Pointless Prophet: An Interview With Joe McKee On The Occasion Of His New Video Premiere

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text by Summer Bowie

 

Joe McKee might have been everyone’s best friend in a past life. He’s full of charming witticisms, unexpected humor, moments of sober pontification, and there’s always a little light in his eyes that let’s you know he’s really listening. To hear him play music is a little bit like a secular religious experience. There’s no call to worship, but something about his sound is invariably transcendent. All of that thoughtful articulation in his discourse gets shrouded in a layered veil of sonic silk. It’s much like listening to a song in a language you don’t speak. You might be able to make out a word here and there, but you can never tell if your interpretation of the song is correct, or if you’ve just projected your own story onto it. McKee’s second solo album, An Australian Alien tells the true story of the artist’s journey through the loss of a best friend, the birth of a daughter, and the experience of processing a major life transition while being processed as an immigrant. Now five years an Angeleno, McKee is feeling much more at home geographically, but he’ll always be an alien of sorts: daringly vulnerable, abnormally modest (and not just for an Angeleno), and uniquely eloquent. I had the chance to ask Joe a few questions about the album and the pleasure of premiering his latest video  - and maybe, just maybe, I’ll find myself in someone’s living room some day, enjoying a private performance by the alien himself.  

SUMMER BOWIE: I want to start by talking about the title of your new album, An Australian Alien. You’ve been in LA for about 5 years now - do you still feel like an alien here in the States? Having been born in England, did you feel like an English alien in Australia? 

JOE MCKEE: I've always felt a little bit alien and I probably always will. I suppose that comes from being transplanted, as a ripe young chap, from the grey kingdom of Londonium to the outback of Australia. Everything was familiar but strangely different, like a bizarro world where Burger King is called Hungry Jacks and so on. I spoke the same language, but I was still the "other." I was probably quite self conscious of this growing up, but I learned to celebrate those subtle differences as I got older, I suppose. 

So, that 'alien' word was bandied about all over the application forms for my permanent residency to remain in the United States. An Australian Alien had a nice ring to it. It's musical, and it's playful. Prior to living in the US I was vagabonding around Europe, sleeping on peoples couches, outstaying my welcome wherever I was performing. Always a tourist, even at home. I feel like I've finally found a place to reside and plant some roots in Los Angeles. This is mainly due to becoming a surprise father here.  

BOWIE: So you’ve always felt a bit extraterrestrial? Do you still feel extra-Angeleno? 

MCKEE: Living here in LA? Somewhat, but I feel more at home here than I have for a long time. The album was written primarily during that transition period, when I was still in this state of flux. Living in-between. I'd alienated myself from my previous life by moving here, which was difficult and freeing at the same time. I could reinvent myself in a new place and shed all that old scabby skin that was weighing me down. So I think I just feel more at home in my fresh flesh-suit.

BOWIE: This album was recorded in a number of different locations, including a cargo ship sailing the Pacific, friends’ homes, and a marijuana plantation in Northern California. Have you always been very nomadic while recording, or was this choice made specifically for this album? 

MCKEE: I definitely come from nomadic stock. My family has moved countries every generation for as far back as we can trace. We're all running from something! Or seeking something perhaps. One of the lovely things about making music is that it's weightless. You can do it all inside your noggin' while you're galavanting around the globe. You can hum a melody into your phone, or you can write a lyric on a napkin. I don't have to lug a roll of canvas and my paintbrushes around to create something. 

Having said that, recording this album was a particularly scattered process. I really didn't have a community in LA when I first arrived, nor did I have a cent to my name, so I had snatch moments to write this record amongst all of the madness of becoming a father, moving to a new country, going through my Saturn's Return yada yada yada. I relied on the generosity and kindness of strangers really. People like Derek Brambles, Ethan DeLorenzo, Paz Lenchantin, Chris Nelson. Good humans, those.

BOWIE: If I’ve ever to known anyone to experience Saturn’s Return it would be you.  Do you subscribe to this theory, or have you gained any deeper perspective on the chaos of your late twenties? 

MCKEE: I think the Saturn's Return concept is a poetic way to understand any turmoil or life-shift. I think there’s probably some truth to it. I know what I went through was a mind-bending and ego-crushing experience. I was ruled by my ego in my twenties and I was increasingly dissatisfied with what was happening in my life to be honest. Things had fragmented and life seemed like a labyrinth. So the universe came along and obliterated my concept of reality. It dealt me a cataclysmic hand. My best friend passed away and I was becoming a father with a virtual stranger on the other side of the world. The only thing you can do when the universe, or God, or whomever or whatever deals you that kind of hand is to relinquish control. To let go. This was a drawn-out process, like untangling a chunky dread-lock, but eventually I freed myself from my warped concept of myself that I'd created. Like I'd birthed a brand new slippery, shiny version of myself. Being a father helps you reconnect with a clean slate, a tabula rasa! It helps you get back to this place that you were before all the conditioning and confusion. Before the ego takes hold! Then you can start anew, but with the knowledge that you've accrued along the winding way. Y'know? 

