Interview with Jessica Boucher-Rétif, Elegy Magazine
Do you consider The Mekano Set as a band today?
M:ilk We’re just a little gang - but one where you don't all have to dress and think the same.
Justine: Playing with the boundaries of what a band is is a lot of fun. We spend a lot of time together, not just in the studio, practicing, gigs: but life... experiences.
M: Nap-time, exploring empty buildings, talking about kissing girls... (laughs)
J: We put out a story called “You Make Me Feel Like Burglary” about how The Mekano Set are actually a group of burglars. But instead of stealing people's belongings, we would just take a nap on their sofa, do their washing up and buy them fresh fruit. (laughs)
M: On one hand with music, we want to hear and see something different, something original. And there’s no real reason why we should conform to any conventions at all. We don’t need anyone’s permission. On the other hand I like the idea of trying to do something new and fresh with a (Punk) rock line-up. I like the way bands like Joy Division, or Wire, or Pil or Killing Joke are essentially rock bands, but the vibe, the atmosphere, the intention and the overall sound of those bands is obviously NOT just typical rock and roll.
I guess the reality of being in a band is really different to how it’s perceived. People can have really unrealistic notions of what it involves. Some people think ‘professional’ means having everything done FOR you. Ha! Oh how we laugh, and then cough up some bile....
-Your line up has comprised many people. Is The Mekano Set now only Milk, Lee and Justine or is this trio more a base, a loose line up, to which the other participants (like Sahara Ezzi, Jo Staples, etc.) are occasionally added?
M: We’ve always collaborated with friends and people we meet along the way. It helps to keep things interesting and unpredictable, takes us in different directions. We still hang out with Nigel (NOYJ) and Jo Staples: two experimental artists who are a lot of fun to work with, and Ade (MUTATE) plays with us sometimes. Beth (of London Electro-Rockers Blindness) who we’ve recorded with joined us for a gig in London recently.
|Justine snapped by Belle Piec|
-Can you introduce each of you three in a few words and what has your artistic path been before founding the band?
J: I started playing music quite young, I have a very classical background actually.
L: But we don’t hold that against you.
J: I played viola for ten years, then switched to classical guitar. But none of that was very satisfying until I found myself playing the bass, that felt right! (laughs). After playing in school bands for a while, I started making experimental songs on my own under the name A Collection Of, which is how I met Gregg Anthe and joined In Broken English in 2009. I moved to London in autumn 2011, and quickly joined The Mekano Set. But I'm also spending a lot of my time writing.
L: I refuse to give up my day job. Being a musician is a bit bourgeois so I like to keep one foot in the real world.
M: I’ve always been interested in sound and noise more than music. I don’t really understand melody. The Mekano Set kind of grew out of just getting together with friends, drinking a lot of cheap red wine, talking about music and trying to make the sounds we wanted to hear but couldn’t find enough of... I also make music with Stray Dog City which is different but it’s still routed in Post-Punk.
-Justine, you were a member of In Broken English, what made you quit the band?
J: In the spring of 2011, my life in Paris had reached a point of complete inertia in every aspect, including with In Broken English, and in particular with Gregg. It was necessary for me to move on, and to do it in a radical way. So I packed a few things and moved to London.
-The Mekano Set was initially Milk’s project. So what was your first aim, artistically and more precisely musically? What were the major influences that triggered your decision to start a band?
M: I realized I wouldn’t be happy unless I was making sounds. It’s a kind of therapy, or food. Sound can be nourishing, or it can make you ill. If I’m not working on a song or there isn’t a gig on the horizon I get miserable and start lying in bed for days on end full of fear. Any time I see or hear Curve, The Banshees, Pil or The Knife I get the urge and think “I seriously have to make some music.” Also I think going to see bands made me... really fucking angry! (laughter) I wanted to fight against the way bands come along and basically they’ve got one influence... one big-name band that they’re blatantly ripping off and you know exactly what they’re going to sound like the second they walk on stage! Even before they’ve played a note... they’ve raided the rehearsal rooms of their favourite band... nicked the guitars, the boots, the shirts, the haircuts. It’s lazy and it makes me angry how they get praised for it.
