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luckyPRICK Interview w/Kevin McMahon (Complete)
By Todd Millenacker
Transcribed by Todd Millenacker
For your reading pleasure, here is the complete, unedited transcript of our interview with Kevin McMahon.
Todd Millenacker: I have to start this interview with the most obvious of questions; where have you been for the past few years?
Kevin McMahon: Oh, flying around the sun navigating the firmament of sound and silence… just like everyone else.
Todd: Musically what have you been up to?
Kevin: Mostly writing, which has become increasingly an instrument free zone... By that I mean I'll turn on the tape recorder or computer and only record the vocal line of the song being composed, then I'll dictate instructions for arrangement and production. After a couple of weeks, I'll listen back and select the ideas that most appeal to me and execute the instructions I had left regarding instrumentation.
Also, I've been spending a lot of time getting the new website together and all the CDs and merch it will offer. Ultimately, I want to use the website as a new type of record label from which I will release songs as they are recorded. If I want to write and record a full band song like "Runaway Brain" or a light solo tune like "Chilly Willy", then that's what I'll do.... a lot of rough mixes (I suppose that's nothing new).
The reason I haven't pursued a recording contract after the Interscope/Nothing deal is mainly to assure myself the freedom that was jeopardized by entering into that experience. Record labels want/demand that you remain in the style of the previous release and give your fans what they "expect". I don't agree with that. I know there is a method to their marketing madness, but I'm more interested in songs as an expression of changing perspective or spontaneous fun rather than the same old soda with a different bubble... Even though many fans are lost along the way, I believe those who stay are in for a richer and more interesting experience.
For instance, I was working on a very upbeat solo project when Andy Kubiszewski came to visit for a few days and we went into the studio with Greg Zydyc (gtr) and his friend Mark Gamiere (bass). We had two days to get whatever we could. I didn't want it to turn into one of my year long sessions so we played it live without a click track so there wouldn't be the temptation to add more tracks or obsess over the perfect overdub after Andy left town.
When I told him we were gonna do it without a click he looked at me as if I WERE nuts (well, MORE nuts than usual!), but after we got going he really dug it. I think we all felt good about just kickin' it out like the pre-click days. For that group of players and/or songs, I chose (sic), a name I've been using sporadically through the years for VARIOUS impromptu projects. I wanted song arrangements that we could easily pull off live if we ever were in a club and felt like taking the stage before the headliner... (Hey, you never know!). I don't think there's enough of that kind of spontaneity and reckless joyfulness in the music scene these days. Granted, the majority of the (sic) material isn't very joyful, but I'm alluding to the basic kicks we get out of playing music. Not performing, but PLAYING... Simply being a part of a live band, driving it AND being driven by it. Now, if I were under contract with a major (even many indies these days) I would not be able to release those (sic) tracks and most probably would have been discouraged from even participating in the sessions (Skipping over the record deal and going for a distribution deal has been something I have been looking into because - as you know - the marketing of oneself has ALWAYS been a conflict area).
Same with the FEAR OF BLUE stuff. There's a lot about those tracks which even hardcore LuckyPierreMusic fans won't get because they will be initially turned off by the production. I myself have a low tolerance for techno music which employs stock keyboard sounds and pedestrian drum and bass lines, which admittedly some of the F.O.B. stuff does, but that was what I considered to be the common atmosphere required to best serve the ATYPICAL lyrics. Once I put in my bits Rae (DiLeo) use to say, "Okay, Kev, just sit back and watch the magic happen!", and proceed to lay down some bad ass shit from leftfield and "Voila!" the mundane to extraordinary... But, once again, if I was under contract I would never be able to release that stuff because it would "taint" my image as well (whatever the marketing man or intransigent fan regard my image and style to be).
