Interview

Q&A: Michael Cera On His Surprise Album True That

By Chris DeVille / August 15, 2014

Actor Michael Cera has long been associated with music, either on-screen (playing a Moldy Peaches song in Juno), off-screen (filling in on bass for indie rock supergroup Mister Heavenly) or some combination thereof (helping to craft the soundtrack for the music-centric Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist). But he’d never released any music of his own until last week, when a collection of home recordings went on Bandcamp under the name true that with zero fanfare. It might have gone unnoticed for a long time if not for his friend Jonah Hill tweeting about it Tuesday night. That would’ve been a shame; true that is a charming listen. Its lo-fi folk songs and jazzy piano ditties remind me — in spirit, at least — of Badly Drawn Boy’s threadbare debut The Hour Of Bewilderbeast.

Cera released the album during a busy time in his life. Next week he’ll make his Broadway debut alongside Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson in a new version of Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 play This Is Our Youth. (Rostam from Vampire Weekend wrote the score.) But Cera found some time between rehearsals to chat with Stereogum about his musical endeavors. Press play and read on.

STEREOGUM: Has your album been in the works for awhile? Or was it just a burst of inspiration?

MICHAEL CERA: No, it’s kind of been an accumulation of things I was fooling around with.

STEREOGUM: I noticed there’s a lot of piano on the record. Do you have one at home?

CERA: Yeah, I got my piano up my three-story walk-up I just moved into. The guy who sold it to me was pretty positive he couldn’t get it up here. So he told me he’d try to have his guys move it in, but if they couldn’t get it in, I’d still have to pay the piano-moving cost. You know they charge by the step, so… I don’t know how these guys did it. They got this thing around two corners, going upstairs – just defied physics and got it to my house. I don’t think I’ll ever get it out, but it’s here now, and I love it.

STEREOGUM: At what point did you learn piano? Before guitar?

CERA: I played guitar first when I was 13, and started picking up piano at around 18. I really don’t play very well. I can’t read music or anything. I just really like the way it feels, though.

STEREOGUM: There’s a lot of old folksy kinds of pieces on there. “Of A Thursday” is almost a ragtime song, and “Gershy’s Kiss” seems to be a Gershwin reference. What draws you to those old styles of music?

CERA: Jeez, I don’t know. I guess just sitting down at a piano and kind of seeing what I can do — which is, you know, very limited. It’s like making songs with power chords or something. I don’t know much about music or any kinds of musical concepts. So I really just do the kinds of things my hands are capable of. I don’t have much dexterity, I can’t do anything fancy. I would love to be able to play like Oscar Peterson or something.

STEREOGUM: That said, in the same way as punk rock records or your typical lo-fi indie record, it still evokes some strong sensations and good feelings, regardless of the technical prowess.

CERA: That’s nice. I’ve been sending my songs to friends for a long time. It’s nice that people listen to it. I’ve been recording stuff at home for so long, just playing it for myself and people I know. My friend told me he thought I was being too careful with my music, and I thought that was a really nice, gentle criticism. So I thought I’d maybe want to have people hear it.

STEREOGUM: So that’s why it came out just now?

CERA: Not really. It wasn’t even like a specific thing. I thought I’d make a Bandcamp page so my music would just be online and people could find it. There was so little thought put into it.

STEREOGUM: Do you imagine you’ll keep adding to it?

CERA: It’s surprising to me that people are aware of it now, and are listening to it. So I guess I’ll just see what that’s like. I’m always trying to play music with friends. So I don’t know that I’d add anything to this or just leave that alone. Like I said, there’s no plan at all. Which is nice, when you do something as a hobby, and get to play with it.

STEREOGUM: Do you think you’ll perform any of these songs live?

CERA: I don’t think so. I don’t even know how I could. I like playing music in front of people, but I don’t really have any plans to do that right now.

STEREOGUM: The cover, “Clay Pigeons,” is a really beautiful song. What attracted you to that one?

