(apple photo: sa weston)
It’s that point in the winter where debilitating nausea from the monotonous carousel ride of the repetitive ringer of ice, wind, and blizzards starts to set in – but you feel almost defeatist for indulging that callow restlessness. Here we were on the edges of a potential thaw in early February – nobody’s wearing coats and we’re all sautéing slow and comfortable-like, together in the rectangle of PJs Lager House.
Mick and I decided it was time to push open that large, warped, green door in the back of the venue that led out onto the patio. It hadn’t been shoveled in a while; it felt disheveled and neglected. We felt as though we were the first cells of life to flush through the walled slab of concrete since it was probably locked away in late autumn of 08.
Mick settles in, the 21 year old with a perfectly tufted shrub of curls over sleepy eyes, lighting up a cigarette and taking in the starry sky above.
I start talking to Mick about “gypsy folk” and “beat-like” “freak-folk” “showy big/band jazz and jive” and… “New Orleans funeral marches” …
Then we both take a breath.
“Yeah,” says Mick, “that’s kinda what, I think, we’ve gotten known for….around here, for some reason. Well, I guess I know why, with the trombone…”
Mick Bassett, singer/songwriter, guitarist, pianist, leads a quartet of adroitly talented musicians known as The Marthas. Bassist Jesse Shepherd-Bates, guitarist Gordon Smith, trombonist Allison Young and drummer Eric Roosen: all equally young, “everyone is 21-ish…” and equally creative, but all uniquely trained, squishing their own distinct footprint into the ever-malleable mud lot of the Marthas’ mad method. “Five…different personalities,” says Mick, “in the band, and personally I highly respect everybody as a musician. I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes; just let them try and be creative. Everybody brings what they do best and brings it into the band, and it just turns into whatever it turns into…”
Bassett met Young (and Smith) while attending Wayne State University. “’You play trombone?’” he regales his first meeting with longtime friend, Young, who he says was the first official member to join, “’Okay! That’s good enough!’” The trombone adds such a woozy flamboyance, with its bleated, sultry sway – combining with the fact that whenever Mick sits down to a piano to start a song, he can’t help but slide into the swing of ragtime – then this act, increasingly turning heads throughout the fall and winter, is becoming known for smoky jazz flavors and ostentatious goth-folk stomps. But it’s not somewhere Mick or the Marthas plan on settling…not for long.
“That’s kinda where it is now,” says Mick. “I don’t know if that’s where it’s gonna be next time. I’ve been writing a lot lately and I’m kinda getting away from that, a little bit…Not intentionally trying to, I just…that was something I did for a little while and it was good. I’m too restless to try to do one thing or stick to one thing. As soon as I feel like somebody’s got us pinned down, I like to try to do something different.”
Where it is now, the sound, the band…this “swing-y kinda feel,” this jazz-inflected folk with intricate instrumentations from shredding acerbic guitars to upright bass to snaky trombones to driving rock-n-rollers…is currently captured on the band’s latest EP, “Scissors and Suckers,” to be released Saturday (Feb 21) at the Magic Bag on Sleek Speek records.
“I view [Scissors and Suckers] as a stepping stone,” said Mick, who studied English at Wayne and at University of Michigan. The EP was recorded at drummer Roosen’s home studio, lovingly dubbed Detroit, Hollywood Studios – an experience and set up Mick valued. “[2007’s Here’s The Whirlwind EP] is kind of an angst-y, like, we-don’t-really-know-what-the-fuck-we’re-doing-kind of a thing. I feel like we didn’t capture what the songs were about at the time, because we were recording at a studio and there was a time-frame. We didn’t have time to work on everything.” Whereas, with Roosen’s set up, they have all the time they need. “Eric’s been studying, like mad, how to record. We learned as we went, we had to go through dozens of pieces and we figured out how to make them sound right.” Now, they can record whatever/whenever they want to…
The band formed properly in early 2007. Bassett, a former member of sunny-pop/garage-rock quartet The Dollfaces, had met bassist Bates when both of their old bands (for Bates, The Satin Peaches) shared bills throughout 05-06. Roosen was a close satellite in the Peaches orbit of friends – and was introduced to Bassett by Peaches’ singer George Morris in Ann Arbor, late 2006. Morris added after their meeting, “…’you guys should play together.’” Now, with a drummer (Roosen) and a trombonist (Young), plus all the songs he had been working on as the Dollfaces were starting to wind down, Bassett was more than ready to start a new project. It wouldn’t be much longer until Bates (who had left the Peaches in 05) to join on bass – with guitarist Smith (who Bassett knew from Wayne and from a church choir in which they sang together at the time) joining in late 07/early 08.