Now with the new website and all the music being released I think it will become clear that each song IS my style for that 3 or 4 minutes of playing time. And whatever song I wrestle from the stream next will be my style for however long it takes to translate, or attempt to translate, arrange and record IT... and then? The next… and THE NEXT… SO ON…
I also had been working on a show I was going to do with Roger [Von Golling]. It's entitled "PoorTrait of ThinKing". We filmed a rehearsal which, as it turns out, will be released in some form or another next year (maybe). I play acoustic guitar and sing, Roger does his art. Then I add some tracks and process the images a little... Hard to describe very... well. I'm putting up outtakes from it on the website. Those outtakes are songs which I've already released (see "Attitude" on homepage), but performed here as LIVE acoustic gtr and vox with VERY rough, on the fly, overdubs... in post. However, the songs for "PoorTrait of ThinKing" (e.g. "Fire On The Red Line", "Daze", etc) have never been released in any rendition. You see, all this diversion of creative energy is all too often quashed when one is bound to contract and/or celebrity.
Todd: Are there any plans to re-release The Wreckard or ThinKing?
Kevin: Yes, both CDs will be available at www.luckypierremusic.com. The same mixes, but the packaging is different. Everything is still Roger's art, but we are using higher quality materials and a more substantial package. Manufacturers have made real progress in the area of sustainable materials and I think we should provide those who will buy a CD the best choice available.
Todd: Do you have the option of re-releasing the "Prick" album?
Kevin: I can't do anything about that record right now… That's all I can bear to say on that subject.
Todd: When The Wreckard was first released, you felt your music with its intricacies wasn't particular suited towards the MP3 thing. Do you still feel this way or will you be selling MP3s through the new website?
Kevin: Some subtlety and nuance is sacrificed with certain digital reproduction methods, but it's also sacrificed when the best of copies or even the original is played back on a shitty stereo system. I really can't monitor what people play my stuff back on. I can't force someone to buy a CD. I CAN offer the various formats and hope they get something good out of whichever they choose.
Todd: You've alluded to various other projects and your hope to release them at some point (Fear of Blue, Master Cherry, Broken Man, and The Struggles). Any updates on these projects?
Kevin: The update is yes to FEAR OF BLUE (that's stuff I did with Rae in 1990). He had recorded the outline tracks for a couple songs, grooves at that point, and asked me to make up melody and lyrics. So after that initial 2 song experiment we just went ahead with an additional 12 songs, but never released any of it because we both were picked up for our solo stuff. I told Rae a couple years ago that I was going to reproduce and edit that stuff for release and he was all for it… I'd like to do another CD with him. You'll notice that although Rae used a lot of stock sounds from that era, the totality of the recording becomes custom through the marriage of our very different styles. That's why when I found the tape (yes, tape) in my stuff when I was moving, I threw it on thinking it would be interesting to hear these old demos and that would be it, but I heard a very unique Form within the obvious Other.
Todd: Is (sic) a continuation of the Prick attitude/perspective or do you feel it's a different beast altogether?
Kevin: Yeah, (sic) is not Prick (although both projects get abrasive at times). Especially “Runaway Brain”:
tell me tell me when it's over
the never-ending bloody culture
fool me fool me flash the fear card
put the spin on all the evidence and doubt
shape and shout
everybody play the pawn of anger
everybody burn their rights to the god of danger
like an ancient pagan
beggin' for what?
it doesn't matter how they euphemize
you gotta hear with the inner eye
a life's a life
help me help tell my daughter
about the sun-king black and martyred
abel able cain'n slaughter
first friendly fire,
with a capital f,
the capital f
everybody on investigation
everybody gonna cook in the confirmation
it's a vicious cycle,
we gotta get tough
degenerationally futile tribe
we got to make up and tame fire
to warm up the cold greed
cold greed master thieves oil kings
cold greed taxin' me to bomb things
cold greed master thieves
world never cares... 'til it's at YOUR door
world always says, it's the final war
runaway, runaway brain
boy girl boy girl brain of air
lazy dinosaurs like me beware
party party we know how to party
"put our hands in the air, wave 'em like we don't care"
(i guess we don't....care)
everybody's got a play station
everybody's got a cyber-sex addiction
yeah i know there's lots of young beauty out there
but pull your little head out of the porno net
and use the little bit you got left
to fight off the cold greed
cold greed master thieves oil kings
cold greed taxin' me to bomb things
cold greed master thieves
world never cares til it's at your door
world always says, it's the "final war"
runaway, runaway brain
(copyright reserved - lyrics reprinted with permission solely for this article)
Prick is much more "Playing the Studio". (Sic) is my songs, but with a band's energy and arrangements developed on the fly and in the take.
