Interview

With Max Steel

How did the collaboration with Kramer come about?

It seems to me that Kramer emailed me out of the blue. It might have been after our last album came out in 2006. We’d never met him, but he was interested in working with us. Producing us.

How did you come to record in Miami? 

We batted around some scenarios. Meeting in New York or us going there – to Fort Lauderdale – but nothing clicked time-wise until late 2012 when the Curves gym I worked at was going out of business and it seemed like a good idea to make an album. It seemed more interesting to go to Miami than New York because we’d never been to Miami and hey, it was winter. Kramer set things up with Rat Bastard who was extremely helpful and treated us really well. We recorded at the Laundry Room in Miami Beach and both Kramer and Rat were great to work with, but maybe I shouldn’t be saying how nice they were. They got their reputations to protect.

Over the years of considering working with Kramer, I was wondering what he wanted to do with us. To us. I mean, we’re usually one guitar and a voice and I’m not crazy about tons of reverb or effects. Our last album had other bits on it. I played sax and piano on it and some synth and percussion. Maybe that’s what attracted Kramer – evidence of including other elements. I don’t think I ever asked him why he wanted to work with us. I read an article in Magnet (2007) that indicated he was done working with crazies, that he wanted listeners to dip their toes in a pool of tears or some fucking thing – but that’s not us. A pool of napalm maybe, but that’s more about our legacy than our current work, which is somewhat less caustic.

We decided to go for it after Kramer and I had a decent phone conversation. By decent I mean we laughed a lot and seemed to get along. It gets tougher to take chances after being burned enough times by people who freak out or flake out – people who screw up because they are losers. Let me pick a better word. Maybe narcissists is more to the point. Utterly selfish, manipulative people who are unable to experience empathy – and I say that in the nicest way possible. There’s a huge risk factor to flying to the opposite side of the continent to work that closely with people you’ve never met. Producers and recording engineers need to be empathetic and Kramer and Rat were exactly that. I should add that I’ve been researching and writing about empathy for a long time.

On this album, Kramer plays bass on all the songs as well as organ, vibraphone and mellotron on a few pieces. I played some piano and a bit of sax and I think my guitar is on there somewhere. David did a few guitar over-dubs, but overall it’s a very clean album. The extra instruments fit very tightly with the existing music, making it a more traditionally fortified venture. This is thanks to Kramer.

David and I decided we would essentially have Kramer do what he wanted during the mixing and mastering process, because getting someone to do what they don’t want to do is impossible in terms of authentic creativity. We wanted to hear what Kramer would do with us. I mean, we’re not exactly looking for guidance after doing this for 30 years and he’s not there to shape us or cajole us. He drove the 40 minutes from Fort Lauderdale every one of the four or five days and we started work pretty early in the day and finished up in the evening. We drank tea, worked efficiently and more often than not we were happy with first or second takes. No drama other than the pressure one puts on oneself to be excellent in the moment, as necessary.

The title of the new record is “Empathy for the Evil”. How do you define evil?

Evil is one of those loaded words that people use to categorically condemn an action or a person. It feels vaguely religious. Which I am not. I am not vaguely religious. I’m very curious about why people are the way they are. Writing is the way in which I try and figure things out. The kind of writing that I do demands that I consider what the reader or listener is taking away – which is a form of empathy. Most of the lyrics on this album are directly out of my two most recent novels. The two I wrote after writing two about online dating. Both of these recent novels deal with psychological predispositions that result in what could be called evil. In one novel, a museum curator uses abstract expressionism to cure narcissism, and, in the other, I create overlapping scenarios that are complicated by the intrinsically selfish nature of sexual desire.

Where does evil exist today?

Evil exists within power-based relationships. In my mind, a lack of empathy frequently results in such negativity. I don’t know exactly how the Rolling Stones answered when they were asked about the meaning of “Sympathy for the Devil”, but I regard having empathy for the evil as an evolved state of awareness that intends to reduce unnecessary suffering. By ‘the evil’ I mean people who are perceived as evil, not the evil deeds they do. “Sympathy for the Devil” appears to be more of a history of atrocities attributed to a character called the devil. Not being a believer in god, I’m also not a believer in the devil.

