Dent May’s latest LP Across the Multiverse is dreamy celestial rollercoaster ride of ‘60s psychedelic indie-pop songs strung together like stars aligned in his universe. Lyrically, May feels it too, gushing about interstellar cosmic love, apocalyptic anxieties and the satisfaction of hope and dread all delivered with May’s signature congenial croon, humor and charm. From opening existential swing of “Hello, Cruel World” to its very last piano ballad “Distance to the Moon” May melts and sways his way right into your heart like a summer crush. Digging on his influences is easy, but the way Across the Multiverse is pieced together sheds them away track after track. There are dashes of sonic texture, perfectly placed orchestral arrangements and beautifully written songs that bring all of May’s musical-polymath imagination to life.
Those familiar with the Mississippi bred, Los Angeles-based crooner won’t hear Across the Multiverse as a surprise or grand departure, but instead a coming of age for the 32-year-old multi-instrumentalist whose first three LP’s garnered him considerable underground attention. Across the Multiverse does represent somewhat of a new beginning for May however. His pilgrimage two-and-a-half years ago to Los Angeles led to a period a glimmering artistic curiosity, productivity and tempered patience that helped deliver what is undoubtedly a career defining album. We caught up with May on the phone as he prepares to take Across the Multiverse on tour across the US and Canada, including a stop this week at the ONCE Ballroom in Somerville to ask him about the album, his rich musical upbringing, and his now classic indie stoner Christmas song.
Allston Pudding: Congratulations on the new record, I absolutely love it, I’ve been playing it for all my friends and they all dig it too. Forgive me if this has been asked before but is Dent May a stage name or your given name?
Dent May: Yeah, Dent May is my real name. I think Dent is my great grandmother’s last name, I’m a junior. My full name is James Dent May Jr. but I’ve always been called Dent. I got a lot of comments as a kid… teasing and what not, “I’m gonna put a Dent in your face,” but I’m at peace with the name now.
AP: What kind of musical background did you grow up with in Mississippi where you were exposed to artists like Serge Gainsbourg and other eclectic artists like that?
DM: I did grow up with a pretty heavy musical background. I was in a church choir, the Mississippi Children’s Choir and I went to a performing arts elementary school where I had to choose a major when I was like 10 years old. I did a lot of musical theatre as a kid. A lot of different choirs in school and church. Then I started taking piano lessons when I was maybe seven years old and then I started with guitar when I was about twelve. Then I started playing with a bunch of different bands. When I started out I was in this band named Flood that covered such bands as Creed and 311 and stuff like that. Then I got into like pop punk and emo. I first heard Serge Gainsbourg and 60’s psychedelic pop when I was in high school. I definitely feel like I’m a product of the internet age where I downloaded a lot of illegal music and discovered a lot that way, Joy Division, or New Order or Pixies. I also always had a soft spot for Hall and Oates and ELO and the Bee Gees, so yeah a lot of it was musical background but a lot of it was due to the internet. There’s a lot as well that had to due with this record store in town called Music Aquarium.
AP: When you get into the ‘60s psychedelic pop is that when you start write your own songs? And was there one person that influenced you or turned a corner for you in Mississippi that inspired you to essentially be like “yeah I think I could do this myself” and maybe influenced you to relocate to LA?
DM: I started writing songs a lot earlier. I wrote my first songs when I was like 11 or 12. There were two that I wrote: one was called “School Girl Crush,” and another one was called “Smile.” I’ve written songs always since I was in seventh or eighth grade. I just writing with my first band playing like alt-rock and some like pop-punk kind of stuff.
One of my biggest inspirations when I was starting to write songs was and Green Day Dookie and Weezer’s Blue Album. I started looking at songwriting as this whole separate thing from playing guitar. I was never any sort of prodigy on any instrument and I sort of figured out that songwriting was the path that I wanted to pursue more so than any instrument.
As far as LA that just happened two and a half years ago and I already had three albums out before I moved to LA so it just took some time to get used to my surroundings.
AP: I was in a wormhole of Dent May videos about a week ago and I saw one of your performing outside somewhere in Mississippi, it must have been three or four years ago and the crowd is really thin but you we’re such a great showman and went out into the crowd and sat down on the grass. It was great but am I wrong in thinking that maybe some folks in Mississippi didn’t quite get your music?
DM: Not really, I don’t think so. I feel like when I was in college at the University of Mississippi which is in Oxford, Mississippi, I was a part of group of musicians and artists that took more risks with their music. I ran a house venue called Cats Purring Dude Ranch, which had a lot of internationally touring bands come through. I kind of felt at home and appreciated by the the musicians that came through and for the most part the people there seemed to feel proud that it was run by someone who was one of their own and who would go out on tour and come back and play, you know.
