The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts November 4, 2005

Up close to Mae Shi’s Byron

Tim Byron is the bassist for Mae Shi, a band of four young men from Los Angeles.

Jon Pfeffer: Let’s start with the bland, prerequisite interview questions: How are you, Tim? Where are you from? Who or what inspired you to pick up a bass? How did the band get together?
Tim Byron: It’s these formal, polite questions that take the most time. I’m fine. Like most people, I’m a little worried about money, I’m concerned about how we’re going to do on this upcoming tour with gas costing so much, I’m sort of getting ready to be away from my girlfriend for five weeks, I’m trying to get health insurance...oh wait, did you ask me just as a formality? I’m doing fine.

I was inspired to pick up a bass by the Mae Shi. Previously I had played guitar. I played okay, I guess, but didn’t add much to the form. Certain sounds come out of guitars. Pentatonic rock. Wailing. I had made those sounds for a while and had sort of gotten burnt out by them.

Bass is an interesting choice for me. Maybe it’s because I’m white or something, but I didn’t even know the bass guitar existed until I was 12 or so. You listen to Poison or Def Leppard or Whitesnake and try to pick out the bass. It’s hard. When I heard it later —in the Beatles or Led Zeppelin or jazz or funk — it always sounded sort of show-offy. Never had much resonance for me. Maybe this changed with the Pixies?

Maybe it was later than that, like Don Cabellero or something. In any rate, I switched to bass when Jeff [Byron] came back from college to play guitar and the Mae Shi needed a bassist. Jeff is a way better guitarist, much more confident and everything, so I became the bass player. Since then I’ve gotten really into it, though. I still don’t have the best time or anything but I’m really into the sounds the bass makes, I’m really into that frequency these days.

JP: Could you tell me about the sort of experimental L.A. rock scene that seems to have sprung up over the last few years, centered around venues like the Smell and the Il Corral, and bands like the Mae Shi, the Pope, Upsilon Acrux, Bad Dudes, Quem Quaeritis, etc.? How did it develop? What role did the Smell play in establishing it? Does it feel like a movement at all? Is it a reaction to the fickle nature of L.A.?
TB: The Smell is a huge part of it. We’ve been asked tons of q’s about the Smell, perhaps justifiably, but here goes. The thing that makes it special is that everyone that starts going to Smell shows ends up starting a band, and ends up playing at the Smell. No barrier between performer and audience except the barrier you put up yourself. So I was a nerdy post-college kid with an office job and a window into a lot of weird rock and roll worlds. One night it would be Lightning Bolt with Arab on Radar, the next night it would be XBXRX and Pink and Brown, the next it would be Caroliner, the next it would be Young People, the next it would be Metalux.

Yes, L.A. is a fickle place. I was talking to Slim of 5RC and he suggested maybe there’s an L.A. curse — like there are tons of great bands that are very exciting that have come from here but you don’t hear about many of them. I mean, you named a lot of bands, and that list goes back years to include Godzik Pink and Uphill Gardeners and Polar Goldie Cats and the Foxations and Man is the Bastard, but how many actually rose out of that swamp to actually get any notoriety? Very few. Even Sparks and Metallica had to leave L.A. to develop a fanbase. There is so much bullshit in L.A. and the lights are so bright that as soon as you shine the light things die. The things that end up surviving — the Doors, NWA, Black Flag — are hearty fucking animals. Daniel Johnston could not live here and thrive.

JP: What effect do you feel the city of Los Angeles has had on the Mae Shi’s approach to songwriting and the way you function as a band and as individuals?
TB: Hmmm...well, those bands I mentioned a second ago, the Doors, NWA and Black Flag, I have a lot of respect for. I love those bands, but they are sort of cockroach bands — bands that are super-resilient, hard bands that could outlive a nuclear attack. I guess in the back of my mind I have those bands. Also the “stepping-stone” bands of L.A. Oingo Boingo never paid the bills but Danny Elfman’s scoring work did. Paul Rosselear of the Screamers is now a big-shot producer and KK Null of the Screamers is now a big-shot movie guy. The idea you can have your music and keep it clean and perfect and do something else to make your money sort of is in the background.

