Purveyor of: Classically-crafted soulful ballads + AM radio gold
File next to: The Spinners, The High Llamas, Steely Dan
Playing: WL659, Sunday, May 10th at Lula Lounge, 1585 Dundas St. W.
Rosy Maze, just out on Tin Angel, is the first album to bear the name “Marker Starling,” but it’s far from a debut. Chris Cummings, the tuxedo-clad man behind the Wurlitzer, released four albums as Mantler, building up from the lean arrangements of 2000’s Doin’ It All to the sophisticated arrangements found on 2010’s Monody. Joe Strutt sat down for a beer with Chris to talk about sad songs and happy songs, hobnobbing with one’s idols and playing the long game.
Most Marker Starling shows feature Jay Anderson and Matt McLaren as your band, and sometimes it’s just you. But your album release show for Monody [in 2010 at The Tranzac] was a big event. Is this going to be like that, with a full band and backing vocalists and everything?
Yeah. And also some other members of the Steamboat band… Chris Sandes, Nick Taylor and Andy Scott. Those guys will be joining us for half the set… and Jeremy Strachan will be adding some sax, and there’ll also be five backing singers on some of the songs – Felicity Williams, Robin Dann, Ben Gunning, Thom Gill and Alex Samaras. But it won’t be quite as big as the Monody release show was. But I think we’ll be able to rehearse a bit more. That show was so big it was almost unwieldy.
How was touring and your European experience?
Great! I went to Germany for twelve shows with Von Spar, a German band who were old labelmates of mine. I did an online collaboration with them last year. It’s four songs that they sent me the instrumental track for and I did the vocal. Those turned out really well and their album Street Life came out last fall and I think it was quite well-received in Germany so they invited me to tour with them last November. We did six shows together culminating in the Week End Festival in Cologne which went really, really well. So then they set up twelve more shows, twelve days in a row.
We rehearsed for two days in Cologne, where three of the band members live. They’re all from there, so that’s how they all know each other. And also that’s where Tomlab Records was, so I feel like I have a deep connection there. Spent quite a few times there over the past ten years. Seems like a really nice place to end up living.
From there we went to Münster, Hamburg, Berlin, Bremen, Dresden, Pilsen, in the Czech Republic — home of pilsner beer — and then Salzberg in Austria, then Munich and this really nice place called Schorndorf, a small city near Stuttgart, which had a beautiful venue called Manufaktur in an old industrial area. Sold a lot of merch. And then we went to Winterthur, Switzerland, which is near Zurich, which was also a nice show. Then Freiburg, which is the Black Forest, and then the final show was in Karlsruhe. Then I flew to Birmingham and then spent the rest of the time in the U.K.
I did one show in London and then the Marc Riley show on BBC6, which was a full session, we sat down and played three songs and I did a full interview with him. We also appeared on this chat show on BBC4 called Loose Ends, it’s a chat show that’s been around for thirty-five years or something. It’s one of the oldest shows on Radio 4… English people who I told about it before seemed to get really excited about it, so it was a big deal.
It was a chat show, so they had a table with all of the guests. And the British guys I play with and I watched the whole broadcast happen and we played our song. But one of the guests was Mary Wilson of The Supremes, so I got to meet her and hang out with her in the green room. And then the other guests were Christopher Eccleston, the actor who played Doctor Who, and Chas Smash from Madness. His real name is Carl Smyth and he had just made a solo record about his divorce, and after the broadcast was over he sat down at the piano and played one of his divorce songs. And then, the tradition is after the radio show everyone goes out to have a pint of beer and some food afterwards, so I got to meet and hang out with Christopher Eccleston and the guy from Madness. So that was pretty cool.
I was hobnobbing. Yeah, I’m better at schmoozing than I thought I was.
And my other high moment was that Lætitia Sadier from Stereolab came to the London show. I had met her before last year through the guy that had produced most of her solo work, Emmanuel Mario. I met him through another French musician, Julien Gasc, in Paris in 2013. Emmanuel Mario really loved my stuff and I ended up recording a whole covers record with him last spring, which hasn’t been released yet. So Lætitia Sadier is singing with me on one of those tracks.
Before she did that, she wanted to meet me, so she came to my show last April and she really liked it, so she came back. And independently of that, I met Sean O’Hagan of The High Llamas online through a Brazilian guy who contacted me called Kassim. He’s a famous musician in Brazil and he’s done albums with Moreno Veloso. I did an online collaboration thing with him where he started the song and I finished it, basically. And he said, “oh yeah, I did something similar with Sean O’Hagan.” I was like [wide-eyed] “Sean O’Hagan?” One of my favourite people in the world, y’know… so he put me in touch with him, sent Sean O’Hagan a bunch of links to my stuff and he wrote back and said, I’m really excited to meet this guy. So he came to the show with Lætitia Sadier. He was super complementary and super-excited. That was so nice — two of my biggest idols in the audience at the show in London.
That must give you a good feeling of success. It really is a long process getting this stuff out, after the artistic part is done. So I guess it must feel really validating when you get moments like that.
Yeah, and it makes me feel like I made the right choice, choosing music over everything else. [pause] Yeah, there is the administrative aspect, which is huge after the artistic aspect is done. Like, this record was finished in September 2013, so it was a long while before it came out, but the timing seemed to be right. Like, the fact that it came out five or six months after the Von Spar thing meant that people kind of already knew who I was in Germany and that seemed to help build the momentum in Germany. I enjoy the touring and the meeting people and stuff like that, too. It’s not a chore for me. It’s all fun. It’s my vacation, basically.