AP: “Face Down in the Gutter” came out last summer as a one off single and “90210” a little while ago this summer and it’s been almost four years since your last album. It’s taken you some time to get Across the Multiverse done and out. What went into getting it made and getting Carpark Records on board and does this feel like your biggest release yet?
DM: I guess so. For one thing moving to LA maybe upended my creatively a little bit more than I thought it would. I feel like aspects of having just not having my gear setup in my room and things like that made it into a pretty long stretch.
A lot of the songs happened really quickly and then there was another little break and then more songs happened and I would chip away at them so I don’t know, there’s some combination of that in my songwriting process, some happen right away and then others can take years. Songs like “Hello Cruel World” and “Face Down in the Gutter of Your Love” I had versions of two or three years ago even before I moved to LA. I don’t really have a good reason for why it took so long other than more so than ever right now I’m aware that I had to make this thing good as humanly possible. I could have just been like “Oh, here’s another album” and that’s tight, but for this one I put more pressure on myself to make something that I personally feel is the right and really took my time with. But that being said I have another batch of songs that I’m working on right now and I don’t see myself waiting another four years to get those out. I think it’s just he ebbs and flows of my creative process.
AP: I saw you tweeted that you recorded the album all with equipment you bought off Craigslist. Is there a process for finding gear and how do you decide whether something’s worthy or using to record and just overall your approach to being doing your own recording with a shoestring budget?
DM: I do a lot of Google searching. Say like “portable condenser microphones” and find out like the retail amount that it’d be going for at like Guitar Center. Like I looked up this mic that’s an Audiotechnica 40-47. So just doing research…there’s a website called GearSlut.com like “What’s the best portable mic kick drum pedal or synthesizers or audio interfaces?.” So I got this cheap audio interface and this cheap condenser mic and I bought this piano back in Mississippi a couple years ago that I got for pretty cheap. I also had a friend record drums with his mics so it’s really a combination of knowing the gear and having friends that are willing to help me out. The trumpets on the album were recorded in South Carolina by a guy a met on twitter by just being like “Who plays horns and wants to help me out?” He replied and helped me out and then there was a story on the album in the Charlestown local paper about it.
AP: You connected with Frankie Cosmos for a track on the album too, how did you first meet her and make this collaboration happen?
DM: I don’t want to call her out but I think we first connected like seven years ago when my first album came out. We sort of became penpals. I found that she made music and I always had the idea of recording a duet with her because I just think she’s an amazing songwriter. So I asked her to help me write the lyrics to the verses. I always had the idea in the back of my head to do a duet in the vein of classic duets like “Islands in the Stream” by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, trading verses and lyrics and singing the chorus together. She was on board to do it and recorded her vocals in New York. She’s like my favorite songwriter, like really, it’s just funny that we met on the internet.
AP: Yeah man, you got such a great online presence. The Dent May starter kit killed me. What are some of the essential pieces that go into it?
DM: Well, it’s really random stuff like obviously my glasses. There’s a book of 7th chords which if you know a little bit about chords and music theory pretty much all of my songs are 7th chords. Then I had chest hair because I have chest hair. Frozen veggie patties because I don’t know how to cook and that’s pretty much all I eat. I had a weed vape pen because I do that. I had my Volvo station wagon on there, which I just sold last week when I bought a van for tour. So the next Dent May starter pack is going to have to have a minivan. I love starter packs, it’s just funny stuff and you can get to know someone really quickly. I think it was my highest recorded social media post.
AP: If there was one thematic strand for this new record what would it?
DM: It’s hard to pick one, it’d have to be three. One would be science, one would be death, and one would be…well I guess it would just be two. I dunno I guess life and death or mortality. I think it’s also has a lot to do with technology as a theme as well like “Pictures on a Screen” being about technology and “Take Me to Heaven” having this sort of celestial feel. I love science and literature and also we have things going on like climate change and our culture that exists now. So I was thinking about a lot of different things around that sense of mortality and the culture of our existence and how the fact that world could end soon and that we’re all going to die one day combined with a celebratory theme that it may all end but we might as well have fun while we can.
AP: That heaviness against how much fun your music is is why I love it, I think it gives it great spirit..
AP: It’s early to talk about Christmas, but “I’ll be stoned for Christmas” was the first time I heard you and I gotta admit I really connected with that song, take me back to the inspiration to write that song and what was going through your head.
DM: Hell yeah, well Jackson, Mississippi, on Christmas night there’s just a long standing tradition of all the kids going out and there’s one particular Christmas when my friend picked me up in his van we used to use for touring and smoking blunts. It was just about this dichotomy, which there is in all my songs, which is from the culture we grew up in but also just being overwhelmed with love for these people that you’ve known since you were young but also sort of boasts the night as a chance to get together with your high school friends you grew up with.
Dent May will be playing at ONCE Somerville this coming Wednesday, September 6th with Bongwish and Luxardo. Tickets $11 adv/ $14 day of show.