The band toured in the Spring of 08 and performed local festivals through the summer, including CityFest, Detour’s Rock City and The Blue Moon in June. Bassett said it would take the miraculous discovery of a surplus of funds before the band can go back out on the road (to the south and east coast, as they had done back in 08), but that until then – they would be building up the fan base around Michigan, in cities like Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Albion. Bassett added that since there’s currently no touring plans, he may return to U of M to finish that English degree.
“I’m trying to picture you in a poetry class,” I say.
“Oh, it’s not pretty,” he laughs. “I never had a career plan. I did English because I like reading and I think that I’m inspired as much from reading things as I am from listening to things. I never pictured doing anything…college-y, like science or anything like that…”
Musically, Basset points to Mingus as a sea-change for his inspirations as a songwriter and music appreciator. We also come to Mingus when I ask him where he gets all this brassy, brazen jazz stuff… “[Mingus]’s The Black Saint and the Singer Lady changed my whole perspective about music. I had played jazz before, in high school, that’s where I was introduced to jazz. But when I got Black Saint and the Singer Lady I was like, ‘these are the things I hear in my head!’ It just feels like a roomful of guys that are just completely high on making music and totally out of their minds playing shit they probably don’t even know where it’s coming from…”
This sort of unhinged gonzo glory carries into not only Mick’s perspective of his relationship to the music he makes, but also to the chemistry, the interlay between the band, as collaborators in the writing process and in live performance.
We talk about some of the more fiery rock-leaning ensemble pieces of the record. The flow has consistently been: Bassett often presents the skeletal structures to the band, and each member fills in the gaps with their own signatures. But on Scissors, there are also solo recordings of just-Mick and his guitar, or his piano – chillier haunts and trilling freak-folk balladry. I ask about one song, the side-to-side eye-rubbing acoustic warble of “You’re My Chaos.”
“It’s not about a relationship, but its…kind of any true love that you have,” says Bassett. “Not even just a woman or any person, but like a love for anything—music. It’s you’re everything, it’s both your blessing and your curse. It’s the full spectrum of feeling, because I think what I was also writing about was…my relationship with art. Art, it’s the same thing that makes me poor, it’s why I have to eat shitty food, it’s why I go mad and walk around at 4 in the morning, trying to figure out what my life is for… But, at the same time it’s also like, worship…of being a human and experiencing life. It’s the goods and the bads, the highs and the lows, the love and the hate…”
This notion comes up again when we discuss the live show…something even Morris says he isn’t sure exactly how they do it…To which, Bassett answers, you have to “embrace chaos.”
“You guys look like 5 individual spinning tops,” I say to Bassett out on that slightly chilly patio. Morris has joined us with a pint of draft beer, coming to the Lager that night to see Bassett perform solo/acoustic. Bates is not far behind and soon we’re all sitting under the stars together. “You’re all up there in your own worlds, it looks like…”
“We don’t really spend much time talking to each other,” sais Bassett, “about what to do. If it feels right, then we go with it. We obviously care about the parts and everything, but we try not to be too critical about it because…there’s 5 different, completely different personalities in the band.”
Bates throws in his two cents: “Mick comes with the songs and Roosen plays the drum part and then I try to combine the drum part with the bass. And then Allison and Gordy throw their shit on, everybody is playing in completely different styles, making one kind of…it’s like a well-oiled machine. But the machine is built with…silverware, by a mad scientist…named Spartacus Frenzy….and Spartacus Frenzy has built this machine…Sparacus Frenzy’s well oiled machine.”
“I think I have the best headline of my career,” I assure.
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Bassett submits. “It all really comes down to Spartacus and whatever he wants to do. Don’t ask too many questions and you’ll end up with a decent song. Embrace the chaos. That’s all it is anyway, just play music.”
The band will continue playing shows around Detroit in Michigan. Bassett already has pushed into new genres and flavors for the next batch of songs and plans on releasing a full length in the summer time. Scissors and Suckers is the third official release from Bassett and Bates self-run label, Sleek Speek.
2 / 21 - Magic Bag
(bathroom photo: Thomas Matich; live photo: mike milo)