The name Mike Haldeman (no relation to the Nixon staffer) might not be widely known amongst the bulk of the Fretboard Journal’s readership, which is something that we’d very much like to change. Haldeman (as he’s known on Instagram) has held our attention for some time now, and we jumped at the opportunity to speak with him earlier in the month as he was winding down a tour with visionary singer and bandleader, Moses Sumney.
For many of us, the essential nature of an electric guitar plugged into a classic amp is more than enough to keep us inspired and satisfied, but players like Haldeman push things further: His explorations sonically push the envelope forward, asking us to ponder us all to ponder just what these pieces of wood and metal that we hold so dear are actually capable of.
The FJ‘s Ryan Richter has been tracking Haldeman’s output closely. In addition to the perplexing musicality and dexterity present in all of Haldeman’s Instagram clips, Richter was drawn to Haldeman as a source of inspiration after seeing a series of posts created in response to comments made by pianist/composer Robert Glasper. Glasper observed young players approaching him in search of tips and advice regarding his advancement and development into the musician he is today. His response (to paraphrase) was a simple and terse “NO! I made these gains on my own, by listening, by transcribing, but doing it until it worked. I didn’t have anyone telling me what to do. Do your own work!”
While that sentiment can certainly ring true for many musicians, Haldeman used it as a call to more deeply fortify his policy of complete and total transparency. The result: He made his entire digital rig, the very framework that he’s worked diligently to build refine, the very tools that help him create a sound all his own, available to anyone and everyone, for free in hopes that they might do the same. [Editor’s note: It’s a big file!]
Bottomless inspiration and innovation for the willing and the adventurous… what’s not to love?
Please enjoy this conversation between Mike Haldeman and Ryan Richter.
And for those wanting to keep up the entirety of Haldeman’s output, we suggest you follow the breadcrumbs.
Fretboard Journal: I had the pleasure of seeing you last night at the Ford Amphitheater playing with Moses Sumney. Mike, I have been following you on Instagram for some time now. I’ve been so impressed by your approach to the instrument and how creative and — forgive me if this sounds cringey — forward-looking and forward-thinking you are.
Mike Haldeman: I really appreciate that. That is not a cringey thing to say, it’s a wonderful compliment to receive.
FJ: I came into the show tonight being completely green about Moses’ music, though I had my hunches about what you’d be doing in the context of the show. I was still totally blown away, and continually surprised. So many interesting sounds and musical decisions. I’m thinking a good place for us to start would be in the nuts-and-bolts of what you’ve got going on. Let’s start by throwing a bone to the gearheads out there, the guitar you’re playing on this tour. What can you tell us about it?
MH: The main instrument I’m playing for these shows is a seven-string Kiesel Vader. I’d been interested in extended range guitars for a while. I’ve playing a couple baritone guitars for a whole now, so this instrument seemed like the logical step to marry the experiences I have playing the guitars I have that are of different scale lengths. I have a Danelectro that is very dear to my heart, a 3612. It was originally a six-string bass when it was first in production, but I strung it up as a baritone. I’ve played it in a bunch of different projects and it appears on a handful of recordings with my own band. Eventually, I got a little frustrated with the range on it because it only has 15 frets. I was just running out of space and I was missing some of the higher notes and having a little bit of the flexibility of a shorter scale length as well.
I found this guitar on Craigslist, a very friendly Russian guitarist was selling it at a really wonderful discount. I got it before coming to Los Angeles to play a handful of shows at the Bootleg Theater with Moses in 2020. [I] kind of encountered the guitar and committed to it, more or less sight unseen. Played it a little bit and quickly knew it was something I could get comfortable on. After about two days of sitting with it and finding my way around the instrument, I found that with the fanned frets and the shape and the feel of it, it was actually a very natural guitar for me to settle into.
Coming from a place where I was playing the baritone Danelectro along with a Fender Stratocaster, which had been main guitar for a really long time, I feel good about my impulse to take a chance on the Kiesel. One of the niftiest things about it is that it’s small enough to convince people who work for British Airways that it’s a tennis racket, so carrying it onto planes is a lot easier than a giant Mono case or something that’s a dead giveaway that I’m traveling with an instrument. It’s a great instrument. Very powerful. And fun in that it’s something I wouldn’t have expected myself to wind up using as my main guitar, but here I am.
