Apr 2013 11

The living legend speaks with ReGen about his first solo outing and the trials of making music in the modern era.

An InterView with Douglas J. McCarthy

By: Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)

One of the most renowned vocalists in the underground music scene, Douglas J. McCarthy stands as a living legend, most notably for his work with pioneering EBM act Nitzer Ebb. With a vocal approach that has become the very stuff of imitation, blending bluesy melody with aggressive shouts and decrepit croons, McCarthy has worked in a wide range of styles that transcends the trappings of the genre he helped to cultivate. Working with the likes of Recoil, MOTOR, Kloq, and Die Krupps and fronting Nitzer Ebb and Fixmer/McCarthy, the man hits a mark with his first solo outing, Kill Your Friends. Upon the album’s release in the States, McCarthy speaks with ReGen about the development of his solo career and the genre he played a part in shaping, as well as his thoughts on life in the digital age and just what takes up his time outside of music.

 

Having been making music since the early ’80s, it took three decades for you to release a solo record. How did the album come about and what took you so long?

McCarthy: It mostly started during the last Nitzer Ebb tour, which when you’re on tour, you spend a great deal of time just doing, you know, day in, day out, that’s what you’re doing. And so, it kind of frees you up creatively to think beyond what you’re actually doing at that moment in time. I had already started working on some ideas for a project for my wife, and it was really just lyrics or vocals; so, fleshing those out and starting to make them as actually recognizable songs rather than just like musical parts. And as for why it took until now to do, I don’t know. I mean, back before taking that long break with Nitzer Ebb, the way that we worked is the way that most bands worked back then. We’re talking about the ’90s, or up until the ’90s when we took a break. You pretty much were in the studio making a record, then on tour touring the album, and then after a very short break, back in the studio making another record. And it was kind of like that kind of that circle of constant work. So, up until the point of me taking a break from music in general, then there really wasn’t much time to really think of anything beyond Nitzer Ebb. Once I took a break, I wanted to take a break from music in general. So although I was still making a modicum of music, it was with no idea towards releasing it and I went in and worked, studied, and worked in film and design. By the time I came back to making music again, I was with Terrance Fixmer for the Fixmer/McCarthy project, and there were a few things that came up. I mean, that came up in itself as what was going to be a collaboration on a couple of tracks that ended up being an album that ended up being a whole project in its own right. I wanted to do something different from Nitzer Ebb more in the vein, I guess, of (not entirely) that kind of club, more of a club-orientated record. And so it just was the perfect time for that.

Since the album had its beginnings during touring for Nitzer Ebb, was it a concern for you that your own music would bear too much a resemblance?

McCarthy: There are definitely elements, certainly. I mean, in more of the Nitzer Ebb touring, there are elements of the gaps that we took in between these legs of tours. And even while I was on the road, you know, you’ve got the freedom, you know, in some ways you’ve got a lot of freedom to have time to be creative. It’s just whether you’ve actually got that creative spark in you. It was definitely during the Nitzer Ebb period of touring.

On Kill Your Friends, you worked with CyrusRex and producer Mark Thomas Bell, who is most famous for working with Depeche Mode and Björk. How did you come to work with him on the album?

