steve mack interview
(June 1998)

Steve Mack was, for younger readers, lead singer in That Petrol Emotion, who themselves were formed from the ashes of the Undertones. TPE were big favourites with journalists and dj's though they never cracked the top 40. 4 years after The Petrols, Steve's new band Marfa Lights (known as Anodyne in the States) have a new lp out in the UK this summer. Stuart tracked him down just after "Tensor" was released in the USA.

That Petrol Emotion split up in 1994 and you went back to Seattle, why?
Well, we had been together for 9 years, I'd been over there---the UK---for a complete decade---you have to put it into perspective, I'd just gone over there for a year off to get away from it all and the whole TPE thing was a Cinderella story. Basically what happened was that the group broke up because we'd gone our separate ways and certain people didn't want to carry on the group, though I wasn't one of them, I was quite happy with what we here doing---and I found myself in the streets of London and I realised that I didn't have the band any more, and no way of making money---and it just seemed it was the right time for a change. And I had been seeing a woman back in Seattle and I thought "I have a beautiful woman waiting in Seattle, or I can stay here in this cynical town and I thought "bag it, I'm going back to Seattle"

So what happened to the rest of the guys?
Well, it's interesting because when the band first broke up everyone said "I'll get away from music for a while" but when we did our last 2 gigs in London and Ireland everyone thought "God, what have I done, why have we broken up?" but by that point everyone had made commitments in various different fields---I had started writing with someone back here, Damien and Raymond started writing together---they called up our last bass player Brendan Kelly and the 3 of them started playing out as the Wavewalkers for about six months or so, really nice stuff but they didn't get any encouragement and no-one really took then on, Damien got frustrated, and said "look guys this is getting nowhere fast, I want to get to my own stuff", so now he's writing his own stuff, sort of instrumental... I can't believe I managed to turn Damien into a programmer, he couldn't even look at a computer without breaking into a sweat, now he's programming this really cool stuff---ambient, drum'n'bass, a little bit of trip-hop mixed in there, we still keep in touch and exchange cassettes. Raymond is still working on songs and recently went over to Ireland to mix some material with an old friend of the Petrols. Large soundscapes with Raymond's near trademark poetic, melancholy melodies. Very nice. Last but not least Ciaran is now working at the BBC, he's in the Publishing Division, and we now keep touch over the internet. Ciaran emailed me and told me he had over 40 new songs and was thinking about going out and doing the singer-songwriter thing. These days he's listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell. If I know Ciaran like I think I do, there are some absolute gems awaiting us. Now if he'd only give them to me and let me be the wandering minstrel...

Is Marfa Lights/Anodyne like a sideline to your own computer day-job?
Well, I'd like to think that Anodyne is my job and this computer thing just keeps me out of trouble during the day. We're all still working, unfortunately. Like lots of artists/musicians here in Seattle, we work for various software companies, milking our local millionaires of their hard earned stock dividends. I still work at RealNetworks, where we stream audio/video/animation/whatever on the Internet. It's a job that I fell into by chance three years ago, and now I'm some sort of hot shit manager guy. I fly around broadcasting music conferences like South by Southwest and also get to tell people about our technology and evangelize media on the Internet in general. Not quite as much fun as touring, but hey, it pays the rent.

Do you now consider Seattle to be truly home or are you still acclimatising?
The transition has been difficult. Seattle has changed immensely in the last decade but it still isn't London. And going from being an active, touring musician to groveling for an opening slot at the local venues can be very demoralizing. But after four years back, it is beginning to feel like home. Seattle is incredibly beautiful and a wonderful place to live. Would I trade it in to be in a successful band in Europe? You bet! In a heartbeat! But would I move back to London to live in hopes of *maybe* getting a band together and *maybe* getting a gig at the local pub? Never.

So how did Anodyne get together?
It was kind of fate---here I was coming back to Seattle to be with this woman, of course as soon as I got back it immediately crashed and burned. And in the meantime the same month TPE broke up a band over called Hammerbox also broke up, and come the end of January 1994 I'm moping round my studio---"Oh God what am I going to do?" and this letter came and it was just this huge scrawl on the paper "Come home let's jam---Harris" and it came at the perfect time as I was feeling quite down about music in general and it was nice that someone somewhere in the world still wanted to make music with me. It was literally the first day I was back and he put this cassette in my hand and "here, listen to this, tell me what you think" and I said "yes, oh yeah yeah I'll listen to it", and it was actually bloody good stuff and I thought "alright here we go again" and we started writing. Unfortunately I was commuting backwards and forwards between London and Seattle because I still had a recording studio in London, and I hoped to keep that open and running just to give me an excuse to go back and forth but running it long distance proved to be a bit too much. So I eventually folded it and moved back to Seattle in April 1995 and that was when I came full time into Anodyne and found ourselves a rhythm section and we've been together ever since.

The lp's been a long time in the making since your single---was it difficult getting it recorded/getting signed up or getting the finance together?
It was an abysmal time to have a band here in the States, the industry was collapsing in on itself like the proverbial Death Star.

Did the grunge thing dying cause that then?
The stupidity of the A&R departments was coming home to roost then because after Nirvana they would go out and sign any 4 guys with goatees and guitars and most of those as we know didn't sell records and didn't deserve to have contracts and consequently record companies for the first time in 10 years in 1996 saw almost no growth or profits, so they just dropping bands left and right and they decided 5 years too late to sign anyone with a sequencer thinking that they'd sell as many records as Nine Inch Nails. So for a jump and down guitar pop band it wasn't too good, but we continued what we were doing because it made up happy.