We’re influenced by loads of different kinds of music and I think that’s really healthy. It gives it all a bit of depth and it means there’s always room to explore new sounds and structures. The musical journey...
|Milk by BeatnikSoup|
-Your music is quite reluctant to be put into a pigeon hole, mixing in a 80’s oriented sound elements of noise, electro rock, indie rock, post-punk, shoegaze, goth, industrial… What is/are the scene(s) that you feel personally belonging to?
M: I’ve never felt part of any scene. The one thing that everyone involved with us has in common is that we’re all outsiders, outcasts, nomads. I hadn’t thought of that before. But Post-Punk music in all its shapes and sizes really excites me. So many amazing, adventurous bands came out of that time. Bands nowadays don’t seem to have anything interesting going on in the rhythm section - it’s about the same tedious voices and 60‘s guitar sounds. Punk and Post-Punk bands had great bass players and drummers. I’m also into more electronic stuff from then right up to today - bands that don’t worry about the conventions, it’s totally about sound. Oh yes.
J: I have a strong attachment to all things Post-Punk. But when it comes to our music and what we are doing, I think it's fine not to relate to a particular scene. I think it's generally fine not to belong, whether it is to a scene, to a nation, or to a town. The crowd at our last gig (at the Dead and Buried club night in Shoreditch, London) was really interesting: there were some old school Goth and Punk people, but also some Grave Wave kids. It was a good mix. It was a very fun night and gig. That's what matters.
M: We’ve played a night called SluTDisco a few times now. It’s an alternative queer club night in Brighton and the crowd there really go for it, there’s no one in charge to make you feel unwelcome or inferior, there’s a sense of equality and acceptance there. They listen, and they dance.
L: We played an Alternative night at this Metal / Biker place up in Wolverhampton... The Giffard Arms. We walked in and thought we were going to get lynched. But these huge old metal dudes in full leathers and maines of hair, and the local oldschool Goth crowd made us feel totally welcome and at home. Ironic eh?
-There is also a strong sense of freedom in your tracks, as if they were partly the result of improvisation. Is it the case?
L: We’re still learning and moving forward, so perhaps... Freedom is something you have to work at, it’s a negotiation. A balance of space and intimacy.
M: Well, when the main ‘riff’ or melody of the song is the beat and the bass - that really frees up the guitars and the voices to be more like texture or events or just walls of noise.
L: It is freeing. And challenging. But what’s the point of being free if it is at the expense of someone else? A lot of musicians forget this and end up making copied, bombastic pomp fit only for creating a spectacle with which to compete for limited air play, contracts, PR, and appearances with other copied, bombastic pomp. Milk you once equated what those musicians do as the same as selling toothpaste. We’d rather not sell the toothpaste, thanks. We like kissing people, but only with people whose mouths aren’t full of shit.
M: I think that Improv and experimental music are a really interesting but those scenes are full of people that have no sense of dynamic, narrative or even a sense of timbre / tone. So you get a lot of acts that are basically just two blokes with too many toys, doing very little to a loop they’ve made that doesn’t evolve in any way for the twenty minutes they stand their throwing shapes to it. They’re worse than rock bands in a way, they think they’re superior, but they still make the same hollow gestures. Everyone’s copying Mick Jagger’s moves or Trent Reznor’s moves, or Madonna or whoever, but do any of them know what any of it really means?
|The Meks by Lubert Daz|
-How do you usually work to compose? Are the three of you involved in the process?
M: I tend to do the production side of things and the drums, collecting the found-sounds / location recordings we use. Then me or Justine will have an idea for a lyric or a bass-line, and we build a song around those elements. We like to use the ‘first take’ including mistakes as that’s a great way to take yourself by surprise and keep things fresh and true. I think it’s important to let the idea go where it needs to go rather than try to lock it down to a conventional (boring) song structure... the same old verse / chorus / verse / chorus thing is just so old now, there’s no reason to stick to it. We only do it by accident. A producer once tried to get us to conform to that, but apart from him no one’s ever complained (or really noticed) that our songs don’t generally conform to those conventions.
