Of Saxophones, NFTs & Interactive Albums with Mike Casey
If there’s one thing to know for sure, it’s that the pandemic did not slow Mike Casey down. With four albums already under his belt since he started his musical journey in 2017, saxophonist / songwriter / producer Mike Casey released Law of Attraction back in 2020. He quickly released Law of Attraction: The Remixes the following year, reimagining his previous album in different electronic genres, from glitch hop to dubstep.
But what’s more impressive is the way he’s chosen to share his music. Law of Attraction – a jazz album – was released as an NFT collection of visual art and exclusive content. It’s also available as an interactive album-as-an-app, a pioneering format that brings listeners closer to Casey’s creation process.
It’s surprising to see the blend of jazz with such an innovative approach towards music, and that’s what makes Casey so interesting. Not only is he reviving jazz for new generations, pouring on a contemporary touch, but he’s also head-first into exploring how digital trends can uplift the world of music and independent musicians.
We sat down with the multi-talented Casey to get into his process, NFTs for the music industry, philanthropy work and more.
Hi Mike, how has 2022 been treating you?
A lot better than 2021 for the most part! I am excited to get back to touring and into the studio with my band, as well as wrapping up the Law of Attraction album saga.
Tell us a little bit about your earliest memories of music.
My mom is a singer, who would tell me as a young boy “there’s a song for everything”, before improvising a song about something mundane like washing the dishes. Only later did I realise this lesson had a huge role in my development as a composer and improviser – I’ve been immersed in the concept of artistic exploration since I was an infant without even realising it. Not only that, but developing an appreciation for lyrics and lyricism would greatly help me later on.
Do you remember the first song you ever made?
At this point, I don’t – it was probably some 15 plus years ago at this point!
Who are some of your earliest musical heroes and are they the same today?
Sonny Rollins for sure. He was the first saxophonist that really grabbed my ear when I was young. Later, I had a really cool full-circle moment getting to video chat with him a couple of years before my first album came out.
How long have you played the saxophone? Was it something you were interested in or was it encouraged?
It’s coming up on 20 years, which is wild! Originally it came from my mom not allowing me to play the drums, she thought it would be too loud. Little did she know how loud the sax can be once you really learn how to use your lungs. So, sax was actually my second choice and to this day, I still play and create from the standpoint of a frustrated drummer – rhythm always comes first for me.
Tell us more about the idea of launching this interactive album-as-an-app for Law of Attraction. Where did the idea come from?
My former DJ days in high school into early college had me live remixing, mashing up acapellas and instrumentals from different songs together. Since then, I've been fascinated by the possibilities with stems. That later tied into my own efforts, sampling my own stems to make remixes like 2021's Law of Attraction: The Remixes as well as making all the stems available to producers for legal, streamlined, affordable sampling via Tracklib.
When I saw this interactive album-as-an-app was possible, I thought it would be the perfect way to bring listeners deeper into the music. Listeners hear the sum of the parts, and while we are also obsessed with getting everything to come together in the best way, musicians are obsessed with each individual instrument through most of the creation process. So, this allows even the non-musician, non-producer listener to get closer to that, to how we think and create.
You want to slow down or loop the sax instrument stem to hear in greater detail a specific line? Mute me off the whole record and just listen to the rhythm section, as if I wasn't there? Say you are a drummer; you could mute the drum track and play along as if you were at the session with us. The app allows one to do all these things! I've been searching for something to communicate every tiny detail of my music to listeners for a long time.
Plus, I should add the stems in the app are all the "mixed" stems, pre-mastering. The app actually allows you to listen to the album completely "unmastered" which is not how it sounds on any other format. Personally, the album within the app, from a sound perspective, sounds warmer and better to me than it does on CD, downloads or streaming. It’s almost like a way to get a digital version of the vinyl sound.
What made you decide to also release Law of Attraction as one of the first jazz album NFT collections?
