The following is an interview that was first published by Brainwashed.com on September 19th, 2009. I had spoken with Mark McGee and Jehna Wilhelm at Brainwaves 2008 and arranged to do an interview with both of them, but by the time their new album had come out, only Mark was available for questions. I’ve made some very minor edits to the interview, all of them stylistic, and I’ve included a music video that wasn’t present in the original. All photographs were taken by the great John Kealy during TKAPB’s 2008 performance.
During the Brainwaves festival in 2008, Mark McGee, one half of Minneapolis’s To Kill A Petty Bourgeoisie, agreed to do an interview with me. Their performance that year consisted entirely of new music, so I waited patiently to hear their next album before sending any questions to Mark. With Marlone in my headphones and its release imminent (it comes out on the 21st of September) I e-mailed back and forth with Mark about the band’s origins, their move to Minnesota, noise, touring, recording the new album, and why The Patron wasn’t actually a concept record. In the process we ended up talking about hip hop, Akira Kurosawa, Herman Hesse, and how sexy a little grit can be.
[Lucas Schleicher] Lets start with a little introduction. Who are you, where are you from, and where are you now?
[Mark McGee] My name is Mark McGee and I am originally from Chesapeake, VA. Currently I live in Minneapolis, MN. I am in a band called To Kill A Petty Bourgeoisie [TKAPB] with my friend Jehna Wilhelm.
[LS] Were either of you a part of other musical projects before TKAPB formed? What were they like?
[MM] Before TKAPB I was in a band called Hertzog International Norfolk Jacket. It was like collage noise with a lot of cut up sounds. We used tapes and filters, and turntables. Before that I used to DJ and spent my time scratching records in my bedroom with friends.
[LS] How did TKPAB form? What prompted you to start writing music with Jenha?
[MM] We met in high school but never did music together then. She went to Governor’s Magnet School, which is a school for the arts. There were just things we agreed upon musically, so we always stayed in contact. We attended Virginia Commonwealth University together and briefly played music together before she left for Paris.
TKAPB formed while she was in France studying. We would send WAV files and CDs back and forth. She would send me crude guitar recordings from France and I would send her noise and soundscapes. With the tracks she sent me I would layer sounds and sort of compose a song. The early TKAPB stuff was really noisey and hardly had any vocals. It was more sound collage work with a slightly poppy feel to it—definitely not as poppy as it is now—but it still had that element. After a year she came back to Richomond, VA and we started to play shows. We released A Companion for Afternoon Walks around that time through a local label called AEN, CD-R style. We released it before we knew how to play it live.
[LS] And where did the band’s name come from?
[MM] The name is a play on “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Both of us are from the middle class and at the time we thought it was clever. The name represents the destruction of yourself or, in this case, us: the petty bourgeoisie. Destroy and build, which plays into our music. The grammar is totally wrong too, but we like it. It means more and more to us each day. I think it’s beautiful when written out and even more so in cursive.
LS: Why did you move to the Twin Cities from Richmond, VA?
[MM] In 2004 we toured with friends of ours, Harm Stryker. On this tour we played Minneapolis. Freedom From, a label based in Minneapolis put the show on. We fell in love with the city and its local music scene. Lucky enough, Jehna’s parents had just moved to the burbs there, so in a sort of easy transition we moved and lived with them until we found a place in the Twin Cities.
[LS] What’s it like being part of a band in Minnesota? Plenty of great groups, past and present, hail from different parts of that state. Is there something special about it that precipitates great music? Maybe the musical community is particularly supportive in a special way?
[MM] Minnesota is nice. Haha. It has a lot of different things going on, musically. I mean, it does have a great history of music, but it also has a lot of great things going on now, too. I think the location and the size has a lot to do with the music scene here. It is sort of cut off from the rest of the country, but is in tune with it as well. It’s not too big, where shows get lost with the flurry of other shows going on the same night, nor is it too small where music acts get boring or all the bands sound the same. There seems to be a new venue popping up all the time and new bands jumping up.
