Comprising Naomi McPherson, Katie Gavin and Josette Maskin, electronic indie band MUNA first came to public attention in 2016 when their infectious single “I Know A Place” landed in the Billboard Adult Pop Top 40. Clearly not your everyday mainstream pop act, the trio’s brand of melancholy, hook-based synth-pop was solidified by an emotionally unflinching representation of queer narratives. Signed to label giant RCA, within three years the LA–based group had released two critically acclaimed albums, About U and Saves the World.
However, when the pandemic hit in 2020 the band was suddenly dropped for not fulfilling sales quotas. Physically distanced and label-less, the heady days of touring with Harry Styles and performing on Jimmy Fallon seemed a distant memory. After a period of re-evaluation, MUNA decided not to compromise. For their eponymously titled third album, budgetary constraints necessitated total reliance on Ableton as a production tool while the band focused on returning bigger and better. Here, producer/guitarist McPherson discusses their journey and rebirth.
Was your focus on becoming an electronic pop band premeditated or based on early experiments as a trio?
I come from a pretty musical family so I had some recording knowledge and experience of playing instruments but no idea how to produce electronic music. The initial plan was for Jo and I to play guitar together, which was ill-advised, but she was intrigued that I could exclusively play alternate tunings and thought we’d have fun together. Katie was the one who converted us to the cult of electronic music. She won’t mind me saying this, but she invited herself to play with us and had been experimenting with Ableton since high school.
Did Katie show you the ropes or had you already learned to become self-sufficient at using software?
Katie had Ableton [Live] 8 and showed me the ropes a little, then we all moved to New York for the summer to do internships and work on music together. I’d used Sony Acid Pro at high school and would cut up audio and make drum parts. Although I’m not a very good drummer, I do love drum programming. That summer I got super into using Ableton Live and absolutely addicted to music production and programming. I took over as the primary person at the helm of the computer and it’s been that way ever since.
When you wrote your debut album About U, did you think it might be a challenge to create pop music at similar production levels to your peers?
We were just trying to be as aspirational as we could and were very much encouraged by our label and A&R to keep making music our way. We’d show it to friends who were better at production than we were and see what they had to say. Brian Jones from the band Paramore has always been a good ear for us. At the time I was just trying to emulate a big sound using lots of stock synths and still find working in that way to be a delightful challenge. I don’t like to have a huge array of resources; it’s more creatively fruitful to work small and create big sounds.
When the pandemic hit you were dropped by RCA, which must have added a tremendous sense of uncertainty to what you were already feeling at the time?
Prior to the pandemic we were aware that because we hadn’t experienced extreme commercial success we might no longer be able to self-produce. That made us wary and a little concerned about what was coming down the pipeline, so when it happened we were sad but it also came as a relief to know that we could still do things our way and there wouldn’t be any pressure to start churning stuff out really fast. Our second album, Saves the World, came out in September 2019 and at the top of 2020 we were already being told that we needed to get back into the studio to make more music. That’s not how we best function creatively – we prefer long gestation periods of writing followed by an intense editing process.
Would you have accepted working with a producer if it had been forced on you?
We probably would have and all the times I’ve been put in rooms with people I’ve learned a lot so I don’t have a negative outlook on collaboration, but it does take a specific personality to gel with what we do. We co-produced the second album with Mike Crossey who I love and learned so much from that I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world, but a more splintered process would definitely give us an identity challenge. Ultimately, we need the creative control that makes us feel like a band.
Did you question whether you might need to change your sound to deliver the ‘hits’ that are expected from a pop band or label?
Mike further instilled the belief in the idea that having a specific sound is antithetical to the way people consume music these days. We would fear having radio homogeneity, so that’s never really felt like an option for us even if the financial stability it might offer would avert the fears that were especially present during Covid. Not to disparage any other type of music as I truly enjoy radio hits as much as anyone, but having a degree of artistic integrity is pretty important to us and shooting for mainstream success would have probably failed. I really have to credit Katie for her incredible songwriting prowess because it allows a different level of interpretation and adds color to what we do.
Are there certain standard ingredients that go into making a successful pop song that are present in your mind when producing?
I’m hesitant to reveal that because I feel like I’ll get roasted for them, but there are little tropes that I rely on at times and I think I’ve tried to challenge them. When I first started producing, I had a throw-everything-at-the-wall maximalist outlook because I was learning as I was going, but as time has moved on we’re all becoming more tasteful with our choices. Early on, the synth work had such a lush backdrop coded into the music that there wasn’t a lot of silence. As I’ve developed, I’ve got a way bigger appreciation for the role that silence plays in music and that only comes with maturity.
With three of you in the band, do elements of the creative process need to be segmented?
All three of us have producer-oriented brains. On the latest album there are bizarre outliers, but the traditional way of working has been for me to make eight bar loops or motifs that are repeated and send a bunch of files over to Katie to see what resonates. Alternatively, she’ll write on an acoustic guitar using Live to send tracks and if they resonate with Jo and I we’ll instantly ask for the session and start fleshing stuff out. We’ll often send recent updates of songs back and forth in our group text and give each other notes, so that element is pretty formulaic until a track is done, but in terms of how we segment work later on I’ll usually politely request some alone time to flush out the bass and drums. That usually takes a couple of days because if the digital rhythm section isn’t hammered out I feel uncertain about moving forward arrangement-wise.
