Thursday, January 22, 2009

My Interview With Scott Masson of OFFICE

For the last few weeks I was working on an interview with Scott Masson, leader of the Chicago band OFFICE, discussing some of the rumors surrounding the group as of late. It went up as the feature on Gapers Block: Transmission last weekend, but since I was in D.C. for the inauguration (which was kick-ass btw) I didn't have much time or access to internet to post it here. I had to edit down A LOT for the feature, but I wanted to post the entire interview here because there was so much good stuff I wanted to leave in, he had a lot of great responses.

So, here it is, the real story from Scott Masson himself...
(and thanks again to Scott for the interview!)

(photo by Kyle LaMere)

Mich: Rumor has it that OFFICE has broken up. Is this true?

Scott Masson: Many versions of OFFICE have formed or mutually broken up since 2000, so I think it would be silly to call it anything other than a "project" or "hallucination". The answer to your question is "no", OFFICE didn't split up. I consider every collaborator my friend....brothers and sisters in the pursuit of spanking modern songwriting on its ripe, uptight ass. It's a life-long pursuit though. When one guy quits, or 100 folks doesn't affect the creative process.

Experience is priceless for us. Music is timeless. There are yellow songs and purple songs. Slow and quiet. Fast and furious. The bizarre and sublime. An audience can be 10 people, or thousands. Words like "peak" and "nadir" when used to describe an artistic endeavor require some sort of business trajectory or career expectation in order for their definitions to survive. I don't carry this ideology, therefore, I'm exempt from that plan. A free creative process has always been my drug of choice. Would I release Mecca on the internet at no cost if I cared about a music career? I only have to cater to the cosmos, which is how I started OFFICE. I always write alone, and I'm just one of many song-writers out there who care deeply about the craft. There are far more relevant situations taking place in the world, so I'm not delusional. Art is a pleasurable job, and my life is the perpetual song I have to write. The world is a bit of an office in my eyes, so I just dive in and work with whoever is available or hiring in this economy. Nothing is sacred. I'm more concerned with the bigger picture these days. Record labels, rehearsing, playing shows, loud electric guitars, band morale, and selling T-Shirts to the drunk who doesn't need one seems quite trivial to me. I feel something more should be done here....something more daring than rock and roll. Maybe community service or a type of activism. I don't know. Maybe music is a loose form of these already.

I'd like to take this opportunity to give a shout out to the members of OFFICE who didn't end up on MTV, or in the glossy magazines, newspapers, or blogs: Toby, Brad, Katie, Jody, Jen, Jeremy, Jamison, John, Justin, Liz, Aaron, Amanda, Jenny, Thea, Sara Jean, Justin, Sean, Kern, etc. It's like the Mickey Mouse Club. Nobody ever talks about the people who came before, yet their influence on the project was vast. Because these people never flirted with major recognition in the Chicago and national markets, they were spared the ego fuckfest that followed. None of these people made any demands, nor did they participate in the politics.

Since this project began at the turn of the century, it was my goal to make everybody I worked with feel responsible for the final product, even if my "punch card" would have proven that I was, in fact, the only one working the day and night shift for 9 years straight. That's not megalomania. That's just trying to get stuff done. This plan backfired on me, you might say. I no longer have time for banality when things get competitive and lame within a group of musicians. I would have continued working alone as OFFICE if I knew this information earlier.

Artists must keep moving, experiment with environments, learn to work with new people, new situations, expand, listen, and not carry any resentment. It's a learning process; a survival instinct. I simply stepped out of the circle so I could be myself in peace and quiet, without business and politics affecting the music. I moved to a small town in Michigan, far away from the city. Most of my reasons for moving had nothing to do with OFFICE. Currently, I work for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). It's an old non-profit run by Quakers. I'm a lot happier doing what I'm doing now, and very much at peace with myself. My daily conversations and actions revolve around stuff that actually matters on a local level. I work out every day, hold down this job, save money, pay off debts, write music, make art, read a lot, and feed my brain with positive things. It's not rocket science. I loved playing music with all of those folks. I'm not the band type, I guess. The body and mind will always let us know when it's time to flip an equation. Creative people need to be on their own schedule.

Me: You said in your blog that the new album Mecca was completed in June of last year, and later announced a release date in October, but the album never came out--until you released it as a free download last week on and sendspace. Why the delay?

SM: Some folks in our project wanted to put Mecca out on a label, but Erica [Corniel] and I wanted to give it away to the public for free. I wanted my friend Sara Jean Stevens to be in our the band, but everyone fought against me on this. Things had just gotten too weird by this point, and I wasn't sure if democracy, anarchy, or a complete dictatorship was the way to run this project. I ended up choosing non-archy....and stopped caring, and got the hell out of dodge. Compromise is for committees, not free-spirits.

