Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Office (playing 6/21 at the Magic Bag) - Interview


American Gothic: Scott Masson and Office find theirleaverage

Jeff Milo
(photos by John Sturdy)

"We're human and we're artists," Office singer Scott Masson says, "and we almost fell apart." He's recounting the Chicago pop quintet's woeful yet exciting year of hope and deception, romanticism smudged with sobering bullshit, member rotations and the deflating promises of labels. Now the stalwart songwriter is a bit more hardened, a bit darker or at least warier in his reflective discourse on music. Most importantly, the newly reenergized quintet has learned a lot and is now confidently forging its own path in this mad mp3 music world.

Masson hails from Milford, MI, growing up with members from other popular locals such as Jeremy Freer ("the closest thing to Chopin around,") Drew Bardo from the Questions and Sean Lynch ("one of the best lyricists and engineers in this country") from 800beloved, (who plays with Office Saturday at the Magic Bag, also with Star.)

He's always been a dynamic songwriter: mastering the realm of propulsive, lush pop with a subtle r&b vibe sliding under a shimmery new-wave/disco-dance sheen, delivered with baffling 60's-pop-hooks in manner of stately chamber-pop; guided by the glorified heart-melting euphoria of big, brash and catchy pop gentries such as Motown, Beach Boys, Zombies and all of that dizzying exuberance exuded by those sweet sounds, taken and transmogrified into “the big bang jump” of a fashionably apocalyptic milieu of an already seasick 21st century culture.

In July, they'll leak out The Silent Parade (on the internet – for free “for a few weeks in July before we settle in with an indie label that suits us,”) their quasi-follow-up to A Night at the Ritz, (a ambivalently regarded album from a brief stint with New Line/Scratchie records which ended a bit turbulently.) "It's a reaction to the way things are going," said Masson, "a gift to our audience, redemption after a weird year, and a reminder to people that we seriously don't care about status."

When Masson moved out to Chicago, he was still struggling with shit day jobs to support his songwriting; until he decided to leave that all behind; to forget all the draining drone office jobs, the vicious soul sucking snipes of food service, or the literal shit of janitorial work. Masson is flushed with melodies. And, damn it, these must come out. He quit his day job, took out a $10,000 loan and devoted himself to music 24/7, pushing himself to write, to record, non-stop in his apartment, without a weekly check, without a time-card to punch.

He's been playing music since 2nd grade and got into sculpting in college, eventually developing "office"-themed shows where he'd cover galleries in Xerox paper, dangle cell-phones from the ceiling and engage in performance art of drinking/displaying bottled water. His penchant for electronic music and dance-friendly sensibilities was inspired by living in London and observing/partaking of the dance and club-culture there in the late 90's.

Crafting pop ballads in the bedroom of his apartment eventually bore the minor masterpiece of Q & A, the fateful collection of escapist-pop, lush post-modernist love songs and jilted joie de vivre that would, after touring the album through 06 and playing at Lollapalooza, help get the attention of the Scratchie/New Line label.

The strange thing was that the label wanted the band to rerecord some of Q&A's material and combine it as a 50-50 old-new combo for a new album (which would become A Night at the Ritz.) Apparently the label liked Q&A well enough, but found it "were too "lo-fi" for grand, mainstream consumption."

"We are so over it all, and ready to move on, and focus on our new music," said Scott. " We're like drama-free in 2008, after the most Shakespearian-mind-numbing 2006-2007 you can possibly imagine. Everybody has forgiven everybody. We're all in our late 20s now, and everybody who is in the band now is here because they want to be playing this music. That's what it's all about. We hold little regard for anything outside the music or artistic part of what we do."

Guitarist Tom Smith contributed to writing; Colin DeKuiper has joined on bass with Sara Jean Stevens and Justin Peteril (keys) with original drummer Erica Corniel.

Sophisticated and ironic, full of energy and jumped-up poppy alacrity, yet still well aware that people can be complete shit to each other; so romantic and starry-eyed in glaze and melody, yet healthily doubtful that anyone knows what love is in the internet age.

Here’s the Un-Cutz interview with Masson (see Office live, Saturday at the Magic Bag.)


what's the latest news with the band? in terms of writing/recording? how has the songwriting been going lately and what kind of influences/styles have you been riffing off?

SM: Creatively, we haven't been this inspired in years, and after being held back by outside forces for so long, we're very grateful to be making music in the studio / onstage that represents where we're at now as a creative entity. It's been so much fun to just set up a bunch of microphones and know that nobody is going to mess with our sound, nor is anybody going to fight us on any artistic decision we make visually or sonically. Tom Smith, our guitar player, has brought his song-writing into the picture, which takes away some of the predictability for me. His song-writing also makes things a little more difficult to pin-point with the band, which is very refreshing, since I pretty much like to confuse the notion of what a typical "frontman" type of guy is. We've removed that ideology, and it creates an interesting dialogue with the audience, who are very used to focusing on one guy in the front. It's like everybody is the main attraction in OFFICE.