It is competitive, but not malicious or catty. Bands seem to feed off each other here. Local acts seem to draw more people than touring acts. And if you are touring band, you should definitely consider using a local act to open your show based on that fact alone. Maybe the weather helps us, too. The winters are really tough, so people tend to stay in and make music. In the springtime you will see 20 new bands pop up. Some of them manage to stay together and make it around to autumn before they break up.
[LS] Are there a lot of bands flying under the radar there? Any that have caught your ear?
[MM] Oh yeah. My favorites right now are The Shahs, Skoal Kodiak, Brute Heart, Vampire Hands, Gay Beast, Whitesand/Bandlands, Seawhores, Arctic Universe. There’s so many. [They’re] all doing some amazing things.
[LS] How did your relationship with Kranky begin?
[MM] In 2006 we toured with Cristal, which is (Labradford/Aix Em Klemm/Breadwinner member) Bobby Donne’s project. We played a loft party in Chicago and met Joel from Kranky. We exchanged numbers and I gave him the Retire Early EP we had just finished. He called me the next day. We planned out a record and he mailed us the contract. In short, that’s kind of how it happened.
[LS] Who is responsible for The Riley Bushman Recordings & Archives? What is your connection to it?
[MM] Well, Riley Bushman is. He started it and funds it. My friend Andy Heater and myself help manage it. We use it to release material other record labels won’t. Mostly of our own. Now we plan to release projects from some acts we know and love, too. The label started in desperation to put out our own records. But, the label has been around since the early 1900s apparently. I haven’t heard all of the old recordings, but what I’ve heard sounds pretty amazing. Maybe we will re-release some of the old archives in the future.
[LS] Does the label have anything in the pipe right now? Can you give us some details about any of them?
[MM] Right now we have a 7-inch from a band called Whitesand/Badlands coming out in the fall. They know how to use rhythm and timing exquisitely and still come off as a little ghostly. [They’re] spooky at times. It is really beautiful. After that we plan to put out The Shahs’ LP. He is a one man band that uses mouth beats and a cheap Yamaha keyboard to make beach, no-fi, fuzzy pop songs, with a hint of Phil Collins. So good. He has been getting some attention in the cities here.
[LS] Your first record, The Patron, was billed as a concept album. Your newest record, Marlone, lists Marlone as though he/she/it were a contributor, which makes it hard not to think of he/she/it as a character. Is your latest release a concept album, too? Who or what is Marlone?
[MM] It’s funny that The Patron was listed as a concept album. It wasn’t our complete intention to describe it that way. We wanted to tell a story, which we have been doing since we started. But to call it a concept album was a bit too much. The Patron was a love story, like a beauty and the beast idea. I think we did a good job at portraying that with sound alone, whether the vocals came across or not. In most cases [they] didn’t. And we were told that in the negative reviews of the album, that we concentrated on the concept rather than the music. Marlone might be a character. With this album we wanted to create an album that breathed more, a more human element, and so we used a lot of non-electronic instruments. We also wanted to see if we could write actual pop songs. “In Peoples’ Homes” was an attempt at that.
Marlone is not a concept album. Originally, I wanted to call the album That Villian’s Been on My Dick for Weeks, after a conversation I overheard in Brooklyn between two 12 year old girls. I don’t know exactly why they said those things to each other. It seemed fitting, though. If I were to describe Marlone as a character he would be an older gentleman with a short box haircut and a gold chain. I sometimes fantasize about cologne with the bottle shaped in that silhouette, all black with the gold chain shining. I also think Marlone is a sexy name and think of the album and album cover as really sexy.
[LS] What is happening on the cover? Sexy wasn’t the first word to come to mind when I saw it.
[MM] Really? It’s very visceral and raw to me. I find that very sexy. Very animalistic, like a fur rug, like a porn film from the ’70s: hairy bare chested male with a mustache on an almost equally hairy woman. The film, fuzzy and dim, it looks like the lens was coated with Vaseline. It’s a little dirty, you know? It’s still sexy. The cover is a scan of my cat Sid V. She is a very sexy woman. A grown ass woman sexy.
