The Magik Markers play Death by Audio, Monday, October 1
by Zach Baron
Since only a fraction of this interview with the Magik Markers appears in my short feature on them this week, I thought I’d post the whole transcript here. Boss, their new record on Ecstatic Peace, is queasy and claustrophobic and unsettling; it’s also one of the year’s best. Both drummer Pete Nolan and singer-guitarist Elisa Ambrogio are hyper-articulate when it comes to explaining their own work; all choppiness and indirectness can be explained by the fact that the interview was conducted over a couple weeks in late August and early September, via email, since Pete tends to “get pretty blank over the phone,” and Elisa was traveling. With three of us going back and forth, things went more sideways than linear — which hopefully will explain the meandering…
Your sound has changed — that’ll be the big news here, why you guys went towards “songs” and away from the anti-composition, more free-form stuff you do live. On top of that I might wonder whether the ideas have shifted — I’m thinking specifically here of the last time the Voice did a feature involving Magik Markers, which was in 2005, and Elisa was pretty adamant about not being interested in modern music of the Rolling Stone variety, let alone, say, the “unfucked pale girls yammering about the gender binary” from liberal arts colleges who even now may have illegally downloaded “Empty Bottles” and are listening to it approvingly in their dorm rooms. New sound, new sociology? New goals for the band? Lets start there, if this makes sense as a question, and go forward…
Pete Nolan: I don’t think anyone who’s been following our output over the last year would consider BOSS to be a radical change in approach. We’ve been honing these tunes over a period of time. Several versions of some of these songs have appeared spread out over our various self-released CDs. On BOSS the tunes have just come into full focus. We were given the opportunity to spend time in the studio to apply our theories of effective sound formulation in time to the arrangements that we’ve couched the skeletal framework of our tunes in. I think the result is a full bodied and vivid dreamlike experience. To me the experience of listening to this record from start to finish is no less disorienting than one of our live performances, only more insidiously so. Anyone who’s been picking up the bread crumbs will find that at its heart this is truly a Magik Markers record. As appealing and accessible as the songs seem immediately, on repeated and more attentive listening I think this record raises more questions than answers, and in the end leaves you with feelings of doubt and uncertainty.
Elisa Ambrogio: I mean, it was basically, with the Markers writing songs: let’s let a couple of defectives reinvent the wheel and see if we can make the car go on four squares. It can go, but it takes a lot more power and destroys more.
There was always something disgusting and too personal about melody before. Something creepy about it. In some ways I cannot explain the sea change in the Markers, other than that it was gradual and baffling. Believe me, I am as surprised as the next fellow that we wrote songs. It is weird. The influence Leah Quimby [-MM’s former bassist] exerted within the band should not be underestimated. She did not enjoy recording, it was a very uncomfortable process for her and it felt wrong in the context of the Magik Markers’ intent as Leah saw it. Something about our live shows was and is an attempt to shift the perception of a performance. A rock and roll concert with no rock and roll, no concert.
I think we started playing as we did with an innocence of context and a very joyful intent. But eventually, unless you are challenging yourself you become redundant caricatures.
Leah leaving freed Pete and I to act on the fact that only we knew how a Magik Markers record was supposed to sound. Only we knew the Markers record that was playing in our heads. And with Lee [Ronaldo] and Aaron [Mullen] we tried to make it. We still have not made the exact record that was spinning in my head but it is closer, and I am proud of this.
Listening to Arthur Russell (I am thinking mostly of World of Echo and Another Thought, not his club stuff) Richard Youngs, Jessica Rylan, Six Organs of Admittance, Charalambides, The Believers, The Cherry Blossoms, Burning Star Core, Lamborghini Crystal, Colossal Yes, Shadow Ring: these are all so heavy, and they have all found a way to be epic and heavy and human with melody. It now feels like a greater risk and a challenge to play melodies. Not based on strict pop formulas, but on what you hear in your head.
I will not quote all of “Coney Island Baby,” but that is how I understand how we wrote Boss: with a celebration and a vengeance, a sense of vindication and a party, the way any record should be made.
It was also written out of straight frustration. When you look at most of the vapid, soulless, douches currently writing songs and making records, do you not think with even the slightest effort you could do better?
I am lazy. I wouldn’t have done it unless I absolutely had to.
Re: the band’s ‘new sociology’, The New Science…
Elisa Ambrogio: Live and on record, I thought it was important to blur the line of authority, about who is ‘on stage,’ who is the creator and who the audience is, to blur the line of safety. Even though Richard Schechner was doing it in 1968, it still feels new to me in the context of a rock show or a rock record. The not knowing: Am I the guitar player, am I the audience? Who should everyone be looking at? Why did I come here? What is happening? Pushing a person out of passivity, and whatever effect that has. I am interested in the mind control of a crowd toward what I think is a positive ideal. But so was Hitler.
