EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: PERIPHERY MASTERMIND MISHA “BULB” MANSOOR TALKS FUTURE OF THE MUSIC BIZ
Dudes like Misha Mansoor are the future of the music industry. For the time being let’s not even talk about his band Periphery (who we happen to like very much), but the manner in which he’s making things happen for himself. Mansoor recorded his band’s album in his apartment — aka cheap — and because he spent years honing his recording skills, it sounds fantastic. Then he took the finished product and got it signed to five different record labels worldwide, yet he retains the ownership of his masters. That’s called smart business whether you like his band or not, and as new technology and the Internet make business models like this possible, expect more bands to follow suit in the very near future.
In my 20-minute phone chat with Misha on the eve of Periphery’s album release, we talked all about how he created his own little empire and what the implications may be, both for Periphery and the music industry as a whole. What you’ll find is a dude that “gets it” and whose expectations are firmly rooted in reality despite the fact that his band is blowing the fuck up. Our chat after the jump.
How’s it going?
I’m just getting back from tour, fucking hung out with my girlfriend, and I’m playing Final Fantasy XIII now. Life is good.
That sounds like a good way to come back. So are you home for a little while or are you guys going back out again pretty soon?
Well, we have a few days to chill out. We’ve got a few days around here for our CD release. We’re doing sort of warm-up thing in Delaware. Then we got the CD release [show] in Baltimore. Then we’re doing Metalfest. On the way back, I think we’re doing a show in Allentown or Reading, PA and that’s real fun. So we got those 4 shows, and then we have 2 or 3 weeks off and then we go to Australia. We have a little bit of time off.
Are you finding it exhausting going out on tour all the time?
It’s exhausting, but that’s what the job is. You know? It’s not really like a big deal or anything. It’s good because you feel like you’re working towards something. It can be really tiring obviously. We’ve been on the road since like the end of January. We had 1 week off and during that week was probably the most stressful week of my life because I was just getting the album mastered and everything. We had a number of problems with that. We were recording the album before that, so I really haven’t had a break and a chance to chill out and not do music since basically December. It’s kind of a breath of fresh air right now. [Laughter]
Oh yeah, definitely. Definitely it can be exhausting. The last few months have been really hard just because of the stress, and I stretched myself so thin with the album and everything. If you could do one thing at a time, that’s a different thing, but it was like so many things have been happening at once, and you’re expected to do so much in such little time. It definitely is exhausting, but now that it’s done, I’m really glad that I did it. I have a lot to show for it, and I feel way productive, whereas working other jobs in the past, you might work just as hard but personally I didn’t feel like I was working towards anything as substantial. I never wanted a career in any of the paths that I was taking. It was just to make money before, but this is working towards something. I’m trying to make this band happen.
What were some of the jobs you worked in-between to keep the cash flowing?
I worked retail. I worked at RadioShack. I worked at the Container Store. My first job was working at Häagen-Dazs. That was like when I was 16 and worked during the summers. I really just worked at RadioShack and the Container Store when I worked retail. It was kind of fun to shelf stuff.
Yeah, I don’t know about that. I don’t know about a promising career at the Container Store. Maybe it would work out for some people.
Yeah, you can definitely have a career there. People work towards a career there, and I’m sure you’d do alright. It’s just that working at retail, you start off in sales, go into management. It’s just stuff that didn’t interest me in the least. I only worked there because they paid me 14 bucks an hour. So it was pretty cool. [Laughter]
It must feel pretty good to have put in all this hard work and to have the album finally coming out after all these years.
Finally coming out. Well, technically it is out in Australia. It was leaked, and it’s been out for the last week. It’s good to see this finally happen. It’s kind of surreal because I’ve been working on it for so long.
Yeah, you’ve been working on this for 3 years or longer even?
Probably longer. I started this band in 2005. I had a bunch of songs then. Dude, “the Walk” and “Letter Experiment” were written back then. They changed maybe a little bit, especially “Letter Experiment,” but those were always supposed to go on the album. Maybe what the album was going to be and the songs that were going to be on the album have changed; it’s always sort of evolved and adapted to the songs that were available and the stuff I’ve written. We’ve been planning on putting out this album since at least the end of 2005 or early 2006. So it’s been 4 years, 5 years in the making. It’s kind of crazy when you think of it that way.
Do you get tired of playing some of those old songs or even hearing them? Do you feel that they still represent you and the band accurately?
