The best pop album to be released in the year 2000 was Mazarin’s debut, titled Watch It Happen (although technically it was released in 1999, it seems that no one really heard the record until early 2000). The band centers around the songwriting of Quentin Stoltzfus, the former drummer for Philadelphia drone outfit the Azusa Plane, and also currently shares live members with the Lilys, Lenola, and the Twin Atlas. The album is brimming with hazy guitars, catchy sing-along vocals, and restrained yet exuberant drumming.
The album was somewhat overlooked, but the band is currently preparing its follow-up album, which will hopefully see the band gaining legions of new fans who will still be waiting for another Neutral Milk Hotel album that will most likely never come.
I was lucky enough to catch a rare full-band live Mazarin performance in New York at the Knitting Factory, where I met the very cordial Mr. Stoltzfus, and we set up the e-mail interview that follows.
In one of your songs, you mention listening to Barber. How much time do you spend listening to classical music?
I love classical music. I used to wake up to Temple University’s radio station, which plays classical music until the late afternoon, but then I found myself sleeping through my alarm and incorporating the classical music into my dreams. Bartok can be scary when you’re in the space between consciousness and sleep. Samuel Barber’s “Adagio For Strings” is one of the most beautiful and haunting musical pieces ever created — the choral version is my personal favorite. I lived right around the corner from Barber’s birthplace in West Chester and would walk by it almost everyday for two years.
A lot of your songs have to do with themes of sleep, dreams, subconscious, etc. Do you spend an inordinate amount of time asleep, or do you have a fascination with dreaming and the subconscious? Maybe Mazarin could become the leaders of the pro-sleep movement, to combat the Nation of Ulysses’ anti-sleep movement from a few years back.
I love sleeping, mostly because for a long time I didn’t get enough of it, although that’s changed recently. I’ve always been fascinated with my dreams, and have strong memories of dreams that I would have when I was very young. I was a very active sleeper when I was a kid. I can’t tell you how many times I’d go to sleep in my room and wake up in the middle of the night in the living room, under my bed, in the hallway, in the bathroom — basically, any place in the house that wasn’t my bedroom. I’ve moved furniture in my sleep, had entire conversations with people, found myself running across my bedroom, trying to climb walls. I’ve got a lot of funny and weird stories about my active sleep life.
I’ll gladly lead the “pro-sleep/take a vacation on your credit card” movement.
How long has Mazarin existed? When did you first start playing the songs that make up your first album?
I began concentrating on writing the songs that make up Watch It Happen in March of 1998. I had been living in Austin for the previous six months, and had moved there with the intention of getting some musical clarity and isolation. I spent a lot of time alone, recording and writing, but didn’t really start to put anything together until I moved back to Pennsylvania. I wrote my first four songs, “Deed To Drugs,” “Sicily,” “Wheats,” and “I Should Be Sleeping,” over a period of a few months, and recorded them in various forms. I was playing in another band at the time and was also co-writing songs for that band. We did an eight-track version of “I Should Be Sleeping,” and a handful of other songs, and after a few months, I realized that I wasn’t happy working in the context of “a band.” Oddly enough, through a strange and complex turn of events, the band dissolved and two of the members moved to San Francisco. As soon as it was apparent that the band was officially over, I made a tape of four-track demos for Sean Byrne and Brian McTear. They both really liked the songs and Brian agreed to help record them. Sean and I got together in my basement in West Chester, where I was living at the time, and I taught him five songs in one night. We practiced together a few more times and then went into the studio in February of 1999. We laid down rough tracks for five songs in two days and then worked evenings and weekends for the next six months, finishing them up and recording the rest of the songs. I wrote the remainder of the songs over that six-month period.
Mazarin became a band in November of 1999, when we started practicing for our first show. But as far as songwriting and recording goes, I still write all of the songs and record mostly with just Brian and Sean, with an occasional guest appearance from one of my friends.
Are you still a member of Asuza Plane, or are you going to be focusing exclusively on Mazarin now?
As far as playing live is concerned, The Azusa Plane is in somewhat of a hibernation period. At least that’s how I view it, Jason may tell you otherwise. Outside of a few very loose projects with friends — I hesitate to even call them projects — Mazarin is my primary focus.
Where did the word Mazarin come from? Does it mean anything?
