The Mae Shi: Interview
More Testing of Hypotheses
The Mae Shi were born in Los Angeles
in late 2002. Just before Christmas. It evolved from guitar, bass, drums and
Buchla modules to guitar, bass, drums, tamborines, noisemakers, computer
programs, omnichord, glockenspiel and voice. They put their best foot forward.
Outside, they're positive; they think we can do anything, life is their drawing
board. Inside, they have doubts and fears like everyone else. The album
Terrorbird has songs about the Old Testament, military dolphins, vampires,
werewolves and Hieronymus Bosch. The album Heartbeeps has songs about the
beautiful and messed-up way the world seems to work. Retro is boring -- the
thing about retro is that it never comes back. No one's begging for a Stray Cats
reunion. No one's wondering what Bowser's doing now. The only option is to forge
ahead, to try new things, to test out bad ideas, to all try to sing and work
together and hope the road we're on leads somewhere. It's about the journey and
This all sounds immensely airy, but the Mae Shi believe it -- at its core the
rock and role band is a surrogate family for our culturally extended childhood.
Instead of having babies, the Mae Shi have rock bands. This is their story. It's
about self-improvement and trying to live life at the top of your lungs, live
life rightly, respect others, make something you're proud of, and try to sort
out all the static. The Mae Shi do this in basements and backyards and in fancy
clubs they don't even like to go to. They do this when they're at home. They do
this the first thing when they wake up. The Mae Shi do this all the time.
Let's start with the bland, prerequisite interview questions: How are you, Tim?
Where are you from? Who or what inspired you to pick up a bass? How did the band
Tim Byron: It's these formal, polite questions that take the most time. I'm
fine. Like most people, I'm a little worried about money, I'm concerned about
how we're going to do on this upcoming tour with gas costing so much, I'm sort
of getting ready to be away from my girlfriend for 5 weeks, I'm trying to get
health insurance...oh wait, did you ask me just as a formality? I'm doing fine.
I was inspired to pick up a bass by the Mae Shi. Previously I had played guitar.
I played OK, I guess, but didn't add much to the form. Certain sounds come out
of guitars. Pentatonic rock. Wailing. I had made those sounds for a while and
had sort of gotten burnt out by them.
Bass is an interesting choice for me. Maybe it's because I'm white or something,
but I didn't even know the bass guitar existed until I was 12 or so. You listen
to Poison or Def Leppard or Whitesnake and try to pick out the bass. It's hard.
When I heard it later – in the Beatles or Led Zeppelin or jazz or funk – it
always sounded sort of show-offy. Never had much resonance for me. Maybe this
changed with the Pixies? Maybe it was later than that, like Don Cabellero or
something. In any rate, I switched to bass when Jeff came back from college to
play guitar and the Mae Shi needed a bassist. Jeff is a way better guitarist,
much more confident and everything, so I became the bass player. Since then I've
gotten REALLY into it though. I still don't have the best time or anything but
I'm really into the sounds the bass makes, I'm really into that frequency these
Could you tell me about the sort of experimental L.A. rock scene that seems to
have sprung up over the last few years, centered around venues like the Smell
and the Il Corral, and bands like the Mae Shi, the Pope, Upsilon Acrux, Bad
Dudes, Quem Quaeritis, etc. etc.? How did it develop? What role did the Smell
play in establishing it? Does it feel like a movement at all? Is it a reaction
to the fickle nature of L.A.?
The Smell is a huge part of it. We've been asked tons of Qs about the Smell,
perhaps justifiably, but here goes. The thing that makes it special is that
everyone that starts going to Smell shows ends up starting a band, and ends up
playing at the Smell. No barrier between performer and audience except the
barrier you put up yourself. So I was a nerdy post-college kid with an office
job and a window into a lot of weird rock and roll worlds. One night it would be
Lightning Bolt with Arab on Radar, the next night it would be XBXRX and Pink and
Brown, the next it would be Caroliner, the next it would be Young People, the
next it would be Metalux.
Yes LA is a fickle place. I was talking to Slim of 5RC and he suggested maybe
there's an LA curse – like there are tons of great bands that are very exciting
that have come from here but you don't hear about many of them. I mean, you
named a lot of bands, and that list goes back YEARS to include Godzik Pink and
Uphill Gardeners and Polar Goldie Cats and the Foxations and Man is the Bastard,
but how many actually rose out of that swamp to actually get any notoriety? Very
few. Even Sparks and Metallica had to leave LA to develop a fanbase. There is so
much bullshit in LA and the lights are so bright that as soon as you shine the
light things die. The things that end up surviving – the Doors, NWA, Black Flag
– are hearty fucking animals. Daniel Johnston could not live here and thrive.