Do you have a strong idea of what a particular song might sound like or is it pure experimentation without focusing too much on your choice of sounds?
We don’t really have strong feelings going in, but a lot of the time we’ll be really aligned to how something could sound without even discussing it, which makes it really easy to move forward. The key for the three of us is whether we resonate with each other’s songwriting. Katie’s an incredibly prolific writer – for this record she’d written 40 or 50 songs. A lot of them are verse and chorus stuff and then we’ll try to figure out how to make it work within the context of the band. That can definitely lead to radical sound shifts, especially if a song is written on an acoustic guitar. For example, Katie originally wrote the song “No Idea” acoustically and Jo and I completely changed it to work within our sonic landscape.
You’ve mentioned that Ableton Live makes you feel like you’re playing an instrument. Can you describe how it helps you make that connective link?
It’s funny but I grew up playing a lot of different instruments and was constantly in lessons. I played piano for a long time and guitar, but I didn’t have a spiritual connection to them in a way that made me want to become truly proficient. Once I discovered producing, I realised that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Although, I play guitar and keys on stage, I feel that Ableton Live is the instrument that I play best, is the most instinctive to me and easiest to get my musical thoughts out on. When I have to write guitar parts I get stressed, but with Live it’s so easy for me to get an idea and instantly start programming it out. For our process as a band, Live plays a massive role.
What version are you currently using?
I went straight from 8 to 10 and now I’m up to date and very much looking to whatever we make next because I’m so excited about being able to loop record. A lot of what we did on the third record started with Clip View loops and structuring songs that way. From my end, it’s all based on very involved in-the-box programming, so I love version 11 and I’m very excited to be able to use it to work on new stuff soon.
You mentioned drum programming being a forte of yours?
I have extensive drum racks with a sickening amount of sounds in them, but then I also tend to use the same few things most of the time. It’s quite song-specific, but I like to have well-equipped sessions with sounds that I can easily turn to, for example, I’ll have a bunch of bass synths cued up and drum sounds ready to go, and that makes it easy for me to ‘play’. My band mates can attest to what my sessions look like – they’re really wild!
MUNA’s breaks down the making of their hit “What I Want” on Song Exploder
How fully formed will a track be before vocals are applied and how much will that affect the intonation of a song?
I’ll often work with a scratch vocal, but to Katie’s chagrin a lot of the time I’ll take the vocals out while I’m producing. She often says, “I’d really, really love to hear the songwriting I did” [laughs]. That’s completely fair, but I like to arrange without listening to vocals because I feel you can get really attached to the way a scratch vocal sounds. If Katie gives a particularly spirited vocal performance, we’ll definitely go back and create room for that or build around it depending on the song.
When ideas are bouncing around between you, how do you ensure you have the most up-to-date version of a track?
With the most recent version of a track, we’ll have shared notes and be texting back and forth, but anyone who makes music with other people understands how you’ll have some sort of studio shorthand. How we make music is based on shared influences, so we’ll often have similar trains of thought and it’s pretty rare that we’ll fundamentally disagree on the direction that something is going in. When I’m privately making beats I’ll use Live’s clip view, track it and then arrange in Session View for the rest of the song even if I have to go back and start reprogramming. If we’re being creative together, we’ll use clip view, but we’ve done a few songs where we’ve tried to shake things up creatively by giving each other a certain amount of time to record something, write a part or programme stuff in.
The track “Kind of Girl” is very country and sounds like it could have been produced in the ‘70s. Does that show how sophisticated and seamless digital recording has become?
Absolutely, and I had the sense that we could make it sound how we wanted without fully changing our process, otherwise it would have felt sonically disparate to everything else on the album. Katie wrote the track on acoustic guitar and Jo and I instantly agreed that we wanted to retain its intimacy. We recorded some of the guitars at our publishing company’s studios in Silver Lake, LA, but knew that if we made the real audio feel rich and textured and got great vocals we could do everything else in Live. The drums were fun to programme – a lot of them were based on found sound stuff. Within the drum loop, there are garage door chain sounds and other bizarre stuff that add a more intimate quality. We also had a friend track a bunch of strings for “Kind of Girl” and when we got those back we knew there was nothing else that needed to be done. When you feel guided by a song, it doesn’t feel like you’re doing work.
Why did you record guitar parts in a separate studio rather than go directly into the DAW via an interface?
We honestly didn’t have any KM 184s, so we went to a studio to borrow some and decided to have an exotic experience and track it there. Moving forward, we now have our own spot and more extended access to microphones. Jo and I also have a shared pedal board that we add and subtract from that goes straight from a preamp into Live, but then we also have a bathroom in our little studio that we’ll often track from using a Kemper-modeled amp.
Do you use any other hardware?
I’ve had a Prophet 6 for a decade that I’m obsessed with. That makes it onto every song because it’s such an easy synth to loop parts on and I have a lot of patches on there that I can turn to for arpeggiated bass and fun drum sounds. I also used a Korg Nautilus for some of the internal sounds because it has a fake Korg M1 sound that I was searching for. I’m now in the process of acquiring some more fun hardware and just got a Critterand Guitari Organelle. Although I realize I’m a little late to the game in using that, it’s just another attempt to get a little more out of the box. I don’t know if I’ll ever be a person that prefers using a drum machine to Live’s Drum Rack, but I hope not to become one of those truly obsessed gear heads!
Text and interview: Danny Turner
Band photo: Sam Muller
Live photo: Jess Gleeson