Jack Cooper wants to set the record straight. “I’d never call us DIY because you’re setting yourself up for a fall.” The need for this clarification is quickly explained; a recent article penned by Cooper himself and given a somewhat undesired headline. “I wrote this piece, just about being in a band, and they titled it ‘The Golden Rules of Being in a DIY Indie Band’.” Consisting entirely of sensible advice for aspiring groups, his list includes working with “nice people”, what constitutes a practical rider, and the money-saving joys of kipping on fans’ floors. It’s the kind of sage wisdom that would benefit anyone who harbours dreams of loading up a transit van and chasing success in the pubs and clubs of provincial Britain, not just those of a DIY persuasion, but then I can understand why Cooper and Co. are having a difficult job shaking this particular tag.
Formed in early 2009 as a duo – “primarily as a recording project” – by 2011 Mazes had crystallised into a tightly coiled noisenik four-piece; Neil Robinson on drums, Jarin Tabata on guitar, and Conan Robert’s bass all swirled around Cooper’s slacker riffs and detached, adenoidal vocals. Alongside an impressive live reputation, the scuzz and thrash punk of tracks such as ‘Shit Priest’, ‘Messenger’, and ‘Bethseda’ – two minute blasts that sounded like the Kinks doing the Pistols – saw them firmly established as a notable fish swimming around the burgeoning pond of so called lo-fi DIY bands, a rise matched by the likes of Milk Maid, Spectrals, and Male Bonding. Add in the fact that both Robert’s and Cooper’s self-ran labels dealt mainly in homemade fuzz-pop cassettes, and it’s easy to see why such lazy pigeonholing quickly became the norm.
But debut album ‘A Thousand Heys’, for those paying attention, represented a subtle, tuneful shift. A riotous burst of frazzled guitar and up-tempo power-pop, it proved that Cooper knew his way around hooks and melodies better than most of his contemporaries. Lo-fi was, at the time, a fashionable, catch-all tag, but the LP’s 13 tracks were far more polished and structured than anything some of the scene’s truer proponents – say Wavves or tUnE-yArDs – were releasing; reigning in their youthful exuberance, ‘Heys’ owed more of a debt to the British Invasion’s glory days than anything that once so scared the Establishment. 'Ores & Minerals' takes this progression several steps further, its cleaner, streamlined sound; “a very deliberate decision.”
“Not much at all was left to chance. The ways we worked on the first record have pretty much all fallen by the wayside. With that line-up – two guitars, live sounding – you're always going to sound a particular way; like an indie rock band. So we switched things up.” Not unsurprisingly, losing Tabata after ‘Heys’ touring commitments were done also played a part. “We played a lot of shows [on that tour] as a three piece, and the dynamics and space that comes with fewer members sparked off the way we do things now. Writing wise has completely changed too. I used to write in that Sixties/Tin Pan Alley way, where a song was sparked off by a vocal melody or a guitar part. Nowadays anything can be the foundation; a loop, a sample, or some random recording.”
This new approach is pretty easy to spot; 'Bite', 'Jaki', and the title track are all built around mildly psychedelic, repetitive riffs while the two instrumentals – 'Significant Bullet' and 'Leominster' – consist almost entirely of organ and piano loops respectively, with some field recordings thrown in at the end of the latter for good measure. Rhythm is also far more prominent, from the tumbling drums of 'Sucker Punched' to the bustling, skittering pattern behind 'Delancey Essex'; again, this is no accident. “Neil's a great drummer. He has a weird style and I think a lot of the songs on ‘Heys’ did him and Conan a disservice as a rhythm section; they were all a little too fast and impossible to move to. There was a feeling within the band that we'd like to make some music that people could move to, whether it was dancing or just quickening your walk.”
'I've really stopped caring what people like or don't like.'
Despite such fundamental shifts in approach, the new album is more evolution than revolution, and certain motifs remain; not least Cooper's tart delivery and the songs’ effortless catchiness. Even so, it can’t have been easy to alter a winning formula. The dilemma for many acts embarking on a sophomore release is that they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t; witness the wildly different complaints about MGMT and The xx venturing too far, or not far enough, from what made them so appealing. These days, it seems bands who enjoy acclaim and buzz end up either waiting too long for the follow up or tie themselves in knots trying to second guess what people want to hear, but Cooper is sanguine about avoiding such pitfalls.
