until we recorded the first Monsters of Folk record.”

You can almost see the gears turning when you talk to Mogis. A question leads to an answer full of tangents and non sequiturs. He’ll start by talking about one of his former Lincoln studios, for example, then bounce to the Monsters of Folk and end up with a story about My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, a friend.

The 35-year-old’s nonlinear thinking stems partly from being holed up for so long in the studio that he’s lost some social skills, he confessed with a laugh.

But it’s part of his genius, too.

The first instrument Mogis picked up was an acoustic guitar, which his father, Denny, played when Mogis was growing up in North Platte, Neb. Mogis mostly taught himself.

In their parents’ basement, Mogis and his brother recorded guitars, screeching, the drumming of coffee cans and “other weird sounds.” Eventually, they purchased a cheap RadioShack mixer. Mogis still has it.

Mogis never was formally trained to be a sound engineer and attributes most of his technical skills to brother A.J.

Mogis plays a Mellotron purchased by him and Conor Oberst.
 In high school, Mogis joined a cover band playing Metallica, Faster Pussycat and Guns N’ Roses.

He took a year off in 1993 before heading to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he befriended those who formed Saddle Creek Records a few years later.

He met Matt Focht, now guitarist for Head of Femur, on the steps of Abel Hall. Focht’s roommate was drummer Boz Hicks. Focht and Hicks were friends with singer-guitarist Ted Stevens and his roommate Robb Nansel, now president of Saddle Creek.

Later, Mogis met Justin Oberst’s little brother, Conor, then a 14-year-old kid who liked to visit Justin at UNL and play guitar.

“It was kind of odd, you know?” Mogis said. “From those relationships that were started there at that school, we ended up culminating into good working musical relationships and a business, which turned out to be pretty good.”

Mogis and A.J. purchased a reel-to-reel eight-track recorder. With it, they recorded Mogis’ band Opium Taylor and Stevens’ band Polecat in the summer of 1995.

“Robb Nansel came down and was the quote-unquote producer of the (Polecat) record, but if I remember correctly he mostly played video games,” Mogis said, laughing.

As part of an entrepreneurship class at UNL, Mogis and Nansel created a business plan.

Their friends had released a few albums under the name Lumberjack Records, basically a vanity label. Lumberjack had no real organization, but Justin Oberst kept those tapes, 7-inch vinyl singles and one CD release at his home in Omaha.

For their UNL assignment, Nansel and Mogis transported that stock from Omaha to Lincoln and created a record label.

Its name? Saddle Creek Records.

Meanwhile, the Mogis brothers converted the basement of a Lincoln house into a recording studio.

New groups formed, including the dance-punk band the Faint, which later became one of the most popular bands on Saddle Creek and went on to tour with No Doubt and release two top 10 indie albums.

As co-owners, Mogis and Nansel recorded the bands, released the records and got the music on college radio.

But even though he graduated with a degree in business, Mogis wanted to focus on recording albums instead of marketing them. So he signed his half over to Nansel, who became sole owner of the company.

In the late 1990s, Mogis moved into a downtown Lincoln space he called Presto!, where all of the music from the Saddle Creek glory days -- the records that first brought national attention to Nebraska from Rolling Stone, Time magazine and others -- was recorded.

Those records, including Cursive’s “Domestica” and Bright Eyes’ “Fevers and Mirrors,” made Mogis feel as if he had mastered working as a producer who guided a record’s direction as opposed to an engineer who flipped switches in a control room.

In 2004 and 2005, the city of Lincoln told Mogis that Presto! would be torn down to make way for another development. Mogis’ wife, Jessica, was pregnant, and he didn’t want to raise a family in the dirty one-bedroom rental across the street from the studio.

And Jessica found his perfect property -- a house in Omaha big enough for a family and big enough for a recording studio.

The property, near 72nd and Dodge, included two buildings: the house and a 5,000-square-foot building in the backyard with an attached guest house.

