In conversation, Michael Kasparis corrects himself often. He shies from the term “project” to refer to his synthpop alter ego Apostille; he stops himself short after the phrase “I don’t know if you’ve noticed”; after going off on perfectly relevant tangents, he apologizes for rambling. “This doesn’t come very naturally to me, talking about myself,” Kasparis explains, as if to write himself off as an idiot savant. Yet, to me, the self-taught producer’s modesty reads as more than just awkward. With years of moonlighting round Glasgow’s hardcore scene (Lowest Form, Anxiety), and years more managing the wildly eccentric Night School label, Kasparis had thrown his ego away a long time ago to support others from the shadows.
I’d already sensed that modesty in his turbulent & terrific new Apostille album Choose Life; frankly, that’s half of why I wanted to talk to him in the first place. Songs like ‘In Control’, ‘Thirteen Minutes’, and even ‘Fly Like A Dolphin’ (aka the most ridiculous suicide wish you’ll ever hear in 2018) spoke to ever-constant qualms that plagued my own self-worth. Yet the touching humility in ‘Feel Bad’ and ‘Hanging On’ encouraged empathy, to check not just your own mental health, but others caught up in your maelstrom. Add to this the crazy catchy & divergent disciplines of synthpop effervescing throughout, and before long I was formulating questions with each go-round.
As it turns out, Kasparis and I had a bunch to talk about. After a very brief hitch on my end, we chatted for a good hour – not just about Choose Life, but also about the positive trends in music journalism, the lessons he’s learned through Night School, and the self-prescribed boundaries that never last. Most importantly, though, Kasparis affirmed very early on what I’d already suspected – namely, that those who doubt themselves the most in their 20s will grow up to be the nicest & most courteous people. And he shouldn’t have to apologize for that.
DiS: It’s astonishing how you started with a bunch of really abrasive hardcore bands. How did you progress from that to Apostille?
Michael Kasparis: In a way, all the synth stuff was before I was in punk groups. But I could never really show it to anyone. I’ve basically been doing it since I was a teenager, just recording tapes and tapes of stuff on my own. And then I got busier with the punk groups. I’ve been in the Lowest Form for ages.
So I was touring and playing all this really aggressive music – and at the time, the genres felt very limited, in a way. I think it’s a bit different now, the genre’s really opened up in the past five or six years. But anyway, I just wanted to have some kind of outlet. And basically, once I turned 30, I suddenly became a little more confident. You spend your whole 20s racked in self-doubt; you’ve got that kind of paradox, where you feel the confidence and the vim of being young, but also you’re like, “Ahh, I’m fucking rubbish!” So I had an epiphany moment when I was 30, and I just said, ‘OK, I’m just going to do this.’
Wow, that’s good to know! Because I’m not yet 30, and I’m still in that stage of always doubting myself.
Oh, god. Yeah, I was just looking up photos of myself in my early 20s. And one of the things I wish I could have told myself was just: “Stop worrying!” So I just got to the point where I told myself, “You know what, maybe everything you might be just a bit shit, but you should keep doing it.” So when I hit 30, it was a real moment of: “Man, I’ve just been bumming around and doing all this stuff half-assed.” So I think, when you hit 30, you’ll have a similar epiphany.
Since we’re talking about worrying all the time, now’s a good time to segue into Choose Life. First off – there’s a lot of big, poppier moments here. Was that always something you wanted to pull off, or is this a recent idea?
Well, things like Erasure and Depeche Mode, all that classic mid-80s synthpop stuff, I’ve always loved. And the whole point of the project is learning in public. When I first started, I played my first show supporting Molly Nilsson to eight people. My second show, I supported Future Islands to 1500 people. It was a baptism-by-fire kind of thing. So when I think about those gigs – basically, I’ve always had some kind of ambition that’s always been hampered by my lack of skills. But in a way, I like that – it’s that whole primitivism versus muso kind of argument. And for me, mistakes and strange ways of doing things always lead to more interesting results.
So with Powerless, that was me trying to write a record like Choose Life, in a way. I did that one on my own, where I basically learned to mix in a really primitive, shitty set-up, and did the vocals late at night, where I was trying not to wake the neighbours – classic DIY stuff.
Yeah, that’s exactly how the Normal wrote his single [“Warm Leatherette / TVOD”].
Exactly, and that turned out all right! So I think, when it came time to do one – I had these songs that I’d been writing over the past year or two, and I wanted to make a record that was closer to what I wanted to do previously. So I got help from a friend of mine, who’s a much better recording engineer. So this is the first record I’ve made with someone else. The songs were always quite poppy, but my friend helped sculpt them, and [added] the tricks, like the little EQ tricks that I wouldn’t even have thought of, that made them a bit bolder.
