Muscle & Marrow Interviewed

About six months ago, a friend and I scrambled out of our respective places of work to converge on Baltimore for an extraordinary meal at Lost City Diner and an Author & Punisher show at the nearby Metro Gallery.  Before Tristan Shone took control of his mechanical menagerie, we were treated to a performance by Portland, OR eclectic, occasionally-doom duo Muscle & Marrow.  When the pair took the stage, my companion’s eyebrows cocked and his shoulders rose as if to say, “Not sure about this, but who knows?”

It’s safe to say we were both intrigued by what happened.  Describing it would just get confusing, and anyway, the pair are playing more shows (possibly in your area), and there’s an album stream right here, so you can get an idea for yourself what we heard.  Later, I interviewed guitarist/vocalist Kira Clark and drummer Keith McGraw by email for a profile in the damn-good Nails issue of Decibel.  They sounded off about performance jitters, the benefits and drawbacks of performing their music with only two sets of arms/legs/throats, and an offhand hope for more cats and books in their lives, but we couldn’t possibly include all that in the article.

But the Decibel website has no space limitations, which will be great when I finally publish my 540,000-word manifesto decoding all the backward-masked messages spread through Merzbow’s entire catalog (when analyzed tonally/numerologically) into custard recipes the Pope DOES NOT WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT, but in the meantime, here are the remainder of Clark & McGraw’s… I mean, Muscle & Marrow’s comments.

Kira, your stage presence is formidable, and your performance style is imposing.  How long have you been performing on stage?  How did you become comfortable with it?

Kira Clark: I’ve never really consistently performed on stage and perhaps surprisingly, I am far from comfortable with it. When I see an artist like St. Vincent or Lykke Li perform it reminds me how much more work I have to do before I become a truly commanding performer.  [But] it’s fun to really think of myself as a performer, not just someone who creates things by themselves alone in a room. If I look at people’s faces, [though,] I immediately project boredom or hatred onto them and want to run off the stage. I find a spot on the wall in the back or I stare into the lights. I honestly don’t know how, especially in the beginning, I continued to just do it again and again because it truly felt masochistic. We as performers are asking to be looked at, to be critiqued, to be loved and that is pretty much my nightmare. It is slowly, very slowly, becoming almost in moments something resembling fun for me or at least necessary and in theory I find the possibility of performance completely inspiring, but I still struggle with the execution of it. 

Do you feel more connected to other heavy music like metal, or more connected to performance art and music as a medium for that kind of expression?

Clark: Well, I guess I have to come out of the closet as someone who doesn’t feel much of a connection to most heavy music. Our music didn’t start out as sonically heavy though was always emotionally heavy.  [Heaviness] was an important tool for me, but I’m also interested in other ways of filtering the human experience. So, to answer your question, the latter. When I write I just go to a very dark place, but that’s shifting a little. I’m finding inspiration outside of my own sadness and it’s actually incredibly freeing. I can’t continue to go to the same place again and again. I had a lot of stuff to work through which can be heard on these first two records, but Keith and I’s current fascination is something more like “what if we just wrote an entire song about a flower? Just a song about how amazing a tulip is.” I want to bear witness to the world, not just myself. 

Did touring with songs from The Human Cry make them feel different than they did when you were writing them?  Or did you tire of any of them in the live setting?

Clark: I did, towards the end, start to feel a little emotionally exhausted from the songs. It’s a surreal and awful experience to be just completely unraveling on stage, really showing your guts to a room full of potentially bored dudes. I remember during one show, a show where I was particularly tired, I looked up and saw one dude texting and one dude walk out of the room at the same time. These are things every artist has to deal with obviously, but to also be playing the most intense and vulnerable songs can feel particularly scathing. It took a lot of emotional energy to get to a place every night where we could perform these songs in a convincing way, and it definitely took its toll. 

With the new album, did you want to intentionally change direction with your creation process or did shifts happen a little more subtly?

Clark: I think the answer is both. I’m loving focusing on melody and lyrics. Keith is also loving playing an even greater roll in the construction of songs. We’re more vulnerable with each other and I’m able to expose unfinished ideas to him now. Our creative process these days is much more intentional. It feels more like work now than magic, but I think ultimately that’s a good thing for the music. 

Keith McGraw: Our roles started to blend and merge in certain ways.  Our current creative process is an extension of how we started working toward the end of Love.

Can you talk about any favorite parts of creating the new album, or any particularly frustrating moments?

McGraw: We got to borrow our friends Ben and Christine’s apartment in Brooklyn for a few weeks while we were writing which was incredible.  When we were there, Kira had an idea to make these great slippery background vocals for the verses in the song “Womb.”  She had me mess with them and make them strange, and I’m really happy with the way those came out.  

Have you felt that being a duo has been any easier or more difficult than being in a band with more musicians?
Clark: I think it’s easier and harder. It’s harder because we have sonic limitations and our current struggle, as we move more and more towards electronic music, is how to execute the material live in a compelling way. It’s tremendously easier though, only having to deal with each other. I cannot fathom inviting anyone else into this strange little world. We share this insane thing together and it’s entirely ours. 

McGraw: I agree that it is simultaneously much easier and much more difficult.  It’s hard enough for two people to share everything that we do.  I can’t imagine doing that with 2-3 more people. But there are obvious limitations.  It would be incredible to add 3 more multi-instrumentalists to expand our sound.  But that’s just not a possibility, or even something we’d ultimately want.  I also enjoy the challenge of being a two-person band making as full a sound as possible.  I think in some ways its very central to what we are doing.

Can you comment on the striking cover art for the record?

Clark: The photo is from a Berlin based photographer named Evelyn Bencicova. Aside form being an objectively beautiful and strange image, it’s an homage to the women in my life who raised me. There is nothing more invisible, more discarded than being an old women and here is a woman being visible without any hint of shame. She looks like a perfect queen. There are a lot of songs about my grandmother on the record. It just seemed like a perfect representation of the album. 

What are your tour plans/hopes for the rest of the year?

Clark: We are in the process of planning several not yet announced tours. We want to go to Europe. We want to finish writing our third album. I want to get a little better at dealing with my anxiety. I want to feel like a joyful artist, not a stressed out one. I want to convince Keith to allow me to adopt a third cat. I want to read more books. I want to annoy boring people. I want to walk around more. 

McGraw: I want to write as much of the next record as possible.  To challenge ourselves musically and explore as much as possible.

Do you feel that Love represents an end, your final statement on what you wanted to accomplish with it, or is it leading you toward further ideas?

Clark: Love feels like a final statement on that particular version of our art. It’s a short record, and it took a long time to write. It feels like getting the material out of me was a necessary release to explore other ways of creating. The current material we’re writing is a pretty huge departure and it feels just as true as Love did. I’m glad we finished Love and we’re proud of it. Now I can propel forward, fling myself at something else. 

McGraw: It’s funny.  When you release an album, it is this new thing that represents your latest work, even though the album was conceived, written, and recorded several months or even years beforehand.  I feel like we’ve been waiting a really long time for it to come out.  I’m glad it’s finally out because I’m proud of the work we put into it, and I feel like I grew a lot as a musician between it and the first record.  I hope it shows.  I’m excited to push even further into new places.

Check out this and other Flenser releases here.