FJ: Were you searching for like fan fret or for seven strings when you found it?
MH: Not necessarily. My friends and I are serial Craigslist hunters. There it was, one day during a casual stroll through what people are getting rid of, or looking for. There’s a deep part of me that’s still very much connected to my teenage self … obsessed with Allan Holdsworth and more modern instruments. When I saw the listing, I knew I had to at least go and check it out. It’s a beautiful instrument, but it felt like throwing myself into a bit of the deep-end of a pool I wasn’t expecting to even be in the first place. With the neck-through build and high output humbuckers, I was actually extremely excited to adapt that into the rig that I was building at the time. Which this is probably a good transition into the next step of the conversation about what was going on gear-wise up there.
The guitar for me has become kind of the first stage in many steps of shaping or mangling a sound to form it into something that feels like what I imagine myself making. For a long time, I’ve been frustrated with the organic sound of the guitar. It’s always a goal for me to take that and change it into something different… to make it a sound that people aren’t necessarily expecting a guitar to make. That’s something that’s always really appealed to me. The Kiesel actually works really well as the starting point because it’s got a ton of tonal variety. The fact that it can sustain notes for such a long time is also really helpful. That the pickups are high output also helps, in terms of what needs to happen further down the road and the effects chain.
Though I’m still getting to know it, it’s been fun seeing it become my main guitar. I’m also playing clarinet for these shows, so both guitar and clarinet run down the same line of effects and pitch-shifters. they’re both going into an A/B/Y box before my tuner pedals, then through all the same stuff and out of the same amps. Same effects chain all the way!
FJ: In an Instagram post, I saw a little pedalboard that you’d assembled. What’s on that and what about it was crucial for you to add in to your larger set up?
MH: I run Ableton for the live shows that I do. My Ableton session is just a single audio track with an effects chain on it. Basically, to mimic what would be happening, otherwise, on a pedalboard. That is the bulk of my rig… it lives in a computer now. The reason I transitioned to that recently was that I was just encountering problems with pedals breaking and general equipment fatigue. I eventually realized that a pedalboard is — particularly if you’re dealing with a lot of digital effects — a ton of tiny computers on a slab of wood. So, instead of having eight tiny computers breaking at various times over the course of a three-month tour or something like that, having one big computer that I can create a clone of and load it up onto whatever machine I would want to is a far better solution to what I’m trying to do. Sounds funny and a little “anti-gear,” but it’s been a great choice so far.
It feels a lot safer and a lot easier for me to wrap my head around. Also, the flexibility of going into an interface like Ableton and being able to design and quickly summon whatever sound I can imagine. The limitations that I would run into with pedals and the pedalboard and seeing how far I could push things all just kind of get demolished with working in a DAW. I’m finding that my restless brain needs that freedom. When I had a giant pedalboard years ago, I’d constantly be rearranging things, trying new things out, getting rid of stuff, buying new things.
I’ve since realized that I run into that problem of restlessness way less when using an interface that, as an essential feature of it, has the flexibility of being rearranged on the fly whenever I have a fresh idea. Instead of it being the guitar is where everything starts and ends, for me it’s very much the totality of it all like all, so it all feels like a very integrated instrument to me.
FJ: I’m an Ableton user and I’m sure many who’ll read this are familiar with it as their primary DAW, or have done some dabbling with it. There could also be a few readers out there who want to follow your lead and integrate it in a more meaningful way into their own music. The first question I guess myself and others might have is do you experience any latency issues? That seems like the most direct issue that could sour someone … that feeling that you’ve lost the connection between the player and their instrument. Also, do you have any favorite third-party plug-ins you use in making your sound that you’d feel comfortable sharing?
MH: Of course! For anyone interested in trying this stuff out, I’ll share a link that’ll take you to the rigs I’ve built up and use every day for production and performance. I’ve made them available as a free download so that everyone can have access to these tools. I don’t like to keep secrets about this stuff; I like to be fully transparent. One of the things that made me really frustrated as a young guitar player was trying to open up a crack in the wall of someone who I admire. Finding a lot of barriers of wanting to keep their process a secret and protected. That’s something that I fundamentally feel differently about. So all the things that I use are everyone’s and I want everyone to know that. So all of the documentation stuff is going to be in a zip file that you can download with some short written bits about what the plugins and the rest of it.
