by Broose Tulloch
The WSO’s New Music Festival and prog-rockers Mahogany Frog have more in common than you might think. Like this year’s theme, “Beyond” both continue to grow and explore new directions. Under the guidance of WSO Artistic Director Alexander Mickelthwate, the New Music Festival has added a late night component, Pop Nuit, to explore new music that blurs the lines between pop and classical.
Mahogany Frog began with prog-rock exploration of the blues (Mahogany Frog Plays The Blues) and have grown into an experimental electronic rock group exploring psychedelia, a shift that began with 2004’s Mahogany Frog vs. Mabus. The music of Mahogany is at once accessible and undeniably rock yet also strangely new; complex yet cohesive; making the quartet, comprised of Jesse Warkentin (guitar/keyboards), Graham Epp (guitar/keyboards/trumpet), Scott Ellenberger (bass/keyboards/trumpet), and Andy Rudoph (drums/electronics), a perfect fit for Pop Nuit. Stylus talked to Graham Epp and Scott Ellenberger about the music of Mahogany Frog.
Stylus: Did you apply to Pop Nuit or did they approach you?
Graham Epp: We were asked if we wanted to play a show with Venetian Snares. We said yeah! It wasn’t apparent to me, at first, that the show would be part of Pop Nuit.
Stylus: Do you have a special project or program planned for the event?
GE: As it is the NEW music festival we will be playing our freshest material. We’ve also been working on something special for the show, an arrangement of a song by another artist performing at the festival.
Stylus: What are the connections between Mahogany Frog and classical music?
Scott Ellenberger: Instrumental music of any kind, has roots deeper than just “classical.” We humans make music, we use different instruments, but our ears are the same. And we have listened to countless other types of music, and they all have had some influence, not just the Rite Of Spring. Its good to be part of the New Music Festival because we are making new music.
GE: As a young child I suffered from insomnia brought on by the music of Mozart.
Stylus: How does Mahogany Frog explore music, is it more a controlled expansion of the sound, instinctual, or part of an overarching vision for the album?
GE: It always starts with a specific vision, but when four musicians with different strengths start collaborating the direction of the song often changes. It is most definitely an exploration. We use a lot of instruments so there is almost a limitless combination of sounds.
SE: It is a controlled expansion; we are always looking for something different, a new way to play or new structure. Mahogany Frog applies a sort of science to our songs, which originate mostly with Graham and Jesse. We don’t write music in a free jam situation, which I know a lot of bands do, but we do use our instincts, just not to make up novel combinations of sounds or notes, but to etch out a distinct timbre.
Stylus: What concepts, sounds, and techniques currently intrigue you?
GE: We all have our own intrigues and approach to performance and composition. Lately I’ve been really interested in the electric guitar. There was a long period where I was so intent on creating music with synthesizers and organs because I felt like that was the only way I could free myself from conventional sounds. Now I realize how important it is to continue exploring music with the guitar. I find it more of a challenge to make the guitar sound unique and fresh. When it comes to songwriting I use an acoustic guitar or an organ to hash out ideas. Often something written on a guitar will later be played on a keyboard or vice versa.
Stylus: Mahogany Frog has historically been a band of excess, pushing the limit. We play loud and often squeeze in a lot of ideas into a song. It has been a conscious effort to challenge ourselves with a simpler canvas. We have two new songs that have only a couple of parts or changes, and it is our task to make it all flow and keep it interesting. There’s one song in particular that has only two parts but it sounds like a lot more because of the way the instruments modulate. Melodies are traded back and forth and instruments take on different roles throughout. I don’t want to give people the wrong idea that we’ve gone soft or something. The overall sound is even more diverse.
SE: Recently I have been enamoured with toy analog synths. Like the Gakkens, Korg Monotrons, among others. So albums from Vangelis and Kraftwerk get some disproportionate turntable time. Maybe as sort of a balance to that, artists like Simone Shmidt from One Hundred Dollars and Bonnie Price Billy make it on my stereo a lot lately too. I play in a freeform act called field////, and as a type of research I am listening to more jazz like Mingus, Coleman and experimental stuff like this great OHM: Early Gurus of Electronic Music collection, looking for brave new ways I can elevate my own trumpet, electronic and bass playing.
Stylus: Who would you call influences and which artists continue to inspire you?
GE: Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis made me want to write and perform music. I continue to listen to those old recordings and am just as amazed by them as I was when I was a teenager. As for contemporaries I am still quite smitten by the latest two Deerhoof records; they make some of the most daring and beautiful recordings. Those are two aspects that really mean something to me; I like sounds that are brutal and ugly on their own but when given the right context make something absolutely beautiful.
SE: UBT, Besnard Lakes, The Sadies, Thee Oh Sees all had great records recently.
Stylus: Song titles and instrumentals. Do they always relate directly to the song itself?
GE: It varies. Some songs are just named after a unique or humorous event or an interesting phrase. Others such as Last Stand at Fisher Farm tell a personal story. We even have a song named after the shape of a keyboard track’s wave file. Are they important? I don’t think they’re integral to the music but it sure does help to have a title on the set list so we’re all playing the same song! That said, we don’t want to have dumb ass titles. The titles can certainly set the tone or create a setting for the music. Saffron Myst serves the music quite nicely. It just wouldn’t work to call it something like Flight of the Conjunctivitis Bur Oak.
Stylus: Is there a story beyond each song title or is a title sometimes just a title?
SE: Each song title has a story, but how deep that tale is, is different for each one.
Mahogany Frog kicks off Pop Nuit 1 Saturday January 25 at 11:00am in Union Sound Hall with Venetian Snares, an ex-pat Pegger at the forefront of breakcore, headlining. Tickets are available at Into The Music and Music Trader and online at bigfunfest.com and newmusicfestival.ca.