Premiere: Michl Gets Surreal In New Short Film 'Datum'

Premiere: Michl Gets Surreal In New Short Film 'Datum'

The elusive indie artist talks to VMAN about creating the fashion-forward short film and the hometown it was inspired by.

The elusive indie artist talks to VMAN about creating the fashion-forward short film and the hometown it was inspired by.

Text: Jake Viswanath

There's no place like home. Whether it's the land of your dreams or the place you dream to get away from, there will always be some sort of connection that keeps part of your heart there. Michl knows this, and rather than running away from home, he's presenting it in a beautiful surreal light for his new short film datum, premiering exclusively on VMAN. Filmed entirely in his hometown of Riverside, the artist infuses clips of his latest single, "Better Than You", produced by Mura Masa, into footage of his city's people, parks, street, even the grocery store.

But rather than feeling restricted by small town living, the elusive indie artist is turning it into the city of his dreams, using haunting edits, California's vivid landscapes, and only the best high fashion. Brands like Gucci and Thom Browne inform every detail on how the film was created, and it shows. Below, Michl talks to VMAN about the glories of California, his love of every art form, and using the medium of short film to his advantage as a musician.

How are you doing? Where are you right now?

I’m literally on a train from LA to San Diego for a show. 

Oh wow, that’s amazing. I love that. I’m actually from Orange County so you’re passing right through my neighborhood. 

I’ve actually never taken the train. I used to take the train from LA to Riverside all the time when I lived in Riverside, but I’ve never taken one to San Diego. 

It’s such a pretty ride. 

Yeah, so pretty. I’m actually going along the coastline right now. 

Since you just mentioned Riverside, let’s jump in and talk about the video you filmed there. That was actually what attracted me to this video, since I’m from OC. I actually have family who live in Riverside.

Oh really? Usually people have either lived in Riverside or never heard of it. 

I find it so interesting what you said—people have never heard of it but it inspired this whole film which takes place there. What was your intention in creating this film and bringing it back home?

It was like a documentary, in a way, because I wanted to show where I came from. These exact locations are the exact places that I grew up—the same homes, the same streets, grocery store, everything. The homes in the video are my family’s homes, where I grew up going to. We used the pool that I actually swam in as a kid, the grocery store I went to with my parents. I thought it was important to show the reality of my life and hopefully it comes through in the film, even though I’m not in it. I just really wanted to paint that picture of where I came from. Within that setting, I put in a more conceptual idea incorporating fashion, a kind of dreaminess that I felt as a kid growing up. For me, it was always about authenticity and showing my hometown from my point of view is as authentic as it gets. 

Yeah, definitely. I wanted to talk about why you’re not in it. You shield yourself a little bit, and don’t show yourself in videos that often. What’s the reason for that?

There’s a few things. Other than the fact that it would be me in the video, there’s no other important artistic factor of it. For me, it’s always about putting the art first. If me being in it doesn’t convey the artistic element I’m trying to put out, then I won’t do it. I’m not good on camera, I don’t feel natural. If that interferes with the film, then there’s no point for me to do it. It was always about putting the film first, and not making it about me. 

For stuff outside of this film, like with your promo pics, they're kind of shaded. They blur out your face. Is it the same motive with that shielded identity, or is it different? You put the art first and don’t want anything to distract from that?

Exactly, my initial reasoning going into it has always been making it about the music. It’s not about anything else — the way I looked, etc. I didn’t want anything getting in the way of that. I’m not scared to show my face, I just didn’t want that to be the forefront. I don’t want to take anything away from each art form that I do. Whether it’s film, music, drawing, anything, the art aspect always comes first and if anything detracts from that, I’m not interested in it. As I progress with this project, I show more pictures of myself, but not so much for me. I always worry about the art aspect of everything. If it doesn’t make sense to me, I don’t do it. 

That’s really commendable, considering how many things you dabble in. 

I love so many different parts of art, it’s all so important to me. Fashion is art, design is art, music is art -- that’s always going to be the most important thing to me. 

Totally. One thing I wonder is do you ever worry that the mystery may overshadow the art?

I think at that point, I’ll just oversaturate everyone with photos of me [laughs]. I can feel that to be honest, that’s why I’m starting to show more of myself. I don’t want that mystery to overshadow the art. It’s a fine line to deal with.