Todd: What are your plans/hopes for this project?
Kevin: My plan is to release the songs we've recorded and if/when Andy and I are in the same city we'll look up the others and knock out a few more. My hope is only that I can continue to do whatever style of music I want. Maybe someday I'll decide upon one particular "voice", but as long as I embrace varying perspectives - as I do - multiple voices and styles are what I need to communicate.
Todd: How do you know when you've written a good song? Is it based strictly on personal satisfaction or do you need feedback (positive or negative) before you can make any assumptions about the quality of your work? Does the audience matter?
Kevin: The audience does matter albeit only in a live performance setting where I can see, hear and feel the general response to a song. I DO want an audience to like what we're playing mainly because I want to benefit from the experience myself and I will not with a bunch of yobs whipping beer bottles and insults at my head! Yet, at the same time, I probably would question the quality of my material if the yobs embraced my stuff as anthem… For example, "Tough" to me is a good song for totally different reasons than those held by the pack. I can't tell you how many kids (sBOY / YOBs) come up to me after a show with only the literal interpretation registering in them and actually believe that I'm singing a paean to my biceps… Or the "journalist" (his word, not mine) who started his interview with "Fuckin ‘Communique’ makes me want to kill people... it’s awesome!" He actually believed that I espouse the tyrannical nihilism of the phantom appearing as antagonist in that number. Unfortunately, there are so many people who judge songs, and the writers of those songs, so harshly and often based on a misunderstood lyric or appearance or attitude, that taking those persons opinions into account would just be a mistake. (In the interest of full disclosure I myself at one time was labeled a "yob").
If I ever had doubts about whether those were "good" songs, I assure you, the high praise and accolades from these fellows would NOT be the medicine I'd take to cure my uncertainty. I am expressing something and I want SOMEONE to get what that is. Or at least find the delivery interesting and get enough out of it to serve as a catalyst for their own imagination.
I also like to write simple songs which have no intrinsic poeticism and through the new website I plan on making a lot more of that stuff available. Songs which are just too "light" to stand up with those performed at a Prick concert. They would be and have been booed, but nonetheless they are (to me) songs worth hearing... Many years ago I thought I would get to a point when I'd follow my instincts (biz?, art?) and only record songs I knew were completely unique and artistic, but for some reason (self-sabotage I have been told), I continue to indulge an adolescent desire for pointless pop.
The paradigm for success in "the biz" is to take note of what people like best in your repertoire and continue to give it to them, be reliable and don't confuse whatever your image is with anything which might undermine that perception in your audience. I mean, I know which Lucky Pierre songs will piss off Prick fans and which Prick songs will alienate Lucky Pierre fans, but I would feel like a hypocrite if I pruned my output. Of course, maybe now that I articulated that bit of neurosis I will be able to conjure up and accept a definitive style...? (mmmm)....
I started writing songs because I was playing drums in cover bands (Kinks, Who, Love, Small Faces, Beatles, Dylan), all really fun drumming songs, but no one I knew was writing so I had to switch instruments and "sing". I did it because I knew I would never replace [Mick] Avory or [Keith] Moon and wanted to be in a band with good original songs. It was then I decided a "good song" was whatever song appealed to me. "Not much of a criterion," you might say and that would be debatable, but nonetheless, to whose opinion would you have me defer? I don't purport to be the voice of any particular demography, attitude, state of being or mind, yet I am quite comfortable writing and recording with one.
Todd: What do you look for in a song?
