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VMP Rising: Michael Seyer

On October 22, 2018

VMP Rising is our series where we partner with up-and-coming artists to press their music to vinyl and highlight artists we think are going to be the Next Big Thing. Today we’re featuring Bad Bonez, the new album from Michael Seyer. You can buy our exclusive edition over here.

A Tuesday evening sunset-orange hue casts down on a pink-tinted home in Gardena, California, where 23-year-old Michael Seyer, born Miguel Reyes, is mid-rehearsal with his band while his father cooks dinner in the kitchen. The driveway has the standard trappings of a rehearsal-in-progress: BMW, VW, Subaru Outback stacked against one another. The garage door rumbles and shakes from bass and the kit, stopping promptly after I text my arrival. The back patio carries a shaded serenity about it, meshing perfectly with Seyer himself: babyfaced, dressed casually in an Oregon Ducks shirt with black pants and slides, looking exactly like his depiction on the art for Bad Bonez: his 2018 full-length chronicling of growth, love, loneliness and finding oneself. I’ll learn later that the room from that cover is indeed Seyer’s bedroom, currently filled with his five band members and littered with odd trinkets of American youth: a Halo helmet, an American flag sitting above a rack of guitars, a sock-covered microphone and a nondescript, large-breasted mannequin.

In May, when I interviewed him, a cursory Google search will tell you Michael Seyer is worth over $300,000 as a composer who scored several films in the 1930s; that, or a German architect who once held all the social media handles Seyer recently reclaimed. (He once settled for the far-edgier @uglydickmichael in the interim of the limbo.) Seyer finds this deeply humorous to the point where he snapshots my Chrome window for his Instagram story (he’s since ascended in his Google rating). Seyer adopted the Michael Seyer pseudonym from the poetry he wrote in high school, a small factoid giving heavy weight to the dissonance I get upon meeting him: where Michael is direct and passionately emotive, constantly toying with matters of the heart, Miguel’s far more reserved and relaxed, choosing his words carefully and tucking his emotions further up his sleeve.

It’s a balance Seyer attributes to his perception of how a traditional Asian upbringing de-emphasizes artistic pursuits in favor of formal education and more practical paths to employment. As a solo artist and guitarist in the rising California group Bane’s World, Michael Seyer is not only an opportunity for Seyer to wrestle with everything that makes him tick, but a chance to become a symbol for the underrepresented communities he comes from. Navigating the self and the image of oneself proves daunting, especially when visibility brings strangers projecting anything they can onto your body, but Seyer isn’t nervous in the slightest.

“Any musician that has some sense of identity — it sounds pretty negative, but I mean, it’s true — every action you take is an homage of your identity,” Seyer says. “It’s so integral to who you are. Especially if you’re taking on a space that’s so public, and you have a lot of people doing what you do and identifying with it, I feel like individuals have to take that responsibility. I wouldn’t say I’m a role model, but I try to do what’s correct for my moral compass.”

Miguel Reyes was born in the Philippines and initially raised in Culver City, back when it was a predominantly Jewish area. Coincidentally, my rental was a mere five-minute walk from Smitty’s Fish & Chicken: a fantastic Korean-owned soul spot that was a childhood haunt of Seyer’s, the place he’d ruin his teeth promptly after a dentist appointment. His family ended up in the browner, more-mixed Gardena, a sleepy town with L.A. in one direction and Long Beach in another. Seyer taught himself guitar at age 10 and spent the rest of his adolescence cycling through instruments, his artistic ambitions clashing with the frustrations of staying the course to please his family. While he sought refuge in creating at home, he sought belonging in a world that never truly knew where to place him.

“Growing up, I didn’t think I necessarily belonged with an Asian group,” Seyer says. “I also didn’t fit in with the remaining minority groups. I went to a predominantly Black grammar school, and then it got to a mix of Mexican and Black folk in middle school, and then in high school, it became predominantly White and Asian. But no matter what context it was, I didn’t feel like I fit in. People will look at you, they’re like ‘You look kinda Asian, but you’re a little too dark,’ and ‘You look kinda Mexican.’ I’ve always been on that scale of ethnic ambiguity. I think that plays out in my music as well, even though I’m not so overt about it.”

His first LP Ugly Boy is a fragment of these tensions, a darker, dingier listen that found Michael Seyer going through every motion and then some, his heart on the stake for the world to whale upon. He was struggling in school, going through a breakup, considering joining the army, all key tenets to a young man certifiably lost. Seyer says he sounded like “a whiny bitch” in retrospect, but the album garnered his first tastes of major success on SoundCloud with the rise of “Pretty Girls” and “Breakfast in Bed.” The former record — a quintessential tale of a Good Guy’s qualms about never getting The Girl — pains Seyer now; it’s still the single many of his cult fans know him for, a talisman of the low self-esteem he once put forth in the depths of his confusion. You see it in the depths of his YouTube, ranging from intimate to juvenile; one bedroom recording of “Dinner and a Movie” finds Seyer quietly spilling his soul only to end it with a visual masturbation gag under his blanket.

