The East/West Fusion Sounds Of Macha
Since its formation in 1996, the band Macha has
become known for juxtaposing rock with non-Western sounds, particularly those of Indonesia. "I've had this interest in non-Western music for my
whole life, because I just have listened to it more than rock music for
decades now," said songwriter and multi-instrumentalist
Joshua McKay, who co-founded Macha in Athens, Georgia with his brother, percussionist Mischo McKay. "It's in me. It's very natural. I know the stuff by
heart. And when I'm writing I let it come in."
Josh McKay feels that Macha serve almost as ambassadors, introducing people to
unfamiliar cultures and sounds. "To a large degree, people have
pigeonholed music from other cultures as arcane or esoteric," he said during a recent phone interview. "But all it
takes is to get exposed to it for a little while, and you can't help but be
affected by the depth and the feeling in it."
Macha's first, self-titled album came out in 1998, shortly after McKay
returned from a six-month long motorbike trip through Indonesia, where he
sought out the traditional music of Java, Bali and Sumatra. See It Another
Way, a mind-altering blend
of droning psyche rock and Indonesian gamelan, followed the next year. In 2000,
Macha recorded the
EP Macha Loved Bedhead, a tribute to the Texas-based indie band
fronted by Matt and Bubba Kadane, with whom the McKay brothers had grown up in
Texas. (Josh McKay has also toured with the Kadane brothers' current band, the
New Year, and played keyboard and guitar at their recent SXSW show.)
Now with the release of the band's third album, Macha continue to
challenge their listening base, incorporating not just electric guitar,
vibraphone, hammer dulcimer and Javanese zither, but also elements of
synthy new-wave and late '60s soul into the mix. Forget Tomorrow,
out on Jetset in August, is a significant departure for the Athens-based
band, offering not just tranced-out, world-influenced cuts like "Paper
Tiger," but also the dark, New Order-ish "No Surprise Party" and
effervescent dance tracks like "(Do the) Inevitable."
A few of the best
tracks "C'mon C'mon Oblivion" and "Forget Tomorrow" blithely check
"all of the above" box, blending a range of styles, sounds and instruments
successfully. "I've always been big on contrasts," McKay said. "In all
my records, I've put things in that are 180 degrees away
from what seems appropriate, and then wondered if it's a disservice to
what's already going on. So using Kraftwerk dance beats with non-Western
instruments ...it just has this perverse appeal."
In fact, if you wanted to trace the evolution of Macha, from its
indie-gamelan origins right up to the hedonistically rhythmic,
disco-influenced Forget Tomorrow, you could do worse than to
consider the title track, which will be the first single.
"I wrote that song ["Forget Tomorrow"] on a Javanese zither, all the way back
in January of 1998, just after my
second trip to Indonesia," explained McKay, then as
now an avid traveler and collector of musical instruments. He adds that
the zither he used was about three feet long, shaped like a small coffin,
with 16 sets of double strings and four single bass strings. "You
play it like it's a phallus it's coming out of the middle of your
groin," he said. "You're sitting down on the ground and it's extending out
from your groin, and you play it with your thumb nail, so you're just
working a counterpoint between two thumbs. It gives rise to the kind of
rhythms that the kalimba or thumb piano has, that kind of rolling
rhythm. Basically right-hand/left-hand polyrhythm."
The track was originally a very simple folk song, McKay explains, and it sat
in storage for a long time. With studio time for the third Macha album on
the calendar, however, he dug the tune out and started working with
it. "I started putting all my standard Macha-isms in it, the drums and
bass and rhythms, and it was sounding like quintessential Macha. It could
have been on any of the albums. It was like that right up until going into
the studio," he remembered. "Then I was just like...I don't want to
repeat, you know. And I had wanted to Frankenstein-ize one of my songs
into a disco song for years."
So on went the glitchy electronics, the drum
machines, the Studio 54 glow, right on top of the shimmer of an obscure and
unusual Javanese instrument. The result is pure Macha, full of layers and
contradictions, yet far more playful than earlier work.
McKay says that the new direction in his work came out of a few side
projects he's been involved in since the last Macha album, including an R&B band
called Tenderness (his brother
Mischo plays with him) and a cover band playing the songs of ESG, the
Bronx-based no-wave punk band. "Everybody has started dancing again in
Athens, and I've been really enjoying going to these house parties where
everybody is dancing," he said. Playing in two groove-oriented bands has
liberating, he adds, and a direct influence on Forget Tomorrow.
"The style we've been doing [with Tenderness] is late-'60s sort of the
Motown, Al Green, Otis Redding, James Brown side of things, and pretty old-school," he
explained. "We've just been doing it with drums, electric piano
and sax. So it's ultra minimal and really melodic. It's kind of an
about-face, because we've been doing this ponderous stuff."
McKay says he continues to explore unfamiliar music. In 2000, he traveled to
Bulgaria with ex-Neutral Milk Hotel songwriter Jeff Magnum to a folk
festival, where he hoped to record local music and collaborate on his own
songs with Bulgarian musicians. Why Bulgaria? "Bulgaria was part of the
Ottoman empire for 500 years, so they've got this Eastern European culture
that has also absorbed large amounts of Middle Eastern and Turkish
influence," he said. "So there's this kind of fusion of things there,
harmonically, that just go to a place that no other music can do.
let's see, for years I've been hearing that stuff and I have a huge,
obsessive collection of it," he continued. "And this festival kind of acted as the Wonka
ticket, an opportunity to completely immerse yourself."
Magnum left after
the festival, but McKay stayed on, hooking up with a group of musicians,
living and traveling like the natives and recording the strange and
compelling music of Bulgaria on DAT. Unfortunately about half of the DAT
tapes got destroyed before McKay returned, and he was unable to create the
record he had envisioned. Disappointed, he started working on a side
project, the minimal and atmospheric Seaworthy whose 2001 Ride
featured the voice of Japanese experimentalist Haco.
During the week I spoke to McKay, the release date for Forget
Tomorrow had been pushed back from June to August, scuttling plans
for a summer tour and throwing his schedule into some confusion. Now,
he's piecing together a band for a probable fall tour, and looking forward
to recording an upcoming album for Tenderness. Further out, he'd like to
take music-gathering trips to Nepal, South Korea and Africa, and possibly
return to both Eastern Europe and Indonesia.
Yet the political climate makes such ambitions dangerous. Given the rise
of Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia, he said, "I'm the enemy now in a
place where I did not have one brush with one unfriendly person in
months. The people are so welcoming, so connected, so friendly and just
this political religious conflict in the air, that could put my life at
risk just being there."
And at the same time, traditional music in so many
countries is under threat and fast disappearing. For instance, McKay said,
"The musical vocalizations in Iraq are some of the most beautiful examples
of female singing you'll ever hear. Their techniques and stylization and
the way they sing there ... but the women are not allowed to sing
there. They have to leave the country and do it in Paris and New York and
luckily some of them are able to, but it's just crazy." Jenny Kelly [Monday,
May 10, 2004]