Sound & Vision: Daniel Mintseris

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Welcome back to Sound & Vision, the Rumpus profile series that spotlights the creative talents of those working behind the scenes in the music industry. This time I’m talking with keyboardist and programmer Daniel Mintseris. Often described as “the brain” of St. Vincent, Mintseris not only plays keyboards and synths with a dazzling array of patches and effects, but also pre-programs and automates Annie Clark’s guitar effects so that she can focus on singing, playing, and performing. Mintseris also acts as a communication coordinator for everything happening onstage.

Mintseris was born and raised in Lithuania. He moved to the US in 1993, where he studied jazz arranging and composition at Temple University in Philadelphia before moving to New York in 1998 to pursue a professional music career. In addition to working with St. Vincent, Mintseris has also collaborated with many other distinguished artists including David Byrne, Renée Fleming, The Waterboys, Martha Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, and Marianne Faithfull. Though he’s regarded as a technological wizard, Mintseris explains that the human element is still essential to making music.

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The Rumpus: Tell me about your musical background. I understand you started studying classical piano intensively at age seven and jazz piano at age fourteen. Was the idea always for you to become a professional musician?

Mintseris: There really aren’t any other musicians in my family—they are all very technical and traditional in lifestyle. My parents never really expected or wanted me to go into music professionally but they thought it might be nice for a kid to have a well-rounded education. I actually hated it.

Rumpus: You hated it?

Mintseris: Yeah—starting at about my third year of training, when I was about ten years old, it got to the point where if you wanted to keep going you had to put a lot of work into it, and it didn’t engage me that much. It was purely classical and a very orthodox, formal approach to music. It wasn’t like, “Oh, what band do you like? Let’s try to pick out a song you like.” It was more like you learn to read, work on scales, all of that. But I stuck with music school because my dad wanted me to. It was like an exercise in self-discipline.

Rumpus: What bands did you like as a kid? What were you listening to when you weren’t studying?

Mintseris: Getting really into rock and pop bands came a little later, closer to when I was a teenager. But in the meantime I started studying jazz and I talked my mom into buying me a guitar and taught myself how to play. As I got older I loved the arty singer/songwriter stuff. I started listening to some Russian underground bands like Aquarium and picking out those songs, and also discovering The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Elvis Presley, and trying to learn all of those songs too.

Hear Aquarium’s rare and unreleased 1989 track “Angel” (iPad/iPhone users click here):

Rumpus: When did you come to the US?

Mintseris: When I was nineteen years old. I finished children’s music school, then I did one year at Vilnius University majoring in math and computer science, but to the dismay of my parents I quit and enrolled in a music academy. After my “freshman” year I moved with my family to the United States, around ‘93—to Philadelphia—and then transferred to Temple University where I studied in the jazz program.

Rumpus: At this stage, had you already started becoming interested in fusing music with technology?

Mintseris: I always had an interest in computers but I never knew anything about how they could be used in music. When I got to Temple they had a brand new technology lab and I ended up getting a work-study position there. They had little MIDI controller keyboards and I also taught myself all of the software. For example, I discovered a program called “Performer,” which was an early computer-based sequencer, and also computer notation—I just sort of lived in that lab. By today’s standards everything was very rudimentary, though interestingly the MIDI protocol hasn’t really changed in thirty years. Audio, however, has come a long way, and computers are much faster, more powerful, and more reliable in live music now.

Rumpus: After school, did you intend to become a professional jazz musician?

Mintseris: Jazz is very theory heavy and you have to have pretty serious technical ability. I thought it would give me a good foundation to later do whatever I wanted, but I never really wanted to be a jazz musician for a living. I did well in jazz school and had a really good time, learning a lot and developing significantly as a musician. But the jazz scene at the time was competitive, and sort of macho, and I didn’t feel like the idiom was creatively developing.

Rumpus: What was happening beyond jazz in the New York music scene that drew you there in ’98, and how did you break in?

