Interview: Noel Heroux of Mass Gothic on signing to Sub Pop, non-weird meditation, and making sandwiches with Twin Shadow at Marty’s in Allston
Note: This post has been updated to reflect Mass Gothic’s February 25 show at Great Scott.
Last time I called Noel Heroux, he fielded my questions whilst driving around an at-the-time relatively unfamiliar backdrop of Manhattan, and credited his band’s recent creative surge to his relocation to Gotham from Boston. That band was Hooray for Earth, and this discussion happened in 2011. Recently, Heroux and I conducted a not dissimilar conversation, in which he recounted the ennui that invariably festers when a band becomes a grind, and the necessity of discontinuing Hooray for Earth to embark on a solo-ish endeavor, Mass Gothic.
So, to introduce this Q&A, I could write a few paragraphs about a musician who thrives on fresh starts. But I wonder if I’d just be projecting a tried-and-true narrative onto what is, aside from obvious circumstantial parallels, something new.
Granted, anyone who describes Mass Gothic as essentially Hooray For Earth with a different name is not crazy, and in many respects, might be right. But amid the self-titled opus, out today via Sub Pop Records, the cosmic grandiosity of Hooray For Earth’s True Loves and Racy gives way to far more contemplative tones, particularly on slowburners “Nice Night” and “Mind is Probably.”
Then there’s “Every Night You’ve Got To Save Me,” an effortlessly celebratory indie pop song, and one of the first tracks Heroux’s recorded in a number years that no one will struggle to describe in genre-centric terms. While I can say from experience that the record elicits a couple of thoughts of “This sounds familiar” from passersby, Mass Gothic presents Heroux’s signature serpentine tempos and light futurism traveling inward, exploring quiet places, albeit in a manner that is not at all itself quiet.
Heroux brings Mass Gothic back to Massachusetts for a sort-of homecoming at Great Scott in Allston on Thursday, February 25. It’s a family affair, alongside his sister-in-law Cristi Jo Zambri’s latest project, Mazed, as well as Philosophical Zombie, a new project from Ted Billings (Age Rings) whose November debut, Loneliness Is Blue And Not Blue, was released by Killer Wail Records, a label started by Heroux and his wife, Jessica Zambri of Solvey (and formerly of Zambri, with sis Cristi Jo).
With a big February in store, from the LP release on February 5 to the local gig this week, Vanyaland dialed up Heroux as he struggled, as we all do, to make sense of Photoshop.
Barry Thompson: What’cha working on?
Noel Heroux: Um, some cassette layout thing. I don’t think my brain is made for Photoshop. I tried to do the whole thing by hand and then scan it, and I couldn’t figure out how to feed that into the template, so it’s just whatever. I’ll ask for help, eventually.
Photoshop is a living nightmare.
Seriously. But anyway, I recorded so much shit last year that I decided to put a handful of bits and bots of stuff that I didn’t really follow through with or didn’t have a place on an album on some tapes, and anybody who’s into that sort of thing can buy ‘em on the tour. It’s like a tour-only thing. It’s good for me ‘cause it gets all that stuff… instead of just sitting in a folder forever, maybe 50 people can hear it. Actually, if I sell 50 tapes, maybe 12 of them will actually get put into a cassette deck, so maybe 12 people will hear them.
What do you make of selling cassettes? A while back, they looked like they were going to be a thing again for about two weeks.
Yeah, I mean, when I was making these, I was aware of, “Ugh, this again, now?” But I’ve never stopped making tapes, is the thing. I have a mega-pile of boxes of TDK 90-minute tapes of demos and shit that I recorded over the years and gave to my friends and stuff.
When I was working at Marty’s [the longtime Allston liquor store/deli. #RIP] before I moved to New York, my buddy Carl was in the noise scene, and that makes for a lot of cassette releases. So I started collecting a lot of that, and it was my “Do stuff around the house”-listening. Sometimes it would be really harsh shit, where I’d be vacuuming, then I’d turn off the vacuum, and it still sounded like the vacuum was on. But I’ve been enjoying the cassette thing for a long time, and it’s a nice way for a small group of people to check something out if they want to. And it’s cheap.
George Lewis Jr. from Twin Shadow worked there as well, I hear. There must’ve been magic in the meat.
He was the first one to leave of that crew. I was jealous. I didn’t know at the time, but there were apparently customers who were like, “I love those sandwiches, but those guys are always in a bad mood.” I think I was pretty nice to people, but it got frustrating when you had a line of 15 people, and nobody knew how to fill out the forms and then everyone wants like triple, quadruple meat. I’m like, ‘I’ve got to charge to extra for that!” I think we were always busting each other’s balls to do what we want to do, and we were always daring each other to quit and go full-time with music shit like that. I think it was just coincidentally a fun place to work.
So Mass Gothic is basically Hooray for Earth with a new name, or a whole new thing?
Um, I really needed to do something entirely different on my own, that’s really all it is. It wasn’t bad vibes with band members or anything. It had been just way too long for me to do the one project, and I never really fully committed to — I’m the kind of person where I’ve got my idea, and I want to do my thing, and I never fully went for it with Hooray For Earth because it was — I was the songwriter, but there were other people in the band, and they had lives to deal with and [note: the call becomes unintelligible, connection gets fuzzy…] stomp all over everything. So a couple of years ago, I realized it’s beyond time for me to do something completely by myself where I can stomp on everything, but it’s not people. It’s just stomping on all these ideas I want to do, but not stomping on anybody else’s ideas.