BOWIE: You delivered your best friend’s eulogy on the same day that you met your daughter, Juniper. Did you start composing the album very long after? 

MCKEE: I began writing the album prior to this actually. I wrote a song on the album that is sung from the perspective of an unborn child in his mother's womb, before knowing I was becoming a father. Some weird prophecy. I keep having these prophetic dreams that are absolutely useless to me. Pointless prophecies. I'm a pointless prophet. 

Anyway, Juniper's birth and Matt's death were interconnected. He was also becoming a father at the time of his death and he actually introduced me to the mother of my child. My psychic friend called me recently and told me that I was Matt's mother in a past life. I don't know what that means but I think I understand. 

So to answer your question, the album was written, before, during and after those events. So it tells the whole story in some warped and mangled way.

BOWIE: This is the second solo album you’ve released since parting ways with your former band, SNOWMAN. Would you say that your personal growth has been an analogue to your growth as a musician, or do you feel like music has acted as a sort of constant in life that helps you navigate the rest? 

MCKEE: That’s a good question. I suppose you might be onto something there. I suppose my music has become more like me in some sense. I’ve been following a thread for long enough that I'm in a place creatively that I don't know if anyone else is at. It's just a little nook somewhere that feels like home. Don't get me wrong, we're all just regurgitating our various influences, but at some point you get to a place where you've forgotten what they were and what you are making feels like it belongs to you and only you. I'm a less frightened and significantly happier person than I was in my SNOWMAN daze. I don't think it's a coincidence that my music has become less frightening and more colorful as time has passed.

BOWIE: Do you find the composition process to be very fluid and organic, or does it tend to be very labor-intensive?  

MCKEE: It's both really. There is fluidity in the conception of an idea, but the execution is laborious. The most enjoyable part of making music is when an initial spark becomes a flame, and hey presto! a song is born. The rest is quite a painful process and it doesn't come naturally to me at all. It's work. The song "I'll Be Your Host" is about the birth of a creative idea, and the eventual letting-go of that creation. It no longer belongs to me after the initial burst. I'm not terribly interested in touring these songs live and playing them ad nauseum to vaguely interested drunk people because that seems so far removed from that "first spark" moment that I'm talking about. Perhaps I'll just play private one-on-one performances for a person in my garden. Then it still feels sacred or something. Perhaps I'm rambling.

BOWIE: Your lyrics and song titles have a certain cryptic vulnerability to them. Is this intentional?  

MCKEE: hmmm... It's inherent, I'm not sure it's intentional. It sounds utterly trite but music really is a form of catharsis for me.... but I'm not particularly fond of that confessional style of song writing, so there's always a veil of some sort. I have to wrap metaphor in pataphor in metaphor to feel as though I'm saying anything in a way that feels unique or unburdensome. Is that a word? I don't want to burden people with my crap. I want to sort through it, turn it into something magical and share that, y'know. It's digestion! Songwriting (or creation in any form) is like a digestive process. The final release is the turd that I've presented to you! All the garbage that I need to release! Flushing it into the world. Magical crap. Perhaps childbirth is a nicer analogy. 

BOWIE: “A Yolk He’d Never Seen” is about people getting their comeuppance and feeling the karmic consequence of behaving like a jerk. Can you elaborate on that? 

MCKEE: Yeah that was the first song I wrote for this record. I was living a life of sin! I was genuinely trying to do things purely for myself even if they hurt other people. I made a conscious decision to do this. Madness! Of course the universe dealt me the hand that it did, and I learned my lesson. So that song is about cosmic/karmic repercussions. I won't go into too much detail, but I hurt someone, and in turn, I was hurt. Egg all over my face. 

BOWIE: Can you talk a bit about the first track you released, “I Want to Be Your Wife,” and its significance to the album? 

MCKEE: I sung it from the perspective of a woman in an unhappy marriage. I was a stay-at-home dad in a peculiar marital situation, but really it's based on every relationship I've been in and that crippling fear of losing oneself to another person. Terrifying stuff. It's a funny song, you should listen to the lyrics. You devote so much to these beings (songs/children) and at some point they have to leave the nest and you're all alone again! Then you die. 

