Getting Past the Static Interview Questions:

In 1986 you self-released your first album on “Smarten Up!” before you started your relationship with K and I’m curious how that relationship started with Calvin.  How did you meet and what went into the decision to release the second album with him?

The first album wasn’t self-released, in the same way that you wouldn’t say Beat Happening albums were self-released. I started a zine in about 1984 called Smarten UP! that, in 1986, I expanded into a record label which has subsequently released albums by minimalist musicians and community activists including solo bassist Wendy Atkinson who is working on her third album for Smarten UP! A lot of people seemed to think our first album was “Calico Kills the Cat” (on K Records, 1989) because we only pressed 500 of the first LP.

We met Calvin at a show we did in Olympia as part of the Black Wedge – a group of anti-authoritarian poets and minimalist musicians – in 1986. Tobi Vail was at the show, as were several other people who became life-long friends.

I recently put the entire Mecca Normal set up on our bandcamp.

After the show, Calvin approached me with the first Beat Happening album – the yellow one with the cat in the rocket ship – and wanted to trade albums, which I wasn’t too keen on. We were just starting a tour of the west coast with our first album and I didn’t want to trade. I wanted to sell it. Plus, the cat in the rocket ship on the front cover of the Beat happening album was not clicking with my artistic or political sensibilities. At some point – months later – Calvin wrote to me to say he was coming up to Vancouver to buy tickets for a Tracy Thorn show and did I want to meet him for tea. I could just as easily have said no, but we did meet and I think we discussed including a Mecca Normal song on a K Records cassette release. That turned out to be “Smile Baby” on “Let’s Sea.” After which came the “Oh Yes You Can” 7″ EP and then the next album, which was “Calico Kills the Cat” – the first non-Beat Happening LP on K Records.

Calvin Johnson talks about Mecca Normal

Coincidentally, I just completed a song-by-song comparison of “Calico Kills the Cat” and the new album “Empathy for the Evil” for our weekly Magnet Magazine column. Every Saturday Magnet posts an illustration by David Lester, a free Mecca Normal download and my text – that I feel ties the various elements together in some way. Usually very subtly. I curator the components in a way that mirrors how Mecca Normal writes songs, in that David’s guitar playing is not a sentimental backdrop for my words and ideas. We’re usually aiming for equal parts intensity-wise – as we do on the albums and in performance. If you’ve ever been to a Mecca Normal show, you may have noticed that it’s not me in the middle of the stage with Dave on one side; we occupy the stage equally. That’s a conscious choice – and an example of how we write songs and how the band functions. The Magnet project is also an ongoing exercise in creating a new context for Mecca Normal’s existing work. The act of archiving, juxtaposing and adding commentary to historical artifacts is a kind of art in itself. I recently started an archival website that I’m slowly adding to, by date – from our first show opening fro D.O.A. in 1984 up to the present.

Magnet columns in September feature the songs on “Calico Kills the Cat” – which, coincidentally, was released 25 years ago. I thought it might be interesting to compare those lyrics with the lyrics on the new album – start to finish, in the order they appear on both albums. I describe each song and then write about what they had in common in terms of subject matter. It was interesting to find common themes in the lyrics and early examples of my songwriting methods that have since evolved. I like an utterly self-conjured project that, as you go along, reveals satisfying surprises along the way. For instance – comparing the eighth song on both albums. On Calico it’s “Joelle” and on Empathy it’s “Maisy’s Death” which, weirdly, is about the mother of a character named Odele. Both songs – one quite short and the other rather long – are about the oppressive nature of patriarchy as it relates to specific domestic situations. Having written the songs 25 years apart with characters named Joelle and Odele is kind of interesting. I mean, it’s not like the hundreds of songs in between are all starring Ronelle, Monelle and Quontele or anything.

The Art of David Lester

In comparing the two albums, I’d say the stories have become more fluid over time, incorporating more ideas about background and childhood, but the essence of my feminism and abhorrence of injustice is in tact.

On the recent album, most of the lyrics are directly out of two recently-completed novels that deal with such concerns – why people are the way they are.

From the beginning of Mecca Normal, I have, at times, been very direct in my delivery of feminist ideas. I have used stories to make points or to share observations. From songs on the first album like “Are You Hungry Joe?” to “Attraction is Ephemeral” (The Observer, 2006) – I tend to want to articulate what impacts me, to collect my own thoughts in writing and then I want to express those considered impressions regardless of whether or not I reach a conclusion or feel intent on putting forth a plausible course of action. There’s something about continuing to think about things in writing that can reveal details that may not have been considered in the original experience. I discover more about most what I experience by writing about it. It’s almost the reverse of photography, which alters experiences while you’re having them. Writing about events – the way I do it, the way I think about it – creates a framework in which I can get more clarity. For example – I was sitting down to meet a guy from an online dating site and he spilled coffee on his leg. He cursed at himself, calling himself an idiot. When I got home I emailed a quick report to Dave and when I got to the part about him yelling at himself, I recognized that as a red flag. It seemed likely that if he and I became involved, he might yell at me if I did something wrong, but I didn’t make that connection in the moment. I was surprised that I didn’t even think about that as it was happening. I considered it as I was writing. That’s how lyric writing works as well. Sometime we talk for a long time before we start working a new song and then, when it comes time to sing, I create a version of what we’ve just talked about – from a more writerly stance.