“We got some great reviews and it sold ok, but it was hardly a commercial or critical blockbuster. Maybe if it had gone crazy, changing our approach would've been more difficult. I think a lot of people who have an urge to create are torn most of the time. Speaking truthfully, I've really stopped caring what people like or don't like, or what the handful of people into Mazes expect from us; we really just wanted to do something for ourselves. Of course, I'm 100% down with people being into it, and that's not to say we're not ambitious.”
With the ever shifting sands of the music business, it can sometime be hard to gauge exactly what constitutes success these days, and how far realistic ambitions should reach. What are they hoping to achieve in 2013? “This feels a bit like a transitional record. It's not completely fully formed, so the main ambition we have as a band is to make something truly original and perfect. It feels like that may be within our grasp but the exciting thing is that it's possibly beyond us as well; it might just be delusions of grandeur. But generally speaking, we'd like to be a little bit bigger. We're not bland enough to be really well known and I don't think our first record was good enough to be really well regarded…but now? Who knows? We love touring and meeting new people, and eating out every day, so on a base and important level, we're very successful.”
Cooper makes it clear that the artistic freedom they’ve been given is very much appreciated, and how fortunate they feel in being able to indulge their passion without too much compromise. Part of that is his approach to songwriting, and the lyrical content in particular. I dig out an old quote of his, to the effect that lyrics are very much an afterthought; is this still the case? He confirms it is. “They are [an afterthought], but the sounds of the words are absolutely present and very important from the kick off. I sing made up words and things that sound good for weeks, then tighten it all up when it comes to recording. Some people like my lyrics, which is really nice, but I'd be surprised if anyone could empathise with them or anything. There are a handful that are fairly literal maybe, but it's all personal to me.”
So he’s not trying to tell stories or paint pictures? “I'm not rebelling but I do find most of them pointless; just rehashed metaphors about love and rock’n’roll clichés. A lyric about being meeting someone on a train speaks to a handful of people, but a musical note can speak to everyone and anything.” It’s a curious view, but one I can sympathise with. I’m always grabbed by the music first, in particular the melody, and thinking about some of my favourite songs, I remain hazy about exactly what’s being described. But even so, surely some of the truly great songs are great precisely because of the timeless, universal appeal of the lyrics – think 'Yesterday', 'Angie', 'Creep'. Aren’t the words just as integral to their success, and why they connect with so many people?
'A musical note can speak to everyone and anything.'
“Maybe. But personally, I just don't really care [about lyrics] and in the main I've stopped listening to them. I'll occasionally pick up my guitar and play a Beatles song or something, but I’ll have no idea what the words are even though I've heard it a hundred times. There are exceptions; I really love David Berman and Mark E Smith, and I can totally acknowledge good lyricists, but they just don’t mean much to me. I'm dyslexic too, so I've always had a slight block where words are concerned. Melody has always been my thing, and one of my favourite vocal melodies is the 'You're asking me will my love grow' line in Something; it's beautiful, emotive, and stirring, but the lyric is at best ridiculous and at worst, it's a dick joke.”
This desire to refrain from indulging in complex imagery or metaphor-laden tales presumably stood Cooper in good stead for his Art Is Cheap project back in 2011. An experiment in notions of patronage, inspiration, and mass produced art, he invited people to send in “a songtitle, a drum loop, some lyrics, a photo…anything” and, for a minimum of £10, he’d craft a personalised song. The turnaround required most of them to be done quickly and efficiently, but the homespun recordings have a certain quaint charm, not least DIY’s own request, ‘Boy George Michael Jackson’. Looking back, Cooper is ambivalent about what it meant, or any wider significance the project might have had.
“I don't think of it as a success or a failure, it just was. Actually, I wish I could answer that, but I haven't given it any thought since I did it and by its very nature, it was off the cuff and throwaway.” The basic art-for-cash premise was sorely tested when he was asked by Brighton’s Lick, a frozen yoghurt shop, to come up with a jingle promoting their wares. Presenting something of a dilemma – as he freely admits, “music to promote commerce is a tricky subject” – eventually he agreed after “realising that if I was going to do it, I had to follow it through no matter who asked or why.” Despite being paid “a lot more than £10” and the overtly commercial sentiments – “Lick! Frozen yoghurt, affordable prices / Lick! Frozen yoghurt, much better than ice-cream!” – he’s adamant it was for the right reasons and his conscious is clear.
