maandag 10 juli 2017

Interview with Maggie Brown's Marcel Hulst 2017

Promo photo
By now it is no secret that this blog is a fan of the music made by Amsterdam based band Maggie Brown. After releasing 'Maggie Brown' in 2014 and a solo-album under the name Mountaineer, singer-songwriter Marcel Hulst is back on the old nest. The new album, 'Another Place', was released on 1 July with a show in Amsterdam. All can be traced back on the blog, if you are interested.

With 'Another Place' Maggie Brown has not just released a new album, but an album of extreme beauty, depth and delicacy. Time to do a new interview and see where Hulst and the band are at now that 'Another Place' is on the (digital) shelves. With artwork like Maggie Brown provides, nothing but the vinyl version will do, so take that as a positive advice to go out and buy this album. Some questions first.

Interview by: Wout de Natris 

© WoNo Magazine 2017

It’s three years since the previous album, ‘Maggie Brown’. How happy are you with the new album?
Of course, extremely happy now it's physical and beautifully wrapped up in 140 grams vinyl. We've nailed it, and there's no way back, only a – hopefully - long and winding road ahead of us, with new songs and new experiences.  About the songs: there's always a song or two that's not as good as you hoped it would be, but acceptance is an important part in making music. We're just human beings trying to kill time in the best way possible, and for me that's making songs. But as I tend to be a bit insecure about my songwriting, I should add: there's a handful of songs on 'Another Place' of which I'm very proud. These songs have become part of my DNA, my biography and I will keep them close at heart, no matter what. For that I'm very grateful.  

In the past years things changed in the band line-up. What happened and would you like to introduce the new band members? 
After the first album and 40-50 shows, we sort of needed a break. I recorded some acoustic songs which became Mountaineer, and we did a Popronde tour through Holland. So Maggie Brown was put on hold for a while, and in the meantime our bass player became a father, and decided to spend more time at home. The day we decided to record some new songs for Another Place, the guitar player (Randy) decided to quit as well. So then we had three reasons to quit, and one to keep going: that reason was 'Another Place'. 

Our new bass player is Thomas, not just a great player but also a driving force behind the band. He built a new website, comes with ideas that make us better and makes sure a lot of things go as planned. He keeps his eye on the machinery, so to speak.

Steven is a great player and had already built up a lot of experience with other bands (Spaceguards, The bent moustache), and his way of playing easily matched with our sound. 

By now I recognize Maggie Brown songs and describe them as having “that Maggie Brown mood”. Do you have to be in a specific mood in order to create new work? 
No, it just happens or doesn't happen at all. There's no specific mood that makes me pick up the guitar. Actually, I have the same mood 99% of the time. In 2012 I spent 3 months in New York, to -among which- write new songs, but nothing happened. Nothing. I hated the guitar and every night it would stare at me, and the moment I picked it up, I knew I had nothing to say. The moment I got home, I had to go to work and didn't even have time to take off my jacket. Before I checked if everything was still there, and washed my face from the long flight, I quickly picked up the guitar and a fine melody soared up. It frustrated me, and made me angry, for a little while. But, apparently, that's how it works. 

In 2015 you released a solo album, called ‘1974’. In what way is working in a band different from working solo as Mountaineer? 

It's ten times more easier (sorry guys). You don't have to discuss anything, or walk a fine line between different opinions. I can follow my own path and decisions are made in a split second. Not necessarily the best decisions maybe, but they're at least less time-consuming. Yet, working in a band is much more interesting! Working on songs with a band is the most rewarding invention ever.

With working in a band comes the moment that your work is presented to the rest of the band. What is their role and can you give an example where the outcome is different from what you had heard before for yourself?  

Mostly, the songs come out rather naturally and the band picks up quite easily. Once the drums come in, the song is In charge, instead of the other way round, and it leads us home. Most songs just fall into place, as a puzzle.

The cover of the album, again, shows a piece of art. What can you tell us about this work and your choice in selecting it for the cover?
Again, this went rather naturally. The drummer (Pascal) came up with the piece of art (Monogorod III) for the album cover, because he had been classmates with this Berlin based artist, Aldo van den Broek. We asked if we could use it and he was very delighted. Later, we visited his exposition in Amsterdam where we came to learn that Monogorod is a Russian name for a village/small town with basically one industry where 99% of its inhabitants work and depend on, which is the case in Siberia. The Lada factory provides work for around 1000 people, but nobody ever buys these cars any more. Putin just sticks to fabricating these 'obsolete' cars, just to keep them alive (and guarantee their votes). Maybe our albums are small factories of melancholy, built by a small number of guys for a few hundred people.  

