This is the eighth in a series of interviews with American expat Mark Will, the songwriter, vocalist, and bassist of the Taipei-based musical collective [ai]. In previous conversations, we have discussed “Dystopian Theme Song,” “The Kinkster,” “Now I Know You,” “Lonely God,” “Sister Dragonfly,” “Three Little Jailbirds,” and “Let Me Do It,” the first seven singles from [ai]’s debut album Carmina Formosa. I recently met Will at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Gongguan to speak with him about the band’s eighth single, “If You Insist.” The following transcript of our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You have been promoting “If You Insist” as a “silly love song.” What exactly does that mean?
The phrase is derived from Paul McCartney, who once sang: “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs / What’s wrong with that?” To which I reply: “Absolutely nothing [laughs].” McCartney is one of the great masters of the popular love song, and he and the Beatles are obviously major influences on my songwriting. “If You Insist” represents my attempt to write the kind of bright, optimistic, slightly humorous, not too serious love song for which Sir Paul is justly famous.
The McCartneyesque elements of “If You Insist” are clearly audible. Were there any other influences?
All the songs in our “Silly Love Songs” YouTube playlist were probably influential in one way or another. If I remember correctly, the chord sequence came about as I was banging around on the guitar in imitation of George Harrison. The Harrison vibe was later accentuated by the slide solo Oren [guitarist Oren Avni] overdubbed in the middle of the track. Lyrically, I wanted to write something naive and childlike in the manner of Syd Barrett. Hence the simplistic diction, the short lines, and the repetitive rhymes. Some of the songs on Van Morrison’s Moondance and Roxy Music’s Avalon were also in my head, as were Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”
The phrase “if you insist” is somewhat unusual for a song title. Does it have any special significance?
My wife used to always say that to me. I would ask: “Do you want to go to the movies tonight?” “If you insist,” she would say. “Do you want to have dinner first?” “If you insist.” “You’re crazy, aren’t you?” “If you insist.” So I took her phrase and gave it back to her in the form of this silly love song.
Why did you choose an illustration from a medieval manuscript to promote the YouTube video?
I consider McCartney, the Beatles, and the pop love song in general to be continuations of the European tradition of minstrelsy. The Beatles were essentially modern-day troubadours, the Provencal poets of the twentieth century. I wanted to associate “If You Insist” with that tradition and this illustration of the two “lovebirds” from the fourteenth century seemed entirely appropriate in that regard.
Last time we spoke, you said you were planning to remix Carmina Formosa and rerelease it as Carmina Formosa Deluxe. Have you started working on this new project?
Yes indeed. Taiwanese keyboard virtuoso Howard Chou joined us in the studio this summer and laid down tracks on all nine songs. We are very pleased with the results. Like Oren’s guitar solos, the keyboard arrangements have become essential components of the songs. In fact, the old version of Carmina Formosa, without Howard’s contributions, now sounds to me like a demo rather than a polished record. Next month I will return to 112F Studio to add percussion and maybe some ambient sounds before we start remixing. I hope to release the new version of the album in early 2018.
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How different is the new version of “If You Insist”?
It’s been completely transformed for the better. When I listened to the playback with Howard’s electric piano and organ parts I almost cried. There is so much more subtlety and emotion in the track. It’s more Beatlesque and also more soulful, which is what I had always intended. The only thing I think the track needs now is some percussion. I’ve been listening to Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” for inspiration. His tambourine sounds like stardust sprinkled on top of the arrangement. That’s the quality I want on “If You Insist.” I think after we add tambourine to the track, it will sound as close as humanly possible to the ideal song I’ve been hearing in my head.
I know that you were also recently working with filmmaker Kevin Kewley on a video for “Dystopian Theme Song.” When can we expect to see that?
We’ve had some technical difficulties but we’re making progress. We’ve shot all the footage we need and we’ve collected most of the clips we want to use. The textual elements, which are rather intricate, are also more or less complete. It’s just a question now of putting everything together and editing. No promises, but I hope we can have the new video on YouTube by next month. In the meantime, people can still access the old video on our YouTube channel.
You recently returned from a trip to Europe. Did it influence your writing or music in any way?
Yes, I made what I’ve been calling “The Grand Tour” [laughs] and had a wonderful time searching for traces of artists, writers, and musicians: Van Gogh in Amsterdam, Kafka in Prague, Thomas Bernhard in Vienna, Baudelaire in Paris. But I think Berlin probably had the biggest impact on me musically. I visited Hansa Tonstudio, where Bowie recorded most of his Berlin Trilogy. Also, my friend Wolfgang Seidel, a Berliner musician, introduced me to the city’s Echtzeitmusik scene. The German term literally means “real-time music” and it refers to music which is completely improvised. We attended two performances of this highly experimental genre while we were in town. One featured a traditional string trio, and the other featured electronic instruments and prepared piano, as well as traditional flute and strings. I plan to use some of the ideas to which I was exposed to embellish the “freak out” section in the middle of “Let Me Do It.”
Do you have any other updates or announcements for us?
Musically, there is nothing other than what I’ve already mentioned. On the literary front, however, I can tell you that my translation of Fernando Pessoa’s Message is now out in paperback and as an audiobook. I’m also co-editing with CK Hugo Writeous an anthology called Forms of Formosa: Poetry from Taiwan, which will be published by TWG Press before the end of the year.
Sounds good. Talk to you soon.