Since we’re talking about it now, I’ll give you a quick rundown of most essential things going on in the rig. There is notably no pitch-shifting happening in the Ableton rig itself because I’ve found that’s the stuff that is most CPU-intensive. So, all of my pitch-shifting happens outside of the box with a few pedals before it goes into the interface. I’ve got the Eventide H9 which I use mostly for pitch-shifting effects and some Reverbs. Then, I have a really funny plastic Behringer Ultra Shifter Harmonist pedal, which is a remarkable little piece of gear that’s cloned after the Boss Ultra Shifter. It’s basically the same guts as that Boss pedal, but in plastic housing. Before they were discontinued you could find them for like 40 bucks. Now on Reverb they’re at like 300 bucks, which is kind of outrageous! It’s just a little plastic piece of crap, but it’s wonderful and has a lot of character. It’s a sound that I’ve just fallen in love with.
Then the last pitch-shifter I run is an Electro-Harmonix Pitchfork, which I really like because it can pitch up and down at the same time. It has a really nice punch in and out mode where you can just kind of step on it and it’ll turn on release it and it’ll turn off, which is really nice.
Going from those pitch-shifters and the Eventide H9, I go into my audio interface, which then feeds the signal into Ableton. In Ableton, there is a series of modules that I sort of like put together myself that kind of mimic a side chain compression effect. One lives at the very beginning of the chain and another lives at the very end of the chain. So one can feed into spatial effects for like swells, for delay, and reverb and things like that. The other one is after all the spatial effects, so that you can actually trigger ducking on delay and all the reverb and stuff like that with a foot tap. I use a MIDI foot controller called the Behringer FCB 1010. It is a big, old metal dinosaur that I’m trying to find an alternative to, but for the time being it’s kind of the best thing for what I do. It’s a fully programmable MIDI controller that you can really, really get deep in the nuts and bolts of it. Send whatever MIDI CC note information you want to send from any of those switches. It’s a remarkable tool, it’s just a little frustrating to program.
There’s the side chain effect kind of sound alike thing. Then I hit a plugin that mimics tape saturation and some wow and flutter. That’s just a Valhalla delay plugin with the time set to zero and the mix set to 100 and wow and flutter cranked way up. Some age knob added as well to kind of give it a bit of an old, crunchy, tape-y kind of sound, which is something I reach for quite often. That sound is reminiscent of this great artist named Bibio who’s been a big inspiration for me, so that’s a sound that I reach for quite often.
Then from there, I have been messing around with a few distortion plugins recently. The one that I still can’t really beat is Soundtoys Decapitator. I just love the way that it sounds, especially through an amp. It took me a while to tweak things and get things sounding practical because it can be a really extreme sound. That plug-in has a few different models of distortion, all based off of different desks clipping and the sound of pre-amps just being totally blown out and things like that. The model I tend to go towards most is the Mode A, which is a comparatively standard distortion sound. Then there’s another mode that’s based on a Neve desk getting blown out that I really like as well. It’s a lot more splatter-y. But I tend to stay on the most standard Mode A.
From distortion, then it goes into delays. I have three more Valhalla delays, which are all set to sort of a similar setting as the tape emulator but with different times. There’s one delay that’s synced to a quarter note, another delay that’s synced to an 8th note, and another that’s synced to a 16th note. I can turn them all on and off at will to kind of have different any combination of delays I might need in a given situation. Those are all synced to the tempo of whatever song that we’re playing. I guess it’s also worth mentioning that at the show last night, there were no backing tracks. We don’t play along to any playback or anything like that. The way that tempos get locked between myself and anyone else using delays or electronics is that we all kind of tap out a tempo in rehearsal. Then just set all of our delays to be set to the same tempo.
FJ: Who has master control of that?
