In the fall of 2012, More Machine Than Man returned with “Dark Matter,” their first full-length album in over a decade. The album does not disappoint, and should be checked out by anyone who is a fan of dark music that brings aggressive electronics and guitars together with strong songwriting and pop accessibility. In the following interview, the band explains the reasons for the gap between albums, talks about their creative process, and more.
It’s been a while since your last release. When did you start work on the new album? Had you been touring and/or been involved other projects during that time?
Rob: Binary Sex was really the first single from Dark Matter. All of these songs were more or less written between 2001 and 2006. And we’ve worked on arranging, recording and mixing them since then. We had been touring up until 2006, right through the whole process. We headlined, I don’t know, 4 or 5 U.S. tours plus went out opening for Razed and went out opening for Slick Idiot.
Tasha: (interrupting) Yeah, actually we opened for Razed in Black right as Binary Sex came out in 2003!
Rob: In 2005 we moved down to Louisville to concentrate on music and touring. We lowered our overhead quite a bit by leaving Boston, and Louisville was an easier place, right in the middle of the country, to tour from and do one-off shows.
Tasha: In 2005 we did Wave Gotik, Convergence, Freaks United, Eccentric, San Francisco Fetish Week, and in 2006 we opened of the Slick Idiot Tour. So Louisville worked out really well for a few years.
Rob: (interrupting) Until the shit hit the fan! (laughter) Tax mistakes with MMTM fucked up our life!
Tasha: We had a bad run of luck…
Rob: We hired a terrible accountant.
Tasha: Right! It wasn’t bad luck at all. It was incompetence.
Rob: We were both self employed, each with our own business, and we had a partnership which was More Machine. Our accountant filed our taxes incorrectly for 4 years and had us vastly overpaying taxes. Unfortunately, with tax bills that are erroneously high you are going to fall behind eventually, if you still want to eat. (laughter)
Tasha: The IRS placed a federal lien against us for about $40K!
Rob: You need to say that with the Dr. Evil pinky. (laughter) After firing our accountant, Tasha researched the tax code and made war with the IRS a full time job. We could not afford a lawyer and we could not trust another accountant. This process took several years and was very painful. But Tasha was able to re-file our taxes correctly.
Tasha: The IRS actually had to send us a check for $9K! Unfortunately that was only about half of the amount we overpaid. As incredible as that sounds…
Rob: Another factor in the delay was our 5 year deal with Underground inc. We did not want them to have any right to more of our releases, so we dragged our feet. I know it seems like we have been on a long hiatus to the outside world, but it feels completely different to us. We have been working non-stop on Dark Matter and have been slowly reorganizing our life so that we can continue MMTM without making the same type of mistakes.
Tasha: I hate that we sound like the second segment of Behind the Music, when everything is serious, but that is the truth. And if you listen to the CD, then you realize how serious the situation was because Dark Matter is very much…
Rob: About everything we were going through.
Tasha: And life dictates art and art imitates life. It’s about a bunch of dark situations that happened to us; I got sick, and we were just trying to survive it all.
Rob: We did more than survive: we beat the IRS, we finished the best album we’ve ever done and we relocated AGAIN to Seattle. We’ve been here for a couple of years and we love it.
How might your approach to presenting and promoting your music to the public differ this time around, given the changes that the music industry has been undergoing?
Rob: Holy shit…
Tasha: Well, we are obviously releasing this independently.
Rob: Without a label, considering we’ve had such a bang-up time with labels in the past! (laughter) Black Flames Records was run by a very nice guy, but it was a hobby run out of his bedroom part-time. There isn’t much to be said about Uinc and that whole crowd that hasn’t been said many times, by other people, so we will just leave that alone. (laughter)
Tasha: Right! But we did get some awesome offers for Dark Matter from nice people with more reputable labels than we’ve dealt with in the past.
Rob: I just don’t know if labels make sense anymore. I know none of the deals we’ve ever signed made sense! (laughter) The amount of money that can be generated from selling music is so tiny at this point, it becomes very hard to justify splitting it with a label. The labels in this genre are not doing anything for you that you can’t do for yourself. There really aren’t any labels, that deal primarily with goth industrial, that have the resources to promote the type of huge crossover hit that would be required to justify their involvement. We did shop Dark Matter around to see what opportunities were out there, so we are not anti-label. We just couldn’t make it work for us.