“Is it possible to ‘sell out’ anymore? Yes completely, but when the goalposts have moved so dramatically and some bands and artists entire being is a fucking sell-out, then I don't think anyone would begrudge us our music being used on an advert, so long as it's not McDonalds or Nike or Catholicism. I suppose you just have to do what's right by you. There’s no hard or fast rules; art can be commercial, but it can be used out of context and remain pure. We could talk about this all day; your example of a realist might be my example of a sell-out and vice versa. It's all ‘nature of art’ stuff, and I don't think I'll ever be done formulating an opinion on it.”
Of course, in 2013 it’s harder than ever for bands to make ends meet, as the by now infamous, illuminating New Yorker piece regarding Grizzly Bear’s struggles so eloquently illustrated. Music, it seems, is fast losing the ability to be a viable career choice, not least for up and coming bands, trying to reach for the stars. Mazes have personal experience of allegedly “prestigious” support slots not living up to their promise, and Cooper isn’t happy with what he perceives to be penny pinching by better known peers.
'I'd name names but I've been burnt a couple of times...'
“We toured with The Cribs recently, and while we don't have too much in common musically, I think their outlook and the way they've carried themselves as a band is very admirable – and they pay support bands incredibly well. We've turned down lots of tours with big lame bands [sic] who only allocate £50 for support. I'd name names but I've been burnt a couple of times…” He declines to elaborate, but his disdain is clear. Within this new, financially sobering reality, he’s similarly dismissive of the idea that to gain recognition or a foothold in people’s ever decreasing attention spans you have to be in London.
“My advice would be that it's easier to be in a band and to manage financially anywhere but London. I moved out of personal circumstances and also because Conan and Jarin were already living here, but then they always had since the start. There’s no need to gravitate at all.” Proudly Mancunian, he’s also annoyed by lazy comparisons based on pure geography. You often get the impression that certain acts take the legacy of their city’s musical heritage too seriously, and drown under the expectation to live up to it. Manchester’s is as lauded as they come, and every few years produces a new wave of talent; alongside Mazes two years ago it was Delphic and Everything Everything, now it’s Dutch Uncles and D/R/U/G/S, but “Manchester band” is not a tag he believes in.
“I've never identified us as being from anywhere to be honest. The standard opening to any article anywhere about a band is 'Manchester three-piece' or 'London five-piece'. Who has ever read something like that and said 'Oh, I like three-piece bands, I’m gonna buy that!’ I get that it's just a thing people say, but where a band is based is as irrelevant as how many people are in it. Of course Manchester, possibly more than anywhere else, has had a disproportionate amount of great bands but they’ve all been so diverse. There isn't a ‘Manchester Sound’.”
We end up back where we started; talking about false labels, round pegs in square holes, and the press’ need to categorise and define. Mazes, like most bands, have been happy to embrace the new reality; one where DIY isn’t so much a genre or a specific aesthetic to aspire to, but simply the only way to operate. Self-recording is the new norm, and we struggle to think of any recent debuts that were conceived with the luxury of studio access. “I think you’re right, and it's as easy to make your record sound good nowadays. A lot of young people have access to a recording studio on their MacBooks or laptops, and the Internet provides an answer to every single question the recording process can throw up. We only took our album into a recording studio at the last minute because we didn't have the scientific knowledge of EQ-ing, so we needed an extra set of ears.”
Having infinite options and being able to endlessly tweak sounds without the expense of professional engineers can, however, be a double edged sword. It must work wonders for creativity, but how easy is it to resist the temptation to “borrow” or reproduce the tones and effects of what’s currently being produced? “Well, we did buy a Coppertone mic because I read an article with Unknown Mortal Orchestra and they use one, but it didn't really work out for us; it felt a bit forced.” Such undue influence, when it occurs, is seemingly far subtler than most would think. “I'd be surprised if anyone picked up on it, but the Hype Williams, Raime, and Actress albums from 2012 are all over this record. Tone wise, EQ… they were also really eye-opening as far as stereo spectrum panning is concerned. Swans as well, guitar wise. Basically, we tried to stay away from anything ‘indie rock’.”
Such a catch all, generic tag is unlikely to applied to Mazes these days and with that, he’s off; there's the small matter of moving house and upcoming tours to contend with. Live, they continue to impress, and seem perfectly happy to win over new fans one gig, one city at a time, content to simply have the opportunity to do what they love and live out their dreams. It’s not easy for any professional musician staring down the barrel of the next few, uncertain years, but something tells me that Cooper and Co. have the skill and the nous to make it work on their own terms; at the very least, they’re making decent headway in stormy seas, and you can’t ask for more than that.
Mazes' new album 'Ores & Minerals' is out now via FatCat Records.
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