New York synth-pop duo Misha manage to add enough surprisingly askew moments — chipmunk Bollywood, lo-fi Beatles-esque acoustics — to their woozy, Erasure-on-Bacharach (on Sarah Records) hooks, that even stretches of gurgling electro-drums and homegrown sneaker-gazing possess intriguing, human detail. Adding to the intimacy, multi-instrumental collaborators Ashley Yao and John Chao grew up knowing each other in Taipei, then fifteen years later met back up in New York and started dating. Though the two share a band and an apartment, they don’t overlap in the ways they pay the bills: Chao’s a consultant, Yao a professional model. Both are serious full-time gigs. As they joke at their MySpace: “If you don’t like any of [our music], well, hopefully you don’t hate it. And if you hate it, well, there’s no pleasing everyone. And if everyone hates it, well, at least we all still have dayjobs for now.”
For those who’ve forgotten about Misha’s Band To Watch status, we’re re-posting “Summersend,” but adding “Weatherbees,” another standout from the band’s debut full-length Teardrop Sweetheart. Additionally, check “I Lit My Treb On Fire,” an icy click ‘n’ snap exclusive Chao kindly dug from the archives and presented to Quit Your Day Job: “We’re always fascinated by romance and technology, and we have this other side to Misha that produces mostly instrumentals with lots of synths … for quite a while we were really trying to experiment with pop and electronic sounds — not electronica, but more “synth synth,” Robert Rich or Vangelis. When we heard the Knife, M83, Eluvium, and others, we felt like they articulated what we were trying to say in such amazing ways that we focused less on that kind of expression for our album.” Hence the band’s “alter ego,” Misha/Amura. (Hey, putting aside the frozen vocal purrs and ricocheting instrumentation a second — just me or does “I Lit My Treb On Fire” read like the title of a Spoon song?)
Continue reading to find out why real modeling’s different than America’s Next Top Model and what Houston college kids eat for lunch in Louisiana pipe plants.
STEREOGUM: How’d you get into modeling?
ASHLEY YAO: I was in the subway and was discovered by a casting director, Barbara Pfister — she started to cast me on jobs she was working on. One thing led to another, and Pink from Wilhelmina Agency, who I’m with now, saw my Polaroid and signed me. They really like Polaroids in fashion — they always look better than digital for some reasons unknown to me.
STEREOGUM: How long have you been doing this?
AY: On and off for about 5 years…
STEREOGUM: Before Barbara Pfister spotted you, had you ever thought about becoming a model?
AY: Never! The opportunity totally came out of nowhere.
STEREOGUM: In general, what sort of jobs are you doing.
AY: In general, I do mostly print, which means magazines, advertisements, and catalogues. I’m on a board (that’s what they call a roster in agencies) that works with both editorial (magazine) and ad clients.
STEREOGUM: What’s been your favorite shoot?
AY: I like most shoots, but one that comes to mind recently was the Vogue China shoot I did with Solve Sundsbo, in London. We were running out of time, but Solve and his team were able to create some pretty incredible pictures. It was really inspirational seeing truly talented people come together.
STEREOGUM: Any disastrous shoots?
AY: Once the clients asked to bleach my eyebrows for an editorial and promised to dye them back afterwards. My skin was so irritated by the bleach and dye, I lost most of my brows.
STEREOGUM: Are there particular photographers you prefer to work with?
AY: There are a lot of really talented photographers (it’s true!) — Solve, who I mentioned above, of course, but also Alex Cayley, who also has done work with Vogue, and the great Richard Avedon, who I got to work with before he died. (He was, among, other things, the staff photographer for the New Yorker.) I think it’s like picking favorite musicians or authors — it’s really hard to say who I’d prefer to work with, but in general, great photographers are truly interesting to work with regardless of their temperament, because you can learn so much.
STEREOGUM: What did you shoot with Avedon?
AY: A hair product advertisement.
STEREOGUM: Certain jobs come with preconceptions attached. Do you find people reacting oddly when they find out you’re a model?
AY: Yes, definitely! In general, I don’t like the question, and I really hate “so what are you going to do later?” ARGH! The reactions range from playing it like “cool, whatever,” to “oh you think you’re all that” to “let’s make out.” I usually try to tell people I work in fashion or advertising (which is true! I used to work for Wieden and Kennedy), but people eventually find out. John didn’t believe me when I first told him. Jerk!
STEREOGUM: So you used to work in advertising, are now a part of the shoots. Do you think the previous experience has helped with the modeling at all?
AY: The accounts I worked on in advertising were all male oriented like Nike, ESPN, Konami … so it’s pretty different from the fashion industry
STEREOGUM: Ever watch America’s Next Top Model? Thoughts?
AY: I watch America’s Next Top Model, which probably blows our “cool” credibility. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s definitely not true to the fashion industry. We don’t have contests, or a judge like Tyra, or the amount of catfights. (Sorry!) Even The Agency on VH1, which was about the agency I’m with, grossly exaggerated the reality of our work. There’s definitely attitude and tension, but it’s like any other industry. The only difference is that we work with new and different people all the time. A better show about modeling is A Model’s Life on TLC.