But the whole project – and I don’t like using the word “project”, actually – the whole process is to always make myself uncomfortable. So when I was making this record, I was like, right, I want to be as bold as I can, singing these songs that are really personal. So I wanted to feel uncomfortable as much as possible, and in a way having an outside perspective on this personal process was an interesting way of doing.
That’s interesting – because, in a nutshell, doing something that makes you uncomfortable is what ‘Thirteen Minutes’ is about, right?
Yeah. In fact, recording that song was like – whenever I’m doing something, if I don’t have the thought of “Can I get away with this?” in the back of my mind, that means I’m on safe ground. I think there’s a quote that David Bowie said about this, but I can’t remember it. So ‘Thirteen Minutes’ is very much like that, even in the theme in the song – and also, while I was writing that, some of the lyrics in the song are very serious, but if I don’t have a nervous laugh while I’m doing it, that means I should push it a little further.
I mean, the very first line of the album – “I’m going to escape this living if it’s the only thing that I do” – that’s very dark, but also kinda hilarious.
Yeah. But a lot of that record was written when I was having a shitty time – just the stuff everyone goes through, like relationship stuff, mental health things, just human being problems. So when I was writing things like that – and ‘Without Me’, as well – a lot of the lyrics are dark, but I didn’t want to present it like a fucking 90s Nine Inch Nails album. I mean, I love all that stuff, but I wanted some levity in there. Because, for me, if you listen to a song that’s sad, but it’s presented in a palette that goes against that, it’s more poignant, and it’s funnier as well. I’m dressing it up a bit, but it’s like a tragi-comedy sort of formula.
That is apt – although, in a tragi-comedy, you usually start happy and then move into sad, whereas here things start bleak and then move to a positive perspective. But what I like about that, is that in the middle, there are still lots of relapses and contradictions. It’s very human that way.
Well, a lot of the lyrics are vocalizations of thoughts that a lot of people have. And some people do things like that, but – there’s a common fantasy, when you’re underground in the subway, that’s not even a suicidal thought, just an impulsive death drive.
Ah, like, “What if I just jumped in front of the train right now?”
Yeah. And the vast majority of people that think that don’t do it. It’s just an impulsive thing that doesn’t necessarily tie with a long history of suicidal thoughts. [It’s] one of those dark impulses that’s hard to qualify. So a lot of the lyrics have that quality to them – they’re materializing these weird, subconscious thoughts that not only I have, but lots of other people have. And they don’t literally mean I’m about to do this horrible thing, but fantasizing about: “Oh, I wonder what it’d be like to do this horrible thing.”
Another thing I’ve been wondering about is both ‘Feel Bad’ and ‘Hanging On’ hone in on relationships. And what I like about them is how you also talk about not wanting to be in the way [of the other person]. I have to ask, were those based on real experiences, or just theoretical?
There’s a lot of different ways for writing songs. A lot of my friends have very theoretical, or even well-planned and well-thought-out ways of writing songs. To me, it’s always been very instinctual. Everything I write about is based on some personal experience – but none of the songs are like, “dear diary…”. So ‘Feel Bad’ is probably an amalgamation of the patterns you get into in relationships. Some of those are definitely influenced by particular relationships, but for me, they outlined a pattern of how a person is in the relationship. So the whole thing isn’t about one person; that song’s really fictional, but it’s based on a lot of real emotions, and real ways that I’ve arsed certain relationships.
And then ‘Hanging On’ – have you read The Collector, by John Fowles? It’s a 50s [correction – 1963] British novel, about a guy – a creep. And there’s a great film of it [from 1965] that’s a classic horror film. The song uses that loosely as a framework. In the book, the main character captures a woman, and she’s his prisoner for an extended amount of time. And he creates this fantasy in his head, but she’s basically his prisoner. So I kind of applied that to a relationship that didn’t have the specific properties – you know, with any kind of relationship, there’s always a power struggle. Sometimes someone’s in the ascendency, and someone’s being subjected. So the imagery is based on that novel, from the perspective of the person who’s been captured. Again, it’s not literal, just using some of those properties.
I’ve never actually talked about that before.
I wanted to talk more about ‘Without Me’, since to me that was the most shocking one – though I definitely get what you’re saying in the end, that you don’t want to be that person that clings on too much to one person.
In terms of being in a relationship – it reflected some of my own experience. When there’s an imbalance, someone’s trying to hang on to this thing that’s clearly gone. And in a way, it’s like being treated quite cruelly from the other person. But the chorus – that song epitomizes a lot of the stuff on the record, because again it’s like a pop tune – when I was doing that I was like: “Ah, it’d be good to have an 808 in here like in ‘Sexual Healing’!” So I was having a bit of fun with it. But some of that is based on ways I felt in relationships – so you do get (or I do) emotional performing these songs about things that I’ve felt.
