Tape Machines & Tambourines
Michael Downey and Dan Marsden have each spent their share of time in their respective Illinois living spaces tangled up in chords and hunched over four tracks, getting their ideas on tape as best they could. Once they finally traded tapes and realized they had similar ideas about pop music, they formed a collaboration.
Teleport was released on the limited cassette-only label In A Lighthouse. What clearly shone through the lo-fi dustiness were brilliant, unassuming indie pop gems, carved out via drum machine, keyboards, guitar, and vocals. They were rough around the edges, but the hooks dug in deep. The roughness only added a more personable feel.
Another cassette followed, self-released this time, along with a 7″ on Ojet. Plastique has just released Mathlete’s first full-length, Telstar Parthenon, which shows their ideas becoming clearer and more fully realized while maintaining the same sound they do so well. In addition, Blackbean & Placenta has recently released the early tapes as the Lincolnwood Tech CD, and a second tour is under way.
This interview was done via email. The band Wolfie is talked about a bit, because that’s another place Michael Downey spends a lot of his time.
A lot of your lyrics (particularly the earlier ones) seem to have a certain fascination with the recording process itself and the mechanical aspects involved. Which comes first, the process or writing about it? Does the act of laying down the tracks for music ever make the lyrics pen themselves? Do the technical aspects of the lyrics tell the story of how that particular song came together? Or is it simply a subject you’re fond of?
Mike: Well, basically it’s me being influenced by the whole process. I used to write the lyrics last. So I’d be sitting in my room with my legs tangled in cable (stubbed my toe on the flanger) and usually half drunk on cheap beer with a song nearly completed except for vocals. What else could I write about? I’d spent the past four hours talking dirty to my four track to get it to do what I wanted so I was really forced into writing about the events that led up to that point.
Dan: Good point. I think the earlier Mathlete recordings were created with an awareness of the relationship between the process and the song, something that hasn’t yet become invisible, but was more immediate then. We were occupied by the aesthetic of the equipment, and the appreciation surfaced in lyrics and sounds in those recordings. For myself, the process and the song are inseparable, and the end result serves as a document of the experience. To begin to answer your question… the process shapes the song, I think, and the lyrics are more about the feeling of the song. I see the lyrics, as well as the aural characteristics of the vocals in Mathlete recordings to work as imagery devices of sorts, exaggerated and kind of fantasy like.
Last year you took Mathlete out of the bedroom and onto the road. Since there was a lot that you could do in the studio but not live, you played along to a tape. What were your experiences like with that? Any problems? How did the tour go in general? Is it sort of the same situation this time around? Does Mike Marsden being along free you up from using the tape somewhat, or does he just make things sound fuller?
Mike: The tape worked fine for awhile. Dan recently got a mini disc four-track, so we’ve remixed all of the live songs (and added a bunch). It sounds way better now, I think, with the mini disc. The only problem with playing along to prerecorded stuff is if the monitors aren’t loud enough or something like that. As long as we can hear everything, it’s cool. Sometimes sound guys like to think it’s really easy to mix us because we don’t have a drummer or anything, and they end up screwing it up because not all of the songs have the same amount of bass, treble, etc. So sometimes sound guys (or sound gals) will EQ on the first song and then go drink a beer or whatever they do… Maybe read Mix Magazine when they should be reading Tape-Op.
With the addition of Mike on guitar, we have a bigger and more full sound. It’s more rock ‘n’ roll now, and that’s a good thing. He’s just like Keith Richards and I’m more of a Ron Wood-esque type of player. We trade licks and riffs and smokes.
Dan: I think that last year’s tour really changed how Mike and I perceive Mathlete, as well as our expectations of the band. Through the tour we realized our limitations as well as possible avenues of exploration. We began to rethink things a bit, and these new ideas surface on our new release, Telstar Parthenon. We consciously started incorporating more guitar into the songs, even writing the new material on guitar prior to the recording process, generally. We became aware of the consequences of bringing a recorded song into the “live” realm and the nature of conversion, and started writing songs to accompany the adaptation. On our last tour, we played along to a tape, and found it to be more of a crutch than a tool. This time around, we have mixed all of the necessary backing material onto my mini disc four-track, which eliminates the strict linear boundaries a cassette offers and provides us with the opportunity to alter the sequence of the songs and the space in-between. Another intent of ours is that we wanted our live show to be more involved — more engaging. Mike and I discussed the possibilities of adding another member to our live show, and agreed that it would be beneficial and was a natural progression. Asking my brother to fill the shoes was the obvious answer, and he is now playing guitar with us.
Has the experience touring last year changed how you’ve approached song writing since?
Mike: Not really. I don’t look at Mathlete as some big live rock force. It’s really meant to be a recording project. For a while I thought I was writing more songs on guitar instead of keyboard because I wanted to be able to play them live… The real reason is because I’m not worth a shit on the keyboard but I can really bust a lead on guitar.
Dan: As I started to explain above, the previous tour experience significantly influenced how we approached writing new material. Aside from the introduction of more guitar sounds, we really wanted the new songs to have more of a “rock” vibe to them, something that was almost transparent on previous releases. We didn’t want to eliminate the idea of recording songs that we couldn’t play live, but became more conscious of recording songs that could be enhanced by a live performance, or geared towards it.