Your new album, “Empathy for the Evil” is being released on M’Lady’s Records in September.  How did that relationship come about?

Chris Pugmire of Shoplifting (and New War) suggested M’Lady’s Records back in 2006 or so, which is I guess is when the label was starting up. Mecca Normal was opening for Shoplifting on a tour in the eastern USA after releasing “The Observer” on Kill Rock Stars and unfortunately we’d been assigned a publicist who totally bailed on us to take some corporate job in NYC. In some ways it was OK, because the only thing she’d come up with to promote the album was a press release focused on how little attention we’d received over the years, how we deserved so much more. And we were like, “NO!” We were just heading out on tour and we had to take over promo at a point that was inopportune to say the least. We’re basically a D-I-Y project. When we release an album with a label we want to work with their various departments pretty closely to generate publicity material – that’s just the basis of how we like to work. All aspects of the band – recording, tour booking, management etc. – are the art of being Mecca Normal. The group is essentially David and I, a man a woman not in a romantic involvement, working together over what has turned out to be a very long time. In the early years there were lots of albums and tours and reviews, but the more recent years have been extremely interesting in ways that we never would have anticipated.

The release of “The Observer” was a bit of a jumping off point. When the publicist bailed, no one else at the label had time to pick up the extra work. I mean, people have to make decisions in life, and I think she felt pretty bad, but it really did put a dent in a trajectory we’d spent the better part of year setting in motion. Things like that make it more difficult to trust people to do what they say they’re going to do. You start having second thoughts about taking chances with people. Some years went by where we really didn’t know what to do next as far as who to record with or what labels to consider. I mean, we were writing songs and books and bringing our classroom event up to speed and doing tours – life was very interesting, it just didn’t seem to include putting out new albums. When we started talking to M’lady’s we quickly realized they’re total fucking geniuses with perspectives that match ours in intensity. They’re articulate, political, passionate and driven. It’s a natural fit in a lot of ways. There’s a fearlessness with which they put out music. It’s admirable in this climate.

Around that same time (2006 or so), I received an email from the legendary producer KRAMER, saying he was interested in working with us, but I didn’t quite know how to proceed with that. I wasn’t quite sure what KRAMER producing Mecca Normal would sound like. We emailed back and forth about him coming here or us going there (Fort Lauderdale) or to New York, but it didn’t really feel right until the winter of 2012, when I decided I may as well check air fare for Florida and see if KRAMER had anywhere close to his home where we could record the album. That’s how Rat Bastard became involved. He has this totally great studio in Miami Beach. KRAMER hadn’t worked with Rat, but that all got figured out and we felt confident enough to book the flight to work with two guys we’d never met. We hope to repeat the entire process this winter or sometime soon after.

You both have been making music together for a long time. I’m not a songwriter but I’ve always imagined it was a fairly intimate affair as you’re sharing personal experiences, seeing the insides of each other’s head, etc.  Has songwriting gotten easier as you’ve become more familiar or how has that musical relationship evolved?

In some ways song writing is easier and in some ways it’s more difficult. Our musical relationship is very much an extension of our individual work methods. David works on the guitar parts alone and when he plays them for me, I think what happens next has a lot to do with what state of mind I’m in at that moment. His part is more set unless we find a need to restructure it. Other factors contribute to how we write and rehearse. I’ve always been the engineer in the same way that I’m also the only driver in the band. So, when Dave arrives here, maybe I’m still setting up the recording gear. Maybe it’s strange to have written and rehearsed all our songs for the past 20 years in this one room. For me it totally works because this is a studio space more than a living space. There is no couch, for instance.

The Interview – Jean Smith

It’s quite interesting how we each have work to do that we tend to gravitate to without sitting down to divvy things up. David does a lot on the promo side of things and I tend to generate language-based content. He puts together all the details for tour itineraries and I book the shows. It’s quite a beautiful part of the arrangement. If you ever need a creative partner, choose one whose skills are different from your own.

Back to the process of songwriting. You know, when your instrument is the place where your brain and your mouth meet and when you allow thinking to spontaneously form words that you then must make into musical notes and you need to be vulnerable in ways that are not comfortable and another person is there at that time, waiting to see what you do and you respect that person immensely and you want to do your best and express something in conjunction with what they’ve worked on… not to mention that you also use your instrument – your mouth – to insert fuel into yourself and to quench your thirsty and you give musical opinions using your brain and words through that same instrument, which you then must switch back to whatever emotional place you were at with the lyrics of the song.

Having said that, most of the songs on the new album weren’t formed that way. Some were, but many of them are directly out of novel-length fiction. So I had the words on paper and I needed to figure how to fit them to the music to turn them into stand-alone songs.

