This is the third in a series of exclusive interviews with Mark Will of the Taipei-based musical collective [ai]. In previous conversations, we have discussed “Dystopian Theme Song” and “The Kinkster,” the first two singles from [ai]’s debut album Carmina Formosa. I recently met Will at a teahouse near National Taiwan University to speak with him about the band’s third single, “Now I Know You.” The following transcript of our interview has been condensed and edited.
I noticed that you used images of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to promote “Now I Know You.” Was the song written in response to the current presidential election?
Not at all. I wrote the song about four years ago, probably around the time of the previous electoral carnival, but it originated with impulses which were completely personal, not political. I was filled with anger and resentment towards certain people in my life at that time, and I wanted to sublimate those feelings into a Dylanesque “finger-pointing song.” I think I consciously tried to write my own “Positively 4th Street.” It was only after the song was written and recorded that I began to recognize its potential political significance. Of course, some of Dylan’s best songs—“Idiot Wind” and “Masters of War,” for example—are both personal and political. The same can often be said about the songs of the other great masters of the diss track and the musical put-down: Morrissey, Roger Waters, Lou Reed, John Lydon, and some of the other artists featured in the “Haha, Charade You Are!” playlist on our YouTube channel. When I started promoting “Now I Know You,” I realized that the political had overtaken the personal in a sense. I still remember very clearly the specific people that inspired the song, but the spitefulness of the lyrics now seems to resonate more with the disgust and rage that I and so many others feel about the current political situation. Each stanza conjures an image of some loathsome politician, public figure, or institution.
Who gets Mark Will’s vote for president, if anyone?
As usual, I am declining to participate in the quadrennial ritual of futility. I realized long ago that the internecine disputes of the millionaire class have nothing to do with me. I knew from the outset of the current election cycle that I would #BoycottTrumpClinton, to use the hashtag popularized by John Stauber, who in an allusion to the Stones’ “Salt of the Earth” has remarked that once again we are presented with “a choice of cancer and polio.” For a while, I seriously considered voting for Jill Stein, whose platform I generally support. Gloria La Riva was another possibility I considered. But voting absentee, as I would have to do, is a bureaucratic hassle, and what would I get for my troubles? Red-state Texas, where I’m from, will go Republican no matter what, and who will even know, much less care, what some expat does with his vote? What guarantee do I have that my vote would even be counted? Indeed, it’s quite possible that a vote for a candidate outside of the oligarchic duopoly would be tallied for one of the two major candidates—and in Texas that means Trump. I have no confidence whatsoever in the voting process, with its voting machines which leave no paper trails. I agree with The Polemicist, who argues that the most powerful statement we can make is to withdraw from electoral politics and refuse to participate. #StrikeTheVote is his slogan. The same sentiment is expressed by Morrissey, who says: “Each time you vote, you support the process.” Since I don’t want to support the process that has brought us to where we are now, I find myself singing that other great line from “Salt of the Earth”: “Spare a thought for the stay-at-home voter.”
You have expressed a pessimistic view of world politics in “Dystopian Theme Song” as well. When did you first start to lose faith in the political process?
I don’t think I ever had any. I always considered it a sham, a revolting spectacle. I have voted only once in my life. In 2004, I wanted to vote against Bush, but I couldn’t stomach voting for Kerry, who had supported the invasion of Iraq. If I was going to vote, I had to be able to vote against war and empire. So I went downtown and pushed a button for David Cobb of the Green Party. This was in Houston, where there were reports on the local news that the machines were changing votes from Kerry to Bush. The rigging of the outcome was that blatant. So who knows what happened to my vote for the Greens? Maybe it went to the war criminal George W after all. I saw statistics online later and it said 0 votes were cast for David Cobb in Harris County. Maybe I read it wrong and it was 0% rather than 0 actual votes, but the fact that a protest vote wouldn’t even be acknowledged in the public records sickened me and made me vow never to participate again until the electoral college was scrapped, voting machines were replaced with paper ballots, and instant-runoff voting was instituted.
Are there any politicians or world leaders that inspire faith in you?
Not at the present time. But before he left office, I had great admiration for President Jose Mujica of Uruguay. What’s not to love about this man? He refused to live in the presidential mansion, wore sweaters to work, drove a beat-up Volkswagen, donated most of his salary to charity, and resisted US designs on his continent. He also managed to legalize marijuana, gay marriage, and abortion in a predominantly Catholic country. It’s because of him that I sometimes daydream about moving to South America. I hope I can arrive safely before the idiotic powers of the northern hemisphere start shooting off their nuclear warheads at one another.
When I listen to “Now I Know You,” one thing that really stands out to me is the clarity of your voice. I wanted to ask you—when did you first start singing?
