By Michael Aushenker
Mikael Jorgensen has toured the planet with Wilco, but this week the keyboardist was racking his brain to recall whether there’s ever been an instrumental song to top the pop charts since Harold Faltermeyer’s 1984 synth-happy “Beverly Hills Cop” theme, “Axel F.”
Synthesizers are what Jorgensen loves best, and on Sunday night he will perform material from his synth-driven 2009 album “The Cheetah” at TRiP in Santa Monica.
“The Cheetah,” which Butterscotch Records will re-issue next month, represents a break from the alt-rock stylings of his bread-and-butter band.
Led by singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy, a pioneer of alt-country rock with his former band Uncle Tupelo, Wilco also includes bassist John Stirratt, guitarists Patrick Sansone and Nels Cline, and drummer Glenn Kotche. Since its 1994 formation, Wilco has plowed a remarkable path for an indie band, performing at the Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals as well as the Hollywood Bowl. The Chicago-based outfit has also contributed to movie soundtracks, including 2004’s “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie,” 2010’s “Love & Other Drugs” and 2009’s Adam Sandler comedy “Funny People,” in which the group got a major storyline shout-out from director Judd Apatow.
As depicted in the identically titled Sam Jones’ 2002 documentary, Tweedy’s collaborative partnership with former Wilco co-songwriter and founding keyboardist Jay Bennett had visibly disintegrated over creative differences during the album’s tumultuous creation, during which time the band was dropped by one label and rescued by another. (Following his ousting from Wilco, Bennett died in 2009 at age 45.)
Jorgensen became a member of the group in earnest during their ramp-up to recording 2004’s “A Ghost is Born,” on which he contributed to the songwriting of “Hell is Chrome,” “Theologians” and “Less Than You Think.”
“They were gracious. There was a nice alchemy. No weird politics,” Jorgensen said of boarding the well-established group.
Prior to Wilco and “The Cheetah” — a collaboration with Tunde Oyewole and Greg O’Keeffe (with whom he also collaborated on the side project Pronto) —Jorgensen and his group Movere Workshop released the 1999 album “Western Hamlet.” He has also worked with Liam Hayes & Plush, and with the Chicago band The Nerves.
In presenting excerpts from “The Cheetah” live this Sunday, Jorgensen is faced with a 21st century-musician dilemma: “How do you play a live show that just isn’t pressing the space bar?”
Rehearsing in his home in Ojai, where he and his family relocated a year ago after living in Chicago and Brooklyn, Jorgensen has been “slicing up these songs and remixing them on the fly — the hope is that they will be able to change and adapt,” he said.
“Being in California [estranged from his musical partners] makes the collaboration more difficult,” Jorgensen said, but he is intent on releasing more solo music, especially recent work.
“I’ve got a backlog of things,” he said, adding some of the tracks he will play on Sunday are “key to the things to come.”
Jorgensen said he enjoys the process of “[building] textures — musical sound generated, looped and folded back into the performance. I’ve got a library of loops of things that I save and [will work on] later.”
While in high school in the late 1980s, Jorgensen joined his recording engineer father Jorgen “Joe” Jorgensen at various sessions around New York City. The elder Jorgensen most notably worked on “Angela,” jazz musician Bob James’ melancholy theme for the classic late-1970s sitcom “Taxi.”
Jorgensen became mesmerized with the now-obsolete operating systems he indulged in, fueled on the very-1980s synthesizer grooves of The Police’s Stewart Copeland, Art of Noise and Jan Hammer’s opening theme to the hit NBC series “Miami Vice.”
“He was making this really synthetic, iconic kind of music,” Jorgensen said of Hammer, relishing the irony of how the composer was holed up in cold, bleak Upstate New York while scoring the pastel-colored sounds of Michael Mann’s TV series.
“I never wanted to play Elton John or Billy Joel,” Jorgensen said of rock’s most famous piano men. “It’s always great to discover new music. You’re just continuing the hunger and desire for new or old music.”
Among the newer, Jorgensen loved James Murphy’s late studio-driven project LCD Soundsystem (2005-11). In the last six months, he has been smitten with “Feel Like Movin’” by The Juan Maclean.
“There’s something so lush and awesome about the production on it,” Jorgensen said. “Its purpose is for dancing, but the production is so incredibly smart and tasteful.”
TRiP will not be Jorgensen’s first brush with Southern California. Last week, he performed at Complex, a Glendale bar and music venue. He performed with Wilco at the Wiltern Theatre in Koreatown on June 25, 2009 — mere hours after word of Michael Jackson’s death broke. Jorgensen recalled how the news and disbelief of the iconic pop musician’s untimely passing rippled through Wilco during sound check that afternoon.
A day before Tweedy turned 40 in August 2007, Wilco played the Santa Barbara Bowl in support of “Sky Blue Sky.” As destiny would have it, Jorgensen now lives in the area, and when Tweedy performed solo at Santa Barbara’s Granada Theatre in December, Jorgensen backed him.
When not touring or recording with Wilco, Tweedy also performs in bands Golden Smog and Loose Fur and produces artists such as Mavis Staples while Kotche drums for On Filmore.
“I think it’s critical. Everybody naturally enjoys playing together and the camaraderie on the road,” Jorgensen said of his and his band mates’ side projects.
“Wilco, in its own way, is a very traditional kind of band,” Jorgensen said. “We play and it’s super immediate — a lot of songs are really energetic.”
Come Sunday, “it’s a completely different set of concerns” said Jorgensen, who will set it off with his analog synthesizer and sequencer. “It’s a completely different technical and musical experience. With Wilco, it’s me versus six guys. [But with this], you have to do everything yourself. It’s fun and exhausting.”
Even after more than a decade playing concerts before audiences of thousands¬, Jorgensen still gets a charge from playing 150-person capacity clubs such as TRiP.
“My intention is to move people to groove and dance and bounce around,” he said.
Not that crafting such an intimate experience is easy.
“It’s almost more nerve-wrecking,” Jorgensen said, recalling a recent experience when he tried his hand at improv comedy before a small crowd with the Uptight Citizens Brigade in Hollywood. “That was more terrifying than playing the Hollywood Bowl!”
Mikael Jorgensen performs at 9 p.m. Sunday at TRiP, 2101 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. No cover. (310) 396-9010; tripsantamonica.com