Kevin: As far as MY songs, it is relative to what I'm hearing in my head at the time I'm moved to write... Be she dire, fun, fey or moribund the muse guides the ship and we sail off into the horizon... or into the reef, or merrily merrily gently down the stream, or over the edge of the earth. The goal is to sketch out what I hear in my head so someone else can hear it… and I do mean "sketch". Sometimes that is something heavy and other times it's something light, but regardless of weight, I know I can only get down a sketch. Occasionally, I have gotten some paint on the canvas… The conundrum being that I realize my "best" recordings are achieved when enlisting the aid of collaborators with engineering chops. Lots of times a song is just great, but the recording is shit. In my opinion, the majority of songs today (in the mainstream at least) are shit, but are recycled and polished into good recordings.
As for collaborator's opinions: When I was recording recently with (sic) I felt it was important that the guys thought the songs were "good" because I wanted them to be enthusiastically invested in the project. However, while we were determining which five songs to record, out of a multitude of demos, inevitably some good songs were rejected. But those "rejects" didn't lose any value in my estimation and as much as I respect the band's collective and individual opinions I believe the "rejects" were simply not the best tunes for (sic)... Or, I say to myself, "Hey Man, they just don’t get it... " (Which perhaps is an insulated and immature mindset to have and one which works against the pursuit of a "Mainstream Hit". Nonetheless, I recommend it to any songwriter who wishes never to wake up feeling as though they pimped the muse).
As far as what I look for in someone else's songs to be considered "good" is nothing intellectual… I just like it, then after multiple listens, I’ll notice any intellectual properties. But some songs I simply like and can find no redeeming intellectual value… they just appeal to some ethereal "place" in me… something I would like to hear, a song that moves me psychically or emotionally or intellectually or physically (most of the "allys").
Todd: In a previous LuckyPierre/Peppermen interview you mentioned recording at home (http://luckyprick.net/interview.php?band=The+Peppermen&interview=10) - Would you mind telling us a little bit about your set-up?
Kevin: The wonderful world of the home studio? Well, when it's working it's great… However, I seem to experience a highly unusual number of studio/computer malfunctions… Let me clarify something before we continue: As much as one might think that I propagate the whereabouts of my particular "case" as being irrevocably domiciled in "space", I am in fact highly skeptical of statements such as, "Dude, you got a fuckin' negative field of energy that's freakin' this equipment out… Don't know, maybe it's positive, but dude you got some shit comin' off you that's fuckin' wack, man!"
Now I have heard this same statement expressed in many languages, colorful to technical, from musicians, engineers, producers, even "genius" (their word, not mine) Mac geeks who up until probing into my Morass Of The Inexplicable have never stooped so low (or high) as "Cosmic Sapient Interference" as cause AND explanation… Hey, I'm just repeating what they've said to me for 25 years (My first encounter with the computer engineer was in 1984, San Francisco).
My current set up is pretty minimal for a full-time musician… a Mac G5 Quad with Pro Tools M-Audio, project mix i/o interface... Alesis power amp and monitors... Sampletank... an old Pearl drum kit... Fender Telecasters... Vox and Marshall amps... '52 Gibson', Yamaha and Epiphone acoustic guitars..... [Roland] SP555 drum machine… M-Audio ProKeys 88... a few pedals (such as a Cry Baby wah, etc)… Fender Precision bass... baby grand acoustic piano... Oh yeah, and I just bought a ukulele for eight measures of a song and ended up nylon stringing the old Gibson instead, but I will definitely get into that uke… I never thought I'd say the words, "Get into that uke"... and with such conviction and high hopes! Now maybe my mates, the "yobs", would recognize the irony of "Tough" upon hearing the ukulele rendition!
Just an aside, the reason "yob" is fitting so prominently into my disclosure this fine morning is because when I was in England mixing "Tough" with Alan Moulder at RAK Studios we stayed out rather late one night and when dropping me off at my "hotel" Alan warned me about the aftermath of the football/soccer game, turning to me from the sanctuary of that cab into that wet night with the words that have obviously been etched in my mind… "WATCH OUT FOR THE YOBS!"… For some reason, I required no definition of term and upon entering my "hotel" elevator was PLASTERED onto its walls by said "yobs"… (Not all blackouts are self-inflicted).