During my online dating experiences, I bumped into the definition of narcissism. It’s basically a lack of empathy. There’s a theory that we will continue to select the same kinds of people to interact with until we understand why we keep selecting them and move on. I ended up meeting a lot of narcissists. Either they were attracted to me or I was attracted to them – or both. I thought if I totally understood narcissism that I could move on. I spent a whole summer making sure I really got it, really understood it, so I could absolutely avoid it and then I went out and found myself another narcissist. I’m not actually the kind of person who needs to go around labeling people, but understanding narcissism in order to avoid narcissists is crucial to my survival.

What is the most difficult thing for you to have empathy for?

Narcissists. Lack of empathy is the hallmark of narcissism – along with selfishness and manipulation. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, to see things from their point of view. Having empathy for people who are unable to experience empathy requires, for me, the knowledge that the narcissist’s brain is basically broken. Narcissists aren’t choosing to be selfish and manipulative, they just are. For instance, a very candid narcissist I know said to me – “Why would I want to talk about what you’re doing? Talking about you isn’t talking about me, so why would I want to talk about you?” Depending on how close I am to this person and how much I understand about narcissism, I could be hurt or angry (or both). I might even assume that he is trying to hurt me, but understanding a narcissist’s lack of empathy is helpful to not taking their perspective personally. The narcissist simply isn’t interested in anyone else. If one is the child of a narcissist… well, this isn’t good. If one is romantically involved with a person who isn’t interested in them… that isn’t good. If I push myself beyond what feels like cruelty, I can try to empathize with a state of being that doesn’t include empathy. Can I truly empathize with someone who doesn’t experience empathy? Maybe not. I’ve kind of gone along thinking people are more like me than not like me in terms of how the brain basically works and it’s sort of shock to realize that there are two kinds of people – those who experience empathy and those who don’t. As far as important issues in the world go, to me there’s misogyny, the environment, capitalism and empathy. It’s that important.

The thing with narcissism is that there is no treatment or cure. Even if you understand narcissism, you want to keep a distance from narcissists. I suppose I should add that narcissism is usually the result of childhood trauma. The child cannot cope with a situation and, as a result, the brain creates new methods of protecting itself. These new methods disrupt, re-route or shut down what would have resulted in healthier functioning.

Can empathy be radical?

Deciding to deal with narcissists on limited terms is radical. For instance, let’s say one finally figures out that one or both of one’s parents are narcissists. Ah ha! thinks one. I understand, now I can interact with them. I will not blame them for their selfishness because they can’t help it. I’ll go back to the relationship and knowing about narcissism will protect me. Alas, ‘knowing’ doesn’t create the buffer required to function within that particular dynamic. You kind of have to let go of the idea of fixing connections that will never include your own well-being. It’s a matter of getting to a point of awareness, but the awareness is that things can’t be worked out.

Can you talk about “Malachi”, which was released as a single ahead of the album, and was included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial? How did that song come about (in tandem with the album)?

“Malachi” is about Malachi Ritscher, an anti-war activist who recorded mainly experimental musicians performing live in Chicago. After the U.S. invaded Iraq, he became a vocal opponent of the war. Like monks opposing the Vietnam War, his final act of protest was self-immolation in 2006.

“If I am required to pay for your barbaric war, I choose not to live in your world. I refuse to finance the mass murder of innocent civilians, who did nothing to threaten our country. I will not participate in your charade – my conscience will not allow me to be a part of your crusade.” —Malachi Ritscher

We’d met Malachi when he recorded a live Mecca Normal set in 2002. He was friends with our Chicago friends and they emailed me about Malachi’s action. His suicide. David and I meet at my place to write and rehearse. We were standing here and I was telling Dave about Malachi and it started to feel like something that should be documented. I would have asked Dave to play something new and then, I’d likely have connected with one of several pieces that he’d been working on. I always record what we do because often songs arrive nearly finished and then it’s a matter of reviewing the recording to learn from them. “Malachi” is a bit tricky musically, so we rehearsed it a lot over a number of years when we weren’t playing live that much.