McCarthy: It started off with Mark, actually. I’d been introduced through some mutual friends and it was actually when we were still recording the Industrial Complex album and Mark was really interested in mixing some or all of the album. I felt that it was probably… you know, Mark comes from a very much kind of club background and I felt it probably wasn’t the right project for him. But then with the inception of me starting to write these tracks, I’d already got about… I guess I had about four pieces of music that I’d actually made more into songs with vocals, lyrics, whatnot. And so I played it to Mark and he really seemed to get it. You know, he’s a similar age as myself and we’ve got similar points of reference in our sort of musical history. So, it just seemed a good way of starting a project with him. So, what would happen is that, depending on how busy I was with Nitzer Ebb, I’d come back to L.A. and we’d spend a couple of weeks in the studio together and then I would leave to go back and do some more touring with Nitzer Ebb and Mark would carry on working on the basic tracks that I had put down. In that early stage, they were very much finished pieces of music, not that I was opposed to experimenting further to, you know, get the best out of the tracks, but it wasn’t as rough or it wasn’t as limited a sketch as things developed later. And then with CyrusRex, again it was a mutual friend, while I was actually on tour with Terence and was in Austin. A mutual friend introduced us or said that we should talk because I, at the time, lived close to Cyrus in downtown L.A. So, I just reached out to him and it took us awhile to actually get our shit together and even meet up, but eventually, when that happened, it was a really fortuitous point from my point of view for the record because we had moved from the studio we were at and we were basically looking for somewhere else to work and Cyrus has an amazing, amazing studio, an amazing array of toys to play with. The difference between them… Mark’s more of your kind of classic producer role, which is good. I’m used to that growing up in the era of bands that I did, working with people like Flood and Paul Kendall, other people of that era. As well, everyone has a specific part and the band, or the artist, writes and performs. It’s not like you leave the vision to the producer, but you allow that space for the producer to do that job, which is to produce. With Cyrus, he feels very kind of similar to me, that what he’s got to offer is a kind of sound platter. He can produce and take anything as far as you want it to, but what he feels most comfortable at is coming up with interesting ideas that, again, is up to the producer and all of us to then incorporate and how to sort of get that best working for the track. So, it’s actually for Cyrus and myself I think a fairly similar approach. You just take things up to the level where it’s not necessarily that you’re bored from that point on. I’ve been working a little bit more recently with Cyrus on another sort of set of ideas, and it’s great because we both think the same way. You take everything up to this level and then, all right, now we start again on something else, and it frees you to not have to really get bogged down with certain ideas. So, the difference between me on this solo album, by virtue of it being a solo album, is that for the most part, the musical ideas as well as the vocal and lyrical ideas are all generated from me. Working with Bon Harris changed over the course of time, you know. Certainly, on the Big Hit album, I was a lot more involved in the initial music writing. One of the things that we decided when we went back in the studio to do Industrial Complex was that we wanted to have that demarcation that was there when we first started the band, so Bon will be in charge of the music, I’ll be in charge of the vocals, lyrics, melodies, and then for the most part, that’s how it turned out for the entire album.

Nitzer Ebb has proven to be one of the most influential entities in electronic music. What are your thoughts on the way electronic and industrial music have progressed with respect to Nitzer Ebb’s influence?

McCarthy: I think it’s nothing but positive. I mean, there are certain frustrations, certain things like Swedish House Mafia playing a version of ‘Let Your Body Learn,’ and you’re just like, it wasn’t really worth this all these years, the struggle for that to happen. But I can’t help but be flattered and I think that’s what the testimony to making good music is; it’s unchanged since people started making music, that it was good songs, things that can touch people. Obviously with electronic music, that’s slightly changed where it’s not just the good songs but the actually good sounds and how to really find the essence of what is the sound you’re trying to produce, because it’s not the same as guitar. There’s a myriad of guitar sounds, but essentially it’s going to be a guitar; whereas obviously, electronic music opened up that to be wider, wider than ever before. And I think what was the thing that we worked in the beginning and certainly the era of ‘Join in the Chant’ and ‘Murderous,’ you know, the thing that people if we were going to have criticism leveled at us, which was quite common at the time, then the criticism was that it’s boring, it’s repetitive, and it’s too minimal, and where’s the song. It’s kind of funny that, whatever it is, 30-something years later, that is music now. We hit upon something.

Having been making music for three decades, is it ever a concern that you’re repeating yourself or that your process of making music is in danger of stagnating; especially after the 17 year gap between Nitzer Ebb albums? How do you keep this from happening?