There were several reasons but generally, I’m a fan of experimenting with new formats as they allow you to present what you do in different ways.
As a longtime fan of album art, and as someone who creates all their own album art as a visual artist, I’ve always sought a cool way to sell that as a collectable, digitally, separate from the music in a more “visual art-centric” kind of way. The same goes for liner notes, I love liner notes both as a listener and fan. They truly are their own thing. Why does it always have to be bundled together in a digital world? NFTs allow the execution of these kinds of ideas.
The album is also a visual album with music videos for every song, most of them animated. NFTs allow one to tokenise music videos. In the collection you’ll also see “unreleased album art” – the drafts that lead me to the final version. I love bringing listeners into the process and including things like this in the NFT collection allows that.
What are your thoughts on NFTs for musicians and its benefits? Do you think it’ll become a new normal in the music industry?
To clarify, I’m not anti-anything. All formats have their place, my music is available in many formats and I’m grateful for the support it has gotten from fans and curators.
There’s lots of talk about what NFTs do or don’t do for music…but to me, the biggest thing, in addition to resale royalties, is that NFTs return power to the artist to choose their own pricing via a probably rare new format, based around a collector/visual art model where the artist can also choose the rarity and not have to always aim for scale which can feel like a pipe dream to many.
Incredible music-based artists are true geniuses, are they not on par with the legends of visual art in terms of what their art is “worth”? Why can visual artists price a single copy of a painting in the tens of thousands, while music artists (who may have spent a significant sum making the album) must sell it for next to nothing in comparison?
It’s never really made that much sense to me and puts a lot of pressure on artists that are unhealthy for them as humans and for the music itself.
As a society, we really need to re-value music and allow for what music artists created to at least have the option to be valued higher in a different way. And to me, one of the best ways is via a visual art type of model, and via NFTs.
What would you have said to young Mike Casey when he was starting out in music?
Beware of generic advice. Follow specific advice based on your specific goals and journey. Specific advice may cost you money to obtain, but it’s worth it in the long run.
You are also known for your philanthropy work. Why is it important to you as an artist? Any organisations that you’re actively supporting these days?
I think everyone has a responsibility to give back where they can, including artists. One thing I am particularly passionate about is improving access to music education.
I was fortunate enough to have access to incredible, sometimes world-class master musicians who happened to teach at various stages of my development, and a supportive family. But I have seen the flip side of this, parents that don’t allow their kids to audition for music school or wouldn’t or couldn’t invest in lessons or a quality instrument.
In the past, I’ve raised money for organisations that donate instruments to schools (Horns for Kids), help high school students become entrepreneurs, Little Kids Rock (brings after school music classes to schools that cut music programs) and most recently donated music books and an old clarinet and flute I no longer use to Go Kidz Africa, which is starting up a music school in Mbale, Uganda to help get kids off the streets.
What are some of your dream collaborations and why?
Herbie Hancock – the man is the highest of the high. One day, I’d love to do a double sax/bass/drums trio album with JD Allen or Joshua Redman. But I have more practicing to do first. I’ve also always loved the power of the Chicago Symphony. It would be amazing to do an orchestral album with them one day.
With the world opening up, how have you been preparing yourself for live shows?
Just trying to practice sax as much as possible to get into the best shape I can. Still feels surreal. Focusing on new music for upcoming shows is always a deep, fun challenge.
What would you say has been your most memorable live music show ever and why?
Playing the Kennedy Center in DC with my trio in February 2020. It’s an honour to be invited to perform at the national performing arts centre of your country.
If your music were a movie, what would it be and why?
Something by Adam Sandler. I love Adam Sandler movies!
What are you most looking forward to for the rest of 2022?
Getting back to live music!
All Images: Hernan Arnez
Writer | Kevin Yeoh
When he isn’t making sure Sound of Life stories are published in a timely manner, Kevin enjoys wandering aimlessly in Kuala Lumpur city, going down the YouTube rabbit hole and discovering new music.