Do you expect Mathlete to always be essentially Mike and Dan?
Dan: Yeah, I think so. I enjoy writing/recording/performing with Mathlete very much, and I cherish the opportunity to be involved in something with a close friend. I think Mathlete is an extension of how we see and interpret things, and in this sense, works as it is.
Mike: Now for the live applications Mike is 1/3rd of it. We haven’t recorded with Mike, but if we go into a studio for our next EP, I think he’ll play some solos or outros.
Kim Kleinfeldt has been on a few songs you’ve done now. Is she involved in any other music projects?
Mike: Kim is my lovely girlfriend, and she’s not in any other bands or anything. Sometimes I just need a sweet voice to bring the song together, and she does a great job.
What is Mathlete’s thesis statement? Has it changed at all since Mathlete’s inception?
Mike: Yeah it has. It’s not about “synth pop” or “Casio core” or any other lame label people are trying to put on it. It’s rock music with drum machines. It’s homemade albums that sound good when you’re liquored up. That’s it.
Dan: “Rock n roll suicide,” and only the variables have changed.
You’ve stayed true to the home recording process since you began… It seems like it would be an odd step for Mathlete to go into a studio. But still I wonder — have you thought about it?
Mike: Definitely. We’re thinking of doing some new songs in a studio. I think we could really break some new ground for ourselves with better recording equipment. We may go to Kingsize Sound Labs in Chicago where the amazing Pulsars full length was recorded, or we may spend a ton of time with Rick Valentin at Studio Tedium, where Wolfie records.
Dan: Yeah, definitely, it’s something we’ve been putting a lot of thought into lately. When we began recording material for Mathlete, it was for purely recreational purposes, and recording on a four-track was an issue of accessibility. We got to the point where we were like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to try and release this stuff,” and the four track recordings served the purpose of that; also we were into the sound we could get at home. Now we’re at a position were we feel a studio can only expand upon our songs, and not limit them to the restrictions of portable recording machines. Our next release will most definitely be recorded in a studio; I’m excited to see what comes of it.
The Lincolnwood Tech CD on Blackbean & Placenta collects the first two tapes along with some unreleased tracks, correct? There’s also mention on your site of rare songs to be appearing shortly online. Are these some of the songs from the projects that pre-dated Mathlete that, if I’m not mistaken, were also up on the Wolfie site at one time? Any chance those will be available for downloading? Are these songs likely to resurface?
Mike: No, they’ll be Mathlete songs that didn’t make it onto any of the releases or brand new songs that I want people to hear. I really don’t want much more of the real early stuff (pre-Wolfie era) to get out. It’s pretty embarrassing. There’s some on http://www.wolfieband.com if you want to laugh at me, though.
Dan: Hmm, interesting. Most likely those songs that were recorded pre-Mathlete will never see the light of day. The rare songs of mention on our site will most likely be older Mathlete songs that were never released, new songs that are unreleased, or demos for songs we will be recording in the studio.
Speaking of electronics and technology, are any remixes planned?
Mike: Haven’t really thought about that yet. It would be interesting, though.
Dan: Ha ha, an interesting proposition. Nothing in the works, any ideas?
Although I haven’t seen it yet, I know you all contributed a video to the last Blackbean & Placenta video compilation. What’s the video like? What were your experiences like with making that?
Dan: The video is for a song called “Surrender.” It was constructed using a combination of live footage shot from our previous tour, an interview/performance we conducted at a local Normal, IL television station for a TV show called NDTV, footage shot specifically for the video, and brief footage from a documentary Mike made at school. Mike and our friend Curt Swank, “roadie extraordinaire,” crafted the project, so maybe Mike has a better answer for you. Personally, I dig what they did with it.
Mike: That was a blast. My friend Curt and I were interns at our university’s TV station a couple of semesters ago. We had full access to an AVID system, which is a fabulous non-linear video-editing program. We spent a few weeks just screwing around and seeing what happened. It ended up being a big collage of live footage and stuff we had shot inside the TV studio. Layers and layers of video basically. The video is for a song called “Surrender,” which is currently unreleased, but we play it live all the time.
A lot’s been happening for the band lately, as far as releases and touring are concerned. What’s in the future for Mathlete?
Mike: Well, there’s going to be a CD EP for Ojet. After that, it’s hard to say. Maybe another homemade album with Blackbean & Placenta, and then after that, a full on studio rock album. It’s all really tentative now.
Dan: A possible CD EP with Ojet records from Houston, TX, the label that released our 7″ The Household Frequencies — very nice people. This will be our debut into the world of hi-fidelity, enter endless faders.
Catch Mathlete on tour with Winterbrief this month, at the Ultramod Compound in Athens, GA on June 9th and at the Wayward Council in Gainesville, FL on June 10th. And for more information on Mathlete, check out the following Web sites: http://www.prairienet.org/mathlete, http://freenoise.org/BBPTC/catalog.html, http://www.plastiquerecords.com/, http://www.ojet.com, http://www.freespeech.org/poploser/lighthouse/, and http://www.wolfieband.com