Have you ever wondered what vintage synthpop would sound like filtered through the mind of everyone's favorite awkwardly charming funnyman, Michael Cera? Of course not, and the Arrested Development star probably wouldn't want you to. While he hasn't kept his musical talent secret—playing a bass-wielding hero in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, covering the Moldy Peaches in Juno, and even shredding mandolin for Weezer's 2010 album Hurley—he's never made a big deal of it. When he did release a solo album, 2014's True That, it was an excellent but humble affair: a lo-fi set of bedroom folk, jangly psych-pop, and pretty piano instrumentals quietly released via Bandcamp.
Today, Cera makes his return to song with "Best I Can," which finds him lording over what sounds like a small arsenal of synthesizers as guest Sharon Van Etten murmurs sweet things about love. Cera wrote the '80s-inspired track as part of his score for the Sundance-dominating documentary Dina, a real-life rom-com about a couple living in Suburban Philadelphia who grew up neurologically diverse. From an AirBnB in California adjacent to an undisclosed set—far from his Red Hook home and the rehearsal space that houses the older-than-him drum machine he bought to make this jam—Cera called us to discuss the score and his other low-key musical endeavors.
Noisey: This song is a pretty big departure from your previous stuff. It's full of synthesizers.
Michael Cera: There's a lot, yeah. I had been working on music for Dina and they had this montage with "Only You" by Yaz. They didn't know if they'd be able to clear it [for use in the film] so I said "Why don't you let me take a shot at making an original pop song for that moment just in case?" They ended up clearing and keeping the song—they fell in love with how it works in that moment—but since I made this song, they were like, why don't we put "Best I Can" out and it'll have it's own life?
So was the Yaz song an inspiration on "Best I Can"?
It was the first inspiration in that I was trying to ape that era. I was using analog equipment, so I was trying to get that feel, though I didn't come anywhere near getting the drum machine sound of "Only You," which is such a big part of that song's identity. But that was my first time working with drum machine sequencing, so I was learning as I went. I liked how ambitious it felt to take that on, to try and write a really poppy song. I never would have done that of my own accord.
Did you already have the analog stuff lying around?
I bought the drum machine, a Roland TR-707. But I've had this old Roland Jupiter 4 synthesizer for years. It's one of my most beloved items. And that's what's all over the song. It was endless tinkering, trying to get different kinds of sounds out of it, but it was all the same synthesizer. This song totally stands apart from the rest. The rest of it is very simple. It's not overbearing, it's not as musically ambitious or poppy, it's mostly guitar and piano—really just kind of furniture.
How did Sharon come into it?
Sharon and I share a rehearsal and recording space together—a very small little room. We've been partners in splitting the rent for a couple years and that's where we recorded this song. I knew I wanted a lead female vocal, because of the Yaz song and also the lead of this movie is a woman and it felt right to have a feminine narrator. Sharon was the first person I thought of. She is an amazing singer—she kindly agreed, came in and did it in no time. It probably took an hour.
So what drew you into this project in the first place?
It's a beautiful documentary, a very intimate portrayal of this couple leading up to their marriage. And it's very dry. I've known [directors] Dan [Sickles] and Antonio [Santini] for a while. I went to a friends' screening of the movie for feedback early on and they didn't have any music at the time. I asked them if they would consider letting me make some—I just had a feel for what would suit it. If I totally failed, they could just move on, find someone else. I just wanted to try, take a swing.
I feel like I couldn't imagine better documentary for you to soundtrack. It's funny, sincere, open, a little awkward, but also very sweet. It's sort of your sensibility, right? Is that fair?
To me the movie is more than that. It is all those things but when you watch it, you connect to it in a different way. It's really human and amazingly intimate. You almost can't believe how inside of this relationship you are. Also, I fell in love with the two stars of the movie, Dina and Scott.
Are you working on a lot of music these days—why rent a rehearsal space?
To have a place to make noise. You can't really do that in a New York apartment without pissing someone off. I sometimes will go in there at three in the morning and just play drums a while, for the therapy of it. It's really fun, just listen to music and play along, and try and get better. I make a Spotify playlist of songs where I like the drums. A lot of it's soul. Or the Kinks. I really love Mick Avory's style. I think he's an underrated drummer. Or stuff like Television, where it's not overly technical. Feeling confident on the drums is an end in and of itself. I love playing with friends, and to be confident enough to sit in on the drums in that situation… that's good enough for me.
True That got some comparisons to Elliott Smith, and even Paul and Linda McCartney's Ram. This was an intimate set of songs. How did it feel to see that kind of reception?
It's very humbling because I don't see those comparisons. McCartney and that album are big big inspirations for me. But I know what my music is—it's stuff I recorded with a laptop microphone and there's no… sonic quality to it. That's really the truth of it. I don't mean that in a diminishing way but it can't be compared to what to me is the height of what music can be. But it was nice that people would hear True That and listen to it as music. That's why I wouldn't want to put out an album in a ceremonious way—it goes into the category of actor-who-makes-music, which is just so embarrassing. I wouldn't listen to an album because some actor put it out. I was hoping to have people find it, have the music speak for itself and if it has value, have that be the thing.
So you don't see yourself doing a big, proper studio thing?
The way I record is very private and really in service of my own abilities and lack thereof. I'll sit there and just keep recording a guitar part, hitting the spacebar and going back over and over until it accidentally sounds good. I couldn't work with time constraints, a professional producer or an engineer. Also the fun for me is the recording and mixing, that feeling of building a sound. I love experimenting with that stuff even if it doesn't turn into anything. So I'm trying to branch out but in the most humble way possible, exploring better equipment and seeing what that gets me.
You toured True That in a band co-fronted by Alden Penner from Unicorns. You've been on the road before but it's got to be a little different doing your own stuff. Did you like it?
I did. I would have loved to do it for longer. We'd never played together as a band before, and after two weeks it kind of clicked in, then we stopped. There were a few songs that came out of that that I would really like to record. The only thing that's a little frustrating is how little time you spend playing music. A hour-long performance feels like a minute—suddenly it's over. I find that a little jarring and hard on the system. It turns you into this weird addict where it's never enough.
You said you like playing music with friends. Is there anyone you jam with regularly?
My friend Bene Coopersmith runs the only record store in Red Hook—I don't think it even has a name—and he has a weekly jam with local people that's the weirdest motley crew. I love doing that. Also the people who used to live below me, we discovered we're both great lovers of the Kinks so we get together and sing their songs—my neighbor, his brother, his wife, me, and my girlfriend. There'll be a couple acoustic guitars or a piano, or a tambourine. It's one of the most therapeutic things in the world, especially the harmonizing. Singing with other people is so nice.
Are we likely to hear more "you" music any time soon?
I don't know. I would like to mount enough songs that I like and then put them out, but I wouldn't say that's on the immediate horizon. It's just a question of if I have enough stuff. My relationship with it is very much a friendship and a hobby and an outlet for myself. There's no pressure on it.
Tasteless closing question: your Arrested Development namesake passed. Have you ever—even once—consider a "George Michael does George Michael" covers album?
Ummm… no no [ laughs]. I think that would not work out. But he was definitely a giant.
Chris Martins is a writer based in Los Angeles. You can find him on Twitter.