An original Moog Modular synthesizer takes up a quarter of a wall in Michael Johnson’s office. But considering the ex-Lilys and Holopaw musician works out of a recording studio at the University of the Arts, that’s not a huge problem. The Moog, with its oomps and oofs, buzzes and cackles, beeps and whoops, is the backbone of Johnson’s Ape School album. It’s also the reason why the delightfully cheery album could never be used for a sitcom theme song, and why, despite Johnson’s Coldplay-like vocals and melodies, Ape School sounds nothing like the megaband.
The album’s 13 tracks—Johnson’s second solo album, but first under the Ape School moniker—weren’t the product of studied composition or some grand scheme. “I didn’t really write anything,” Johnson says. “I would just come in here and get something bizarre going and build something up.”
Such freewheeling composition comes at a price. “It’s a pain,” Johnson says with a chuckle of having to go back and rework songs for both the album and live shows. “I just don’t like to waste too much time perfecting something when it seems kind of perfect the way it pops out. I just let it leak out and see what it coagulates into.”
That formula is working for Johnson, and Ape School is proof: It takes the feel-good pop energy of Gnarls Barkley, Albert Ayler-esque free jazz riffs, the tangential aural compositions of Sigur Rós and the vague, droning feedback of My Bloody Valentine and creates something beautiful.