An Interview with Bipolar Explorer’s Michael Serafin-Wells

An Interview with Bipolar Explorer’s Michael Serafin-Wells

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Saturday, 16 January 2016
INTERVIEW

This is the first installment of a new series I’m trying to bring to Ground Control Magazine called “Driving with Darko”. Doing interviews with musicians, artists and writers in which we have a conversation together while driving around in my SmartCar, all the while recording the conversation with a Ricoh Theta S (which records in 1080p 360 degree video).

Michael was visiting Northern California for the winter holidays. We both had a couple of hours free, so I drove up to Davis to meet him and suggested we go for a short drive into downtown Sacramento. The transcript of the interview is found below.

 


 

Driving With Darko interview – January 2, 2016. Ground Control Magazine’s Publisher and

Contributing Editor, Daryl Darko Barnett interviews Bipolar Explorer frontman Michael Serafin-
Wells while driving his Smart Car from UC Davis to the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery.

DDB: So, this is my first official recorded podcast. I’m interviewing Michael Serafin-Wells.

MSW: How auspicious.

DDB: How are you, man?

MSW: I’m alright. Happy New Year.

DDB: Thank you. Same to you. What keeps you living where you live?

MSW: Uh.. the rent laws in New York (laughs).

DDB: Yeah? It makes it affordable?

MSW: It makes it affordable. This economy is crazy. In most cities – I think LA’s the only place

you can still maybe live kinda affordably as an artist. I know they’re screwing things up in San

Francisco…

DDB: San Francisco, yeah.

MSW: … in a big way. In London it’s really difficult. And New York’s been like that, too.

They’re trying to get people outta the stabilized and rent-controlled apartments. And, uh, it’s

pretty unscrupulous. The last mayor that we had, Bloomberg, sorta gave rich folks a really sweet

deal…

DDB: Hmm.

MSW: …real estate development-wise with not having to pay property taxes for like 25 years if

they started construction during a certain period of time during his last, his extra administration –

there’s only supposed to be two terms but they changed the law just once for him …

DDB: Huh.

MSW: And, uh, so… it’s a liberal mayor now, so maybe he’ll roll back some of that crap but it’s

been hard. My building’s been bought by some… fuckoes… and they’re trying to get folks out

but they didn’t succeed. Mostly. So, but… yeah. It’s kinda been a struggle. Yeah. That’s one

thing about New York. (beat) Sorry to get so political…

DDB: That’s okay.

MSW: … immediately but that’s kinda… Yeah. I been there for a while.

DDB: See, I’ve been to New York a couple of times.

MSW: Yeah?

DDB: Immediately, in the airport…

MSW: Uh-huh. Which airport?

DDB: Um, I’ve been…

MSW: That makes a difference.

DDB: … in both.

MSW: La Guardia is sorta like really bad news.

DDB: Yeah. So, I’ve never really been in the city. And my whole…

MSW: You gotta come, man.

DDB: I know. Well, I need to go and visit somebody that knows their way around, so… I don’t

wanna get swallowed up in the streets (laughing).

MSW: Yeah.

DDB: My only representation of New York City is, uh, crime dramas.

MSW: Oh, god.

DDB: And so…

MSW: It’s so… antiseptic, now, man. It’s not like Taxi Driver, anymore. It’s like totally…

DDB: Yeah.

MSW: Yeah. It’s very safe. Yeah. No worries about that. But you should totally come to New

York.

DDB: Yeah. A friend of mine went last year. Last year or the year before. It was his first time

there and he said he did nothing but walk…

MSW: Yeah.

DDB: …I dunno, the four days he was there.

MSW: Yeah.

DDB: And he wore a hole in his shoes (laughing).

MSW: It’s a walking city. It’s really awesome. Yeah. That’s a great thing about New York. You

can walk everywhere.

DDB: So, when you guys come out to California, do you like it out here?

MSW: Yeah!

DDB: If you could…

MSW: I love it!

DDB: … afford it out here, would you stay out here instead of where you are or…?

MSW: I, uh, I really like spending time out here. Ya know? And it’s… it’s bittersweet because I

spent a lot of time out here with Summer…

DDB: Yeah.

MSW: … before her tragic death and so particularly when I’m in San Francisco, it’s kind of

heartbreaking. But it’s beautiful. And I was out here – last trip was like a month ago – to meet

this cool girl who may do film projections for the Of Love and Loss project. She’s at the San

Francisco Art Institute, which I didn’t even know about at all.