JP: How would you describe the progress you made from To Hit Armor Class Zero to Terrorbird and from Terrorbird to Heartbeeps? How did the writing and recording process shift from release to release and what were some lessons you, personally, learned from each record?
TB: To Hit Armor Class Zero is our attempt to be Brainiac. Honestly it isn’t much more than that. No one else was trying to be Brainiac at the time — at least no one in the Smell universe — and we just wanted to fill that hole. At least I did. And Brad [Breeck] wasn’t even in the band when those songs were written.

Terrorbird is a lot bolder. It’s sort of us testing out a bunch of different theories. Like if you write a song people like, you should write a sequel to that song. If you approach making a rock record the way hip-hop people make hip-hop records, maybe it will be better. It felt very good making it.

Heartbeeps was sort of the next step. More testing of hypotheses. Like Terrorbird, it was recorded in a hurry and is at least partially influenced by deadlines — we had to get it done in time for our European tour. Little pragmatic things like that tend to motivate us. I’m very happy with how it turned out and also think it’s probably the best thing we’ve recorded so far.

JP: Could you explain the concept behind the repeating song titles and musical themes (“Vampire Beats,” and “Revelation 1-6” for instance) on Terrorbird? Is there an underlying concept that ties the record together?
TB: Like I said above, lots of just testing theories. The Revelation songs are sort of about, “If a part works well as an intro to a song, maybe it will also work well as the end of another song.” Or, “Let’s start two songs with the same part.” Yes this is terribly meta — and that’s a strike against us — I don’t want you to have to listen to us with a reader open or something. But there are definitely threads, stories we start that aren’t finished by the end of a song. The Mountain Goats had the “alpha” series — a bunch of interconnected songs about a couple having some bad times. We have “Repetition” and “Revelation.”

JP: What do you like most about touring?
TB: Getting away, learning to appreciate what I have back at home, and meeting new people.

JP: What do you like least about music industry politics, particularly within the indie world?
TB: First of all, there are a lot of much bigger problems in the world than the music industry. Yes, it’s fun to bitch about it, but I really think in five years we’ll look back on the good old quaint days when we bitched about something as benign as the music industry.

The music industry is a little like the sock industry or the potato industry. Most people don’t care about socks and potatoes and will wear or eat what’s in front of them. But even if they aren’t choosy about them, people need socks and potatoes. There’s a small little market of people really into socks and potatoes, and the same is true with music. Beyond the craftsman element (learning how to make socks really well) and the scientific element (using science to make socks really well), the real artistry in the sock industry is on the industrial side — how to cheaply deliver them to stores, how to predict how personal tastes in socks will slowly change, how to manufacture them as cheap as possible.

Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that I wish the music industry was more like the sock industry, because at least in the sock industry there are unions and standards and patents and a federal minimum wage.

There’s less mystery in the sock industry, it’s all laid out. If you have a skill, like playing guitar, and you want to apply that skill to making a marketable product within a businesslike framework, you should be able to rely on a basic level of support within the industry. I think people should be able to make a living making music. I support the ability for musicians to make a living the same way they should be able to make a living in any other industry.

But what the Mae Shi are doing doesn’t really put them in a position to benefit from “industry reform.” Music is an industry because it’s a commodity, because it serves uses, because people need music in potato chip commercials and The OC. The commercialism of music is what drives it, it’s what creates the market for low-cost digital recording equipment and cool new and cheaper musical instruments.

If the Mae Shi were making a product with some industrial value — car commercials, ringtones, album sales — I’d like to think we’d be able to rely on some support. But that’s not really what we are doing. We’re more like venture capitalists or research scientists, we’re putting things together trying to find the new thing. We’re following hunches and trying to make the music we want to listen to. And given that’s what we do, I don’t think we deserve the industrial support that, say, a pop-punk band deserves.

