BARELY SIX MONTHS after unveiling All Is Golden, the debut album from Pronto, his brainchild group and home away from Wilco, Mikael Jorgensen threw listeners a curveball earlier this month by releasing a collection of older material as an album titled The Cheetah. A prequel to Golden, The Cheetah contains work that dates back to the year 2000—before Jorgensen was an official member of Wilco. And while the majority of listeners might still be adjusting to hearing Jorgensen’s songwriting front-and-center (not to mention his charmingly green vocals, which he himself calls “wonky”), Jorgensen is still trying to fathom where the band might go from here. And he doesn’t feel particularly bound to any one mode of presentation. Already, Pronto has veered from duo to quartet and back in several different configurations— and will probably continue to do so.
“I see Pronto as more of a container than a brand,” he says.
If Jorgensen is figuring out the band’s identity as he goes along, then The Cheetah allows listeners to be in on the process in something akin to real time. In contrast to the hooks and thick, analog-heavy arrangements that fill All Is Golden, the Cheetah material contains little singing and showcases Jorgensen’s affinity for Spartan, computer-based atmospheres. For the bulk of the tracks, Jorgensen and collaborator Chris Girard laid down the main sonic architecture, which was soon thereafter augmented by drummer Greg O’Keefe. But, when the band hits the stage as a four-piece for its New York show, the new arrangements for the stuff on The Cheetah will be roughly two weeks old, worked out in time-sensitive rehearsals.
“My ultimate goal,” says Jorgensen, “is to try to somehow or other weave the two worlds together.”
And therein lies the fundamental musical challenge that has occupied Jorgensen since 1984, when, as a New Jersey youth, he first began tinkering with hand-me-down gear from smooth-jazz legend Bob James . Since then, through the time he first formed a band with O’Keefe in Jersey, moved to Chicago, worked at producer/Tortoise founder John McEntire’s SOMA studio, first worked with Girard (also in Chicago) and began working with Wilco, Jorgensen has had a back-and-forth relationship with electronic music. He has long sought a middle ground between electronic- and instrumental-based music, to integrate them so that the results sound organic.
“I’m trying to find a way,” he says, “that these computer-based techniques can be more dynamically part of a band playing. I think what it comes down to is the Karaoke effect, where I don’t want to just have the computer onstage and I’m triggering stuff, but for all the audience knows it could just be an iTunes playlist or I’m up there checking my email.
“There should be stickers,” he adds, “that say No, I’m not checking my email for people who use laptops live.”
Perhaps surprisingly, when it comes to live performance, Jorgensen is reluctant to incorporate electronics that dictate the tempo.
“That raises the question,” he offers, “of ‘is that really playing music or is it just playing along to something?’ If you submit to it, it opens up a whole other area of possibility. But then, if some technical glitch happens, and Greg starts playing and the beat gets lost and he’s playing in a different tempo than the pre-recorded track, all these stupid logistical issues come up.”
So listeners don’t need to worry about having to sit through literal interpretations of The Cheetah.
“The good thing,” laughs Jorgensen, “is that we can’t even do a literal reproduction, because for the original ProTools sessions of some of those songs, I don’t even know where the hell they are.”
Jorgensen in fact prefers to have the band’s shows reflect the idiosyncratic aspects of each member’s playing. And where Wilco operates on a level of large-scale micromanagement, time constraints have created an atmosphere of forced, learn-as-you-go spontaneity that Jorgensen has grown comfortable with when it comes to Pronto.
“After having the last round of shows [this past Spring],” he says, “and more or less knowing what to expect in terms of brain farts and mistakes, I’m more ready for unexpected stuff to happen during the shows, instead of this script that has to be performed relatively accurately.”
Sept. 23, Union Hall, 702 Union St. (at 5th Ave.), Brooklyn, 718-638-4400; 7:30, $10