In short, Motorcylces Are Everywhere are now, literally, everywhere.
Sound designer Matt O'Hare had made a living working the East Coast circut as a man with an ear for the obtuse, able to make a small living as a theatrical sound designer by making each show he did a work of art in and of itself, writing rock songs for shows that called for them and atmospheric landscapes for entirely different productions without as much as batting an eye. As he worked to make a living in New York City doing what he love, things, eventually, turned towards his own music.
Motorcycles Are Everywhere -- the pseudoynm under which O'Hare has been recording -- just barely released their debut album 1983, an electro-rock stunner that melds waves of noise to remarkably considered song structures, resulting in a wholly visceral listening experience. Though you can hear elements of bands like Radiohead and Depeche Mode floating throughout the mix, MAE has emerged with a unique sound that couldn't be more appropriate for our era: fiery yet cohesive, chaotic yet digestable, poppy but with a sense of longing undercutting the whole experience. Yet there is one descriptor that sets MAE apart from his peers during these troubled times: his music is 100% free.
Sitting down with Evcat, O'Hare is more than willing to talk about how his album was largely made possible by the economic downturn, how wildly experimental his recording process has been, and how NYC can very much be a make-or-break arena for just about anyone in any field -- and how those very people very much populate the lyrical landscape of 1983 ...
>>It's been noted that back in 2006, while you were still focused on sound designing, you once said that you couldn't write songs for yourself -- only for pre-written material. Then, after the February 2009 production of The Maids you worked on for Trinity Rep/Brown, things changed. What happened, and what ultimately lead to the creation of Motorcycles Are Everywhere?
I've been writing music since I received a Casio keyboard as a gift when I was ten or so. It was pretty clear from the beginning that the concept of learning an instrument simply to play preexisting songs was foreign to me. Perhaps not surprisingly, I was more interested in unusual sounds than I was in developing performance technique. I'm still not a very accomplished musician when it comes to playing the guitar (which I switched over to in junior high to meet girls).
Then came the high school punk band. We wrote our own songs, but the hardest part was writing the lyrics. I don't think I wrote one stanza in high school that didn't make me cringe, so that always slowed the songwriting process way down for me. I had mountains of riffs and half-finished tunes, but I had no idea how to write words for them. Amidst the mid-nineties slump of post-grunge, I thought that all lyrics had to be self-referential and be about personal suffering in order to be interesting. And I was incapable of doing that in an honest way. I was just a suburban teenager with a pretty normal life, afterall.
Meanwhile, I was also acting in plays. It wasn't until college that my two interests came together, and I started writing music for shows that I was in. That was revelatory. Suddenly all the source material was right in front of me: the story, the setting, the characters, the director's vision. These elements gave me everything I needed to generate material; both music and lyrics. After that door was opened, I was much more prolific. However, my writing became exclusively focused on theater and intertwined with other people's ideas. Not such a bad thing, and it certainly has a lot of influence over how I approach music now. It stretched me to places I wouldn't have gone on my own accord; trying to write in a Renaissance style or taking a stab at jazz, for example. But until recently, it looked like I had abandoned the idea of writing music solely from my own imagination.
What happened last year was that I started to no longer feel creatively liberated by theater. I had accumulated a lot of various technical skills and new ways to generate music and sound, and yet I felt like I wasn't using them to their fullest potential. There's only so much music and sound you can cram into a play before the story gets upstaged by it. However, there became an irrepressable urge to make music the total focus again. It was then that I decided to start MAE.
>>There appears to be a particularly bitter lyrical streak running through on this album, particularly with tracks like "The Photographer", which are self-depricating and venemous in equal measure. In what place did you write a majority of these songs? Would you say that this album has an overarching "theme" at all? Given how the album's title refers to the year of your birth, to what degree is this disc autobiographical?
1983 was written almost exclusively in New York City. I was still struggling to keep myself afloat as a freelance sound designer amidst the aftermath of the financial crisis. When I left New York in May, jobs were still pretty few and far between. At that point, I was no longer living in the city fulltime, but renting a guest room from friends in Brooklyn when I had enough jobs booked to afford it. When I didn't have any work, I would go back to my parents' place in rural Vermont and record music until the next gig came along. It could be said that if it wasn't for the recession, I wouldn't have had the time to make 1983.
