An in-person interview with Zach Gehring, guitarist of Mae, conducted on November 3, 2009, at the Northstar Bar in Philadelphia, PA.
Eric, IVM: Tell us about the thought process that went into this year’s EP trilogy, both musically and business-wise with releasing songs one by one.
Zach, Mae: I think, from a creative standpoint, as far as why we’re doing it this way instead of just doing a traditional release, was that…Well, the way things typically work, you release records on a major label, or labels in general release records on a Tuesday. Every Tuesday…there’s 52 weeks in a year, so every Tuesday there’s a record that comes out, and it goes through the traditional kind of existence of promotion. You put it out, you tour on it, and you do it again. The market’s getting so saturated with bands that are able to do that, for whatever reason, they get signed and, it’s getting just, really hard to stand out. So we wanted to do something that kept our fans active over the whole year. So if we put out one song a month, our fans have a reason to continue coming to our website every month.
And the EPs, they’re more than EPs. EP is an inaccurate term for them, because there is actually a good amount of music on these releases. And we wanted to do that just because when we have these releases, the three of them that we’re doing, there’s more than just the songs that you hear on the internet. So obviously a fan can go and download four songs between January and April, but if they were to buy the (m)orning release, they would get additional music that you can’t find anywhere else.
So we have these ideas, we have this content that we’re wanting to give everyone, but we wanted to do it our way. And we were able to do it our way, just because of everything that happened a couple years back. After we released Singularity, Capitol Records merged with Virgin Records. We lost a couple of our staff. We lost some of the people that signed us and were believing in Mae. Then EMI got bought out, which continued to dismantle the staff that we were used to working with at Capitol. Mark and Rob, our old keyboardist and bassist left, so we found ourselves at the end of this… well, really in the midst of the Singularity record cycle, with really no one and nothing. Like no label, and three guys in this band, and so had to sit down and evaluate why we wanted to continue as a band. And at this point we hadn’t really thought about what we were gonna do. We didn’t have plans to do this campaign yet. We were kind of lost and trying to find out just a reason to even continue as Mae. But I think what ultimately happened was we sat down, we knew we loved making music together, we knew we wanted to continue to make music, but we had to have a reason. We had to have a motivation. We didn’t want to put out records just for recreation. If we’re putting out music for people to buy, it has to be worth something. Just don’t take advantage of the consumer, or our fans, so we really wanted to do something that knit them to us.
And we found ourselves, as many, all these negatives were going on, it’s very discouraging. But look at the other side of that, with major labels, the record industry, it’s as open now as it’s ever been as far as how you can do things. The labels don’t really know what they’re doing. The internet, and the recording technology’s getting so advanced and so unique that you can really go any avenue you want and try it, and see what happens. And, I guess we were just at a point where we wanted to take advantage of the opportunities that we had, rather than just kind of sulk with the things that had happened recently. So we all sat down and just said, well we have to do something really different. If we have complete control of our music, and how we do business, let’s take advantage of that. And that’s how we came, you know, it was like a couple long discussions, we really worked it out and planned it out and everything.
And the charity side of everything came in just because we had worked with, you know, a couple tours while we were on the Singularity cycle, we had done these small acoustic shows for donations before or after the main set. One time we worked with Toys for Tots, where kids would bring toys. Another tour we worked with Habitat for Humanity. We took five dollar donations. That was just a small and really easy idea. All it took was us saying ok, we’re gonna do this. We played a few songs, and they were really successful. And so, when we had the opportunity to do what we wanted for 2009, we thought we should take it all the way, and really get into the idea and explore it and go full tilt. So yeah, that’s how all of these influences kind of like came to together to court us in this direction.
E: Yeah, it’s a lot of unique thoughts. One of the differences that I noticed on the new albums is that, in the past, spiritual themes tended to be pretty subtle, but on (m)orning it seemed more out in the open. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Z: I don’t really know how to answer that. I don’t really… you know, Dave writes most of the lyrics. We all work on them together, but he’s the main arranger or the one that writes most of them. I don’t… it definitely wasn’t a cognizant like, internal effort. And I still think, when you hear a song like “Fisherman’s Song” or something like that, there’s still, from our approach, a vague aspect to it, as far as I know. Like I know when we were writing the song, it definitely wasn’t talking about Christianity or anything like that. I mean, definitely parallels can be drawn, in that song specifically, for sure, but at the same time, I know that we didn’t have a direct spiritual focus. So obviously it’s up to the listener, like, you picked up on it, a lot of people do, but I think for Mae, the spirituality aspect of the band is kind of like it always was. It’s very vague and very up in the air. And we all three feel differently about the aspect or that kind of thing.
E: Yeah, I understand like, with being on Tooth and Nail, you get a certain association…
Z: There was a stigma, for sure, you know?
