Music & Sound in association withJungle Studios

Thinking In Sound: Splitting the Music Apart with Pull’s Mitch Davis

Music & Sound
New York, USA
Pull (a music company)'s co founder on the analogue to digital dilemma, the living organism of vinyl and why its maybe time for horticulture and music to cross paths

Mitch Davis is the co-founder of Pull (a music company).

Mitch has created original music and sound design for the world’s leading agencies and brands. He has collaborated with artists such as U2, Danger Mouse, LA Guns, Billy Squier, Stephen Malkmus, Bobby Womack, Damon Albarn, Mark Lanegan, Miho Hatori and more… When not writing and producing music in his New York City studio he can be found in the East Village searching for vintage vinyl, sneakers and guitars.

LBB> When you’re working on a new brief or project, what’s your typical starting point? How do you break it down and how do you like to generate your ideas or response?

Mitch> It all starts with a question, “how do you want the intended audience to feel?”

Sometimes people have a pretty concrete idea of what they’re looking for and sometimes they just know they need ‘something’. Either way, we start by talking about what they want to achieve with the music emotionally.  

Since music is so subjective and relative, we may use other music or artists as a benchmark.  Not in the ‘song reference’ sense, but rather as a way to calibrate the language.  For example, you can talk all day about a guitar sound and style and use a highly curated group of adjectives to describe what is in your head… but the only way you’ll really be able to ensure you’re all talking about the same thing is by saying “do you mean a guitar sound like this?”.

The goal, of course, is to always create something that sounds completely unique. You want to provide music that can act as an identifier for their project. And it has to be right for the situation. Circling back to the idea of what they want to achieve with the music… more than just determining the style of the music, we have to determine things like whether the music is background or forefront… who’s the audience… what is it’s arc…  

I, naturally, have strong opinions on music. But this is about providing music that fulfils our client’s vision. So, while I will always offer my professional opinion, I’m here to help them realise their vision.

LBB> Music and sound are in some ways the most collaborative and interactive forms of creativity - what are your thoughts on this? Do you prefer to work solo or with a gang - and what are some of your most memorable professional collaborations?

Mitch> There are things I like about both collaborations and working solo.

Very often, I’ll have fully formed ideas of the music I want to make. Various sonic experiments that just come from my brain that I want to get on tape.

But I also enjoy working with other people where I get to write in a more reactive way. Like figuring out where to take a chorus, or writing lyrics and melodies on someone else’s progression that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own.

And I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with and become friends with some of my childhood heroes like Billy Squier and record bands like U2 with Danger Mouse in my own studio.

LBB> What’s the most satisfying part of your job and why?

Mitch> I get to make music all day, it’s not a job at all to me - and that I get the chance to befriend and work with my childhood musical heroes. (Hearing my songs randomly on TV or in a mall is kind of cool too.)

LBB> As the advertising industry changes, how do you think the role of music and sound is changing with it?

Mitch> I don’t know if the role of music and sound is changing as it pertains to branding. The role of music and sound is still to help elevate the story. To be that extra dimension… that unseen cast member. A ‘narrator’ of sorts.

Music styles change, the music business changes, forms of music delivery change - but the music and sound itself still performs the same role.

LBB> Who are your musical or audio heroes and why? And when it comes to your particular field, whether sound design or composing, are there any particular ideas or pioneers that you go back to frequently or who really influence your thinking about the work you do?

Mitch> There are so many artists, past and present, who have been integral to the development of my musical persona that it would be impossible to mention them all. And to name some would be to diminish the rest.

But there was a point for me when the music production aesthetic made an evolutionary leap which on a conceptual level is still relevant today and I’m sure is always somewhere in my subconscious when I create.

Trent Reznor changed music and music production in general with the Nine Inch Nails ‘The Downward Spiral’ album by introducing a new type of intentional rhythmic imperfection and a feeling of being louder by being quieter (I don’t know if that is a universal takeaway from that record, but it is what I got from it) that can be applied to every genre.

There is always fantastic music coming out and artists are always doing new things whether it be evolving styles or musical combinations.

But I think that album when it came out was the biggest innovation in a long time and for a long time since.

LBB> When you’re working on something that isn’t directly sound design or music (lets say going through client briefs or answering emails) - are you the sort of person who needs music and noise in the background or is that completely distracting to you? What are your thoughts on ‘background’ sound and music as you work?

Mitch> I think I’m like a lot of other music-makers (with whom I’ve discussed this) in that I listen to music in a very analytical manner. I kind of split it apart in my head like I’m inside the multi-track recording and simultaneously listen to each part individually and together.

There is not much ‘casual’ listening for me. If there is music playing, I will be aurally invested in it.

So I’m probably not a ‘listen to music while I do my homework’ kind of guy.  