I get really tired of them, but the newer members in the band can maybe take a little more objective approach. For example, “The Walk” and “Letter Experiment,” I wrote those over 5 years ago. I spiced them up a little bit here and there, but they’re still really old songs to me. They still sound like Periphery, but at the same time, I’m sick of practicing them. Playing them live is a different story because that’s really just about energy. You can play anything, and if the crowd is into it, it’ll make you into it. It’s not so much what you’re playing, but practicing those songs; I’m dead sick of practicing those songs. If you have to pick songs on a set list or anything like that, I’d probably pick newer songs where the rest of the band members would be able to look more objectively at it. “Letter Experiment” and “The Walk” both go over very well live, but I probably wouldn’t pick those songs myself because they’re so old and I’d be biased against them.
People seem to dig them. I don’t know. It’s just tough to like stuff that you’ve done that’s old. You know?
I hope so. I know it’s definitely changed, but I don’t know if it’s matured or not. That’s really for the listener to decide. I’ve changed a lot as a person, and I’ve changed a lot musically both in how I write and what I listen to and how I let stuff influence me. I can just say that it’s different and hopefully it’s not a bad thing. I don’t think I could still write the same kind of songs I was writing back then, for better or for worse.
I wanted to ask you about all these bands and dudes that seem to be aping your sound. I’m sure you’re aware of all the different guys on guitar message boards and so on and so forth. Are you flattered by that or do you take offense to it?
I definitely don’t take offense to it. It is flattering in a way, but I don’t really think of music like that. If that’s the sound they’re into, then I’m glad that they’re doing it. There’s a point in time when my stuff — and arguably people will say today that we’re just a big Meshuggah rip-off — I’d like to think that we’re not, but I do know that they’re a huge influence on our sound but we have other really huge influences on our sound as well. I’d like to think that it’s a melting pot of all that. It’s not a conscious thing. I’ll write a riff, and it’ll go from there. The song can either suck or it can be okay. It’s all sort of very natural. There was a point in time back in the day where I would just do Meshuggah rip-off songs [on purpose]. “NPO,” that’s an old song that people ask to play. It’s like “wow, that song is way too derivative.” I know that when I was writing it, I was just trying to rip-off Meshuggah. I think that even though there are a lot of people doing our sound now, some people are doing it to do our sound and some people are doing it because genuinely that’s how they write. I think that will sort itself out hopefully because that’s sort of what happened with us. After awhile it just settled into “oh, I’m not going to focus so much on sounding like Meshuggah. I’m going to focus more on doing riffs that sound good to me.” Sure, there is a Meshuggah influence in there, but there’s Deftones influences, TOOL, Dream Theater, Nobuo from Final Fantasy influences and there are so many other things that come into play. Hopefully our sound will just be one of many influences for theirs too. That’s what makes rich music – having it not be one dimensional. I don’t know if that’s a good answer or not. I don’t know if I’m flattered or not by it. I just view it as cool that people are seeing one aspect that they can take of it. The ones here that I have that I think would suck, and it’s totally possible that someone else would be able to find a more marketable version of our sound and get bigger than us.
That would suck. Whatever. What are you going to do? That’s not the reason why we’re doing this in the first place. If we really cared about fame or fortune, we wouldn’t be playing fucking progressive metal – we’d be playing pop punk or hip hop or something.
At the same time, I think it’s pretty cool that all these people are able to put out quality music with cheap recording technology and the internet to spread it around.
Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s sort of one of the revolutions that half the people would say is destroying the recording industry, and half the people would say is reviving it. Because you can do what I do, which is bypass the need for advances on records because we recorded our album for free. It cost us nothing. I just did it in my apartment. Hey, anyone can do that if they put the time into it. 20 years ago that would have been impossible. If you wanted a pro-sounding recording, you had to turn out some real cash. We’re talking like 100-200 grand, and you have to use your album as collateral so owning your masters was out of the question as well. It’s just that all of this is affecting the industry in ways that we can’t even predict because of the ripples that it causes. It really opened up new kinds of deals that you can do. It allowed us to sign the kind of deal that we signed. We’re signed to 5 labels.
Yeah, we do.
We have a licensing deal. We basically license our album out to labels, and it’s based on territories. So we’re signed to Sumerian in the States, Distort in Canada, Roadrunner in Australia, Roadrunner in the UK and Europe, and Roadrunner in Japan – which are all separate but equal entities that have the same resources of Roadrunner. It’s really cool because we have all these territories that are pulling for us separately rather than having one label that’s based out of our area that happens to have offices in other areas or whatever or not even have offices but distribution in other areas. For example if we were on Sumerian, there might not be so much of a push to get us out of the country because we sell a ton of albums in the States and not so much in the rest of the world. However, now that we’re signed with Roadrunner Australia, they’re pulling for us now that the album is out to come there immediately. That’s why we have an Australian tour so fast. Hopefully that will continue to happen.