Exactly, At some point you have to decide which perspective to have on it, and when to share and not share.

That’s a really valid point, and that’s why I’m beginning to share more. I don’t want that mystery to ever be a talking point when it comes to the art I’m creating. 

Do you keep a distance between how much of yourself you put into your music? Or is it unrelated?

That’s not really related. I put everything into my music. I don’t hold anything back in that aspect and I’m really proud of that. It’s just the visual aspect rather than the artistic form. 

Going back into the film, one thing that really attracted me was that such high fashion was used, it seems so contrasted by this small town. Were you creating the world you envisioned when you were living there?

Exactly. I always had these high aspirations and sometimes it felt unjust living in a place like Riverside. It’s so close to Los Angeles, but feels so far. I never went to LA growing up, but it was an hour away. Fashion was placed in the film because I really wanted to create this dreaminess of larger than life aspirations while keeping true to what the city is. I don’t think I went completely surreal by any means, but hopefully you can feel some surreal aspects in the film. 

Definitely, you can feel it especially in the grocery store scenes. You take something so mundane, something so everyday life and making it something a little spooky and haunting. It was beautiful. Why did you choose that setting specifically?

For one, that was the grocery store I grew up going to. It looks exactly the way it did 40 years ago. It really hasn’t changed, even talking to my family, they also say it hasn’t changed. I liked that. It’s communicative of Riverside. I loved the way it felt, that it was from my childhood, and that we included Thom Browne uniformity of his designs, and did it in a way that felt natural but if you know Thom Browne, it’s very uncommon to have a uniform in this very old grocery store. It’s ironic at the same time, but the main reason for having the grocery store is that I’m so tied to it. The concept of the film, including high fashion, was done in such a way knowing that people may not know fashion, but that’s where we hint at the bigger concepts of the whole. That dreaminess, those aspirations, within this mundane city—a big part of what we were doing is trying to show everyday life. There’s so many parts of the film that we didn’t include because we had too much, but we had other scenes with a gardener wearing Gucci, scenes with a laborer wearing designer clothing.

It seems like with many music videos, fashion goes hand in hand with that aesthetically. Based off of what you’re telling me about Thom Browne and the grocery store scene and the uniformity of it, you chose the fashion strategically. What inspired you about the clothes to include designers like Gucci, Thom Browne, and so on?

I don’t think any of the fashion elements stick out, so to say. That was something we were battling the whole time -- whether we really wanted that to stick out, whether a Balenciaga dress fit into the context. With my creative director, we brainstormed on the fashion parts and came up with this happy medium. We were able to, going back to concepts, incorporate these aspirations into the fashion without it feeling out of place. That’s what we were mainly concerned with. We both love certain designers, and love brands and what they stand for, but really more worried about it fitting in with the film and its context. Not completely making it surreal and out of place -- that’s what we were concerned with.

When most kids dream of aspirations, often it’s of a stereotypical place—going to New York, LA, what have you. It’s interesting how you had those aspirations in the film, but you kept them at home.

I’ve always had those aspirations, but never grew up in a big city. I had these dreams but I was always in the same place. I never dreamed or pictured myself going to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco. That just happened. I think that’s why I wanted to take it home, going back to the authenticity. I never had these dreams of a big city, it was when I was going to the grocery store with my parents, walking the streets on a Sunday afternoon, that’s where I envisioned it. 

It’s a different perspective on the dream. It’s like you don’t have to live in a big city to make your dreams come true. You can keep them where you are. 

Exactly, that’s something that’s really important to me. I’m really proud of where I come from, and I know a lot of people don’t really know the city. It’s kind of sad to see that in Riverside, where I’m playing shows now, I never thought I was going to leave. I thought I’d still be playing open mics there. Somehow, it just kind of happened. 

It feels so different growing up inland or in Orange County, compared to the big cities where it seems like there’s so much more opportunity. Even when you have cities so close to you, you can get lost in that mindset of never getting out. 

Yeah, you get comfortable. That’s the hard part of living in Southern California, not in the cities, you get so comfortable staying where you’re at. 

It’s really easy to stay in your bubble and never pop that bubble. It’s so underrated. It’s not just surf life, LA, and famous people.

That’s what I tell everybody about Southern California. There’s no place like Riverside, it’s so close to Newport and Los Angeles. 