Turning to the new album, who was responsible for the rather striking cover art?
The cover art was done by a Japanese artist named Yosuke Yamaguchi, who did the cover art for a Mantler anthology that came out in 2011. I liked that so much I asked him to do another one, and I was happy with what he came up with.
Thinking musically about the new one, does it feel like these songs were something different for you, or does it feel like a logical continuation of the what you were doing before?
It was a logical continuation, I guess. My producer Zack G and I were happy withMonody, but we wanted to make something even cooler, so that’s what we tried to do. The intention was to make a record with Jay and Matt — I’d been playing with them for a couple years by the time we did the bed tracks, but we hadn’t recorded. And I hadn’t done a record where drums and bass and keyboard were all recorded at the same time. And it definitely made it tighter.
And then we spent three years overdubbing it, basically. We finished recording the bed tracks about a week before my daughter was born, and then there was about a year where nothing happened. Then we started overdubbing strings, and I kept thinking of more and more orchestral ideas. And I met more and more classical musicians. One of the string players had a lot of connections to other classical players, so I was asking, “do you know any french horn players? Do you know any accordionists?” And she did. It was cool.
One of the things that’s striking about the conceptual evolution is that there’s probably a decreased amount of sadness in the music. You were, after all, the guy who released an album called Sadisfaction.
So you were working on these even before your daughter was born? Was that on your mind when you were writing the songs?
I guess so, yeah. I wrote five of the songs in the period after we had told everyone we were having a baby, but before she was born, which was a very happy time. And I was feeling pretty exuberant. So I was trying to bottle that emotion basically, and capture that somehow…
The musical cliché is that sadness generates art better than happiness, but do you find, as you grow older that’s maybe less true?
Well, it’s harder to write about happiness, for sure, without sounding really annoying. That’s the problem. Most of the music I like is melancholy, so I think that has a bigger effect. And I tend to be more introverted in the way I sing, but in this case I tried to sing in a more extroverted style. We produced the album in a more extroverted style. [pause] But… happy music versus sad music? Do you think Pet Sounds is a happy record?
It’s an exuberant sad record.
Yeah, I think so too. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is a very uplifting song but it’s also a little bit melancholy. The rest of the album is more melancholy. But it is exuberant. And early Beach Boys is pretty exuberant.
I guess the great songwriting trick is having that juxtaposition of the upbeat sad song. That’s one of the great Motown tricks.
Um-hm. That’s true. I love that Motown songwriting school. But happy and sad music… yeah. I guess it’s also a consequence of working more with other people, instead of just working alone. Because my first three records were basically me alone with a few guest spots, but Monody was really the first record where I worked with a lot of additional musicians and where we started with a drum track instead of a drum machine or a sequenced backing track. And I think there’s some exuberant tracks on Monody. “In Stride” is a pretty happy song. But yeah, we’ve kinda altered our sound to be a bit brighter on this record.
And I’m getting older as well… I’m in a happier place in my life then I was when I was writing a lot of the older songs. But if I ever want to go back to the sad place to mine it for more material, I can always do that: the thing I always think of is Éric Rohmer made a film in his eighties about something that happened to him as a teenager. [laughs] I always think, “well, if Éric Rohmer can do that, then I can just mine bad things that have happened to me in my early years for the rest of my life!”
Part of the consequence of being in the happy place, is that you have more obligations, whether family or anything else. How do you find the work/life/art balance going for you? is it tough to pull everything off or…
If only I was making more money from music! [laughs] But I’m in a good situation: I’m able to work full-time and also do music enough of the time that I can actually go to Europe… I’ve been going twice a year since 2013. My life is completely full, having a four-year-old. And my wife Pat works in the film industry. But my mom and dad help me out a lot, my sister as well. The whole completion of Rosy Maze was basically done on weekday evenings when either my mom or sister was babysitting, I would go over to Zack’s house and re-do the vocals over and over again.
So, is it O.K. that the attention you’re getting is happening like this now? Would it have been better to get the sort of response you’re getting now back when you were starting to make music?
I sometimes think, “well, if only this had happened to me when I was younger”, but at the same time I didn’t have the maturity, and I do think I’ve gotten better musically as I’ve gotten older. And my words got better. I wouldn’t have been able to do the things that are happening right now.
I know that I appreciate it more now than I would have then because I’ve lived more and I know how rare it is. I would have taken it… well, not taken it for granted, but I might have been more blasé about it when I was younger. But I’m doing things now that I didn’t think I was capable of at twenty-five. If the twenty-five year-old me could see what I’m doing now, he would be very happy.
Which is nice… there’s such a narrative in society of “what you do when you’re young is more vital, and then it’s all downhill.”
Exactly. Like if you make interesting music when you’re in your twenties, by the time you’re in your forties you don’t make interesting music… I’m trying to avoid that narrative, be more like Scott Walker or Robert Wyatt… keep getting more weird as I get older.
I really like the idea that you’ve moved from “sadisfaction” to “life is a rosy maze”.
Right… from being sadly satisfied to contentedly fascinated. [laughs]
— Interview by Joe Strutt