What's It Like to Make Music in Complete Isolation, in a Cabin in the Woods?

We spoke to Michael Franzino about making an album in a place where the only other noise is a wild bear eating your trash at 4am.

af Emma Garland
21 juli 2015, 6:52pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

Photo by Daniel Dare.

Being alone can be crap. You’re prone to dwelling on your darkest thoughts, there’s nobody around to take the piss out of apart from yourself, and at least half of the gratification you get out of things comes from sharing them with other people. You may be able to fart with wild abandon, but if a person breaks wind and nobody is around to hear it, is it still funny?

Then again, other people are a constant source of disappointment and, artistically speaking, a lot of great material has come from periods of seclusion. Justin Vernon wrote Bon Iver’s breakthrough album For Emma, Forever in his dad’s hunting cabin in the woods of Wisconsin during the coldest season, experimental punks The Men took off to upstate New York (also in a cabin) to write their fourth record New Moon (a process which also spawned an accompanying EP, aptly named Campfire Songs), and Radiohead recorded most of OK Computer in a 16th-century Tudor Mansion owned by actress Jane Seymour—which she rented out to the band in exchange for them feeding her cat in her absence. But if you’re looking for a co-sign on creative isolation then just look at Gucci Mane: a man who has dropped more mixtapes in prison than he has out. The theory being that great art comes from great struggle, and seclusion breeds a certain depth of thought that can only come from having as few distractions as possible. And - given that humanity is only a few hundred years away from evolving to have iPhones for hands - the modern world can present many, many distractions.

One of the more recent individuals to test the creative isolation theory is Michael Franzino, guitarist for the post-hardcore outfit A Lot Like Birds. He recently shut himself up in a cabin somewhere in the Sierra Mountain Range, California, to write his first solo album as “alone.”, and alone he very much was. After crowdfunding over $13,000, Franzino spent two months in a remote cabin with only wild bears for company, no internet, and the nearest town with phone signal was forty minutes away.

Having played with A Lot Like Birds since he was 17 years old, Franzino hadn’t done much singing or songwriting for a long time and used the time alone to explore the softer side of music - intentionally going in without a single note, concept, or lyric in mind and letting the experience do the shaping. He actually left for the Sierras immediately after finishing Warped Tour, which is probably one of the most intense lifestyle contrasts conceivable. But two months is a long time to be left with just your thoughts. One of the tracks is titled “1 (800) 273 8255”—the phone number belonging to America’s National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and “Maternity Leave (Funeral March 28th)” is written to Franzino’s mother, who overdosed when he was 18. In the end, he almost didn’t release the album because it was so personal.

When he returned, he recorded everything he had written in a studio with Dryw Owens, and the album that resulted was Somewhere in the Sierras—an intense and almost gothic combination of Circa Survive, Deafheaven, and Sigur Ros that is essentially a better performed version of everything he wrote in the woods. Some parts are so weighty they could be at home on the score for True Detective season two; harmonizing between grief and catharsis.

We caught up with Michael to talk about the album, the Sierras, and going from a lifestyle of “guttural screams and bass drops for 10 hours a day” to having to drive forty minutes to call to his family and let them know he was still alive.

Photo by Daniel Dare.

Noisey: Hi Michael, how are you doing today?
Great! I laid down the beginnings of the first demo for the next record with my main band A Lot Like Birds last night and I’m still buzzing off how it came out.

So, for your first solo venture you packed off to a cabin in the woods - intentionally isolating yourself to make your debut album. Why?
I think it's no secret that distraction and comfort are the enemies of meaningful art. Since the dawn of the smartphone, we’re basically the first generation to have a
choice to not have to feel loneliness or feelings in general. People don’t want to be unhappy and by default gravitate to anything that dulls the pains of existence, and now more than ever there is nothing stopping them from doing so. I definitely can't say I'm the first to romanticize the idea of removing oneself from society for a period, but like those before me I'd hoped doing so might award the genuine opportunity for clarity and self reflection. I kind of viewed the project like method acting.

