By Adrien Begrand
Guitarist/vocalist Therese Lanz and drummer Stefani MacKichan have been part of Calgary’s music scene for a while now, Lanz as frontwoman for grindcore band Exit Strategy and the pair most notably comprising two-thirds of the hard rock trio Kilbourne, but since forming Mares of Thrace it feels like they’ve stumbled upon something special. One album in, they already have a very strong identity, as The Moulting (Arctodus Records) is a blistering combination of the massive riffs and rhythms of Neurosis, the angularity of Unsane and the Jesus Lizard, the intricacy of the Dillinger Escape Plan, and some well-timed melodic passages to boot. Live, the two musicians are even more of a force, the diminutive Lanz unleashing baritone guitar riffs and feral screams while MacKichan counters her shockingly powerful percussion with a jazz-like fluidity and groove that most of her male peers are incapable of pulling off. And if the new material they’ve been playing live is any indication, their second album is sure to be even more ferocious.
With word of mouth steadily growing on the Prairies, the talented women have embarked on a huge cross-Canada tour, including plenty of stops on both the East and West coasts (save for the Maritimes, sorry kids). I caught up with Lanz and MacKichan back in July (portions of this interview will appear in the forthcoming October issue of Decibel magazine) to talk about their outstanding new record.
The two of you had been playing together for a while in Kilbourne, but how did you come to the decision to focus on heavier sounds with this project?
Thérèse Lanz: A common pattern in musicians’ career trajectories is for them to start heavy and eventually mellow out (usually synchronously with doing things like getting married, acquiring a mortgage, etc). I’ve discovered that my inclinations are running in the opposite direction. Both our musical tastes run the gamut pretty far and wide, but the only thing that I find truly satisfying to write and especially to perform is brutal riffage. Our last band had brutal riffage, pop hooks, anthemic choruses, stuff like that. We wanted this band to just be about brutal riffage. I guess we’re just weird like that! Incidentally we are both quite anti-marriage, and I’m currently trying to weasel out of my mortgage.
Why did you decide to change the band name from Tosca to Mares of Thrace? Other than that man-eating horses are pretty fucking metal?
Lanz: Tosca is the name of possibly the most metal opera heroine ever. After being Tosca for a while, we discovered that there is a well-known Austrian electronic project by the same name (not to mention the Tosca Tango Orchestra). We have had friends’ bands get reamed with legal struggles recently, so we opted to pick something else before we had any shirts printed and got our door kicked in by angry Austrians (hey, I’ve seen both Conan: The Barbarian and Conan: The Destroyer. I know what Austrians are capable of). Fortunately being named after grim blood-drinking steeds of legend suits us just fine.
I keep hearing Unsane, Jesus Lizard, and Neurosis in your music…what bands are Mares of Thrace’s biggest influences?
Lanz: Those three are definitely cornerstones of our mighty tower of musical plagiarism. We enjoy all things AmRep, all things Hydrahead… some death metal and black metal too, and of course doom and/or sludge, which is what we get stylistically tagged as the most… any band or musical movement that seeks to take the basic elements of br00tality and transcend or push them further. There are also several Canadian bands, like Shallow North Dakota and then Cursed, who influenced a generation of noisy Canadians and need to get more props for it.
How about your own individual influences? How long have you been into the heavier side of music, and what bands are you into?
Lanz: I have been irresistibly attracted to dark, ugly, evil sounds since I became aware they existed… roughly when one of the bangers in my junior high art class offered me an earbud to his Walkman, and it had Black Sabbath’s “Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath” in it. (After that, it was game over, man.) As to what bands I’m into, other than those I already stated… If I had to pick my “most spun”s lately it would be: Celeste (the French language lends itself beautifully to extreme music!), Gaza, the Atlas Moth, Cursed and Knut. Oh and we saw the Melvins live this weekend and I feel like my musical world was smashed and remade in Buzz’s sweaty salt-and-pepper halo.
Stefani MacKichan I was raised in a pretty Christian home and my mom wasn’t a fan of non-Christian music in the house. I always pushed the limits of what she would let me listen to; the less of the lyrics I could decipher, the better. Zao and Norma Jean were the two first heavy bands I loved. These days my influences are all over the map, I’m not genre biased. Give me an amazing drummer and that’s what i listen to. This week I’ve been listening to a lot of Taint, Tool, Isis, Dixie Chicks and Madonna’s Immaculate Collection. Last week was Porcupine Tree and Meshuggah.