Regardless, songwriting in our case is also a unique point when a man and a woman are communicating using preferred methods (his guitar, my voice) when we’re both able coherently express an undulating saga at the same time. Neither one is communicating over the other or interrupting.

You are also going to be going out on a small tour after the albums release. What excites you about live performance?

Our songs are, for the most part, meant to be experienced live. We write them live without considering extra parts that may end up on recordings – and we’ve also released work that is utterly free of any extra layers. Going to cities we don’t live in and presenting our work for people who have somehow heard of us is an incredible thing – especially as a group that is not particularly well-known. That what we do would strike a small segment of society as an inspiring or an otherwise valuable thing to go out and listen to live is nothing short of fantastic. I suppose, while I’m performing, I imagine that there are mutually held philosophies in terms of political, cultural or social vantage points. Also, the freedom of increased volume and the pressure one feels to do the best versions of songs possible, creates a powerful experience. To be part of a tradition of being on stage, telling one’s own truth to people gathered to listen, can’t be replaced by technology. For myself, as a novelist, it is a great luxury to take words that otherwise stay on the page and perform them for people where I can watch reactions on faces.

For the most part I think your entire discography is still in print, in no small part because K Records refuses to let them.  To what do you attribute the staying power of your music?

I attribute our staying power to the quality of the experience we have in all aspects of participating in life as the group known as Mecca Normal.

Your band has been referred to as subversive since the beginning. Was that the intentional spirit behind the making of the music?  If so, what were you attempting to subvert?  If not, what was the original inspiration to start a band and begin making music?

I thought we would be welcomed into the scene we participated in as audience members, which was almost all guys on stage. I wanted to do that too – to rail about stuff that bugged me. But it wasn’t until I did, that I realized that we were truly disliked. We didn’t feel the urge to imitate what already existed in terms of sound, content or musical configuration. We cleared rooms and people more or less thought we were a joke. So we went on tour and met totally different people in completely different scenes who were way more friendly and happy to include us. A bittersweet story.

When Mecca Normal was starting, I was listening to a lot of women-fronted bands that came out of the UK scenes – X-Ray Spex, Slits, Au Pairs – and I was aware of punk and political communities and I wanted to contribute, but I found out that my version of subversion wasn’t acceptable because I was female or because the band didn’t have bass and drums or whatever it was. Those same people might say that it wasn’t it; that we were just a lousy, unlistenable band. Who knows? It was strange. At our very first show – opening for D.O.A. – no one in the audience paid any attention to us, then, as soon as we came off stage, this guy came rushing over, telling me he was a producer from LA and that we were going to be huge. I don’t think I got his name.

You were a big influence on Bikini Kill and I’ve seen first-hand their effect on the world and I’m wondering from your perspective, based on experiences you’ve had, what effect you’ve seen your music have?

Being named an inspiration to the co-founders of riot grrrl is important because it put the ball back in my court to continue to express that it is possible to change the world. That’s really why we started Mecca Normal – to change the world. The zine I stared in the early 80s – Smarten UP! – was subtitled “A How to Change the World Publication.” Too many people think it’s not possible to change anything, so knowing that we inspired the women who went on to create an important social movement was a great thing.

Kathleen Hanna on Mecca Normal (Who else influenced you in the early days?)

We subsequently honed a classroom event called “How Art and Music Can Change the World” and took it into university classrooms, libraries and art galleries. The event intends to illuminate the long history art and music have in terms of contributing to progressive social change. Within the event we talk about influencing riot grrrl, pointing out how the whole thing started and what our role was. Sometimes it feels like I’m saying things that aren’t normally talked about because one appears to be bragging, but that’s part of what has to change. When change occurs, those responsible should outline how it happened so it can be used to further progressive actions.

“How Art and Music Can Change the World”

 Contrasting between 1984 and 2014, have you noticed a difference in the music industry – specifically in dealing with music media, venues, and interactions with other bands – in regards to their attitudes towards women in music?

Wow. That’s the subject for a book, really. When we started there weren’t many women in bands and there wasn’t a band like ours – electric guitar and voice only. We created Mecca Normal to be different from the typical four-guys-on-stage bands that we were going on to see. Of course we have openly encouraged women to start bands with their friends and deal with subjects that are important to them. This is how we inspired the co-founders of riot grrrl.

As far as where we choose to place ourselves in terms of the music industry, I find it most awkward to be regarded as some sort of living example of another era. We are current, but yet we have a viable history that we’re still messing around with as part of the art we make.

Tell me something about Mecca Normal that your fans would be surprised to know about.

I believe our best work is now and there’s more good work ahead of us on fronts – books, music, art. I don’t think either David or I believe that being young is the best part of life. Life doesn’t cease to be fun, interesting and vital when you’re older. That can happen, but it isn’t a forgone conclusion. I feel way better about everything now. Many things have been resolved. My existence has a depth to it that is useful and amusing. I feel badly for young people who are depressed about getting older. It’s sort of a waste of time thinking everything is going to get worse. It doesn’t have to.





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