Mintseris: Everything! There was so much happening you could literally be any kind of musician—and any kind of person. It helped me kick into higher gear creatively and professionally. Initially I probably broke in by answering a Village Voice ad like everyone else. [Laughs] But a couple of friends of mine from Temple had moved to New York before me and had made their rounds and were doing quite well. There was camaraderie, especially since Temple was a much smaller school than say Berklee. New York was full of Berklee people—including Annie Clark—but Temple people were fewer and far between. We looked out for each other.

I started playing here and there, trying to make a wave. It was also really important to me at that time to prove to myself that I could be a “full-time” musician, that I could pay rent in New York City just living and playing music. I was hungry and curious enough to play every kind of music I could. I basically never said no. My attitude was always that I might be able to learn something from every experience. It always appealed to me to collaborate with other people. I also realized at some point that to have a competitive edge it was important not just to be a keyboard player, but also to take advantage of my interest in sonics in general.

Rumpus: How did that help to connect you with Annie Clark?

Mintseris: Connecting with Annie was the result of ten years on the New York scene, working with beginning singer/songwriters when I was a beginning session musician/side man to playing with folks that were more established, very slowly and steadily. A buddy of mine from Temple introduced me to a widely respected artist called Joy Askew, who was doing a project that required technological expertise. I did a bunch of shows with her and they went very well. She’s extraordinarily talented, and also known for asking a lot of her players [laughs], so for that to go well was a good thing. People have respect for you if they know you worked with her.

Daniel and Joy Askew continue to collaborate in a band called Forge the Bell. Watch them perform the song “Change My Life,” which they co-wrote:

Rumpus: So would you say that in a way everything you do is a demo for the next thing you do?

Mintseris: Essentially yes. Indirectly from my collaboration with Joy Askew I got my first touring experience with Marianne Faithfull and I worked with her from 2005-2009. As for Annie, about ten years ago I collaborated on a project with a bass player and producer named Brad Albetta, who’s Martha Wainwright’s husband and collaborator, and Matt Johnson, who now plays drums in St. Vincent. Brad remembered me as a guy who was into sounds and computers and had an ear for sonic textures and he recommended me to Annie.

I met with her a couple of times after she had finished Strange Mercy and was putting a new band together for the tour in the summer of 2011. The vision for the new lineup was based around someone like me—she knew that someone could be in charge of playing keyboards but also controlling her pedal board. She wanted to get away from having to focus so much on the board because her guitar playing is very intricate and requires a lot of mental space. She also loves singing and she wanted to be able to perform and not be distracted by too many things to do and especially having to look down all the time at the pedal board.

Watch Daniel perform “Rattlesnake” with St. Vincent Live on Letterman:

Rumpus: Were there people early on who were particularly influential to you and your approach to sonics?

Mintseris: I’ve always loved sounds. For me it was never just about the lyrics or the chords, but also about timbre. My interest in sonics dates back to very early on even though back then I thought of sounds as being “arranged,” of sonics as orchestration. Since I was studying classical piano, I didn’t know much about how pop records were made, but I do remember, for example, listening to Pink Floyd and thinking, “how is that made?”

As time went on my interest in how instruments, and ultimately synthesizers, electronics, and studio techniques, can come together to create a sound led to a lot of orchestration and arranging when I was still in school, and in New York, and I spent a lot of time training my ears. My workflow for putting together a show that recreated the sound of a studio record had already been established when I worked with Teddy Thompson, Peter Cincotti, Renée Fleming, and others. I was able to put that experience to good use when we started preparing for the Strange Mercy tour.

Rumpus: How do you take music that was made in a studio, in a kind of controlled environment, and make it come alive in a performance on the road where there are all kinds of variables and unpredictable factors?

Mintseris: From the very first show I ever did at Wetlands where I used a computer onstage, I’ve always been keenly aware of how far I can go and still have things go safely and reliably. Eventually that became a specialty for me; maybe I was one of the first on that bandwagon. Now the tools are quite ready, the software is good and it keeps developing.

Rumpus: I’m just thinking about the difference, let’s say, between a guitar pedal board and your rig. If something shakes loose on the pedal board a roadie can swap it out in a second, no big deal. But if everything is in on the computer and it crashes, aren’t you in trouble?