DDB: Hmm.

MSW: And we met up in North Beach and we hung out and she said do you want to see the

Institute and we walked over there and it’s amazing. It’s totally gorgeous. This…

DDB: Yeah.

MSW: … fantastic facility for these guys that’s available 24/7 and, ya know – inspiration strikes,

they’ve got a cutting room, they’ve got a recording studio. Ya know? Ya just roll outta bed and

walk over there and do your work.

DDB: That’s pretty nice.

MSW: Yeah. So, that was cool. Greer Sinclair, that’s our friend. Shout out to Greer, whose work

we really really love. But, yeah, I hope to spend some more time out here this year. Hopefully,

we’re gonna do some incarnation of Of Love out here. Either in the Bay Area or down in LA. So,

yeah, I love California. I was born in Santa Barbara.

DDB: I didn’t know that.

MSW: Yeah yeah.

DDB: Did you live down there for long?

MSW: I, um, my father was a teacher and so he kinda moved around a lot. We did spend a couple

of summers down there later on in life like when I was a teenager or before that, eleven/twelve.

But I… my parents always spoke longingly and lovingly of California.

DDB: Yeah.

MSW: I love being out here. And it’s very … it was great being with Summer out here and…

yeah.

DDB: Yeah.

MSW: Yeah.

DDB: Santa Barbara is a beautiful beach community.

MSW: Yeah.

DDB: I can imagine growing up there. Were you like a surfer dude or…?

MSW: I wasn’t, man, ‘cause I didn’t…

DDB: No?

MSW: We spent some time in California but a lot of it was elsewhere in the East and the

Midwest. My father was a college professor and mostly I was landlocked.

DDB: Where did you wind up in the Midwest?

MSW: Uh, I… my father went to the University of Michigan for his post-graduate work, so we

were out there briefly and Ohio for a little bit…

DDB: What part of Ohio? That’s what was… I thought you might’ve been in Ohio.

MSW: A little bit. Northwestern Ohio.

DDB: Okay.

MSW: And then, uh, and then I was in DC – before I came to New York – for a few years. And a

lot of the scene there with Discord Records and Ian McKaye and, ya know, all that after Minor

Threat and Fugazi and these bands and great house shows and stuff like that. They’re a big

inspiration to how we like to do things.

DDB: Yeah.

MSW: Which is, ya know, Do It Yourself. But, uh, yeah. I still have a lot of friends in DC.

DDB: So you mentioned your production, your stage production of Of Love and Loss. How

many times have you done that in performance now?

MSW: It’s, uh… it’s a pretty new thing. The backstory of that is Summer and I – my late partner

and sweetheart – were working on the new Bipolar Explorer record in 2010/2011 when she was

in a tragic accident and passed away. And later I came back – when I could – and worked on the

material that we had recorded and then added new songs and it became a very different record

called Of Love and Loss and we released that at the end of 2012. And that’s kinda when you and

I first got to know each other. And I’m also a playwright, so friends and colleagues in the theatre

and also in the indie film world had wondered if there was a way to adapt that song cycle into

something for the theatre. And it interested me to a certain extent but I really wanted to do

something that was different and wasn’t a… like a jukebox musical or wasn’t like a traditional

musical and so…

DDB: Right.

MSW: I had to think of a way to do it. And I met this woman who knew my writing but didn’t

know the band. This woman – Nina Keneally – who’s a producer. She was the co-Artistic

Director of the experimental theatre lab at The American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge and

then she produced a bunch of stuff on Broadway for the last 20 years. And we got to know each

other and she heard the record and she was really really taken by it. So she said, ya know, “I’d

really like to work on that” and she’s kinda an advocate and producer for this. So what I did was

I wrote a script that doesn’t have an enormous amount of dialogue. It’s mostly the songs and just

everything that happens – what you’d see.

DDB: Uh-huh.

MSW: It’s meant to be us playing in a really intimate setting in the kinda way that we’ve done

shows…

DDB: Uh-huh.

MSW: Like house concerts and art galleries – which we really like to play – and after-hour

bookstores and stuff like that. Where the audience is really close. Like almost surrounding us.

And then what we did for this was… we had a narrator. We had a spoken word artist – my friend

Kim Donovan, who does a lot of work for Pixar…

DDB: Uh-huh.