E: And not every band wants that association but…
Z: It’s weird, because we started with that and we understand it. I mean, even the lyrics, a lot of the lyrics on Destination: Beautiful can be picked up in that way as well. “Tisbury Lane,” direct references. But as we evolved, or as we grew up, um, we didn’t grow away necessarily. I think we just grew more scrutinizing. And not in terms of “the church” or like protesting certain aspects of organized religion. I think it was more about breaking down what we knew personally. And that’s what I think Singularity culminated in. Like the lyrics on Singularity are the most conflict-focused, with what was going on internally within Mae and also where we were in terms of spirituality or anything in that realm. I think the song “Reflections” is kind of like, a microcosm of what we were thinking on that album. And it hasn’t really changed, I mean for me I’ve grown more frustrated and more resentful, and I don’t think Dave has gone that direction. I think he has kind of gone a more general, um, I don’t know… it’s weird to talk about because between the three of us there’s a personal difference. And I can’t say the spirituality on the new releases is being more focused. There was no real statement among the three of us to make it more focused in this way or that. But, that being said, like I said before, we all grew up in that world. So that influence is going to come out at certain times, in certain songs, inevitably. Just because it’s how, it’s a mix of our experience as people growing up.
E: And obviously you’re also getting a lot more involved with like, charity work, and there’s a lot of different groups that you’ve been working with. You’re releasing each song with a different charity to donate to, is that right?
Z: Um, each release. Each of the three releases over this year. And each one represented a block of time, so the first one from January to April, that was the (m)orning release. We were able to raise enough money to put a single mother and three kids in a home, and right now we’re working with an organization called Donors Choose for the (a)fternoon release. And it’s an educational based website that allows teachers to put up their budgetary needs. Very specific, I mean, some teachers just want money for Kleenex or craft supplies. It allows, let’s say you want to search Pennsylvania or Philadelphia, you can find teachers that need certain things, and you can donate to these teachers. We’re trying to fund, or help fund, a project in every state. So that’s what we’re working on right now. On top of that for this tour, we’re trying to do community outreach projects in each city we’re in. Right now, for tonight, we have a food drive set up at our merch table so people can bring food for a local organization based in Philadelphia. As far as the (e)vening release goes, we’re not really sure who we’re gonna work with yet. But it is going to be more globally associated. With (m)orning, it was locally, it was our hometown of Chesapeake, Virginia—Newport News. And right now, the (a)fternoon is a more national-focused organization. It’s all across America. And (e)vening, the final release, will be more globally focused.
E: And how did you choose those three groups?
Z: I think it was us just generally searching for something that we connected with. Habitat for Humanity was awesome just because it allowed us… it was a good first project, just because it allowed people to see where their money was going, in terms of each dollar being sent and building this house. We wanted to have people trust us, not just on faith but on actual evidence. So they’re giving us their money, and with that money we’re doing exactly what we said we would. We were working on the house, and it represented a very tangible thing that was being built with their money, which was good. We had worked with Habitat in the past, with the acoustic shows that we had done a couple of tours prior, and a friend of ours had worked with Habitat in Guatemala and he loved it. So we just got in touch with them, and it happened to line up really well with our timing. It all fell into line. But we knew we wanted to focus on community, education, art, stuff like that. That’s where Donors Choose came into play. We’re also involved in an organization called Destination Imagination, which is a program from kids anywhere from Kindergarten or first grade up through college. It’s basically creative-thinking, problem-solving, artistically-focused challenges with these kids that get involved. It’s nation-wide, and we’ve done some work with them too. So yeah, we are choosing specific organizations that mean something to us. We’re not just pulling something out of thin air. And like I said, the (e)vening one, we’re not really sure who we’re going to work with yet, but we’re looking currently.
E: One last question. Any advice for a new band starting out right now in such a crazy industry?
Z: Right now? The pessimistic side of me says don’t start. But, the realistic side of me, I mean I was a kid once, and when you love music as much as we do, as much as a lot of people do, you start bands just to be involved in that. And if you start a band, go on a tour. That will weed out the people that don’t want to do it. Then continue to work, and work, and work, and play, and play, and play, and work, and work, and work. Because as easy as it may seem, it shouldn’t be. A lot of bands these days get into buses really fast. They get onto MTV or whatever really fast. And that kind of instant gratification is a double-edged sword. So I would say don’t look for that. If it comes… it’s hard to tell like an 18-year-old kid to be smart with something like that, you know? But just keep playing and keep realizing why you’re doing it and just love it. I mean, it’s hard, you know? I’ve been doing it for eight years, I mean, more than that because I was in a band before Mae, so it’s hard for me because I quit school. I had to tell my parents I was quitting school, and they both work in public education, so that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I went on tour in a band. And the first few years of my life in bands sucked, in terms of food, money, all that kind of stuff. But it was a blast. Expect to hate it, but love the experience at the same time. I mean, it’s amazing. So play, play, play, work, work, work.
E: Alright, great. Anything else you want to tell our readers?
Z: Just please check out our website, whatismae.com, and check out what we’re doing this year. Hopefully you’ll like what we’re doing and get involved in any way you can.
E: OK, great. Thanks.