"I Wish My Dreams Were As Beautiful…": An Interview with Clue to Kalo
by dougie robb
Having a bowl haircut obviously means your musical star is rising. Last year Ben Kweller and the 'fucked-up-waaaaay beyond-help-but-in-a-very-cool-way' Connor Oberst came to everyone's attention. Now it's the turn of 23-year-old Ozzie Mark Mitchell to make the world sit up and take notice. Outed as a powerbook poet with his head still in his dreams rather than a software manual Mark has been writing dreamy computer pop songs under numerous guises since he was in school.
But it's his debut album as Come To Kalo, Come Here When You Sleepwalk that has been making big ripples in the pond we call electronica. And its easy to see why. It's an album of timid and occasionally endearingly unstable poetry that unravels with beautiful laptop pop grace. Its ethereal beeps, softbeat percussion, dyslexic loops and shimmering hooks are easily unfolded to reveal the heart of the record: simple dreamy electronic lullabies that border on feyness but avoid whimsical wrapped up in avant gaarde production trickery. Mark's pretty vocals, reminiscent of Kitty-Yo's heartbroken minstrel-come-balladeer Maximillian Hecker, float sporadically over his compositions, laying his hurt, hopes and dreams for all to see, dredging his happy childhood memories, lost loves and dreams of dysfunctional relationships back into consciousness. All of which has led to the inevitable comparisons with the likes of Dntel, Manitoba, Boards Of Canada, Múm and Styrofoam as well as half of the Morr roster. His 'so good it hurts' songwriting skills have meant he's been mentioned in the same breath as Spiritualized's more soulful output and eminent 'shoe-gazers' Slowdive. He's even been christened 'an electro acoustic Nick Drake' which admittedly maybe a bit fanciful, but it's a perfect example of how much people think of the young antipodean's Casio tone melodies, disjointed electronics and loose drums… All this means one thing, if there's any justice in the pop world this boy is gonna be huge. So I decided to have a chat with him and ask him all about it, after all he is the name on the lips of those in the know, though all the attention doesn't necessarily translate into record sales, and, although one day he'd like to earn enough from his art to give up his day job, he wouldn't mind remaining relative unknown to the wider world… " I was thinking the other day that if I was famous I'd probably just freak out anyway," he says.
Hurrah! There is hope for me yet. Hope for what? I hear you cry, well mumble maybe…hope for me to become a pop star! Mark Mitchell aka Clue to Kalo has re-ignited my desire to become a pop star strutting up the charts, but what kind of charts I'm not entirely sure. So how has a shy Ozzie manipulator of dyslexic beats managed this? I'll explain or, well, he will…"The first music I made with a computer was with a friend in High school. It was badly-made Goth music.. We tried to make it sound as overblown as we could but we had no idea how to get that kind of sound and it didn't really work."
Right, here I must point out that this isn't the inspiring part of the transcript. I never have, and never will harbor any desires to make Goth music. Or go back to school.. So don't worry, ahem, I digress…"But I saw computers as the only way I could make music, because I couldn't play an instrument. I bought a computer and started writing, and a little later was able to contextualise it with the kind of bedroom electronica that was happening at the time with labels like warp and rephlex taking off…" See this is the most heartening bit…I can't play an instrument either! I've got a broken clarinet and a melodica and I can't get a decent tune out of either, and with my brief stab at learning to play the bass but a fading memory I thought my musical career lay in tatters, not so. All I need to do now is jack in my job and spend days fiddling about with analogue beats and clicks and calming electro drones trying to put my hopes, fears and dreams and thoughts into a numerical format before timidly emerging into the sunshine broken hearted, armed and socially inept, with only a handful of glitch, melodic minidisks and a heedful of beautiful ideals…
This far into an interview and no proper questions asked? That's just disrespectful…I best get cracking. Everyone knows the start is the best place to begin, and since the words Clue To Kalo are the first words to be found on the Come Here When You Sleepwalk LP, them being a good 50mm above the record's title I can only deduce that a question regarding the origins of Mr. Mitchell's recording moniker is as good a place as any to start. "It's based on a great Canadian comic called 'It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken' by Seth. In it he tries to track down this fictional New Yorker cartoonist called Kalo, and the search for Kalo becomes the search for the meaning of his own life. That idea really appealed to me because I see art as a kind of searching process. And I just liked it as a metaphor." Hmmm…a beautifully concise answer for such a badly introduced and clunky question, methinks …
Next, another important question that traditional interviews would have dispensed of by now: how exactly do you describe your music…ye gods, the print media seem to be struggling to categorise it …
I don't really know what to call it. People seem to keep using the term 'indietronica', which I don't mind. Maybe experimental pop? Something as vague as possible…" Note to self; Clue to Kalo is not 'indietronica', it's experimental pop, yeah that sounds good, it's less pretentious and jeez, what Mark is writing IS pop….
