Interview “The Mast” – Live at Soda Bar January 22, 2015

Brooklyn-based electronic duo, The Mast, are playing Soda Bar this Thursday, January 22.

Their latest record, Pleasure Island, is a hypnotic and alluring journey comprised of thirteen danceable and heady tracks. You’d get lost in the layers of sound, keep your feet moving and find the easily memorable hooks sung with aplomb by vocalist-poet and instrumentalist Haleh Gafori. Musician, composer (music director and composer for Louis CK’s “Louie”)  and producer Matt Kilmer pulls inspiration from many places, from acoustic instruments like the Balafon to the sound of the city to Pygmy water drumming. It’d probably be pretty easy to hook the IDM genre label on The Mast, but I’d be remiss if I failed to mention what I hear as distinct lines of inspiration from drum and bass and breakbeat—Metalheadz era Goldie and Roni Size—as well as elements of trance and trip hop. They took some time from their tour to answer a few questions regarding the creative process.

Go check them out this Thursday with Lightworks and Bakkuda. INFO_TICKETS

As both a poet and musician, how important are the words you choose for a particular song?

Haleh Gafori — Sometimes I’m emotionally invested in the words and they feel like the life-blood of the song. Sometimes they’re relating images or fragments of a story. Other times, their sound and rhythm are more important than their meaning, and the words become more like abstract brushstrokes–sounds and syllables rather than vehicles for a narrative.

Do you find yourself making concessions for words to fit the melody?

H –Words in a song have to sound good when they are sung. I would never use the word ‘usurp’ in a song, for instance, that would probably sound terrible.

They also have to rhythmically work in the melody, so sometimes I have to cut a word or find a synonym with less syllables.

Does the form (music) allow for more flexibility in theme/narrative?

H –I think music often dictates optimal line lengths, stanza lengths, rhyme, and rhythm patterns. So in that way it can set limits. Sometimes the limitations push me to excavate things from my imagination that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. So in a way it can be liberating and revealing. That’s the irony of form I guess.

When composing a song, are you fitting the lyrics to the music or vice versa? Or is the process more dynamic in that regard?

H –On ‘Nuclear Dragon,’ I wrote the lyrics first.  I was listening to some tracks that Matt was working on and one jumped out as the right track for the words, rhythmically and emotionally, it just worked.   So I started singing over it, letting the words dictate the melody, and the song was done.

Sometimes I’ll have a basic idea for a song or a couple of lines and the rest of the lyrics and melody will develop as I go back and forth between my notebook and the track. This is how “UpUpUp” and “Luxor” and “Temptation” came about. At the time I was working on “Luxor” I was reading about hot air balloon rides over tombs in Luxor, Egypt. That was the starting image and it developed from there.

When I started working on “Temptation,” I had just watched Josh Fox’s documentary on fracking. The image of a ball of fire exploding out of the open tap triggered the words in the first line.

How does culture influence your songwriting?

H — I write more when I’m reading, listening to music, watching movies.  MuraMasa, Mount Kimbie, Pure Horsehair, tUnE-yArDs, Tiniariwen…Force Majeur, Birdman, The One I love…Miranda July, Jim Jarumsch, Reggie Watts, all these musicians, movies, artists inspire me. They oil the wheels and get the right machine in my head working.  It is amazing to live in a time where so much art is at our fingertips.

What is your favorite poem?

–I can’t name one particular poem that is unequivocally my favorite. I love so many poems and so many single lines from even more poems.

Today I happened to reread Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Sunflower Sutra’ which is great and Galway Kinnell’s poem “After Making Love we Hear Footsteps.” I love the line about the baby returning to the “ground of his making.” Denise Levertov’s “Writing in the Dark” is a good reminder about how to live.

What was your favorite record of 2014?

H –Flying Lotus , “You’re Dead”

and on a totally different note, Sharon Van Etten’s “Are We There” (*both were favorites of mine in 2014 as well)

How does your creative process differ when making films/videos for The Mast? “So Right,” and “UpUpUp” were beautiful vignettes whereas “Nuclear Dragon” was a performance-style video (all were well executed and beautifully shot). 

H –The first video I directed and edited was UpUpUp. It features Pandora Marie, an amazing pop and lock dancer who lives in LA. I wanted to merge her style of hip hop dance with the   minimalist and eerie aesthetic of Japanese butoh. I think it gave her a beautiful part zombie-part avatar look which fit the mood of the song. I got obsessive about the editing, that took a long time.   Editing video is a great way to put the obsessive part of my brain to us.

“So Right” is a very different video, but also character driven. This one stars my 22-month old nephew. He loves to play with our ipads and keyboards and we started filming him a little and then I thought it would be fun to make a video with him as the DJ. The idea of him escaping from his crib, tricking the baby cam, and inviting friends over for his mini rave came later and I eventually did my first shot by shot storyboard. That was necessary especially because we were dealing with a baby. Everything had to be super organized on our end and super fun and relaxed on his end. We turned each scene into a game which his parents helped a lot with and we shot for 5-10 mins a day for 5 days and then shot the party with all the kids. Each day we filmed, we had no idea if he was going to go along for the ride or if he was going to freak out, in which case we’d have to cancel the whole thing. It was a great reminder to temper expectations.

