Anyone familiar with electro-etherial music has no doubt heard the name Mara's Torment. Based in Toronto, Ontario, Rik MacLean numbers amongst the most talented artists that Canada has to offer. Rik's most special gift is his ability to fashion simple sounds togteher into complex emotions, and then weave those emotions to form sensual soundscapes and stories. Always witty and insightful, it was a great pleasure to interview Rik on a wide variety of topics.
Rik MacLean: Well, to be honest this compromises my secret identity, but after my parents put me in a spaceship to flee the imminent destruction of my homeworld, I found myself in a laboratory where I was bitten by a radioactive spider...
Anyway, after all that stuff settled, music appealed to me when I was younger as something that was far more expressive than language. I was a pretty insecure kid that didn't really know how to say what I wanted to say. As time went on I found myself writing songs in my head to convey what I was thinking, how I felt. Eventually I started playing music when there got to be so many songs in my head that I was running out of places to put them.
It's kinda interesting how playing music parallels learning how to speak. When you first start playing, you have a limited vocabulary (notes), you might not be able to string sentences (or songs) together, only phrases (chords) at best, and your grammar (musical theory) is practically non-existent. As time goes on, you become more able to connect words and ideas, and before you know it you're having a conversation. I guess this is the same for any sort of learning process, that there are bits and pieces that are comparable in any situation, but it's a pretty good comparison in my mind.
ES: Tell us a little about the early formative years of your musical career and schooling and some of the important events that shaped your musical career into what it is today.
RM: Career? I hesitate to say that it's a career, that word gives it such a sterile feeling, like it's something I do for a living, something that pays the bills, and I can assure you that there are no bills being paid by my music at this point. Anyway, the single most important musical moment for me was hearing the song "Ashes to Ashes" for the first time ever. Just to experience something so beautiful, so true, so different from anything that I'd ever experienced in life up to that time, it was a total epiphany.
The second most important moment was that first moment of recognition. When I started playing music, all I wanted to do was to release something that a complete stranger would tell me they enjoyed, so I recorded my first cassette as Mara's Torment, and I printed up 50 copies, and I mailed them to like every zine I could find at the time. And sure enough, somebody mailed me back to say that they liked it. And it was the best feeling in the world, you know? All of a sudden there was a credibility to what I was doing, and a validation to the music I was making. That feeling was pretty awe inspiring...
Other things? Well, one day when I was alone in my study, a bat flew in through the window and I realized my calling in life. Villains are a cowardly lot...
ES: Where do you find a lot of your inspiration comes from when you're creating a piece?
RM: My experiences as an international man of mystery are often the best source material, but when that fails I almost always try to write with the idea of documenting a time and space that I'm in. The songs I write are like journal entries, and reflect different periods in my life, my development. So I guess my main influence when I write is me. Hmmmmmmm, that sounds so pretentious. Lemme try again... I guess it refers back to the idea that music is a way of expressing things in a more eloquent way than language allows, at least my command of language. When speaking, I always feel very uncomfortable that I don't have the right words to say what I mean, that I don't have enough vocabulary to express myself. With music, I'm feeling more comfortable with communicating so it would be natural in my mind to keep a musical journal. Hmmmm, see this is a total example of me not being able to find words to say what I mean to say. I'll try to write you a song instead...
ES: Do you find living in a big city like Toronto provides you a lot of ideas for music?
RM: I've always subscribed to the idea that cities are living things, not just a support structure, and with that in mind I'd say yeah, the city has influenced me with various interactions that I've had with it.
There's actually a very particular case of the city influencing my writing during the time of The Barrier of Skin. I'm a really big fan of The Invisibles by Grant Morrison, and in one of the issues a character makes reference to the idea that cities are alive, and that people are the virii that spawn the cities. They also suggest that a city communicates with us through graffiti that we see, images that pass beyond our peripheral vision, stuff like that. So anyway, about two summers ago, there were these chalk drawings that started appearing on walls, a box with the outline of a head and shoulders with a cross through it. Very minimal, very Keith Haring in design. And I'd see these drawings on my way to work, and over the course of the summer I'd see more and more of them, and it got to the point where I could count maybe 200 on the walk from my home to where I work, it was totally wild! And I guess in keeping with the idea about communication that I just told you, I was positive, POSITIVE, that this was the city trying to say something. You have to remember this was the summer of Y2K paranoia, and I was spending all my day at work doing prep for the apocalypse, so I was sure that the city was making some sort of dark premonition or something. It was all very strange.
