Q&A: Lexie "Mountain" Macchi On The Triwave Picogenerator, Baltimore, And Jersey Shore
Baltimore's Lexie Macchi isn't so much a relentlessly inquisitive sound-shifter as she is a Renaissance Everywoman dynamo. There is, seemingly, nothing she can't do or hasn't done. The Crazy Dreams Band, which she fronted, exploded Gang Gang Dance's polygenre supernovae into something capable of setting Aiwa speakers aflame. Her eponymous Lexie Mountain Boys project fused theatricality, acapella girl power, and boisterous, giggly humor into a cross between performance art and a mass stand-up routine. (Did I mention that Macchi does real stand-up, too? She does.) Tween Omensher newish duo with fellow Mountain Girl Amy Harmonseems to explore the ill effects wrought by a steady intake of lead paint chips, crystal meth, and amateur European techno. Like pretty much everybody in Baltimore, she's thrown down with former Baltimorean Jason Urick. And her solo workmuch of which is available in maddeningly limited-edition formis even more open-ended, ranging from unrehearsed stream-of-thought monologues to maniacally Cubist vocal anti-studies to strategically cut-up-and-over-stitched vocal collages to garbage-trawler noise stews that recall the late, lamented Baltimore chunk-unit WZT Hearts.
Recent dispatches on Macchi's Soundcloud page are light on vocals and heavy on the kind of sustained and staggered drones that do interesting things to listeners' personal plumbing, suggesting that her muse is on the move, though the UMBC student/Center for Art, Design, and Visual Culture employee doesn't have any official recordings in the pipeline at present; this seems fitting, given the crackling nature of her live performances.
Sound of the City emailed with Macchi about song-making, her earliest musical efforts, and the states of her larger projects.
Lexie Mountain, "No New Answers, Still"
In your Facebook announcement for your current mini-tour, you mentioned that you're working with new sounds and noises. Is "No New Answers, Still" indicative of where your musical muse is leading you? It strikes me as being very operatic, hypnotic, and keyboard-heavy; it's almost liturgical. Another demo, "Foam Coming," seems similarly drone-y; listening to it makes me think of you wailing up from the bottom of a very, very deep well.
Both "Foam Coming" and "No New Answers, Still" are sketches from some very recent practices in the attic of my Baltimore home. I'm learning new instruments and re-learning old instruments at the same time; in addition to an Alesis vocal processor and tape decks, I've added a shitty keyboard and a Triwave Picogenerator built by carpenter/holy man Nick Barna.
I don't think these song-chunks I've set forth are anything but steps on a road, and, ultimately, isn't that what songs are? Indicators of one's progress and interests at any given time. I'm interested in texture.
More of a journey than a destination, then.
Definitely more of a journey. A progress report.
What is your attic studio setup like? For some reason, the idea of an attic is way creepier than the idea of a basement. I'm not sure why.
Nate and I share a small-bedroom-sized zone at the top of my house for studio use. It is intimate and has a nice feeling, seeing treetops and since it is a tiny room it is very easy to fill with sound. The walls are white and slope sharply. We reorganize and rearrange constantly. Or try to. Nate's side is, at present, much tidier than mine.
Is the Nate you mention Nate Nelson, of Mouthus?
Anywhere a Nate is mentioned in this interview, it refers to Nate Nelson. Apart from being a perfect boyfriend and amazing cook and cat-dad, the solo music he makes as Afternoon Penis is remarkable. His work ethic is a constant inspiration.
Lexie Mountain performs in 2010
What is a Triwave Picogenerator, and how does it work?
A Triwave Picogenerator is a dual-tone generator with three low-frequency oscillators commonly purchased as a kit, built and modified by individuals to suit their needs. Sometimes it is used as an effects pedal. I'm presently using it as a base instrument, sending it through a variety of electrical hoops to lessen its recognizability and expand its range. Nick built this particular Picogenerator in a fit of productivity, and it was kind of overshadowed by an effects-pedal signal switcher he made immediately afterwards and found much more interesting and effective for his own process. When he moved away recently, he admitted that he didn't recall how he had wired the Picogenerator, which in addition to the fact the fact that all the knobs are unlabeled, makes for an exciting learning curve. I go off what I know of wave sounds and manuals online and sheer obviousness to tweak it to get what I'm looking for. For the most part I use it both as an irregular drum machine and drone-source with varying degrees of success.
That sounds like a cross between nirvana and a no-man's-land minefield, between the ultimate conversation piece and an awesome multiple-purpose weapon. Have there been any occasions where you've managed to evoke a sound or effect that you really loved, but couldn't replicate thereafter? What's the gnarliest experience you've had with it?
It's as if there are three trance-states of song making. The first is replicating precisely that which you have learned as a song, and each time you are recreating it you are doing so to be faithful. The second is that the song emerges as it is happening, pure improvisation from a fountain of nowhere. The third is that improvisation occurs along the bones of a song. I am searching to be in a place of any of these three things, and the vacillation is a practice that will help me get to a place that I idealize and that is the third state, the state where song and improvisation meet.