“Luxor” was the latest video we made. It features some of my very close friends.   I wanted to make a video about friendship between women, and the healing power of that. They happen to be from very different parts of the world, all arriving at this island of rejuvenation. Kind of an afterlife maybe. I was thinking about the tombs or sarcophagi in Luxor too, which is what the box is modeled after, and how the ancient Egyptians thought the tomb was also a womb, a chance for rebirth.

Is it a democratic process when deciding what to do to visually represent to a song?

H –I basically do most of the video direction and editing, though Matt is involved and give feedback through it all. He also took on the role of videographer in ‘So Right’ and ‘Emerald’ so there was a lot of back and forth about the shots in those.

Drums first? Melody first? Does a melody come to you followed by the rhythm? Or is the process more organic and simple?

Matt Kilmer –I always like to have a tempo in mind though before starting anything.  Sometimes I’ll make a beat and then find a nice chord progression to go with it and other times it’s the opposite.  Haleh comes up with the hooks and melodies once I have a beat and progression in place and then we bounce ideas back and forth after that.

How does your creative process differ from your work as a composer?

M —  As a composer (for film and TV), there’s usually a scene or character that I’ll be writing for so it’s coming from a specific direction to begin with.  With The Mast, the sky’s the limit and it’s about self expression and making something that I’d want to listen to.  I like a lot of different music so it’s nice to pull influences from different genres and mix them up with my own sense of what sounds good.

Does it inform your approach to creating in The Mast?

M —  Now that I think about it, we’ve been writing with different themes in mind so there’s some direction and limitations in place.  I think it’s really good to set some sort of limitations on yourself when creating so things have a unified sound and vibe.  I think we’re getting better at that.

How do you know when you’ve found the right “sound” for a song? The Balafon isn’t a typical instrument found in most rehearsal spaces. Do you have an arsenal of instruments you can draw from when making tracks?

M —  I have a lot of instruments that I’ve collected along the way and I will always love playing acoustic instruments.  As far as the “right” sound, I think it’s really about finding the right combination of sounds and the proper mix of those sounds – whether it be acoustic or electronic.

Is there a conscious effort to strike a balance between synthetic sounds and organic sounds?

M — I find that I gravitate towards more organic sounding synths as a result of playing instruments for so long, but I’m still open to new “synthetic” sounding synth sounds and getting more into the sound design side of things.  I’m a musician first and a producer second, so I feel more comfortable starting tracks by playing something and then later sitting down at the computer and making it all work together.

Working within the realm of polyrhythms and syncopation, do either of you find yourself inspired by the sounds of the city?

M — Most definitely.  Just being around so much activity and interesting sounds, it must seep into our being.

H — When I’m in a relaxed frame of mind, I can hear the trains, buses, trucks, drilling, and construction as music. It’s less grating that way and even beautiful sometimes, the rhythms and textures are generally uncharted so the soundscape can feel pretty unique and fresh.

Follow up to the previous: have you ever used “found sound” or field recordings when composing music for The Mast?

M –Yes, on Pleasure Island, we used the sound of water drumming from the Congo on the “Lean Into It” intro and there’s also the sound of a windsurfer riding through the water as the background ambiance on Emerald.

Favorite piece of gear, either outboard or software?

M — I’d have to go with Ableton Live, just because it’s the centerpiece of our whole setup, both live and in the studio.  But I’ll never stop playing my 16″ Cooperman frame drum either.

H –A distortion pedal my friend Ryan Scott made and my latest Touch OSC set up on my iPad.

As touring, working musicians, do you feel that economic imperatives trump democracy and art?

M –They can unfortunately. Music houses for commercials pay a lot more than Spotify and everyone’s gotta eat.

What excites you and Matt most about the music you are making?

–We’re addicted to making things, whether it’s songs or videos. Hearing new sounds, beat, progressions, melodies, that gets us off.

Do you prefer live performance to recording/producing?

–We love them both.

Creating art at a loss…Is there a gain to be made in music?

–The process of creating is the gain.

That’s where the magic is.

In the era of the single, short attention span culture, what are your thoughts about “The Album” as a compilation of songs…what does it represent to you? What does it signify? A portfolio of songs?

H –The album is still alive. Sometimes it’s a record of a time or phase in a composer’s life. Sometimes it’s a chance to explore a concept through 10 or so songs. I think it makes sense nowadays to release a single at a time, and then one video at a time if you can, to keep the album alive for longer than one pass through a newsfeed.

M — I think albums are going to die one day very soon, but at the same time, they’re are kind of a signification that you are a serious artist and not just a hobbyist.  They definitely make it easier for your fans to have a volume of your work but they also put all of your “content eggs” into one basket.

Thanks for taking the time to answer. Greg sent the record earlier this week so I’m still getting to know it, it’s quite good. Have a fantastic show on Thursday at Soda Bar.

M and H – Thank you so much for taking the time to listen and for spreading the word. We appreciate it.

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