Monday, November 8, 2010

Interview with My Pet Dragon

My Pet Dragon, consisting of Todd Michaelsen and Reena Shah are just a small part of a new wave of music that is taking over the undergrounds of music. Blending the sounds of indie pop, electronica, and various folk and rock incarnations, MPD is sure to conceive raw emotion and power to the listening ear. A band not only known for its unique name, but also its revolutionary music, is trying to break into a music world as diverse as their sound.
Here is the interview-

(For Todd) Why did you quit college for music? What was the plan?

Well I left school because I pretty much knew I was wasting my time. I was writing and recording music when I should have been in class. When everyone was studying, I was in the laundry room where the acoustics were good, strumming away, writing songs. I had major tunnel vision. Music totally consumed me and most of my friends at school were musicians. At that time the basic plan was to get to New York City and soak it all in without fear. I had no real clue what I was doing but New York was always calling from the time I was a kid visiting my uncle in the East Village in the 80's. Luckily my uncle still lived there and told me "to come on down" and gave me his couch for awhile. I just knew I had to be there.

After taking a life changing trip to India, how did the culture shape you as a musician? What was the experience like?

My trip with Reena to India opened me up as a person in ways I cannot fully explain. I guess it ultimately affects the music you create. I was astounded to see how happy certain people were with no material possessions or wealth. The incredible beauty and diversity of India's people, religions, and cultures is something you must see to believe. India is "Life Concentrated" I wrote "The Painter", the second day I was there, (song off of MPD's First Born record). It just flowed in about 10 minutes.

But what I truly learned in India is that people are people everywhere. We are all the same in the end, no matter where we are from. It’s just nice to see how people live in different parts of the world. I don't think we appreciate the little things enough sometimes. The simple beauty of an Indian-Garland vendor in the middle of chaotic city is something quite remarkable. A Jain temple on a mountain top with thousand-Year old artwork carved into every corner will always be etched into my memory. Getting engaged on the black sand beach of the Arabian Sea is a sacred moment. A child without a limb begging in Mumbai is also something you will not forget. The world is terrifying, confusing, yet gorgeous and inspiring at the same time. That is India.

What's funny about my musical style is that I was actually playing "Indian" sounding music before my trip to India and well before I met anyone in New York that was playing that kind of "OM" sound. I was into bands like The Beatles, Tool, The Deftones, and The Smashing Pumpkins. All those bands at some point blended east and west.

How does the music and dance duo work? How does this work live and what is a live show like?

I would say that Reena's role in the band is to be herself. If she wants to dance while she sings along with me, great, if she wants to play percussion, then great. Whatever works best for the music is my only rule. My Pet Dragon is not about doing what everyone else does. I don't want to make anyone in my band express themselves in ways that are disingenuous. My Pet Dragon is about being yourself and being one with the music. If you want to dance, dance. If you want to sing along with us, sing. If you want to scream, scream!!! We are not posing. We are not going for that "brass ring". All the pain and joy we feel, you will see it come out at our show. We want to create a moment where the music moves us and maybe we lose ourselves in that moment... and we hope you feel that too.
Where'd the name come from?

The name My Pet Dragon came from an imaginary friend I had as a child. I would fight this giant creature every night before I went to bed. I'd line up all my stuffed animals and GI Joe's on my bed and we'd battle this laser eyed monster to the death. The next night he was somehow resurrected and we'd go at it again. It helped me sleep. That was the original "my pet dragon". Although some of our fans suggest it is some phallic reference or is in fact, not.

(For Reena) What's your background in the arts of dancing and acting, and where did this interest come from?

I have always been interested in the Arts as I was exposed to it at a very early age. My parents are true supporters of artists. They would host and attend music parties where they would listen to professional musicians from India. They would stay up into the late hours of the night with their friends and sing Indian devotional songs as well as songs from Bollywood movies.

