Q&A with Topher Mohr
Mohr Mohr Mohr: A conversation with the Ann Harbor-raised white boy who doesn’t mind getting down and funky
It didn’t take long for the Bottletree Café’ to fill up. Fans within a 100-mile radius of the small, intimate music venue were more than eager to see the Buddy Holly-looking, blue-eyed soul steward in action. When Mayer Hawthorne brought his road show to Birmingham, Alabama on October 23 in 2011, he was working up his A Strange Arrangement LP and wowing fans with his backing band The County. The usual set list was present, including “Maybe So, Maybe No,” “Make Her Mind” and his Motown-inspired “Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’.” He pulls out the perfect retro tunes to create an audience sing-a-long (the Doobies’s “What a Fool Believes”). And as a bonus, Hawthorne pulls a freshly-baked composition out of his sleeve. He then introduces the song’s composer: Topher Mohr, the pale-skinned, shy-looking guitarist to his right hiding in the background. I swear I thought he called the new song Rufus, a sort of tribute to the ‘70’s funk band that featured Chaka Khan. Thanks to the hearty bass and the occasional space-age synth bleeps, the funk inside the track sounded like something that came out of “Do You Love What You Feel.” Instead the song’s name was titled “Ruthless.” I discovered my faux paus when I took Hawthorne’s on-stage advice to download the free MP3 from Mohr himself.
Mohr remembers that night very well. He recalls it being one of the highlights on the Mazda2-sponsored 32-date tour. “I love the Bottletree,” he says. “That was a cool club. That’s the only time I’ve been there. I can never forget it because it had one of the most interesting backstage areas I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if you’ve been back there, but they have like some old Airstring trailers and a bunch of video games and old records. It was cool.”
The guitarist with an exceptional songwriter’s bug has jumped off of Mayer Hawthorne’s Soul Patrol and is manning his own battleship. Phlotilla, his first solo album, doesn’t even flow with the same motions of his high school friend, Mayer. Instead, the eleven-track disc relies more on funky Chic guitar riffs, Eighties bad-ass synths, smart storytelling and a broader palette of styles ranging from reggae to rock, from Steely Dan to Prince. The songs are also unusually short, as if he deliberately decided to cut them at the safe-for-radio, three-minute mark. He explains that was purposed. “I did that for a couple of reasons,” he says. “I think a lot of times people can enjoy a song when you leave them a place to fill in their own experiences and their own imagination.” He’s also quite familiar with the days of yore when 12-inch albums squeezed five to six tracks unto one side and each of them were exceptional. “I miss a record that you actually enjoy listening all the way through. I feel a lot of the records now are so long that some of the tracks you’re never gonna listen to the whole album. I miss the old days when you bought a record like an old Steely Dan record, when the whole album is a half-hour long and you always listen to it from front to back.”
I bragged to Mohr about the album sounding so good that it deserved a vinyl pressing. In our one-on-one interview, we talked about those possibilities, along with his present relationship with Mayer, his wild world of musical influences and what he seriously thinks about being categorized as “blue-eyed soul.” His response just might surprise you.
Well, I am from Michigan originally. I moved to New York in my twenties and spent a lot of time in New York as a session guitar player/singer-songwriter/producer, playing in other people’s bands, trying to get my own solo projects going. Then I moved out to Los Angeles about five years ago initially to pursue a solo…I worked on a solo record and I was working on a solo career. Then I got hired to back up Brooklyn Zoo of the Wu Tang Klan and then Mayer Hawthorne asked me to help him up his band together after that. And years kinda got away from me and now I’m finally working back on my solo project.
Like Mayer Hawthorne, you also hail from Motown. Who were some of your musical inspirations growing up?
I’m from Ann Harbor, Michigan. Mayer and I went to high school together. I’ve known him for years. We grew up on the same scene. I think we always had the same influences. I sorta started playing the guitar in high school and initially it was Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and those guitar heroes. Then I got into the Red Hot Chili Peppers; they were really big then. And that introduced me to funk. The [Red Hot] Chili Peppers kinda had their own brand of funk but I went backwards from there. I was just bitten by the funk bug and I got into George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic and Sly & the Family Stone and all the classic funk records of the Seventies. And then that took me into the classic soul and R&B stuff…and that’s been kinda my favorite music ever since. You know, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, P-Funk, Prince of course.
I heard you’re in California now. You like it out there?
There’s pros and cons. There were some things that I didn’t quite like about it. L.A. is laid-back. A lot of my Michigan friends moved to California when I moved to L.A., so I kinda had Mayer Hawthorne and his whole camp moved out here from Michigan. When I came out here later, there was already a circle of people I knew and some of my New York friends moved out here ahead of me, so that made the transition easier. I love New York; New York will always have a special place in my heart. I might move back there at some point. New York was the first big city I moved to in my early-’20’s and there’s some magic to that. I had absolutely devoured the city when I moved to New York.
