Sometimes they say let the music speak for itself, but when there’s a phenom like the one we’re about to introduce, that theory goes dead. The illegitimate son of musicians fleeing Cold War-torn Poland for the United States, an obsessive gambler (not in the monetary sense), firm believer in life's one guarantee, founding member and frontman of the bombastic blues outfit Butchers of Sky Valley, Mike Mokotow has staged another introduction into his small world meant for those that understand the necessity of solitude, unabashed vulnerability, and the underlying nobility of soul that comes from opposing the odds. Going by the stage name” Mokotow”, his cinematic ten-song set is an ode to the outsider and challenging disillusionment.
Mokotow has recently caught the ears and eyes from other platforms, receiving tremendous praise for the very sounds he creates artistically. One of his releases, titled "Domino", was claimed by AllMusic to be “..a brooding shot of bluesy indie-folk with cinematic indie rock underpinnings". The production of this album is what’s alluring. "Domino" is the type of record where you can tell tons of thought and understanding was packed into it. From a listener's standpoint, we view the stylings of Mokotow as eclectic. Mokotow feeds into the already growing stamina he has as an artist, which amplifies his overall artistic presence. Talking logistics of "Domino", the album itself was written, recorded, and produced by Mokotow in his attic studio. Jeff Berner mixed the album and portrayed those ghostly characteristics embedded throughout the tracks. Mokotow supplied an intimate vibe throughout "Domino", ensuring that listeners felt charmed and on their toes! Mokotow is as unique as his name, and his future career is seeming as bright as light could be!
Listen to the soundings of Mokotow here.
Welcome back to BuzzMusic Mokotow! Mind going more in-depth about your upbringing and background? What initially encouraged you to pursue music?
Thanks for having me back. The only reason I'm here in the States is that my parents, who were musicians, fled Poland just before marshal law broke out in late 1981. A lot of families and immigrant tribulations later we settled into a densely populated Polish community just outside of Manhattan in Jersey. My parents were supposed to lay ground in Chicago but the nightclub that they were contracted with got burnt down soon after they arrived. In Jersey, we were able to live around the block from a nightclub that my parents ended up getting a new contract with as the resident act and eventually took some ownership of the nightlife business there. It was a cultural hub for the entire community. Many of the professional and semi-professional soccer players that emigrated from Poland lived upstairs in individual 8x8 foot row quarters. They, in turn, lived downstairs at the lounge bar during the day still in shorts, socks, and sandals no matter the season. The attached restaurant served food throughout the day. And at night on weekends, the whole building came alive with everyone from the community attending the nightclub portion of the building. It was the community's way of letting go regardless of the realities of living away from their homeland and the struggles they endured week after week.
There was camaraderie in the commonality of their struggles, among friends old, new arrivals and the interwoven drama of growing families. That's where I grew up, amongst this community that kept close, debated everything and resolved it all in this setting that primarily was driven by drinking, dancing and most importantly live music. I never outright intended to be involved in music or dreamt of it since it was always around me. If anything I rebelled against it by not paying much attention since it was my parents' profession. But you can't fight what's in your bones. There was so much subconscious absorption of it all too I think. The stage, performing, watching how people need it. The "letting go' for the musicians and clubgoers. I was a late bloomer in the sense of finding music that truly compelled me as a teen. I mostly ignored what was going on around me and just stuck with whatever made me feel that pang and need for more. Eventually, I kept looking for music that was mostly in my head and once I heard myself having something to say I went down this path, selfish or unselfish as it may be. But I do love having created something from nothing. And said something or expressed something in a song that drives it home as few other art forms can. It's the closest I think I could ever feel connected to some idea of 'legacy' or to what was felt, experienced, at that point in your life. My kids will be able to hear this music decades from now and who knows what kind of form it will take on considering all the history that is yet to happen from now till then.
Knowing your sound is so intricate, what’s one of the challenges you face when making your music?