I do make sketches and keep image records of key settings, important notes that are lost or forgotten in the heat of the moment. The gnarliest experience I've had with it is getting it in the first place and poking and twiddling at it constantly, for hours on end, for weeks on end. Also, sometimes, it makes sounds that are like the sounds of the spheres, the night-sky recordings from vans in the desert.
Lexie Mountain performs at Megalopolis
What are your earliest memories of making and recording music?
First time singing: When I was a tiny kid-thing, probably kindergarten or thereabouts, I sang a song for Show & Tell. The song was about a unicorn going to work and the lyrical content consisted of him going about his business at the unicorn office. I stood in front of the class and made up the words and kept going and going until we all had to leave and go to lunch. I distinctly recall singing while the whole class was walking down the hallway, the teacher humoring me while the rest of the class tried to ignore the fact that I was incapable of shutting up about how the unicorn was whatever. Not much has changed.
First time recording: As slightly less tiny kid-things, my sister and I would borrow our father's microcassette recorder and tape commercials and talk shows and then play them back at double speed so our Rolaids jingle or dog food panel testing sounded like The Chipmunks. We would laugh heartily at this.
When did you realize that music and performance were things you wanted to pursue formally?
I don't know that there was a thunderbolt moment, and I don't know that the way that I participate in the creation of music can be called something "formal." It's always been there in some fashion, like an invisible dog. I've been inflicting myself on audiences since I was a little kid, through public school ballet, chorus and plays, on to stints as a radio deejay and yelling in a punk band in college.
Baltimore's pre-existing improv/experimental scene was an encouraging, welcoming, and intimidating place when I moved here in 2002, and is probably responsible for building within me a sense of agency and nurturing the desire to move forward and push myself. Carly Ptak was very supportive of my early 1/4" reel-to-reel-karaoke-spoken-word pieces and John Berndt was supportive of my absurdist streak and helpful in making recordings happen.
To my mind, Baltimore is unique in that its musical underground relishes all levels of proficiency without judgment, because what it really values is passion, originality and an experience that helps us communicate with the beyond.
Lexie Mountain Girlz in 2011
Are the Lexie Mountain Boys still a going concern? I notice that you've played some shows with a group as Lexie Mountain Girls.
Core members of Mountain Boys are spread all over the map at present, from Austin to Los Angeles to Portland. Many participants still live in Baltimore and although we haven't officially performed in about a year I don't think the band will ever not exist or end, it will only sleep in our hearts until we are together again or the need arises. Mountain Boy Amy Harmon and I make music together as Tween Omens, and Mountain Boys Sam Garner and I make music together as Bad Girls. Lexie Mountain Girls was an a capella performance of myself with three men: Aaron Hibbs of Sword Heaven/ Noumena/ Rage Against the Cage, Duncan Moore of Needle Gun and Baltimore's mysterious Dennisovich.
In a live solo situation, what is more honest or preferable to you: presenting something pre-existing, or creating something new, feeding off of the moment, the space, the audience and the equipment at hand?
Lexie Mountain Boys songwork often built on structures developed during practice improvisations, riffs in the van and jokes amongst ourselves. It was as if, during our rehearsals, we were putting skeletons together and then, at the show, we could dress it in whatever skin we wanted at the time.
These days I record everything I do and revisit things more deliberately to pluck out moments that I like and work towards more faithful replication, to see what works and what doesn't, and to keep a better document of happy accidents. The sketches I've posted were both improvised at the time.
At this time, a combination of both is most preferable to me, regardless of the audience's awareness of the proportion of total improvisation and deliberate replication. I also feel that the two situations are not mutually exclusive and, if anything, the moment that guides the hand of the presentation exists constantly, at every turn, regardless of the presented content or its intended delivery.
In a way, the Crazy Dreams Band is the most startling or daring of your projects, this dizzyingly psychedelic avant-pop adventure. How did that band come together, and what did you guys initially set out to do?
The group started in Baltimore as a basement exercise, a "rock and roll band for improvisers." Original bassist Jake Freeman, drummer Nate Nelson (also of Mouthus/ Religious Knives and currently Lower Dens) and I had a party-time trio where we would get together and replicate genre songs.
We played a show, and Chiara Giovando came up to me and said "Me and Nick [Becker] should play with you guys," so we all did, and that is the band that recorded our self-titled LP. Immediately after the record came out, Chiara and Jake moved to LA and San Francisco respectively, so we enlisted former Fish & Sheep guitarist Jorge Martins on guitar. Nick ended up focusing more on his herbalism, Jake came and went again, and after playing a few shows with notable bros we pared down to a four-piece with Jonathan Ehrens (Art Department, White Life) on bass.
The albums emerged from a sense of time crunch. After writing a batch of songs, there was an urgency to record them before one member or another had to leave for a season or for school or whatnot. My only regret is that we didn't get a chance to properly record the songs we wrote in our Nate/ Jon/ Jorge/ me arrangement before Jon moved to LA and Jorge got a new job that made it difficult for him to tour and practice regularly.
