Interview: Mark Stoermer

mark stoermerIt’s truly been a stand-out year for stunning solo albums from members of big established bands. One of the main highlights was the surreal psychedelic soundscapes and theatrical lyricism of Filthy Apes and Lions from The Killers bassist Mark Stoermer. Creating colourful worlds and spinning sinister stories, it was one of the most surprising releases of the year. Belwood Music was lucky enough to catch up with Mark over the phone and ask a few quick questions about his new solo record, as well as talk about The Killer’s new album Wonderful Wonderful:

Thank you so much for talking to me! How are you? Are you getting into the holiday spirit?
I guess, I’m getting there but it’s a little early still. How are you?

I’m good thanks. I wanted to talk about your new album Filthy Apes and Lions. It explores a more psychedelic sound compared to some of your previous work, what drew you to that style?
I guess it reflects a lot of stuff that I grew up listening to. I grew up listening to a lot of 60s/70s rock, from the Beatles to Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, even some more underground stuff like Captain Beefheart in my teenage years. When I play guitar that was more my style and when I write on my own I tend to mostly write on the guitar.

If this is the kind of style that you grew up on, why are you only now starting to explore it in your solo work?
I never really wrote songs completely on my own. Like I’d offer up musical ideas, riffs or chord progressions, but I’ve always been a part of bands, not writing the full package but contributing as an arranger. But now when I get down to it and try to write entire songs by myself, I guess this is what’s been coming out.

Is it a style that you see yourself settling into and continuing with, or do you plan on moving on and maybe trying something different in the future?
Maybe, we’ll see. If I write more albums in the future… I dunno, I like a lot of different kinds of music and this is what I came up with at this time when I was focussed on writing on the guitar, but I won’t necessarily always do that. I’ve occasionally experimented doing things a bit more electronic, and using piano and synthesisers as well, so we’ll just have to see.

Talking about the instrumental side of things, there’s one track in particular that really appeals to me in that respect, ‘Muju’s Revenge’. With lengthy instrumental tracks like that in general I always wonder how much of the song was planned and how much was based on improv?
A good deal of that was improv. I’ve always been into stuff like Mahavishnu Orchestra and late 60s/early 70s Miles Davis, like the albums Bitches Brew and Live-Evil. I’m not claiming to be on that level of virtuosity, or some kind of jazz musician, but in a way I always wanted to explore what it would be like to have a musical theme and just get a bunch of guys to improv, and that was me and David Hopkins and the drummer we had, John Wackerman, did. That was an impromptu jam session that we had at the end of a recording session one night, probably 1am, and I said “why don’t we try this thing, no click tracks? I have this melody and we’re gonna jam and see what happens.” We did 3 core takes and then I took those into the studio to do some editing, overdubbed the bass, chopped up some bits together and made what you have there, it wasn’t done to a grid or plan.

Did you have any lyrics in mind for it at any point or did you always intend to keep it as an instrumental?
It was always intended as an instrumental, whether or not it was gonna go on the album was another thing. I was toying with the idea of doing an album or EP all instrumental, but once it was done I didn’t wanna sit on it forever. I had the rest of the Filthy Apes and Lions record, but I wasn’t positive it was gonna make the record, I thought it might be for another project, but I ended up putting it all together.

For what it’s worth I’m glad you did! Moving onto lyrics for a moment, there is a lot of surreal world building and character building on the album, what sort of frame of mind did you find yourself in while writing them?
It depends from song to song. I’m still fairly new to lyric writing, I didn’t really pick it up until my early 30s, so I’ve been experimenting with different ways of writing. ‘Filthy Apes and Lions’ was a combination of writing from the title; I had the title from a different song, I sang it as a line in ‘Beautiful Deformities’, and I wanted to reuse that phrase. I took that phrase and did an automatic writing exercise, kinda stream of consciousness, just see what came out. I refined it a bit but essentially I didn’t know where that was going. It became this kind of apocalyptic vision of animals in a zoo, but it’s intentionally very vague and just playing with imagery. Another song though, ‘The Perennial Legend of Dr. Mabuse’ was based off a Fritz Lang film. I was watching a lot of silent films from the 20s and after seeing Dr Mabuse the Gambler I had this idea of doing some kinda quasi-German expressionist mini rock opera, so for that song the lyrics are very intentional to tell a story.