McCarthy: I’m fairly repetitive, I think. It was a tough couple of years. There was a lot going on in my personal life. My father was very sick and eventually died during the process during the process of making the record. My wife and I live in Los Angeles, but we spent time towards the end of my dad’s life looking after him, essentially, with my mum. And that’s obviously the lead up to that and then the kind of the period of time after it, as anyone who’s had immense personal tragedy, there’s so much that you’re unaware of going on in your mind that I think that the process of being able to write what are seemingly unconnected thoughts or a string of words that eventually kind of show their meaning… I think that that’s an extreme version of what happened, but essentially that is how I’ve learned to write over the years. I think there have been a couple of shifts in how I write lyrically. The first one being what started to happen on some of the tracks that were on Belief, but definitely on Showtime, where I started to sort of… rather than a sort of series of statements, I started to actually try to weave in some kind of story, even if it was still a series of statements, but there was some kind of narrative going on. I guess that I felt with some of the lyrical content on this album that it was going back to a more random string of sentences that somehow seemed to hit a tone in my mind that I wanted to make but I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of it. I’d sort of learned over the years, and specifically with this album, that you just kind of go with those instincts. You don’t necessarily have to know exactly what you’re saying if it feels like it’s somewhere close to what you’re feeling.

Kill Your Friends was released via Pylon Records, and you’ve recently begun working with FiXT Music. How did come to associate with these imprints and how have those relationships benefitted you and the album?
As well, are there any plans to tour the album with the support of the label?

McCarthy: One of the things is we’re on a tight budget. Pylon is a great label, a really great label, and Peter Black, who’s the Pylon owner, is a really hands on record dude. He’s got massive knowledge. You know what I mean? He knows more about my own history than I do, and he’s very much hands on and very involved on the day to day level, but there’s only so much we can do. One of the things Peter and I talked about from the beginning was that peoples’ attention span is pretty short. I mean, I know mine is, because of the internet. You know, you just kind of like ding, ding, ding. You run a risk of boring people that are quick off the bat and get straight in there, but basically, we agreed in the beginning to keep pushing the record. Maybe we’ll add remixes, we’ve got tracks that we still haven’t released, and just keep the album kind of alive in people’s minds to the extent that we can actually get a kind of ground swell of support that will be enough to be doing a tour, enough to carry on with the next project, which is coming up. We’re looking at touring North America in, sort of, May/June and then Europe in the fall. That’s one of the issues, actually, with this digital release. That’s why we’re kind of pushing it so hard. One of the things if you’re going to actually have a physical release, especially a vinyl release, is when to put… whether we should put… the digital should go first and there’s the physical, or vice versa, or at the same time. It’s whatever seems to work for that particular project. I mean, we’re obviously slightly up against it because we wanted to get something out before the end of the year. We felt it was going to take a little bit of time to get some traction. Then you’ve got Christmas in the middle, which kind of always fucks everything up, I mean, on every level. It’s not my most favorite time of the year. So this was kind of the soonest that we get all the ducks in a row to release the digital. And I think that having FiXT on board and just with the iTunes and the Beatports and everything pushing along, I think it remains to be seen, but we seem to be getting a good response from this digital push. We got a nice little Depeche Mode bump the other day.

With the album being released digitally, and as you’ve been making music for a long time, what are your thoughts on the state of the music industry now with regards to digital formats?

McCarthy: I think that, you know, I mean, it was pretty obvious back in the ’90s. I mean, we’d moved out here to start work on Big Hit around about the same time that everyone had first realized about the potential for digital downloads that, at that point, were free, you know. And it was obvious at the time that the record companies were… you know, by trying to shut everything down, the horse had definitely already bolted. There was a golden opportunity to embrace the new industry or a new industry model. And, obviously, they just tried to bludgeon it to death, which just doesn’t work. If people can get something for free, they’re going to get it for free. It’s just a rule that seems to be fairly universal. But what’s happened is – and I think this is where having made music in a more specialist genre and having people who are much more astute about the process that an artist who goes through to make a record and has to release a record – I think that people know in our world that if they want to hear something, they can get an MP3 and they can hear it and then they’ll maybe make a decision of if they’re going to buy the vinyl, or else they just buy it anyway. There’s an understanding that you want this artist to continue making music. There’s got to be something, otherwise it’s just not going to work. So, I think that the MP3… everyone knows, it’s not news that an mp3 sounds terrible in comparison to like a full AIFF or full WAV, but it’s the time or place. I mean, if I’m mopping the floor and I’m just playing stuff on my iTunes, I don’t really care what’s coming out. It’s just in the background. But if I want to listen to a record, then of course, I want to hear the best version of it. But to answer the question, I think that, all in all, I think it’s a positive thing that you can, theoretically, literally from your bedroom, start something, record something, distribute something, and actually be doing it. I know you have to go to third-party sites to put it up, but essentially, you can do it with nobody’s help and I think that can only be a good thing. I think that it’s just making sure that, again to what I said earlier, you achieve the quality level. That’s the only thing I see that suffers and is that there’s that one step less to actually think, ‘Is this good music?,’ you know, because it’s so easy to put it out.

