Interview: Geographer Releases New Album 'A Mirror Brightly'

Written by Connor Miller, Photo by Monica Reyes

Geographer is the pseudonym for Mike Deni’s synthpop project. Originally founded in 2007 by Deni in San Francisco, California Deni has released a plethora of meaningful music, having released eight albums from 2008 to 2021. His newest album, A Mirror Brightly, just released on February 23, 2024, and is a curation of therapeutic experiences. It melds societal problems that require discussion into an auditory work that leaves the listener encapsulated in a domain of thought. 

Connor: The start to this beautiful realm of music creation that occurred was the synthesizer that you found on the street. Were you always planning on pursuing a career as an artist or was the synthesizer the true catalyst to this creative endeavor that you found yourself in? 

Mike: I think there was a time when I was in college that I thought I was going to try to be a novelist. But that was the only time in my life that I was like, oh, I won't be a musician. I think like other than that two or three year period. I wasn't even listening to music. I was listening to books on tape and like just really throwing myself into writing. Yeah, then I just kind of always took it for granted that that's what I would try to do. So when I moved out to San Francisco, I moved out with the purpose of starting a band. And then finding the synthesizer really drove a lot of the creative choices that I made and they were different from the ones that I intended to make. Like finding a really talented cellist who could play in my band. I didn't know I wanted a cello in my band. You know, I was looking for like an accordion player and a trombone player, trying to go that route and then just met the people that I met and then that and found the equipment that I found and that really sort of angled the trajectory of my creativity in a really specific way. 

Connor: Very, very interesting. This kind of leads into this other idea that I was looking at in an interview that you did 11 years ago on BAM TV after you did an acoustic show. You spoke about your creative process consisting of sound creation as a precursor to lyrical content, like working with a certain motif and then kind of building off that. Does that still ring true today and in what ways has your process specifically pertaining to lyrical meaning changed? 

Mike: Yeah, that's a good question. I'm running the songs through my head. I think it's pretty much the same except now that that lyrical muscle is much more defined in me after 10 years of doing it. Every now and again I will come up with a lyric that I really love and then... you know, write a song around that, but that's still so rare. I just feel like my best songs are ones where I am moved personally to write what I write because the music moves me to do that. I like to create an atmosphere that I myself get lost in and then see what comes out of that. I find that those are often the ones that other people get lost into, rather than the ones that when I try to write like a masterpiece, like a great and lasting, beautiful song, you know, where I'm like, oh, this is a very clever lyric. It's very like, you know, this is like great song craft. Those are often not the ones that resonate with me.

Connor: Along that same route, on the upcoming album, A Mirror Brightly, your use of interludes is truly phenomenal. What led you to include these capsules of sound in correlation with the album's construction? Because I think that when you're pertaining to a certain audience, they're going to listen to the more fleshed out songs, but I'm a firm believer in full album creation. So what kind of led you to include these like beautiful snippets, like the Wurlitzer interlude which was fantastic. 

Mike: You know, I really love that stuff. So yeah, yeah, that I don't know, I think ever since I heard Days of Future Past by the Moody Blues, you know that one? It's like their first album before they started making music that I don't understand. You know, that was probably the album that they're like, oh, that was our trivia work, but it was just filled with awesome pop songs. And then I was reading that the producer, against their wishes or like without letting them know, just composed these lavish orchestral arrangements between the songs. And that was my favorite part about the album. And then I learned that they actually hated it. I thought that was so interesting. They were just like, what did you do to our stuff? You put icing all over our delicate pastries. So that's been living in my mind. Every time there's an album with an interlude, I'm just so impressed. Like Kid A, I forget what it's called. There's that one that Ed did where it's just some weird abstract guitar chords. I feel like Radiohead does that a lot, where they put a nonlinear song somewhere near the middle of the album. And I always felt that that was really, really cool. So these were just living in my mind, but I kind of felt like it was something I wasn't allowed to do for some reason. Because I would impose those silly rules upon myself, which is a really bad idea. When you start thinking, I forget who said this, but the second you think, what does my audience want? You're letting them down. And that's a really tough thing to get through your head. But as I get older and more confident, I just sort of like, I'm allowing myself to do the things that I want to do that are a little risky. And then I'm lucky to have the support of my label. I was like, I want to put a bunch of musical interludes on the album. And they're like, interesting. I've never really seen that before. Go for it. Yeah, it was really fun because I made them all after I was completely done recording. So I was totally done recording and then I like, I forget, I went somewhere for like a month or something, maybe tour. And then I came back and I was like, all right, I can't put this off any longer. I have to finish these interludes. And I just had this image in my mind of, because there was a lot of music in the songs that I really loved, but they would just, you know, go right by you within the song. So then I would pluck those out and start with those as the interlude. And then it was a way to just like, you know, I've grown slightly in different ways, like towards different ideas since completing the album itself. So then some of those ideas I was able to put into the interludes, which is really fun they're kind of like more experimentally electronic. It's just really freeing to do to not have any lyrics or anything and I just loved the process and yeah, I mean, I actually, when it came time to press the LP, there was talk about maybe removing them because between me and the mastering engineer, because he was like, this is pretty long for a single vinyl. And I was like, all right, yeah, yeah, I'll just remove the interludes. And then I was like, what am I talking about? You don't make the LP inferior to the digital. So then we decided to go with a double album. There you go. Yeah, I just love the way that it flows. It's really important to me. I just think, yeah, I still love listening to albums. I still make albums. You know, it's like, yes, you have to service the business. But at the end of the day, you know, you're an artist. So you have to make something you think is really important and beautiful. 

