By Brian Kindle
Stylistically omnivorous, inventive and slightly confounding, Mice Parade has been saddled with a boat-load of descriptors over its past decade of existence. “Experimental,” “indie,” hell, even “avant-electronica” are floating around out there. “Joyous,” however, is a tag more sparingly applied. In fact, it would probably be easier to find someone calling their music “post-rock world shoegaze,” or something similar, than it would to find someone simply calling it “happy.”
“People used to think my music was sad,” says Pierce, frontman and core of the act. “I didn’t get it. There’s older songs that I had thought were joyous that other people interpreted as sad.” If Pierce has his way, however, that kind of misinterpretation will soon be a thing of the past.
Mice Parade is Adam Pierce – originator, primary song-smith, and multi-instrumentalist who used to play an insane number and variety of strings and keys for his recordings. Mice Parade is also a study in contrasts, a distinctive and sometimes contradictory entity that exists as part solo act, part vast collaboration, and part part-time job for its many members.
“Mice Parade started sort of accidentally – I was doing a bunch of other live stuff in other bands [including The Dylan Group and the Swirlies] and just sort of making my own music on the side while I was out there playing,” Adam says, discussing the casual growth of what’s now his primary musical outlet. “I did a few studio things on the side, and then Mice Parade started to take over. Eventually it was the thing to go do live, and it was really, really fun.”
Early albums were purely instrumental studio projects, layering synth washes and copious instrumental loops on top of Pierce’s accomplished, driving drumbeats. Gradually, more humans crept into the proceedings. Collaborators (of which there were and are many) were sourced from “wherever life took me,” according to Pierce, from ethereal European songstresses (like Kristin Valtisdóttir of mum and Letitia Sadier of Stereolab) to the semi-permanent roster of musicians joining Pierce on past tours (and the current one as well).
More recent albums have been decidedly more “traditional” affairs, (2005’s Bem-Vinda Vontade and 2007’s self-titled release), with the emphasis now on Pierce’s even, pretty vocals and acoustic guitar. That said, it’s still a sound heavily tinged with shoegazey guitar fuzz, Asian harps, flourishes of Spanish music, and the occasional complicated polyrhythm.
Interestingly enough for a one-time studio act, Pierce is a partisan for live performance. “Music is fully meant to be live. I’ve rambled in the past about whether music should ever have been recorded in the first place,” he says. Fortunately, over the years he’s gathered a truly remarkable lineup for Mice Parade’s live incarnation. There’s Dan Lippel, internationally renowned classical guitarist, hypnotic vocalist Caroline Lufkin, and Dan Scharin, prolific drummer (Mice Parade plays live with two kits), among others. All are accomplished musicians in their own rights, and several are foreign (or rootless), which makes the Parade’s live shows something of a reunion for a global diaspora of incredibly talented players.
Almost without exception, Mice Parade’s music is dense, richly textured and very, very lovely. Somewhere in the mix, however, is something persistently downbeat. In many past Mice Parade tracks, within the wall of sound lies a delicate melancholia. Perhaps it’s not sadness per se, but forgive the listener for making that mistake.
But sad sacks, be warned: this time, Mice Parade is bringing the joy. From virtually its first moment, their forthcoming album What it Means to Be Left Handed pulses with a gentle, insistent happiness. There’s no mistaking it; it’s right there, brimming over on the opener “Kupunda.” That’s joy you’re hearing.
“I had stated to myself my intention to make a happy album,” Pierce says of the forthcoming release, “Before I ever made a song, I said I’m going to try to make a happy record. I don’t think it’s entirely true, it didn’t come out the way I thought it would- which is good. I mean it never does.”
“Kupanda” may be the most overtly happy of the album’s tracks, but lead single “In Between Times,” with its heavenly vocals, handclaps and soaring melodies, comes close. Even the less dramatic tracks are buoyed by a certain brightness and optimism: the quieter “Couches and Carpets” is enlivened by Flamenco guitar strumming and a huge crescendo at the end, and his punched-up cover of the Lemonhead’s “Mallo Cup” significantly ups energy of the slack original.
With a mid-September release date, it’s almost a shame such ebullient, shimmering music is being released at the close of summer; it fits the season so well. Then again, perhaps the timing couldn’t be better. The warmth on display here is the perfect antidote to the coming chill of fall.
Part of the reason for the latest album’s injection of joy may be Pierce’s success outside of Mice Parade. Since 2005, his day job is running the US division of Fat Cat, a noted indie label headquartered in Brighton, Great Britain, that’s helped launch the careers of some hefty acts. “I did a lot of work on Animal Collective, and was very excited about that,” says Pierce, in addition to later working with more recent breakouts Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad.
Ultimately, Pierce doesn’t seem all that interested in picking apart motivations for his music’s newfound happiness. When asked if it drew from his own experience, he stated, “Yeah, perhaps. Yeah, you know, why not? I think so.” Elsewhere, he’s said that his “music was just music, and its very existence was its purpose.” Perhaps the same can be said for an unclassifiable band, with an unclassifiable sound. Perhaps that’s where true happiness lies.