Thursday, September 4, 2008

Interview: James McAnally of The Mirror Stage

Reggie's is celebrating its one year anniversary on Monday, September 8th with a night of music. One of the bands on the bill is the Mirror Stage who are currently making waves out of St. Louis. I caught up with lead singer James McAnally and picked his brain on their new EP Ten Thousand Tongues, and the pennant race as the baseball season winds down. (When I originally asked him these questions, the Cardinals were much closer in the wildcard standings than they are today.)

nql: Your band name tells me you guys are big fans of Jacques Lacan. On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate his contributions to French philosophy and clinical psychoanalysis, respectively? (10 being huge; 1..not so impressed).

James McAnally: He gets a 7, with a few points docked for the fact that he’s incredibly difficult for the average person to read. If I didn’t have a professor explain his theories first, I’m sure I would have never delved into his work. When even the Wikipedia is difficult to get through, you have a syntax problem.

I think the idea of “the mirror stage” is one we use as much poetically as we do the psychoanalytic source. The idea of a child seeing its image in the mirror and developing a sense that it is imperfect, but there is an image in its mind perfected became something larger for us than Lacan perhaps intended. We see it playing out in our relation to film and photography creating our sense of ourselves and our sense of the world around us; the idea as performers changing on stage; the way we move through life immersed in an active visual landscape of advertisement and media. These are the ways in which our consciousness is created today, so it bears some relation to Lacan’s original concept. We play with the idea often in our live show, at times using closed-caption video cameras to tape the audience live and play their image back to them as a way to draw those connections visually.

nql: Ten Thousand Tongues has a pretty heavy and intense sound. Could you share some war-stories from the recording studio?

JM: We treat the studio as another instrument. Not so much war stories as it is a playground. On the album, you can hear doors opening with bells on them in “Ten Thousand Tongues,” or four unmetered tambourine parts in “Electrical Storm.” Our producer, Brad Booker (, was always the cautionary figure saying we were ruining good pop songs with samples and loops, but he usually agreed with us after a certain point. On first listen, most people don’t pick up on how layered every track is, but every one of the songs on the EP was approaching a hundred tracks. Even a song as simple-seeming as “Electrical Storm” has dozens of barely perceptible elements that build into a coherent “pop song.” It began with four or five Rhodes piano parts that were overlaid into one sampled part that comes off as a simple loop, but has the underlying structure of a Steve Reich song.

Brea might call “Hymn of an Amen” a war story—we were planning on having a full choral group sing the choir part, but instead put the pressure on her to do each part rather than assemble and teach the choral group everything. She and I wrote and arranged the part around 8am, went to the studio at 9, then she recorded about eight different female vocal parts by around 11. Gregg, Brad Booker and I then added the bass parts in about an hour and we had a full choir part. Brea shocked us all by laying down octave-spanning parts flawlessly in one take. She did one high part that literally had one breath for the duration. We had a harder time doing one part than she did doing eight.

nql: I feel like I hear a lot of Explosions in the Sky influence when I listen to The Mirror Stage, the music is very grandiose. But at the same time, I would consider a song like “Body Politic” to be a pretty big lyrical triumph. Is there ever an accidental conflict between the music and lyrics? Meaning, do you ever worry the music will cause the listener to gloss over the lyrics or vice versa?

JM: Our songs so far have always started with the lyrics and music separately. I obsess over the lyrics the way that you’d imagine a composer agonizing over the instruments. Each word must carry meaning, interact with the sound, and hopefully be like anything else you’ve heard on an album. The lyrics are meant to be something a listener can spend time with and never exhaust. There are references buried incredibly deep, but hopefully they create a world for the listener that is poetic and unexpected as well.

One thing with this EP is that the songs were written very quickly. Of the five tracks, four of them were written or rewritten within about a week of recording. We had rehearsed a completely different set to record, then I wrote “Ten Thousand Tongues” and “Hymn of an Amen,” rewrote the music to “Body Politic” rewrote the lyrics to “At the Still Point of the Turning World.” Given that creative environment, we didn’t have much time to let the songs change. Since you mentioned it, “Body Politic” is the one song that I feel the music didn’t live up to the lyrics. The lyrics still completely move me when I sing them, but we’ve changed the music up consistently live trying to catch up to the power of the words. I’ve always been afraid of people listening to it like they would Coldplay. If people can listen to us with that filter on, then they’ll never understand how much depth is carried in a song like “Body Politic” that references everything from the Ella Fitzgerald song “Strange Fruit” to Bill Clinton’s questioning of the word “is” when on trial for perjury. It is littered with all of these historical and pop culture references trying to build up a litany of protest. But, at times, the song comes off too much like a Brit-pop song and that gets lost. We’re more careful now that our new songs develop an environment in which the lyrics and the music move together towards a meaning. We start with why we are writing the song, then move towards how it should sound.

nql: It seems like the music industry is constantly changing, especially in terms of distribution of music. What kind of avenues have you guys employed to try and get your music heard?

JM: We’ve always tried to be fairly experimental in our distribution. We were selling handmade copies of Ten Thousand Tongues for several months before our official release as a way to build a presence. We are a band in some ways coming out of nowhere, so we tried to be more creative. We recorded the album before ever playing a show, so it didn’t make sense to go through the traditional CD release model. We were waiting for fans and critics to catch up a bit and now it’s starting to pay off.