From the very beginning of Hooray for Earth, within the first couple months, it had already shifted drastically from what I originally wanted it to be. We had another band back then, and Hooray for Earth was my little sideproject on my own — a noisy, fucked up little thing. Then it morphed into the “real band,” meaning the band that got together and did a lot of band practice and played out all the time. So, it got out of my hands immediately. But we had a lot of good times with it, and I’m glad we did good, but I just wanted to do something else.
Regardless of what being on this or that record label means in 2016, is a contract with Sub Pop kinda like a childhood dream come true?
Yeah, I was extremely happy about that, but it didn’t just show up on the doorstep one day. I got a note in, like, early 2012, when Hooray for Earth was still busy with the previous label. Long story short, Hooray for Earth was going to possibly move over to Sub Pop, but legal issues that were out of their control and out of my control conspired against that, and it was an excruciatingly long process.
So after a couple of years of that legal nonsense, it was around the same time I had been reassessing my own situation where I was wanting to do my own thing completely on my own for a long time but denying it because I felt obligated to keep doing Hooray for Earth for the benefit of other people, and because I didn’t want to abandon anybody. Around that same time, I talked to the Sub Pop people and I was like, “Y’know what — I don’t know if this is going to work, so let’s chill for a little. Maybe after I figure everything out we can talk again.”
Then the label that was handling Hooray for Earth basically shut its doors shortly after the album [Racy] came out, so it was like, “Huh. I guess that’s done.” We wrapped everything up, and I went to Sub Pop and was like, “Hey guys, what’s going on now?”
Is the Mass Gothic record a guitar album with keyboards, or a keyboard album with guitars? I’m not sure.
It’s absolutely a guitar album with keys. But I don’t even think of that shit. It’s an album of music. There was no plan. I mean, people have talked about keyboards a lot of time when it comes to my past musical endeavors, but I only own one keyboard. It’s one of those Yamahas that you get at Guitar Center off the kids’ rack for $199.99, or maybe it’s more like, $239.99. I do a lot of sampling, and that comes off as synth work. I like weird noises and shit.
If this record sells a krillion copies and makes you rich, will you consider buying a new keyboard?
Probably not. Maybe I’d get another of the same one, so I could have one in two different places at the same time instead of carrying it around all the time, although it is a pretty fun keyboard to carry down the street without a case.
I like the contrast between the seemingly-but-not-really expensive “True Loves” video Hooray for Earth did back when, and the seeming zero-dollars spent on the “Every Night You’ve Got To Save Me” clip.
Yeah, we [Heroux and Zambri] were just hanging out. That’s kind of the whole thing here. There’s no “why.” I didn’t do anything on purpose and that’s kind of — the theme, or whatever you want to call it, of this new band. I’m not going to say I’m a solo artist because that conjures up the idea that I play acoustic guitar. But this new thing is just doing what happens naturally, versus taking shots in the dark. Nothing is premeditated aside from me focusing on me making music that’s satisfying to me, y’know?
You’ve touched upon the notion of authenticity a bit. Do you find, as a pop musician on your level, authenticity gets difficult to maintain?
You could definitely say it’s difficult, and I can attest to that, because I managed to spend years not doing that. That’s not a slight on the music written and the shows that we played and the times we had as Hooray For Earth — that was all real. But it comes down to me. I was just suffocating myself, so it really just takes stepping way back.
Full-disclosure: I did a lot of ripping my brain to shreds and getting into the nitty gritty of how the brain works and I started meditating a little bit. Nothing creepy like joining a group or anything, but our good friend Dan Harris, an ABC News anchor who years ago interviewed Hooray for Earth, he wrote a book on meditation. It’s basically meditation for people who are like, “meditation’s weird.” His whole idea is actually super simple and massively helpful if you approach it the right way. So I dunno. I just kind of ripped my brain apart, and what I was left with was “Do what you want!” That can go for anything: a creative thing, 9-to-5 job. If you’re struggling to convince yourself what you’re doing is okay all the time, then I don’t think you’re necessarily on the best path.
Interesting. Is meditating a a daily or bi-daily thing for you or wha?
Sometimes a week will go by and I won’t at all, and then sometimes, a few days in a row, I’ll sit down, even if it’s only for five minutes of just taking deep breaths and focusing on that. It’s a good reset button you can press pretty easily, and it’s an easy way to bring context.
Y’know, you can get worked up about something, thinking “Why is this like that?! Why do people say this?! Why do people do that?” and work yourself into a tizzy. It gets you nowhere. It just gets you pissed. Giving yourself a little context here and there reminds you actually what matters, and what kind of doesn’t really matter, y’know what I mean?
MASS GOTHIC + MAZED + PHILOSOPHICAL ZOMBIE :: Thursday, February 25 at Great Scott, 1222 Commonwealth Ave. in Allston, MA :: 9 p.m., 18-plus, $10 :: Advance tickets