By September, Mecca was all set to go. We were excited about the final results of the record. I was very proud of it. The songs hit on a lot of different levels, and I was really proud of the everyone's hard work. I had been open about wanting to release it for free early on in the recording process. Tom [Smith] was adamant about selling it, and going through the traditional industry route. Mind you, this was only a couple months after I asked James Iha to drop us from Scratchie. I wasn't going anywhere near a business situation, because of how many times I bent over in 2007. There was a lot of talking going on, but no direction. It wasn't Tom or Colin [DeKuiper]'s fault either. Some labels were interested, but nobody was really biting because of the economy, scheduling conflicts, or whatever....or maybe because of my bad haircut!

I turned 30 in September, and a couple days later I got mugged on my way to a recording session the Mannequin Men were having. I had a mild concussion, a black eye, and huge bruises all over my body. I could barely walk for a couple days. Lying in bed, I had an epiphany. This ended up being one of the best things that's happened to me in years. I told my family and the members of OFFICE that I was leaving Chicago. Things were pointing in that direction for awhile, but getting the shit beaten out of me put things in motion. I told them to just work on their own projects, and maybe we'd meet up in a few months. It's a complicated mixture of self-induced stress and external stress. My reasons beyond that I'd like to keep personal, for the sake of my own privacy, and the privacy of those involved with the project. Time moves on. We did our Schubas residency, and had a lot of fun doing it. I moved back to Michigan, and never heard from anybody about Mecca's so-called destiny. We played a show in Ann Arbor on Dec. 17th, and Tom and Colin quit at 4am. They told me to go ahead and leak Mecca, which was my original plan anyway. as the sole proprietor of OFFICE once again, I was finally able to release Mecca for free this month. I made some final revisions before its release as well, to show my gratitude for Tom's behavior upon his departure. Life influences the production, you can say.

Me: The tracklist that you put on your blog in June for Mecca has 14 songs, but the release only contained 11. Why were those three songs removed?

SM: Because those tunes belong to Tom Smith. He wrote them, and I just recorded them. They are fantastic tunes, and I really wish they were on the record, but they didn't make the final cut. He did a great job writing them. He quit OFFICE very disrespectfully though, so therefore, it's no longer my place to release his material, nor do I have any authority to release his tunes. You forfeit your right to claim ownership of a final product when you quit before the product's finish line. You disrespect me in the process, and I probably won't go out of my way to appease your demands after the fact. He needed to start fresh, and I figured he'd want the songs to use at his own discretion. It's his art, not mine. I can only answer for the 11 songs that I wrote.

Me: Speaking of Tom, he left a comment on Chicagoist's review of Mecca making some claims and accusations, and generally, it seems, stirring up controversy. How do you respond to his statements?

SM: Blog-core.

Me: Blog-core?

SM: That is the big question! haha. It's an ambiguous phrase of mine that I throw around when people get a little too serious on the internet.

Me: OFFICE parted ways with manager, Matt DuFour, last april and is now self-managed by you. How had this changed things for the band, creatively and business-wise?

SM: Matt DuFour is a nice guy. I don't really talk to him at all these days, but he and I were great friends when we started working together. That was a group decision to let him go, but I was the one who made it final. I wish I sat him down and talked to him face-to-face, and not fired him over the phone. I'm not good at firing people, because I'm not a business man. A perfect example of something I should have done with more care. I didn't answer your question at all, did I?

Me: OFFICE was scheduled to play a New Years Eve show with Local H at Bottom Lounge, but then pulled out the last second. Why?

SM: I didn't feel like driving 5 hours from Detroit to play with people who no longer wanted to be a part of OFFICE, just so everybody could get paid at the end of the night. It would have been tense and fake onstage, and that is not the kind of show I want to give people when they're trying to celebrate NYE, nor is it the way I want to spend the holiday myself. I cancelled our appearance.

Me: I noticed on OFFICE's facebook that it says "no shows, please" under Booking Agent. Is this for the same reason the NYE show was canceled?

SM: Sort of. The project is just not a performing entity right now. I'm focused on other things like my job with the AFSC, playing the piano, working out, making visual art, being in a relaxed atmosphere, and losing my gut. Erica is doing her thing. Justin [Petertil] is doing his thing as well. I retired from the business for awhile. Why would I jump back into it after only a couple months off? Like I said, I don't speak for the others. If somebody approaches me with a cool situation for performing, then I might put together a lil' cocktail combo. I only want to perform concerts and recitals though, in mini theaters or unconventional venues. When I was very young, I told myself that I wanted to age like a jazz musician. I don't want to be a rocker in my 30s and 40s. I'm doing exactly what I should be doing right now: protecting my physical and mental health, working on some weird-ass sculptures, and writing string arrangements on a lil' computer program.

Me: OFFICE played a residency every Monday in October at Schubas and the band seemed at the top of their game. What happened between then and now? Did tensions already exist at that time?

