John Michael Rouchell and Alvin Ford Jr. got to something real when they embraced their sound's artificiality.
In 2008, John Michael Rouchell made himself an important part of the New Orleans music story. He recorded and released online a song a week for a year, and the musicians he worked with evolved into the band MyNameIsJohnMichael. The album culled from the best of those tracks, The People That Come and Go, found a spot where the folky, working class, storytelling songwriting of someone like Bruce Springsteen met indie rock. The tracks were alive with brash craft, writerly flourishes, and choruses listeners could sing along to within a couple of verses of their first hearing.
That band recorded a second album that Rouchell spiked. He didn’t think it was the right follow-up, and he felt constrained by “indie” as a sound rather than an aesthetic. Not surprisingly, he and much of the band that worked hard on that album parted ways, and he rebuilt MyNameIsJohnMichael as a contemporary rock band influenced by New Orleans R&B. It didn’t take. Rouchell didn’t lose his gift for songwriting and the shows could be exciting, but the project sounded forced.
In 2014, he got out from under the MyNameIsJohnMichael monicker entirely and formed a new band under the cryptic name Tysson—one that doesn’t belong to anybody in the band. Tysson started as a five-piece band with long-time co-conspirator Joe Shirley, and three guys who had played together since their NOCCA days—Joe Dyson, Max Moran, and Alvin Ford Jr.
“I’ve been in things that were a group thing,” Rouchell says. “It wasn’t a full-on democracy. It was sort of a benevolent dictatorship in some aspects of it, and in other aspects it was more democratic. With this, we were, like, Let’s try to use everybody’s strengths and try to be one-fifth, one-fifth, one-fifth.”
As democratic as Tysson Mach One was, musically it was indistinct. Nothing was wrong or bad, but nothing remained moments after a song or show finished. The songs were catchy in the way his songs are catchy, but they were oddly tentative considering the performers involved. The songs sounded neither contemporary nor rooted in an identifiable past.
Then Tysson started to shed members. Rouchell admits that he likes control but insists that’s not why Tysson’s lineup changed.
“Dyson got busy and Shirls moved to California to pursue his film scoring thing,” he says. “Then there were three of us, but Max wanted to focus on the jazz thing because it’s where his heart and where his focus was. Even when it was five of us, when it was one in the morning and you’d look up to see who’s still around, it was always me and Alvin.”
Now Tysson is down to Rouchell and Ford, and the two recently released a new self-titled four-song EP. The EP was done months ago with Max Moran on bass, but once he left, it felt weird to have fill-in bassists tied to someone else’s bass parts. They approached Paul Ebersold, once a hand at Ardent Records in Memphis, to help them work through the nuts and bolts of dealing with that specific challenge as well as the big picture change that came with it.
“As he put it, All your songs are stars. We need to make them a constellation,” Rouchell says. Ebersold suggested that they use Ford’s real drums (along with samples), Rouchell’s real guitar, their real voices, and synthesizers for everything else. The results make Tysson the most memorable of the group’s limited output. The tracks are startling in the ‘80s-ness as a sleek, glossy burble is paired with Rouchell’s relatively dry, human vocals. Because of that, songs that anatomize real relationships take on an electronic sheen that makes them fun and less reliant on the words. In that context, lines and couplets stand out to tell paragraphs of story. “She hasn’t trusted me for four years,” Rouchell sings in “Bigger,” and you can fill in a lot of blanks when the next line is, “We’ve been together now for four years.”
That kind of compression comes through a process of constant whittling and editing, he says. “It’s constantly vetting yourself. After a while for a lot of people, that would drive them absolutely insane. I don’t blame them for that.” The process of honing the songs down is one of the things that solidified the bond between Rouchell and Ford as he focused on the words and melody and Ford scrutinized to energy and rhythm. “There’s a nice yin/yang to us,” Rouchell says.
The ‘80s sonic fingerprint of Tysson isn’t simply the byproduct of a technological solution to a personnel problem. For Rouchell and Ford, it was their favorite period in music and although the decade gets slagged for its musical plasticity, they heard something meaningful happening. “There’s a period in the ‘80s when these ‘art rock’ guys were making R&B records,” Rouchell says, pointing to David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” At the same time, Prince bridged R&B, funk and rock, and Chic’s Nile Rodgers produced Bowie and Duran Duran. “Janet Jackson’s Control sounds kind of crazy when you really think about it. The R&B world was being more artsy, and the art rock world was being more R&B.”
That dance rock fusion lined up with Rouchell and Ford’s musical interests, though not in the way you might expect. Rouchell says he’s the R&B lover in the duo, and Ford’s the Bowie guy. They meet at Prince.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that someone fascinated by the productions from that time also hears something to admire in much pop since then. He loves the work of Swedish producer Max Martin more than the songs by Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, Katy Perry and Pink that he worked on. All that craft in service of facile material “turned us off to modernity a bit,” Rouchell thinks, but he also believes pop has improved. “I think think pop music right now and in the last three, four or five years is as good as it’s ever been,” he says. “It’s gotten pretty weird and it’s gotten pretty personal, which I think is cool.”
Some of that affection comes from appreciating Martin’s ability to shape sound to the situation at hand, not bound by any need to represent natural sounds. Getting into synthesizers led Rouchell and Ford to Blade Runner with richly, artificially textured music by Vangelis as well as other synth-oriented ‘80s soundtracks. “They’re beautiful and insane and good,” Rouchell says enthusiastically. He credits the popularity of Stranger Things and its soundtrack for reviving interest in the sound.
“Six months that wasn’t looked at as real. It was looked at as novelty.”
For Tysson, those sounds were the missing pieces. “We know we’re making ‘plastic’ music,” Rouchell says. “We’re not bringing in a Dap-Kings arrangement. That’s not what we’re trying to do. Synthesizers bring in that plasticity, and that’s great.”