Our new bass player, Colin DeKuiper, is a road warrior, a brilliant bass player, and came from a background of more progressive styles of music. He brings a melodic edge to his bass playing that compliments the vocal melodies quite nicely. Erica Corniel, our drummer, has been holding it down like she always has, and never fails to keep the songs from trailing off into outer space. She's the best. We have been working with other friends too. This all works out very well for us, since the melodic and structural aspects of our music have been getting so much more involved in the past year. I've been the chief decision-maker in OFFICE for 8 years, so it's been nice to balance everybody else's melodic ideas with my own. I guess you can say we've had our "hits" in the past that have made it onto the radio, or the parking lots of TGIFridays, and even the dressing rooms of Forever 21, so it's been brilliant to just mess with that equation and jerk our audience and detractors around into something kinda bizarre for pop music. It keeps everybody guessing and uncomfortable.

So what happened? Leaving the label and the confusion over A Night at the Ritz?

Our label experience was just super weird on a lot of levels. I call it our "bad teenage slasher film" period. With all due respect to James Iha and the staff at New Line Cinema, whom we love very much on a personal level, I can't reveal too much information about what happened. It's not that big of a deal anyway, since there are earthquakes and cyclones happening in other parts of the world right now. I'm also not going to sit here and let things fester in my mind, because I feel that holding back the truth can be a counter-productive way of living and communicating with people interested in our music. It's important to move on, and not remain too emotional about any business that went astray. I will say that our experience with that label was not what we wanted it to be, and all of us are better off not working together. Our artistic process was compromised multiple times against our own wishes, and this is something that none of us ever wanted when we signed the contract. I realized throughout our experience of being on Scratchie / New Line Records, that we will never let outsiders into the creative process ever again. We tried to remain open-minded about ideas, and it got super hairy. Whack engineers, deaf mastering people, executive producers, rock stars, trendy mixers, cheese-ball marketing folks, etc. There's a false sense of leverage that goes on in this business. Being on that type of label just confused us. They did do some cool things for us, like our video for "Oh My".

My feeling is that if you fail to listen to what the artists want to achieve within their work, and not let them have 100% control over every decision, then everybody loses in the end. You should sign an artist because you like their work and have faith in it, and trust that the artist will grow and make their own decisions because they love their craft and know what is right for the work at hand. We were young, stupid, and got sucked in. It could have been a lot worse though. I'm really grateful for how cool James and the staff were with handling everything in the end, and getting us out of the deal. We're all still friends.

We feel great these days, empowered, free, confident about our current music. We're like drama-free in 2008, after the most Shakespearian-mind-numbing 2006-2007 you can possibly imagine. Everybody has forgiven everybody. We're all in our late 20s now, and everybody who is in the band now is here because they want to be playing this music. That's what it's all about. We hold little regard for anything outside the music or artistic part of what we do.

What have you learned from your forays into the belly of the dark beast: the ‘biz’?

- I've learned that you should just keep creating, no matter what. You should turn your phone off, and avoid people with bad coke habits. Never let the business take over, or ruin the fun. Say "no" as often as possible, be diplomatic, think before you act upon something, and if your gut tells you a deal is slightly off, stay far away from it. Let your audience come to you, and don't let anybody shove it down the throat of the public. Most importantly, the band should never shove their music down the throat of the public.

There are so many leeches in this business, and all of them will attempt to take credit for any success you have, and those same people will blame you for the failures you encounter as a so-called "team". Great song-writing and cool production are becoming a lesser concern for most of the people in the biz, and it seems to be heading in a direction of neon handkerchiefs, tight black pants, creepy mustaches, bad vector design, ultra-digital culture, and yacht rock.....or should I say, "yuppy rock"?. All fashion, and no substance. Fashion, by definition, means some kind of conformity or uniformed display that other people can agree on. Fashion can be a "sound" too. It's all a uniform these days. It feels as though people are afraid of something they can't put into a box, or sculpt to their own scene's needs.

Contracts are for chumps, and if somebody ever approaches you with a contract in this MP3 age, you should expect that you will be bending over later on. Count on it.....even if they say they're your best friend at that moment! The internet can be your greatest tool, so learn everything you can about technology, and become friends with computer geniuses. My feeling is that if a person really wants your talent, they will work on a hand-shake agreement, and pay you your share equally, and promptly.

We were in our middle-20s when we entered this business. We looked good, and people focussed on that first. We wore the suits, did the whole OFFICE thing as a visual trip for awhile, kept our faces clean, and our eyes and minds wide open. The music was always our focus though. The visual trip was us poking fun at the whole spectacle, and very few got the joke. Man, people in the indie rock community take themselves way too seriously. Our musical hooks were superior in our community, and that's just a fact. We took that seriously. That is why we achieved our success, and I simply will never let any manager, lawyer, marketing person, or large group of similar folks take credit for the hooks that we write. Once you've spent a few nights in the desert, with the vultures picking at your bones, you come out a slightly weathered person. You're wiser, and you don't necessarily have a lot of time for political schmooze, half-assed melodies, or childish lyrics about the party life. The music gets deeper, I think. You can still have fun while saying something, but the dirt of life has to be included. The important thing is to never become jaded in this process either, because that is the kiss of death for all great art.

