Album Walkthrough: Paul Mac guides us through his defining new album, Mesmerism
The Sydney all-rounder is a legend of the Australian dance music circuit, something his latest album only cements.
It's hard to know where to begin when it comes to Paul Mac. Ever since Australian dance music has been a defining force, Paul Mac has been behind it; as a producer - one-half of the legendary dance music duo Itch-E and Scratch-E and Stereogamous; as a songwriter - working with names topped by Kylie Minogue and Sia; as a composer - soundtracking theatre exhibitions like his own, The Rise and Fall of St George; or as a trusted collaborator and person always willing to shout out and rally behind those doing great things to our scene. That's really only the start too; it's challenging to grasp just how defining Paul has been for Australian dance culture - and, somewhat hand-in-hand, queer music - and that's without even mentioning his solo work.
"It's hard to find an Australian musician - in dance music or otherwise - with a catalogue comparable to Paul Mac in both size and consistency," is what we said a few months back, premiering one of his new singles Cataplexy. In the wake of his just-released new album Mesmerism, this still holds true, with Paul Mac switching things up a touch and targetting a more left-field side of his energetic, club-house-esque sound for an eight-track release that if anything, welcomes versatility and dynamism, solidifying his place as one of our scene's elite. "Going into this album I felt like it was time to approach music making with a completely fresh take," he says on the record, and throughout the album's eight tracks, it quickly becomes evident that his new approach has succeeded. The album is one that grows as Paul Mac seemingly grows alongside, rising - representing peaks - and falling - the losses - as it grows and draws longer, offering an intimate reflection of the human behind the thumping house grooves and glittering synth - a tough feat in dance music, but one Paul smashes out the park.
"I’d made three beautiful solo albums of slightly melancholic dance-pop that tried to make something beautiful out of relationships gone wrong, the never-ending hunt for sex/love, and the equivalent of some kind of spirituality that a collapsed-Catholic atheist seeks in a variety of situations," he continues, before turning applause to some of the guest collaborators he brings on board - notably Lamorna Nightingale and Jason Noble. "I soon became very aware of music industry pressures, trying to write hits, and the vagaries of musical fashion that a long term artist witnesses. I felt like I’d said everything I’d needed to say via the voices of some of the most wonderful vocalists available to me in Australia. I wanted to try something fresh."
Despite only spanning eight tracks (in saying that however, all of the album's songs span at least five minutes, with the closer - Flamenco - being a ten-minute masterpiece), it's an album that presents a lot to swallow. So, to better grasp the album, its themes and Paul's newfound approach to production and songwriting, he walked us through Mesmerism one song at a time. Stream the record below, and revel in the thoughts and clever-handiness of dance music's Australian mastermind.
So, my new album is here, and it sounds like nothing else I’ve ever released, so I thought it might be helpful to share a few words on its creation and…well, vibe!
Kim Moyes (The Presets) popped into my house one day and heard Flamenco and was like, “what the fuck is this? It sounds like nourishment”. It’s kinda true; this album was a nourishing, creative process for me. It was made as part of a live Vivid gig with visuals by Damian Barbeler. He’s responsible for nearly all of the videos that are part of the project. So how come it sounds this weird compared to my other stuff?
Going into this album I felt like it was time to approach music making with a completely fresh take. I’d made three beautiful solo albums of slightly melancholic dance-pop that tried to make something beautiful out of relationships gone wrong, the never-ending hunt for sex/love and the equivalent of some kind of spirituality that a collapsed-Catholic atheist seeks in a variety of situations. The music I had made was a glorious fusion of old church hymns, new ecstatic raving and discovering myself as I came out as late-blooming queerdo. I was trying to transcend whatever darkness I was feeling and lift it into a joyous celebration of life. I soon became very aware of music industry pressures, trying to write hits, and the vagaries of musical fashion that a long term artists witnesses. The fashion tide waxes and wanes as you sit in your boat watching it do its thing. I felt like I’d said everything I’d needed to say via the voices of some of the most wonderful vocalists available to me in Australia. I wanted to try something fresh.
I went back to the Conservatorium and began a Doctor of Musical Arts (yep, hopefully this time next year you might be calling me Dr. Mac). I started a new batch of music. I tried to remove all of my old musical habits by beginning each track with some kind of external source. If my “Word of the Day” app popped up a word called “Mesmerism”, I’d do a writing exercise to try and write a “mesmerising” track. I recorded musician friends making strange sounds, I made field recordings, I applied mathematical patterns to rhythms and scales just to see what would happen. Of course, it is my personality trying to make musical sense of it all, but that external starting point could lead me into exciting new worlds. Lyrics were jettisoned, I switched music making programs and I did what I hadn’t done since I was about 20; I simply wrote for fun to see where it would lead me without remotely thinking about any kind of end “product”.
Now that the “product” is here, here are a few words about each track to help make sense of it.
