Analogue Music | Geographer


By Matt Conner

There's a box of failed ideas somewhere in Mike Deni's house.

I could be wrong. It could be files on a floppy disk or thumb drive. Maybe he's discarded all of the evidence. But the man known musically as Geographer is honest enough to admit his earliest drives to write all fell flat. Unfinished novels and a completed novella are somewhere to be found yet never to be read—at least if you want to stick to the good stuff.

Fortunately, Deni's literature experiment gave way to his primary passion of songwriting, one that stretches back to adolescence. It's here, set to striking synth melodies, that his writing grabs hold. With beautiful, sometimes haunting, albums like Ghost Modern or Myth, Geographer's catalog is proof of Deni's incredible gift, even if it took him some time to find the right avenue. 

We recently sat down with Deni to discuss his journey from English Lit major to headlining artist and how he ended up with 120 songs from which to choose for his latest release, Alone Time. 

Analogue: This year will be 10 years since you released your debut. Have you reflected much on that timeline at all lately?

Mike: I think I'm a completely different person now with completely different expectations—namely, realistic ones. [Laughs] That's the biggest change for me. It's seeing what a life in music actually means versus what I thought it was. Now we're talking when I was a kid, but I thought you recorded an album over the course of a year or maybe two, where you spend almost the whole time in the studio. Then you tour on your album and do it over and over again. I didn't realize all the stuff you have to do. 

The music industry has also changed. The rules are different. The game is different. The goals are different. The successes are measured completely differently. When I first started, I think a Platinum album meant double what it does now. When I first stated, I'd be psyched if someone saw my album on Bit Torrent and now that doesn't exist anymore. Now it's, "I saw you on a hipster, indie playlist on Spotify," and I'm like, "Great!" But when I first started, what was Spotify?

I can only imagine how someone who's been in the game for a long time feels. But it's fun to adapt, once you realize that you're going to have to continue to adapt constantly. 

Analogue: Looking back to when you first started, was there an identifiable moment when you decided to give all of this a go—not just to make music because it's fun but to pursue it as a career?

Mike: My arc of wanting to be a musician started when I was a kid. I thought, "I'm going to be a musician because I have this pretty voice that everybody seems to like. I'm  the best saxophonist in school. I suck at sports and nobody likes me. So I guess that's what I'll do." That's where I derived my own conception of my self-worth and, of course, I loved it. 

Credit: Jack Gorlin
Credit: Jack Gorlin

My family was very academically oriented. I never felt any pressure from them. It was just implied, much in the same way that some people knew they'd have to become a doctor because their parents moved here with $5 in their pocket. I don't know if that's a good analogy because I didn't do it, but I tried. I went to college and I was always into studying since, like I said, nobody liked me. I wanted to be a novelist, so I studied English Literature and Creative Writing. I thought I'd sit at home all day long writing.

I actually quit music entirely when I went to college. I'd started writing songs around the age of 13 in my basement on my 4-track just layering stuff—sort of the same way I do now except it was terrible. I stopped even listening to music. I would listen to books on tape instead. I was utterly focused on becoming a great novelist, but all of my teachers told me, "No one can teach you how to write." I was like, "Well, what's your job?" [Laughs]

I think I wrote three or four failed novels and one completed novella and they were all bad. I had to take stock of my life and I noticed that I was just bad at writing. It was fine. I knew I could get okay at it if I worked really hard, but I would never be great. But what am I good at? I'm good at music. So I wondered why not do that instead. Maybe a month before I graduated college, I saw the path before me. From that point forward, it was all about pursuing my musical career.

Analogue: You're working on Alone Time now. Does this release feel like the others?

Mike: No way! When I released my first album, I could barely handle the feeling of excitement. It was like a child seeing cotton candy for the first time after hearing it described for years. I was in a studio! These were my gods. People who go into studios to make music ignites my soul, so then I did that. Then I put it on a CD. I went to FedEx to make that thing. I printed it out and cut it with scissors and put it in 500 jewel cases and sold that at my shows. It was a huge triumph. 

I'd always harbored the suspicion that what I'd made was worthy, but after toiling in obscurity, you don't count on that.

Then the fact that people cared and liked it... I'd always harbored the suspicion that what I'd made was worthy, but after toiling in obscurity, you don't count on that. I mean, your parents tell you that you're talented and your girlfriend says it, but does that apply to the world? When it started happening was an incredible feeling.

I do still get very excited about the songs. Each little song is an achievement for me. Basically I make the thing, pat myself on the back saying, "You did it buddy." Then I move on. I'm like, "We're going to put this out. If people like it, then we're going to play it a lot live. If they don't like it, I'm proud of it and now I'm going to work on the next journey." I think I used to really hold on a lot more. Once you've done it for so long and you've tasted the bitter taste of defeat enough, it's hard to have that childish joy. 

Analogue: Do you have to protect part of that instinct or joy in order to keep going?

Mike: You cannot hang your sense of self on other people's reactions to what you're doing. You never started doing it for other people's reactions. You did it because of your own feeling in the middle of euphoric creation. It's very cathartic. But that's hard. Once you achieve success, it's like, "Okay, I'm allowed to do this for a living now." You quit your job. Then it becomes, "How do I hold on to this?" Rather than letting go and thinking, "I've always done this for myself. Whatever happens with it is going to happen." It's very difficult to hold onto that feeling.

Analogue: For your new EP, I read where you wrote 120 songs and distilled them down to five. Is that typical for you, that volume of material?

Mike: Not usually, definitely not with the first couple albums. With Animal Shapes, every single song I wrote in the time period. The way I used to write is that I'd write the song and I'd say, "Well, this is one of the songs." So if it wasn't working, I had to make it work. It made things move very slowly and created pretty bizarre songs, really, for better or worse. Sometimes a song would be triumphantly bizarre, like "The Boulder."  Others could get too bizarre. "Keep," from Ghost Modern, is a song that I wish I'd spent another month or two on because I think there's something really beautiful there. I just couldn't quite quite achieve it. 

But now, when that happens, I write a song and then I finish the song. I have a goal in my mind of the kind of songs I want to write, but now I just let myself write whatever songs are there in the moment. I never try to force it. I always start out trying to write something particular, but I almost always end up turning away from that line of thinking. That's when the great stuff happens.