Douglas Martin endorses most pheasants.
If you consider the minor technicality of Royal Headache’s stellar self-titled debut actually being a 2011 release (in the band’s native Australia), that makes The Mallard’s Yes on Blood 2012’s Dirty Shoes Album of the Year. One cursory listen should indicate why this was an almost laughably predictable choice: It’s belligerently noisy but full of catchy pop melody, it sounds like it was recorded in the furnace of that building Jim Jarmusch rides his bicycle in on Bored to Death, and it deftly balances the caveman stomp of garage-rock with the high-minded avant-noise underground.
If you’re no longer surprised as to why it’s my favorite album of 2012, you’ll be even less surprised to know it was released on Castle Face Records, the label which John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees helps run, which is also responsible for such contemporary garage classics as The Fresh & Onlys’ self-titled debut. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing lead Mallard Greer McGettrick (second from the left in the above photo) about her songwriting process, whether or not punk music should aim to be pretentious, the band’s highly-anticipated (by me) sophomore album, and tried to get her to nerd out over Homeland. She does not watch Homeland.
I think it’s pretty ironic that on the song “I Listen to Lyrics Last,” you sing a lyric as good as, “Treason never happens at home.” What was going through your mind when you wrote that? Have you read up on Benedict Arnold? Do you watch Homeland?
“I Often Listen to Lyrics Last, However Sometimes I Let Them Filter in a More Subconscious Way, the Way One Only Sees an Object’s Color But Not its Actuality” was entirely too long and pretentious of a title. The lyrics all stem from a paranoid night when a celebrated seismologist predicted that the Bay Area was going to have a sizable earthquake in the following two to four weeks. Laying in bed, I lucidly convinced myself that I was going to die, I laid there with my shoes on, jolting up every time the BART trains passed and shook my house. I eventually went for a walk, calmed the fuck down and wrote out how I felt in the most minimal way. “Treason never happens at home” is more about the premonition of home; weather it’s actually a safe place or just a room where you keep your things. The earthquake paranoia is under control.
What are your lyrical influences? I’m talking from anywhere: Musicians, books, movies, the way raindrops hang on bare tree branches, etc.
I’ve been getting better at this; making it more of a process and less than a stab in the dark. On Yes on Blood, I was finishing the songs with a melody in mind and then writing words I felt complimented the mood of the song. I’m very stream-of-consciousness on Yes on Blood; after the songs were demoed, I found more meaning in the words. On other songs like “Vines,” I purposefully tried to distance myself from analyzing the words I chose until after the record was finished. I think that distance gave me a bit more freedom to not worry about meaning as much as feeling. So, that doesn’t really answer your question, what are my lyrical influences.
Where did the idea to use both “boy” and “girl” as self-identifying pronouns in “Mansion” come from? I think songwriters who truly don’t give a fuck about gender pronouns are the most interesting, because it’s a device that could really take a song anywhere.
There’s no real rhyme or reason, I wanted “Mansion” to feel like it was about anyone’s childhood, not just mine. I was a tomboy growing up, I didn’t really feel like I was much of a girl, I still don’t.
Were you surprised by the initial reaction to the record? Were you even more surprised later on in the year, when people started paying attention to it and going crazy over it?
I made sure I had no expectations of how Yes on Blood was going to be received. That’s not true. I made sure I set no expectations of how people I didn’t know were going to think of it,. I wanted to make sure I was happy with it before I let people I respect listen to it, everything after that was icing. But by the time it was tracked, I was knew it was a good record that I’d be proud of. I feel like by the time Yes on Blood came out in February, besides promoting it, it was out of my hands. By the summer I felt like the band had changed and was less influenced by garage. It’s started evolving into something else. (What [it was evolving into] I’m not sure, in fact as long as it continues to evolve I’ll be happy.)
What do you think of when you sit down to write a song? I know you’re fans of contemporaries Royal Baths, Thee Oh Sees, and Sic Alps, but is it ever deeper than that? Do you ever think, “Hey, I’m going to write a song that sounds like a train de-railroading off a track?”