One thing we are getting ready to begin is a series of videos in which we will perform the new songs in interesting locations that have to do with the content of the songs. We’ve been looking at ways to begin to build anticipation for a full-length because we are really proud of the new material we’ve been working on and want to give people insight into the process as it grows. We’ve looked into jail cells, warehouses, abandoned buildings, chapels, and anywhere else that will create a meaningful context for the songs. We hope to start that in October. We’ll be posting them to our blog at over the next few months.

nql: What can you tell people about the music scene in St. Louis?

JM: The music scene is fairly diverse. Everything seems to thrive here, from rock-a-billy punk to math rock. We have some great bands making the national leap at the moment, especially Gentleman Auction House and So Many Dynamos. It has always been a bit of a locally-focused scene, with very few bands attempting to tour and promote themselves nationally. I think there is a general perception that to “make it” you have to move to a larger market. We’ve tried to short-circuit that by spending time on tour in larger markets like Chicago and New York, as well as keeping a constant rotation of cities in the surrounding area.

nql: What about those Redbirds…are they going to catch the Brewers for that wildcard spot? You realize, seeing the Cardinals in the playoffs would be every Cubs fan’s worst nightmare.

JM: I hope not…

My interest in baseball quickly dwindled after I learned I would never be as good as Andre Dawson or Ryne Sandburg.

nql: What would you say if I were to tell you I saw Ozzie Smith hit a home run in person? (This is a big deal because he only hit about 27 in his entire 18 year career.)

JM: What would you say if I were to tell you that I saw Rob Dibble hurl a cooler at the umpire when I was eight. Probably not that surprised, huh?

nql: Holy moly. Back to the music, how did you all get hooked up with Reggie’s for their one year anniversary show?

JM: We’ve been hearing great things about Reggie’s for a while, so we are really happy to be playing the anniversary show. We had been talking to Elle Diabla, one of the promoters/talent buyers for Reggie’s, about a festival called Bash on the Wabash with Murder By Death. That date didn’t eventually worked out, but she has been a great supporter of our music in the Chicago market and asked us to be a part of the anniversary show. She’s one of those people who actually put the quality of the music ahead of everything else, which is rare in this arena. We’re fortunate to have crossed paths.

Chicago’s been one of our favorite places to play. We plan on playing Chicago every couple of months once our schedule slows down a bit. The last time in town we played a Red Light Productions Showcase at Quencher’s and did an on-air performance and interview with Fearless Radio. Our supporters here in Chicago have been pretty vocal so far. We plan to be playing here about as often as we play St. Louis by the end of the year because it is such a great music scene.

nql: Is there anyone else playing on the bill that you’re looking forward to seeing?

JM: We are really excited to play with Sybris. They are one of the best bands out of Chicago right now, so we’re happy to be sharing the stage with them. It’s been a tightly-held secret that they are on the bill, but it will be a great nightcap.

nql: Driving up I-55, what will be playing in the van?

JM: The only guarantee will be Mavis Staples (of the Staples Singers), but there is usually a mix of soul, some electronic indie bands like The Notwist and M83, and more songwriter-based albums like Elliot Smith and Jens Lenkman. Our new drummer, Nate, just bought a ukulele for the road, so there may be some Kum-ba-ya sing-a-longs this time as well. Our last trip to Chicago, we didn’t have an iPod or most of our CDs, so we listened to XO 11 times and Animal Collective’s Feels about 9 times because it was all we had. We found those under the seat, which saved us from the radio.

nql: Any plans of releasing a full length soon?

JM: After our East Coast tour, we plan on coming back to St. Louis to write and record scratch tracks pretty intensively. We have about ten songs at various stages of completion. The songs are more melodic, but more challenging as well. There is much more of an old soul and gospel element that blends into larger, more complicated arrangements in a way we done much in the past. It is overall just more ambitious-songs with seven pianos and others with Taiko drumming.

If I have a title first, the rest seems to fall into place--right now we are working with the title “Trumpeter,” which relates to an idea of something being announced, some judgment or hope being called into being. We don’t work in “concept albums,” but everything we write is arranged along certain themes that create resonances over the course of an album. Ten Thousand Tongues was primarily concerned with how to speak of a world we don’t understand, whether that be responding to the over-hanging anxiety of a post-atomic environment or wading through an image-drenched world to weave together some truth. Trumpeter is more visceral and, in many ways, more relatable (which isn’t to say it isn’t as dense, unfortunately…).

nql: With all that is now at an artist’s disposal as far as DIY is concerned, I sometimes wonder why a band would even want to be on a label. As a band that is currently unsigned, what is your attitude on this issue?

JM: We’re trying to answer that one as well! What it comes down to for us is how to best have our music heard. On our own, we have toured, shot a professional music video for “Electrical Storm,” received radio play across the country and sold a fair number of CD’s. Not to mention the fact that we have handmade all of our merch (shirts, stickers, buttons…) and most of our CD’s. We aren’t a typical band in this respect. Three of the four of us run our own businesses-Brea is a highly-demanded photographer around the country; I run a nonprofit artist studio and gallery space; and Nate runs an art therapy center. We’ve put all of our profits from the band back into touring, recording, etc, so that we are essentially running a business that is currently making a profit. Our first tour was even profitable, which is unheard of. We are good at the things most bands need a label’s help with. At some point, it becomes a question of how much leverage a label will provide. If the exposure or distribution they provide outweighs the traditional costs involved, then it makes sense to sign. If not, we will continue our path. We are a career band. We try to build respect with our listeners and supporters and over time that grows and that can happen slowly or it can happen overnight. We just know this is what we should be doing. Beyond that, the business will get done.


1 comment:

Risa said...

You write very well.

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