Conversations in Text: Douglas J. McCarthy

I recently met with Douglas McCarthy, Cyrus, and Jeff. The three of them form Douglas’ new, self-titled project. You may be familiar with Douglas. He has been singing to raw industrial beats since the early ‘80’s. He sang and wrote for Nitzer Ebb, Front 242, FM Fixmer McCarthy. He was on the front line of electronic music at a time when much of that sound had yet to be categorized, or fully comprehended by the mass public. Now Douglas is back in the studio with two amazing musicians. They are writing music. They are recording. They are pressing vinyl. Here the band speaks on their process of creating art and living life.

Q: What makes this new project unique. What is it that the three of you are doing, but have never done before?

D: Play together.

Q: What does that bring to the table?

D: Its just three minds in interpretation. There really isn’t anything new. It is an interesting interpretation. It’s one that we will hear second-hand, or third-hand. Something we were influenced by. Something we heard on a film that stuck with us. We put that into a new piece of music. Something we heard 15 years ago. It’s about the individual, their experience, and their personality. No one is reinventing how to write books but they still write good books. It’s all about your personality and the essence of what you want to show of yourself.

Q: How long have you 3 known each other?

D: We met very recently.

Q: What brought you all together?

D: I don’t remember. Oh wait. Tequila. Yeah. Drinking. I was playing a show in Austin. I was on tour. It was suggested that we should meet. We met. That was about 3 and a half years ago.

J: And Cyrus and I have known each other for 17 years.

Q: The two of you can still work well together after all these years? No drama?

J: No drama.

D: That’s the essence of being a successful band. When it comes to any band or creative group, they should still be able to hang out after the drama and trauma of doing your creative process.

Q: What is, for all 3 of you, your process for making songs. Do you just jam and hit record, or is the music composed by one person?

C: For some songs, Douglas will come with a fully fleshed-out idea or else we will all be in the studio and create the music together.

D: Sometimes I’ll come here and Cyrus hasn’t slept the night before. He’ll have an amazing sound or basic idea, or bass-line, that is inspirational and by the end of the day it’s a song.

Q: Douglas, what brought you back into music? You took a little break?

D: I took a long break. I went to school in Cambridge. I started studying graphic design and realized it wasn’t fulfilling enough. I love graphic design but I needed something more. After that I started doing film. That’s when I went into the film industry. I went into the commercial film industry in London. Biggest film industry in the world. Directed a few things. Did it for experience and money. I was an assistant director and worked on various things. The way I got back into music was that I was working with John Malkovich on a short film as assistant director and Terence Fixmer contacted me because he had just done a remix of “Let Your Body Learn,” by Nitzer Ebb.

He wanted to use me on his forthcoming project. I was doing well while working with John Malkovich. I had also done some work for MTV. Things were kind of moving along and I felt like it might be fun to do music again. When I returned to London, Terence came over to show me some tracks and ideas. I listened, then said, “Yeah, I can work with that.” It took me about a year to get out to France, to his studio, and we had this idea of working on three or four songs. It was really good and really easy. I felt something that I hadn’t felt in a while. Something I hadn’t felt since I had been in the film industry. It’s something different than working on music. We spent a week in the studio and made about 12 tracks. Instead of me just making a few songs on the album we started a partnership. We started doing a new thing. I was unexpectedly dragged back into music. But for a while I was just studying film. It’s one of those things. Once you’ve put yourself through the process of making songs you can never stop. Even when I was not releasing anything I was still making music. Once you have that door open, it will remain open. It’s a mental release. It’s a psychological release. It’s an emotional release. It’s not entirely addictive but it’s a recognized form of release.  An interesting form in that it’s insular. You don’t have to actually be with anyone else to make music. You don’t have to be in a band. You don’t have to release it. It can be something that is not even heard by anyone else. But the process of actually making it makes you feel good. It’s not the process of releasing your music or playing it.  You don’t need the finished product. It’s just the process. When you start making music at an early age you teach yourself the process. It’s simply the process of sitting in your bedroom, I know it sounds very bizarre, but of pleasuring yourself with music. It never ends. When I can’t sleep at night then I can go sit in the other room with my headphones on and make music.

Q: So what do you all do when you’re not working on music? What do you do for fun on your free time? Don’t say drinking.