"The music industry is a
little like the sock industry, or the potato industry. Most people don't care
about socks and potatoes and will wear or eat what's in front of them… There's a
small little market of people REALLY into socks and potatoes, and the same is
true with music."
What effect do you feel the city of Los Angeles
has had on the Mae Shi's approach to songwriting and the way you function as a
band and as individuals?
Hmmm...well, those bands I mentioned a second ago (the Doors, NWA and Black
Flag) I have a lot of respect for. I love those bands, but they are sort of
cockroach bands – bands that are super-resilient, hard bands that could outlive
a nuclear attack. I guess in the back of my mind I have those bands. Also the
"stepping-stone" bands of LA. Oingo Boingo never paid the bills but Danny
Elfman's scoring work did. Paul Rosselear of the Screamers is now a big-shot
producer and KK Null of the Screamers is now a big-shot movie guy – the idea you
can have your music and keep it clean and perfect and do something else to make
your money sort of is in the background.
How would you describe the progress you made from "To Hit Armor Class Zero" to
Terrorbird and from Terrorbird to Heartbeeps? How did the
writing and recording process shift from release to release and what were some
lessons you, personally, learned from each record?
To Hit Armor Class Zero is our attempt to be Brainiac. Honestly it isn't
much more than that. No one else was trying to be Brainiac at the time – at
least no one in the Smell universe, and we just wanted to fill that hole. At
least I did. And Brad wasn't even in the band when those songs were written.
Terrorbird is a lot bolder. It's sort of us testing out a bunch of different
theories. Like if you write a song people like, you should write a sequel to
that song. If you approach making a rock record the way hip hop people make hip
hop records, maybe it will be better. It felt very good making it.
Heartbeeps was sort of the next step. More testing of
hypotheses. Like Terrorbird, it was recorded in a hurry and is at least
partially influenced by deadlines – we had to get it done in time for our
European tour. Little pragmatic things like that tend to motivate us. I'm very
happy with how it turned out and also think it's probably the best thing we've
recorded so far.
Could you explain the concept behind the repeating song titles and musical
themes ("Vampire Beats," and "Revelation 1-6" for instance) on Terrorbird?
Is there an underlying concept that ties the record together?
Like I said above, lots of just testing theories. The "Revelation" songs are
sort of about "if a part works well as an intro to a song, maybe it will also
work well as the end of another song." Or "let's start two songs with the same
part." Yes this is terribly meta- and that's a strike against us – I don't want
you to have to listen to us with a reader open or something. But there are
definitely threads, stories we start that aren't finished by the end of a song.
The Mountain Goats had the "alpha" series – a bunch of interconnected songs
about a couple having some bad times. We have "Repetition" and "Revelation."
What do you like most about touring?
Getting away, learning to appreciate what I have back at home, and meeting new
What do you like least about music industry politics, particularly within the
First of all, there are a lot of much bigger problems in the world than the
music industry. Yes, it's fun to bitch about it, but I really think in five
years we'll look back on the good old quaint days when we bitched about
something as benign as the music industry.
The music industry is a little like the sock industry, or the potato industry.
Most people don't care about socks and potatoes and will wear or eat what's in
front of them. But even if they aren't choosy about them, people need socks and
potatoes. There's a small little market of people REALLY into socks and
potatoes, and the same is true with music. Beyond the craftsman element
(learning how to make socks really well) and the scientific element (using
science to make socks really well), the real artistry in the sock industry is on
the industrial side – how to cheaply deliver them to stores, how to predict how
personal tastes in socks will slowly change, how to manufacture them as cheap as
Is this a bad thing? I don't think so. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that I
wish the music industry was MORE like the sock industry, because at least in the
sock industry there are unions and standards and patents and a federal minimum
wage. There's less mystery in the sock industry, it's all laid out. If you have
a skill, like playing guitar, and you want to apply that skill to making a
marketable product within a business-like framework, you should be able to rely
on a basic level of support within the industry. I think people should be able
to make a living making music. I support the ability for musicians to make a
living the same way they should be able to make a living in any other industry.
But what the Mae Shi are doing doesn't really put them in a position to benefit
from "industry reform." Music is an industry because it's a commodity, because
it serves uses, because people need music in potato chip commercials and "The OC."
