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In a world obsessed with bigger, louder, faster and more outrageous, Marco Mahler seems downright anachronistic. Rather than knock listeners on their collective ass via use of shear force, Mahler’s music entices, beckoning the listener to draw ever closer before delivering the gentlest imaginable haymaker.
His latest, Laptop Campfire Speed, has gotten plenty of critical types to stand up and take notice, and the Mahler bandwagon appears to be boarding. Luckily, MOKB is riding shotgun, having counted ourselves as big fans the moment his stunning debut, Design In Quick Rotation, landed in our hot little hands way back in 2007.
Taking some time away from his ongoing accolade shower, Mahler was good enough to sit down and field a few questions from MOKB.
MOKB : So, Laptop Campfire Speed has been out for a couple weeks now. Overall, how has the critical reception been?
Marco Mahler : Very positive.
MOKB : Any reviews that you have felt particularly hit the mark, or really seemed to you like the reviewer completely didn’t get it?
MM : Probably the one that struck me the most so far came from Thieves by Tuesday: “[Marco Mahler's] music goes beyond the musical boundaries of austere beauty. It can even be life-changing.” I can’t say that anyone “didn’t get it”. I don’t feel that way about my music. It is whatever it is to anyone listening to it, and if they get something out of, then that’s great, whatever it is.
MOKB : I know it’s distasteful to talk about moving units, but how have sales been to this point?
MM : It’s hard to tell because the sales reports of many of the places where it’s available don’t get to me until a month or two later, and it’s been only a little over two weeks since the new album came out.
MOKB : So, I now understand you have dual citizenship. How did you happen to settle in the US, and Brooklyn in particular?
MM : I was born in Chicago and grew up in Switzerland. When I was twenty, I was hitchhiking around Europe with a guitar. One night in Galway, Ireland, I was hanging out at some pub, and this guy said to me something like “If you know what you want to do, then you need to go to the best place for it, and do it.” He must have picked up on me pushing off making some decision, because it was clear to me that music is what I wanted to do, and New York City was the best place I could think of, so I went back to Switzerland, got rid of everything I owned except for a guitar and a bag of clothes, and moved to New York.
MOKB : What was behind the move to Portland?
MM : For the same amount that you get a shoe box in New York, you can get a house with a yard here, and you’re still in a great city.
MOKB : In your bio, I noticed a lot of references to artists I would consider to be the “usual suspects” after listening to your work (Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, etc.). Who are some of your influences whose imprint might not be as apparent?
MM : André Benjamin of Outkast. He’s one of my all time favorites. He’s just so right there.
MOKB : What about current music? Any artists you find particularly appealing or exciting?
MM : As far as the albums I’ve heard that have been released so far this year, nothing quite hits home. As far as the last decade or two, American Water by The Silver Jews and Outkast’s second through fourth album are some of my favorites. Radiohead can be very interesting.
MOKB : I haven’t been able to come across any mentions of you within a band. Have you always been a solo artist? If so, why? If not, can you tell me about some of your bands that may have shaped your music?
MM : I’ve played with other people, but I was just really into Bert Jansch and Bob Dylan there for a while, and fascinated with great songwriting and creating a complete sound with just an acoustic guitar and vocals and applying that to rap and hip hop. But now that I started making these albums with a bunch of other instruments I could see starting a band.
MOKB : I’ve always found your style as a guitarist to be very unique. Are you self-taught? Did you initially play another instrument, then apply those techniques to guitar?
MM : Organ and piano in my grandparents basement came first. Then some short lived classical guitar lessons, and from there I just spent a lot of time sitting in front of the stereo trying to figure out how to play all kinds of stuff.
MOKB : I am often fascinated by your lyrics. A simple phrase like “orange Chinese car” seems almost nonsensical, but there’s something about the way that it rolls around in the mouth…I find myself repeating it over and over. So catchy in an OCD kind of way…do you find you’re arranging words as sounds, rather than ideas?
MM : They’re almost always about ideas or images, and rarely about the sounds. Just wait until the market gets flooded with cheap Chinese cars and orange is the new hip color again, it won’t seem so nonsensical then.
MOKB : Often your lyrics remind me of stuff the word salad/cut up technique used by Bowie (who stole it from William Burroughs). Is there an element of randomness to your lyrics.
MM : Maybe. Randomness is just a word for not recognizing how something makes sense, or how did that line go again? Besides, it’s really hard to change random things if you try. And if you do, the same thing usually just shows up again somewhere else.
MOKB : Let’s talk tech. What equipment did you use to create Laptop Campfire Speed? What production software? What musical hardware?
MM : One laptop, Cakewalk Sonar 7 Producer software, M-Audio MobilePre interface (two inputs), one M-Audio Aries condenser mic, M-Audio Oxygen 8 midi controller, Sennheiser HD-600 headphones. All the instruments I got from thrift stores and places. I don’t like the idea of having a nice expensive instrument that I need to be very careful with. My acoustic guitar I spray painted and sanded several times and is now about the ugliest piece of wood I’ve ever seen.
MOKB : How do you feel your work as a sculptor shapes your music? And vice-versa?
MM : They don’t shape each other. They both come from the same place. Music is all visual to me. For example, I think there’s a lot of Federico Fellini in this new album.
MOKB : As a Project Runway fan, I was pleased to see that your work has appeared in Bryant Park. Any future plans to stage a large scale kinetic sculpture and music installation?
MM : Sometimes I think about a mobile that’s ten miles wide. Imagine it moving slowly, unstoppable because of its weight.
MOKB : Why no videos yet?
MM : Because I haven’t had any ideas for videos yet that I thought were good enough. I don’t want to just make a video so I can cross it off the do-to list. I would want a video to be at least as good as the music. Maybe videos are to pictures as mobiles are to sculptures, so maybe I’ll get into them.
MOKB : Any chance we’ll see a tour to support Laptop Campfire Speed?
MM : I would like to. If I think enough people would care to show up to make the tour pay for itself, then yes.
MOKB : Musically, where do you go from here?
MM : I don’t know. I think if I knew beforehand it would turn out quite boring, not just for me, but for anyone listening to it.
MOKB : Final question. Marco Mahler gets up on Saturday morning and has to clean the garage. What does he put on the stereo?
MM : I actually just did clean the garage some this past weekend and I listened to classic country music and 80’s pop songs.