Interview: Michael Malarkey

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After rescuing his Gretsch Country Gentleman electric guitar from a two year lock-up, Michael Malarkey drops by Strongroom Bar for a one-off show. It’s a small detour on his way home from Liverpool Comic Con. 

“I had just come back from the tour [in March] and I was still kind of buzzing from it. I wanted to do some shows incrementally throughout to keep me fresh. It’s usually a bit of a surprise when I go on tour, because my life is so chaotic, especially with kids that I rarely have time to practice much before a tour,” he tells The Indiependent ahead of the gig. 

“I haven’t seen my Gretsch since the Graveracer tour in London. It’ll be the first time I’ve done a solo show with an electric. So I am excited about that,” he continues. Strongroom Studios holds special significance for the artist as it’s where his latest EP, Strays, was recorded. 

Set lists are always a mystery for fans, but surprisingly compiling them has little to do with personal choice. While fan favourites are usually reserved for the end, it helps to start with those that are “second nature to play” as Michael explains: “The first few songs I am usually still getting over the feeling of standing in front of a bunch of people looking at you. It takes a few minutes to work into that.” The strategy for the rest is to group them based on their technical requirements. Michael reveals: “I play with a capo, usually on fret two but I have a selection of songs on fret four and there are a couple that have none. So I usually compile them in groups because it reduces the amount of time I have to tune.” 

Many of the tracks from the new EP were on the line-up for the Strongroom show, which boded well for the instrument choice given the nature of the songs. Strays offers a very intimate listening experience. Accompanied by subtle arrangements, the lyrics are present with occasional backing tracks that sound almost ethereal. That’s always a conscious decision for Michael: “It’s all about the lyrics. The nuances of the vocal creaks and groans and breaths, I love all that.” Citing Johnny Cash as an example, Michael continues, “His vocals just sit above everything and the music’s great, but it’s definitely second fiddle. That’s always been my priority.” It’s no coincidence then, that Michael would choose to go to the 60s to create music. “There’s the whole influence of psychedelics and revolution, there was a lot going on, that must have been such an exciting time to be a musician,” he considers. 

‘Bodybag’, the opening track, excels at setting the tone for the EP, but it is also a diversion from previous records. “It was a departure from how I am used to writing and the sonic atmosphere of my stuff before,” Michael notes. This is also one of the few songs from the discography where the lyrics predated the instrumentals. “I’d written all of the spoken word stuff, as a piece of writing beforehand. It was, in a way, a direct response to the pandemic. It’s not about the pandemic, necessarily, but it was inspired by that sense of pestilence, and worldly despair. It’s got a tongue-in-cheek element too, ‘Talking myself into a body bag, and getting on the midnight train.’ But for me, the songs are not really about the thing, they’re an emotion and a feeling, with a series of pictures that support that sensibility.”

While each genre requires a different level of production, it seems ‘less is more’ makes a song effective. As Michael rightly puts it: “A lot of music nowadays is dressed up and all these fancy clothes with bells and whistles that sound amazing and catchy. But when you break it down to what that song actually is…it’s garbage.” Overproduced tracks can indeed come across as 

artificial and that’s exactly what differentiates Michael’s discography as his approach gives songs a sincere edge. He advises: “If you’ve got a good song, record it as best as you can, and put it out. Someone’s gonna hear what you’re hearing.” With Strays, Michael set out to stir a “feeling and sensibility of the cover image mixed with the sounds inside. Whatever that evokes is what I’m trying to portray.” The record, in turn, provides listeners with a great outlet to interpret the songs in their own way. 

Similar to Graveracer, which dabbled in folk, “weird pop” (as identified by Michael) to moody alternative, no record is ever boxed into one genre either. Back in 2020, Michael provided a track for a Christmas album, called ‘Evergreen’ for No Sleep Records. “I’m actually wearing their hat today!” he says while enthusiastically lifting his cap. As the label offered full creative control for the song, Michael saw it as an opportunity to “try something new” and since he began in the screamo band Shadyside (who recently reunited), he could revert to his roots in music. “I hit up my friend Kris N—he’s just been releasing some new music, which is really good. It’s kind of in the vein of Bright Eyes and Elliott Smith, check it out—and he just sent me this instrumental and it was without drums at first. It was like he recorded it in his living room.” 

Mentioning Sparklehorse and The Mountain Goats as inspirations due to their experimentations with lo-fi sound, Michael took to his garage. “I was hunched down screaming into a shelf mic. I just loved how it sounded like something you played on a cassette tape.” The track is arguably a cultural reset for Christmas music as the grungy dark quality rebels against the stereotypical sounds of modern holiday songs. The lyrics acknowledge that the season is not universally cheerful as Michael revealed upon the release that “the song is sung from the perspective of a present … waiting to be opened. It is also an ode to anyone who suffers at xmas time.” 