STEREOGUM: I missed The Agency. Did you make it onto the show?
AY: I was in the credit shots at the beginning of the show for a couple seconds. The episode I was on was cut!
STEREOGUM: Does your work with Misha ever collide with your modeling? Of course, posing for band photos and the like, but curious if photographers and such have any idea that you also make music.
AY: Most of my close friends know I’m in Misha, although they’re often surprised. Honestly, I don’t tell most of my colleagues just because it rarely comes up, and I don’t like to brag. Or talk too much about my personal life. Also, I thought the album would never come out. Haha. (Sorry, Tom!)
STEREOGUM: Who are some other musician models? I’m blanking.
AY: Well, Cassie, for one, who’s still with my agency. “U & Me” is such a great song! Karen Elson, who’s married to Jack White, is a well-known model, and was in The Citizen’s Band or something. And Irina Lazareanu, who’s friends with Sean Lennon and Pete Doherty, is coming out with an album too, I think.
STEREOGUM: What are your thoughts on musicians turned models like Chan Marshall, or whatever?
AY: It is becoming more prevalent for famous musicians or actresses to be featured in advertisements and magazine covers, and it definitely has an impact on the modeling industry, since a lot of the campaigns have replaced models and that means less job opportunities for models. But fortunately, I think most of the models realize the days of the supermodels are long gone and are aware of the fierce competition and the uncertainty with our line or work.
STEREOGUM: What sort of things have you learned since you started five years ago? That’s a broad question, but maybe a couple “tips” for those potential models out there.
AY: I learned to take people’s criticisms with a grain of salt, especially ones about my appearance. I think it’s important to have a positive attitude in this industry. It can get pretty lonely and sometimes scary when you travel to a foreign country and try to get around and meet new people. Staying positive really helps.
STEREOGUM: So you’re overseas on business?
JOHN CHAO: Yup, I’m in England for this work thing where we get to learn about what everyone else at the company does. It looks kind of interesting — I can attend functions that talk about global shifts like preserving rain forests in Brazil and the Chinese middle class (along with more domestic stuff like the aging boomers and their impact on the US economy). But I’m so tired that I just want to walk around and buy junk food. So far I’ve had a Thai chicken pie, a curry pastry, a bag of crisps, and a weird cookie — none of which was as good as I had hoped, sadly.
STEREOGUM: How long have you been in consulting?
JOHN CHAO About two and half years now.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned to me that you can’t go into too many specifics, but what sort of consulting do you do?
JC: My firm does a lot of different kinds of consulting, from strategy to operations, green energy to high-tech to disaster relief. I have focused more on media and consumer packaging goods, although I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of very, very cool non-profit work as well.
STEREOGUM: Can you give me an example of what comes across your desk?
JC: Sure … I worked on a blood center project, which was really fulfilling. The situation was, there’s this very big blood bank, which collects and serves hundreds of thousands of units of blood every year (one of the biggest in the US). They face increased pressure from the community, their hospitals, and others to increase blood collection, speed up time of delivery, and add other services — but at the same time, their blood donor base is dwindling, and they’re facing competition from other blood centers, and they don’t always have the resources to just go out there and buy new equipment since they’re a non-profit. The question was, faced with all these pressures, what should their new five-year goal be and how do they get there?
We worked with the center on a number of basic activities, including getting the community, customers, internal staff, and so forth to agree to a goal that was a stretch but got the staff moving and also satisfied the hospitals’ needs. We also had a chance to look at their organization and understand where they might be able to improve how quickly they got blood from donor to hospital. And our company is very large, so we actually had other teams and partners who either ran blood centers or assisted them, to say, here’s three or four things that are critical, and you have to focus on, versus three or four things that are just distractions, and here’s how the center could solve them. So by the end, we had a goal that everyone was fairly happy with, but also the steps to get there that the center created.
The most important part of consulting, at least what I’ve learned, is to not waste people’s time and to have compassion for other people’s situations. Everybody has opinions, and it’s easy to go into a situation and cast judgment, so it’s critical that one listens well and really understand what would work, as opposed to what an ideal solution is. Sounds silly, but it’s really true.
STEREOGUM: Do you have previous experience in this area?
JC: On the business side, I studied engineering while playing music, and did some crazy jobs, like working in plants in southern Louisiana (fun! we did a lot of cooking crawfish and studying pipes and machinery). I also worked as a financial analyst, and I studied organizational design and strategy in grad school. On the media side, I’ve worked in the industry on and off from when I was in college, like interning at MTV2 (when it was still M2, where I totally abused my press badge). When I was in grad school, I did more work for media companies like Netflix, and also did a bit of work with the MediaLab, which was very fun and hard. There are so many smart and creative people at grad school that you really felt humble and got to learn a lot.
STEREOGUM: How’d you end up in Louisiana?