[LS] Is it important for the band to work from some kind of a concept? What are the formative stages of your songwriting process like?
[MM] Sometimes. I think both of us are inspired by images and stories rather than actual music we hear. Many of the people we are compared to, we have never really listened to or don’t listen to them. The formative stages of our writing comes from a need to describe a feeling. I know that may sound a little cheesy, but it’s true. Sometimes Jehna is like, “Make it sound like you are sitting alone in hotel room, all blue with the moonlight, and suddenly a bright orange light fills the room.” Or, “You are driving on a road, and all you see is signs telling you to slow down or use caution, and all the cars are obeying and you have no idea, until you see a car in the distance being eaten by a giant ray of light.” Sometimes we free ball it, and come up with ideas or a meaning after the fact, too, or convince ourselves that we understand what we just made. Sometimes we lie.
[LS] Are there particular authors, directors, writers, or other artists that have shaped this sensual approach?
[MM] So many little influences with directors. I’ve been on a David Lynch kick lately. Oh,Dreams by Kurosawa. I remember watching that over and over again while we made our first record. Hermann Hesse is another important influence. Damien changed my life. I thinkThe Glass Bead Game changed Jehna’s life. Living in Richmond, sitting by the window with all the lights off just watching the city with a glass of wine. The street lights glowing, people walking, talking, and joking. Police sirens, arguments, gun shots. All those things inspire us just as much.
[LS] Is there an easy way to distinguish who is responsible for what on the record? For instance, is one person solely responsible for the lyrics and the other for the music? Do you have clearly defined roles inside and outside the studio?
[MM] Much of the record is purely a 50/50 thing. We do have jobs that are almost solely ours. Like Jehna will do lyrics, but sometimes I add [lyrics], too. I mostly do the production and programming, but then Jehna will add to that as well. So in the end we made the record together. The record is a complete compromise on all parts. If she is completely unhappy with a song I will change it, and vice versa.
[LS] The songwriting on Marlone is a lot more varied than it was on The Patron and the record sounds more open and spacious in general. Maybe even more organic. Does that sound fair to you? Did you go into the studio this time around with specific goals such as these?
[MM] Absolutely, the album is more spacious and open and I completely agree with calling it organic. Much of that has to do with the musicians we played with on this album. They even had a hand at writing some of it. Most of the album came about from playing live and in our practice space. The Patron was done in our apartment without knowing how to perform it live. Marlone was birthed from live performances and was performed before it was recorded. When we went to the studio we wanted this more organic sound, but still wanted it to sound like us, you know, cold and electronic, even icy. For this album we recorded everything and I spent all of February arranging and polishing it on a four season porch. It was very romantic. I would go out, come home and stay up all night. I did this for a month.
[LS] What did you learn between the last album and this one that might’ve changed the way you approached making Marlone? Or music in general?
[MM] I learned not to stress out so much on the process. Treat it like a fun experience and not like a job. I was much more easy going about this record and not as stringent about the production as I was with The Patron. I let things happen, wether it be mistakes or blemishes. Let things fall into place. I trusted other musicians, whether it be for the best or the worst. I think most of it worked out. I trusted our sound was strong enough to let other people in. I want to say that everyone that was involved with this record took it to heart and did the best they could on it. I feel like it is some of my best work.
[LS] Did you seek out musicians that could play particular instruments for Marlone? Or did they somehow find you?
[MM] The instrumentation on Marlone came from playing songs live with a bassist, violinist, and guitarists. Drums were passed between band members, mostly a minimal kit. We did seek certain instruments, such as cello, synths, extra percussion, and therimin. We wanted the album to be dark and brooding, but also gorgeous and beautiful at the same time. We are always playing with those two worlds. That idea is a very important element to our band. I think we both wanted the songs to be more rhythmic, too. I used more bass beats in the songs and I find myself dancing a lot to them. I don’t know if they are necessarily dance songs, but they definitely make me move a little and I don’t think that takes away from our overall sound. The most important instrument I think on this album is Jehna’s voice. She is featured way more on this album than The Patron and I think it comes across quite lovely.
