interview by Michael McCarthy
Mystery Skulls, otherwise known as Luis Debuc, was something of a mystery to me prior to reading the press release for his new album, One of Us. All I knew was that I loved the Mystery Skulls debut album, Forever. You see, I had no idea if Mystery Skulls was a band or solo artist. A big reason for this was because he didn’t appear on his album covers. Not until the One of Us cover, that is. You can see him through some smoke as he’s sitting in a car on this one. Also making Mystery Skulls an enigma to me was the fact that he rarely appears in his videos. Most of them are animated. Some are official. Others are unofficial, fan-made videos. In most instances, the fan-made videos have racked up more plays on Youtube than the official ones. One such fan-made video has 27 million plays. That’s not a typo. It actually has 27 million plays. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around that. Even once I knew it was a solo project, I still had no idea what he was like until I found some interviews with him on Youtube and discovered that he’s highly intelligent and super friendly, which, naturally, made me want to interview him. After reading it, you’ll want to head on over to Amazon and pre-order One of Us, which drops on August 11, 2017. Don’t worry, I’ll remind you at the end.
MM: I understand you live in L.A. now or thereabouts?
LD: Yeah, I live in L.A. proper right downtown.
MM: Oh, cool. I was just curious because I lived in Glendale for a few years myself.
LD: Where do you live now?
MM: I live near Lowell, Massachusetts right now. I’m originally from here and I moved back here when I encountered some health problems, but I’m hoping to move back out there eventually.
LD: Right on, man. Right on.
MM: So, have you lived downtown the whole time you’ve lived in L.A.?
LD: When I first moved to L.A. I lived in K-Town [Editor’s note: a.k.a. Koreatown] and it was an exciting adventure, let me tell you. There was a shoot out on my street. I mean, it was insane. There was also MS-13 [Ed: a Korean gang], which I know now people talk about that. It was pretty wild. Then about two and a half years ago I moved right downtown and I have this cool studio space and I can create here. That’s been really invaluable. It allowed me to make my new album.
MM: So, you’ve got yourself a home studio then?
LD: Yeah, absolutely. It’s great and I get to make all my music here. It allows me to have no rush. I’m not on any rush or on any schedule. Very lovely.
MM: Had you already been pursing music before you moved to California?
LD: Yeah, absolutely. I started touring when I was 18 as a drummer in a metal band. Totally interesting. Definitely a different life. And so, I worked in music for years and then I kind of stopped doing music and I was working as a teacher at School of Rock. [Laughs] I remember Mystery Skulls was out on the internet. I made the e-mail – I guess I made two, something like like a Mystery Skulls contact and Mystery Skulls at gmail – and I hadn’t been checking the regular Mystery Skulls at g-mail. I had just assumed that no one cared. I’d forgotten that I made that other e-mail. Then I remember working at School of Rock and my friend, this guy, comes around the corner and he’s like, “You’re that Mystery Skulls guy. Dude, I’ve been trying to e-mail you about these shows and everybody loves your music.” And I’m like, “Really? I haven’t gotten a single e-mail.” [Both laugh] I finally get in there and there’s all this love and it was so cool. It definitely was great to have worked at School of Rock. It was nice to have gone back and worked with the children. I always felt really weird getting paid. I always felt like it should just be free. Anyway, yeah, that’s it. I’ve been pursuing music for quite a while.
MM: I know you taught yourself music. When you first started, was it the drums you learned first?
LD: Yeah, it was drums first. Then I went on tour for years and I got to learn guitar and piano from my friend John Moreland, who’s like this famous folk singer now and he’s the man who showed me how to write songs. It was drums then the guitar then I learned programming and how to make beats on a laptop. It was totally weird at first. I’ve gotten pretty good by now. Anyways, it’s been absolutely a growing process and it’s been cool. Maybe that’s why people are invested. Because as I’ve grown, they’ve grown. As they’ve grown, I’ve grown. So, you come to these different plateaus and they get to follow along and see my music evolve and change.
MM: How’s the writing process usually work with you?
LD: There’s two things. Two things that are happening. And they’re both happening at the same time. I’m always making music – like beats – and that’ll be like a 30 second or minute long clip. That has just a couple of sounds, a couple of things. I’m always looking for things that I think are interesting. Then, on the other side of it, I start from a really cool idea. Like I wanted to have a song called “One of Us” for the longest time. I would just sit here and sing something and I’d say, no, that’s not really it. And then I remember one day I made the music then I sat there and sang to it and it felt right, finally. So, I think a lot of it is that I purposely try to write songs that have specific moods on the album. So, it’s not just an album of bangers. You’ve got the highs and the lows, which I think helps the replay value of the album. So, it’s not just, I listened to it once, it was cool. I love it when people say, I’ve listened to your album hundreds of times. They’re referencing and acknowledging the replay value and I think that’s so cool.
MM: What do you use to make the beats? Is there a certain program you favor over others?
LD: Well, actually, I use a lot of hardware. A lot of like really old vintage gear. I have three Russian synths. I’ve got Italian synths. I’ve got a Japanese synth.
LD: Yeah, a lot of times it’s honestly better to start from a hardware place instead of a digital place. There’s just something about the analog circuitry, it being handmade. A lot of that stuff, if it breaks there’s no way to fix it. So, I feel really lucky to be able to use it. From the first album to the second album the big difference was that on this new album I’m using a lot more hardware. A little synth totally changed the sound, making it more impressive when you hear it.
MM: What program do you use for tracking the album?
LD: A lot of times Logic. It’s a program that’s by Apple. It’s called Apple Logic.