MH: We kind of decided together, it’s not like a MIDI clock sync thing at all. It’s just I hit a button in my Ableton session that syncs all the delays to the tempo of a given song and then the tempo just stays there. The same thing will happen for our drummer, Ian Chang, with like spatial effects that he’s using on sensory repercussion or like a blinking light on his SPD. That kind of gives a general sense of where tempo is. But it still leaves space for it to be like rubbery and have a bit of breath in there. We’re not stuck to tracks, we’re fully breathing with the music and letting it ebb and flow that way.
Then out of the delays, it goes into a pair of crystallizers: One that’s set forward, and the other that’s set in reverse. From the crystallizers, it goes into an Ableton Looper, which I have set up to function a lot like a Line 6 DL-4, a pedal that was a really watershed device for me. It was immediately inspiring to me, knowing that I could work out systems to quickly conjure sounds I’d been imagining but found difficult to reproduce in the moment. It’s taking the organic sound of the guitar and immediately jacking it away from the way you’re used to hearing it in a room. Instant inspiration.
I was glad to see that the Ableton Looper was very good at translating everything I loved about the DL-4 in a way that felt very natural. With the looping, you can change the pitch and you can change the direction. When you’re working, you can also build a loop and then use this little icon in the corner of the Ableton Looper that says “drag me.” If you click on that and drag up into a new audio track, you can just grab the exact audio of the loop you just made. Which is a wonderful trick that not enough people know about. It’s been really useful for me, especially when tempos are really strange and you make a loop without a click. It happens to be at like 147.32 BPM or something like that. You can just get the exact chunk of the audio and start working with that, which is a very helpful thing.
From the looper, goes into some more spatial effects and filtering. There’s a low pass filter and a high pass filter that I use for just cutting out certain frequencies. Then some shelves: a low shelf and a high shelf. A couple bell curves that can be moved around to different frequencies if I’m dealing with an unfamiliar amp. In the last few weeks, I was getting backlined Fender Twins. No two of them ever sound the same. It’s really weird. Sometimes there’ll be things that I want to carve out of there before sending it to the DI’s in the front-of-house, or the amps themselves. That’s a really useful tool … or just doing filter sweeps or cutting out big delay swells really suddenly. By taking a high pass filter all the way up or a low pass filter all the way down, it really helps with that. It’s also just a really useful sculpting tool for taking the spectral qualities of your instrument. If I ever want to zone in on the sound of my fingernails, I just find those frequencies and boost them as needed.
There’s some pretty extreme gestures that can be made with that, that are fun to get into. But for live stuff, I generally try to keep it more tame and save the extreme things for when I’m tracking. I don’t really want to blow up a PA by sending a 30 decibel notch at like 20 hz to the front-of-house.
After the filters, it goes to reverbs. I have a room reverb and a plate reverb. The room is just Valhalla room. The plate reverb is the Sound Toys “Little Plate.” Then there’s a chorus ensemble plugin that is a native Ableton plugin that I like a lot. I use that for the vibrato and things like that. I put that after the reverbs because I really love hearing like a slow vibrato on a reverb. That’s something that I really love and being able to have that later in the chain is very fun to mess around with.
From there, it goes to a mastering limiter, which is just for self-control purposes. Having a limiter at the end of the chain makes it so that there are going to be no big blast surprises sent to the amplifier, to front-of-house or anywhere. Then, after the limiter, it goes back out of my interface into a stereo DI and into a pair of amps.
FJ: In terms of having amps on stage while using such a complex stereo rig, do you do that because you personally prefer the sound of actual speakers moving air?
MH: It’s mostly for monitoring onstage and then also front-of-house tends to take one amp signal and pan it in the center. So the wide signal, hard left and right, is the stereo DI. Then there’s amp-y texture right in the middle; that tends to provide a thickness that a lot of front-of-house engineers tend to prefer. That’s a side of the show that I tend to not necessarily hear that much being onstage. But the amps are usually both on 1.5. They’re barely turned up because I don’t really need to push the amps that hard when all my saturation is coming from my Color Box and also distortion plug-ins and things like that. It’s a lot easier to keep the stage volume a bit lower that way but also get the sound of like a really mangled, cranked amp by just really blasting Decapitator or whatever saturation plug-ins I want to throw into the mix there.