At the age of 4, my mother took me to Classical Indian Dance Classes for Bharatha Natyam, taught by the Late Indian Film Actress & Dancer, Padmini Ramachandran, where she started the Padmini Institute of Fine Arts in New Jersey in the 1980's. I was one of her 1st students. I graduated from the Institute in 1991 with my Arengetram at the age of 13 and became a Professional Classical Indian Dancer. I was also involved with Indian Dance Troupes, traveling throughout the United States and Canada. I am also a Traditional Indian Folk Dancer in the dance styles of Garba plus Raas (Gujarat) and Bhangra (Punjab).
Acting was always a part of my dancing as Bharatha Natyam is also about storytelling through facial expression, body movement, and rhythmic dance steps. I acted in every school play in Middle School and High School in my hometown in New Jersey and sang and danced in the musical productions as well. My senior year of high school, I was a part of an Advanced Acting Class with only 5 students at Newark Academy. My teacher Mr. Scott Jacoby really gave me an opportunity to explore all aspects of the art of acting. When I graduated from Newark Academy, I received the McGraw-Hill Arts Award for contributing to multiple arts disciplines and the National Choral Award from Mrs. Julie Jacoby, my amazing Choral Instructor.

I enjoy being able to play a wide variety of characters and telling stories that will resonate with the audience. I have been fortunate to be a part of many different film, dance, theater, art, and music projects that tell profound stories of the experiences of our lives from many different cultures. It’s through these projects that I have been able to create a dialogue about the world we live in and how we can make it a better place for all of us. We are One.

Being a part of My Pet Dragon is quite incredible as I have the opportunity to explore Todd's music through my own interpretive dance movement loosely based on the Classical Dance style of Bharata Natyam. I enjoy singing with this band as well. Todd's music lyrically explores many different themes that I love to visually translate. It’s a spiritual experience for me when I perform with My Pet Dragon... whether I am singing or dancing, I know that being in the moment with his music, both the live sound and his words, gives me hope for the future.

How would describe your music? What do you want it to be?

My Pet Dragon music to me is a combination of everything I've ever listened to. I hear classic rock, post rock, electronic, folk, pop, psychedelic, 80's dance, 90's rock etc, etc. It covers many emotions but ultimately that tension/release melodic kind of rock music perfected by bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, U2, and David Bowie... that is where my heart is. I can't deny it. I dig what I dig, soaring vocals and guitars.

What I want it to be is pure energy. I am learning everyday new ways to express myself and expand my music. Sometimes that means making it simpler too. Look at Neutral Milk Hotel. Most of those songs have 3 or 4 chords but it’s the way they sung and how much heart is put into the lyrics. Neil Young too is another hero. That guy can break your heart with one note on his guitar. That’s what I aim for... total expression in the moment.

How'd you get involved with, "Gimme that Sound Productions"?

I got involved with Stephen George of Gimme That Sounds through a mutual friend in Chicago. Hillel Frankel of Novo Arts brought us out to Chicago a few years ago for a series of shows. He loved my music but thought I needed a better mix on my recordings. He introduced me to Stephen George in New York, who had an extensive resume and experience with just about every genre of music there is. Stevo, as we call him, is an amazing engineer and studio wiz. We did a demo together of "Lover in Hiding" at his new studio in the Catskills and it sounded so good we decided to finish a record and put it out on his new label - Gimme That Sound Productions.

What's the response to your music like?

The response to our music so far, has been very exciting to us. Most of the blog reviews of our songs released so far have been very positive and compare us to a variety of bands... most of which I agree with. Our live shows are very intense and if we have an audience ready for that energy then it’s going to be a magical night. Most shows, people sing along with us during our choruses... especially in songs like "Moonshine". We have certain fans that are keeping track of our set lists and traveling to see us in different cities. So that is when you know you are connecting. It’s exciting to us after all the work we put in to see that response.

Sita Sings the Blues, tell me about this.

"Sita Sings the Blues" is an award-winning animated film by Nina Paley that blends an Indian folk tale with an American break up story. The film uses classic 1920's Jazz recordings by Annette Hanshaw to tell the heart-breaking tale. It’s trippy, funny, and heartfelt. I composed the film's score and composed original songs. Reena played the voice of Sita and sang one of the songs. Matt Groening from the Simpson’s actually named "Sita Sings the Blues" one of his favorite films. Nina Paley is a total genius and created something you can't quite categorize. She actually put out the film for free; Radiohead style. The result of that was it gave fans direct access to all things "Sita Sings the Blues". People have hosted their own screenings around the world in their living rooms. It was incredibly fun to be a part of that film and I hope to do more of them in the future in between MPD albums.

My Pet Dragon plans to release a full length in early 2011.

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