Analogue Music | Practice


By Matt Conner

It all begins on a sailboat somewhere between Mexico and Hawaii.

Several years ago, Michael Tapper decided to help his brother on a sailing journey to retrieve a boat, a 28-day journey that required extensive periods of isolation as each man was tasked with looking out over endless waters for long shifts in order to avoid potential problems. That amount of forced reflection served as the breeding grounds for a new creative outlet to emerge. Now on the verge of releasing his first solo album under the moniker Practice, Tapper is finally ready to show a newer side to his musical personality.

While Tapper brings a wealth of experience to his new project, he was always able to rely on others to help shoulder the load as the drummer for bands like We Are Scientists, Bishop Allen, Fool's Gold, and Yellow Ostrich. Practice, however, is all Tapper, the outcome of charting his own course from one musical island to the next unknown territory.

In the days leading up to the release of his debut, Not A Game, we sat down with Tapper to hear more about the stint on a sailboat, why it took so long for a new sound to emerge, and what he's learned in the creative process driving it all.

Analogue: I read this whole journey from being a drummer in several bands I’ve liked to your own work as Practice started with a long sailboat journey several years ago. Can you take me back there? And why did it take so long between then and now?

Michael Tapper: My brother and his partner were in Central and South America mostly, just cruising and sailing. They wanted to go to Hawaii to continue their journey but his partner was going through some physical problems that made a long ocean journey too uncomfortable. He asked me if I would go with them to help get the boat from Mexico, which is where they were living, to Hawaii. I’d done some sailing but nothing like him.

So I said yes. It felt like a fun adventure. I was basically his helper, but someone had to be awake at all times on this trip through the night and everything, just because you never know what can happen out there. Something can go wrong or a big ship can happen to come and mow you down in the night and they won’t even know they did it. You’re just a small sailboat that doesn’t even register as a blip.

It turned out to be a lot of alone time. There were just two of us taking turns on watch, so while the other person was sleeping, which was at least 8 hours per day, we were alone reading or listening to music or watching the ocean.

For five or ten years before that, I’d been playing drums in bands, making records, and touring. That was what I was doing and I’d kind of been feeling dissatisfied with that without really realizing it until I was out there thinking in that quiet space. It wasn’t necessarily an epiphany, but having those 28 days, I was cut off from everything else in the world thinking about what I wanted to do.

When I came back, I’d been working on a record with a band and we put that record out. I even spent the next year touring. But at the end of that, we disbanded and I started working on thinking about a solo project. It was several years after that figuring out what I wanted it to do. It’s not as if I was out there and had a clear vision of what I wanted. But that was the sort of trip that allowed me to think long and hard about the path I was on and if I wanted to stay on it.

It also wasn’t just about music. I’d studied engineering in college, so I wondered if I wanted to go into electronics or programming. Coming back I was like, ‘Well, I’ll start exploring some new musical directions on my own.’

It was a long process because I decided I wanted to do something I hadn’t done before. The things I was good at—playing drums in indie rock bands—I thought, ‘I’m gonna not do that.’ I started getting into synthesizers. I had no idea what it was about but I was intrigued. I started exploring the history of synthesizer music and getting into things I didn’t know just to challenge myself. I was dissatisfied without a path out of it so it made sense to do something different.

Analogue: You said before the boat trip that you’d thought of making different music. What did you think it was back then?

Michael: [Pause] You know, it wasn’t that I wanted to do something different before that. I think in hindsight, once I started thinking about it, I realized that I’d been dissatisfied and not feeling really happy with where the things I was working on were leading. At the same time, I had this attitude of, “Well, this is what I’m doing so I’ll be fully committed to this and I’ll see it through as far as it goes.” There was no point half-assing anything. I was in a band, so I was going to do that 100 percent and then analyze it later.

Not A Game
Not A Game

Analogue: How does your history as a drummer inform this new writing process?

Michael: Through this whole process, songwriting in and of itself was also part of the learning process. I’d never really written songs from scratch. I was always collaborating and participating with bandmates in the songwriting process.

What I was doing in this group of songs was just trying something different every time. Sometimes I’d start with the drum part or different rhythms, but probably not usually. That was the rare case. Sometimes I’d start with a melody or a chord progression or one hook and build something off of that. I think I purposefully avoided doing what I’d done before. I tried not to write the same song over and over and those constraints helped in different ways.

Analogue: So the music you began to make as Practice… how long until that began to actualize?

Michael: The songwriting was happening right away but I didn’t have a vision for what I wanted the project to be about for at least a year or two. What I ended up settling on as the idea for it was basically to have a band but the band members were synthesizers and drum machines.

I got together a very specific group of synthesizers and a drum machine and was like, ‘Okay, this one is the bass synth and it will play bass lines. This one is the lead synth, this monophonic synth, so that will do lead lines and arpeggios and things like that. Then this polyphonic one will have synth pads and textures.’ I thought of each one as a member that would play a part as if I’d put a band together and wrote the songs and arranged them with that in mind.

Coming out of band world, that gave me a framework for writing this music and envisioning what I wanted to do. Before that, I’d experimented with different things but I didn’t want to be a singing drummer. I didn’t want to play guitar. I tried different things, but it was at least a year or two before I settled on what it would be. Then that really helped with being able to write the songs and get it all together. I work well within constraints.

Analogue: I would think there’d be a lot of pride on the other side of something like this—not that you’re prideful. But to stare down something you didn’t know how to do and come through the other side like this is a real accomplishment.

Michael: I don’t know if I would say it’s pride, but it does feel satisfying. Also, I’m finally out of purgatory and can feel free to move on. [Laughs] Being the first project of this idea and the whole discovery phase, it took a long time to get it together and finally get it out. So it feels like a bit of a weight lifted off and freedom to move forward, which feels good.

VISIT: Practice

Photo: Guy Eppel