Living in New York exposed me directly to a lot of aspects to our culture that I was only peripherally aware of beforehand. It's the city where people come to test themselves against the best in the world, whether they're an artist or an investment banker. For me, the whole emotional climate of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn is defined by a perpetual sense of competition and self-consciousness. This energy manifests itself in a lot of ways. For instance, you have people willing to let themselves be exploited for the false promise of fame, recognition, wealth, etc. Hardly something new, but it seemed like it was everywhere I looked. In the entertainment world, people are constantly working for free because of the thin hope that it may lead to something else. I've done it many times. On the other side of the equation, you have the people who recognize this dynamic and take advantage of it. It could be something enormous, like promising impossible returns on a $2 million investment in the case of Bernie Madoff, or it could be something as small as appearing in a risque photograph for an American Apparel advert with the promise that it will advance your modeling career. It's this idea of ambition as a form of currency: I promise to help you achieve your aspirations in exchange for your money, your body, whatever. Unfortunately, I think the exchange is often extremely one-sided. The promised rewards seldom seem to arrive. Throughout the songs of 1983, you encounter people stuck somewhere along the spectrum of the used and the users.
Somewhere along the way George Orwell's novel 1984 became a central reference point for me in the writing process. In particular, I was very interested in the role that technology plays in maintaining the dynamic of power that Orwell describes. I was amazed at how relevant it continues to be -- perhaps now more than ever. I speak only for myself, but living in New York makes it easy to imagine a world where we will no longer have a private moment to ourselves. However, the funny (and perhaps sad) part is that there is no Big Brother forcing this perpetual surveillance upon us, we are willingly giving up more and more of our private lives for the promise of... social networking? Entertainment? The chance at becoming famous? I wish I knew. My take on Orwell's theory is that if your behavior is largely influenced by outside forces, whether it be an omnipresent authority or the social pressure to check for Twitter updates every five minutes, your mind no longer belongs to you but to those outside forces. You no longer possess yourself because you spend all day perpetually reacting to outside impulses.
With all of this in mind, the songs of 1983 aren't really about me directly. When writing, I thought of each song as a monologue delivered by its respective character. Sometimes I agree with this person and sometimes I don't. I was striving to capture not just my thoughts and feelings regarding the place I found myself in, but also to capture something about the people I was meeting, reading about, and interacting with on a daily basis. That said, there are definitely personal events that influenced the making of this record, but they're all mixed up with my imaginings and 1984.
>>Given how guitar-based some of your previous songs have been ("Whatever Happened to Bill Viola?" immediately jumps to mind), you seem to be taking a very conscious step towards more of an electro-rock direction with 1983. What would you say your direct influences are, and how did they help shape the sound of MAE?
It was a conscious direction and it wasn't. Perhaps the most influential factor in why I moved in a more electronic direction was that I was on the road so much. As a result, the musical instrument most available to me was my laptop. It's important to me in my work and also my music to make use of whatever it is I have available to me. I didn't have a band or rehearsal space, and I wasn't interested in making a folk album. What was left was my macbook and my voice, so that's what I used.
Another reason I embraced digital music was that it allowed me to incorporate some of the techniques I had developed in my professional work. Digital editing allows you play endlessly with how something sounds. The majority of the songs on 1983 have a very simple structure because more effort was put into the sound of the instruments and how the vocals were treated. The logic is that if you make the song more accessible in one aspect, you can push the limit in another without alienating the listener. As a result, each song has a fairly distinct approach, which is something that would have been much harder to accomplish with my meager resources if I was dealing with purely acoustic recording.
Before and during the writing process, I was listening to a lot of electro-type hip-hop. In particular, I was in love with Cadence Weapon's Breaking Kayfabe album. In his songs, Mr. Weapon makes no attempt to hide the fact that he's using digital trickery. The seams between loops and samples are very prominent and an integral part of his sound. Jel, the beatsmith from Themselves and Subtle also does this, but perhaps to a less post-apocalyptic degree. So does El-P in his amazing opus I'll Sleep When You're Dead. Everything is chopped up and very dense, but it still hangs together like mosaic. Additionally, the subject matter that I was trying to address really lended itself to a more urban sound, so once a story started to emerge, I started to go even further with the electronic element.