I think the first time we played it live was in Olympia in 2008 when we were opening for Kimya Dawson. Calvin Johnson of K Records was there and I could tell it was impacting him emotionally, which made it even more difficult to sing. Later, he said it was the best song we’d ever written, which means a lot coming from him – someone who has recorded and released a bunch of our records. Anyway, he recorded it for a K Records 7″ and then we decided to record an acoustic version with Kramer to see if it would work on the album, but the album was already long enough because I’m singing chunks out of my novels. I decided to make the new, acoustic version into a video and to give it away as a free download while the Malachi exhibit was up at the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

I’m curious about your feelings on protest and political performance/activism. Mecca Normal is clearly part of a tradition and lineage that includes artists, music fans, as well as literal self-sacrifice.

I don’t see us as part of self-sacrifice. I think we hit on a way to make things interesting and exciting by doing what we wanted creatively. Politically, functioning as two activists, we were able to avoid some of the pitfalls that might have derailed us had we attempted to participate within a larger group. Not only is Mecca Normal one man and one woman creating work that deals with issues between men and women in a way that suits both of us, but Dave gets to play a really loud guitar and I get to yell at the top of my lungs about stuff bothering me. We happily make all this noise at the same time and yet really appreciate what the other one is doing. There aren’t many conversations that happen like that. Usually if a man and a woman are making a lot of noise at the same time, they aren’t listening to each other. So, not only is Mecca Normal music about men and women, it is also a man and woman making it in a sort of Direct Action approach to the male female dynamic.

How has your approach to composing and performing music changed over the years? 

Actually, writing “Malachi” goes back to our earliest and most consistent songwriting method where we talk for a long time about something that’s come up. That is to say, I talk a lot and David listens and contributes succinct opinions. I tend to write lyrics by editing however I chose to tell the story to Dave.

As far as changing how we compose and perform, things haven’t changed that much. From time to time we work more closely with other people, but invariably it returns to just Dave and I. We’ve worked with different recording engineers and we’ve had a few people play in the band or on albums, but it doesn’t really change the Mecca Normalness of the thing. The group is really a reflection of a friendship that has its foundation in very positive attributes. We allow our partnership to extend into other creative activities. Mecca Normal is there as a vehicle to hitch graphic novels, art exhibits and classroom events to.

To be a man and a woman in an intensely communicative musical group is very interesting. I think the fact that we both communicate as powerfully as we see fit at exactly the same time is something that simply doesn’t occur that frequently. His guitar and my voice are equal and we recognize the contributions of both parts. Mecca Normal is built on empathy and the idea that it can, as an entity, be flexible enough to accommodate what we each need to accomplish with it.

In my 20s, song lyrics would frequently pop out of longer pieces I was writing to figure out what was going on in my life. I wrote in notebooks that I didn’t go back and re-read. Writing was a form of articulation, an act of spilling everything into a sea of handwriting that compounded into the ink-etched pages of spiral-bound notebooks that I filled one after another. As I was writing, I’d notice that some section or another was perhaps more poetic or succinct and I’d go to the typewriter and work on lyrics. Now, as a novelist, I suppose I’m doing something similar when it comes to lyrics. I’m isolating sections from writing created for another purpose. With novels, I invent completely fictional characters who interact amongst themselves, to demonstrate their personalities and endure conflict over novel-length stretches. These are regular beginning-middle-and-end novels. Stories. I think performing sections from novels out of context credits the audience with interpretive skills. They have to create their own surrounding scenarios. This is very different than a song that tells people what to think and do, which is perhaps a more youthful enterprise. In earlier years I wanted to control more about what an audience got philosophically. I wanted to be clear. In recent years, I have transferred that clarity to novel writing and freed up the song lyrics to exist without the crushingly clever context of say a country song that makes sure you know the details of the injustice and how it is reacted to. I would say that over the years I’ve become less inclined to write overtly political songs, although sometimes I feel like I want to write an anthemic response to every injustice in the world as it occurs. But, at this point, I need to be true to my own evolution which is based in muddier terrain.

Having been playing together for nearly 30 years, do you notice your influence on punk bands that have come after you? 

It is actually 30 years this year. We started playing music together in 1984, which seems like yesterday. It’s difficult to say how we have influenced bands that came after us. Certainly people tell us that this is the case, but in some ways, if they’ve heard us and liked us, then they aren’t really doing what we did, because we were, for the most part, not intending to fit into anything or be popular. We want to change how things are – from misogyny to capitalism – by altering the trajectory of stimuli that impacts people, prodding them towards being more inclined to want to step away from conformity in favor of flaunting more vital opinions and behaviors.