I’m sure this all sounds really pretentious, but it’s not. Or maybe it is. I have a lot of respect for artists who work within a genre — it’s a very noble effort. Sometimes you want to see a science fiction movie, you want to see a mystery. But that’s not what we do. There’s always been something propulsive about rock and roll, it’s had to adapt over time to keep people engaged, and we’re trying to stay on the cusp of that.

Sooner or later we’ll fall off that cusp and we’ll find ourselves in some genre, and with it maybe there will be Starbucks money or Volkswagen money or movie soundtrack money. If and when that happens, I’ll accept it fully without shame.

JP: MySpace: grassroots networking tool in a corporate conglomerate’s clothes or a monstrosity more despicable than anything you or I could ever imagine?
TB: I love MySpace, even though I’m not personally on it. It’s sad it’s owned by Fox but at its heart it’s just a chunk of code, some server space and a bunch of people that believed it was a good way to communicate. I think it’s going to be a while ’til it’s some sort of evil apparatus.

JP: How was the recent trip to Europe?
TB: Great!

JP: What’s it like being on 5RC? How do you hook up with Slim Moon?
TB: We were only an eight month-old band and we decided to do a west coast tour. My friend Conan in Replicator was giving me some contacts, he said, “Try Slim, he’s a good dude to contact about an Olympia show.” I e-mailed Slim, and he got back to me pretty quick with some contacts.

We got a show set up, and then he offered to form a band to play with us — it was the Punks’ first show. He was someone we all got along with right away, we just sort of kept in touch and exchanged mixtapes and stuff. He turned me onto Shania Twain, who in 2003 released three different versions of her record Up — a pop one, a country one and a world one — and I shared some stuff from local L.A. bands I thought were great.

When we finished Terrorbird, we sent it to him first because he said, “Let me know if you guys record anything.” A week later, I saw he was on IM and asked if he had listened to it. He said, “Not yet, but let me listen right now.”

Five minutes later he IMs, “This is good, I will put this out.” I actually fell out of my chair I was so psyched. For the first time in the history of the Internet, someone actually ROTFL’d. So far it’s been great being on the label, it’s run by good people that want to give you the power to make your own mistakes and have your own successes. It’s a great label for a hands-on band like us that do our own artwork and recording and even PR to some degree. It’s probably a bad label for someone that wants a lot of A&R help, wants a second voice on what the record title should be, wants to get into the studio with Nigel Godrich or something...but for us it’s been great.

JP: If the band were to break up tomorrow, what are some moments you’d describe as the highlights of being in the Mae Shi?
TB: Well, the band could break up tomorrow. Part of being a “collective” where we’ve established that this band is basically a self-improvement vehicle is that anyone could leave at any time, if they felt like they weren’t learning. We all have our own projects and lives and to the extent that those projects can intertwine and we can mutually benefit one another, we’ll be a band, but there’s no two-year plan, no five-year plan. We have a tour scheduled for October, a DVD comes out in April, and then we’ll just have to see. I would rather be able to plan a little further ahead with the band, but that’s not the dynamic we have.

But yes, if the band broke up tomorrow I’d be totally content with what we’ve done. Highlights: making friends in L.A. and helping grow some sort of “scene,” getting to meet people in bands like Fat Day and Racebannon and Deerhoof, bands I’ve admired for a long time, learning a bunch about the music business, getting to see the U.S. and Europe, getting to do something fun with my brother and Brad and Ezra and Corey, and successfully staving off that perpetual dread a lot of creative people feel every day.

JP: I hear you’re working on a DVD. Any details you might be able to divulge?
TB: Over 30 videos (animated, live action, even some CGI) and a 70-minute tour documentary. Plus extras. It may be the most jam-packed DVD a small band has ever put out. It’s not quite done yet, but it’s looking great. .

The Mae Shi are playing the ’Sco on Sunday, Nov. 6 with Racebannon, Big Bear and Dan Friel.


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