-Beside the “more than a band” aspect, there is also a “more than music” one, with a seemingly strong political dimension. To what extend would you say The Mekano Set is a political band and this plays a role in your work?
M: In a way, it’s all political. You are representing fairly specific ideas even in the cut of your jeans or the length of your hair. But I don’t think people really consider what they are signifying.
J: We're political beings, and we have strong opinions, which sometimes leads us into quite a lot of trouble. But The Mekano Set is not a tool to try and kick down doors, it’s merely the reflection of who we are, in every aspects.
M: We do keep in mind Situationist ideas like Recouperation: the idea that any rebellious invention or actions get stolen by established culture and sold back to the people... And once you’ve seen the industry’s real feelings about gender, class, sexuality, race... you realize that you don’t have to write a protest song to be engaged in politics.
L: We just don’t compromise. We can’t.
M: We don’t force our interests into the music but the references are there if you look for them. I’m wary of heart on sleeve mentality because engaging with groups and organizations has its pitfalls, once you see how hypocritical and greedy they can be. Predators hiding behind a mask of intellect and slogans. I just don’t feel that any political system is the answer. We don’t want to have to conform to any one else’s notion of what our lifestyles should be. Britain is becoming... well, it’s unreal. People have become more tolerant, but also so blinded by the actions of an increasingly Fascist government... You know we have forced labour in Britain now? That is scary. When the most vulnerable people - the people that Government have failed the most - are blamed for the collapse of a society you KNOW things are getting dark. A Government made up of people born to wealth who’ve never done a real days work or ever had to count the pennies start victimizing people worse off than them... it’s unreal. Our music is as much of an escape as it is a bunker.
-Your new work is a quite surprising one, Behind The Sins being much more an experimental performance than an album. What brought the idea of this collage of musical parts, pieces of interviews and various noises?
M: When I was a kid I wasn’t interested in making music at all. I was interested in tuning through the stations of an old radio I had. Just the act of doing that, never knowing what you might find... broadcasts from the other side of the world... snatches of news in other languages, bits of radio plays or experimental music or styles of music I’d never heard of before. I think that’s a part of it. And also the fact that we’re just not interested in doing another straight-forward album.
L: ‘The Thatchergate Tapes’ by Crass is something that seemed like a good reference point. It’s also one of the best records they did. If you haven’t heard it - it’s comprised of tape loops of voices. The vision it creates and the piece’s aesthetic was a big influence. Another influence was the cellist Beatrice Harrison. She would perform outdoors and the novelty of the recordings was and is the merging of her cello with the sounds of location; she was regularly accompanied by the song of nightingales, the rustling of trees, and the arrival of the evening. They are beautiful recordings. On one recording there is a buzz that gradually increases in volume until everything is lost in this horrifying, all encompassing feedback. It was recorded in 1942 and what had happened was Beatrice Harrison’s cello and the local nightingales were being drowned out by bomber planes as they passed overhead in the sky on their way to raids in Mannheim! It’s heart-breaking to hear.
M: Also I think because we listen to things like The Mighty Boosh, Chris Morris’s Jam... and stuff like old BBC Radiophonic Workshop things... there’s just no reason to conform and lots of reasons to try other forms. This is a really freeing form now... adventures in sounds and spaces... we can completely abandon song and groove and melody all together if we’re in the mood to. We can go anywhere, even to places that don’t exist... unlike the way shows like Doctor Who always end up in London... or a quarry in Wales, in the company of pretty, vulnerable stereotypes.
- Are in fact your talks about your take on different subjects the main part of it and the music just a soundtrack for it?
L: For me, no. The intention was to treat the voices like another instrument. And the voices merging / submerging with the sounds are the equivalent of say, a guitar solo or an orchestral crescendo or a motorik beat. The voices are arranged to resonate like a melody or refrain. They are part of the piece and the same attention to detail was applied equally to all the elements.
M: If you give enough attention you can read the voice, or take it as part of the whole. Same as with songs, the voice isn’t the focus, I don’t see why it should be. It’s horrible to hear a mix where the vocals are so much louder than the music... it sounds ridiculous.