When someone would come to a show and say, ‘Jesus, I could have done a better job’ or review a record and say, ‘I could have made this and it would have been ten times better.’ Good. Who is stopping you? Do it, dude. Make it happen. Who told you I was the artist and you were the audience? The only difference between you and me is that and I did it and you just talked about it. How about we switch?’
But for me now, just that, even at its best, it is not enough. There are melodies in my head and there is an order to the way the sounds are happening. I think you can compose in a decomposing world, I think it is a comfort and something we need to do. I always want every show to be the best show, the show that unlocks something, changes something. We rarely succeed, but when we do it is as good as it gets. Now I want to do that on a record.
I was never not interested in playing music for the unfucked pale girls, I just didn’t want to be one of them. I just had higher hopes for places I felt were too good for the likes of me. It turns out they weren’t so great.
The Markers have always been interested in momentum, whether it be the momentum of a joke or the momentum of a bat, the thing which is compelled forward is of interest. If we stayed the same we would have stayed the same and that would have been phony. We are not the people we were, thank god. I trust people more, I love strangers more. I feel more scared for and warm to humanity. I trust that at their base, when directly confronted with human suffering, people feel empathy and a desire to help. There are more kind human beings than sociopaths. That is true. My heart is warmed constantly by the unfounded trust I put in people that pays off.
Want to follow up on Magik Markers’ “theories of effective sound formulation,” as Pete put it. Seems like you’re chasing doubt, uncertainty, a dreamlike state — all of which I get from listening to the record, for sure… Is there an elaboration to be made as to the relation of improv to the songs on Boss, which sound more composed?
Pete: Yeah there was a while a few years back when Elisa would go on live about finding your locomo… Fear… fear was our locomo. Like we had our backs to the wall and we got all pokey with sharp sticks. I personally didn’t want to have anything on this record that wouldn’t sound right in a dream. It was pretty easy to hear a sound that wasn’t right and eliminate it. In a way it was easy to know what to do. The songs are indeed composed. The pieces were made together out of many forms as well as improvised parts until they fitted just right. Fitted and re-fitted again. The only thing we really knew from the start though was the words. The feeling of the record flowed out from that. There was a while there when I thought the record would come out to dark, but I think that there are islands of relief in there. Anyway, this is just what we did naturally as a result of being put in this position. We’d been thinking about it for a long while and then we did it. We’ve been thinking for a while about how sounds can evoke feelings and trying to come up with new ones. That’s the myopic vision Elisa was talking about. Always churning under the only earth we know.
Who you imagine this music to be for — do you have an audience in mind when you work?
Pete: Well, this time Elisa and I wanted to make a record that we would want to listen to again and again. I think we succeeded on that goal. I can’t wait to have the actual thing to listen to in its finished form. We took time to make it and for me it’s stood up well. I think it would be really cool if this record was heard by some kids in the middle of America. I wanted to make something that they could really dream on and get deep into. Unlock some code in their brains that will open them up to trying to find out where our stuff came from. I know it meant a lot to me to get snapshots of other worlds when I was growing up in the middle of nowhere in Michigan. I got excited real early.
I remember seeing you guys play Reena Spaulings a couple months back, and how different the reactions of, say, J. Mascis and Kim Gordon were to those of the artists gathered there, who frankly looked a bit horrified, or intimidated, or scared…
Pete Nolan: We were kind of working it out at that one. Seems like it’d be harder than that to shock a bunch of artists in New York doesn’t it? I guess that’s why they had us confined behind the sawhorses.
Wanted to ask about the lyrics, which you both say were the start of the record really. Seems like there’s almost a mythology there — a pretty dark one too, lotta death, rot, decay. I spot what I think are references to serial killers like Ted Bundy (“Taste”), but also some stuff like Updike (“Four/The Ballad of Harry Angstrom”), right? Wonder if you guys imagine a consistent thread being pulled through the whole album? Or whether each song constitutes a kind of isolated incident… Certainly the *feeling* the whole album promotes as a whole has a lot of consistency to it — a kind of queasy, discomfiting consistency.