Now a bit of album history. Come here… was picked up and released by Mush Records in 2002 through a series of happy coincidences. Playing at an electronic arts festival in Australia which Anticon were headlining Mark handed them some of his music that "they seemed to like. Doseone was especially nice about it." They in turn took it back to the states and gave it to Mush, who hitherto had been known as an underground hip-hop label. Mush offered to sign CTK up, but as Mark points out, "I think Mush are pretty keen to release lots of different types of music". It's a good job they did. The album, regarded by many in the electronica scene to be one of the best albums of the year, had gushing praise heaped upon it left, right and center. It's stuttering, lullabies, dreamy loops, vague vocals, electro beeps and liberal use of 'real' instruments drew the young antipodean's compositions comparisons with the electronica glitterati, mentioned, and listed earlier. Hmm a tangential, music journo comment seems (in)appropriate here….
Andy Falkous is right, the music media here in the UK are all too quick to compare new bands to others using limited frames of reference. I'm as guilty as anybody of doing it. It might be lazy, it might just be through lack of originality in writing, but albums are very rarely written about as the stand-alone original pieces they might be. Mark however, isn't bothered about such lazy comparisons. He sees it more as a tool for gaining new fans: "I don't mind the comparisons. Comparing artists is a good way to give people a general idea of what an artist is about. Hopefully if people like those bands, they might give my record a listen."
Back to the interview in hand. So what was the inspiration behind the album? With lyrics like "So lets go back to the days when things were so much easier in every way/ You could pick up memories without even trying/ Break it off with lovers without even crying/ Say I'll never leave you without even lying/ I know enough about myself to know this is true/ I'd like to be able to go on without you"…as a listener you're kinda inadvertently led to believe that girls, lost love and a lot of rekindled memories all had a hefty input into the writing of the record. Mark realises it's easy for people to jump to that conclusion, but insists the record goes deeper: "I wanted to take a pretty exhausted, well-documented subject or feeling and express it as I felt it, knowing full well that how I felt it wasn't any different to how anyone else feels it. Like that feeling I wanted the record to be simple but complicated, intangible but palpable. I'm not sure if I managed to do that, but that's what I was after."
Marks vocals are plain and simply loveliness encapsulated in between breaths. Often little more than a shy mumble, they are full of yearning, hope, and dreams…it's as if what he's singing is so poignant it's hurting. It's soulful soul baring that makes Ben Gibbard's hack-sawed lamentations on the Postal Service LP seem like empty posturing. But wasn't he ever tempted to get vocalists in on his record al a Dntel, Funkstörung and Manitoba?
No would be the short answer. "I think vocals in 'experimental' electronic music are still seen as an anathema to some people, unless you're producing a jazzy house number or a trip-hop track or something like that, but maybe that's because there's just not a lot of people singing along to electronics yet, which is why there are only a handful of people they appeal to…I was never tempted to use guest vocalists because I enjoy singing so much. It's fun to spend a while producing a song and then close the book on that part of the process and pick up a microphone and start singing. It feels entirely different. Isn't it great that you can make music just by opening your mouth?! After all the hair-splitting of producing a song it feels good to use my voice."
It's not just his voice that makes Clue To Kalo's music such a joy to listen to. One of the subtler but most effective uses of sounds on the album is the manipulation of live instruments into the soundscape. Acoustic guitars, bass, synth strings, keyboards and vibraphones can all be found if you listen for them, and yet Mark claims he cant play any instruments. So how did the idea of using live instrumentation pop up, and who on earth played them? Surely not people recruited from dodgy Goth bands dotted around Oz?
"The live instruments were played by a couple of people, Simon and Morgan, who used to be in this Adelaide band called Parlour. I just thought it'd be fun to record the sounds of instruments and take them home and mess around with them, so one day I organised to go round to their house with my mini-disc, and I just recorded them messing around for half an hour. It was easy to get them to play for me because their both nice guys." It later emerges that these aren't the same people who make up Mark's touring band, which is "a pretty recent thing"… After all, what's the fun of going to an electronica gig if all you're going to see is a guy twiddling knobs and pressing buttons in a place that's devoid of atmosphere or passion? Mark is all too aware that this is a syndrome that blights live electronica performances: "That's why I stopped doing laptop shows and got a band together instead: it's a lot more fun to watch. I also have a better time on stage with my friends and there's always the added bonus of being able to blame it on each other when something goes wrong."