What did you think about Q&A becoming A Night at the Ritz, are you re-releasing Q&A as it was?

We had been forced to go backwards and revisit old music at the request of our label, and this was when we were ready to work on something new. We were also led to believe that we had "complete artistic control" during this process. This was our main mistake from the beginning. I should have known better that you never go backwards. We were just nervous about the whole thing, and excited at the possibility of sharing our music with people in other countries. We're all to blame for it. Our plan was to simply re-master Q&A and release it quickly to the public. 2 weeks, tops. It became a year-long process. People started making us re-record everything because our old tracks were too "lo-fi" for grand, mainstream consumption. Ugh!

Q&A was always our little lo-fi baby. Legally, we won't be able to re-release Q&A for another nine years, so I encourage everybody to steal it if they can find it out there, along with the other records we've made in the past.None of us liked A Night At The Ritz in the end, even though those songs are super special to us. Any record that is a frankenstein production hodge-podge, put together by other opinions, is not an OFFICE record.

Q&A was the last record we made, and this summer's "The Silent Parade" is the follow-up to that album. We're really excited about the current results. The musicianship is really wild, freaky, and tight, and the song-writing makes a lot of bands look like hacks. Hey-yo! I think people are going to question our sanity when they hear the record though. When have they not?
Line up changes?

- Our old bass player, Alissa, quit our band because she wanted to pursue other things. Justin has been a collaborator with OFFICE since 2001, when we were both in college back in Kalamazoo, so he's technically the most old-school member. Colin DeKuiper joined us after Alissa left, and we still work with Justin on a lot of things. They are both great musicians, and super nice people, so it's wonderful to be able to have people you can count on like that. I let Jessica, our keyboard player, and our manager go quite recently because there were some old perspectives from last year that weren't working anymore. We know this girl, Sara Jean Stevens, who's an amazing musician, and can sing opera. She's gonna be working with us as well in the future. OFFICE has always been a development project. Nobody is replaceable, but if a member decides they want to leave because they are no longer inspired, or are holding the project back, then the development will have to continue, I guess. That's art.

What are some artists you always return to...

Motown. All of it. I also think "Sexual Eruption" by Snoop Dog is probably the best song I've heard in five years. Everything else besides that song is pretty much rubbish. haha. Ironically, I look to quite a few artists in Michigan for inspiration. Sean Lynch of 800beloved is easily one of the best lyricists and engineers in this country, and I dare anybody to come up with something better on a conceptual level. Jeremy Freer of FREER is the closest thing to Chopin around, and he's been blending the lines between classical, R&B, and pop since the 90s. Casimer Pascal is in his cubistic pop period right now, and I like the fact that his music is so off the wall that I have to rewind it, when I'm usually fast-forwarding other people. Those three artists alone are super powerful, and have made a huge impact. DJ Assault is a huge influence on OFFICE, even though we are completely different. Though I live in Chicago now, I grew up in Milford....so Detroit music has always been really important to me.

I’m curious about one song on Silent Parade, “The Sleep of Reason,” and if it’s inspired by Francisco Goya’s haunting painting, The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters?

(Guiarist) Tom Smith: Francisco Goya has always been a favorite of mine, and that phrase and image provided a nice framework for reflecting on the current caprices of the American empire. After years of an executive philosophy based on deception, monstrous results are bound to follow. The new material seems to all stem from particular images or moments that have somehow effected us, whether it be from life, love or art.

Masson: There is this impending doom and hope involved with a lot of these new songs, which is normal for the climate these days. "The Silent Parade" is an American gothic, but it's one that will hopefully inspire and make you dance at times. None of us write political music at all though. We feel every song is about love, life, pain, and maybe even dreams. There's a fine line between taking yourself too seriously, and not seriously enough. I think that might be the flaw of this generation. Everything's a party, but then the next day, everything's a blog....a blurry critique of life around party lines (no puns!). We're all confused because we're spoiled, so therefore, we muddy up that confusion with flashy lights, iToys, clothes, food, computers, cars, money, party songs, Paris Hilton, American Idol, too many drugs, and material to take our mind off reality. Cultural criticism is impossible for us to ignore as a band. We'll also never leave out the wonderful aspects of the human experience either. Duality is a must! Even our critical songs are at least kinda humorous. On this new record, there's a song about The Olsen Twins, a song about sleep-walking, a song about hanging in Venice Beach, a song about lies, some songs about girls, and a song about the residue that is left on our flesh after intense love-making. American gothic.

what are your future plans?
- To release "The Silent Parade" in July, play some rock and roll shows, vote for Obama, play Lollapalooza, tour when it makes sense, write some hits, and keep our significant others happy in the process. I want to be a part of an era where mediocrity and banality aren't left unchecked either, so I guess that's why I'm a little more blunt in interviews than I used to be. Nobody makes a ton of money at this anymore. With all this technology, however, you can seriously do a lot by yourself in the music business. The leverage is coming back to the artists. I guess we're just going to keep doing our thing, and progress as writers, musicians, and people

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