I’m very drawn to theatrical, character driven songs, so that was certainly one of my highlights of the album. It strikes me though as quite an obscure reference, what about that film inspired you to write a song about it?
I’m into a lot of films and the history of film and I usually find myself going back to the so-called classics. Something about that film was just getting stuck in my head, just the vibe of it. I found a clip on YouTube of Leonard Bernstein teaching music theory and in that he goes on about Schoenberg and expressionism in music at that time. I was also watching Dr Mabuse the Gambler which is like a 5 hour film that I watched over a week in pieces, and so in my head those two things went together; the German expressionist music and this film from the same era. Then I came up with this dissonant riff that was kinda my way of alluding to that style, and I had a few ideas of lyrics for the chorus, and then I wanted to write a whole story about that.

On that track, and several others on the album, it sets quite a dark tone. The claymation music video for the title track really takes it a step further. It’s quite dark and gory, and not at all what you’d expect from that kind of art style. What gave rise to that idea?
In the lyrics there’s quite an apocalyptic feel to it anyway, but at the same time there’s a kind of nursery rhyme, child-like quality to the song as well, and I think the claymation video juxtaposes those two things in a similar way to how the song does. Innocence and playfulness, mixed with those dark, violent themes as well. For me it creates a dreamlike, dark vision, but it’s still playful at the same time.

You had all these ideas floating around, but you worked on this album at the same you were working on Wonderful Wonderful for The Killers. Were there any conflicts that arose from that?
Over a year ago I stopped touring with The Killers, and even when Wonderful Wonderful was being made they were off doing like 35 shows, so there was a lot of breaks and I would do my album in those breaks. I did two albums really in the breaks, as Wonderful Wonderful took two years. When I stopped touring with The Killers I would still go into the studio with them, and then when they were off playing shows I’d use the studio to record my album. I had intended to release my album ahead of Wonderful Wonderful, I finished it in February or March, but because the engineer I use is one of the main engineers for The Killers we weren’t able to mix and master it. Then it got put off, and I didn’t want to release it at exactly the same time even though they’re completely different worlds. I was getting into doing too many different things at once and if I had it my way I would have put it out even earlier, but this is how it turned out. But as far as conflicting with making the album, not really.

Were you tempted to introduce some of your solo ideas, perhaps musically more so than lyrically, into Wonderful Wonderful, or do you prefer having two distinct creative outlets?
I just don’t think it works, and when you say musically not lyrically, that kinda gets to the crux of the matter. As a band none of the other members have presented lyrics before, and all of my musical ideas were attached to lyrical ideas. I tend often to write lyrics first, I have a lyric in mind and then write the music, and so for me all of this music is connected to lyrical ideas. At this stage with the band I wouldn’t try and rock the boat and change the way we do things, It’s intended to be a different outlet so that I can do something different; write lyrics, play more guitar, etc.

Fair enough, I can respect that. I’ve been reading some interviews with Brandon and he talks about Wonderful Wonderful being a step up from Battle Born, and about not being happy with that album and wanting to do better. Is that feeling mutual?
Yeah, I think we all agreed with that when we began, but then when you have a band it gets complicated as to what is “better”. You sometimes have issues with coming together on the same page, but I guess that’s a band. We all agreed in principle though that we could do better.

You said that you’re not currently touring with the band, that’s perfectly understandable as there’s a lot of pressures and problems that come with that, but is there any part of life on tour that you miss?
Not at the moment, no. I mean I liked the shows, and I’m grateful for being able to see the world and everything, but I’m taking a break for a reason. I feel like it’s the best thing for me personally at this time.
Well, after years of great music you’re certainly entitled to a break!

Massive thanks to Mark for his time and for all the great music. Filthy Apes and Lions and Wonderful Wonderful are both out now and come highly recommended.