CERA: One night I just started playing it and realized I couldn’t do the lead vocals. Blaze Foley’s original lead vocal in the song is this really low melody line. I sang a harmony line to it and kept the lead vocals, because I realized that was the only way I could sing the song. And then I was sitting up late one night and just recording it, and adding to it. It was just a song I really liked and spent a lot of time with one night. I think it’s beautiful.

STEREOGUM: Has being on Broadway made it easier or harder to work on music?

CERA: I actually haven’t really worked on music since we’ve been working on this show. Just here and there playing with friends and stuff. But mostly when we’re playing with friends, we’re just playing Kinks songs and stuff. I actually play music with the guy who lives below me, which is just the most fortuitous thing that’s ever happened to me, because I’ve never really had neighbors I would really hang out with. He and his brother grew up playing the Kinks and Zombies, and his girlfriend’s musical, too. So we end up drinking wine and playing Kinks songs until the landlord gets pissed off.

STEREOGUM: Trying to play music at home in New York isn’t always the easiest.

CERA: It helps that they’re into it — that I don’t have neighbors below me saying shut up.

STEREOGUM: Who’s the kid on your album cover?

CERA: That’s my sister’s boyfriend’s daughter.

STEREOGUM: That’s cool. How’d you select that to be your Bandcamp photo?

CERA: I just love that photo of her, and one day we were just hanging out and my sister took a bunch of photos of us, and I liked that photo. It’s nice that she really likes me. I take it so personally when a kid doesn’t like you. When I was growing up, I had this little cousin I tried to make laugh one day. There was this thing my mom used to do where she’d bang her elbow in the doorframe — like you’d pretend to hurt yourself, and you’d go, “Help!” And my little cousin looked at me and started bawling her eyes out. It really broke my heart. So now it means so much to me that this little girl is happy when she’s around me.

STEREOGUM: The play you’re doing has music by Rostam from Vampire Weekend, but it’s more of a score, right? It’s not a musical.

CERA: No, definitely not. That’s like interstitial music.

STEREOGUM: Did you have any involvement with that?

CERA: Not at all. I think that’d be a union violation. Actually, that sounds like a joke, but it’s probably true. It’s weird working on a Broadway show. You’ve got to be careful not to accidentally do somebody’s job, or you get in trouble.

STEREOGUM: You guys did a round of warm-up shows in Chicago, right?

CERA: Yeah, we did a whole run of it in Chicago. 44 shows.

STEREOGUM: Does that take any of the edge off of making your Broadway debut?

CERA: Yeah, I would say it helps. I think that’s probably why they wanted to do that — break us in, cut our teeth on the show a bit, figure out what we’re doing on some level before jumping onto the big stage.

STEREOGUM: Had you done much stage acting before this?

CERA: Very very little. Two years ago I did a run of this show in Australia for two weeks. We rehearsed for a month. There was a two-week opening at the Sydney Opera House and they wanted to have us. So we went and did it for two weeks, which is hardly enough time to figure out what you’re doing. That’s basically my only experience.

STEREOGUM: Would you ever consider doing a musical?

CERA: I don’t think so. I can’t say I’ve ever thought about that, although I really liked The Book Of Mormon. That was an incredible experience.

STEREOGUM: Anything else you want to say about the album?

CERA: It’s funny talking to you about it, because I have so little to say about it, in a weird way. It kind of speaks for itself. It’s just stuff I made over time, using GarageBand, just to be recording something, for the fun of it. Which is nice, because when you’re not trying to make a career out of something, there are no stakes in it for you, which is an enviable way to approach something.

STEREOGUM: Do you expect to be doing any music with anybody else in the future? You had that stint playing bass with Mr. Heavenly — do you expect to be doing anything like that, coming up?

CERA: I have no plans of that kind. I really actually don’t know what I’ll be doing with my life in general come January. Which is fine. I really don’t need to be looking too much further than that.

[Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images.]