...And I guess as I thought more and more about this idea, the idea of communication came to mind, how we talk, how we express, how we say the things we do, so a lot of that went into TBS. A lot of other ideas were in there as well, but the concept of communication, reaching through to another person, interaction, how we do it, what we say, these were all big things in the writing process. So, ummmmmm, yeah, ummmmm, what were you asking me before?
ES: Is there any musical gear that you're partial to?
RM: I do love my Roland XP 80. It's an awesome keyboard, and I totally love it. I'm pretty solid with Roland equipment. Right now I'm just starting to get into computer based writing, but I still prefer the feeling of keys under my fingers...
ES: Do you feel making music is a partially physical or sensual experience for you then?
RM: Mmmmmmmmm, there's a physical feeling with keys and stuff, 'cause it feels like I'm doing something, I'm working towards a project, an end goal, a finished sentence or idea. I like the idea of making something, and that doesn't come across as well for me when I use the computer to write. Computer written songs seem somehow, ummmmmmmmmm, they seem like they come from the computer rather than me, I just pull them out and put them together, whereas a song written on the keyboard feels more like something I've channelled myself.
As for sensuality, yeah, there's always a feeling of sensuality when you're revealing yourself, a sense of being naked before another. There's a feeling of anticipation, a feeling that something is going to happen.
ES: Lately, you've begun to get into the DJ'ing side of things. What was the inspiration for this new-found interest?
RM: Okay, actually, the DJ side of things is a bit of a misnomer, 'cause it's really just a means of presenting my stuff that works in a DJ setting. Over the last year or so I've gotten really uncomfortable with the idea of live performance. I was starting to get body issues, and I was tired of the fear that a flash pot would burn off my eyebrows. And really, the snake and lion thing was getting a little tired for me, you know? I had to change the act. Sooooooo, I started thinking of different ways to present myself, to do something that would work better in a live environment, and the idea of packaging myself as a DJ seemed very interesting, as it would create a new dynamic to the live setting for me.
Usually at a Mara's Torment show I'd get up on stage, I might have a movie, or dancers, or a large purple octopus or something, and I'd play my songs, and it became a really awkward environment because there would be a focus on creating a spectacle out of these really personal, really intimate moments of mine that I just didn't want to share that way anymore. So by presenting things in a DJ format, I can put on a disc, mix some songs, and fade to the background. People can still come, still experience the music, still reflect, be involved or whatever, but the spectacle of performance is moved away so it becomes closer to the idea of intimacy that the songs are about, you know?
Soooo, yeah, the idea of being a DJ is really just an opportunity to present my own music in a different way. Do you have to play other people's songs if you're a DJ? That's me, rik the self-centered DJ...
ES: What do you feel have been some of the uppoints of your career? How about some of the lowpoints?
RM: Uppoints? I think any time somebody contacts me out of the blue to say that they enjoy what I'm doing is an uppoint, I'm still thrilled by every person that appreciates my stuff. Other things? I've played with some really great bands. I've been offered deals by some really interesting record labels, which has been very flattering. I've met a lot of fabulous people and made a lot of really great friends as a result of my stuff. I've collaborated with some wonderfully talented people and made some music that I've been really proud of.
Lowpoints? Before I started doing Mara's Torment I was in a bunch of groups working with other people, and though I worked with some really talented folks, I had a lot of difficulty working with other people. And for the longest time I felt I HAD to work with other people, that I couldn't do something on my own. And one day I challenged that idea, and that's when MT was born... Since then things have been peachy keen and swell. I've had some moments that were less appealing than others, a few bad reviews, some really bad shows, but I love what I do so I try to see any of the less good things as being learning experiences to make things better in the future.
Wow, did I say that? That totally goes against like eight schema maintaining behaviours that my therapist and I have catalogued! I smell breakthrough!
ES: What direction do you see your musical career heading in the near future?
RM: Using the word career again eh? I would like to be able to continue making the music that I do, continue to explore new ideas. Directions will be determined by whichever way the wind blows, you know?
ES: Is there anything you'd like to try that you've not had a chance to yet?