BOWIE: Let’s talk about your use of reverb. How long have you been experimenting with the effect and do you remember what inspired you to develop this signature? 

MCKEE: Oh yeah, it's another veil, like the cryptic lyrics, it's a way for me to hide behind something. It's just like clothing for me; it feels natural to wear a suit made of reverb. I'd like to thread a sound suit together and wear it, but sound is still invisible, so it'd only ever be a representation of a sound. But imagine that! Joe McKee and his Technicolor Reverb Tracksuit. It'd be like the Emperor's new clothes. I'd be wandering around in my disgusting naked body. People would say "put some goddamn clothes on you pallid creep!" and I'd simply reply "oh you can't see the reverb? whats wrong with you? 

BOWIE: Can we expect any more music videos for the album? 

MCKEE: Yeah one more!

BOWIE: Performances? 

MCKEE: In some capacity. Not in bars though. It just doesn't really make sense for these songs to compete with the alcohol industry. I don't want to be at battle. Being on stage just feeds into this ego-worship thing that I don't think is very healthy for me. So If I play, I'll play on the floor, eye-to-eye and you can have a cup of tea. And you'll bloody well enjoy it.


Craving Danger: An Interview With Strange Names' Liam Benzvi On His New Solo Project

Soft Ethnic is the brainchild of 25-year-old, Brooklyn-based Liam Benzvi. In what sounds like an amalgamation of queer no-wave and r&b of the late 70s/early 80’s, the melodic insistence of Benzvi’s songs feels original in delivery, and familiar in musicality. The name “Soft Ethnic” comes from a type-casting term that was given to him during his years of acting school in Minneapolis, cheekily attributing his skin tone to his ability to be cast as a variety of “ethnic” characters. Turning to music, Benzvi co-formed new wave-pop outfit Strange Names. Their debut LP, Use Your Time Wisely, came out last Spring on Frenchkiss Records, and a second LP is on the way. Benzvi says Soft Ethnic is an experiment, mostly in its performance: “a means to over-saturate the city with my feelings.” Soft Ethnic's debut EP will be out in the Spring of 2016. Today, Autre exclusively released Soft Ethnic's Memphis Milano inspired music video for the track Prints, co-directed by Jarod Taber and Alex Rapine, with set design by Marki Becker. We got a chance to catch up with Benzvi to discuss Soft Ethnic, type casting and his new music video.   

Autre: When and how did you start making music?

Liam Benzvi: I was more invested in lyrics for a while because I didn’t need any kind of musical vocabulary or skill to quantify what I was making. I’m a product-oriented songwriter, so even if something isn’t done, I’ll say it’s a finished demo as an exercise of my full authority over the song. When I got my first computer in college, composition was suddenly a very user-friendly experience for me. The bounds of the software ended up pushing me to seek out real musicians to collaborate with because I was dissatisfied with the computer sounds, and still didn’t think I had any capacity to learn anything myself. It was getting into a room with real musicians—my best friends—that ultimately allowed me to make the music I wanted to. When I was in my first band in college, I semi-stole my band mate’s DD6 pedal, and would make really expansive vocal loops that crafted the majority of my first fully formed songs.

Autre: I understand that your name, Soft Ethnic, comes from a type-casting term that you encountered quite a bit while acting in Minneapolis. How did you get into acting and what kinds of characters would you play?

Benzvi: I went to performing arts high school in Manhattan, followed by a conservatory acting program in Minneapolis. I got into it because I loved the backstage culture of theater. My friends, talking in class, talking about what we liked/disliked—these were my people. I really wanted to get into my body and be as self-realized as I could be by the time I had to move out of my parent’s house, and being on stage was the best way to do that. I was always cast as villains—I had the most fun when I had to be old or monstrous and grotesque in some way. I was told I was “soft ethnic” by a bunch of casting directors that would teach us workshops about being the “CEOs of ourselves” and understanding how we would be perceived at first glance, walking into an audition room. It felt shallow, funny, and very real all at once. And I always knew I’d take the term and turn it on its head—not necessarily to be political, but to make it more personal to me if that was indeed how I was “perceived”.

Autre: Do you plan to continue acting or are you focused exclusively these days on music?

Benzvi: I’m committed to music right now, but I always intend to make it as performative as I can. I think I’ll act again, and I’ll be much better than I was, because of what I’m doing now.

Autre: Each character you play in this music video is distinct from the next and represents a clear embodiment of the melodic components that comprise the song. Are they all separate sides of yourself, or is there one that feels more connected to your true identity?