Probably as a kid among the dour Presbyterians. My mom was the church organist and my first music teacher. She forced me to study piano, which I hated, but I always liked to sing and she encouraged this, as did the old ladies who taught me at Sunday school. In elementary school I was cast as the lead in a school musical about P.T. Barnum, of all people. I sang in the choir in middle school like the good little boy that I was. But then as a teenager, after picking up a guitar and discovering marijuana, LSD, the Beatles, and Pink Floyd, I began to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord” in quite a different manner. I had a vocal coach briefly, a kindly middle-aged gay man who encouraged me to sing from my gut and chest rather than my throat. I had a pretty wide tenor range at that time, but over the years the wear and tear on my vocal cords has forced me into the baritone register, although I can still hit some surprisingly high notes with my falsetto. I often try to mimic the style of particular vocalists whose energies I want to channel into particular songs, but the result I think is always uniquely my own, for better or worse. On “Now I Know You,” I wanted the vocals to swing, so what you’re hearing is my idiosyncratic impression of Morrissey and Sinatra. I’m happy with the performance overall, but it did require several takes, and I always feel that I could have done better. With music, I don’t think I have the technical skills to control the output in the same way that I can control words on the page as a writer.
I was also really impressed by the guitar work on this track. Tell me more about your guitarist, Oren Avni. Has he been a member of [ai] since the band’s inception?
Were it not for Oren, I don’t think I would have even written the songs of Carmina Formosa. Meeting him is what inspired me to get serious about doing something musically again. He is the best musical collaborator I’ve ever had. He’s the co-arranger if not the principal arranger of every track. Every note, every sound you hear on the album we discussed and debated, then agreed upon, in consultation with our producer. As a guitarist, he is a virtuoso. The influence of guitar heroes like Jimmy Page is obvious on tracks like “Dystopian Theme Song.” On “Now I Know You,” people say they hear Santana in the verses and choruses and David Gilmour during the instrumental part. Gilmour is definitely one of Oren’s influences, particularly on slide guitar, and like Gilmour’s guitar lines on Pink Floyd tracks, the melodies of Oren’s solos have become integral parts of my songs. But the Spanish licks he’s playing were probably not inspired by Santana. Oren is deeply indebted to the gypsy jazz tradition of Django Reinhardt. He’s also been influenced by Paco de Lucía and John McLaughlin. He’s really more of a fusion player than a straight rock player, but as is obvious to anyone with ears he can tear it up with the best of them. Miles Davis had a word for players like him.
Musically, there are so many different parts to “Now I Know You.” How long did it take to put all these different parts together?
I don’t remember “Now I Know You” taking any longer to arrange than the other songs did. I wrote it according to the following pattern: riff / verse / chorus / verse / chorus / riff / half-verse / chorus / riff. That was the basic structure. But everything you hear after the first 4 minutes or so is all Oren. He came up with the instrumental part, which is based on the chords of the verse and chorus, but in half-time. He came up with the percussive guitar which segues into the concluding riff in regular time. The complete arrangement evolved out of our early rehearsals, which consisted of the two of us sitting around in my living room, he with an acoustic guitar and I with my bass. Then we taught the arrangement to the drummer, Joe Chen, before we went to the studio.
Was it the most difficult song on the album to record?
No. As with all the other songs on the album, we recorded the basic tracks live as a 3-piece: drums, bass, rhythm guitar. And as with all but one song, it went rather quickly. I’m pretty sure we nailed it in a couple of takes. In fact, we set a record at 112F Studio by laying down the basic tracks for 8 songs in one day. It was “Let Me Do It” that gave us the most trouble. We had to finish that one on day two.
When you’re in the studio, how does the band collaborate on a new song?
Since studio time is expensive, we try to have everything planned out before the session. Of course, there are unexpected issues that arise, but we know exactly what arrangements we want and we execute them according to plan. After the basic tracks were laid down, Joe’s work was complete and he went home. Then Oren did his guitar overdubs before leaving for Israel. The next year and a half I would go in about once a month to do vocal overdubs and experiment with different mixes. Eventually we realized there was no way we could make the album better than it was. That’s how we knew we were done.
Can we expect to see [ai] play any shows in the near future?
I hope so. I’m ready to play live. Oren is coming back to Taiwan in early November, but we haven’t discussed what will happen with the band yet. If we do put on some shows, we will need a bassist. If I’m singing, I don’t want to be mucking about with an instrument around my neck. When I perform live, I’m more comfortable in the exclusive role of vocalist. I become a kind of solitary introverted dervish like Iggy Pop, Jim Morrison, or Ian Curtis. I can’t deliver the songs nearly as well when I’m worried about playing chords or basslines.
It’s always a pleasure chatting with you. Next time we’ll discuss the fourth single from Carmina Formosa, “Lonely God.”
Thanks, man. Let’s meet here again. I like the tea.