I recall being in Philly in the early 90s, at the Khyber Pass, and someone told me to come with them down the street to some other bar to see a woman singing on TV who they said had ripped-off my whole thing. This woman was Alanis Morissette with the angry stance, the long hair, belting out You Oughta Know. It was pretty weird seeing her. There hadn’t really been anything like that and one wonders where that came from. I mean, she’d previously been a whole different disco-pop character called Alanis who had obviously re-invented herself based on something. One wonders what sorts of conversations were had, and what evidence was accumulated, to come up with the new Alanis persona.

I recall another occasion in that same bar, the Khyber, when a young man came bounding over to tell me that he only listened to Mecca Normal. Period. Hmmm, thought I. That’s not good. I tried to explain to him that we were meant to be taken in context with whatever else was happening – be that grunge, Riot Grrrl, poetry, folk or literature, art and graphic design.

Mecca Normal is more than just a band, both you and David make visual artwork as well. Do you find that you explore the same questions in your visual or non-musical work as you do in the band?

I’ve never thought of what we do as exploring questions. The band has always provided solutions – either within personal and historical accounts or by example. David is, by trade, a graphic designer turned graphic novelist who has always played guitar. I grew up with abstract painters for parents. Having been indoctrinated by two volatile artists, I’ve always painted and I usually do feel rather angry when I paint. I met Dave when we were both doing newspaper production – the graphic art side of production. He had a background in what I’ll call social justice because he had an older brother involved in the Yippie movement – the Youth International Party of the 1960s. I was ultra creative without considering much about any sort of potential to change the world. Due to how I grew up, I’ve always had a strong interest in what I’ll call injustice. Dave has always been the radical historian and, in the early years, I reacted to what he put forward by writing sonically-charged accounts for different purposes. I believed revealing various injustices would encourage other people to tell their sonically-charged stories and through an elevated examination of what the hell was wrong with everything, things might change.

David and I both paint and create visual art. He has a graphic novel out and he’s working on a new one about the early 20th century anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman. I have written five novels since 2000 – text from the two most recent ones are lyrics on this new album.

We consider Mecca Normal a form of political activism as well as a way to go through life, which includes dealing with compounding disappointment and general stupidity, which is perhaps why we’ve both retreated into more solitary work. We both love to tour and play live, but the logistics of being on the road are limiting.

The essence of being a group for 30 years is in accountability. As a collaborative entity, we include tour booking and strategies for making ourselves known as part of our creative work. After the energy of the 90s, when we were putting out an album a year and touring quite a lot, we took a step back when music and computers collided, when audiences for both live and recorded music began to ignore the live band and its pricey merchandise in favor of downloading music for free. Considering it was never our mandate to become famous or popular – or make money – it turned out to be a good time to deal with other concerns and to invent new ways to proceed. I quit drinking in 2000 and we began doing a classroom event called “How Art and Music Can Change the World” which includes a talk, our art and a Mecca Normal set. I also created an archival and exhibition entity called The Black Dot Museum of Political Art. It evolves as necessary as it defines itself over time.

Mecca Normal did a couple of big tours around that time too, opening for Godspeed You! Black Emperor on the west coast and opening for Unwound in the east at the time of 9-11. Actually, I opened the Godspeed shows with a solo set because I had a solo CD out at that time that they really liked and they invited me to open so I suggested Mecca Normal play too. I had this overly-complicated solo set where I played guitar and sax and I had a CD player with piano and drones on it. I think subconsciously I made it complicated so that I couldn’t drink. These were big, sold-out theater shows and I was on stage alone and extremely sober.

It took a certain amount of re-evaluation to transition from what seemed to be a cultural shift away from what we were doing – what a lot of bands were doing – to creating living situations that could include vast amounts of time writing and researching projects. We’ve increased the scope of our creative options by adding books, art exhibits and lectures while maintaining the essence of Mecca Normal. I think we’ve learned to be more patient, not to feel we should record an album every year and tour. We make time to write books and paint and come up with lecture content that needs to be rehearsed and booked in an entirely new sector, away from rock clubs, late nights and booze. It takes a lot of time to research educators who might be interested in having us come into a classroom and then it’s a matter of cold-calling them. For the most part, this is all really small scale stuff that we put together. It isn’t a viable way to make a living. One of our main strategies is not screwing up.

 

 

 

 

 

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