It sounds like a good a reason as any to me, not only that but is it another step towards 'indie' and electronica becoming almost indistinguishable? The thin line that divides the two is becoming thinner all the time with the output of the likes of the Morr label and plug research making electronica more and more accessible to indie pop fans, does this mean a merger of the two genres is inevitable or is electronica gonna rebel and head back towards the difficult white noise of its birth? Who can tell. Mark certainly seems as flummoxed by the whole situation as the rest of us: "I'm not sure. Maybe we'll reach a point where there isn't so much differentiation between 'indie' and electronica and the whole idea of 'electronic music' will become obsolete. Its difficult to say. Unless you're dealing with analogue purists, then most of the rock music you're listening to is recorded with the same digital software that a lot of electronic artists are using, so the is that electronic too? As far as that stuff goes, I think it's more difficult for people to hold onto any idea of purity. A lot of the time it just seems to come down to what the music sounds like, which is really problematic in itself, because that's a process of referencing the sound to something that's already familiar." eh, que? "Your guess is as good as mine!" Aaaahhhh I see, after a similar question to Minotaur shock was met with a similarly confusing and noncommittal answer, I've now learnt not to question purveyors of electronica about the state/future of their chosen genre. The resulting mess of letters is only gonna make for confusing reading. But then again perhaps that's very apt as it appears to be a genre that can't splinter fast enough….
Which leads me nicely onto my next question: the apparent lack of an electronica scene in Australia. Surely it is time for an electronica revolution down under? We hear a lot of stuff from Europe, the UK and the US, but hardly a squeak from our cousins down under, why? Me and my size nines. As it turns out my bungling assumption of a question is a complete misnomer, as Mark is all to keen to point out. "There are lots of great electronic artists in Australia," he says. "I guess the revolution would be the exposure of these artists overseas; for some really good tunes check out Qua, Pretty Boy Crossover, Pimmon, and Minit."
As with just about all electronica artists Mark has recorded under different guises, releasing three albums as Super Science between 1999 and 2000--Love like Life In Miniature on surgery imprint and two longer players, Don't Say Yes When You Want To Say No and Calculated Steps Towards A Better World, on the tiny Splashdown records--to a quietly appreciative reception before Clue To Kalo became his main concern. So is this Super Science recording hiatus just temporary or is it pretty terminal?
"Yeah, Super Science is finished. I'm not exactly sure how different the projects are aesthetically, but there's a different intent behind them. Super Science meant something to me but it was done without much thought. I kind of wrote those songs, lots of them, pretty quickly and made some tapes and that was that. Clue to Kalo is increasingly becoming something born out of a kind of crisis: I'm not exactly sure what I'm doing most of the time, and I get confused and disheartened, but I want it to mean as much as possible. I've become so invested in it that I'm spending more and more time worrying about it, considering it, working on it."
So with Mark's music becoming so deeply personal both emotionally and physically, then surely the shy young antipodean wants his compositions to have a specific desired effect on the listener. He must want the music to make people feel, cry, think when they listen to his music? Well, kinda but its not quite as specific as that…
"Nauseous. I want people to feel nauseous. No, I think the word is something. I'd like them to feel something". A wonderfully simple answer. And you know what? He's right. It's impossible to listen to Come Here When You Sleepwalk without being moved in some way. His music can comfort broken hearts, surround the depressed in a comforting melancholic gloom, make the good days beautiful and beautiful days magical - it's as good as that, heehawed. Having his record rotating at thirty three and a third times a minute on your turntable is a cross between having an emotional stimulant and dear friend at your beck and call, and it's ace. So enough gushing, what's the secret to making soulful, heartfelt electronica that has the power to move, cos not many people seem to be able to do it? " I guess it's just a matter of writing what you feel…"
Mucho fonk and cheers to Mark for this interview. Pretty isn't it? Oh if you want to find out more about his thesis he's writing as well as his literature zine and lots of other cool stuff that's important to him and maybe to you too, and I know you do, click on over here and visit some of the stuff that makes him happy, Go on…