To afford the $670,000 property and raise money to turn the outbuilding into a recording studio, Mogis borrowed from a bank as well as from friends including Saddle Creek and Oberst.

A year later, Oberst purchased a home behind the studio, which allows them to collaborate frequently.

The studio took the name Another Recording Company, similar to Oberst’s Another Touring Company, and the close proximity to his home allows Mogis to spend lots of time with his wife and two daughters, Riley, 1, and Stella, 5, even when he’s putting in long hours recording.

“I feel really fortunate to have playing music be a means to support my family and my life,” Mogis said.

Spending time with his family is important to Mogis. Just after Stella was born in 2004, Bright Eyes was scheduled to tour with R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen on the Vote for Change tour. Mogis didn’t want to miss out on seeing his baby daughter, so he took his wife and daughter along for the ride. In the studio, he proudly displays a photo of himself, Springsteen and the baby.

“He’s committed to the band and committed to his family, and he’s tried to find this balance,” Nansel said. “That says a lot about his priorities and character.”

Mogis plays guitar in the A studio at ARC
 In addition to his membership in Bright Eyes and Monsters of Folk, offers come in for him to produce various other bands.

Mogis is recording a Bright Eyes record with Oberst, as well as mixing an album by indie band the Low Anthem. He’ll work with experimental rock band Man Man next. In July, he expects to resume with Bright Eyes. Mogis hopes that he eventually makes another record with Oberst, Ward and James.

While many in music take on one role or another, Mogis enjoys being a producer part of the time and a musician and band member the rest.

“I like balancing it out. I like going on tour and then I like getting off tour and coming home, taking a week off and working on a record,” he said.

Anybody who’s had Mogis as a producer will tell you he thinks of everything and pays attention to detail: where to place the microphone, what amp to use.

He sets up a mirror so the piano player can see the band. He makes suggestions: Chop out a verse. Take out the drums. Make a chorus a capella.

“Mike can hear things most humans can’t -- he is like a wild animal in that way,” Ward said. “He is perfect to have in the mixing studio because he can hear the fine details and the overall scope.”

Among musicians, Mogis has a reputation for getting things right and staying in the studio as long as it takes. It’s partly what has brought artists such as Pete Yorn and The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas to ARC.

Oberst, universally hailed for his songwriting prowess, has admitted that his songs wouldn’t be what they are without Mogis.

“I can describe things in my sort of nontechnical, nonmusical way, and he can take that and really apply it to what I’m talking about -- to actually take an idea I have and make it a reality,” Oberst said in a 2006 magazine interview. “He’s just so attentive to the song -- how best to suit the song -- and that I think is sometimes rare. It seems like some people come in with a really heavy hand, and he’s more willing to truly let the artist do their thing.”

Mogis also has made a name among musicians and fans as a multi-instrumentalist, playing more than a dozen instruments on the Monsters of Folk’s self-titled record and often appearing on the records of bands he produces.

“Mike plays so many instruments so well,” Jim James told Paste Magazine last year. “A lot of times he’d work at night; we’d all leave at midnight, and there’d be some question for what was gonna be done, and he’d be like, ‘I need some time alone to work in here and mess around with stuff.’ And we’d come back in the morning and be like, ‘(Expletive), that’s awesome!’ He would’ve laid down like 20 things.”

Mogis said music comes naturally to him.

“I have a knack for picking up anything and getting a sound out of it,” Mogis said, adding that he appears as a performer on so many of the albums that he produces “mostly because I have ideas.”

More recognizable names have begun flocking to Mogis to engineer, produce and mix their records. It’s strange to him, he said, but he’s flattered and knows that bigger and better bands help him learn more.

“Sometimes I’ll think about how there’s probably 50 engineers/producers in Omaha and times that by every city -- probably tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of engineers. I feel pretty fortunate that I get to work with the artists that I do. And that helps me make better records because I keep getting better groups.”

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