Benzvi: My friends that have seen the video like the drunk character the most, and they say that he is my true essence. It’s probably true because I’m more unhinged. I also like the archetype of the dude in the band that’s just really excited all the time about everything. That’s the character in the flamingo pajamas.

Autre: How did you discover Ettore Sottsass and why did you choose his Memphis Group aesthetic for this particular video?

Benzvi: : Marki and Jarod had just birthed their film/design group Wash & Fold, and they brought me a bunch of paint swatches. At that point I had no real idea of what Marki was going to design and build. I just knew that I wanted it to look like a baby’s bedroom—she took it from there. When she came back with a design, she had gravitated to the Memphis Group for the playfulness of the shapes they used in the 80s. The personality of the Memphis objects allowed them to be read as set pieces but also added a layer of continuity to the video and gave me fun shapes to interact with for each character.

Autre: There are some very clear parallels between this new sound and that of your other group, Strange Names. Although, with Soft Ethnic you take a clear shift toward a much more mellow drum line, which makes for a slower, more contemplative groove. Was this a conscious choice, and are there any other ways that you intended to branch out from the sound you’ve been crafting with Strange Names?

Benzvi: I approach all my writing with a uniform simplicity. When I write for the band, I always keep in mind that whatever I make alone is only a third to half way to the finish line—it’s really liberating. With Strange Names, I fundamentally trust Francis and Fletcher with their unique creative authorities and I can allow myself to let go of ideas when they’re not necessarily a complete demo on my end. In the last year or so I had been listening to a lot of no-wave electronic stuff. It didn’t feel very flashy, and it was kind of bizarre, but all the hooks were there. It felt like pop and jazz and funk at once; totally achieved with not much more than a drum machine, some synth chords, and a very up-front, grandiose, indiosyncratic vocal. To name a few—Indoor Life, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Patrick Cowley, Tuxedomoon—verging on punk, but still a little too weird/queer for it. This kind of not-belonging theatrical energy was something I wanted to experiment with on my own. I knew that I would do it in my own way, and if it sounds like Strange Names a bit at the onset, it's only because it’s my voice singing and it's my melodic instinct in the writing. As far as execution, the simpler construction is definitely intentional. I like that it sounds like a demo. There’s some spoken word involved—kind of in a Jarvis Cocker kind of way—and for the live show, I’ve begun collaborating with dancers and devising choreography and that’s been more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

Autre: I’ve read that Strange Names has constantly been restraining its avant-garde tendencies in order to make the sound more accessible. Is that something you feel you need to do with Soft Ethnic as well?

Benzvi: You could say that. With Soft Ethnic, I want to be unapologetically myself in every way, from start to finish—I suppose that could form a window to potential avant-garde tendencies. Making something accessible is in reference to the hustle of being in a band, trying to get picked up. We were in Minneapolis and we were listening to all sorts of music, reading all the blogs, trying to methodically figure out how we could be successful. It was and will always be exhausting, but when we moved to New York that all changed because we really sat down and made the record we wanted to make. We realized that our collective admiration for anthems came from the inclusive feeling it evoked—not talking meaningless and vacant American Idol-penned anthems, but Human League hooks and B-52s summer-of-love type music. I think we’ve stopped giving a shit about people turning their noses up.

Autre: Strange Names came out of the Minneapolis music scene and has since made its way to New York City. Can you talk a bit about how those music scenes differ and whether or not this has affected your sound?

Benzvi: I think that in New York it’s really easy to be alone, and because I have a lot of alone time here I’m more inclined to make things alone. Since Strange Names has been a New York band, when the band gets together, we’ll all have made something alone and bring it into the room and have to make collective sense of it. Is this something we can all attach ourselves to? And great results always come from that kind of dissecting. With Soft Ethnic, I have no idea how something is being received because I keep it completely to myself and then perform it and see what happens. I crave that sort of danger so that I can keep working hard at all times. I want to be the most resourceful performer I can be, and I always want to be learning about how I can be as compelling as I can on stage.

Autre: When you’re not making music how do you spend your free time?

Benzvi: I’m trying to collaborate with as many people as I can lately. Making friends. Drinking. Writing. I’m not really sleeping that much.

Autre: How would you like your sound to evolve over the next 5 years?

Benzvi: If whatever I’ve made is aggressively of my doing, I’ll have probably evolved in some way.


Click here to watch the music video for Soft Ethnic's track Prints. Photograph by Charlotte FergusonInterview by Summer Bowie. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE