Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I have nice hands, and no, you can't have them.

I sat down with Jonathan Visger, lead singer of Ann Arbor-based Mason Proper to discuss their new album, Olly Oxen Free, which is now out on Dovecote Records.

How do you think this album is different than the EP you released?

The EP was four songs that we kind of worked into our set to make it fresh for ourselves when touring for [There is a] Moth [in Your Chest], which is an old record for us. You know, we released it twice. Those songs were scatter shot, but people liked the songs. We didn’t want to put them on the new album. We wanted to make the album over the course of a small amount of time to give it a focus that you can’t get otherwise. Moth was written in two or three years, and then it was just choosing the songs, and it feels like that. It feels like we were into different things when we wrote different songs. I think the Shorthand EP sort of feels like that, kind of all over the place. With the new album, to my ears, it feels more cohesive. The arrangement style is pretty consistent from song to song. It really feels like an album, where as Moth sounded more like a singles band. ‘Oh, you don’t like this crazy, wild rocker? Well, here’s a slow ballad for you.’

I kind of liked that about Moth. It made it very interesting. What made you do four videos?

We just wanted to do something that was a little more interesting than, ‘OK, here’s four songs that, to our ears, didn’t go together that well. We had our friends, Hott Garbage, who I saw your interview with. Quite ridiculous, they are ridiculous people. Was that an e-mail interview?

It was.

I could tell they poured over their answers.

It took them a good two weeks to respond to my questions, yeah. I was, like, ‘Seriously? I asked you what kind of pizza you liked.’

But yeah, we knew them and they had always said they had wanted to do videos with us. They figured out how to manipulate a very, very, very small amount of money, like a ridiculously small amount of money to make four music videos and make them look pretty good. They worked their magic on that. They came with a lot of ideas, and then we collaborated from there. The execution was all up to them. But, yeah, we decided to do that because we like video in general. You can listen to a band, but until you see a reasonable amount of video of them… Like, the people on the west coast haven’t seen us, and if they listened to us, they would have no actual concept of us as a group of people. The example I like to use is the Pixies. I listened to the Pixies forever before I had any idea of what they looked like. And when I finally saw a video, it completely changed how I felt. All the songs sounded completely different, knowing it was coming from those people. It meant something different.

So true. It’s funny that you should bring up the Pixies. They woke me up this morning on my alarm clock.

That’s cool. Depending on the song. (laughter)

It was Gouge Away. That’s not so harsh. Do you have any favorite local bands?

I really like Javelins. I mean, there are always a lot of local bands that I like, but I don’t want to ramble off a huge list. I always liked the Mighty Narwhale. It’s always fun to see them. That’s a band that you can always count on to have a good time. I think the band Starling Electric is really impressive.

They did that whole re-releasing an old record like you guys did with Moth.

It almost seems like if you are from the Midwest, especially Michigan, if you get on a label, you are going to have to release a CD you’ve already released. No one is going to find you if you don’t release an album. It’s not going to have reached a lot of people because you are from the Midwest. I remember a similar thing happened with Tally Hall. It kind of sucks because we already went through all the hoopla, and literally, I think it was a year after, and we had to pretend that it didn’t happen before. Let’s get people to try to celebrate the same thing again.

Like a birthday party!


Let’s talk about the band history for a bit. It’s a little ambiguous. Your Wikipedia page is kind of vague. That’s where I get all my information for interviews.

Every time I make our Wikipedia accurate, someone goes in and makes it inaccurate. There are people who remember the previous groups we were in, and they go in there and put that it was an early version of Mason Proper, but those were completely different bands. The last time I changed something, someone wrote that we had had, like, fifty name changes. We have only had one name change, but people think that every band we’ve ever done was Mason Proper.

Where did you meet? Did you all live in Alpena?

Let me think about this… Four of the current members are from Alpena originally. Our bassist, Zac, we met when we were down here. We’ve been through several drummers. Out of four of five drummers, including our current one, were from Alpena. Our current drummer, Garrett, graduated from high school when we were losing a drummer again. His sense of humour is right. He fits.

Do you guys live together still?

No, we did for two years, but we have separate places now.

I think that would piss me off. Living with my bandmates.

It’s good when you are starting out. Even after the first six months, we were like, ‘hey, we are all getting along.’ It was clear that at least we were going down a path that, whether or not it was successful, we weren’t going to end up hating our friends. Starting a band together, on some level, is a business. At least an intense activity project. We’ve been lucky.

Speaking of Alpena, I looked that up online.

Yeah, it’s a pretty interesting place to talk about. Not at all.

It has the world’s largest cement plant.

That’s all it’s known for, yeah. It’s pretty up there, it’s on the water. The only good reason I could think of living there is for sailing. There is a bay. But you can do that in other places too.

Did you have any guest musicians on the album?

Yeah, we had a trumpet player. It was one of Zac’s friends. He’s from the Ann Arbor Dub Project. He basically plays his trumpet in an improvised kind of way, through delay effects. The trumpet is in three or four of them. One of the songs, I don’t know how it would have finished without it, because the entire end of the song is all about the trumpet. That’s the only guest musician.

Will Yates isn’t on the album?

No, he isn’t, believe it or not!

That’s crazy. I am going to get him to play on the rest of my albums.

He has the golden touch. Perfect pitch, I hear.

I did that photo comparison of you and Graham Coxon. Have you ever gotten that before?

No. My pet peeve, in the past, has been at shows when people would yell, “Rivers Cuomo!” somewhere from the audience. At first, I didn’t really care, but then it got old really quick.

I don’t think I’d be too pissed if someone compared me to Coxon. Wait, no, I would be. He’s a dude. I’m not.

After a while, what really bothered me was that during the Moth touring, people would say we sounded like Weezer on crack. They would only say it if they saw us live. So they were saying what we sounded like based on my glasses.

Sometimes, I get the Brit pop vibe from you guys.

Oh, yeah, absolutely. Blur is a huge influence on the band. The guitar style, mostly the stuff with Blur, not Coxon’s solo stuff.

I’m a huge Britpop nerd. I have also compared you to Jarvis Cocker in the past.

I didn’t get that too recently. I think it was from you actually.

What do you guys do besides music? Do you have any real people jobs?

I would say that no one really has a job that we aren’t interchangeable at. Like, ‘we could train any monkey to… take money from a cash register, or stack apples a certain way, or wrap cheese.

So you’ve wrapped cheese before?

No, not me personally. But all are examples of things currently being done by this band. It’s not like anyone’s doing anything really noteworthy, like making their money selling severed hands on eBay.

That’s creepy.

Yeah, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.

Well, you did have that song about the fingers (Friendship).

I have this thing about severed hands.

Oh god, I’m hiding mine.


That’s a creepy song, but I kind of like that it’s creepy.

Yeah, I like the sing-songy children’s melody with that.

What kind of pizza do you like?

At this point, in this past year this has been a development, my first choice on a pizza would be pineapple and pepperoni.

That seems to be a big trend right now.

I don’t know. There is something about it. That’s where it’s at.

What would you say your influences are?

I want to be honest. This is one where you can easily play cool cards, or you can be honest, or you can give away things and people will be like, ‘oh, you ripped that song off from that person!’

It doesn’t have to be music. It could be anything.

OK, well, then Edward Gorey is a big influence. He has a really good dark sense of humour that Matt (sound manipulator) and I really got into when we were making Moth, actually. A lot of that materialized on Moth. David Lynch, as well. If you think about the way his movies are, they will often times will give you a lot questions and not quite answer them all, but perhaps raises new questions. You are able to pull your own opinion from it, and that’s one of the approaches we take with the lyrics.

I don’t think I have any more questions for you.

Have you thought of anymore in the course of talking to me? I’ve always curious about that. You write out all these questions, and as they are answered, more questions come to mind?

Well, I think that’s the mark of a good journalist… If they can think of more questions. (oh snap!)

(more laughter)

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