Tasha: Spotify, Pandora, and LastFM have completely changed the way that people to listen to music. It’s like no one listens to entire albums anymore.
Rob: If people even bother to buy music, they cherry-pick 2 or 3 tracks, usually the hit and anything that sounds just like the hit, and dump it in their playlist. And then, ignore all of the other songs on an album. I don’t think most people get that deep into an album anymore.
Tasha: You also need to get your music heard, and there is a lot of competition out there, so…
Rob: (interrupting) You better not suck! (laughter)
Could you talk about the various collaborations on the album, how they came about and what the experiences were like?
Tasha: Let’s see in 2003 we went on tour with Razed in Black. So we developed a relationship with Romell and the guys, that just happens on the road. They were great and it was the best time!
Rob: Initially, Romell was supposed to produce a track for us. We gave him a rough sketch of Stranger than Fiction, which at that point was the title track of the album. Romell actually came up with two separate ideas that were variations in slightly different keys.
Tasha: This was back in what? 2004? Yeah, he sent us MP3s of his ideas while we were on the Incision 2004 Tour.
Rob: We took those two different ideas, even though they were built around different progressions, and edited them up. We built an entirely new arrangement, combining his two ideas into one arrangement.
Tasha: We ended up producing and arranging the track, because we didn’t want Stranger than Fiction to sound too different from the other songs on the album. By the time we got to Stranger than Fiction we had already created a sound design for Dark Matter.
Rob: By combining Romell’s two ideas we created a slight dissonance that made the song much darker. Then we started layering our own harsher synth, guitar and percussion parts on top of it. That song is hooks, upon hooks, upon hooks. Before the vocals were even tracked that song stood up as an instrumental!
Tasha: Romell had killer keyboard hooks and we just added more!
Rob: This was all done remotely passing files back and forth, we never worked with Romell in the same studio space.
Rob: The collaboration with En Esch… was done in trade, actually. You did some graphics and design for Slick Idiot and En Esch produced Deserve for us.
Tasha: It was fun artwork!
Rob: Once again we were passing files back and forth. He produced it and did a new arrangement of it.
Tasha: Yes! En Esch in the flesh! …and on Why?
Rob: We ended up mixing Deserve and doing some work on the final vocals adding a few additional synths.
Tasha: Actually En Esch almost chose to produce Deserve back in 2003 for Binary Sex. But he was concerned that the lyrics to Deserve would sound like they were about KMFDM issues.
Rob: Shit! That’s right! (laughter) For the record: Deserve was not written by, or about, En Esch arguing with anyone. The song was written by Tasha and I about our conflict with someone we used to collaborate with. Let’s just kill that rumor-baby in its crib.
Do you write your music with live performance in mind, in terms of thinking about how electronic or highly manipulated parts will be handled? If not, do you ever run into problems when it comes time to adapt things for live performance?
Tasha: I would have to say that we started off, in 2003, writing and thinking about how it would translate live, but as time went on it was more about expressing ourselves and making the songs sound and feel right. Will it be difficult to sing the 52 harmony parts I tracked to make the chorus sound big enough? (laughter) It’s going to be tough.
Rob: We both come from a heavy metal background, so we are used to the expectation that we can actually sing and play and execute what we did in the studio in front of an audience with a shitty monitor mix! (laughter) If you can’t do that then you shouldn’t be in the game. When I program drums I literally air-drum and visualize how things would be performed live. I think that live-rock element is why our music doesn’t sound like everyone else.
Tasha: I have to admit when I write I don’t think about playing it live. I play something and build on top of that, and build on top of that. Then I edit it and do some wild things to it. That’s how I program.
Rob: But we don’t really manipulate our vocals or guitar parts in any extreme way. We are not dependent on a vocoder, harmonizer, or auto-tune. We are not just doing the whisper-scream into a distortion pedal either. We track our natural voices in the studio, so when we sing into a mic in a club it sounds like our recordings.
Creatively, what extent do you think about what audiences might expect from you vs. what your personal interests and influences drive you do to?
Tasha: I would have to say in 2003, when we were on Uinc, I cared. I wanted it to last, I liked the tours, I liked people screaming my name. It was cool! I wanted more of that. I wanted to sell. I wanted a label to want us. Then I think life happened and it became, “I’ve got to do this for myself.” I can’t write for anyone else, I wouldn’t be a sane person. For me, writing music is a very..ah..selfish thing to do.