MM: I think that one is only for Macs though, unfortunately. I use Acid Pro, which is kind of ancient now.
LD: No, it’s so cool. Logic started as a PC program. E-Magics was the company that made it back in the day. It definitely has a long, storied history. I think now it’s just a Mac unless you want to dual boot it or however you want to do it. I think Acid Pro is awesome. There’s definitely a lot of people making cool music in it.
MM: Are the strings on your albums samples or synth or live strings?
LD: They’re live strings, yeah. I’m glad you asked. It’s definitely not as string laden as the last album, but you know there are moments, and there are flourishes, and I try to add all those textures and tones to make it dynamic.
MM: Do you play it all yourself or do you have any featured musicians?
LD: That’s a great question. So, the featured musicians for the album are like my friend Zack Ordway. He played all the guitars on the album. Because I can do a demo guitar, but it’s not good enough. So, I ask my friends who are very, very talented. He’s from Texas and I flew him out to L.A and we’d sit in the studio together and make this music. It was nice. That’s another part of it as well. Once I’ve made the thicket of the song we get to bring people in and add little flourishes of guitar and strings and vocals. My friend DeZmond Meeks did a lot of the big vocals that you hear. Also, Cheryl Lynn sings on “Find A Way” and “Music.” So, I have some incredible collaborators on this album.
MM: I read that you originally pictured the album as a soundtrack to an imaginary movie. What can you tell us about that?
LD: Yeah, well, I tried to make it go from imaginary to real, but it was to no avail. But, yeah, that was my concept. That it was the soundtrack to a film. A lot of the lines in the songs are the speaking parts of the characters in the film. Like the song “One of Us,” that’s this character speaking to all these people. It’s all conceptual and hypothetical, but, yeah, it’s a story album. I’d never made a story album. All my previous music was always autobiographical. So, this was trying my hand at doing something that felt a little bit different. I’m really proud of it over all.
MM: Did you start it off as a screenplay before you wrote the songs?
LD: Yeah, it was the concept of it that we did before the music. So, I knew that the music needed to be more aggressive. That’s where I really wanted to go. I had a mood board on the wall with all these pictures and inspiration. It was really nice to use all of those tools. To let that influence my music. Rather than making the music then trying to fit a story to it later. It was definitely story first. And this is the audio representation of that story.
MM: If One of Us was made into a movie, would you act in it?
LD: You know, that’s a great question. I wouldn’t be adverse to having a cameo of a sort. That would be wonderful, if it could be made into a movie or play or musical. If they want to make a musical, these are the songs. Here’s the soundtrack. I love it. I’m very, very proud of it after I worked really hard on it and I think it’s my best album to date.
MM: I think so, too. Speaking of acting, who are the stars of the video for “Music”?
LD: The main star is my friend Broderick. Broderick Hunter is a friend that I met here in L.A. and he’s a really great dude and supportive of my music. I got to ask him. I said, “Hey, do you want to be in my music video?” And he said yes immediately. It just turned out so lovely and so sweet and it’s not the film representation of “One of Us,” but it’s kind of like a snapshot into that world for a moment, you know?
MM: Sure. And who’s the actress that’s in the video with him?
LD: Her name is blanking on me at the moment. I didn’t previously know her at all. She was friends with the director and she was amazing, though. Obviously, it’s a great performance.
MM: You’ve had some very successful videos. Some were official while others were fan-made. I was wondering if you ever did a contest to encourage fan-made videos or did they just take it upon themselves to start doing that?
LD: They took it upon themselves. The original, first fan-made video that I ever saw was on 4chan. It was a meme called “Dumb Running Sonic” and it was all these little videos of Sonic the Hedgehog sort of running with hilarious legs and wobbling. Not graceful like Sonic. And someone compiled all the little videos and put it into one gif and they used my very old song from my first EP called “Amazing.” And it went viral. People showed it to me and were like, have you seen this “Dumb Running Sonic” thing? And from that my now friend Ben found my music and made the first video to a song called “Money” and that inspired a ton of people and had millions of views. I said, “Hey man, where are you from?” He was in Austin and I was in Dallas and I went down and met him and he said I’m making another one for your tune “Ghost” and he made “Ghost” and now it has 27 million views. That is wild. He’s made more and that’s been really cool because he’s inspired other people to make art with my stuff.
With this new album, I put out this tune called “Losing My Mind” and then a day or two later there’s a thing called “Losing My Mind meme.” It’s cool, these people made their own animations to my song and it’s definitely going wild. A lot of the animations that people made to “Losing My Mind” have more plays than my own stream. So, it’s really cool just to see where it’s going to get out to the world and go to all these different places based upon user generated content that we didn’t solicit in any way. In a tweet someone said, “I’m so excited for your new album. I can’t wait to listen to it and draw.” I just thought that was so cool that there’s people out there who my audio influences their visual. I don’t know what that is or how we’re connected but it’s obvious that we are.
MM: How does it work with the royalties when people make these videos that get millions of views? Do they make all the money off of that?
LD: You know, that’s a great question. But I definitely don’t know how that works. I’ve never even seen a penny from Youtube or anything, if that’s what you’re asking. The way that I perceive it is like it’s advertising and it exists as a free billboard for my music. So, there’s all these people who are gonna hear this music. Some of them are gonna come to the shows. Some of them are gonna buy the next record. Some are gonna love all this stuff. Some of them are gonna fall in love with the universe of Mystery Skulls. I don’t even know if there’s a single royalty on that stuff. Even if there is, I’m infinitely thankful for it and it’s allowed me to tour the world.
Extra special thanks to Luis for taking the time to chat with us and to Ceri Roberts at Warner Bros. for setting it up!