MSW: And who’s out here. I knew her in New York but she’s in Oakland now working for Pixar

for the last bunch of years – and we just had her read all that. Just describe everything that you

would see. So we were set up in a triangle in this… we performed it in this salon series in

Bushwick, in Brooklyn, and had a small audience there. And without any kind of lighting design

– so it was just a kinda “concert performance” of the record itself in its entirety, which is like an

hour ten..

DDB: Uh-huh.

MSW: … and about 2/3rds of the way through, there’s a long text passage. We call “the choral

text passage”…

DDB: Yeah?

MSW: … that is – I mean, she describes things throughout between and under the songs that’s

really meant to be going on simultaneously…

DDB: Right.

MSW: … with the music, but there’s a long text passage about 2/3rds of the way through which

is a piece that I wrote for Summer’s memorial which talks at length about her and it’s

“performed” in a way that… we just mute our guitars and step away from the mikes and the

sound is all in the room – except Kim, who’s sorta the voice of Summer, things that Summer

said…

DDB: Right.

MSW: … that I included in the memorial speech and she’s on mike, she’s the voice of her

through the PA.

DDB: Uh-huh.

MSW: And I think…

DDB: Cool.

MSW: … people were really moved by that. It sorta also led us to the idea that maybe we don’t

need actors for this piece. Maybe entirely what we need… ‘cause the next thing that I really want

is not a theatre director or necessarily to add actors or something like that – is a strong visual

signature. And was the first thing after we did this that I was really… I mean, people really

seemed to… we got really good feedback, a really good audience that night – was to do stuff with

light and narration and possibly projections. And Greer’s work is really interesting because she

uses stuff that’s all vintage public domain footage – I mean, we’ll probably shoot some stuff, too,

that she’ll use – but it’s got this silent movie very atmospheric vibe.

DDB: Oh, neat.

MSW: And the way that we were lit, just cursorily, in this art salon space, which is like this open,

found, former industrial space in this loft in Bushwick, in Brooklyn, with these huge industrial

windows that looked out at the skyline…

DDB: Wow.

MSW: … was really neat, I think. Just this industrial light like shooting up at us was very

evocative, I think. And if you add this sorta more moody element and those kind of visuals,

particularly something like what Greer works with – which I just adore – I think it’ll add a really

cool element to it. That’s kinda our next step with this. We’re trying to do something, ya know,

like instead of… I think it would be very traditional to do, as a next step in the theatre, to like tie

yourself to some theatrical institution or just grab a director and try to get it…

DDB: Right.

MSW: … slogging along in some developmental process – but we really want to do something

different. We really wanna work with a visual artist. That’s the next thing we want to do. And I

think it would be really cool to do this in a place like that. Like the Institute or a gallery

somewhere…

DDB: Yeah.

MSW: … or something like that. So… so, we’re trying to re-invent the wheel in a way, I know,

but ultimately it’s gonna be more of an immersive, emotional, intimate experience for an

audience and for us, too, because it’s just the way we like to do things.

DDB: Yeah.

MSW: Yeah. So, that’s where we are with this right now.

DDB: That’s pretty neat.

MSW: Thanks, man.

DDB: Did you happen to get any video footage of the performance or…?

MSW: You know, uh… the girl who runs the Salon in Bushwick – which is cool because she does

all this different stuff, screenings of independent films, she has music, she’s starting to do theatre

stuff, we were a kinda hybrid of all these things – she had offered to have someone come in and

film a little thing but we thought, ya know, we’re not ready for that. Ya know? So, there’s some

clips on our website that’s just Nina with her iPhone, ya know, just grabbing some stuff.

DDB: Yeah.

MSW: Ya know? Which does give you an idea of what the night was like.

DDB: Sure.

MSW: It’s interesting…

DDB: Yeah.

MSW: But they’re short clips. The longest is about 45 seconds.

DDB: Uh-huh.

MSW: They’re up on our website and our Instagram page, also. You might’ve seen.

DDB: I may have but I didn’t fully register exactly what that was.

MSW: Yeah yeah. There’s some stills and there’s also some little video – grabs from the back of

the house. She was sitting on the stairs and just grabbed them on her phone. But that’s another

thing that we’d really like to do in this next process is – as we go forward with this visual thing –

we’d really like to get some good video of it, so people can get an idea of what it is.

DDB: Yeah.

MSW: Ya know?

DDB: Yeah. (concentrating on driving for a moment) We’re coming into Sacramento.

MSW: Yeah.

DDB: There’s the river over there.