I got the name from an Umberto Eco book called Island of the Day Before. It’s a historical fiction novel about a man who gets shipwrecked from one ship onto another ship that is stranded on a reef within sight of a virtual island paradise. You never know if what’s happening in the book is actually happening, or if it’s a figment of the central character’s imagination. It’s a brilliant book. Jules Mazarin was a character in the book, based on a 17th Century Italian-born expatriate who moved to France and became a cardinal/ politician. I don’t know a lot about him, but from what little I’ve read on the subject, he was a very controversial figure — loved by the French, hated by the Spanish. Mazarin is somewhat of an arbitrary character in the book, and has little meaning to me at this point, but basically, I just like the way the word sounds and looks in print.
What is your day job?
Blissfully unemployed, concentrating fully on music.
How are you connected to Rocket Girl Records and Victoria Records?
I’ve been friends with Vinita Joshi since 1997, when the Azusa Plane gave her a ride from Terrastock I in Providence to Philadelphia. I’ve known Jason DiEmilio since 1994, when I met him through a mutual friend in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where we had both attended university.
You seem to move around a lot. How many cities have you lived in, and do you have a favorite? Name one city you haven’t lived in yet that you’d really like to live in someday. Which place do you consider “home,” if any?
Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time in a handful of places. I mostly just take extended vacations and visit a place for a month or two months. You can get a pretty good idea of what a place is like in a month. I’ve traveled around most of Western Europe and a bit of Eastern Europe. This year I spent five weeks in San Francisco, six weeks in London, a couple weeks in Austin, and took many side trips to various cities (Montreal, LA, Seattle). I’m going back to the UK later this month, playing a few shows while I’m there, and then going to Thailand for the month of December, back to England for another two weeks and then back to Philadelphia.
I really like Philadelphia, and I’d be foolish to live anywhere else at this stage of my life. I have so many great resources here, and it meets all of my basic needs –cheap rent, really good cheap restaurants, nice parks, nice people, it’s a few hours from New York.
I’d live in New York or London if the costs of living weren’t so high. I like having lots of space, and I pay half the money in Philadelphia for twice as much space as I would get in New York City or London. I have a three-story house all to myself, it’s definitely a nice benefit. I also wouldn’t mind living in Eastern Europe for a while — some place like Estonia, or the Southern Czech Republic. I’ve always promised myself to live in Spain for a year, so I’d like to do that at some point.
When people ask me where I’m from, it’s always a complicated answer. I don’t really feel like I can call any one place home, it’s a combination of many places.
Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
I was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, lived there until I was three, then my parents moved to East Texas. I lived there until I was nine, and then we moved to Austin. We moved around Austin quite a bit, and then we moved back to Pennsylvania when I was 14. I moved to West Chester when I was 19, moved back to Austin when I was 24, and then back to Pennsylvania six months later, and then to Philadelphia a few months later. I think I went to 14 different schools when I was growing up. It was quite difficult being the new kid all of the time, but I learned to be very independent, make friends quickly, and adapt to different environments.
Despite all of the geographical changes, I managed to have a fairly normal childhood. My parents did a fine job of insulating me from a lot of weirdness and strange activities that were going on around me, which I’d rather not talk about.
The new songs I heard you play live seemed to be extremely fast and a little more upbeat lyrically — if I remember correctly — than the songs on Watch It Happen. Is the new album going to be a lot different than the first one?
I’m not really sure what the new album is going to be like. I’m sure it will have some similarities to and differences from the first one. I change my mind about how I want to sound on a weekly — if not daily — basis.
Is there a title for the new CD yet? Do you have any idea about what label might be putting it out?
I haven’t decided on a title for the new record yet, and I’m not sure which label will be putting it out at this point. I’ve been contacted by a lot of companies, running the gamut from tiny indie to mid indie to large indie to major. I’m not planning on signing with a major at this point, unless someone presents me with a really good deal that gives me complete artistic control. So it’s very likely that I’ll be signing with a mid-size to large independent. Sorry to be so vague, but it’s not really fair for me to name names at this point.