JC: I went to undergrad in Houston and studied Chem-E. And there are a lot of plants down in Louisiana that make pipes and other basic necessities for building cities. I worked in a plant in the dead of summer and had these 12-hour shifts where we wore hard hats and fireproof suits and sat in control rooms. And we had to do these sniff tests, literally — where we walked around and took measurements from meters and if something smelled really “pretty” you would be worried, because chances are there was a leak, and aromatics, which is a kind of organic (carbon-based) molecule, are particularly pungent, but not good for the environment and could be dangerous. Fortunately, I never really smelled anything. Instead, we did our rounds, and we talked a lot about fishing, girls, cars, and how to re-use frying oil. These plants are really hard environments to work in, because you did these shifts and every few days you switched from day to night, so it was like being jet-lagged for nearly half your life (assuming you worked at a plant like this for 20-30 years). But everyone was really, really nice — I learned to appreciate tomato sandwiches. As a lay Buddhist, I’m vegetarian periodically, and so for snacks we’d have white bread plus thick tomato plus mayonnaise … basically the anti-Undercover Brother sandwich.
STEREOGUM: You studied Engineering. When you say you did work for media companies like Netflix or MTV2, what sort of work was that?
JC: I studied engineering, but also did a minor in media studies. I did a variety of things — I interned for a few, worked at a few, and as a consultant, I’ve served several. I actually interned at Netflix — I worked on the redesign of their organization of movies. It’s like being in charge of the Dewey Decimal System: how many genres should we have, what should go where, how do we help our users get as close as possible to the right movies? At a major record label like in 2002, I did work on how to do legal digital media (this was basically right as iTunes was getting started, I remember attending meetings about this). My suggestion was, don’t invest so much in proprietary copyright protection, because you’re not good at it, and you’ll just end up messing it up — so focus on getting the right partners, get a good deal for the customer, and face the fact that some will steal it, but most will be good citizens if it’s a good enough experience. I also made some less prescient suggestions, like selling singles is a bad idea.
[Ashley and John answered the some of the following as one entity, Misha.]
STEREOGUM: How does labor works into a song like “Scars”?
MISHA Scars is a tribute/reference song, part synthetic, part Broadway. We’re really intrigued by American Modernism/Futurism, spanning in different ways from the 20’s to the 50’s, and all the optimism that it connoted, and the expectation that Man was perfectible, and all the tragedy, like the atom bomb, that it brought as well. So the repeating lyrics about working in the jungle and the hours that you pull was intended to resemble the dehumanizing process of modern work. And as the song builds, we added the snares, which is like a goad or a stick, and then the strings, which is like adding gilding or something to make the work experience more pleasant. But at the same time, attached with that first set is the second set of lyrics about jet age; in our minds, it’s images like the Caddy’s with the fins and those great shows about “The World Of Tomorrow,” which for us closely echo the American ideal that if you worked hard, there’s a better tomorrow. (We’re definitely not saying that’s not true, because our parents and grandparents, who were immigrants, came here precisely because of that promise.) But the fumes bit is about the dark edge that that world always has. The second part of “Scars” is more personal, and we wanted to make it like a coda, giving way to the more romantic part of that age, of the Rock Hudson movies and the publishing world with stiff drinks and cardigans. The synths are a little reminiscent of Kraftwerk, which, to us, also had that feeling of romance and technology too. All said, hopefully even if you don’t think about it like that, it’s still an interesting and fun song.
STEREOGUM: John, is the interest in American Modernism/Futurism and mechanization and romance/technology at all related to your work as an engineer/consultant?
JC: I think both me and Ash have been fascinated by these themes independent of our work — though the more people you meet and stories you hear, the more you realize that nothing’s quite so straightforward. Both of our parents and grandparents faced pretty tough times growing up. It’s hard to explain the impact of the China/Taiwan split in the 1950’s, but every Taiwanese-American or Taiwanese I know has been profoundly impacted by it. Most of the ex-pat Chinese in Taiwan left with nothing and had to rebuild and faced political, financial, and physical challenges. The upshot is that they all had to sacrifice a lot and work really hard to get us, their kids and grandkids, to the US and to have cushy lives. But we had the luxury of growing up also with a set of American values, which are more about finding meaning in work and such, as opposed to working to survive. One could argue that the latter lifestyle is very self-denying and the former is very self-indulgent, but those seem too easy as answers as well.
STEREOGUM: You’re a couple who plays in a band together. Do you think it’s helpful that you have such different jobs?
MISHA: It’s definitely helpful not to have the same jobs — also, no agency no matter how desperate would take John as a model. But yeah, to have different jobs and hours and clocks work out really well for songwriting and just thinking, but also for our lives in general. We also have really different taste in music at times — so when we agree, we feel pretty good about it. When we disagree, it’s not so pretty. And yeah, we can’t imagine having the same jobs! Especially if you’re really competitive or one person does well, that’s got to be really hard. What’s funny is that almost none of Ash’s friends, or any of our friends, really, knows what a consultant is. We hope to keep it that way. And it is interesting to see our friends mix though — most of John’s friends aren’t business people, but still, the fashion world is just so different, there’s a slightly more guarded/edgier feeling to the fashion crowd. For the most part, our friends are very similar deep down inside. We like people who make a room feel like home. But we have lots of friends who are visual/designers and architects (lots of John’s friends are architects, and Ash’s sister and brother went to Parsons and SVA and live here). And John’s sister is also living in the city. So we hang out with family a lot.