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Progressive Rock Interviews

The Living

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with The Living’s Mike Bell and Elyse Jacobson From 2009
Mike Bell:  This band started as an experiment while I was in my last year of a music composition degree.  I was leading a double life; in school I would play classical music and compose weird avant garde stuff because that's what composers in composition school are "supposed" to do, and by night I would play and sing in technical metal bands and a gypsy band.  The Living was the merging between all the different influences, and I ended up finding some great open-minded classical players!

Elyse Jacobson :  Mike and I had a class together at the UBC School of Music. I'd been sort of in the same boat as he was – classically trained for 20 years but dabbling in all sorts of other styles, and looking for something more permanent and really good. I went away to perform in a string quartet on a cruise ship, sailed around Asia, and when I got back I was in the band. I was really excited about this particular group because I was given parts to play that actually challenged me – a big change from most of the other bands I'd played in. 

MSJ: Where does the name The Living come from? Is there some special significance to it?
Elyse Jacobson :  I'll let you in on a little secret: We used to be called The Mata Hari. We discovered, though, that there was another established band in Boston with the same name, so we decided to change it. I'll admit I have a soft spot for The Mata Hari and a part of me wishes we could have kept it, but I like The Living a lot too. We chose it because it represents life and growth and change, and is rather all-encompassing, just like our music in a certain way. We've always found a lot of inspiration in this quote by Goethe: “Life belongs to the living, and he who lives must be prepared for changes.” It reflects our boundary-pushing musical philosophy pretty well.
MSJ: If you weren't involved in music, what do you think you'd be doing?
Mike Bell:  I'd probably be a stunt pilot.

Elyse Jacobson :  I'd be acting or directing plays, or I might have gone into psychology.

MSJ: How would you describe the sound of The Living?
Elyse Jacobson :  Long story short, it sounds like the love child of Igor Stravinsky and Mike Patton, raised by violin-playing gypsy metalheads in the Middle East.
MSJ: What’s ahead for you?
Elyse Jacobson :  Well, we just moved to Berlin, Germany, and we are currently auditioning bassists and drummers. Our big short-term goal is to organize a small European tour for the spring of 2010.
MSJ: Are there musicians you’d like to play with in the future?
Elyse Jacobson :  If I had my way, we'd not only find a killer drummer and a killer bassist, but also a badass viola player. And I've always dreamed of playing with Bjork, but that's another story...
MSJ: Do you think that downloading of music is a help or hindrance to the careers of musicians? It’s been said by the major labels that it’s essentially the heart of all the problems they are having in terms of lower sales – would you agree?
Mike Bell:  I think it's a bit of both - It's “survival of the quickest-at-adapting.”  I do agree that downloading is the main reason sales are lower for them, but it's not just because downloads are free.  People have way more choices in terms of what to listen to now than they used to, partly because of downloading.

Elyse Jacobson :  In a way, the internet has been a total godsend for indie musicians. We no longer have to wait to get “discovered”– we can get our music out to a huge worldwide audience all by ourselves. I see nothing wrong with downloading so long as there's a small fee charged and it goes directly to the artist. Of course we want our music to reach as many ears as possible, but we still need to eat too.

MSJ: In a related question, how do you feel about fans recording shows and trading them?
Mike Bell:  I think that's a great idea – they're marketing your live show for you.
MSJ: If you were a superhero, what music person would be your arch-nemesis and why?
Mike Bell:  Any artist/band who pumps out the same s*** that's already been heard.  I don't know how someone can call themselves an artist when they're really just another s*** factory.  If you don't have anything interesting to say, don't speak – that would be my superhero slogan.

Elyse Jacobson :  I'd say any record exec or label that makes people famous as pop stars simply because they are pretty. I mean, hey, we're pretty too, but we actually spent 20 years mastering our instruments and we play music that means something to us. I'd allow anyone into my League of Musical Superheroes who unflinchingly kept their integrity, regardless of the level of success they achieved or what style of music they performed.

MSJ: If you were to put together your ultimate band, who would be in it?
Mike Bell:  Elyse Jacobson and Jason Nett of course, with the LA Philharmonic, the Kronos Quartet, Miles Davis, Astor Piazzolla, Zakir Hussein, Greg Patillo, Charlie Parker, Anoushka Shankar, Yo-Yo Ma, Tito Puente, Franz Liszt, Verdine White, Jojo Mayer, and a choir.  I just hope they'd all get along.

Elyse Jacobson :  I think I'd just make it easy on us and transport us back in time to play with Gentle Giant. They were so brilliant.

MSJ: If you were in charge of assembling a music festival and wanted it to be the ultimate one from your point of view, who would be playing?
Mike Bell:  Mr. Bungle, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Shakti, Bjork, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Queen, Paganini, Liszt, Piazzolla, Gogol Bordello, Montmorensy.

Elyse Jacobson :  I really can't argue with that lineup. I might add Devotchka, Shpongle, Jill Scott, the Kronos Quartet, Lila Downs, Kiran Ahluwalia, Hot Leg, Apocalyptica, and Mindless Self Indulgence.

MSJ: What was the last CD you bought, or what have you been listening to lately?
Elyse Jacobson :  We always listen to a ridiculous variety of stuff. Mike and I were just listening to some orchestral Vaughan Williams in our apartment the other friend called, heard the music, and asked whether we were just geeking out or preparing for a symphony gig...but the truth is, we actually like that stuff.
MSJ: What about the last concert you attended for your enjoyment?
Mike Bell:  Kronos Quartet!

Elyse Jacobson :  We saw them at the Kammermusiksaal here in Berlin. F***ing awesome.

MSJ: Finally, are there any closing thoughts you’d like to get out there?
Elyse Jacobson :  I'd like to remind the world that art is sacred. No one should ever become a performer with the sole intent of making money. Make art and perform because you have skill and you have something to say. There is no other good reason to do it.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2009  Volume 6 at
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