How did you find going straight from playing Warped Tour with A Lot Like Birds to living in a cabin by yourself?
It truly made for the most intense contrast conceivable. Warped is basically a giant traveling circus of hundreds of fellow musicians and industry people who want to party every single night. It was a very fun experience (it's also
a lot of work) but I don't think I spent more than an hour by myself all summer and the insanity was a bit too much at times. To have it all come to a screeching halt upon settling down in the mountains was very jarring. The first two weeks weighed very heavy on me in adjusting, but getting to sit down and make something I thought was pretty after hearing guttural screams and bass drops for 10 hours a day was a nice change of pace.

Photo courtesy of Michael.

What did you see when you looked out of the windows? Paint me a picture of cabin life.
What one might expect from the mountains, really. A long dirt road, lots of pine trees, brush, some wild flowers, an obnoxious jay bird that woke me up every single morning. A short bike ride away was the Feather River where I'd fish and get eaten by mosquitos on my breaks from writing. A short drive away was a secluded lake called Long Lake that I swam across often. The nearest town was 40 minutes away.

It seems like such a “horror movie” scenario, by night. Did anything scary ever happen?
There were a fair few very late nights spent writing —like, 4AM late—and one night I heard some very loud rustling outside my front door
through my loud headphones. I figured it was some kind of large animal so I spent the next 20 minutes stamping my feet and yelling like an idiot trying to scare it off and abstained from cigarette breaks. The next day I looked outside my door and saw rifled through trash and bear shit! I was much more careful about trash after that.

Photo courtesy of Michael.

I imagine, living in the times we do, you'd have to change your routine quite a bit to live somewhere remote for any length of time. What was an average day like for you?
It's funny, I fully intended to listen to music often and try to listen critically and draw from it like I usually do, but this thing happened once I was in it where I was afraid to listen to the more melancholy music or movies I am typically drawn to because I was so afraid of getting too low out there where I didn't have anyone to talk to. I ended up mostly only listening to music in the morning as I cooked food—primarily major key dancey stuff to keep my mood light and positive (Kimbra, Bombay Bicycle Club, Active Child). So on writing days I'd wake up and do that, read a book outside for an hour or so, then get down to writing, which usually lasted for 8-10 hours every other day. I did go in town to let my family and loved ones know I was still alive/get supplies twice though.

Did the experience have much of an effect on shaping the record or did you have an idea of what you wanted to do before you went up there?
I have no idea what this album would have been without the cabin, but I am quite certain it would have been much different and likely lesser. I intentionally went in to the experience without a single note, concept, or lyric in mind because I really wanted to be influenced by the experience. I was extremely anxious about the entire thing. Having fans blindly pledge 13K on good faith that what I would compose would be good, putting myself in such an extreme situation with so many possible variables with my mental and possibly even physical health (I had no idea where the nearest hospital was), knowing I had to write every single instrument and somehow accomplish everything that goes into a DIY release, it all made everything feel very monumental when I sat down to write. It was a hell of a lot pressure, but it drove me. Knowing that you're not allowed to fail makes accomplishing a goal simpler.

Photo courtesy of Michael.

Do you think the experience has changed you at all?
I can very safely say it has. I am very much an extrovert, and learning how to be okay with myself without social interaction is a valuable skill I am very grateful to have learned. The do or die nature of the project proved to myself that when the stakes are at their highest I can still pull through. Turning my demons into songs for the first time has helped lessen their control over me. The productive habits I established when I had no distractions has helped me stay motivated now that I have them again. Knowing for certain that I have the independence and capability to envision every single piece of a record has made me a more confident and fearless musician. I feel like artists create because we are all searching for something, trying to improve ourselves, trying to improve things for others, in this respect this album was absolutely a success. The cabin was about as good of an opportunity for catharsis as I could hope for.

Thanks Michael!

Somewhere In The Sierras is available digitally and physically now.

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