Local Philly Music Profile: Ape School
If your teacher was a rock star, you’d probably know, right?
Maybe not. According to Michael Johnson, most of his University of the Arts students aren’t aware of his semi-national fame (he’s signed to an indie label and has been reviewed on Pitchfork, for starters) under his moniker, Ape School.
“I don’t mix that professional world with the other professional world for the most part,” the 33-year old recording technology teacher says. “I don’t really flaunt it or anything, so it’s not a widely known thing.”
The self-proclaimed “avant weirdo pop kid” grew up in Florida – born in Miami, then made his way up to Pensacola – and has played with numerous acts over the years, most notably Sub Pop’s Holopaw. He’s also been involved with The Lilys, Human Television, and has played with Philly psych-folker Kurt Vile. Johnson has been teaching in UArts’ music technology program for almost five years, after moving to Philadelphia when his now-wife was accepted into a University of Pennsylvania graduate program.
Ape School’s self-titled album is the first released under said name, but is actually Johnson’s second (mostly) solo LP. Originally he’d meant “Ape School” to be the title of his record, but his label Ninja Tune, he says, didn’t think his given Generimerican name was “Google-able.” Plus, “I’m not going to play shows with a band and call it my name. So, Ape School works.”
The name Ape School comes from the rudiments of UArts’ music department, a name he came up with after beginning his professorship. “It comes from what I called this place when I first got here. I noticed people practicing endlessly, people practicing scales and the fundamentals of music. It reminded me of a trained animal.”
Needless to say, if you haven’t heard Ape School, you can assume both the prior sentiment and the fact that Johnson is a self-taught recording technologist has led him to a style of indie music that’s different, to say the least.
Combining elements of Arcade Fire and Flaming Lips with Magnetic Fields’ sharp yet fluffy vocal nonchalance, Johnson says almost all the music he’s released has been the result of weekend studio sessions and little else. Pitchfork, while degrading Ape School’s album as a whole (which, if you ask me, is a good thing), noted Johnson’s “uncanny air of authenticity” in working with Mood analog synthesizers. They also noted, “nearly all of the songs could pass as vintage tunes,” which seems on purpose, as Johnson tells me his style is meant to take the form of “60s psyche and Bowieism and stuff like that. My focus is trying to make music for that 16 year-old stoner kid because that’s what I was looking for when I was a 16-year-old stoner.”
Johnson rarely tours, and he claims the Ape School recordings were never even meant to be released nationally. “I have no desire to tour too much or be a road rat or whatever.
I have a bad habit of not being a good sales promoter. That certainly hurts in terms of wider exposure. I try to be as self-reliant as possible, and that definitely has its drawbacks, too,” he says with a laugh.
Over at UArts, he’s made several lasting relationships, which includes a former student joining as part of his rotating live band. It’s also kept him on his feet: “I keep learning having to teach people,” he says. “When I first got here, I was sort of close to my students’ age, but now I’ve got kids who were born in the 90s, and not only am I still teaching, but I’m noticing the generation gap. It’s weird. You make a Van Halen joke, and no one knows what you’re talking about.”