Leading the mini-explosion of lo-fi scratchiness and cassette tape cool that started spreading through England’s cities three years ago was Mazes, the Manchester band who migrated south to Dalston before releasing a stack of curiously catchy, scuzzed-up songs in the vein of Guided by Voices, Pavement and any number of DIY melody makers of the early ’90s.
Singer and guitarist Jack Cooper, bassist Conan Roberts, drummer Neil Robinson and guitarist Jarin Tabata released their album ‘A Thousand Heys’, played about a thousand shows and even supported their heroes Sebadoh on a tour across America before the wheels started to come off. Reduced to a three-piece and sick of their own songs, they ploughed their next advance into recording equipment and set about making ‘Ores and Minerals’, the new album due February 18th that shows a rather more poised and precise side to this now-trio of undernourished plaid shirt-wearers. ‘A Thousand Heys’ sounded decidedly on-the-fly; ‘Ore and Minerals’, is notably inspired by drone friends Hookworms and Brighton cyclical jammers Cold Pumas. Mazes now groove more than they fizz.
Sitting on empty kegs in the bar of an east London brewery, Jack and Conan lament the commercialisation of DIY culture, celebrate the death of the music industry and reveal why they’re afraid of the taxman.
Chal Ravens: Mazes first broke out as part of a wave of scruffy, lo-fi bands like Pens, Male Bonding and Spectrals, releasing cassettes on tiny labels and putting on their own shows. How did that scene emerge?
Conan Roberts: We were influenced by what was going on in the States at the time. The way the Smell scene blew up [the Los Angeles all-ages bar home to bands like Health and No Age], I think a lot of people just got really influenced by that. Bands like Male Bonding and Pens started really small, doing cassettes, and went on to do albums with really cool labels in England and the States. At the same time, I think the ‘market’, so to speak, is way more flooded with that stuff now.
CRa: Do you think some bands take the aesthetic of DIY without taking on the ethics?
CR: Yeah, totally.
Jack Cooper: The fact we were recording to tape was a reaction against everything that was going on at that time. The things we were listening to in mainstream indie music sounded so staid and so regimented. Nowadays lo-fi, or DIY, has become a selling point for some bands.
CR: Yeah, it’s totally come full circle when bands like Palma Violets are on these massive labels, yet they have this DIY look about them. I don’t know much about them, but I hear the music and it’s like… awful.
JC: Don’t say you’re DIY when you’re on Mega Records or whatever. I mean, we all like a lot of good music that’s on major labels, there’s not anything wrong with that at all, it’s awesome if someone wants to spend a load of money on you and take you around the world – but don’t lie to us.
CRa: You’ve both had experience running your own labels – Jack with Suffering Jukebox and Conan with Italian Beach Babes.
JC: Oh no, I’ve stopped. I like the whole process of working with bands and putting out records, but I found doing press just soul-destroying.
CR: I’ve done Italian Beach Babes for four, nearly five years now. I get really paranoid that it’s getting too big, ‘cos it’s literally a bedroom label, it doesn’t go through the taxman or anything. I have sleepless nights thinking I’m gonna get a letter asking for all my receipts, which I’ve not got any of!
CRa: Why have so many bands been releasing on cassette over the past few years? Wouldn’t it be much cheaper for a DIY label to sell MP3s?
CR: But that’s just really dull, it’s so throwaway. If you’re gonna call yourself a DIY label then there’s nothing that taxing about uploading five MP3s to the Internet. It’s not really a craft. I sit there at night with a pair of scissors cutting everything out, printing the tape stickers and sticking them on. I dub all my tapes at home as well, so I sit there for a whole day pressing record. It’s like a craft in a way.
JC: I don’t feel romantic about it in any way, but it’s just nice to have a physical thing, ‘cos if the Internet blows up and all those 1s and 0s disappear, then you kind of need something physical.
CRa: Your upcoming record ‘Ores and Minerals’ sounds much sharper and tidier than the lo-fi, Pavement-indebted sounds on your debut. What’s changed?
JC: For the first record we went to a studio, it’s called Lightship and it’s on the Thames, everyone records there…
CR: Palma Violets record there!
JC: … but for this record we spent the advance on recording equipment, and we recorded it mainly at my flat.
CR: We had a practice room on Kingsland Road and spent all the money on paying the rent for the practice room, a bunch of microphones, a laptop… iPhone apps.
JC: Yeah, I had an app I used as a synth.
CR: We found lots of rights-free drum loops as well. Jack used those and we cut them up, so a lot of drums on the record are just a pre-recording.
