When Kevin Mika was working as an electronics repairman, he got frustrated when customers asked him to fix amplifiers that didn’t produce “standard” sound. “I like things with more character,” he says. “Someone would say ‘that sounds wrong’ and they just wanted to sound like everyone else. But sometimes, when something isn’t working right, it can come loose. You can embrace the beautiful with the ugly.
The concept of celebrating sounds that are far from the norm has served multi-instrumentalist Micka well in the nearly 20 years he’s been performing mostly experimental instrumental music under the moniker Animal Hospital. During that time, Animal Hospital has been everything from a growing grassroots ensemble of musicians to just Micka with his guitar and the homemade contraption he calls ‘The Box’. But despite playing concerts all over the world and becoming one of Boston’s most beloved musical alchemists, Mika only released four albums between 2005 and 2020.
Now he’s back with ‘Shelf Life’, out in early November. The four-song collection finds Micah tackling tracks that have been a staple of his concerts for years. “They started as improvisations, but the arrangement is never static or permanently structured,” he explains. “Parts and notes come out in different ways, so it’s hard to make it culminate in one final studio version.”
The disc opens with “Fuselage,” one of Animal Hospital’s fastest tracks, which also features fellow multi-instrumentalists Ernie Kim and Frank Aveni. The piece was previously performed with the large ensemble, which included 30 musicians, including 22 guitarists.
In the press release for the album, Micah calls the disc his “rock record.” “I’m trying to be less conscious of what people like, that people who like that might not like a more experimental record,” he says as he strolls through his Inman Square neighborhood. One might assume that an artist who has devoted years to a non-commercial sound might be completely uninterested in how critics and audiences react, but Micah admits that he had to “understand my relationship with music. The animal hospital was such a big part of my identity and I had to do it [come to a place where] how the world feels about it doesn’t destroy my own self-esteem.
The second release, “Awful Beast,” is a demo of The Box, the 19-by-10-by-6-inch portable musical instrument that allows Micka to muffle sounds, add loops, change tones and textures, and add rhythms and phases. all this in real time in a way reminiscent of the improvisational work of dub reggae engineers. There is a licorice box with a contact microphone inside and an old toy microphone. Micah says the device, created during Obama’s first inauguration, came about because “I was playing drums in bands. I enjoyed touring, but the other members weren’t as excited, so I wanted to figure out how I could play on my own and still travel.”
This journey increased when Micka became Yo La Tengo’s guitar technician. On nights off for the band, who were touring hard, he organized his own concerts. “I only played in Boston once a year, but maybe I’ll play in front of five people in Taipei,” he recalled. The box managed to replace two large suitcases full of pedals and cables and a drum kit.
Another pivotal moment in Micka’s artistic transition came when he was asked to perform a show as part of Boston’s long-running experimental and creative music series Non-Event. Micka says she wonders, as someone with roots in the rock scene, “Do I even belong on the non-event bill?” (Micka remains one of the show’s recording and live engineers.)
The title “Horrible Beast” is a tongue-in-cheek reference to how long it took Micka to develop it. “It has rhythm, noise and melody. It feels representative of my personality – and there are some goofy parts,” he says.
Clocking in at over 16 minutes, “His Amazing Friends” is the longest track on the album. “I hate to use the word anthem, but it just builds and builds and feels really good,” Micah says.
A former projectionist for the Coolidge Corner Theater and the Provincetown Film Festival, Micah now works for a company that provides live projection services for festivals and special events. It’s a fitting gig for someone whose music has such cinematic qualities. While some of his previous music has been used in the soundtracks of serious documentaries and the British teen TV series Skins, Micah jokes that “maybe these songs could be in a funnier, action movie like the new Bladerunner” . ‘”
“In the past, I didn’t always think of music as entertainment, and now I’m more comfortable with it,” adds Micah.
“Shelf Life” ends with “As Always”, which Micka describes as a homemade field recording made when he was testing an amp he had repaired. “I had no intention of releasing it. It was just a little chord progression I had recorded in my workshop,” he says. “Sometimes the first shot is the best – I’ll never be as relaxed as I was when I did it. I wasn’t thinking about a microphone or amplifier. It’s a very relaxed counterpoint to the other stuff on the record, which is very specifically designed, written and recorded. It seemed like a good place to end up.
Animal Hospital plays Dec. 15 at Myrtle in Providence, Rhode Island with a band called E and Handsy, and Jan. 14 at State Park in Cambridge.