That being said, I welcome any sort of environmental noise when I’m concentrating on other tasks. You’ll never hear me complaining about the sound of horns honking through my window as a nuisance!

LBB> I guess the quality of the listening experience and the context that audiences listen to music/sound in has changed over the years. There’s the switch from analogue to digital and now we seem to be divided between bad-ass surround-sound immersive experiences and on-the-go, low quality sound (often the audio is competing with a million other distractions) - how does that factor into how you approach your work?

Mitch> I honestly don’t see any difference in the way people are listening to music now from how they were listening 40 years ago.

If anything, I’d say people are listening to higher quality sound today than they ever have been in the past.

I’d wager that the audio fidelity of a lossy format streaming on your phone through earbuds is higher than a cassette on your Walkman with those little foam covered headphones.

Now, as then, there are audiophiles listening to music in their acoustically treated rooms through their high priced systems.

Now, as then, there are people listening on the go to their MP3 or 3rd generation cassette they’ve recorded from the friend of a friend who bought the album.

Digital vs analogue? People can argue forever and never agree on which is better.

I believe the only ‘new’ way people listen to music is as incorporated into video games. But that’s an incidental music listening situation and conceptually not particularly different from a song being in a feature film and doesn’t really have any bearing on the debate, in my opinion.

I’d argue there is effectively no difference in the manner in which listeners consume music and the quality is no lower now than it ever was in the past. 

If anything, the quality is better now than it has ever been. I think when people muse about a time before streaming and ear buds that they are remembering through rose-coloured glasses. The reality is that it was a time of cheap portable cassette players with almost dead AA batteries listening through low quality, uncomfortable, non-ergonomic earphones or an internal 1.5” mono speaker to a warbly crinkled cassette tapes from your friend who recorded an album from his friend who had the overplayed scratched up record.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good scratched up record or winding the tape back up into the cassette with a pencil. But every era has its technological compromises. I think people just tend to like the compromises they grew up with better than the ones their kids are growing up with. 

LBB> On a typical day, what does your ‘listening diet’ look like? Do you have a collection of music/sounds and what shape does it take (are you a vinyl nerd, do you have hard drives full of random bird sounds, are you a hyper-organised spotify-er…)?

Mitch> I like to listen to a broad selection of what is currently out there. There is more great music now than ever. It’s impossible to listen to it all, but I like to hear as much as I can. I’ll do that via various streaming services.

When it comes to music I purchase, I’m only buying vinyl these days. That’s not because I’m against any digital formats. In fact, most of my listening is digitally.

I see vinyl, though, as a living organism. The physical needle-scraping-through-the-groove method of reproduction makes a record like a living thing. The music transforms microscopically with each pass shaving away.  And the physical nature of the spin results in minuscule tempo and pitch changes. It’s akin to a live performance on some level with the medium being a member of the band.  I can tell the sound of a record from my collection by its unique idiosyncrasies. For all intents and purposes, it’s identical to every other copy. But if you’ve listened to your copy long enough and are attuned to the experience, you know your babies.

LBB> Outside of the music and sound world, what sort of art or topics really excite you and do you ever relate that back to music (e.g. history buffs who love music that can help you travel through time, gamers who love interactive sound design… I mean it really could be anything!!)

Mitch> During the pandemic, I got out of the city for a while and tried to live off the grid. I got excited with the idea of trying to grow my own food. There was some success but I definitely have a lot more to learn.  

Horticulture and music haven’t crossed paths yet, but maybe now is the time to write that song using a detailed ‘seed to fruit’ metaphor!

LBB> Let’s talk travel! It’s often cited as one of the most creatively inspiring things you can do - I’d love to know what are the most exciting or inspiring experiences you’ve had when it comes to sound and music on your travels?

Mitch> I’ve acquired many instruments from around the world which I like to use completely out of context. Instruments from regions other than your own can add a really nice texture to a production.

A few years back, I travelled to Japan. At the time, I was in a toy piano phase of my collecting and I had seen that there were toy pianos available there which make their sounds in a whole different way from the toy pianos we are used to over here. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anyone who would ship them outside of the country.

So, before I went on my trip, I researched where to find the various instruments I wanted. I took with me an extra suitcase completely empty which I gradually filled with different toy pianos and other instruments which I couldn’t find at home.

New sounds are always inspiring and every new instrument breeds a new song.

LBB> As we age, our ears change physically and our tastes evolve too, and life changes mean we don’t get to engage in our passions in the same intensity as in our youth - how has your relationship with sound and music changed over the years?

Mitch> I’m very fortunate that I make music for a living. I engage in my passion for music with even more intensity now than I ever have. I’ve worked with and am working with artists and bands I would never have imagined when I was a kid. I have nothing but passion.

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