MSW (observing the camera mount): I forgot this thing is 360. It’s…

DDB (re: driving): Exit? I think that’s the location for this… cemetery. It’s on my side usually

driving here from…

MSW: Uh-huh.

DDB: … and I have to go all the way across…

MSW: I…

DDB: It’s right there in the mirror. Yeah, I gotta get across. (beat) So, that’s what you’re

concentrating more on now than writing new music? Are you just looking to… finding more

places to do…?

MSW: I… I think that… Yeah, we got a couple of things we’re coming out with. Some totally

new music things going on that I… that we’re working on right now, at the same time. ‘Cause I

think what’s going on with the live Of Love sorta theatre/art/music collaboration is we’re waiting

for the next step with that. I think like we feel very strongly about where we’re at with it and it’s

like just Greer putting stuff together and seeing where that goes next. Meanwhile, yeah, we’re

working on a couple of things. You know – I’m sure you must’ve come across her in your travels

as a photographer – but do you know Jacs Fishburne at all? Do you know her work from Tumblr

or from…?

DDB: Her name sounds…

MSW: … online?

DDB: ..familiar but I’m not getting any visual.

MSW: She’s an art photographer and model and she was in – I’m not gonna pull the name of the

publication… Volo! Volo Magazine. She made their list last year of the top 100 art

photographers.

DDB: Wow.

MSW: And she’s been modeling and shooting for the last bunch of years and she’s transitioning

completely into photography and writing now and we – not unlike you and I – first started to be in

touch online with our work…

DDB: Hmm…

MSW: … with each other and she was gonna be in New York and she said “I’d really like to

come over to your studio and shoot you” and she took these really excellent photos in our

studio…

DDB: Oh, great!

MSW: … and did these…The studio is kinda…there’s, in addition to all the gear – recording and

practice equipment, all the amplifiers and guitars and everything that’s there – there’s just loads

and loads of pictures of Summer. Everywhere.

DDB: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

MSW: And so she took these really cool shots of me in the studio around stuff and at the window

that overlooks 9th Avenue and then she took shots of Summer and shots of text – Summer’s

writing – and superimposed it over them in this really cool way. Like one onto the other…

DDB: Yeah.

MSW: So, I’m writing these ambient drone pieces that Jason and I are recording, inspired by all

this and we’re gonna call the record, using her artwork, Double Exposures.

DDB: Oh, nice!

MSW: Yeah. And there’s this other work we’re doing. This series of… I’ve been going to this

cool candlelight meditation service in the city at West End Collegiate Church, which is this cool,

progressive church on the Upper West Side, and on Wednesday nights they do this neat

Candlelight Taize service. Taize is this French monastic tradition of these chants…

DDB: Hmm..

MSW: … and then spoken word stuff. Some of it is scripture and some of it’s poetry. The first

time I went, there was this beautiful Sylvia Plath poem that was read.

DDB: Wow.

MSW: And so we’re doing this… we’re recording these chants in our sorta dreampop, slowcore

moody versions of stuff…

DDB: Right.

MSW: And we’re gonna release that as this thing – with spoken word stuff – called Electric

Hymnal.

DDB: Oh, wow.

MSW: So, we’re working on a couple of projects simultaneously with the Of Love thing. And

then, uh… it’s been really cool this year – we’ve got a lot of advocacy from WFMU’s Irene

Trudel, which, I mean, is… I’ve loved her show for 20 years. I’ve listened religiously to her

show and she first started playing us about this time last year. We’ve been on the station now 12

times and 7 times on her show. I think we may be doing a live set later this year. And just…

FMU is my favorite station, has a huge online presence, several of the other DJ’s have picked us

up. It’s been incredibly gratifying…

DDB: That’s fantastic.

MSW: You know when you’re a real fan of somebody’s work and then they kinda become an

advocate of yours? It’s really… it’s just… heady stuff. So, I’m… Summer and I used to listen to

Irene together all the time. So, it’s really kinda amazing to hear ourselves…

DDB: Well…

MSW: … on her program. We’re really, ya know, honored and grateful and it never gets old.

We’re always jumping up and down with excitement…

DDB: Yeah yeah yeah.

MSW: … to hear ourselves on the radio.

DDB: Yeah. That’s a good thing, too, I think, with you guys getting your first radio play,

airplay…

MSW: Yeah.

DDB: … out of your own hometown.

MSW: Yeah yeah yeah.

DDB: To get that foundation established…

MSW: Yeah.

DDB: … there. And then…

MSW: Yeah.

DDB: … really have a reputation to speak about when…

MSW: Yeah.