SM: There were no tensions at the time that I was aware of, apart from the normal shit-talking we all do. I don't even remember the Schubas residency, 'cuz I was pretty vacant around that time. The members were definitely running the show, and they were doing a great job of keeping it together. I was ready to just do something else. Three albums, lots of weirdness, lots of productivity, unemployment, personal stuff, business, etc.....all since 2006. Once I moved back to Michigan, I was just getting my job rolling, and figuring out the new path. OFFICE was on the back-burner. The others were doing their thing in Chicago.

Me: Now about the album… How is Mecca different from your last project, A Night At The Ritz? The band has a couple of new/different members on this album, did that make a difference creatively?

SM: Mecca is an album. It was an in-house production from front-to-back. The material was all woven together and written throughout the course of a specific period, as opposed to The Ritz. The artwork for Mecca was created by my good friend, Fidel Gato. He and I had been trying to work together for years, but he was held up in Belgium, doing live action painting for blog-house artists in the red light district. Fidel went to artschool, man. He's travelled around the world, and he listens to the lyrics. A highly recommended artiste. Not to mention, he smokes really good weed.

Sonically, Mecca is different because the material did not require the synthetics of earlier OFFICE music. The only synthesizer that was used on the album was Justin Petertil's Realistic analog synth, which was given to him by an old lesbian Trekkie living in Andersonville. She bought it back in '78, when she was doing a lot of science fiction conventions and performance art. That was only used on two songs. The rest was organs, upright piano, melodica, toy piano, harpsichord, glockenspiel, vocals, and manipulated acoustic and electric instruments, etc.

The bass playing on Mecca is fabulous. It was a pleasure working with Colin, who is such a nice guy, and a brilliant bass player. Tom's guitar playing on the album really proves that he is, in fact, one of the best guitar players out there. Listen to the electric guitar on the song "The Silent Parade", and you'll hear an avant-garde jazz player in there. Maybe it's the fact that he's a lefty, but his touch is unique and stunning. Erica's drumming is rock-solid and sonic, and her voice is pristine, as always. She's a pleasure, and I hope I can work with her in the future.

Justin created some really cool textures over the tracks, but that's no surprise. I've been working with him since 2001, and he's always blown me away. For me, my favorite part about Mecca is the freaky production. There were a lot of frequencies and voices to sculpt and manipulate. After being called a new wave band by the press, it was a pleasure making this album. I'm not sure there is anywhere to go other than quiet and subtle after this. Maybe the sudden change in the project's location and personnel is the perfect time to take OFFICE in yet another direction. How much longer can we turn up the guitars, and have those bombastic drums? Did it.

Me: You've called Mecca "a pretty intense body of work, not exactly party music." I think many of your fans (including me) would disagree--there are some seriously catchy pop hooks make me want to dance around my living room! Are you referring to the album more lyrically?

SM: I was probably referring to the lyrics. It's just really bizarre, that's all. Beneath the surface of pop melody, those productions and images are super weird and honest. Maybe they were intense for me because I produced them, so I know the extent of their depth. In the past, I probably would have been more prone to push the cleanliness up in the mix. In the case of this album, it was my goal to try and make it as raw, unpredictable, and organic as possible. It has it's pretty moments as well. Let's dump it all onto tape at the end, and get a nice sound that couldn't be stuck inside any era. This album sounds like it was recorded in another world. The drums alone sound nothing like other drum recordings out there.

Me: You also said in your blog that you have a new multi-media project called Action Scene coming out in February, and that you are working on new recordings in Detroit. Can you elaborate on either of these?

SM: Action Scene is a sculpture / video piece I'm currently making. I'm hoping to get it done in the next couple weeks so I can put it up on the web. It's a fun lil' piece about the characters I used to run into around the big city, so therefore, it deals more with identity issues, rather than anything autobiographical. That's about all I should say.

The new OFFICE recordings I'm making with my friends out here are about aspects of life that don't concern pop culture, chaotic behavior, cosmopolitan moxie, or being involved with uncomfortable social situations, etc. These are songs of love, silence, escape, and a simpler "behind the scenes" look at American culture. I'm not trying to be The Boss, but I am interested in researching the auto industry, strip malls, flea markets, senior citizens, and the side of life we all tend to pass by as "boring" or "unglamorous". I'm sure it'll be a hit with the DJs who are currently looking up the latest Girl Talk mash-up for their Serrato set.

I've written many albums during my 20s about that other stuff. I have access to a lot of great musicians around this little town, as well as in Detroit, since I grew up here. This girl Jasmine, who works at the coffee shop in town, has got a beautiful voice. She's been doing some singing with me, and my friends have been helping me out with the music part. It's a lot easier out here. No expectations. No drama. No traffic up in these streets. It's like heaven. Maybe I'll come back to Chicago someday. It'll have to be a less-stressful situation. That is a great city, and it was always exciting.

Best of luck to everybody, and my love to Tom, Colin, Erica, and Justin.

Much love,
S. Masson

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