The album starts with a near instrumental intro. What is the message of the short instrumental?  

There's no message. I just think every album needs an intro, or a hell-of-a killer song that kicks in as a bullet. Silent Radio didn't have that sort of intro. So I decided to add a small soundscape to the list of songs for Another Place, as an opening for the record. To set the mood for the 9 songs to come. 

'Another Place'.  Photo: Marcel Hulst
The title of the album is ‘Another Place’. This could suggest that you’d rather be somewhere else. What made this title significant for you?
Another Place is a piece of art, on the beach of Crosby, a half-an-hour ride from Liverpool. It consists of 100 identical cast-iron statues, life-size figures spread out along three kilometres of the foreshore, stretching almost one kilometre out to sea. (The work is by artist Antony Gormley, Wo.) 

The Another Place figures - each one weighing 650 kilos - are made from casts of the artist's own body standing on the beach, all of them looking out to sea, staring at the horizon in silent expectation. The moment I stood on top of the dunes, overlooking the beach, I knew it would take a long time to find this amazing experience again. I stood there, in total awe. Speechless. I saw myself, I saw my friends, you, people I'd never met, everybody, nobody, all staring at the ocean. As if nothing mattered, and no words were needed any more. We could embrace one another without saying a word, and settle all differences we'd gone through in life. It wouldn't matter any more.
One of the songs on the new album is called ‘Silent Radio’. If ever there was something senseless it is a silent radio. What inspired you to use this topic/title?
The words came out while writing the song, and I liked it. The image of a silent radio. Then I thought of our national radio stations, playing the same ol' shitty songs over and over again, and this so-called Top 2000 at the end of the year, with The Eagles or Queen ranking number one. Who cares? Please, stop that kind of radio. When all songs are alike, stop playing them. Keep silent. "Everything's the same, on silent radio".  

'Another Place'.  Photo: Marcel Hulst
The ‘Plain Crash’ must be one in a state of total Zen, it is so harmonious. At the same time I have difficulty tying the first part of the song to the end, let me call it the chorus or a mantra. Is it the thoughts of individual passengers on the plane that are mentioned in the first part? It could also be a metaphor of course for all the things you sing about. Can you tell us a little more about the lyrics of the song?
Oh no, there are no messages in our music. It's just pop music. Yet, for me the song Plane Crash is a bit about trying to avoid accidents, knowing you can't fool fate. Whatever you do, it's pointless: you can make a sound no one can hear, turn into stone, become invisible, beat your head against the wall after having made a mistake, but the moment you wake up in a plane crash, you'll go down for sure. For me, the most beautiful part of the album is the bridge: "In reverse, time keeps you near". We can't turn the hands on the clock, let alone the hands of time, so time won't keep us here. Time will definitely (b)eat us all, and there's no escaping. The plane crash, as a metaphor. 

Of ‘Hail To The Rain’ you’ve said you were very happy with how it came out after being recorded. What makes you more attached to one song than another?
This is a song I never thought I could write. Catchy, simple, a lyric about working overtime and working the clock around, longing to go home and at the same time: you can't stop it, because there's nothing else you can do but work at this shitty job. So, accept it and scream: hail to the rain. Yet, there's no message, it's just a poppy song.

‘Void’ is arguably the most delicately sung song on the album. Be careful where you place your feet ought to be the motto when all in front of you is a void. The contrast with the instrumental build-up in the instrumental part is huge. Does healing go (or is confidence built) through music?
Mmh, I don't know. Maybe you can forget while listening to/enjoying music. It is a way to forget, maybe, and ease your mind. We all know how soothing it can be, after a hard day's work to listen to that favourite record and forget about the day. At the same time, I don't think we really forget things. It's all stored, somewhere. Until the day life is falling into pieces, and you yourself fall to pieces. And hopefully end up at Another Place, overlooking the ocean in silent expectation.