Bad Bonez is a natural progression into the music Michael Seyer represents now and the person Miguel Reyes is becoming: mature, composed, more precise in extending these caricatures of his emotions to their breaking points. His contradictions and ambiguities haven’t disappeared, but he confronts them with subtlety and grace, sonically occupying the new catch-all “bedroom pop” space that’s captivated the internet. Drawing from the modern surf-rock traditions of Mac DeMarco and company, as well as the classics from The Who and the Beatles as passed down from Seyer’s father, Michael Seyer’s latest album preserved the homemade feel — Seyer tracked the album between his room and the home of one of Oscar Gallegos, one of his past guitarists — and gave it a crisp facelift, his confidence shining even as he dwells in the loneliness that’s yet to elude him. But as he fluctuates between hopeful and hopeless romantic, he knows the difference between being alone and being lonely.

“Being lonely infers something negative, but I think being alone can be very positive,” Seyer says. “Sometimes, you just need that space by yourself to meditate on who you are, as opposed to just loneliness... this sad feeling of no one being there.”

The Bad Bonez title symbolizes how all things are subject to change, for better or worse. It’s a framework that gives us records like “Kill All Your Darlings” and “Waiting for You,” records about sacrificing older versions of oneself in the name of building something better, embracing the ugly Seyer once shouldered like a burden cast over him. Seyer’s depictions of love are brighter, more optimistic, and far from the Good Guy we know all too well. “Lucky Love,” the album’s breakout single, finds Seyer at his most appreciative for the lover he’s found, yet certain still of this life’s uncertainty, as love isn’t guaranteed. You’ll also find a record like “Father,” a touching dedication to Seyer’s father’s bout with cancer; to Seyer’s point about his family being reserved, he passively mentions how his father’s acknowledged the song in appreciation, but the full-on cheesy father-son conversation never really happened.

As Seyer weathers the changes, he’s also reaping the benefits: Unlike the youthful DIY spirit of its predecessor, Bad Bonez is a growth step in process and release, with several runs of cassettes and CDs sold out via lowkey Bandcamp distributors. At the time we spoke, Seyer was preparing to embark on his first nationwide tour with Inner Wave and Bane’s World to meet the people that have shown him love. For a man who creates thoughtful pop about demystifying the sense of anyone being special, himself included, there’s a growing fandom attaching themselves to Michael Seyer, The Lonely Boy.

“I definitely was in that very indie headspace when I first made Ugly Boy,” Seyer reminisces. “I was like ‘Oh, I’m gonna make this free! Fuck this!’ Just very… young, I guess I would say. And I get to the new project, and I’m like… I’m trying to make a lifestyle of this. I reconcile with it because the reception’s so well. You can be as stubborn as you want, but at the end of the day, there are people out there that find something special about your music. And even if you don’t think, personally, you’re special, someone’s gonna find you special. And you’re gonna say ‘I don’t want your money.’ And they’re gonna argue ‘No, I wanna give you your money. This is a service.’”

Through our mellow conversation, one wouldn’t gather Seyer is on the eve of graduating from California State University-Long Beach with a degree in Creative Writing, fulfilling the first-generation Filipino-American dream of coming stateside for a better chance at education. He beams with pride at bringing the paperwork home for his mama, and beams even harder at his incoming reality of having to design the rest of his life as he intended. Like many families from marginalized communities, the collegiate rite of passage rings more of a mandate than an option: Once you finish college, you can do what you want, but you must finish college. Now Seyer can zone in on satisfying the hunger of elevating his craft while remaining true to his primary source of expression; music remains the only medium where he can be 100 percent direct with his feelings. Rightfully so, it leaves one to ponder whether or not Miguel will mirror the fearlessness Michael grants him.

“I think there’s definitely a correlation between how articulate I could get in music and how articulate I could get in real life,” Seyer says. “But I think the articulation in the music far surpasses how I will be able to express myself in real life, in any given context. Say I’m, like, 16: on music, I could just, with the snap of a finger, express anything and everything I’m feeling at the moment… I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be taken down a notch in real-world application. Music, for me, is that alternative to the barriers I have in personal life. I feel so much more free in making music, so no matter what, I’ll be at least better [at] expressing myself in music. Or maybe, I’ll get better in real life, who knows.”

But what would he tell the Ugly Boy he once was?

“If I can go back in time and tell myself a few things, I’d tell myself, like, ‘Dude, just chill. You’re gonna be good. You got some stuff goin’ on, but life goes on. Keep on trekking.’”

Profile Picture of Michael Penn II
Michael Penn II

Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.

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