I joined a “Fundamentals of Computer Music” class at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and attempted to learn an incredibly complex music program called MaxMSP. I failed miserably at this task, but the one cool thing that came out of the experience was a repeated pattern of scales that I had to create as an assignment task. I found it mesmerising and I wanted to see how far I could take it. As the scale patterns repeated I added other melodies and textures around it and played with the lengths and durations of the notes of the scales. I then switched the notes to drum sounds and explored their rhythms. At the midway point, I flipped them vertically into chords and applied the scales as horizontal rhythm values. Anyway, that’s it in a nutshell. It all sounds vaguely maths-y, but to me, it was a new process of extending an idea to its logical conclusion and seeing if I could make something mesmerising out of it.
Seeking a Home in the Goldilocks Zone
I have a vague interest in astronomy and my news feed always has something about finding new inhabitable planets for our species as we proceed to trash this beautiful planet. I love my Brian Cox and David Attenborough like everyone else, and I fell in love with the term “The Goldilocks Zone”. When astronomers are looking for a habitable planet, anything too close to its sun is way too hot, any planet too far away is too cold. The habitable planets are found in what is termed “The Goldilocks Zone”. The voices you can hear are greetings in 55 languages that NASA sent out into space on a gold disc on the Voyager space crafts. A kind of “Hello, aren’t we friendly nice people!” gesture to any alien life forms that might come across it.
Nightingale feat. Lamorna Nightingale
I’m a huge fan of Sydney contemporary music group, Ensemble Offspring. Lamorna plays the flute with them. I asked her to bring a selection of flutes over to my studio to see what sort of sounds we could get out of them. She has this incredible bass flute that is super breathy and resonant. In this track all of that rhythmic tapping you can hear is her tapping the keys. There are lots of notes and textures stretched out with granular synthesis to create that kind of apocalyptic, nuclear-winter kind of vibe.
Another starting point was using some spoken word. I tried lots of different speeches and techniques converting audio to pitch and other technical stuff. I immediately thought of Paul Keating’s iconic Redfern Speech. It is powerful, historic and still mega-relevant. It reminded me of a time when our political leaders had a vision, spoke their truth, and thought more about important social issues rather than just trying to win the next election. I did not wish to speak for indigenous people, so I edited together all of the sentences that were directed at white society and how white people had to change. Sound-wise, I left it pretty much untouched and soundtracked it to emphasise Keating’s powerful words and intentions. I wrote to him via his EA and he responded giving me his blessing to use it. It was a really beautiful day receiving that email. I wish it was on actual paper, I’d frame it. What a legend!
Charnel Hill feat. Jason Noble
This is another experiment with Ensemble Offspring player Jason Noble. He brought over a bunch of clarinets. I immediately fell in love with the bass clarinet. It’s dark, rich, breathy and with his technique, he can pull off all of these rich overtones out of it. I really loved the sound of his breath before each note and made it the feature. It starts with a series of notes but all you hear at first is the breath before each note. On each repeat, more of the note is revealed until you hear a series of beautiful overtones. I cut up some other squeaks and squawks to use with the drums.
Damian Barbeler gave me a bunch of treated fireworks sounds (that’s all the sparkly washes you can hear in the background). Some other treated, prepared piano notes created the rhythms which suggested the phrasing, which suggested the bass line which suggested the melody if that makes sense. I was just letting the creative flow lead where it wanted to. I really enjoyed writing a melodic, instrumental track. I hadn’t really explored this since Sweetness & Light with Itch-E & Scratch-E. It was the last track I wrote for the live show because we needed a kind of banger. As happens often, the last track written really quickly to finish the album became the single. I particularly dig Damian’s video for this. I’ve always wanted to do a synaesthetic treatment where visual blobs represent the sounds and Damian pulled that trip off completely here.
Six Years in Seven Minutes
I did another class at the Con called “Embodied Rhythm” with the amazing jazz drummer, Simon Barker. He uses this “number diamond” technique where you combine lots of combinations of numbers continually changing accents and learn how to feel all of the different sub-divisions of the beat. That’s a super-technical way of describing the rhythms in this track. I had a really sweet chord-progression that I wrote on the piano and applied the “number diamond” technique to the stab accents creating this never-ending rolling sequence of rhythms to get lost in. Andy Rantzen came up with the title when I played it to him.
If you are a Newtown local you’re probably aware of the ever-present sound of Diana Reyes Flamenco Dance studio on South King St. I’ve heard the tapping, stamping and clapping from the street for at least 20 years and have always loved the sound. I asked her one day if I could record a rehearsal and she politely agreed as long as I sat in the corner and didn’t interrupt her class. With this recording, I edited some rhythms, put them through crazy audio treatments and built this ten-minute journey out of it. You can hear the footsteps that suggest a bass line, that suggest a melody etc. In the last bleepy section, I transcribed the rhythms and made a rave-bleep symphony out of them. The dancer in the video, Maceo, was in her class. Fun fact: he is the son of one of my old backing vocalists and came to my house as a kid when his mum was rehearsing for Paul Mac tours. How cool is that?
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