Can you tell me what your favorite record is, and why?
Oh man, that’s impossible. Aja and Royal Scam are both in the line for favorite records. Elvis Costello’s My Aim is True is up there. Thriller might be the one; it’s hard to beat. I remember going to Sears in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I was young, like ’84 and ’85. My sister and I wore that record out. That record really influenced me a lot. I didn’t realize how much it influenced me til’ later in life. I didn’t realize how much I was still drawing from it. All of Stevie Wonder’s Seventies records – Songs in the Key of Life, Music Of My Mind, Innervisions – they are all up there. It’s hard to pick up a favorite. It depends on the day and my mood.
Did you ever feel there high levels of pressure or high expectations in making this one, since this is your first disc?
I would say only the pressure that I put on myself. I haven’t had that much outside pressure. I’ve had nothing but support from Mayer and other fans and other band that I’ve played with. I think all the pressure I feel is on myself because, you know, when you’re playing in someone else’s band, you got a paycheck coming in and it doesn’t really matter. But with this, it’s do or die. I don’t really have a back-up plan now. I stopped doing other things just to focus on this 100 percent and basically have to work for my livelihood and for my sanity as well. I put a lot of my emotional eggs in this basket too so I really want to see it work.
About “Ruthless,” that was one of the tracks that kinda leaked out and it was part of your EP you released a couple of years ago. I think all the songs from that EP is actually on this disc, and you pretty much revived them. Kinda gave them an upbeat, updated kind of a feel to it. Did you feel it was necessary to dust it off and update it?
[For] the EP I did while I was touring with Mayer Hawthorne, I didn’t have a lot of time to fully produce the songs. You know, I was kinda writing them on the tour bus and then when I really had a couple of days off, I jumped into the studio and laid some stuff down. And the next part of the Ruthless EP I recorded on the bus, I had a little laptop and recorded some of the stuff on the bus. The Ruthless EP was never intended to be a fully produced finished product. It was something to get out there and kinda just test the waters and see if people be into it. And then, yeah, when I retired from Mayer to do this full-time, it was never a doubt in mind that all that stuff needed to be polished off and finished basically.
You have a story to your songs, and it feels like you’re talking about life experiences. I was just curious to see if you ever had a love interest that could be described as the one depicted in “Ruthless.”
To an extended, yes. I think you’re exactly right. Storytelling is definitely what I go for. Apart from the funky stuff that I just talked about, I’m a big fan of Elvis Costello, James Taylor – I grew up on James Taylor and Simon & Garfunkle – that’s what my parents listened to. And then Bob Dylan also, I think that’s where I get the story telling from. That’s really important to me. As far as being autobiographical, yes and no. You know, i definitely draw from life’s experiences but it’s not an exact, you know “this is what happened in my life.” It’s kind of a amalgam of things that have happened to me, things that I have seen happened to people around me and then I try to fill in the blanks with stuff I completely make up. But it’s all based on my life’s experiences, experience that I’ve seen happened to those around me. So the characters in the events are fictional, but they are based very closely on true events.
I noticed that many of your tracks are so radio-friendly; they hardly go past the three-minute mark. It almost feels like they were tailor-made to be assembled on a vinyl record; you know, with the Side A and Side B. Were you ever tempted to expand your grooves past those barriers?
I did that on purpose. I did that for a couple of reasons. One – I don’t know if laziness is the right road but, I would have some ideas down for a song and I’d be like ‘I’m done. Why drag this out? Let’s move on.’ So that’s part of it. I think there’s something that needs to be said with sublimity. I think a lot of times people can enjoy a song when you leave them a place to fill in their own, their own experiences and their own imagination. I think, people always tell me what these songs are about to them and they are always completely different. And people hear all these things in a song which I didn’t even say. I’m just dropping in some imagery, some little things and leaving room for people to fill in the blanks. You also mention the classic vinyl records. Know that those are the records I love. I miss a record that you actually enjoy listening all the way through. I feel a lot of the records now are so long that some of the tracks you’re never gonna listen to the whole album. I miss the old days when you buy a record like an old Steely Dan record when the whole album is a half hour long and you always listen to it from front to back. It’s great and it’s kind of a journey within the album. Even if it’s not a concept record where all the songs are telling one story, it still is kind of a vibe that’s woven through the whole thing. That’s what I try to accomplish with this as well.