[LS] Who and/or what has influenced the way you produce your records? There are significant differences between this album and the last, but the TKAPB signature is pretty unmistakable. Are there particular musicians or artists that you think have contributed to that signature?
[MM] My greatest influences on the way I produce records go back to ’90s hip hop. Work by Prince Paul, the RZA, DJ Premier, and Pete Rock. Psychoanalysis: What is It? by Prince Paul changed my life. I am also a huge fan of minimal music and sparse recordings. I have been listening to a lot of Deathprod recently. I think Helge Sten is a genius. The repetitive nature of his work is amazing and I love how it grows and pulses. You get lost and something special happens towards the end. In our music, we have an idea of what we want the songs to sound like, but they always change and involve into something completely different. We tend to like it that way, but it is sometimes frustrating when we really want a song to sound like a certain thing and can’t accomplish it. We are getting better at that though, I think. I like to think that we have a signature. I love the idea of having a stamp on work, no matter how much it changes. I think that is important when growing as an artist.
[LS] How would you describe your signature , then? You talk a lot about moods and particular atmospheres, is there a particular sense that you’re reaching for when working on your records?
[MM] Crunchy and hypnotic. It still has a layer of grit. No matter how clean I am trying to make a record, the grit comes out. I don’t think the sound is all intentional. It is something we both enjoy, but we never sought out this sound. It comes from us, something that is inside us. It just comes out when we compose.
[LS] What was your first exposure to noise music? Did it appeal to you right away or was it an acquired taste? Why do you think you feature it in your music so prominently?
[MM] My very first exposure to noise music was when I was about 14. A friend of Jehna’s gave her a mix tape. Somehow I ended up with it. On it was Merzbow and some other Japanese noise artists, and also bands like the Velvet Underground and Can. I fell in love with Merzbow. Oh, and think Shizou was on it, too. [He is] also pretty amazing. I just re-listened to him the other day, still good. I don’t care if it sounds dated. But yeah, noise was like my sound track to life after that tape. I got into Cock E.S.P., Emil Beaulieau, and a lot of American Tapes stuff. Until then all I listened to was hip hop. Noise was pretty ground breaking for me at the time. I saw a connection between noise and hip hop. The idea of making something out of nothing. You didn’t need to have instruments, anything could be your instrument, you just had to be creative. That was art for me. That’s how I started making music; I wanted to emulate these artists. I’m still trying to figure shit out. I use noise in my music because it is powerful, yet subtle. It can be anything. It’s sound more than anything. Just sound. Silence is very important too.
[LS] What are the chances of you working on projects outside TKAPB? Do you have any interest in producing noise records or maybe even something along the lines of a hip hop record?
[MM] Chances are very good. I am working on some solo stuff now. Bobby Donne and I have been discussing a record together. Hopefully that comes about and materializes. I do some improv shows here in Minneapolis and I am in a noise project called Adidas. We played a couple shows around town, opening up for Wolf Eyes and Black Dice. I think I might be contributing to the new Dosh album, too. I guess we will see. I would love to do a hip hop record. If the opportunity presented itself, I would definitely do it.
[LS] You played quite a bit of material from Marlone during your Brainwaves 2008 performance. Do you work out new material on the road frequently? How much of your live experience informs the way you work in the studio?
[MM] We worked out new material on the road [during] the last two tours we did. Marlone came out of live performances and from those tours. Before, I would say, maybe a year ago, we never really improvised. Everything was a set, rehearsed and rigid. The last couple tours we gave a lot to chance and performed songs we wanted to play that night. We never really did that before. It made it interesting for us and helped us to overcome the boredom of having to play the same songs over and over again. Songs from the new album (I think) reflect that. “In Peoples’ Homes” came from the road.