You know, I figure if I just ramble on in this interview I'm set for the next five years… I'll just give the interested parties (if interest there be) this URL and "Voila!"… a multitude of nouns and verbs there for the choosing.
Todd: Any advice for home recording enthusiast?
Kevin: Well, I'm not much on giving advice, not because I don't wish to help someone, but I'm not sure my advice would advance anyone's dream… Well, I suppose it depends on what their dream IS. If it's to become a success in the music industry or a celebrity of any kind, it would behoove you to pay no mind to ANYTHING I have to say… However, if you have an interest in music, and yes "passion" is an appropriate word in rare cases, as is mine, then I would suggest that instead of trying to reproduce or emulate the "sound" of big studios that you try to develop your own sound... Exploit those challenges presented by the limitations of your equipment and resource the unconventional... and, of course, do not fix the "mistake" without hearing its side of the story.
Todd: How do you decide between recording at a studio vs. recording at home?
Kevin: If I think that the main consideration of the recording is the most professional tracking of instruments and vocals then I would pursue the commercial and rely on a good engineer who is practiced at the craft and familiar with vintage and state of art recording equipment. If I think the main consideration is the organic development of the recording itself, then I stay home. Of course, money, unfortunately, comes into play... but rather than allowing it (or more accurately allowing the lack of it) to dictate whether a song will receive the preferred production or not I simply hold off on recording those songs which call out for a commercial studio until I get the dough.
Also, a lot of my songs I like to record as demos, even release them as such, and like for someone else to pick-up and cover (e.g. "Birdman", my San Francisco version is NOT a definitive work and I have so many arrangements of that song that even if I had unlimited funds and players, I don't believe at this point in time that I could consummate its development… and "Birdman" is far from being an anomaly). I may just change the name of my site from luckypierremusic.com to songstocover.com… Damn, I better get that domain!).
Todd: Would you considered working with an outside producer again or is it strictly collaborators at this point?
Kevin: I would like to work with an outside producer again if that situation presents itself, although that producer WOULD BE a collaborator, as was always the case in the tragicomedy "Hey, Let's Make a Record". Unfortunately, one of the concessions I realize in not seeking out a record deal and not having a record deal, is not having the budget for a good producer.
Todd: Finally, what have you been listening to? I know you're a huge Kinks fan, what do you think of Ray Davies solo material? For some reason I assume you're a Leonard Cohen fan (although you've never mentioned him). What about The The (again, I never heard them mentioned, but the Warne Livesey connection). I'll stop speculating and just let you talk. If you can recommend anything we'd love to hear it!
Kevin: Those three writers you mentioned (Ray, Matt and Leonard) are all, in my opinion, very good and unique… mentioning Cohen reminds me of one of my side-projects… I was recording songs like "Tough" and "Fans [and Cameras]", but on nights off playing drums in a band which performed "So Long, Marianne".
Anyway, yesterday I listened to music much more than I do today (so most of the names I drop here are of people I've heard for a while now). Still I'm sure I listen to more hours per day than the average man, but it's nowhere near the time I devoted to serious listening 20 or so years ago. I'm not saying I've become cold and jaded (I'm not saying it), but I spend the majority of my waking hours writing and when I'm not in the creative mode I prefer to read (some recommendations, no particular order of favorites… "Earthly Powers" and "Clockwork Orange" by Anthony Burgess -- "Portrait of an Artist" and "Ulysses" by James Joyce -- "Look Homeward Angel" by Thomas Wolfe -- "Ancient Evenings" by Norman Mailer -- "Consolation of Philosophy" by Boethius -- "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes -- Maybe I should just pick out some writers that come to mind who never disappoint me… ANYTHING by RILKE... Camus, Shakespeare, Kafka, Huxley, Dostoevsky, S.Beckett -- I'll continue this maybe sometime when I am asked!) or watch films (Ok, I feel compelled to list some directors - like the list of writers this too is by no means anywhere near complete, but… ANYTHING by A.Tarkovsky, E.Kusturica, L.Bunuel, V. de Sica, Y.Ozu, A.Kurosawa, R.Bresson --- It's not that I don't like any American directors… Let's see, I like Cassavetes, Kubrick, Fuller, Huston, Lynch, Jarmusch --- You see this naming names is a tricky thing, like any interview content, actually, because I feel obliged to include the entire "thought"… (Never mind, I better get into this some other time). SO back to music…
Of course, Ray Davies is my favorite writer and the Kinks will always be my favorite band, even if another great band comes along (and many have), but there is nothing that can replace the first relationship one conjures from music which permeates the evolving teenage self… As much as I respect the way in which Ray crafts a pop song I never attempt to write like HIM because no matter how close I could ever come to emulating HIS style, at the end of the day, HIS songs would always be superior… So I write as myself and am in competition with no one… Some people think that is a line of bullshit or it's just an unfortunate thing to not have competition to bring out the best in oneself, but I don't understand what competition, in the place of commerce, has to do with translating what's in my head (AND IN MY HEAD ONLY) onto tape for others to hear... and the only competition that is remotely valid in art is within the artist himself (I'd qualify that statement with "in my opinion" but I suppose that's the understood hallmark of this thing called an "Interview").