My good friend – Jose Fragoso. He’s an illustrator, very talented guy. He does a lot of children’s books, he does a lot of everything. Comic books. He has a website. A lot of his work there’s a story, you can look at a piece of it and you can make up a back story of what’s going on. There was no doubt in my mind of who I wanted to do the album cover. The name ‘Phlotilla’? the PH is just kinda of a play of installing my name. My dear friend Alex Elena, who played drums and helped me producer the record, while we were recording, we’re always kinda goofing off and being weirdos in the studio ’cause you’ve been in there for hours and hours, we got tired of naming things in the ProTools session. So we just started changing up the spelling of stuff just by moving the letters around. And flotilla came around as a joke, and ended up being the flow that was holding everything in the session. And it kinda stuck. And I thought, “A flotilla of ships, that’s kinda cool.” And then I was thinking the music is kinda yacht rocky, that kinda fits too. So I decided to sit with the Phlotilla thing and give it a “PH” to play with my name. It’s sorta out there but I think it contributes to the overall piece.
We live in a tech-driven world, where you can cull out tracks on an iPad and hardly ever see a music studio. I’m curious to know how “Phlotilla” was constructed and what musicians you used on your project?
I had a whole studio set up. And I pretty much recorded the whole album by myself first. And I had some friends come over and help out, a lot of the guys from the County – Quincy McCrary and Joe Abrahams – would come over and help out. Then I went into the studio with my friend Alex Elena who I’ve worked for with for years – worked on the Alice Smith record together, that’s how we met. He has a studio in L.A. I came there and I like I said I pretty much recorded everything at home, so everything was already arranged and mapped out. It was just a matter of recounting a lot of the stuff with better sound and with a better drum sound. And it took off to do another project and I actually recorded a lot of the guitars and vocals by myself in his studio. Quentin Joseph, the drummer from the County, played in a couple of tunes and he did a lot of percussion stuff from back in Detroit and just sent them over. Alex also played the drums.
The term “blue-eyed soul” has been used to describe virtually anyone non-black singing soul music, and I know a lot of people tread being calling their music that. And I can understand why; it comes with a shit load of limitations and stereotypes. What’s your take on it, and are you offended if someone brands you as that?
I’m definitely not offended. Offended isn’t the right word. Honestly, I really haven’t seen myself being referred to that very much. I think my music and my voice is just unique and strange enough. I’m not that smooth I guess. I’m not Hall & Oates. I definitely wouldn’t be offended if I did see myself called that. I’m a white guy singing soul music, you’re gonna get that from time to time. Honestly, I think it’s a little bit of – it depends on the artist I guess. In my case, if someone were to call me “blue-eyed soul”, my initial impression would be you didn’t listen that closely.
Now what do you have to say about the artists that are going back to the nostalgic sound, particularly the Eighties. It seems like Eighties is in now. I find it so amazing that all of these synth sounds that I remembered back in the day and the Linn drum, I’m hearing all of these references from the Eighties coming back. Your album kinda feels like it’s going in that same vein. What do you have to say about this new movement. Do you see this as a fad?
I think it’s going to be around for a while. I think a couple of things. I think the Eighties thing has been around for a little bit. Different bands have been doing it for a while. I think you’re going to start hearing the ’90’s coming around again. I feel like things are kinda on a 20-year cycle. I remember when I was first getting into music, the Sixties and Seventies were really a nostalgic thing. We all wanted to be Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin and this and that and the other. And as time went on, then people were in love with the Eighties. I remember coming up in the ’90s and the early 2000’s, the Eighties were really looked back as a cheesy decade. The bad stuff kinda starts falling away and the cream rises to the top and you only remember the good stuff. The innovation of the Eighties and the important sounds of the Eighties will stick around.
What do you want your followers and the new listeners of your music to take away the most from your music?
I want them to have a good time and feel good. It’s not really rocket science and nothing super deep. I try to be clever with the lyrics. I try to tell stories that are interesting and endearing and people can relate to, but I’m not trying to beat up on my high horse about it either. It’s good time music. I just want to put a smile on people’s face.
Are you gonna tour with this album?
I really want to. I’m not in a big hurry. I’ve been touring with bands for fifteen years and honestly I got a little worn out about it. I’m starting to get the bug again to get back out there. Also my label, manager and I talked about it. You know, touring costs a lot of money. We’re not into blowing a bunch of money when there’s not a demand for it. So we’re putting our resources into the web right now and trying to build a following. We’re doing a college radio campaign and hopefully we could follow that up. I’m very slowly putting a band together so we’ll be ready when the time comes.
Is there any chance that you will work with Mayer in the future?
Absolutely. We are good friends. We hang out – we just watched the Super Bowl a couple of weeks ago. We’re in touch. We don’t have any plans to do anything, but there’s no real reason why not.