The commercialism of music is what drives it; it's what creates the market for
low-cost digital recording equipment and cool new and cheaper musical
instruments. If the Mae Shi were making a product with some industrial value –
car commercials, ring tones, album sales – I'd like to think we'd be able to
rely on some support. But that's not really what we are doing. We're more like
venture capitalists or research scientists; we're putting things together trying
to find the new thing. We're following hunches and trying to make the music we
want to listen to. And given that's what we do, I don't think we deserve the
industrial support that say a pop-punk band deserves.
I'm sure this all sounds really pretentious, but it's not. Or maybe it is. I
have a lot of respect for artists who work within a genre – it's a very noble
effort. Sometimes you want to see a science fiction movie, you want to see a
mystery. But that's not what we do. There's always been something propulsive
about rock-and-roll, it's had to adapt over time to keep people engaged, and
we're trying to stay on the cusp of that. Sooner or later we'll fall off that
cusp and we'll find ourselves in some genre, and with it maybe there will be
Starbucks money or Volkswagen money or movie soundtrack money. If and when that
happens, I'll accept it fully without shame.
"[Terrorbird] was sort of us testing out
a bunch of different theories. Like if you write a song people like, you should
write a sequel to that song. If you approach making a rock record the way hip
hop people make hip hop records, maybe it will be better. It felt very good
Myspace: grassroots networking tool in a
corporate conglomerate's clothes or a monstrosity more despicable than anything
you or I could ever imagine?
I love MySpace, even though I'm not personally on it. It's sad it's owned by Fox
but at its heart it's just a chunk of code, some server space and a bunch of
people that believed it was a good way to communicate. I think it's going to be
a while ‘til it's some sort of evil apparatus.
How was the recent trip to Europe?
What's it like being on 5RC? How do you hook up with Slim Moon?
We were only an eight-month old band and we decided to do a west coast tour. My
friend Conan in Replicator was giving me some contacts, he said "Try Slim, he's
a good dude to contact about an Olympia show." I emailed Slim, and he got back
to me pretty quick with some contacts. We got a show set up, and then he offered
to form a band to play with us – it was the Punks' first show. He was someone we
all got along with right away, we just sort of kept in touch and exchanged
mixtapes and stuff – he turned me onto Shania Twain, who in 2003 released THREE
different versions of her record Up, – a pop one, a country one, and a
world one – and I shared some stuff from local LA bands I thought were great.
When we finished Terrorbird, we sent it to him first because he said "let
me know if you guys record anything." A week later, I saw he was on IM and asked
if he had listened to it. He said "not yet, but let me listen right now." Five
minutes later he IMs "This is good, I will put this out." I actually fell out of
my chair I was so psyched. For the first time in the history of the Internet,
someone actually ROTFL'd. So far it's been great being on the label, it's run by
good people that want to give you the power to make your own mistakes and have
your own successes. It's a great label for a hands-on band like us that do our
own artwork and recording and even PR to some degree. It's probably a bad label
for someone that wants a lot of A&R help, wants a second voice on what the
record title should be, wants to get into the studio with Nigel Godrich or
something...but for us it's been great.
If the band were to break up tomorrow, what are some moments you'd describe as
the highlights of being in the Mae Shi?
Well, the band could break up tomorrow. Part of being a "collective" where we've
established that this band is basically a self-improvement vehicle is that
anyone could leave at any time, if they felt like they weren't learning. We all
have our own projects and lives and to the extent that those projects can
intertwine and we can mutually benefit one another, we'll be a band, but there's
no two-year-plan, no five-year-plan. We have a tour scheduled for October, a DVD
comes out in April, and then we'll just have to see. I would rather be able to
plan a little further ahead with the band, but that's not the dynamic we have.
But yes, if the band broke up tomorrow I'd be totally content with what we've
done. Highlights: making friends in LA and helping grow some sort of "scene,"
getting to meet people in bands like Fat Day and Racebannon and Deerhoof, bands
I've admired for a long time, learning a bunch about the music business, getting
to see the US and Europe, getting to do something fun with my brother and Brad
and Ezra and Corey, and successfully staving off that perpetual dread a lot of
creative people feel every day.
I hear you're working on a DVD. Any details you might be able to divulge?
Over thirty videos (animated, live action, even some CGI) and a 70 minute tour
documentary. Plus extras. It may be the most jam-packed DVD a small band has
ever put out. It's not quite done yet, but it's looking great..