I want to talk about the music in the film, you use your new single, “Better With You” produced by Mura Masa. Did the music inspire the film, or vice versa?

I wanted it to be a film first, and music second. That’s why I didn’t make a music video, per say. If I wanted it to be about the music, I would’ve took the single, the full song, and not cut it in half. I wanted it to be a film first, which was the best medium for the concept I was trying to explain. Luckily enough, I was able to edit the music to fit in with the film in a way that feels natural, and I also edited the first song out of order, and I recreated it just for the film, just to give it a different feel. I actually fit that song into the film, so that was the only part of the music that I really adjusted. It was definitely a film first, and that took precedence over everything else. 

Totally. I really admire that, since with many musicians it’s music first.

I think it’s speaks to how much I love art, and the film takes that to the same level of thoughtfulness that I do with my music. Art, to me, has the same amount of weight and the same amount of intent. 

Film always seems to elevate music to a new level. I think of Lemonade, I think Janelle Monae's new project, it makes it feel more like an event. 

It gives it another dimension, not even just with music but as an artist. I was very fortunate to have this team that worked on the film. I don’t know how to use a 35mm camera, but they allowed me to have my fingerprints all over this film, co-direct it, and learn how to share my vision.

It seemed like you were able to get your vision across no matter what. How was that process? Did casting play a role? 

There were no actors, per say. Some people in it were from Riverside, were friends or family—my mom, my mom’s friends, the main two people, the skater guy and his girlfriend were actually boyfriend and girlfriend. My co-director saw them in a restaurant and just asked them if they wanted to be in the film. They had no idea who I was, or what they were getting themselves into. Luckily, they jumped on board and were there. Everyone had no acting experience, but I wanted it to feel natural. That goes along with having the right people in place on the crew, making it feel natural. Hopefully, that comes across.

It totally does. You kept everything so local, in the family, and it does come across that way. You have such an intimate knowledge of your town and are able to show it off in a different way. 

That’s why I was hesitant to be in the film. I wanted it to show my view of the world, being behind the camera rather than in front of it. 

Definitely. You see a different perspective showing it than being a part of it.  Do you want to continue using short film as medium? It’s becoming more widely used by musicians, so where do you see yourself taking it beyond a normal music video?

I think it has to be done with a lot of care and love. I definitely want to do it, but I don’t want to compromise any artistic elements. For music videos and film, I’ve always wanted to shoot everything in 35mm, but it’s not that cheap to shoot it that way. I’m not going to do things just to do them, I’m going to wait to come up with concepts that I feel strongly about. I would love to do it more, but also I know I should be working on more music. I’m trying to balance both, but I will definitely put out more visual pieces. I don’t have any time frame for that. 

You’re such an artistic person, and have such strong feelings about fashion. Have you ever considered delving into the fashion world, designing your own clothes or anything like that?

It’s funny because I haven’t done any merch ever. It’s because I get so frustrated. The last time I went to a show as a fan, not as a musician, I got so frustrated because the band just put their name on a tee-shirt, which was bad quality, and it was nothing special. They were charging like $35 for it. I was a kid and I was broke, so it was really frustrating. Ever since that day, I’ve kind of been against that. Until I have something to say within the item I’m selling with my name on it, I stay away from it. I play with my manager saying I want to put out merch pants, do something that no one does. I don’t know anyone who sells pants for merch. 

You’d be surprised. I haven’t seen it that much, but I have seen pants. It’s mostly leggings, but it’s surprising to see. 

I wear very loose pants with a drawstring, almost a Japanese style. They’re one size fits all. That could work as a merch piece, cause I wear sleepwear all day every day [laughs] It’s so comfortable and for me it works. That’s the hard part with merch too. I don’t want to force my taste onto anybody else. I definitely enjoy fashion a lot, and I might do something out of the ordinary with it. A custom-cut pant, as merch, or something weird. I definitely see it. 

It’s interesting to hear an artist’s take on merch, taking something that’s low-quality and overpriced a lot of the time and doing something different.

That’s what I try to do with everything I do. It’s probably not the smartest thing from a business perspective. I’ve been playing a ton of shows for the past year or two and I have no merch.

It’s an easy cash-grab for artists, but it’s good you’re sticking to your convictions. 

Yeah. It could be stupid. 

Credits: Photo by Nolan Feldpausch

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