Rob: Of course, you want to be successful, I want to be successful. What I want is for people to appreciate what I really want to be doing. I’m not all that interested in adoration if I think what I’m doing to get that adoration…sucks. If I am not creatively satisfied by it.
Tasha: We certainly don’t follow trends.
Rob: No! We’re kind of self destructive, almost. (laughter) When VNV Nation and Apop exploded, a whole bunch of musicians tried to pretend they could sing and bought the same soft synth Ronan Harris was using…You know, a lot of bands that didn’t sound anything like VNV and Apop all of a sudden did everything they could to sound like VNV Nation.
Tasha: Yes, they did. (laughter)
Rob: And everyone ran out and bought it! Though honestly all of the imitators’ songs sucked and they couldn’t sing very well. The whole market turned toward it. That was all that was getting signed and that was all DJs wanted to spin. It didn’t matter if the songwriting was bad, as long as they used the right default patches, everyone bought it. While VNV was doing 6 minute songs that were very emotional with very solid vocals, we were doing loop-based, super aggressive, kitschy schtick.
Then six years ago Combichrist broke and everyone has jumped on that! The whole market has turned to doing super aggressive, loop-based, kitsch and MMTM is writing 4-5 minute emotional songs with strong vocals. We are doing what we want to do, but we are not doing a very good job at jumping on the bandwagon and trying to be easily marketable.
Tasha: Yeah, that’s for sure.
Rob: We found a market back in the VNV days. We toured, when a lot of other bands couldn’t. We weren’t playing to huge audiences, but we were making money and kept our overhead low. We were perfectly happy and I think we will be able to do the same thing again. I don’t think we are going to go out and compete with all of the top selling bands right now. Sure, I would like it, but that is not the goal that drives me.
Tasha: To have someone say that they really identified with a song and that really helped them through a tough time in their life… Oh god, I love those moments.
Rob: Playing songs I am really proud of live and watching people respond to them is really the thing that pushes my buttons.
What is the creative process like between the two of you?
Rob: Strangely enough, if you look at Dark Matter, Tasha sings songs that I wrote and I sing songs that Tasha wrote. Not every single song, but most of them.
Tasha: You’re right. Deserve, I wrote and you sing.
Rob: Why?, you wrote and I sing. Break Out is really the only one that I wrote and I sing.
Tasha: Stitch, I wrote…
Rob: No. Stitch, I wrote and you sing.
Tasha: You’re right! (laughter) There will be times when I have an idea and I’ll be singing it in my head, and it’s not quite right. Then I will imagine Rob singing it and I will know that that is it. I’ve got it. That’s what happened with The Darkest Days, I was afraid it was too tender, too weepy… I wanted it to rock a little bit, and when I imagined it with Rob’s voice, I knew that was it. It worked!
Rob: We really do pass ideas back and forth. When we say that one of us wrote a song, that isn’t exactly true. Usually one of us starts an idea and the other finishes it. I’ll write two verses and a chorus, and she will turn my chorus into a bridge and write a new killer chorus, which is how we wrote Heaven and Hell. A few times Tasha wrote a verse and a chorus and I will write additional verses and complete the arrangement, like we did on Something Good and The Darkest Days. Occasionally we write songs entirely by ourselves like Rotten Wine and Break Out.
Tasha: Stitch didn’t sound jazzy before I touched it.
Rob: No! It sounded like something off the first Skold album with my vocals and arrangement!! It ended up like The Andrews Sisters.
Tasha: If a song we are writing starts off as industrial rock but ends up somewhere else, that is fine with us. Whereever the process takes it, as long as it is good. We’re not going to try to fit it into the genre by sacrificing quality.
Rob: The few times we did start to have that conversation like, “Is this smart? Should we dump a bunch of distortion on this and pull out the melodic vocals? Should I just bark over it?” It’s not like we didn’t have those conversations while we were putting Dark Matter together.
Tasha: Yes, we did.
Rob: If we did drop that kind of audience-pandering song into the middle of this album it would be pretty transparent. We’d clearly be saying, “Oh shit. We better put something on this album that sounds just like what DJs are already spinning.”
Tasha: When we stop and consider rewriting a song, it has nothing to do with what is going on in the scene. It is about not feeling like we are hitting a hook hard enough, or asking are the dynamics of the arrangement working? What make us really pause and frustrates us is not trying to reel song back into our genre…it is just trying to get it right. We just want to make a good song.
Rob: We don’t tend to argue over writing and arrangement.
Tasha: We argue over mixing and productions. (laughs)
Electronic musical equipment and software has evolved quite a bit over the years, to the point the relatively inexpensive software opens up what can seem like limitless possibilities. Would you say that you have a particular philosophy behind selecting your sonic palette and programming style?
Tasha: Yeah, we use a Mac we purchased in 2001! (laughter)
Rob: Because we started working on these songs in 2001, we have a Mac, not even a Silver Door G4, the one before that! Dark Matter was started and completed on an old Mac running OS 9.2 on Cubase VST 32. We used a ton of software synths and plug-ins. So upgrading in the middle of the process would have meant recreating a lot of work or having to work with it as audio instead of midi. We were also broke for several years due to our war with the IRS. Anyone that tells that you need the latest and greatest gear to finish a great album is full of shit.
Tasha: I just found photos the other day, someone turned two Mac cases like ours into saddlebags for their motorcycle! (laughter)
Rob: And dog beds. (laughter) We don’t really write the same one or two songs over and over again. So we have definitely learned that we can make the broader range of our songwriting sound much more cohesive by creating a single sound design and applying it to each song to varying degrees. This what allows Dark Matter to not get repetitive while remaining cohesive.
Tasha: That said, I can’t wait until we get new equipment!
Is there anything that you feel the current software/equipment DOES NOT do which you would like to see?
Rob: Our DAW is so old, that by the time we start recording the next album on new equipment, it will feel like an advanced alien civilization came down to share their technology with us. (laughter)
There is obviously a big industrial/gothic audience to get your music out to, but are you also trying to promote to a more general crowd? (as the melodic nature of many of the tracks, and general strong songwriting make it seem that the music would cross over well). Or is it a matter of where to best apply your resources, as an independent band?
Rob: To us, Dark Matter has more in common with IAMX, Garbage, NIN, VHS or Beta and Depeche Mode than KMFDM and Ministry. We know that people have referred to our early material as WaxTrax! nostalgia, and I consider that to be a fair comparison. But if you listen to our first collection of songs from our demo, the production quality is horrendous, but the songs were much closer in style to what we are doing now.
Tasha: 1999! technophile!!! (laughter)
Rob: Those songs were probably written in 1998! But it was crossover music that first attracted us to this genre. Garbage, NIN, Depeche Mode, Curve, Smashing Pumpkins, Manson, the Cure… Dark Matter is our return to the music that really got us started. The strong songs and pop accessibility. We started doing kitschier stuff later on.
Tasha: We are More Machine Than Man. (laughter) We did take our name from Return of the Jedi dialogue!
Rob: We really didn’t take MMTM that seriously in the beginning. If we did we might have given the name more thought! (laughter) We are not aiming to be a crossover hit, but the artists that have been huge crossover successes were our earliest influences and remain so. Realistically these days, there is literally no way to market ourselves to a wider audience. We would love for Dark Matter to be well received by a huge audience, but it is hard to promote that widely as an actual indie artist. As I said before, none of the scene labels can offer that kind of promotion. MMTM is probably too metal for Mute, Astralwerks, Nettwerk, and Arts+Crafts and not metal enough for Century Media or Spitfire. We fall into that odd crossover hinterland people can’t pigeonhole.
What do you both do outside of the band?
Tasha: I am a web developer and graphic artist.
Rob: I am a carpenter and specialize in residential remodel.
What are your plans for the near future?
Tasha: We are currently booking a US Tour for this spring.
Rob: It will be as extensive as we can make it. If you are a promoter that runs a regular goth night and events and would like to host the MMTM tour, please feel free to email us! We are touring with all of the sound and lighting that we need play smaller unequipped dance clubs.
Tasha: We do a high impact multimedia show that gets fetishy.
Rob: We will still have a strong video component to our live performance, but we will not be performing behind a transparent screen on this tour. It will still be a MMTM show, but it will be an even better MMTM show!
For more info on More Machine Than Man, check out their newly re-designed website.