Elisa: When I was writing that verse I was thinking of Ted Hughes’ “Birthday Letters.” It is meant to be a song for the bush league batters, the song about the people too good or too weak for their own good, who didn’t or don’t watch out for themselves in the world. Gene Clark was someone like that, he gave so much of this light and this beauty out, and I feel like never got back what he gave. The world kind of wasted Gene Clark. The world kind of wasted Peter Laughner. Phil Ochs. My father is a man like that. People who don’t know their value. There are voracious people in the world, who are unselfconscious in what they take and never say thank you. Vulnerable people are often surrounded by these voracious people. If you can be an artist and voracious in that way, you can often be very successful. The survivors are not wasted by this world. People like Bob Dylan or Keith Richards or Leni Riefenstahl or Norman Mailer, they don’t do a lot of apologizing or pussy footing or saying thank you. The world does not lay waste to them, they built bulletproof skins, or they were born with them. Ted Hughes as well. These are not the people “Taste” is about. It is about the ones who shoot and miss, the ones who never even had it in them to shoot. The people too good, or too weak for this world. I am neither.
Harry Angstrom for me is an ultimate American. In the finest sense that we can be Amercian as well as the worst sense. I think my idea of the American character is that we possess almost all of humanity’s best and worst traits helium pumped to Macy’s Float size: that is Harry Angstrom. I love his optimism and his complacency and his nostalgia and his constant motivations being only fear, sex and death at all times. He is joy-filled and horrifying all at once, completely empathic and callously diffident at all turns. He takes no blame and takes all the blame. I think Harry Angstrom is a more true portrait of the American man/woman of the late 1950’s early 1960’s than Sal Paradise for sure, and holds true now. Because Harry gets in his car and tries to go, but cannot. Misreads the map. Gets lost. Needs gas. Misses home. He is our optimism and our failure to act on our intentions, our fear trapped in our mouths. Finding our joy and freedom in moments instead of in the way we live our lives: when Harry grabs the Reverend’s wife’s ass or orders a Daiquiri. I think of him as a great hero of American fiction, like Bartleby, or a Horatio Alger character, but Harry never gets any credit. His beauty gets no acknowledgment. No one reads the Rabbit books anymore, or not to the extent they should be read. Updike, perhaps rightfully so considering his Richard Bach books and all those key party couple explorations, got marginalized and labeled ‘un-cool’ and sexist. He, like any great artist transcends his human weaknesses in his art, possibly even despite himself. I think Harry Angstrom deserves a ballad like any other tragic hero.
Responding to something that Pete said — a lot of people our age seem to have grown up with an eternal gratitude towards Sonic Youth or Forced Exposure, ‘zines and bands that were almost gateway drugs before the internet for people who didn’t live in cities or have access to stuff that was a little bit more avant or obscure… is this a role Magik Markers are trying to play now? Does the internet change any of the rules of a game like this one? What’s it like when you tour and you get into a town like the one you grew up in?
Pete: Yeah I still have some copies of FE that I got back in high school. I poured over them with a religious fervor. They were like a blueprint for my early musical education. I know some people that thought that the writers actually made up the bands that they talked about just so they could come up with these fanciful descriptions. But for me it was so good to know that all these bands were real and that there were secret histories to be unearthed… whole zones that I had no idea about. The quality of the writing really made me wanna hear the music and it was so rad when it actually surpassed my expectations and literally changed my life. Like when you first discover a weird alien world like krautrock, where uber grooves and futurism combined with chemistry can alter your brain channels.
I recently had the experience of performing a Spectre Folk set after a reading by Byron Coley. It was for me one of the coolest readings of the sort I’ve ever witnessed. Byron read a few different stories about Joey Ramone, Sandy Bull, and John Fahey. There was a particularly awesome one about D. Boon and how he leapt into the air when he played causing the whole stage to buckle and resonate like thunder on touchdown. Man it was heavy taking the stage after Byron had invoked these spirits who’d rewired the genetic code of American sound… like we were performing on hallowed ground. It was a really awesome reminder of why I got into playing this kind of music in the first place. I had the feeling that we’d gone through some kind of rite and I went through the pass with a total regeneration of my beliefs in the limitless possibilities open to me as a musician.
I don’t know if we actively play this kind of role as a band. It might be cool one day… but right now I think we’re just working on getting our own sound together. It seems like the internet makes it easier to find out about stuff, but it doesn’t necessarily point the way. I haven’t seen a whole lot more great writing as a result of blogging or whatever than there was in the great age of the ‘zine. There’s probably an equal amount, but there’s still nothing quite like the tactile experience of holding some underground rock mag in your hands and hearing some would be scribe pontificate on the latest Royal Trux or Dead C record.
It’s cool beaming down to places in America that are stuck in some other era. Like Iowa City, looks like some idealized Hollywood version of a 1950’s downtown. Or Missoula Montana where quiet insanity takes place in elks lodges in the shadow of the most enormous gray mountains I’ve ever seen in my life. Or New Orleans, remaining New Orleans in spite of the fact that they’re still fucked up 3 years after the levy broke. When we hit towns like these I get filled up with the feeling and I really wanna do it.