But it’s not like a Joni Mitchell style thing, where you’re throwing everything down. I’ve actually started listening to Liz Phair recently – I’ve never listened to her before – and a lot of her stuff is very confessional. I love her for being that way, but I don’t think I could ever write like that. So if I were actually to write something like ‘Hanging On’ in that confessional way, it’d just be too uncomfortable. Maybe I should do that, though. OK! Next, a Liz Phair covers album.
But a lot of that is just metaphors. Like when I say, “The sun that you gave me” – that’s about a poisonous relationship, where someone gives the other person just enough to keep them hanging on, [but] not too much, so that they’re happy. So I used daylight as a metaphor for that.
And also, specifically for that song – you know those big crossover, Justin Bieber songs? I liked the fragility. So in this record, more than any other, I tried to really sing.
Yeah, I really noticed that.
So some parts of the album are really belting, but for that one I wanted something more pared down.
That’s interesting that you mentioned Bieber – for ‘In Control’, that was a very distinctly pop beat there. I thought: “Wow, this is like a Timbaland production or something!” I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
The funny thing about that song – it was actually written as a duet. So a friend of mine, who used to sing in that song ‘Vex’, Mary Jane Dumphy – she now sings in CCFX, and she was in CC Dust – she’s a good friend of mine, and she’s got an amazing voice, and we’ve talked for ages about doing a duet. So I tried to write a duet for her and I to sing. But she was in New York, so it turned out to be too much for her, just to call. So I ended up doing all the parts. I wonder if the song would make more sense as a duet.
Another thing I usually have with music is that I try to put everything in there, and maximize everything. So this time, I was like: “OK, I wonder if I can do a song that’s basically just a bassline.” And some strings, that are knocked off a UK garage song. And I played that live, and it was another thing that made me really uncomfortable, and I was like, OK, so that’s definitely the reason I should do this.
I think it makes sense without the duet. Because, to me, that sounds a lot like how mental health feels like – one day, you feel like you’re in control, and on top of everything, and the next day, you just want to die and you’re spiralling out of control. That made perfect sense to me, honestly.
It was funny – when I was doing the chorus, I was trying to give it as much bravado as I could. So when I say “Come and get me” – in Scotland, if you’re going to fight someone, it’s called a “square go”. So it’s like that, where it’s like: “Ah, I feel so great, but I’m also out of control.” You know, like when you have that manic feeling that you could be a superhero or something? So that was the idea behind that, the mania that comes before a massive crash.
I’m glad you got that from it. I suppose the main difference between obfuscated noise punk is a lot of that is [just] about feeling. But then when you do something more fragile, or with a little bit more layers to it, you never know how people are going to take it. That’s both the fun and horrible thing about doing anything! [laughs]
In many noise-punk songs, I don’t even know what the lyrics are. But it sounds terrifying and aggressive, so it must be terrifying and aggressive!
Sometimes it doesn’t even matter, right? You can get something from wordless communication, or if you listen to music in a language you can’t understand. Most of the time, it’ll communicate something that you may not get the full meaning of. You may never get the full meaning of anything…and that’s cool. I’m a Libra, so I’m very much: “Yeah, that’s cool, but also that’s cool”.
Ahhh, you’re one of those astrology people.
Well, I’m not an astrology person actually, but whenever I read something like [pertaining to Libra], I’m like, “Oh, that does kinda describe me.”
Yeah, that’s the terrible thing, isn’t it? I say I don’t believe in any of that stuff, but when people tell me about astrology, I’m like, “Oh, that does kinda fit.”
It might also be something like, “You’re gonna feel bad at some point this year!” And then your dog dies, and that’s: “Oh no, the astrology was right!”
But let’s see…where was I going with that…well, I think I was just going to say, that I started listening to the Lowest Form last night. But Anxiety, I’d been turned on to for a while. And I dunno if this is all hardcore, but that’s also really, really self-effacing, low-esteem stuff.
Well, I do all the lyrics in Anxiety, too – but Anxiety broke up a couple of months ago. We’re kinda starting a new band soon, though, so it’s all good. More or less the same thing, but with new songs. But you know that band Patsy? [I reply no.] We’ve booked a few dates with them…sorry, I’ve got that classic thing of, “Oh, you live in the South of the United States, so you must know so-and-so!”
But anyway – when I was writing lyrics in Anxiety, I was trying to consciously separate the two projects, because I only play guitar in the Lowest Form. I was trying to go, “OK, this is the thing I write for this band, and this is the thing I write here.” But for me, whenever I try to put in artificial guidelines, they never really work, so they just come out as they come out. But I suppose, with Anxiety – you know what, I was trying to think of a difference, but there probably isn’t. It’s about the same bullshit.