I’m often playing with riffs until something sticks; sometimes on guitar, sometimes on bass, sometimes on drums. I record it on my four track, and then I open the bag of tricks and find another part that goes with it. A melody might develop, [or] a counter melody… I demo it and depending on if it needs it, I show it to the band and we mess around with it live. If I can develop it into a song– great. If not, I save it for another day or another part of a different song. [In the] worst-case scenario, I work it and rework it to death. I’ve killed so many riffs/half-songs. I have graveyards worth of dead riffs locked away on cassette tapes. I also play along with a lot of albums on bass, I think it’s an incredibly centering way to appreciate an album; critically unlocking what a band is attempting. I imagine them writing it, recording it and performing. It really helps me to write.
You’re pretty much finished with the next album, right? What’s it sound like? When’s it coming out? Is Castle Face going to be releasing it?
We’re about 90% done tracking. We tracked at Shark Bite in Oakland. Rob Jackson, our engineer, is co-producing it. He completely understands the sound I’m going for and is incredibly easy to work with. We’ve worked on it for a mere four days, [with] really efficient and focused sessions. Given this is the third time I’ve attempted to record this album, it’s seem effortless. It’s more post-punk, lyrically it’s far more personal and darker, I put a lot more of myself into the lyrics and vocal delivery. I’m learning how to deliver vocals that can translate the meaning I intend. The production is cleaner, in comparison to how lo-fi Yes on Blood is, but it doesn’t sound “clean” per se, it has a lot of grit to it. Mixing should be a lot of fun. I’m really happy with a few songs, a few turned out better that I could have hoped. It doesn’t sound like Yes on Blood, but it sounds like The Mallard. It’s hard to say when it will come out. It’s always later than expected: Spring of 2013? Is it coming out on Castle Face? Yes. I didn’t see a reason to go with anyone else.
Do you have a title for the new record? Is it going to be as noisy and off-the-rails as Yes on Blood to a degree?
There’s no title yet, [but] we’re working on the artwork. I’m enjoying it. [It will be noisy, but] I’m hoping it doesn’t come off as pretentious.
Personally, I’m hoping it does come off as pretentious. I think people are too ingrained in the mentality that punk is “low art,” and I love it when artists challenge that conception. Have you heard Women’s Public Strain? Not only is it my favorite record of the decade so far, but it’s totally the record of a garage band that takes themselves way too seriously. I love that concept because it betrays the notion of the “good times and getting fucking sloshed” edict of garage but it also has many layers (including those beholden to a sense of humor) that don’t show themselves on the first, second, or even third listens. It’s thematically and musically layered as fuck. It’s the first record since maybe [Sonic Youth’s] Sister that shows garage and/or punk as a “high-minded” genre.
I haven’t heard that Women album, but I will give it a listen, I remember really liked their debut and was really sad when I heard their guitarist passed.
What is the Platonic Ideal for success as far as your band goes? Would you rather be a Henry Rollins, who can write books and host radio shows and go on spoken word tours, or maybe a Kate Bush, where you could be primarily recognized as a musician until you can retire?
I think “what is ideal success” is a dangerous question. There are too many variables that surround the popularity of a band or artist that one can’t control. At the end of the day you really don’t have that much control over anything except yourself and the reason you’re playing music, and hopefully it’s because you love it and you wouldn’t want to do anything else. (How’s that for pretentious?) So I have no idea what I want my ideal success to be, I’d like to respect what I’m doing now, when I look back at my life. I enjoy touring, seeing new places, meeting some really incredibly creative musicians and artists, making friends in the process, and of course honing a craft and passion that I know I have a lot to learn about. I’d love to continue this until it ceases to be a passion. I can’t compare a prospective future success to the notion of celebrity. I will say that I do absolutely know how fortunate we’ve been hence far, Thee Oh Sees have been so kind, we live in a great city for creating art and music, and have made some great friends that make up a really supportive community.