RM: Well, I've never had sex on my birthday. I dunno why, it just seems to be that on my birthday I always end up sleeping alone. Somehow that doesn't seem right does it? Ummmmmmmm, musically speaking there are a number of things I'd like to try, but of course if I say what they are, somebody will beat me to it, so I'm keeping that all under wraps right now...
ES: What would you say are the top five albums of all time?
RM: 1. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)
by David Bowie
and a whole bunch of other discs that don't come to mind right now, but I'll prolly remember as soon as I've sent this email back to you...
ES: What's in your pockets right now?
RM: That's my favourite question in the whole wide world!
My cel phone, my Hell-o Satan touque, a
bent straw, a flyer from a show that I didn't go to, a ring from a smoothie
I bought at Juice for life, my Gargamel figure, some sorta comic preview
thing, two open packages of Dentyne Ice gum, my phone bill (who do I know
that lives in Niagara Falls?), my visa bill (mostly restaurants and CD
stores), my hydro bill, my passport, my keys (both nacelles have fallen
off the Enterprise I'm afraid...), my phone book, business cards from my
therapist that I write appointments on, an HMV discount card (one away
from a free CD), the phone number of somebody I met at a club that I'll
prolly never call, a receipt for the latest issue of Vanity Fair (I loooooove
Vanity Fair), assorted ATM receipts, a Tylenol vial that has two Vitamin
C tablets, a B12 pill, and a couple of St John's Wort pills, assorted change,
a twenty, my wallet, a photo of a friend that I miss very much, and a note
with what my roommate wanted on her panino from last night's dinner run...
RM: The Last Night is the Hardest should be called The Next Album is the Hardest to finish. See, I started work on it the day that I got The Barrier of Skin back from the printers. The trouble is that I started working on too many things at the time, too many projects, too many shows, and as time went on I found that I'd spread myself too thin. I was writing from too many different perspectives, and it's taken me a while to do something that reflects the continued theme I have in mind for the disc, but I think it's finally happened. I'm hoping to get it mastered in January, and then from there it'll be ready prolly in the beginning of February. March at the latest. I'm really looking forward to it's release, it's been a long time coming, you know?
So what does it sound like? Oh, you know, mournful, forlorn, haunted, with an underlying sensuality. A smouldering eroticism. With an accordion. And a kazoo. I maintain a sense of humour despite my mournful forlorn haunted ways. It's okay. I think people who have appreciated my earlier work will enjoy The Last Night is the Hardest, and I hope that people that haven't heard any of my stuff will be interested enough to check it out. If you're into aural landscapes, the sounds of subway trains, beating hearts, and sweep pads galore, then this is the disc for you...
Once again the cover is done by the brilliant and talented Ms Katie Miranda who is one of my favouritest people in the universe. It's a beautiful painting that she did to reflect the subject matter of the disc, and it's quite stunning. I'm very lucky to be able to work with somebody as cool and as talented as Katie, she's totally in touch with what I do musically...
ES: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
RM: Yeah, I wanted to make this totally cheap plug for this soundtrack that I did over the summer for a film called The Beauty of Industry. It's a movie by a man named Gordon Williams about machines falling in love, and it's totally different from anything I've ever done before. It's like this totally amusical antimelodic backwards looping grating metal machine fragmentary nonmusic thing, and ummmmmmm, I quite like it. It's available to hear (and to buy...) on mp3.com for anybody that's interested, but it's completely different from my normal stuff, so be forewarned. It's something I'm very proud of, but it's sort of gone without much promo as a result of my being busy with the new disc. Check it out if you get the chance...
And while you're checking stuff out at mp3.com, you should also check out Mercurine! They're the most awesome band I've heard in ages, and I think they're awesome. Their addy is http://www.mp3.com/mercurine Oh! And you should also check out Ashkelon Sain's new project Submarine Fleet! He creates this ambience that I'm totally in awe of, his addy is http://artists.mp3s.com/artists/309/ashkelon_sain.html Oh, oh, oh! And you should check out DJ Triptech at http://www.ampcast.com/music/11154/artist.php 'cause he did some remixes for me, and ummmmmm, he does good stuff. And then and then and then and then-
Okay, I'm calm now. I should add that I only recommend that you go visit other sites once you've finished reading all of the groovy articles in this edition of Starvox in their entirety. I wouldn't want you missing anything here before you move on, right? Right...
ES: Thanks Rik, it's been a pleasure chatting with you.
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