[LS] You’ve mentioned “In Peoples’ Homes” a couple of times, now. What’s the story behind this song? Is it something you struggled with or is it particularly special to you?
[MM] It came about very spontaneously. I think we wrote it in about a day, during rehearsal. Of course, we added things to it during the recording, but it was pretty straight ahead: guitar, keys, I did a bass beat and hit a cymbal with a contact mic attached to it, and vocals. I love the song. We want to make more songs like it. It’s about secret lives.
[LS] What kind of preparations do you have to make to take your music out of the studio and onto the road? Are there any particularly difficult problems that present themselves?
[MM] Playing live for us has always been a little difficult. Especially preparing for tour. Who can go? What instruments do we need? And so forth. I mean, in our albums and recordings we will use instruments we really can’t fathom bringing on the road. We try and get an essence of the recording, but we know it will never sound like the record live, no matter what. That might seem a little sad. But I love the fact that the live performance is different. There is no real document, just you and the audience. They bring it home in their memory. Having it stripped down is interesting to me. I really don’t want too much going on. So we bring a minimal drum kit, guitar, keys, and a computer. Playing live for us is sort of like a game. How can we do this and not sound entirely different than the record?
[LS] How was your tour in Europe with Boduf Songs? Were there particular venues you enjoyed playing in more than others? Any particularly good stories from the road that you’d like to share?
[MM] It was magical. I love Mat and Clive. Best tour I have ever been on. I can’t really say one particular venue stuck out for me. Everywhere we went was special. The all had their little special moments and characters.
There are so many stories and many probably too long to tell. I did get arrested in Terni, Italy. Nothing really bad happened. They detained me for about 3 hours. That’s all I’m going to say about that. But, at the time, I thought I was going to get shook for the band money and be deported.
[LS] It seems to me that TKAPB and Boduf Songs share some similarities, even if they are slight. What are the chances you’ll collaborate with Mat Sweet in the future?
[MM] I would say there is a 94.2% chance we will collaborate on something, but I can’t be certain nor do I want to confirm anything.
[LS] What’s the story behind your video for “The Man with the Shovel, Is the Man I’m Going to Marry”? It’s a great video, but not at all what I would’ve expected for that song.
[MM] Man, If I explain it I might ruin everyone’s take on it. I love asking people what they thought about it. Everyone has their own little story behind it. So all I will say is we wanted to make a beautiful video visually. The intent wasn’t to create a horror/goth piece. We wanted it to be a little comical and maybe a little sinister. We loved the idea of having people dying and no one really caring. Or having dead bodies seem like furniture. They were obstacles to get to the bathroom or an interference to get to your beer. At the same time it’s a song about lust and love and the idea of resisting those thoughts and actions to protect someone you love. It is disaster and a sick calmness to not deal with that kidn of situation. So you hide it and ball it up and store it under your bed.
[LS] How did you meet the director, Tristan Allen?
[MM] I met the mighty Tristan Allen through an Andrew Heater. They both worked for the same record label. We met one day at the Dinky Town Diner and became instant collaborators. He is one of the cats that pushes you and is so ambitious it makes you feel incredibly lazy. I love him for that. I would get in a fight for him.
[LS] Can we expect TKAPB to work with Tristan again? Are there any videos from the new album in the works?
[MM] Oh, yes! We will continue to work with Tristan. We have two new videos coming out: “In Peoples’ Homes” by Tristan and “The Needle” by Jeremy Catterton. Also, there might be a short film by Tristan.
[LS] Any final comments you’d like to make? Perhaps a word or two about what we can expect from TKAPB in the future?
[MM] I want to work and collaborate more on each record I do. Expect the next TKAPB record to have a lot of guest spots.
Many thanks to Mark McGee for his time and candor.
Much gratitude to John Kealy for his photographs from TKAPB’s performance at Brainwaves 2008.