Fireflies is Lisle Mitnik. He grew up in the tundras of New England playing classical piano and one day moved to California to go to school and decided to start writing songs. He bought a Portastudio and started recording, combining his love for lo-fi indie recordings of the 1980s and 90s with his unrefined knowledge of classical arrangement. He tries to craft each song into a tiny snow-globe-sized universe you can curl up in and get lost for a little while. Amy talked to Lisle about his beautiful dreams.
TDOA: I think your music has a surprising beauty – as in you don’t think these songs are going to be as gorgeous as they eventually are. What do you think contributes to that?
LM: Thanks! I have a tendency to write arrangements that slowly unfurl with a set purpose. It’s not something that I do consciously when I’m writing, but I’ve noticed it over time. The song “Sunsets in June” for example, is, in my mind, merely a vehicle for its guitar solo. That is to say, the rest of the song is there to create a context for the listener to better enjoy that guitar part. In doing this, perhaps I’m not immediately letting the listener know where the song will be going.
TDOA: I noticed that your record, Autumn Almanac, is being released by a Japanese label. What made you choose them, or did they choose you?
LM: I think it was mutual. I had been laboring with that set of songs since 2007, when my first album “Goodnight Stars, Goodnight Moon,” was released. In the Autumn of 2009, I became very tired of working on these songs, so I decided to end the work by making some copies and releasing it myself in the form it was in at the time. Though I was pleased with the final product, I always wished I could have made something better.
When Happy Prince approached me late last year about doing a Japanese release of the album, I saw it as a real opportunity to put out the album I had originally hoped to make. They’ve released some really great records in the past, and I wanted “Autumn Almanac” to be good enough to fit in with that roster. I think this new version is really the definitive statement I had intended to make and I think that chapter is now truly closed.
TDOA: You fit in with the Best Coasts of the world, but your music seems much more mature than that. Who do you count as contemporaries? Influences?
LM: I grew up mostly around 60′s pop and classical music. I think those two things are what informed my sensibilities the most. Some of my bigger influences are gentle orchestrated pop like Nick Drake and Françoise Hardy, as well as more modern interpreters of “The 60′s Sound” like The Magnetic Fields and Belle and Sebastian. I am also a sucker for chorus effects and lush analogue synthesizer sounds ala The Cure. I try my best (with mixed results) to create a hybrid of all these influences, rather than copy just one in particular.
With regard to The Best Coasts of the World, my inclination is that the majority of current breakthrough indie-pop bands have a deeper route in the punk rock ethos than I do. I say that in the sense that, there’s something inherently off-the-cuff and spontaneous about their music. While punk holds a special place in my heart, it’s not really where I see myself personally as a songwriter. I wouldn’t say I’m more mature necessarily, just more insular, delicate, and/or cerebral.
TDOA: Why do you think your music is so popular in Japan? Is it something about the scene?
LM: I’m not sure “so popular” would describe my notoriety in any nation, but, from my limited understanding, there does seem to be a greater appreciation for light pop music in Japan. I’ve studied some about Japanese culture and art, and I feel a kinship with Japanese artists across many mediums such as graphic artist Yoshitomo Nara, writer Haruki Murakami, and film maker Hayao Miyazaki. Perhaps this absorption of Japanese culture comes out in my music in some way. Or perhaps it’s just that my fragile singing style is somehow reminiscent of whisper-style singers like Kahami Karie and Takako Minekawa…I really don’t know for sure, but I’m very happy to be appreciated there.
TDOA: On that, what do you think are the fundamental differences between American fans and Japanese fans? Are there any?
LM: I don’t think I have enough experience to really answer this with any degree of certainty. I started writing songs for myself, and never really expected that anyone else would necessarily want to hear them. I’m very thankful for the pleasant interactions I’ve had with fans all over the world.
TDOA: I love that your Facebook page says that you craft “mini-universes.” How do you approach creating music that is so whole and complex?
LM: I try to use music to create vivid portraits of the things that inspire me. Life itself is very complex and intricate, so I’m not sure could write music any other way. Still, each song usually stems from one tiny spark of inspiration, and it grows from there. The deeper I can explore my original inspiration, be it a line from a book or a memory of a sunny Spring day, the more intricate (and hopefully evocative) the song becomes.
TDOA: Let’s talk about lo-fi. Clearly, it’s gotten popular again in recent years – what do you attribute that to?
LM: I’d say probably the most important thing in making a trend popular is to have a couple of bands writing really good songs that transcend the genre/trend. Usually, this makes people outside of that scene notice those bands. If the right people notice it, it doesn’t take much for things to start to snowball from there.
In the case of “lo-fi” or “indie-pop 2011,” if you look at a band like The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, they’re really tapped into a certain form of the indie-pop zeitgeist. Their music seems to be opening a door to that kind of music to a lot of people. Regardless of whether you’re into My Bloody Valentine, Black Tambourine, Sarah Records, etc., you can still enjoy the fact that The Pains’ songs are quite beautiful and carry some emotional weight. They speak to things that I think a lot of people can relate to. While this kind of music has been around for years, it takes a really great band to break through the glass ceiling of the “scene” to make people realize the great music that’s outside their normal sphere.
TDOA: I really like the classification “winter pop.” This is the type of music that you’d listen to your headphones on a rainy day. Do you write sunnier pieces, or is this classification something that you’ve strived for?
LM: I don’t really strive for it, but I certainly do have a tendency to end up there. I think reason for this is that when I’m in a sunnier mood, I don’t necessarily want to write a song about it; I want to be more actively living in that moment. The songs tend to come later, through reflection on a past feeling. The nostalgic remembrance of those feelings then gives a bittersweet, wintery sheen to the song’s content.
TDOA: Do you mostly record on your Portastudio?
LM: In recent years, I’ve moved to recording on the computer. When I go back and listen to my old recordings, there’s definitely something I miss about the quality of sound the Portastudio imparted, but computer recording really has really enabled me to do things I couldn’t have done otherwise. In the end, I don’t see much of a difference. The computer, like the Portastudio, is really just a tool to help bring the sounds I hear in my mind into reality.
TDOA: Do you think that your music would be different/better/worse if recorded in a traditional studio? Why?
LM: I guess it depends on what you would define as “traditional.” I think if I teamed up with a hot-shot producer who tried to make Fireflies sound like Top 40 in 2011, it would be a complete disaster. I just really don’t like the way a lot of modern music sounds from a production standpoint. I remember reading a Bob Dylan quote that said something about how modern CDs sound like there’s “sound all over them” and that they lack definition or something. I wouldn’t claim that my recordings are better than anyone else’s, but I think they’re closer to what I want than something slick and modern.
Perhaps if I could find some kind of time-capsule studio that could make Fireflies sound like Top 40 somewhere between 1968 – 1973, then it would work out better. Even still, I go through a lot of iterations of my songs before I get to the final version, so it would probably be best for this theoretical time-capsule studio to be conveniently located in my home, or for me to have unlimited access to the studio ala The Beatles.
Lisle will be appearing with Tiny Fireflies at the New York City Popfest on May 19-22.