Connor: Of course. You previously spoke about being scared to crowd surf on the podcast, “Bringin’ it Backwards”. And you faced your fears at Outside Lands, which led you to become “sort of addicted to it.” However, you played a show in Chicago where you accidentally kicked a fan in the head. I'm including this story because it parallels a lot of the struggles of an artist in a sense, overcoming a fear of failing, but at the same time, having incidents that don't go as planned. How do you personally walk the line of a fear of failure while also overcoming mistakes? For example, like with the interludes, you want to include it because that's your vision, right? That's like your construction of your creative process. But sometimes, you know, that doesn't always occur properly, like the LP. 

Mike: Yeah, well, I think I'm acutely aware that my own insecurity is keeping me from achieving my potential as a writer, a performer, a human being on the planet, you know, so it's like I'm constantly at war with myself trying to get out of my own way and it's particularly palpable on stage where it's like I just want to move, like my goal is to move so freely on stage that I'm just totally embodied in what I'm doing. I'm not thinking, does this look cool? I'm not thinking, oh, what should I do next? I'm just so lost in the music. But it's so hard for me because it's like when I watch basketball or football, the only thing I can think about is how are they doing this with these people watching them? Like, or more acutely, the pressure of, okay, if you don't do this right, you're gonna lose and everyone's gonna hate you. You know? I've seen in the crowd, like out in the world, it's the level of mental control is something that is missing from, I would say maybe like, most of us out here in music. You know, it's like Mick Jagger seems to have had no trouble at all. Tom York doing a great job. But like, I think I'm not alone in being an indie musician who is, you know, has been or is still relatively troubled, you know, like in your mind, you're not just like some six foot five, just like, yo, everything is great, you know. It comes to bear for me a lot on stage where I can't forget that everybody's watching and I can't forget that I need to do a good job and that's the quickest way to do a bad job. That's what I think about a lot as far as that kind of stuff. It was easier when the benchmarks were huge. Like I'm scared to crowd surf. Okay, all I have to do is just jump on these people and then it just takes over. But when it's like, I'm scared to dance really hard because I'm worried I might look like an idiot. You have to feel it every second that you're doing it, you know, so it's like a constant battle with every movement that you make. So that's what I'm working on. That's my crowd surfing now. And it's really nice to have something like that so that you don't just get complacent up there. You learn so quickly that you're just, you're being so silly. Like, when was the last time people disliked an artist for dancing poorly? You know, it's like, they just want you to be the weirdo that you are, you know? But there's just this sense that you have to be perfect, which is just so incorrect. But it's really tough to get out of your mind. 

Connor: For a long time, you've always found value in having the ability to create all aspects of your creative world, from choreographing dancers in your first music video by giving them spaghetti, to designing some of your single covers. What is the power that an artist has from that multifaceted approach? Because like you said, you want people to listen to you and take in your creative world for who you are. So what's that energy that you bring from being able to do that?