Mintseris: This is a debate, but my experience and argument is that software and computers can be more reliable these days than hardware because it’s self-contained. A top end modern laptop is a fine instrument. If you’re careful, and do your due diligence—like upkeep and tuning, as with any other instrument—it will rarely if ever fail. And in the unlikely case that it does, I have a backup laptop ready to go onstage, and I can switch to it more quickly than swapping out a pedal.

Watch Daniel performing “Surgeon” with St. Vincent at a live 4AD session:

Rumpus: When you’re pulling double duty as a keyboardist and musical director, as you have for example on the St. Vincent/David Byrne “Love this Giant” tour, you’re also managing horn arrangements, pulling in drum parts, maybe even more. How can you orchestrate all of this at the same time? At least from watching you, it appears to require an immense amount of coordination.

Mintseris: For drum programming and other keyboard and musical director duties, preparation is key. I also had an amazing co-musical director who was responsible for the horns—his name is Kelly Pratt. He played trumpet on the tour and helped to arrange songs. That was his area of expertise and we worked together quite well.

Watch “I am an Ape” from the Love this Giant Tour:

Rumpus: Okay. I’m going to ask you a short series of philosophical questions. First off, is there a difference for you between programming and playing?

Mintseris: Yes—programming is sort of like building or tuning an instrument. Programming is prep work whereas playing is performance.

Rumpus: Is it really different to do traditional composing vs. something more like “music design”?

Mintseris: Well, in some ways, sure. Traditional composing requires putting notes together and assigning them to instruments. It’s creating the actual music, like harmony, melody, etc. Sound design is usually creating the timbres that are used in composing, although sometimes they can go hand in hand.

Rumpus: How much do you think that a formal musical background is necessary to create music with computer programs like Logic or Ableton?

Mintseris: It depends a bit on what kind of music you’re trying to make. There’s plenty of music out there these days that’s conceived and made entirely in the computer where traditional composing techniques aren’t used at all. Plenty of musicians don’t know any music theory and it isn’t required at all. They have amazing ears, and instinct, and they just collect sounds and plunk them out on a keyboard or play them on guitar. They can capture it in the computer and manipulate it and create music from sonorities. Sometimes they can discover things musically that someone who is trained in musical composition perhaps could not come up with. And some of the most interesting things come from a willingness to make a mistake.

Rumpus: St. Vincent’s live show has made both the New York Times and NPR’s “best of” lists. The Times‘s Jon Pareles described the band’s performance as “cool control in the service of far out ideas, staging new songs that often ponder the human-virtual interface.” In her interview with NPR’s Bob Boilen, Annie Clark describes what she’s trying to do this way: “You get the feel of a human but the sound of a machine.” I think that’s an interesting way of thinking about bringing together the technology aspect with human musicianship—do you agree?

Mintseris: Those are very astute observations. Annie is very much about that—she uses the computer very heavily to compose along with her guitar and traditional musical skills and she’s very interested in the human, emotional impact. She enjoys sounds that are human made and machine processed in various ways, and all sorts of weird accidents that can happen when human performances are somehow mediated by machines. All of us in the band are concerned with the interface between technology and humanity. I think a lot about how technology enhances humanity and when it takes away from humanity. That’s a very interesting conversation that I enjoy.

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BONUS MATERIAL

Æ (pronounced “Ash”) is Daniel’s long-term musical project and collaboration with the cellist Dave Eggar. The project came out of Daniel’s jazz school years, where he was exposed to a lot of 20th century classical music, which he combined with his strong improvisational background. Here’s an animation for one of Æ’s songs, “Convolution I for Piano and Cello”:

 

St. Vincent by St. Vincent just won this year’s GRAMMY for Best Alternative Music Album. A deluxe edition, which included the previously unreleased track “Bad Believer,” was released on February 9th. Hear that track: (iPad/iPhone users click here):

You can catch St. Vincent live at an upcoming US spring/ summer tour date, beginning in early March. For more information, click here.

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Feature image of Daniel Mintseris © Tony Nelson.

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This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here.


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, and her own subscription-based channel, Vanishing Ink. More from this author →