FJ: It’s really amazing, and I’m a little jealous of your fluency with it all. Is there a part of you, having become so skilled in the digital environment, that also loves plugging straight in to a Princeton Reverb and getting lost in that whole world for an afternoon?
MH: Well, most of the practicing that I do is still on an unplugged guitar. If I’m sitting down, I’m trying to exercise, so to speak, so I’ll play unplugged. I think the temptation of going through any signal chain whatsoever quickly creates the impulse to want to start to change the sound. But if we’re just talking about purely my relationship to the instrument, that is something I will do without a pedalboard. I’ll sit down with either an acoustic guitar or my electric guitar unplugged and just play, which that’s not what I do the most in terms of my day-to-day actual artistic practice, but it’s still an important part of what I do.
FJ: I’m assuming you didn’t have access to all this stuff as a young player. What did you chase down in your early days as a young guitarist?
MH: Some of the first times that I saw guitarists doing things that really spoke to me, in terms of being able to feel the natural spark, are tied to Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew. Seeing some of these early ’80s King Crimson live videos, where Adrian Belew is playing a pretty normal guitar part, then reaches over and touches the knob and then this insane, demented digital elephant sound comes out of his guitar, I knew that was something I needed to know how to do. Fripp’s “Frippertronics,” or me learning about him making all the Windows Vista sounds? All of that blew me away. I thought, “Wait, what?… that’s all guitar? I got to learn about how this is even possible!”
That was a very big early inspiration for me. I think also, the fact that the two of them were in a band together and their sort of artistic dogmas are so stark is really interesting. The way that they were able to interlock and bounce off of each other and kind of like create this dynamic that two very different musicians were generating a really harmonious world together. Even though the differences in their mindsets and relationships to the instrument were very, very stark.
FJ: Which dogma is the most appealing to you?
MH: I think the Adrian Belew style of controlled chaos is really, really appealing. I lack the discipline of a Robert Fripp, but I also think his approach to really expansive sounds and pushing the guitar in a direction that makes it really obscured and almost unrecognizable is really appealing, as well. So I think it’s a mixture at the end of the day for me. There are parts that I carry with me forward.
Another guitarist I’ve really looked up to for a really long time is Nick Reinhart of Tera Melos. I’m constantly getting my mind blown by how much he pushes the boundaries and he’s just really always searching. More recently, Rafiq Bhatia has been a big influence, as well. He plays with Son Lux and has his own solo project that is really remarkable. I’m very lucky to call him a friend. We share a lot of knowledge with each other and I think there’s a mutual inspiration society thing going on between us, which I am really grateful for. Those sorts of players are the people who, from a young age and all the way up until now, have always struck a very important chord with me.
As a younger musician, I got really into Guthrie Govan for a long time and also Allan Holdsworth. At the end of the day, the biggest disconnect for me that made me fall out with that type of music was that from a technical and theoretical standpoint, I lack a lot of the know-how to get around the fretboard and the instrument the way that those players do. Realizing my shortcomings in that realm was something that gave me the drive to want to push farther in the other direction of getting into the goal of making the guitar into a different thing.
I’m an untrained musician in the sense that I can’t read music. I didn’t go to music school. If I took a lesson from any of these people, there would be just like a lot of groundwork that I would need to make up in order to get to a place where I’d be able to glean much. I lack the actual technical know-how of understanding how something might relate to the modes of harmonic minor or something like that. But my ear recognizes those things when I hear it in music and then that is the thing that I try to get around to recreating in some way.
FJ: I had the good fortune of sitting with your parents last night at the show and we were talking a little bit about your early days. They mentioned that you grew up on a horse farm in Pennsylvania. Was there a guitar in the house or was there someone in your community that inspired you to get your first guitar?
MH: I had an interest in music from a pretty early age. I took piano lessons first and then I started playing clarinet. Then shortly after starting to play clarinet, started playing guitar, and took way more of an interest in guitar than clarinet. Eventually, I set the clarinet down because a music teacher of mine told me that I was unteachable since I could not read music. I was learning music by ear and that was fundamentally incompatible in his opinion with being able to be a teachable student, which is a sad story. But I set down the clarinet for a long time and then picked it up more recently. It has been a much more fruitful relationship now that I’ve kind of found a bit more of a healthy center for myself in my artistic practice.