So how did it take so long to get this record out?
Since none of us really had any money, we were holding out in vain for someone to ride in on a white horse and drop a load of cash on us, or at least enough to record the damn thing. We played a West Coast tour which ended up at South by Southwest in the Spring of 1997, and though many label execs told us they "loved us" no cash was forthcoming. We finally decided to do it ourselves, that waiting around was getting us nowhere. Once that decision was made, we shopped around Seattle studios trying to get the best deal, and began recording in May. Then we took some time off during the summer to save up some more money and finished the mix in August. Then we had to save up the money for the pressing, so by the time it was pressed up, it didn't make sense to release it until 1998, which we did in January. Independent, our Irish label, had agreed by that point to release it over there but by the time we agreed on the new name, redid the artwork, etc., the release date had to be pushed to mid-July. So here it is at long last.

Your own musical background is pretty much UK-oriented, are you finding now that working with your fellow Americans again that your music is changing---a Britpop vs post-grunge battle in the rehearsal rooms?
My writing is pretty much like it always has been, but after being in the Petrols for ten years it's just much better. I've always been a fan of pop music and good choruses, now I can write 'em. Or so I'd like to think. It's fun being in a band with Americans who don't think 'rock' is a dirty word! It was always a fine line with TPE. Then again, since I'm the oldest I sometimes find it frustrating that we don't share the same musical heritage. For the most part, when I introduce them into yet another band that I deem 'classic', they understand and really dig it. The best part about it is that the writing is much more collaborative than it ever was in TPE and the writing environment is so much more positive. I wouldn't trade the TPE years for anything, but sometimes the rehearsal room tensions were unbearable. With Marfa Lights we try to keep that in check. A lot of it, I'm sure, is that we're not 21 anymore. And I'm not in a band with four Derrymen!

Like I say, the 'sound' of Marfa Lights is quite British, not grungey, it brings up thoughts of the Manics et al because of the fact that it's crafted songs, do you think that would give you more chance of success in the UK than the USA?
You know I dunno, there's bound to be a British sound, I studied under the masters---John O'Neill, Ciaran McLaughlan, Raymond Gorman and these guys taught me what a crafted song was and to be honest when I first got over there I liked pop but didn't understand it as an 'art form'---ok, that's too far too important a term to give it, but I didn't really understand how they really worked and those people showed me how you really go about writing a song. I just sort of absorbed that by osmosis and I still have that love of the British attitude towards pop songs---I've always been the hugest Beatles fan. The interesting thing is that in TPE I didn't write the songs, so this is like I'm 17 again, like I'm rediscovering my fretboard and getting all the things which have been in my head for years out in a format where I can sing them.

So, do you find time to keep up with what's happening?
There is a great local college radio station here that keeps fairly good tabs on what is going on around the world. To be honest, I don't rate a lot of what is supposed to be hot shit at the moment. I find myself increasingly drawn back to my record collection. Am I getting old? Perhaps. But then you find a pearl atop the current dung heap of releases. I love Neutral Milk Hotel. There's a great band called A Don Piper Situation whose debut is coming out this fall. The last Jayhawks record was superb. So far I'm digging what I've heard of the new Cornelius record. The new Firewater record is great.

How do the UK and US 'scenes' compare at the moment?
I don't keep track of the British scene in particular---most of what I hear coming across the water isn't anything that makes me sit up and take notice. Except for Gold Blade---they rock! I'm sure there's some great stuff, but these days you have to look a lot harder to find the gems, and to be honest I don't have the time. I'm trying to write songs, and when you write at the snail's pace that I do, you need all the time you can get.

Are you struggling at all to market your, as I've said, British-tinged (if you don't mind my saying so) stuff to a cynical American audience who are reared on American music and believe it's best? Or can you tap into the underground of US indie kids who 10 years ago would have been listening to the Petrols and now are into, well, who knows what?
Unfortunately, we're not actively trying to market the record at all. We simply don't have the time or the money. The main reason behind what we do is that we like doing it. We'd love to be paid to do it, but we're wise enough to know the chances of that happening are mighty slim. The current trends here in the US more or less preclude what we're doing, and we don't have the time or money to go on tour for 18 months to convince the kids otherwise. So we'll just keep making records that we like, selling them to the folks who somehow find out about us.

How about a UK tour?
I'd love to get over there and see what the Petrols fans think what my new venture is like and get some criticism. That's the funny thing, I know they'll come the first time out of morbid curiosity, but will they come back the second time, that's what I wanna know. We're hoping there's enough interest in the record to come over and play a handful of dates over there in the fall. We're fairly certain we could play London and Dublin, but other than that, we'd have to see. We've made a hilarious video for "Infatuated" that must may get some airplay---so we'll see what happens.

So why are you confusing us with the name Marfa Lights here and Anodyne in the US?
We had to change the name because there is already an Anodyne releasing records from Ireland. He's a young kid who apparently makes crazy techno records, though I haven't heard them.

What's the new name all about?
Well, Marfa Lights are glowing orbs of light that appear in the sky over the town of Marfa, Texas. Still unexplained to this day...

Seattle's answer to the Foo Fighters release "Tensor" in the UK and Ireland in June, on Independent Records of Ireland, through Shellshock in the UK.

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