How long were you a member of the Azusa Plane, and during that time were you playing pop music on the side or hiding your love of pop music like a secret addiction? What kind of pop do you love the most? Can you name some favorite albums? (This isn’t necessarily an “influences” type question…)
I played actively with the Azusa Plane from 1996 through 1999. Both Jason and I had and still have a strong affinity for pop music as well as various forms of experimental music, and virtually every other genre of music, so I wouldn’t say that I was “hiding” my love of pop music. It took me a while to gain enough confidence with what I was doing to present it to anyone. As far as what kind of pop music I love most, it’s difficult to say; I love everything. Some of my favorite records at the moment (both pop and non-pop): Kraftwerk (live), John Fahey (Requia, The Legend of Blind Joe Death), Bob Dylan (The Albert Hall Recordings, Nashville Skyline), Autechre (Chiastic Slide), Sandy Bull (The Vanguard Recordings), Faust (Faust Tapes), Brian Eno (everything), Syd Barrett (Madcap Laughs, Barrett), Os Mutantes (Mutantes), some early Jackson 5 stuff, James Brown (Live at the Apollo), Astrud Gilberto (The Silver Collection), Fairport Convention (Unhalfbricking).
What do you think of the state of underground pop music today? It seems to me that the majority of new bands popping up fit into this whole emo thing — it’s very easy to form this type of band and it’s very trendy — whereas through the early- to mid-’90s, there was an overflow of more pop-oriented or indie rock bands. I guess basically what I’m asking is why do you think there aren’t more people making records like yours these days?
I think a lot of people are disillusioned with underground music right now, whether you chalk it up to the emo thing, which I’ve never really followed, or the proliferation of electronic music, there are definitely a large number of folks wondering what the hell is going on in music today. I love electronic music, and I think there have been some really significant contributions from electronic composers in the past ten years, but because of the popularity of electronic music and the trendy/ social aspects involved, there has also been an enormous amount of uninspired and stagnant electronic music released in the past few years. A lot of it really starts to sound so derivative of the earlier, more genuine stuff. It’s always been like that with music when any trendy/social factor has been involved. Think of all of the shit bands who were outright copying the Beatles, the Who and the Rolling Stones in the ’60s, think of all the bands in the ’70s who were attempting to copy Donna Summer and James Brown, same with the ’80s (metal hair bands) and ’90s (god, think of the grunge fixation popular music has had since the early ’90s) — a lot of copycat bands made a nice living doing what they were doing, so it’s not entirely their fault. If there’s a market for it, then it’s valid at the moment, but as far as being significant in the grand scheme of things, well, that’s debatable.
So in a nutshell, a lot of the kids that would typically be playing in bands are participating in the cultural phenomenon of electronic music. That’s definitely not a bad thing — if I was 19, I’d probably be doing the same thing. But since I’m not 19, I just listen to what I feel is important electronic music, use some of the more
Your guitar tone and playing has a very distinct feel. It also seems that, live, you are able to replicate the sounds heard on the album almost exactly. Where do you get your ideas for how to make your guitar sound that certain way, and who are some of your favorite guitarists?
I’ve gone through a lot of different guitars, pedals, amps, and amp configurations. Probably 75% of my credit debt is guitar or recording equipment. I think getting the right tone is a combination of doing your research, finding people who know more than you about gear whose tonal ideas match up with yours, and trying out equipment exhaustively. I’ve become good friends with managers at three or four different “mom and pop” music stores over the past few years. They let me take home amps, pedals, and guitars to try them out, which is very helpful. I’m also very impulsive sometimes — for instance, with my most recent setup, I was shopping for a new guitar and the manager plugged me into an old, beat-up 1956 Gibson amp. I basically played one chord and gave the guy my credit card and took home both the amp and the guitar.
As far as favorite guitarists go, John Fahey is brilliant, Sandy Bull, Neil Young, Wayne Rogers blew my mind the first time I heard him, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Carl Perkins, etc[sigma] I could go on and on.
How many shows have you played with a full band? When you play overseas, do you play solo or with a different backing band? Did you ever tour with the Azusa Plane? Any plans for a Mazarin tour?
I think we’ve played 16 shows so far. So far, I’ve only done an acoustic tour of the UK; the next time I go, I’d like to take the full band. The Azusa Plane never did a proper tour, but we did a lot of “one offs” in the UK and Europe. I’d like to do a Mazarin tour in the spring, but that depends on a lot of factors.
There are also a few drug references. What do you think about the relationship between drugs and creativity?
Humans are compound chemical structures — anything you do to change this structure affects many processes within the structure. Sometimes these changes are beneficial, and other times they are detrimental. All things in moderation, right?
For more information on Mazarin, visit http://www.autotonic.com/bios/mazarin/