-Do you consider it as a work in itself or more as a means to introduce more thoroughly your music and the ideas behind it?
M: Hopefully it’s something in itself. I wouldn’t want to do something that’s just a glorified press-kit. This is obviously a bit self-parodying, because that’s a part of our approach. But hopefully it’s also a bit sinister, and mysterious as well as just plain silly. Ultimately we’d like to do more that stand on their own and could be appreciated totally outside of the band - so you could listen to it not knowing that it’s the work of a band at all.
-Why was it important to present it this way, to mingle the artistic work with the analysis and explanations of it and of further issues?
M: We didn’t really sit down and make a plan to do it. It just kind of developed from sitting around at a party or travelling to a gig, recording location sounds for songs... secretly recording things between takes etc. But also there’s the influence of enjoying listening to audio books, comedy, soundtracks and more experimental forms of music - so we could see there was a way we could do it and actually make it into a project in itself.
-Was it also a way to go further in your quite experimental way of doing music, and to break for good from the traditional compositional schemes?
M: It does feel like it’s become that yes. I think once you start gigging there’s pressure to conform... our guitars don’t sound much like guitars, our early songs were quite slow, so there’s pressure to play more conventionally, faster tempos etc. With Behind The Sins we can explore more soundscape / collage type things. But we can still play a stomping Post-Punk workout if we’re in the mood to. There’s no need to only stick to one form.
-What about these weird (ghost) stories that Justine is telling?
J: They come from dreams.
M: Justine’s dream life is ridiculous. They’re like baroque novellas. She could sell them to Angela Carter (if she was still around) or Michael Moorcock.
J: Are you kidding, Neil Gaiman is my main customer target. (laughs) I have haunting and ominous dreams, and I have to tell them, or make songs or stories from them, otherwise they don't leave me any inner peace. Sleep is altogether a difficult experience for me. I suffer from insomnia and sleep paralysis, which leads to hallucinations. One night, I dreamt I had to keep pushing David Bowie out my bedroom, he wanted to look into my cupboards because he knew I had his birthday present! (laughs)
M: I told you you shouldn’t have let him sleep on your couch.
J: But it's a lot more terrifying than that most of the time! I have a parallel ongoing project called Sleep Geography which is another outlet for those dreams.
-You covered Serge Gainsbourg’s Bonnie and Clyde in a quite personal way. What interested you so much in that song that made you want to make your own version of it?
J: Bonnie and Clyde's story, and in particular Gainsbourg and Bardot's version of it, is a particularly seductive one. In this song, the violence and the reality of the story have been glamoured out of it, but what remains is the reckless youth, which is the tantalizing myth that underlines our epoch.
M: We debated for ages about doing a cover and nothing felt right. It’s a great song, it’s got a really strong groove and the chord structure and the key are just our kind of thing. The idea of reversing the male / female rolls was just like the perfect opportunnity. We didn’t even discuss that, I think we all knew what we’d do with it as soon as we agreed to try it out.
J: The melody, the bass, the voices, are altogether hypnotizing and daring. Somehow it fitted perfectly with what we are doing. The gender swap happened naturally. I don't personally believe in gender, I think it's a scam.
M: One thing about us that I think messes with people’s heads is how the guys aren’t typical guys and the girls aren’t typical girls. That makes some people nervous and the old prejudices come out. They’ve got to reduce you to a stereotype, that makes you less scary and easier to punch. We are geek, we are weak, but we’re also mean and sinister.
|Lee, Justine, Milk by S.W. Tucker|
-What are your projects now?
L: Milk lives above a bar now so he’s never going to leave the building ever again.
M: Lee’s working on some steam-powered effects units. He’s going for the SteamPunk pound (laughter). And we’d like to do more along the lines of Behind The Sins... one about espionage, one about folk tales, explore some different themes...
Justine: We've also been organizing and promoting our own independent gig night at the infamous Hope and Anchor in London. The night is called Anticlockwise Klub, last time we played there with Dean Garcia's latest band Spc-Eco, and the French band from Rouen Valeskja Valcav who are friends of mine. It all went really well and we're in the middle of organizing another one in the Spring.