DDB: … you, um, reach out, ya know, to other stations.

MSW: It’s such a well-respected station – worldwide.

DDB: Oh, yeah.

MSW: Ya know? Everywhere. Because they’re one of the last standing freeform stations.

DDB: Mmm-hmm.

MSW: They don’t take money from any corporate whatever. It’s entirely listener-sponsored. And

it’s just incredibly eclectic. If you turn it on and turn it off and turn it on again, something

completely different is going on.

DDB: Yeah!

MSW: It’s such interesting, original programming.

DDB: Yup. And I’ve definitely heard stuff there that I’ve never heard anyplace else.

MSW: Yeah.

DDB: And I’m like, who are these people?!

MSW: Yeah.

DDB: Where are they finding this stuff?! And who is creating it?

MSW: Yeah. And they archive everything, so you can go back and listen to…

DDB: Yeah.

MSW: … like any program, anytime.

DDB: Mmm-hmm.

MSW: It’s a really fantastic station. I can’t say enough about them. (beat, turning to camera,

smiling) We love WFMU.

DDB (laughing): Well, good. Let me think, what else was I gonna ask you about? Um… I know

one thing we talked about earlier this week was, um…my year-end list of my top… favorite

music and…

MSW: Yeah.

DDB: … you guys were gonna make a cut…

MSW: Yeah. We were so incredibly grateful and gratified to be included a couple of years ago

with Of Love. That was fantastic. We were very excited.

DDB: Well, I can let you know – this is not official because I don’t think it’s been published yet.

It could be. As we’re speaking, it could be up. I haven’t checked in the past hour and a half …

MSW: Uh-huh.

DDB: … since I left home.

MSW: Things move fast online.

DDB: But, yeah, you guys made my list.

MSW: Holy cow! Congrats! We’re so happy. Thank you! (laughing)

DDB: Yeah, yeah. Kinda close to the top, too.

MSW: Oh, sweet. Oh, man. Thanks.

DDB: Kinda like on top. (laughing)

MSW: Alright!

DDB: Because, ya know, I went back through everything I listened to this year and, um… and I

kept thinking what stuck with me. Ya know? What…

MSW: Yeah.

DDB: … out of all the things I’ve heard just… that I hear the most or just stuck in my head. And

this album. And the single. Angels. Is just…

MSW: Oh, man.

DDB: I think my favorite song, I think maybe for a long time.

MSW: Wow. Thank you so much.

DDB: Yeah. Yeah.

MSW: Thank you. (beat) That was really… ya know, that was an important moment for us, ya

know? Writing that song and playing it for Jason – when he came into practice – for the first time.

DDB: Mmm-hmm.

MSW: We really felt like we had something, we thought. And it… He… I don’t have it on me.

But there was… Jason was a… Jason was tending bar.

DDB: Hmm.

MSW: And, uh, after we played the tune the first time, he was like “oh, yeah!” and into it. After

practice he went to work and was, ya know, just getting set up or whatever and… cleaned the

bar, nobody’d come in yet, and he turned around and there was this little prayer card…

DDB (laughing)

MSW: … sitting there with a guardian angel on it…

DDB: Mmm-hmm.

MSW: … he turned it around and it had this protection prayer and all this… these notes on it.

And he gave it to me at our next practice. And he said “I don’t know where the hell this came

from…” he said. “I just came in. There was nothing on the bar. And then I looked and…”

DDB: Woah.

MSW: Yeah. “I was just getting everything set up and I turned around and there it was.”

DDB: Yup. Yeah.

MSW: “We’d just played the song.” So, it was like, ya know, weird, cool things happen.

DDB: Yeah.

MSW: It seemed very auspicious. (beat) Well, thanks. I’m very pleased you like the song. And

I’m very pleased you like the record. Thank you so much.

DDB: Sure. You’re welcome. (beat) Thank you for making it all.

MSW: Hell, yeah.

DDB: Speaking of angels…

MSW: Yeah.

DDB: Here we are…

MSW: Here we are.

DDB: … surrounded in their little playground.

MSW: Yeah. I’ve never been here.

DDB: Yeah, this is a really, really amazing cemetery. There’s… I get a lot of… energetic hits

here when I’m walking through. I…

MSW: I’ve seen some of your photography, but I’ve never been here myself.

DDB: Yeah. Well, why don’t we wrap this up, now…

MSW: Cool.

DDB: … with the interview and we can go out and walk around.

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