When I was in about third grade, I had a new, very close friend who was learning guitar. I told my parents that I wanted to learn guitar, too. I remember going over to his house a couple times, he would have instruments around. I’d pick them up and plunk around on them, not really knowing what I was doing. But it felt like something that I really had a compulsion toward. It just seemed natural
My friend had a kid-sized Stratocaster and his dad had some acoustics laying around. He was learning blues tunes and rock songs. I didn’t really know what I wanted to learn yet. I think that happened a little bit later on going into middle school. I got a nylon-string guitar first and I remember I also didn’t play with a pick for a very long time because it didn’t feel natural. I played the nylon-string acoustic with my fingers until I got my first electric guitar, which was a sparkle green Squire Strat. I wish I knew where that guitar was. I had this tiny Peavey Rage 158 amplifier, which had hilarious onboard chorus and distortion. I was stoked! I could bang around on that as much as I wanted to and it wasn’t quite enough to not make my family really upset. If I did ever push it and make them crazy, they never told me, and I’m grateful for that.
FJ: What about lessons?
MH: I took private lessons for a while with a really great local music instructor in my hometown named Jack Marshall. He laid all the groundwork for me falling in love with the instrument. I think back to the arc of my development, it’s just a long story of really inspiring teachers every step along the way, who I’ve been really lucky to work with and learn from and who have supported my idiosyncrasies. Especially those who see the ways that I needed to learn and be exposed to things and encourage that. Instead of trying to force me into a box of like learning jazz, harmony, and theory that I wasn’t immediately interested in or trying to force me to read music. It was really helpful to be encouraged in positive ways that have led me to the space that I’m at now. A lot of teachers just kept saying yes to me, which was a really lucky place to be in. I really owe it to many important teachers along the road, who kind of helped me find my voice in that way.
Another really important teacher is Brian Davis, who’s a guitarist based outside the Philadelphia area. I took private lessons from Brian for many years. I remember at one of our first lessons he told me about this multi-effects unit called the Vox ToneLab, which is this giant floorboard thing that has a couple expression pedals on it and a bunch of onboard effects. He showed me what is possible with his and it immediately just broke my mind in half.
After seeing that, I think the very first thing I ever bought on Craigslist was a Vox ToneLab. Got ahold of that and spent the better part of a few years just diving as far into that thing as I could possibly go. Learning what it’s capable of doing, ways to kind of push it as far as it can go. If I sit down with a new plugin or a new pedal, I make all the same moves that I made when I was like 13 with that Vox ToneLab.
Brian showed me what can be done. It’s like here’s what a pedal is supposed to do. But if you do this, then some real wild stuff starts to happen. That’s still kind of a guiding central aspect to when I sit down with the instrument. It’s like, “It could be this but what happens if that gets turned up to like 50 times?”
Now when I open an Ableton session and I put a distortion on a track, I think “maybe I’ll copy and paste that distortion 20 times and just see what happens.” Usually, it’s something really special and interesting. Sometimes the session crashes, and that’s okay! You live and you learn. That’s been kind of the ethic that has guided my approach for a really long time now. As I said, I owe it to the really good teachers who encouraged that from a really early age. That’s another reason why I want to make the tools that I use available to people too. I want everyone to have the tools and see where they can take it all.
I think I would be remiss to not mention Bill Frisell as another massive influence, who I encountered at a very early age. Actually, through the father of the same friend who was kind of the inspiration of starting to play guitar in the first place. He was very into Bill Frisell, and at the time I didn’t understand that music at all. At the time I was deep in to Zappa and King Crimson, so it wasn’t the right time. But when it hit, it hit hard.
FJ: What was the Frisell breakthrough for you?
MH: I think one dimension was seeing him live and then also, the record that did it was the Elvin Jones, Bill Frisell With Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, which is a truly beautiful record. That was the one that really cracked it all open for me. I think it was a combination of that trio just being so good and Elvin being so legendary. He’s such a singular player and hearing how he interacted with everyone else in that context was so important for me. Also, the way that that record is produced is different from a lot of his others. It sounds amazing.