Anxiety is much more blunt and direct. Like, you remember that song that goes, “I’m the worst, I’m the worst, I’m the absolute worst”? There’s a lot more abrasive and disgusting imagery in there.
Yeah, you’re right. A lot of those things is looking at it very subconsciously. But I suppose they are a lot more direct. Maybe I should cover an Anxiety song? That’s it. For my big concept album, I’ll just cover the first Anxiety album.
**I would buy it. I would lay down money for that. I know you also run Night School records. I was wondering if, since it’s such a diverse and eclectic label, that’s ever shaped how you write Apostille songs?
I think it used to, a lot more. But the label started out – you know, I’m like most people these days, I listen to and buy music from all sorts of places. I’m not tribal like that. So when I started the label, the idea was I’m not going to have any guidelines or genre specifications. I’m just gonna go with how I feel and where my ears take me. For the first three or four years was like that.
And then I basically made a decision that I had to streamline it a little bit. I was putting these records out that were incredible records, but they just weren’t getting the coverage that they should have. And I think that’s because, in the music industry – and it’s one of the things I’m obsessed with, not the music industry, but the power structures, and networks, and how these things dovetail & come together, and how they promote certain things, and how some things have a platform. So my idea was to be monodeomatic – you know, “stuff that I like” was the only specification.
For example, in 2014 I put an album by a band called Divorce. They were a really incredible noise band, and it was the most aggressive record that I ever put out. So up until that week, Pitchfork and all the other places that you were supposed to get a nod from, they were really into this band. And then when the record came out, I don’t think it got reviewed. So it made me think, if someone else had put that out, someone who was known for that kind of music, then it would’ve gotten a lot more coverage.
And for me, it’s kinda sad, because pigeonholing and categorization, they’re basically tools of capital, right? They’re just ways that people can commodify and sell things. I mean, everything has to be commodified to a degree. So it got to the point where I was like: “Well, I guess I have to come up with some sort of unifying identity.” Because, apart from anything else, it doesn’t do the artists any service. So, round about the time of the Paper Dollhouse record, I was thinking: “Right, if I really like a noise or metal record, I’ll just have to pass on it.”
Round about the same time, when I was doing my own music, I used to do these one-off things that were all very different from each other. But when it comes to the “proper” album releases, I was thinking I’d try to something that’s a little bit more unified. So I did a cassette for a London tape label that was mostly instrumental electronic music. And then I did a one-off weird project for a friend, where I covered Apostille songs, but in singer/songwriter style. And I was having fun with it – but it’s more of a challenge to be a little more cohesive.
So those two things happened at about the same time. And to me, it’s kind of a shame, because I’d like to put out my friend’s subterranean metal record, but it wouldn’t make sense for them or me. And I’d love to do a record like that myself, but I’d have to call it something else.
Even within trying to narrow down that sound [on Night School] you’ve still got a lot of variety – I mean, you have Helena Celle, which is weird and out there, and then Liberez, which is weird but in a very different way, and then last year you released that AMOR single, which is completely different.
Yeah. And for me, I can justify all those with the convenience of: “Oh, that’s cool.” But I was basically trying to present everything on an even platform – and you know, the biggest thing on the label is Molly Nilsson. She’s one of my favorite singer/songwriters of all time. I wanted to get to a point where I’d put her album out, and then I’d put out the Helena Celle record, so I’d say, “This is an important album by a person you already know, but – check this out! It’s quite different, but you might like it!” So for me, when someone buys those two records together, it’s like I’ve accomplished something. I don’t know really know what.
And it’s kind of the same, where – I just finished a UK tour, and there were people going to the shows purely based on the fact that they liked Anxiety. So that’s cool. And they enjoyed it. So for me – decontextualizing stuff like that is quite exciting for me, because you’ll get people that just like synth pop, or punk fans, but if you get a bunch of punks going to a Molly Nilsson show, that’s got to be some sort of progress.
That’s a really good summary of what Apostille has done for me, too. Although – I mean, even if there weren’t all this stuff about mental health and relationships that I really relate to, there are so many touchstones in synth pop here that I recognize. It’s so varied, even within that realm.
Oh, thank you. That means a lot. It’s always weird when you do something that speaks to someone. Obviously, this never happens to me, but someone came up to me on the street in Glasgow – and it’s a small community, everyone knows each other– this guy came up, and said: “Oh, just to let you know, I really like that song, I’ve been playing it on repeat. I’ve been going through a really shitty time, and it’s all I could listen to all day.” And I didn’t really know how to react to that. But you know, when you’re an artist or a writer, there’s really nothing that compares to that.
Choose Life is out now via Upset The Rhythm. for more information about Apostille, please click here.