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Mikaiah Lei: “I literally got to punch an amp. Nobody in the studio yelled at me”

Mikaiah Lei
(Image credit: Jacqueline Scripps)

Seven years is a long time – it’s the distance between the Beatles’ mop-topped debut and embattled swan song, and nearly twice as long as the span between Nirvana’s first and final albums. So, what happened in the seven years between L.A. indie rockers the Bots’ 2014 debut, Pink Palms, and their latest album, 2 Seater?

“I was making music for my side project as well as my solo project, where I go more free-form and experimental with my approach,” says frontman and guitarist Mikaiah Lei. “I try to write different kinds of beats and electronic music. Experimental folk and acoustic stuff.”

Lei’s musical wanderlust returns to base on 2 Seater, a collection of songs bristling with energy written during the band’s hiatus that benefit from those years of sonic experiments, as well as the guiding hand of producer Adrian Quesada, who also makes up one-half of the soul group Black Pumas. The result is less garage punk but no less intense.

Quesada pushed Lei toward using dynamics, subtlety and nuance more – turning down and “respecting the frequencies,” as Lei says – advice that at times conflicted and challenged his initial ideas for the recording process.

“I had this grand vision of these mountains of sound, just layers and layers, and he said, ‘You don’t really need this,’” he says. “I kept thinking I wanted more dirt, [but] it’s just better sounding, technically. It’s not competing for anything. The mix sits really well for what the songs are.”

That’s not to say they didn’t experiment. The album is full of spontaneous creativity, whether it’s playing drums with chopsticks instead of drumsticks or kicking the shit out of the various vintage Fender and Silvertone amplifiers at Quesada’s suggestion to capture the sound of an abused reverb tank. All in service of the song, of course.

“We were doing that on the second half of Tattle Tell, where it erupts into this thunderous part,” he says. “I literally got to punch an amp. [Laughs] Nobody in the studio yelled at me.”

Discovery is at the heart of why Lei plays music in the first place. “That’s what keeps me obsessed with it. There are so many things to discover; there’s so much music to listen to. My friend just gave me a really cool Nigerian rock vinyl compilation record, and I’ve been getting into that. I find inspiration everywhere.”

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Jim Beaugez has written about music for Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Guitar World, Guitar Player (opens in new tab) and many other publications. He created My Life in Five Riffs (opens in new tab), a multimedia documentary series for Guitar Player that traces contemporary artists back to their sources of inspiration, and previously spent a decade in the musical instruments industry.