Promo photo
The most impressionable sentence on this album is ‘Penny in the long run, can you multiply?’. It seems like the most unsuccessful pick-up line ever to me. What is the message here?
Again, no message. I just came up with the song and title in 3 minutes, and decided to keep it that way. I was thinking of a penny that – in the end – inevitably has to grow into a pound or dollar. And how we always tend to focus on growth. Penny can be a name, and people have a tendency to multiply as well, and this might be one of the biggest decisions you eventually make in life. There's a line somewhere, reading: "in the line of fire, I, we, see the same thing". When push comes to shove, we're all the same. But frankly, I never think about meaning when writing a lyric. It's more important how the music coincides with the words and the images that soar up. In that sense, I really prefer the Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices) approach. He's one of my favourite songwriters, and is the most prolific songwriter on the planet. Over the last ten years, his songwriting has been awful but when you've written 100 albums, over 10,000 songs, and still 5% ranks among the most brilliant popsongs ever written, you are a giant. He literally 'sings abstract paintings', catchy phrases, stunningly beautiful taglines (even witty at times), and when listening to his words you literally see the Brueghel paintings catching air and turn into movies.

All the songs have a guitar at their basis, except the final one, ‘Hummingbird’. It sets it apart. How come that this song is so different from the rest of the album?
Because it was the biggest pain in the … I've ever recorded. Frankly, I would have preferred the song not being on the album, but firstly: we didn't have a spare song to record 🙂. Secondly, we'd put so much time in it and we had heard quite a few terrible versions of the song (we just couldn't make heads or tails of it) along the way, and on the last day we decided to delete all the guitars in the intro  (I think there used to be about 3 guitars, initially), and wanted the piano to lead the way. Because the piano was added after the guitars, it wasn't meant to get a leading role. So after the guitars were out, the piano almost seems 'to be somewhere else, not in perfect pitch or line with the vocals', as if played and sung in a honky tonk kind-a-way. After a melancholy intro, 8 poppy songs with melodies and harmonies battling one another, we just said: fuck it, this is a raw, dream-like, non-comprehensible bar piano song, and at the end a fuzzy drunken guitar switches off the lights. And it's time to get some sleep.

To what albums or artists did you listen most when working on Another Place?
Wilco and Steve Gunn, probably. Yet, when I'm working on songs in the studio, I don't listen to any music at all actually. I just tend to hear our songs 24-7 in my head, and overthink every second, over and over again. I can send a text to our drummer, reading: "Maybe the 2nd chorus in Plane Crash needs another dub, somewhere, to give it a bit more body. Maybe in the far right corner, a high tingling sound of another piano-synthy- kind-of instrument, which you do not explicitly need to hear, not until you leave it out". And within 3 seconds, Pascal replies: "yeah, cool, that might work, especially with the bridge coming up a little later, where the vocals come up in the right corner as well, so they might coincide there". In the dead middle of night. Pff, we're just a bunch of geeks, really.

If you could be one other artist for one day who would it be and what would you expect to get out of the experience?
Jeff Tweedy or Peter Visser.

Jeff Tweedy, because I'd love to live towards a Wilco live show at the end of the day. What does it take to achieve such a high level in making music, both technically (their live sound is always amazing) and musically: what do you say to your bandmates in the dressing room, after having played with one another for over 20 years? Is there still the same camaraderie? Do people make the same jokes over and over again?

'Another Place'.  Photo: Marcel Hulst
Peter Visser, because I've seen them pop up in 1991 as a Dutch band who found themselves amazed when asked to play the United States. They toured with the big names of the 90s and played sold out clubs in the US. Nowadays, they still make music and still share the same love and devotion as in the early days, but have daytime jobs and get ready for a gig after work. They cycle to rehearsal rooms, do their own soundcheck and might text one another around 3 pm: "Hey, can you pick me up around 5, because I'm a little later than expected / I have a flat tyre / I still need to pick up a tv-dinner at Appie"/ etc. Because at the end of the day, that's what it's all about, and what I hope to be doing 20 years from now. Driving up to a small club, with a bunch of guys, and talk about the set you'll be playing, knowing that the world won't matter about your set, but you do.

What are Maggie Brown’s plans for the coming period?
Trying to get some gigs and hopefully write some new songs. Because I don't want to wait until 2020 for a third album. Yet, if that's the way to go, that's the way to go. You can't fool fate, can you? 

You can order 'Another Place' and 'Maggie Brown' here:

P.S. here's a picture by Marcel with the sign showing more information on 'Another Place':

'Another Place'.  Photo: Marcel Hulst

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