When Mike Deni’s sister died suddenly and tragically, he could no longer stand to be in Boston where they both lived. He tried moving back home to New Jersey to be with his mom. That didn’t work.
He thought about moving to Brooklyn, but according to him, “New York just kind of frightened me as a place to live. It’s probably one of the most exciting places in the world, but it’s not very forgiving. I needed somewhere forgiving.”
San Francisco, on the other hand, was “inviting and accepting,” and he was in a place in his life where he needed that from his environment.
The product of that move and of that “really dark time” in his life was “Innocent Ghosts,” Geographer’s emotive debut album, released in August of 2008.
“Deep emotional pain breeds heavy songwriting,” Deni told me over the phone on Tuesday afternoon as he was preparing to eat lunch.
“Back then, I was pure emotion. I thought that songs were just simply an expression of one’s inner feelings,” he said. “I think I’ve maintained that, but I’ve added tools to the toolbox. Now I make choices, whereas before I only paid attention to my emotions.”
Since the release of “Innocent Ghosts,” Deni has released two LPs, three EPs and a slew of singles under the Geographer moniker. Come fall, he will release a fourth EP called “Alone Time.”
Following 2015’s “Ghost Modern” (Geographer’s last full-length), Deni holed up in the studio alone. As soon as he’d run out of money, he’d take the band out on tour again just to be able to make enough to get back into the studio to write.
“That’s a really bad feeling -- feeling like I had all this good music inside me, but I didn’t have the budget to get it out,” he said.
Out of 100 songs that he wrote for the new EP, he recorded 30 and ruthlessly whittled those 30 down to five that he thought were worthy enough.
“The better I make these songs the more I’ll be surrounded by people,” Deni explained. “I feel isolated as a person, as a conscious entity. I long for connection and music is my means for that connection … to explain what it feels like inside me.”
After quitting piano lessons with a lovely old lady who smelled like lotion, Deni took up the saxophone in elementary school and started jamming with his cheap, cutting-edge technology-obsessed dad who had a lot of midi keyboards lying around his office (one of which Deni still uses in Geographer).
“I was bad at sports and no one seemed to like me, but I was the most skilled saxophone player at every school I went to,” Deni said.
So music became his way of overcoming, if very briefly, his introversion and solipsism.
“My life-life is not so awesome, but my artistic life is rich. I’ve just decided to make that sacrifice. I don’t really feel comfortable out in the world, but I feel so fulfilled when I have made something that will really reach people and will make people feel something,” Deni explained.
As a result, he doesn’t much mind the pop music that dominates the airwaves (Diplo, Skrillex and Justin Bieber included) -- in fact, he’s inspired by it.
“It doesn’t always suck. I feel like so much of pop music is reviled by people because of the lyrical content. I get inspired by pop music that makes mistakes, because then I know where I can slide in. Pop artists try to make something that will sit on the shelf and indie artists just try to make something wonderful. And I feel like we can combine the two,” he said.
And that’s what he’s tried to do with “Alone Time.” Deni has attempted to make pop music meaningful.
Over and above that, he’s tried to make his isolation an occasion for communion and not for solipsistic languor.
“I was spending so much time alone … to not be alone,” Deni said, almost as if he’d just realized that irony -- as if the sentence and the epiphany were one and the same.
Geographer play Observatory North Park on Friday, Aug. 11. Get tickets here.
Rutger Rosenborg was almost a Stanford neuroscientist before he formed Ed Ghost Tucker. Whoops. He now plays in the Lulls and makes music on his own when he's not writing. Follow his updates on Facebook or contact him directly.