Yeah, that’s excellent, man. Do you see the industry going that way with bands keeping their masters, doing things on the cheap, and licensing . . .
Yeah, because the thing is that it used to be that you needed to take out a huge loan. Labels, for all intents and purposes other than having a lot of cred and marketing tools, they’re really just banks. The banks are willing to give you a loan, but your equity is really just your talent. They would give you these huge, big deals. Let’s say they’ll do a million dollar deal or whatever; they’ve got to get something back, so that would be the masters. That’s how they would get their money back is through the masters, and they would own your material. If you try to get $100,000 from a bank as a musician working at RadioShack the bank will laugh at you. So you get this one person who would actually be willing to invest in you at the cost of your material. Now that CDs don’t cost that much to make, you can go to a studio and get an album made for (even if you go to a really nice one) you can get it made for under 20 grand. Those are the kinds of loans that are accessible to people through banks. So now the necessity for a label in the old fashioned sense isn’t really the same. You can get away without needing them so you have more clout when you’re negotiating with a label now. You can say “well, I don’t really need that money.” In my case it was like “look, you guys aren’t risking anything, and I’m basically delivering a completed album to you which is going to cost you nothing.” It became very easy to make the case for why I should own my masters.
In the past it would be like “well we should own it because we’re giving you 100 grand.” Now it’s like “well don’t give me anything, and I’ll own my music.” So you can work out different deals these days. Obviously this isn’t for everyone, and Sumerian is also a very forward-thinking label. They’re very new school because a lot of old school labels would be like “fuck no. There’s no way you can do that.” It’s just the way things are changing, and it is very unpredictable. That is both a good and bad thing because: it’s bad because you don’t know what your career is going to look like, but it’s a great time for experimentation. It’s a great time to try these new kinds of deals, and that’s exactly what we did. We’re like “well, this sort of makes sense on paper. Let’s see if we can pull it off.”
It’s definitely cool that that works for you guys. Obviously it wouldn’t work for a band that didn’t have somebody like you to record and mix and do everything in-house like that. It’s definitely awesome that bands have those kinds of opportunities now.
Yeah. It was something that just didn’t exist before. We’re just taking advantage of it really.
Yeah, I want to plug that tour coming up with Dillinger. We have 5 dates with them in Australia that should be a lot of fun. So to all the Australians, please come and check us out. I hope you like the music. Otherwise, check out our album. Which is on the aforementioned labels.
Unfortunately, the problem that you get is with signing to all these labels and trying to get the album out and everything is coordinating release dates didn’t work out so well. I think Europe is getting the album a little bit later, but we’re trying to include a little bit of bonus material to make up for that. I think it’s being released there in physical form in July or something. You can always order internationally. Be sure to pick up the album if you like it.
You just said “pick up the album if you like it”. It’s almost like you’re assuming people are going to download it for free.
I’m not assuming that people are going to download it for free, but I always assume that there are 3 kinds of people. This is a modern world, let’s not kid ourselves. There are the kinds of people who want to own an album no matter what. There are the kinds of people who will buy an album only if they like it, so they’ll sample it, whether it’s downloading it first or listening to samples on Amazon or whatever, and then buy it if they like it. Then there are the kind of people who love the crap out of your band and buy the shit out of your merch and all that but won’t buy a CD and they’ll download everything instead. These are realities and these are the things you have to accept, otherwise you’re not really going to have a very clear business model because it’s going to be based on falsities. So, I like to cater to all 3 of those categories because we can still make money off the people who don’t buy the album but do buy merch. Although I’m not encouraging that because I do think I’m part of that 2nd category where I’ll definitely download a band’s album, but if I like them, I’ll be sure to support them whether it’s buying the album or buying merch or whatever. It’s very important to do that because we are poor as all hell. We’re poorer than homeless people, and we live in a van.
All the help you can get is much appreciated. That’s all you can really say, so let’s be realistic. If you dig the album, please pick it up, please come to shows, please buy our merch. We need the help.
Cool, dude. Thanks for taking the time, man. I wish you all the luck and hopefully we’ll meet soon whenever you guys next come to NY.
Hell yeah. Keep an eye out for my column which will be coming semi-regularly. [laughter]
Photo credit: Lara Fahey (top)