Mike: Yeah, I mean I think I have always wanted other artists to elevate my vision, but it's just sometimes it's just so hard to find, well particularly if you don't have a ton of money. You know, it's like Kanye West wants to purchase an artist's painting. He does it, you know, and that is so cool. It's like that's why you get some gorgeous, iconic album covers like, Wish You Were Here, you know, but that's not the only way. I would say that the easiest way is just to get an unbelievably talented artist to elevate your work. But I just found that those roads weren't open to me. I didn't sign to a major label. I wasn't just pouring money into that. I think I just got lucky with the first couple of albums where I met some really talented artists who were coming up sort of like me and were really humble at the beginning of their careers and just wanted to make art. And so that's how the Animal Shapes cover came about. And I just still love that one so much. And then Myth was the same way, a guy I grew up with, he became an amazing visual artist and he just gave me the rights to one of his humongous room sized paintings. And it was so exciting to be able to play with visuals that were of prestige you know just truly gallery worthy visuals. And then I just ran out of resources, you know, so it was just sort of like, well, shit, okay. And then I would find some artists on Instagram and be like, oh, I really like this guy. But then I just was like, I just want to, I don't know, because I'm not really a visual artist by any means, but I do love visual art, like almost as much as I love music. Like it really moves me. And again, it's something that when I first started doing, I was like, you're terrible at this. This is so cheesy, you know, but I just kept doing it. And then eventually, I just got the confidence to just, or maybe it wasn't even confidence, maybe it was just necessity. I think it was going through a dark transitional period when I moved to LA and I had released a bunch of EPs but then hadn't released an album in a while and so then I was like well okay I just have to put out some singles and then I, you know, I just started doing more with photoshop and eventually got a little confident at it. I think Down and Out, when I did that album. I worked so closely with that artist. You know, I didn't do anything physically, but I would come up with the concepts with him for all the singles. And I think that was the final step in being, cause some of my mockups that I did crudely in Photoshop were actually kind of cool. And I was like, oh, maybe I can do this. And then we released some additional singles, past his scope of work. And I was like, I'll just do this. And it was, yeah, I don't know. I guess I just have a lot of self doubt about things that I'm not incredibly good at. But then I have to remember that like there was a time when I was really pretty bad at songwriting, you know, like every song I wrote was bad for the most, you know, a large chunk of time. And then I just kept doing it and I got good. And it's like, just keep doing it. Keep doing it as if it's gonna be final and then you'll do it. But now, yeah, now I feel, I feel pretty confident. Like I designed my own poster for this tour and my t-shirt, which is a first for me too. And I really like it. But it's not like I'm doing it all by myself. I am still working with [others], like my fiance is a really talented photographer and then my manager is a creative director and also a great photographer. So I do have a lot of resources at my disposal. But it is nice to be able to actually physically design some stuff myself. 

Connor: Pivoting towards more of the lyrical content of your music. The upcoming album, you seem to address concepts towards humanity as a whole, which was a difference from your previous albums, that were more introspective. What do you think led you as an artist to this specific shift in tone? 

Mike: I feel like I'm always saying that's a really good question. You know, but it is. Because that's something I never wondered about, until after the fact. I just found myself just getting really angry about all the things that I was witnessing. I guess not only witnessing, but also participating in, namely social media, just noticing how if I spent a few hours mindlessly scrolling on Instagram, that I just scrolled myself into a state of depression. And no one was really talking about that at the time. And that there seems to be no sign of it slowing. And that it feels like we've just resigned to destroying ourselves. And I just got so disturbed. And you know, I was really affected by it personally, you know. I think maybe it was the first time that I was strongly affected by something personally that is going on, on a larger scale for everybody. But it's also something that I felt that people weren't really noticing, you know, that people weren't really taking stock of, they were just being victimized by corporate greed, you know, and that's not something that I have ever written about before, because I don't have a lot of like confidence in my political views. I just feel like. Those issues are so so complicated that you'll never see the full picture in a geopolitical issue. So where I went with that was just like humanity. Like what is it that drives humans to create all these systems that are to their detriment? That like hurt each other and hurting themselves and I just started getting varying degrees of outrage and then also bringing it back, you know, it's interesting. I just released that single, “Everyone”. And that one is sort of like, that's the light at the end of the tunnel, not at the end of the tunnel, but it's the light that permeates the tunnel of darkness, right? We do all these wretched things to each other. And we do them unconsciously. And for the most part, we don't do them out of malice, we do them out of other, mostly desires, to stay safe and fear. But then, just as we all do all these terrible things, we also share in all these human sensations and feelings and moments in life. Like we all have very similar lives. And I think it was really therapeutic for me after writing all these sounds of outrage to then write a song about how similar we all are and that, you know, not in like a cheesy way, like, why can't we all just get along, but just like we all suffer, we all suffer the same. We go through the same stuff. Some people much more than others, but it's all part of the same tree, you know? And that was really helpful for me as I was a little bit mired in the sadness of what I was seeing around me. 