Along with this electronic-based rap, I was listening to a slew of different bands. I deliberately tried to imitate the production on Wire's Read And Burn Eps, which I think comes across on songs like "Astray" and "The Quiet Man". I love the sinister sound of The Swans, and also Liars' second and third albums to pieces, but my favorite album of the last few years has to be Battles' Mirrored album. The amount of ideas and invention in those eleven songs is astounding. It's like the aural counterpart to anime, it's so high-stimulation.
Finally, I couldn't get enough of Deastro's Keepers album. It's a solo, homestudio effort I believe. Very imaginative and just plain honest. There's a lot of agression on 1983, and listening to stuff like Deastro, Mario Diaz's de Leon's album Mira, and Panda Bear's Person Pitch helped temper some of that raw, anger-fueled energy into something more positive. On 1983, maybe "Winston + Julia" and "Beautiful Criminal" are examples of this.
>>It's not one of the most well-known facts about you, but a song that you wrote for a particular production ("Save Our Children from the Wolves" from the world premiere of The Insect God) has gone on to be covered by college vocal groups like Just Cuz. To what degree do your songs lend themselves to being covered, or -- more accurately -- how well do you think your "theatrical songs" work as standalone pieces, out of context?
When I write a song for a play that's going to be performed, the goal is to make something that makes sense within the world that the director, actors, and designers have created. Sometimes it's a fully fleshed-out song with musical accompaniment or sometimes it's something that needs to be performed a capella, or sometimes it needs to not be musical at all. As a sound designer, I'm committed to maintaining the rules of the story that we're trying to tell.
Because I've written music in so many different contexts at this point, I've been able to detect certain patterns and consistancies that are a part of everything I write. For example, no matter how the song is being delivered, rules of structure can always be applied, and each composer has his or her own way of structuring a composition. For me, there's always going to be a beginning, middle, and end in whatever way I define those concepts. As I mentioned earlier, I think by making the structure of a song readily accessible, it allows you to get away with much more in terms of the content. Maybe it's this emphasis on structure that allows a lot of my work to be reinvented in very different contexts, but I'm not sure. I'm of the mind that any song can be reinvented in any way. It might not always be successful, but it can still happen. In this regard, a song is just like a play or any other form of story.
>>How has being a sound designer ultimately shaped your musical experiences?
When you spend all of your professional life listening, you're bound to develop a very sensitive ear. A sound designer will be able to classify different sounds by emotional response along with its more practical aspects. It no longer becomes enough to pipe in cricket noises to indicate to the audience that we are outside and it's nighttime. If he or she uses crickets at all, an experienced designer will spend a good amount of time choosing from an array of different types of cricket sounds from all over the world. Ultimately, the final decision will be whichever one tells the story best, even if you're using a recording of crickets from Bhutan for a play set in Pittsburgh. This sort of attention to specificity means I spend a lot of time tweaking my music to the point where everything exists in the same world, or, at least, it's as close as it's going to get.
In addition to making my ear more sensitive, being a sound designer has also dramatically changed how I actually listen. For me, sound design and composition are both highly visual processes now. Perhaps spending so many hours comparing audio to whatever is happening on stage, or anticipating what's going to happen on stage, has left my brain always wanting a visual counterpart to whatever it is I'm hearing. Like a mild form of synesthesia. When I'm mixing, editing, or just listening for pleasure, I keep my eyes shut a lot of the time because there's a whole visual aspect that's taking place. It's very helpful in the mixing process because it allows me to shape sound in a very intuitive way. Almost literally moving sounds around the way you would different layers of images in Photoshop.