‘Damage Me Deeply’, from the album Graveracer, likewise, had a unique production journey as its inception began on the set of Project Blue Book, a series on which Michael starred alongside Aiden Gillen. “I had my setup in my trailer. That’s one of several songs that I didn’t write on the guitar, that was all written with a MIDI keyboard. So it was my first foray into messing around with a different method of writing and with the keys as an instrument and synth, and drum loops.” Being ambitious with the song structure evidently played a part in why it’s unforgettable. 

Surprisingly, though Michael admits it’s “a mathematically constructed” track, a lot of it is the result of freestyling. “I was kind of writing ghost lyrics throughout to see where they would sit. What I mean by ghost lyrics is I’ll do a freestyle pass, and see what melodies start coming out. I then often latch on to something in that freestyle pass,” he reveals. As well as showcasing Michael’s technical skills, ‘Damage Me Deeply’ is a testament to his storytelling. “It’s a fairy tale; I wanted it to feel like some weird T.S. Eliot universe,” he says. With lyrics like “Halfway between New York and the Wasteland // A Statue of Glass // Brimming with Sand,” you’re truly sent into another dimension.

It’s worth discussing then, where this tendency to write atmospheric lyrics comes from. As an actor—he’s appeared in projects like the aforementioned Project Blue Book, The Vampire Diaries, and Big Sky—Michael is mindful that his screen career may unconsciously affect how he approaches music, particularly during the filming process. “I don’t think there’s an explicit connection. They’re two different elements of who I am but I suppose I see the symbolism. In films and shows, it’s all tied together in a poetic statement about something in particular. I definitely also hear the musicality of the scene. From the silences between words and deliveries and the intonation; all this stuff is music-oriented.” Strays demonstrates this thought process as the tracks could easily accompany motion pictures. ‘Bodybag’, for instance, has a film noir atmosphere to it and ‘Thunder At Sea’ dedicates time to captivating instrumentals that would pair well with a b-roll montage. 

Studio experience also makes ADR a walk in the park, which is when actors re-record dialogue for scenes where it wasn’t clear in the edits. “I find that super easy to do, but it’s because I’m used to sitting there editing songs and dropping in at certain points,” Michael explains. 

His two worlds in fact collided when his hit ‘Scars’ featured on an episode of The Vampire Diaries. His starring role as Enzo was a memorable performance as it showcased the actors’ ability to blur lines between heroes and villains. Reflecting on the legacy of the series, Michael is appreciative of the doors it opened. “When I booked it, I thought I was going for a short guest role stint. Then all of a sudden, I’m wrapped up in this entire universe. I’ll always be grateful.” 

It’s clear that Michael lives and breathes his craft, and it even carries over to the business side of being a musician. “I have a very high standard for myself and that makes it difficult sometimes. I’m always going back and forth [with merch designs]. It’s sometimes about the millimetres of where a logo needs to sit. I have a hand in all that stuff, for better or worse. You want to put out the exact thing that represents you and your artistic eye. I want that to be an additional art piece.” Suffice to say, this all pays off, as even vinyl designs are taken to the next level, with the Graveracer edition being gold to align with the colour story of the album. 

Circling back to Strays, getting it right was based purely on instinct. Pausing deep in thought, Michael considers: “I can hear it when it’s right. And I don’t know what to say when it’s not, except—it’s a feeling. My issue though is that I’m always not quite satisfied. I always hear stuff that I want to change and do differently, no matter what. And there just comes a time when you stop. But I believe in doing your best to finish the songs you start because…you never know”.

Attributing the smooth production of the EP to his collaborator, Michael says: “I absolutely loved meeting and working with Dustin Dooley here at Strongroom, because we had a great rapport. For me, it doesn’t matter who you record with, as long as they’re competent at what they do. It’s about the chemistry and personality mix. There will be a time when I start producing my own records, so I can get it exactly how I want  it to come out, but I also love working with others—it’s motivating.”

As Michael rushes off to sound check, he offers a sneak peek into his future plans after the show. “I’ve started dipping into heavy music again as I got my old screamo band Shadyside back together. We’ve recorded an EP, which will be coming out. As far as Michael Malarkey stuff, I’m in the slow process of figuring out what the next record’s going to be and how I’m going to approach it. Also, a new TV show coming out soon!”

Words by Olivia Gacka


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