Connor: One of the songs off of the new album, when you were talking about it, you stated, I wanted to write a really heartbreaking song just to capture that sadness and the beauty and aching. This statement seems a little paradoxical, but it's extremely accurate in my opinion. And then in another instance, specifically in an interview with Greeblehaus, you said, “I have no interest in writing about joy. It's the most uninteresting emotion that we have. And also, there's no reason to write about joy, you just feel joy. But when you're feeling sadness, or heartache or disappointment, you need to do something about that, or it's going to eat you up.” Would you generally consider your view on life, or at least the concepts that you talk about, to be pessimistic? Or is it that we as humans naturally focus on the negatives within our lives rather than the positive? 

Mike: Hmm, so you mean my approach to living?

Connor: Yeah like you talk about a lot of pretty deep concepts and very introspective things that require a bit of discomfort. I feel like there are some differences between creative output and talking about heavy things versus how you personally live your life. So I think if there are any differences between those or if it's kind of just how you view life?

Mike: Yeah, I think that's changed for me over time. I think I thought there was a nobility to living close with the knowledge of suffering and sadness really close in my daily life, but I think in my heart I'm just sort of just… I am a pretty happy guy. It's just that there's things that make life, really personal life, challenging that really make me focus on them, you know. And I think I know when I'm out there in the world, like if I'm traveling I'm just like I'm so happy. I just love the world. I just eat it all up. I love the people that I need and this and that but then when I come home again and I'm just living my daily life. I'm just sort of like I can't. All I see basically is the sadness in people. I was shopping with my friend, actually. He was like buying some clothes at Carhartt and I was walking around with him. And then when we left, I was like, God, that was so depressing, huh? And he was like, what? What are you talking about? And I was like, oh, everybody in there was just so sad. And he was like, what? Like he was just so unattuned to that. But I just, I don't know. I just, I see that, because, you know, the people were really sad, but I'm sure they were also fine, you know. But for me, for some reason, it's like... I just see the sadness in people. It's like, infrared vision that I have. And I think it really weighs on me. And so it is really nice to put it somewhere that not only helps me, but also then when I get feedback from fans, at shows or something that this song got them through, et cetera. I'm just like, wow, okay. So there's a good reason for this challenging aspect of my life. It does make it…it makes it easier to bear. Because I do feel happiest when I am living in service of somebody that I care about, you know? Even moment to moment, like when my friend got married in India and I went over there for a month to just help with everything and help with her family. I was just so happy because I wasn't worrying about making myself happy. I was just worrying about caring for somebody that I cared about. And I think that the truth is that I really do care about humanity a lot. And I also feel my own lack of ability to help them very acutely. And that is hard to stomach, to help them in any real substantial way but it does feel good to be able to help them in this small emotional way that I seem to be okay at doing. That really…that makes it easier for me to feel all of everybody's sadness when I walk out in the world because then I can turn it around and maybe, I don't know, make life a little more bearable because I do think life is horrifying. It's a nightmare that is permeated with beauty, you know, and joy and love. But I think it's... I think of life as an ocean with islands on it, it's like we're living on the islands, tiny islands, and all around us is death and destruction. And man, it's horrifying. So yeah, I think I'm definitely stuck between those two places where I am really goofy and I just crack jokes all the time, which isn't a foreign thing for a person who's in touch with sadness to do but yeah.

Connor: When you were talking about your song, “Love is Madness”, off of your album, Down and Out in the Garden of Earthly Delights, you said, “I had just been dumped at the time and it was in a really bad way. I almost canceled the session, which is so funny to me now because the song would never exist.” Do you believe that without pain, there would be art or does all creation stem from some sort of discomfort? 

Mike: Yeah, that's something I've thought about a lot. for everybody. You know, like I think for me...I don't know why, but my most powerful songs do come from a place of pain and trouble. But I can think of so many songs that are just about beauty, you know? And also works of art that are just about exalting the natural world. Or films that just make me so happy that aren't sad. I think every artist is different. If I could see somebody be just as tapped into human joy as I am to human sadness and then be able to bring that to people and also bring them even more joy. You could compound the joy, you could also compound the sadness, or you could flip it, flip one or the other of them. I really think it's really personal to the artist. I don't think that I need to suffer to make art, but I do think that I need to think about challenging subjects to make something interesting. Me personally, I find that when I try to walk in shallow water, it just doesn't come out very powerful. And I want to too, you know, because I want to be able to express every aspect of my emotional landscape, but I just haven't found a way to express joy fully, like unadulterated joy in a song without some little twist that's a little interesting. That brings a conundrum into the situation. 

