Adam Pierce, the leader and anagram behind Mice Parade, titled the band's latest album Candela after a late-night haunt for flamenco players in Madrid. Caroline Lufkin, who sings on Candela, lives in Tokyo and makes ethereal ambient pop. Larry Moses plays trumpet on the album's salsa-flavored track "Las Gentes Interesantes." And joining Pierce in the touring trio that hits Snug Harbor on Feb. 7 is a notable Icelandic singer (no, not that one) whose identity Pierce won't divulge until her visa issues clear.
If you're visualizing one of those we-are-the-world Benetton ads, there's good reason. Those international flavors are the organic outcome of Pierce's omnivorous interest in non-Western music. Mice Parade has seamlessly blended those elements — flamenco guitar, Chinese zheng, African polyrhythms, Latin percussive timbres, Eastern scales, etc. — with folk, indie rock and post-rock to create a hybrid that predates and arguably transcends similar current vogues from Vampire Weekend, Animal Collective, et al.
On Candela, Mice Parade's most accessible set of songs yet, Pierce seems to be circling back to his beginnings in indie rock and his early years as drummer for the Swirlies and the electronic duo the Dylan Group.
"The difference for me, this time, was writing more guitar-focused stuff," says Pierce, who recorded most of the album by himself at his Hudson Valley home studio in upstate New York. "[There's] less weirdness and more of what I call 'rock music' on the new one. Where we used to call everything a 'Paul Simon-sounding song' or a 'Peter Gabriel-sounding song,' I just wanted to make it a bit more of an indie rock LP this time."
Of course, this is Mice Parade, so we're not talking Built to Spill jams or Ty Segall garage-scuzz here. Pierce's international interests still help define his music's sound, as they have since Pierce formed the solo project-plus-guests band in 1998. Pierce has borrowed judiciously from across the globe through LPs like Mokoondi, an all-instrumental 2001 set which added harmonic influences from India, the Brazilian-flavored 2004 album Obrigado Saudade (featuring the band's first vocals), and the Ghanaian highlife-friendly What It Means to Be Left-Handed, from 2010.
Given that 15-year catalog, it's no surprise Pierce studied ethnomusicology at the State University of New York at Purchase. But that was, in part, a function of being fed up with his music education studies after the first year.
"I learned very quickly what a bullshit music education system we had set up for ourselves," Pierce says, contrasting the varied mediums visual arts students typically go through before deciding on a field of concentration. "Music school is not like that at all at the university level — you're supposed to arrive at music school from day one with your chosen instrument, your chosen focus, your chosen goal. And from that point on all you do is focus on this one narrow thing and never stray from it."
Naturally, any form of orthodoxy in rock 'n' roll was going to make Pierce bristle, too. Indie rock's laissez faire '90s attitude, a reaction to classic rock dogma and the major labels' homogeneity, held great appeal. The ease with which musicians and listeners could transport to any musical culture, thanks to the Internet, conspired to make that era a memorably adventurous one.
Pierce still embraces that catholic attitude, but isn't so sure the Internet has been such a boon to bands lately. Pierce heads the U.S. office of Fatcat Records, the venerable British indie label established in 1989, and from his vantage point, the Internet has increased competition to the point that breaking a band is nearly always about luck and marketing.
Bands like Mice Parade, who don't tour often and have a minimal online presence, stand little chance of expanding their audience beyond the core geeks who enjoy finding music rather than having it come find them. But so be it, he says.
"It's much, much harder to get a new band in front of" people these days, Pierce says, "and much harder for them to stick around. Bands seem to have shorter shelf lives, too, since there are a thousand times as many new bands per week as there used to be. So it's sort of sad, I see bands not lasting as long as they maybe once did, and I also see newer bands having the goal of becoming famous or becoming successful — which was not the primary goal of a lot of '90s indie bands that I knew."
Mice Parade is today, Pierce concedes, pretty much just an outlet for his music and a reason to travel with his friends and fellow musicians. Most every penny Mice Parade makes goes to their touring expenses, he says. But it makes you think — who decreed there had to be more?