JC: And then Neil played a lot of the drums on it. We wrote the songs as we were going along so I would take his drums and sample him.
CRa: It seems like each track is more crafted and controlled than before?
JC: The thing I found frustrating on our first album is that people would, quite rightly, say, oh, they sound like Pavement, they sound like ’90s indie – and really that’s only a very, very tiny portion of the music we all listen to. It felt like that record was very narrow, and we wanted to do something that was more reflective of everything we listen to.
CRa: Such as?
JC: A lot of the beds of the songs are written to a very repetitive loop. I think it’s more of a modern classical thing, like a Philip Glass type of approach. People are gonna think it sounds really different, but we’ve always been interested in things like that. I mean, I like ’60s music, we all like folk music, but if you listened to our first record you wouldn’t have got that. I think there was a conscious decision from my part not to write strict verses and choruses. People would say about the first record that the songs were really catchy, but it’s just corny, you know? It felt like a cheap trick in a way, so we tried not to write verses and choruses.
CRa: What about lyrics?
JC: I genuinely don’t put much thought into them, it’s more of a stream of consciousness type thing. There’s still songs we play live now which I don’t have words for.
CRa: So what do you do?
JC: Just make sounds! I think live sound nowadays is so bad that no one can tell what you’re saying.
CRa: Mazes are very much a live band, though – you seem to play a colossal number of shows.
JC: In 2011 we played a lot – we did nearly a hundred shows. In 2012 we were recording, but we did all those Cribs support dates and tried to keep our toe in the water.
CRa: You’ve also toured the US a few times, including supporting Sebadoh, the quintessential lo-fi indie rock band.
CR: They’re amazing. That tour definitely sculpted our idea of how we’re gonna tour from now on – there was literally just the three of them in a minivan, no sound guy, no merch guy, nothing, just their entire backline in the back. They drove themselves everywhere.
CRa: Didn’t they hate each other by the end of it?
CR: No, no, because they live on opposite sides of the country and they hardly ever see each other, so they’re just like old friends that get together.
CRa: And did you end up hating each other?
CR: I wouldn’t say hating each other, but obviously after you spend so much time with people it’s natural to get a little bit… but every band has that, that’s nothing unusual.
JC: You probably have to speak to the guy that left the band after that tour!
CRa: That was Jarin, your second guitarist – do you know why he left?
JC: I don’t really know.
CR: I haven’t spoken to him since he left. Jarin’s older than us, he has two kids – it’s kind of obvious in a way. I don’t blame him at all.
JC: There’s no getting away from the fact that it was kinda weird. I don’t wanna sound all sad about it, but you sort of assume that you’re friends, right? But he’s not the first person I’ve fallen out with.
CR: We fell out with our manager as well. Well, I fell out with her. We don’t have a manager now, we manage ourselves.
JC: We were managed by Sigur Ros’ manager, and now they do Savages. I like to think we did the right thing by saying, you guys go away and manage Savages, they’re gonna need you more than we do!
CRa: The album comes out in February and you’ve got a UK tour planned. Will you be back to playing a hundred shows a year?
CR: Well, we can’t really afford to tour all the time and lose money.
JC: We got offered some shows in Europe with Unknown Mortal Orchestra and it was, like, €100 a show. I can’t make that work.
CR: You can’t even get a van and a driver for €100!
JC: How do they expect anyone to do that? But bands will, and that’s what perpetuates that whole craziness.
CRa: But since record sales collapsed, touring is supposed to be where the money is, right?
JC: On the tour with The Cribs we all made money. We all thought we were gonna get £50 a show for those, and we would’ve turned it down, but they were paying £350 a show.
CR: Luckily we had a friend who drives and we stayed at people’s houses every night. We had five pounds for food each day, but at the end of it we all made money. That’s the only way to make it work. These guys who go on tour with a sound guy, driver, van, hotels every night – where is this money coming from?
JC: What I don’t understand in the music industry – and I think maybe the majors are a little bit ahead in this – but the big independent record labels are still throwing good money after bad with these bands that they’re just pumping money into. This idea that people are gonna make a fortune – it’s not gonna happen, it’s gonna end really, really soon.
CRa: You think profitability in the music industry will just collapse?
J: Yeah, and I don’t care about that, I think that’s a good thing. I think Americans have realised it a bit before we have — they just do it for the fun of it and to experience new things. England is caught in this weird music industry time warp where people think they could make a fortune. As soon as people stop thinking they’re gonna be millionaires making music, people are gonna be making music for the right reasons.
For a band who like to make up the words as they go along, Mazes have got a lot to say for themselves. And in an age when PRs earn more than the musicians they promote, thank fuck for that.