Then in college I was taking private lessons with a guitarist named Keisuke Matsuno. He basically, was like, “you don’t know about Bill Frisell? We’re going to listen to some Bill Frisell!” Our lessons went from starting out with him trying to teach me some jazz harmony stuff that I wasn’t really all that into, to us transitioning to basically talking about Bill Frisell and Radiohead all the time. Realizing that the two things are not mutually exclusive, and that you can have them both at the same time became an exciting idea to kind of take with me and hold for a really long time as well.
FJ: So if you weren’t doing music during college, what was your focus?
MH: I went to the Berklee guitar sessions for a few summers in a row and that was enough for me to know that music school was not where I wanted to go. Although, it’s not an accurate picture of what music school would actually feel like, I think being in the environment of a music school, of Berklee, was enough for me to know that that wasn’t what I wanted to do for college.
It also helped that the dropout statistics for Berklee were not looking great. I think around the time that I was going to the guitar camps, it was about 40% of incoming freshmen would drop out before their senior year or something. I think it went up after a few years. So I chose a design your own major program, where there were very few class requirements. I got to pick all my own classes and built a major that was kind of centered around answering the question, “What are we talking about when we’re talking about creativity”? There’s this word that flies around all the time, means a lot of different things over the course of history. Tracing the idea through human history and the ways that it’s changed and adapted in different media environments, in different eras of culture, in different parts of the world. The way that humans think about where inspiration comes from, where creative freedom comes from is just so broad. It’s really inspiring to ask those questions. I’d be the first to admit that I finished undergrad and left with more questions than answers. That’s a place that I’m totally happy to be.
I think that’s another aspect about music school that freaked me out, too. I didn’t want these still, magical, mystifying moments of my interaction with music to become demystified by suddenly understanding complex jazz harmony. It’s like there’s a sound there that I love, and I want to keep its magical essence. I don’t want to understand it. I want it to be something that still remains kind of confusing and elusive and something that I have to search for. I don’t really want to ever feel as though I’ve arrived or that I’m settled. I’m a restless, anxious person, and I don’t like the feeling of having all the answers.
FJ: I can certainly relate to that. As far as what you’re doing now, you’re obviously busy with Moses, but are there other projects you’re working on that you’d like people to know about?
MH: I play in a band called Altopalo. It’s me and my three best friends, Rahm Silverglade, Jesse Bielenberg, and Dillon Treacy. We all met in college, the three of them studied music, and I was in liberal arts program. Through some mutual friends, we started being basically a band for hire. Over the course of a few years, we started working with a bunch of friends of ours at school and got to the point where we were playing many gigs a week for months at a time.
We’ve put out three records now and we’ve got a fourth on the way. It’s a fully collaborative endeavor. The four of us are extremely different in terms of our musical upbringings and backgrounds and what sort of like ground we came from. The process of getting together in a room and writing music is kind of this amazing clash of all of us throwing our very distinct, very different ideas at each other and seeing what sparks fly from that. It’s one of the biggest gifts of my life to make music with these guys. They’re constant inspirations and a big reason for why I do things the way I do.
I wouldn’t know about Ableton the way I know about Ableton if it wasn’t for my relationship with Rahm, who is one of the most remarkable brains when it comes to engaging with that software. Just pushing it absolutely as far as it can go. It was playing his solo music actually, the first time that I’ve ever used Ableton in a live performance context. That was the beginning for me of just like deciding that this has to be the way
The writing process for this band is very much based in improvisation. There’s a house that we go to in Indiana that Rahm grew up in and that’s where we’ve been making records for the last seven years now. It’s a really special place, very close to all of our hearts. We go there and set up all of our instruments in the living room. At any time of the day one person can sit down, hit record on the master brain-computer, and capture whatever they’re working on at that moment, and we build from those little scraps. From there, all of us gradually dive in until we’re all exploring as a band and continue to sift until we find what the song wants to be.
It’s this gathering process of just generating a lot of sounds, that we call “germinals.” These little seeds of ideas that feel really inspiring. We’ll improvise on them for like an hour and a half, and in that hour and a half, there will be maybe like 10 or 15 remarkable moments that we build from.
FJ: So cool! What’s the instrumentation?
