Interview: Greatest Hits
"Being catchy is the most experimental thing we can do" Brooklyn meta-pop duo aim high
Words Alex Denney
Zak Mering and Tyler Thacker are a pair of American hipsters exiled in Paris till September, possibly for sending up the local neighbourhood so neatly with their song ‘L-Train Girl’. Consider it this year’s ‘Living In America’, if you will, only even narrower in scope — whereas DOM took the banality of US bohemian irony at large as its lyrical theme, ‘L-Train’ keeps it specific by serenading a hottie taking the subway line that ferries people over from Manhattan to the trendier locales of the duo’s resident Brooklyn. As part of a recent EP, ‘Girl Crazy’, whose lurid lo-fi funk brought to mind early Prince, steaming manhole covers and bad eighties lingerie, it’s a fine and freaky introduction to a band who’ve gone from bizarro roots to meta-pop concern with designs on a much wider audience.
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Hi Zak, I hear you’re out recording your album in Paris at the moment, how’s that going?
ZM: It’s going great, we have all the songs written and demoed out it’s just a matter of putting together all the finishing touches.
Your songwriting process strikes me as interesting in the you take a lot of old and unfinished demoes and stitch them together…
ZM: Yeah, we like to call it the idea graveyard. It’s just we both record so much music we have literally thousands of recordings from the past ten years, so we started by taking material that we just didn’t know what to do with and tried to turn it into songs with heavy industrial and electronic influences, and also some psychedelic stuff in there too. And then recently since we moved to NYC it’s been more about funk music and really trying to make in our eyes a pop record. So it’s been a dramatic shift.
ZM: Just because I think we did so much experimental sounding music and we felt like it would be the next challenge to take it to a more palatable place, just to get more exposure so people would listen to it, and then hopefully people will get into our original material which was pretty dark, twisted stuff.
Is that simply an economical approach to songwriting or is it more a conceptual thing?
Yeah it was deliberate, I think we used the word ‘Frankenstein’ a lot in reference to what we were doing, which was really just taking demos that we had the stems for and replacing parts. But Tyler’s a master at that, he’ll produce it and spend a lot of time on a track getting it just right, whereas I’d rather work a song for a day two, it’s more of an improvisational thing.
What kind of a reaction did you hope ‘L-Train Girl’ would provoke?
ZM: It’s the second song I wrote when I moved to Bushwick in Brooklyn, it’s kind of a commentary on just travelling, I wanted to make a song that a lot of people who ride that train could maybe relate to. Social politics, I guess I’d call it.
Are you one of those self-hating hipsters, Zak?
ZM: Not really, I mean we participate in it to a certain extent… I think so many [Brooklyn bands] are very passive, just very willing to listen to whatever, create whatever, and I think now a lot of people have done their homework, it’s more about having the correct influences and where your heading to, and execution’s the second half of that, like how you’re gonna produce a song who you’re gonna work with and your diligence in doing so. I don’t think there’s a lotta good stuff out there but there are definitely a few gems we’ve tried to gravitate towards. Like my friend’s band Punks on Mars, it was formerly Luke Perry, he initially played guitar at the first few shows. But ‘hipster’ has been thrown around so much as a word I feel it doesn’t really mean anything now, you know, it’s just a generalisation.
Why should anyone outside of these funny little enclaves care about a song like that?
ZM: Well for some people it’s a chance to see the sights and sounds we’d experience in Brooklyn, we’re just shedding a little light on that. But that song is right on the border in some ways, like ‘is it a satire or isn’t it?’, that’s for you to decide in a way. It depends on who’s listening to it.
Could you tell us a bit about your interest in Dada and Fluxus? Both those ‘movements’ were drawn to the more shocking aspects of performative art, have you come up with anything special for your own shows?
ZM: It varies from show to show, but at our first London show I was actually denied by the UK Border Agency, I didn’t have my return ticket on me because my label had it. Anyway they were giving me a really hard time, they wouldn’t let me in because I didn’t have a ban deposit that showed how much money I had. So Tyler ended up doing the show and I Skyped my set from the room I was staying in, which was like a next-level thing for us, it was like a cyberpunk set in a way. Do you wanna speak to Tyler?
Yeah, sure… Hello, Tyler! I’ve just been hearing about Zak’s no-show in London.
TT: That was beautiful, the way that worked out was just beautiful. During the performances a lot of people were really focusing on the computer screen and watching Zak’s performance, which I thought was very telling about the way people perceive live experiences versus virtual experience.
Would you call that a ‘disturbing turn of events’?
TT: Well I use a computer on a daily basis and I think any negativity or criticism that I could articulate about what it’s done to the culture or the way that people value real life experience, art and things like that would… It’s just what it is, it’s not going anywhere. But it was just beautiful the way we could put on this performance where Zak was very much there.
When we started making music we never intended to be a band or play live shows, it started off as an outlet for not just Zak and I but also a lot of our musician friends from Los Angeles to New York, they would submit their material and we would ‘Frankenstein’ it together, and our original approach to doing that was transforming everyone’s ideas for the trashcan into something more palatable and then making videos. And for the first year we were living in New York just getting our names out there, it was done solely through the internet. We played maybe two, three shows — it was this idea of exploiting ourselves through lo-fi which has since then become a bit of a fad, when for us it was really just a way of documenting a derelict lifestyle with whatever we had around to use, it’s like postmodernism where the medium becomes more important than the message. And the medium was the internet and the computer. So we really embraced that. But coming to Europe has been a beautiful opportunity to actually engage with people and real life a little bit more, and blend the line between reality and virtual reality, and that’s a territory that we will continue to run with.
How’s the album shaping up?
TT: We want to make a pop record, a record for people who don’t necessarily listen to a lot of music can appreciate and enjoy. We just feel like being catchy is in many ways the most experimental thing we can possibly do right now. So we’re focusing our efforts on that.
Will it still be weird?
TT: I don’t think we could whittle that out, even with all the studio trickery in the world. But that’s really not the goal of the project we really wanna stay true to this idea of pastiche, sampling yourself and treating everything you do like someone else did it. And likewise anything that someone else does like you did it. I think that’s what the whole cyberculture is about in a way.