Growing. Knowing I don't want to do what I just did again. I don't have to think much as my gut ends up driving me in some different direction each time. I can feel the pull take me to something new. That creates a lot of challenges because there's little room to rehash things but that's exciting because it goes back to that concept of growth. That growth is most probably the main reward in all this. And in order to attain it, it's about letting life in to take its time with you. Because in order for me to sing some lyrics they have to ring so true to me that the music and lyrics aren't just that. So much so that it all pushes me to where it needs to be with little thought.
I think the biggest challenge is having that patience, of knowing when you're ready and have enough of that creative soup in your head and chest to start molding things into reality, where it feels like your building an extension of yourself again, but with more precision, more choreographed. And in some ways more you. It's rewarding if and when it happens. Also, a big challenge is I'm not trained on any instrument. I have no idea what I'm doing half the time so there's a lot of experimentation there to translate what's going on in my head into reality. Sometimes fun, sometimes not so much.
What was the major theme behind your song “Running On All Four”?
The title of the song came from my wife and I put our dog down many many years ago. The dog had one gimp foot in her latter years and I can't remember which one of us came up with it but had it written on her cremation box. The phrase stuck with me and a few years later when I was writing this song for this record, which is ultimately a body of work for my son, I had wanted to touch on what it's like to endure disillusionment and loss but with the fortitude and grace of something more primal than just acceptance.
Did you experiment with any new arrangements in your record “Running On All Four”?
I had started the song with only the background sounds, the atmospheric pads, the repetitive 'tug boat' like bassline and a ghostly little melody in my head. That body sat there for a while. I was super hungry to make a song on this record that had a strong Bossanova groove rhythm and one day as I was toying with that vocal melody over this atmospheric piece I had tried a Bossanova rhythm over it and it gelled so well that I knew I had the bed of the song. From that point on I wanted to make it weave in and out of arrangements, with an underlying groove hard in place, but be loose in how all of the other many many parts and sounds you can hear (if you pay close attention) weave in and out of the song's frame. I love this one so much. I was listening to a lot of A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead at the time so I think it played a part in that 'weaving' aspect.
How would you describe the songwriting approach in "Do I Haunt The Ways”?
This one totally leads from the vocal, which was written first and then just the simple accompanying Fender Rhodes complimenting it. This song is what started the whole thing (the record). I wanted to write the most croonerish vocal line I could come up with that was moody as hell, snappy, had enough melody but could contain and develop some melodrama as I sing and get lost in the lyrics. The lyrics here are what made me open up throughout the song, letting the motions grow and grow.
With that, I came up with the idea of having the last third or so of the song bang-out with a full orchestra of strings. I wanted to have the message of the song come out with that sweep bombast of strings but not overtly performed. Still that sweet sorrow straddling some hint at defiance. I wanted to sing something that felt real and that made me want to sing it all the time. I just posted a video of me on Instagram singing it drunkenly in some Budapest street. I wanted that song to be one that I can sing many times over, let it grow with me over the years, maybe even the meaning and the message if I did it service.
What’s next for the one and only Mokotow?
Excited to say the idea for the next record's been in my head midway while making the last. It's a progression from what you hear here on "Domino" with the lyrics being even more so in mind of that 'simple to the heart' and 'to be weathered with years' approach. Conceptually I'm even more excited about this one, partly because it builds on the last but also because it hits home real hard, in a different way without giving too much. I had written a book of aphorisms and I'd say a third of them went into "Domino" as lyrics but the other third or so are forming into this next record. I have a feeling it will translate to people more since the last one was so personal. I'm also looking to partner up with someone on this one. The last one I did by myself wearing many hats.
I want to see what happens now if I build on that with a trusted partner or two. At the moment I'm talking with a producer who mixed the last record about working together more in-depth at the beginning stage. But I'm definitely getting that swirl in my head and in my stomach, and the meat of it all swimming in there so I can feel that growth coming. It's an exciting spot to be in with the whole process, especially after going solo to define my way. Uncertainty was a big thing in the last one. This one's about confronting fears, especially considering the exciting & chaotic times we've been in lately! Informs the best of ourselves anyways. That said thanks again for listening and giving a shit!