C: Travelling

J: I play too many video games

D: That’s a tough one. I like to go hiking. Living in LA, I know it’s cliché, but we’re surrounded by mountains and I love that.

Q: How long have you been here in LA?

D: This time, 6 years. I first moved out here in ‘91. I was out here for ten years then back to the UK, Cambridge, for school, then came out to Los Angeles permanently 6 years ago.

Q: So you guys are having a number of underground dance producers and djs, like Doc Martin and Jason Drummond aka DJ Spun, do remixes of your new album? Are you trying to reach out to the underground dance community? Is that your intended audience?

D: It’s more of the underground dance environment. I don’t know the difference between commercial and underground sometimes. Electronic dance music is mainstream right now. Hip-hop is now four on the floor at 120 bpm. It’s the conversion of everything going into, or sounding like, the same thing. My background is in hard electronic sound. I have always taken a much more aggressive approach to electronic music. For the new album, I wanted to explore not doing that, not being so full force. Not necessarily mellowing out, but to find ways to be just as dark but not openly mainstream while also creating something that is listenable. So we’re somewhere between the late night, underground, afterhours vibe mixed with the, whatever you want to call it, the goth and EBM side of things.

Q: Do you consider your music to be dark?

D: Yeah.

Q: Is that your intention?

D: I think we all find that the extraction of dark in normal conversation is quite normal. We just sit around talking about stuff. We’re not being morose. We actually find it quite funny. We talk about dark shit all the time. That’s the healthy way to be.

Q: So, you just performed at Doc Martin’s Sublevel?

D: Yes.

Q: Did the three of you perform together?

D: No. It’s probably the last time I’ll do something like that. The way it was done was that it was a dj set up. I did it years ago when Nitzer Ebb first started. We did the live p.a. thing. I think its good in some ways because you reach an audience but its not that fulfilling. From here on in it’s us playing as we intended to play. It’s us on stage being interactive, for whatever its worth.

Q: Can that be done at dance parties?

D: That’s a question that we’ll have to find out. We should be able to do it. There probably are underground dance parties that would work. They’re in their own little bubbles of existence. I’m perfectly happy seeing djs perform, but when you’re in that environment with a minimal set up it is quite difficult to recreate what you intended.

Q: How would you set up? Bring a laptop?

D: No.

C: I have mini modular rigs that I’ve been putting together. They’re based off of stuff that we used on the record. It should all fit in a suitcase.

Q: The new album is a digital recording of analog gear that is available in an analog medium: vinyl. Do you feel that recording digitally has any loss here?

D: That’s the reality of now. We are fortunate enough to put music out on vinyl. I think people have underestimated the limitations here. There’s a whole generation of kids who have never heard music how it should sound. They just listen to an mp3. There’s so much above and below the limits of the mp3. The reality is what it is. You can’t change the ease of access for mp3s. Its a reality. If people want to make the effort to listen to vinyl we want it available to them. That’s one of the reasons we are playing live. That way we aren’t endearing to the way the record is, I mean, you must be able to recognize the track, but that’s one of the reasons we want to have the live set up that we have. We are able to go off on a tangent on a live basis and we’re not stuck to a strict representation of the record because that’s not what we made. The representation of the recording as an mp3 is just a slice of sound that is near what we do in the studio.

Q: So, when you play live, do you structure the song, or do you take it as a jam?

D: It’s not structured. We know the song. It’s not like an Ableton Live structured layout of the song. It’s more like loops and playing.

J: It’s much more flexible.

Q: Will you record any of these?

D: Not the first ones.

Q: How was the song writing for this album different than previous work?

D: There are some tracks I wrote years before in which I just supplied the vocals and the melody. But for this album I did the music and laid it all out. In Nitzer Ebb there’s a certain type of style and you know you’re writing for that style of a band. This is more open to being it’s own.

Q: How long until it falls into a category?

D: It matters who is in your band. We are all open to continue to progress. We don’t want restrictions and limitations. We’ve barely just started doing this. We’re already talking about how to make the next record. It will be different than this.

Q: And you intend to keep it different?

D: To keep it fun.

Q: Would you go into making an album with a certain concept in mind?

D: I think that just by playing live we will be inspired and figure out the style for our future work. Based on using our experience and what we have at the moment, and the fact that we have this equipment, we can write on the road. When you go out touring you can come up with stuff straight away. We can have ideas at any time of the day or night and write and record. It’s the best way to make music.

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