MH: I play guitar with the same Ableton setup in the band, Dillon Treacy plays drums and electronics. He has an SPD and I think in upcoming shows he’s also going to play a bit of synth. His SPD also has triggers that are connected to the kick drum and snare drum for different kick and snare samples for every single song, which are usually pulled from some really wild drum sounds that we have in our sessions. Then on his SPD, he’s not just playing percussion sounds, he’s also playing like a lot of musical elements. Like background vocal layers that we can’t possibly recreate live or really wild roomy textures and sounds that would be impossible to reproduce on stage otherwise.
We don’t play to tracks, it’s always just like one-shot samples if we have to use samples for things. So just like a sample pad on a keyboard or a SPD sample or something like that. That’s Dillon’s world.
Jesse Bielenberg plays electric and synth bass and also sings. He also covers a lot of the sample territory as well. Jesse runs an Ableton rig that he processes voice through and a few other things as well. I think more for our shows that we’ll have next year we’re going to step up to be the next level, in terms of where we were at in 2019, where we’re hoping to be in the next year or so.
Last, but not least, is Rahm Silverglade, our lead vocalist who plays piano and keys. But for a lot of the live shows, he plays samples that he made. There’s a beautiful piano at the house in Indiana which he built an incredible sample instrument out of. He opened up all the windows in the house and recorded every possible velocity of every key on that piano. There’s just birds chirping in every single sample. So you play a chord and it’s just like piano plus birds and leaves and the sound of cars passing by the house and stuff like that. It’s a really, really unique, wonderful sound. He plays keys and sings and also runs an Ableton rig for his vocal effects and also all of his sampled instruments.
FJ: That sounds great! As someone who’s clearly driven and goal oriented. I’m wondering if I can just ask, what do you want to accomplish in the coming years?
MH: Well, I played my first ever solo show a few months ago and that was a big moment for me. I’ve been wanting to do that for a while but just hadn’t gotten around to it. I played at a venue called New Blue in New York. Basically, my entire musical and friend family showed up for that and I felt really, really supported, and really grateful. I’m working on some more solo material and scheduling shows of that variety.
I’ve also been lucky enough to play some shows recently in front of festival audiences. The dream is to find that golden balance between the music that I am making with my best friends. That’s the stuff that I care most about. Also, I feel very lucky to be a part of projects like what I do with Moses and some others. I’m really hoping to be able to do all of it and to stay busy and keep my head screwed on straight.
I’m imagining that after the last year and a half of being very calm and mostly sedentary, the next year and a half is going to have a very different shape. So I think focusing on being healthy, taking care of myself. Understanding where my limits and boundaries are is another big goal of the next year.
I learned a lot about what a calm approach to having a relationship with music feels like over the last year and a half and I love that. It feels healthier than it’s been in a long time.
There’s a real pressure that comes along with working in this industry and the compulsion that I feel like most musicians end up feeling, which is to turn it into a job with a capital J. There is a balance to be struck there that I’m still trying to find. But the one thing that I know is really important is listening to my intuitive sense of what healthy boundaries look like and what I’m actually capable of doing. Not trying to overextend myself to a place where I just wind up feeling spent and without energy to do the things that I care most about. So that I think is the simple macro picture for where I hope to be.
It’s health, plain and simple. I want to be healthy.
FJ: The last bit of your future mission statement, I think is a really inspirational thing for everyone else moving forward, too. We’ve all come out of this chunk of time with new personal definitions of what like health and ease and peace means. It’s inspiring to know you have that as your centerpiece of your trajectory moving forward. I imagine that most everybody reading this would want to cultivate a similar approach in their own lives and pursuits moving forward.
Well, I feel like that’s a great note for us to end on. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Mike. Hopefully some of our more adventurous readers will download and try their hands at the Ableton rigs you made available on your site. Jump on in, everyone! The water’s nice!
Mike Haldeman: Ha, definitely! No need to be afraid! Thanks so much for having me.
MH: Ha, definitely! No need to be afraid! Thanks so much for having me.
Editor’s Note: Since our talk with Haldeman, the Hybrid Guitars Co. added him to their artist roster. The Kiesel has been retired, and this beautiful Hybrid 7 is now his main instrument.