How does that extend to touring and putting on a show? It does seem that even for longtime veterans, it’s becoming more difficult to do so.

McCarthy: Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely tough. It’s really tough when you have to work, you know, probably at least twice as hard for, at the most, half as much. You know what I mean? It’s a tougher world and it’s a tougher sell. I’m not going to lament promoters too much; I do understand that they are in a tough spot, whether it’s night after night or every week or whatever their schedule is, but I can see that too many shows they’re just breaking even on, losing money on, and then suddenly they’re out of business. So I can understand that there’s a caginess of wanting to branch out into doing something new. But the good thing is there are outside of your mainstream type promoters, there are people that actually do want to take chances. Primarily, they’re small promoters scattered around the US and around the world that will maybe only do one show a month, but they will put everything they’ve got into it. There’s a deep understanding of who they’re playing to, why they’re doing the show. So, in some ways, it becomes more of a nuanced business and certainly there are very enthusiastic people that are very hopeful that something’s going to be great and it falls apart in the face and people lose money, but for the most part, I’d say that on that end of the business – outside of the big agencies, the big booking agents, the big promoters – there is a healthy contingent in every city across the country. I live in L.A., which obviously has a lot of live venues, most of them fairly appalling and badly booked. You can tell that they are just booking things just because they’ll make a little bit of money, a quick piece of money, but there are other venues in the city where they actually put a lot of care and effort into it and it shows. I know from my own experience that’s replicated not only around the US, but around the world and it can be in the most surprisingly small places. There’s a brilliant night that happens once a month or every two weeks, or whatever.
It is a problem. There’s no doubt about it, but then again, even as we were doing the last Nitzer Ebb tour, we did like two kinds of rounds around the States, about year-and-a-half apart, or whatever it was. It was interesting; when we did the first tour, that was just as everything was going to shit. It was just like, whoa! And, you know, it was a fairly healthy tour, but you could see as you went further east and into these places like south of Baltimore, into those areas where you could see, actually, supremely depressed places – economically depressed and emotionally depressed, and then coming around the second time that we went around the US tour, what we noticed was that a lot of that was actually on the west coast now as well. There are no two ways about it; the economic downturn is a tough thing, a tough climate to sell going out and enjoying yourself and spending money on watered down drinks and high ticket prices. One of the good things with Peter – going back to Peter at Pylon – is that he tries at every point to keep the price as low as possible. The point is you want people to come to the shows, for instance. The point is you want people to have the record. The option is I’ve got to eat for the week or it’s 10 bucks and you’re in a show and it’s whatever. You can be a little bit more creative than people are about it. People are pretty silly.

What do you do when you’re not working on music or performing?

McCarthy: I do a lot of cooking, actually. Yeah, I’m very keen, not necessarily good, but I cook a lot. I’ve got a few signature dishes. Living in L.A., it’s a hoary old cliché, but you go to the mountains. Where I live, I actually live by the river, and I’m kind of close to being able to get up to the mountains. I don’t really go to the ocean too much. I’m not a surfer or anything like that, but I do a lot of hiking, a lot of bike riding, and just kind of enjoying Southern California weather for the most part, although it’s raining today, actually.

 

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