On a practical level, sound design has also put me in many situations where I had to be very creative in order to solve a problem. I think anyone who works in theater professionally has had the experience of being expected to pull something out of thin air. In my world, you'll be asked to write an original composition on a harp in a place where you have no access to a harp nor the money to buy one. So I'll record some stuff on my classical guitar in an open tuning and spend hours tweaking it on my computer until it sounds more or less like a harp. One time I had to write the musical accompaniment to a fifteen minute avant garde opera with only thirteen pages of disjointed lyrics as a reference point. In three days. I had a drum machine, an old Roland keyboard, and M.I.A.'s Arular album playing on the stereo for inspiration. Largely due to the committment of the actors, the end result was amazing and one of my proudest accomplishments. But I never thought I could do it until I did it. Sound design has profoundly shaped what kind of composer I am, in ways both practical and artistic.
>>You seem to very much be experimenting around with certain styles and textures on this album, particularly with the "sampled" phonate sounds on "Beautiful Criminal". To what degree was this album "considered" and to what degree did playing around with different things ultimately shape your creative process?
As I mentioned, I was consciously making an effort to incorporate some of the discoveries I had made when experimenting with sounds and music on professional projects. There were a few things that I knew I wanted to be on 1983. Some of them are hard to articulate, but I'll give an example. Often for a sound design, I'd find myself editing a sound just to the point where it's barely recognizable. I would do this with the intention of making the sound harder for the audience to define, but just enough of the sound is recognizable enough in order to get the imagination firing and generate some kind of emotional response. I read later that this was often a goal of Brian Eno's when he produced; to consciously mask the defining characteristics of an instrument with the intention that the listener will no longer be able to bring their preconceived ideas of what a trumpet or a guitar is to the listening experience. It's my belief that it engages the listener on a deeper level because it asks your imagination to work harder at attributing this sound to its source. When it works best, it significantly delays the time it takes for your brain to make sense of what it is you are hearing, which means that you spend more time reacting on a more primal, more emotional level. Of course, whether or not I achieve this in my own production is debatable, but that was certainly a goal that electronic music allowed me to persue. It makes it much easier to blur lines. For example, many of the textures and sounds on 1983 are actually sampled guitar. Every song has guitar on it in some form or another, but more often than not, it's not recognizable as such.
Another method I used was to try to create a song using self-generated, but more-or-less random sounds. If you go to my website and check out the splash page, there's one of six images or so that will come up. These were made in a similar sort of fashion. I used a very basic drawing program, and made some kind of picture very quickly with random movements in less than a minute. That became the starting point, much as I would write a few short riffs very quickly and record them.
The next step was throwing the picture into Photoshop and then spending a lot of time tweaking it until something interesting happened. For many of the songs in 1983, I used self-generated samples that were improvised very quickly, then reshaped and edited many times over until a real song began to emerge. Much as I have many MAE logos that weren't successful and are not to be found on my website, I also have many songs that didn't work out because the samples I was using didn't lead anywhere. The songs that were successful became the basis for 1983.
>>Within two weeks of its release, MAE has already been blogged about in places as far as Quebec and Hungary. Has the response to the album surprised you at all?
The response has certainly surprised me. The only goal I had when I started 1983 was to finish it. Now that it's done, I definitely want people to hear it, but even if it never reaches more than a thousand pairs of ears, I'd still be content to have finished a full-length album that I am proud of. But I keep finding little posts on the internet here and there (when I am unapologetically Googling Motorcycles Are Everywhere) -- evidence that a few people liked it enough to want their friends to hear it. Those sorts of word-of-mouth endorsements are very satisfying to me.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the album release has been where it's ended up. Malaysia, Poland, Brazil -- all over the place within the span of a week. Never have I so directly experienced that the internet has completely changed the way information is exchanged. I am in awe of it.
>>Finally, so far in your career, what has been your biggest regret, and -- conversely -- what's been your proudest accomplishment?
Sometimes I wish I took more time to enjoy the fact that I was getting paid to sound design. Trying to make ends meet in the world of professional theater can be very challenging. With that can come a lot of frustration and the feeling that you're allowing yourself to be taken advantage of. You work very hard for the minimum of compensation. But the people that thrive in theater are those that love it so much, that it doesn't matter. And eventually, you start to be paid what you are worth. Before that happens, however, you have to endure what seems to be an endless amount of time stuck in a dark room for twelve hours at a stretch, going over the same moment over and over again until it is art. It can be painful, and it often took its toll on my attitude. Those are the moments I wished that I had sat back, taken in a breath, and reminded myself that I was getting payed to play.