The primary focus in all the different manifestations was on developing something interesting, weird and confusing to apply to the standard rock band format. By the time our last show rolled around we were playing "song-tacos," wherein one song would start, and then halfway through that song we'd transition to another one, then suddenly fit another one in there right in the middle. It'd make for an athletic shownone of our songs were capable of being under seven minutes, so our records seem like EPs, but there's so much sandwiched on there I'm amazed it fit at all.
Crazy Dreams Band in 2010
That's interesting; it sounds almost like you guys were remixing your own discography onstage, Fiery Furnaces style.
This is probably the first time Fiery Furnaces and Crazy Dreams Band have ever been anywhere near each other in an interview.
This is going back a ways, but can you tell me about the making of "Befit It" from the Less Self Is More Self compilation? That was the first I ever heard f you or was even aware of you; it was like you turned your own voice inside out and shattered it a thousand times.
Ha ha thanks! "Befit it" was performed at The True Vine Record Store's first location on 36th St in Hampden (Baltimore) for boom box, reel-to-reel and vocal processor. Shows at True Vine were so fun and intimate and really indicative of the type of thing that Twig and Carly [of Nautical Almanac] go out of their way to nurture in themselves, in others and via Tarantula Hill.
The loops were made ahead of time, and the song snippets are straight from the boom box radio at the time of the performance happening. I think the show I was playing may have been a True Vine benefit, thus doubling the beneficiary effects of the tune. But that was a while ago. 2005? 2006, possibly.
Baltimore's been sitting atop a wealth of musical talent for eons, but it's only been acknowledged nationally over the last couple years, with the rise of Animal Collective, Wham City, the Thrill Jockey Invasion, et al. What took so long, in your opinion?
Is it a matter of taking so long, or did it happen precisely when it was supposed to? This rise in attention paid to Baltimore seems to have occurred precisely at a point when our national economy took a nose dive, and it felt as if political and global intonations at home and abroad could not have accessed a more apocalyptic landscape without publicly invoking actual demons.
Baltimore City is itself something of an apocalyptic landscape, a land without a middle class, a land of missing teeth in a cumbersome head wrapped in highways, and possibly the feeling of camaraderie supported by a sound base of affordable rental housing and a relatively healthy job market normalized the world for everyone here. It is possible that the more extreme the world got, with its multiple wars and collapsing housing market and tsunamis and Tea Partiers, the more extreme Baltimore became, both in response to the world temperature and in response to a sense of relief: "The world is absurd, we are not alone in absurdity."
People still move to LA and NYC, but who can afford it? A failing economy encouraged more artists and musicians to keep Baltimore as a home base. In a sense, this city is like a perfect storm of what can happen at extreme times when underground cultures make moves toward sustainability. People committed to living here, magnetized by others they knew and rumors they heard. It is a commitment, and like anything that you commit to without actually knowing specifically what you're getting into other than having a love of the game, the payoff (for many) arrives at the moment determined by destiny.
Lexie Mountain Boys perform in 2007
Can you tell me about what you do at the Centre for Art, Design, and Visual Culture? How did you come to work there?
The Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture is the gallery at UMBC, and I work there as a graduate assistant. In addition to helping with the exhibition team, I am curating a series of storefront galleries in the Baltimore neighborhood Highlandtown as a joint venture between UMBC, CADVC and Highlandtown Arts.
The first one opened December 3; it's a display of collages made by Highlandtown schoolkids in response to CADVC's exhibition Image Transfer: Pictures in a Remix Culture. My classmate Dominique Zeltzman ran the workshops for the kids, and I organized and installed the exhibition in an unoccupied storefront at Bank Street & Conkling. It's a collage of collages, a tribute to Nam June Paik and a reference to appliance-shop windows for a time when a storefront is, for many, a computer.
What do you foresee for yourself in 2012?
This past fall I started grad school at UMBC, so 2012 for me is about focusing on a studio practice and trying not to get distracted or watch too much Jersey Shore. What I should be doing, though, is stockpiling dry goods.
Which Jersey Shore character is your favorite? Which cast member has the biggest future in anti-music theory?
Snooki is my girl. In the first season, the boys thought it would be funny to hide her pickles all over the apartment and as I watched them do it I thought, "Man, what a waste of perfectly good pickles," which was precisely the first thing she had to say about the prank.
For someone navigating a shallow universe where peers are judged for the wrong type of thing, Snooki exhibits a genuine personhood. She is unafraid of being silly in a place where everyone is preoccupied with not appearing vulnerable or weak. While Pauly D actually seems to have a career as a DJ (right?), Snooks probably has the biggest future because people will pay to party with her. I feel very protective of her, though, and I just want her to be herself, not what someone else thinks she needs to be in order to fulfill their idea of what she's like. Ronnie and Sam are my least favorite people on the show.
Any New Year's resolutions?
To work harder. To hustle.
I bet that was one of Snooki's resolutions, too.
Ha ha! I hope so.
Lexie Mountain plays Shea Stadium with Flock of Dimes and Alex Drewchin tonight. GDFX DJs.
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