Let's see, I like Tom Waits and you know there's no way in hell I would try to write like him (and his wife Kathleen Brennan)… Sly Stone, Mark Hollis (which brings to mind producer Tim Friese-Greene), Little Richard, Elliot Smith, Brian Ferry (which brings to mind Brian Eno), Dylan (which reminds me I probably should have mentioned Dylan Thomas up with writers, but that's what I mean about lists!), The Pretenders, Andy Partridge, The Pogues, PJ Harvey, James Brown, writer like Lennon & McCartney (George Martin) or Brian Wilson (although they are considered quite mainstream, I doubt whether "Strawberry Fields" or "God Only Knows" would get ANY airtime on commercial radio today)... I like the music and concept of the Polyphonic Spree, The National, Elbow, Arcade Fire… Sigur Ros is something special, I not only dig their quest but also their find… I saw Crowded House on Austin City Limits the other night and I said to myself, "Hey that looks like fun, maybe I’ll try to get signed and go on the road," but the next day I remembered I can't stand being in transit (so I am currently going to form a band as a "hobby"… I already don't like the sound of that!). But those Finns can write good pop songs… Split Enz and CR... (Check out Liam Finn's new record by the way)…
I still like Nick Drake (preferably without drums), Donovan (producer Mickie Most), Bjork, (you know a lot of these new bands I have only heard a few things from and can't speak to their entire repertoire, but) Codes In The Clouds, Olafur Arnalds, Finn… Let's see I'm sliding back again… MC5, Love, The Left Banke, Van Morrison, T. Rex and Bowie (another integral producer Tony Visconti), Bright Eyes, Make-Up, Flaming Lips... I also like some standards from writers like Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Mercer, Arlen, Coward --- singers like Billie Holiday, Fred Astaire, Nat Cole, Peggy Lee… you see this is ridiculous, it could go on for, nearly, ever... and I still must mention virtuoso players like Hendrix, Bohnam, Jeff Beck, Thelonius Monk, Buddy Rich, Louis Armstrong and Chet Baker are always invigorating… I like flamenco music... A LOT... Let's not forget classical, Mozart and Beethoven (too great to ever be discarded as cliche), Tchaikovsky, Bach, on certain days Bartok... Also, a guilty pleasure of mine is "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis" by Ralph Vaughn Williams. I spent hours listening to the St. Louis Philharmonic performance of this piece while riding the train from my flat in Woolwich Arsenal into London. The sound of the grinding metal wheels on the rails bleeding through my headphones really intensified the haunting power of that piece...
Ok, I see my "hour" is nearly up so let me finish by saying; I have been so disappointed by commercial radio for so long (stopped listening in early eighties) that I thought I would never hear anything new again, but I have overcome my fear of the tsunami known as internet radio/YouTube and been relieved to find there's actually SO much good stuff it ALMOST makes me want to just be a fan again . . . and enroll in astronaut school!