Connor: Do you ever feel that post music creation your views and your emotions change? You seem to tackle very deep ideas within your music, but do you ever find yourself having epiphanies during your process that shift your views on life or even the view of how you're going to create? 

Mike: I don't know if I have actually had an epiphany. I think I... It definitely helps me figure stuff out, but I more have my epiphanies in moments of quiet, where I'm just thinking, or where I'm just writing my thoughts down. That's when I really... and that does happen during the songwriting process, but when I'm coming up with lyrics, it's almost like I've...I've shut a few of the doors into my mind so that I can focus on the idea that I have. And then when I find that I can't go further with it, then I open everything up and then I just do a stream of consciousness writing session where I just write out my thoughts. And that's when I can come to some conclusions about things or find different pathways to go down. But once I actually sit down to write the song, I do have to close off that...well, I guess I don't have to, but I do choose to close off the sort of wild thinking brain that could get epiphanies. 

Connor: This is a bit of a shift, but when talking about your song “Got It Wrong”, you stated, “You think you've got all the answers only because you know that there isn't one. What if God is real? What if like astrology is real?” In general, your view of how people conceptualize religion is quite interesting. And you seem to touch on a similar topic when talking about your album Myth. But with a slightly different twist relating to the idea that people take myths present in society as reality. How do you feel that both of these similar yet different concepts have evolved over time, as well as what do you think has changed in the population to warrant these conversations?”

Mike: Yeah, I think the concept of the album Myth was a little beyond my brain at the time. It was something that I felt more than really understood. And so I was exploring those concepts then. And I haven't stopped basically since then. What are the pillars of our society and why do we believe the things that we believe? And I think at that time I was very sort of upset with organized religion just because it was a bit like an adolescent viewpoint where I was just…I was lied to. But then as I got older, you know, just saying because I was taught that these stories were real and they actually occurred. And that was all I needed to just throw the whole thing out. But then as I read more books and did more thinking it was just like, well okay, let's move past the fact that like you could never prove this stuff because you could just never prove it wrong and you could never prove it, right. But why do people need not only a belief system but why do they need their belief system to be the only belief system? That's what became fascinating to me. And I think what changed in society that brought that to the forefront of my mind was just all the social media reactions to people's differences and how you couldn't have a different viewpoint than the going popular viewpoint and if you did you were just void online. And I really was pretty horrified by that because I think it really feels like we will stop growing. That's like a totalitarian mentality of one viewpoint that is correct. And it was really weird that it was like liberal minded people who were doing that stuff. And so then I'm thinking about like, why is that? Like why people who are like, devoted to peace and inclusion? Why are they acting in such an exclusionary way? And I yeah, I just think I came to the conclusion that it's intrinsic to believing in God. And not when people say I believe in a kind of God like I mean God like the creator of all things. You have to believe that that's the only one and everyone else is wrong or else you don't believe in it. I think that I'm not sure even now why that is so important, but I came to the conclusion that it's just, people are so terrified of the unknown. That there's no room for any crack in the wall for another shade of light to come in to cast doubt upon the thing that has made this wretched life bearable. You know, that they're like I found a way to stomach all the horror of life, the knowledge that I will die, and you know, which is just horrifying to people. And the only way I can get through this life is if I believe all my loved ones who are dying are going to meet me in heaven, and we're going to have a great time forever. You know, I'm amazed that people can convince themselves of something that is true, that there is truly no physical evidence of. And I just think the human mind is so powerful, that it could convince oneself so wholeheartedly that something is true, that they would want to kill someone who believes that it isn't true. I just, we're an amazing animal, you know. But I do think it's weird that we don't question that. And I hope that one day doubt is not just a five letter word in religion. It's not just something to be ironed out. I hope that doubt becomes an intrinsic part of a belief system where it's like, listen, we have no clue if this is true or not we really don't know but we think it's the best theory we are going to have, kind of like science does where they're like, I have no idea if the Big Bang happened or not but this is the best guess we have. That's kind of how it's couched and I think that's lovely. I don't know. This is a bit of a digression, but I just read the book Sapiens and the author says that religion is the only reason human beings were able to become like who they are is because religion is your ability to believe in a collective fiction is actually what makes us human because we're able to control large groups of each other and work together and we'd never be able to do that if we couldn't believe in the same fiction. I really thought that was an amazing idea and it really felt true to me. And I feel like what I'm asking of humanity is to probably destroy itself. Like maybe it's actually just so integral to our being human, you know. But what's so great about being human?

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