Lanz: I’d like to take at least partial credit for introducing Satan into her record collection at an early age.
Stefani, there’s such a jazz-like feel to your fills on the album and especially live. Have you been trained as a jazz drummer? What’s your own musical background?
MacKichan: I started drumming in grade 9 jazz band and didn’t start playing in rock bands untill grade 11. I could play a swing beat and a samba before I could play a rock beat. It’s really influenced my approach and feel, rudiments and groove are really important to me. I’m always seeking out local jazz and funk proteges to bounce ideas off; recently I’ve been working pretty hard on mastering traditional grip.
Lanz: Trad grip is sexy.
How much of the album is just the two of you slaying live, and how much layering of riffs did you add?
Lanz: There are actually only two or three places on the whole album where there’s extra guitar. There is no bass guitar anywhere. I used the same rig I use live, including the electronics. Some two-pieces layer their records with all kinds of extra riffs, parts and even instruments that they don’t reproduce live. We didn’t want to do that; we wanted the record to be as reflective of the live set as possible, because the live set is the ultimate expression of what we do (not to mention our favourite thing to do!). We view being a two-piece as an asset, not a shortcoming… and not just in terms of having less people to split the beer tickets with.
What’s the songwriting process like between the two of you? Is it a very structured process or is there a lot of improvisation?
Lanz: It is a glorious and freeing joint catharsis. In prior bands, I would write whole songs on my own time and bring them to the table. That rarely happens now. Stef’s spastic limb convulsions inspire me to write riffs on the spot. She plays along to the abstract sound of my shrieking amps about to blow up. It’s a much more organic and spontaneous process than anything we’ve done before.
MacKichan: After 9 years of being best friends and bandmates we finish each others’ sentences and riffs. Writing songs for Mares is very natural and painless. I’ve also gotten pretty good over the years at interpreting guitar players speaking “drums”. “You know, the bo-ding-bada-crash-ting!”
It’s easy to assume that the title ‘The Moulting’ hints at some sort of catharsis or rebirth for the two of you. Is that the case? Or is it just because Stefani is into spiders?
Lanz: It most assuredly is about the painful but ultimately life-affirming process of rebirth that all life goes through continually. All life regenerates to some degree–it’s what makes life life, down to a cellular level– but in order for that to happen, whatever came before usually needs to be cast off. So I guess, a little from column A, a little from column B.
MacKichan: When we named the album, we were a few drinks in, sitting in my living room surrounded by tarantula cages and tarantula mounting. I have a bit of an arachnid fetish. I’ve seen the smallest, grey tarantulas shed and come out double the size with beautiful velvet colors. Nature is amazing.
The lyrics keep referencing body parts: bones, eyes, flesh, blood, etc. Was that an intentional reflection of the physicality of your music and the album’s title, or was it just a coincidence?
Lanz: As Stef stated earlier, we’re science, nature, biology nerds. The bizarreness of biology is a constant source of inspiration to me. We are fragile bags of meat that miraculously evolved the ability to perform a host of chemical functions. Bizarre, beautiful, terrifying, inspiring. Nothing more so than the human body. What is more miraculous than a greasy blob of bubbly meat that can perform algebra? A squishy ball that can discern different wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum? A creased cup of flesh that collects shifting barometric pressure and translates it into song? ….Well, all that and I’m equally influenced by Walt Whitman and goregrind lyrics.
How much more do you enjoy playing heavier, more complex music like this as opposed to the more direct style of Kilbourne?
Lanz: It’s like going from shooting gophers with an air gun to going after angry rhinoceroses with… I don’t know, whatever the fuck you kill rhinoceroses with.
So is Mares of Thrace going to be your main musical focus for the time being? Therese, how much of a priority is it compared to Kilbourne and Exit Strategy?
Lanz: This band is the love of our lives, but we are remarkably deft at priority-juggling. I do enjoy participating in a couple musical settings; it’s very enriching and it gives me a wide base of people to steal–er, I mean borrow– gear from.
The two of you seem to have such good chemistry onstage. Is that why you prefer to play facing each other?
Lanz: The original intent of Mares of Thrace was to be our baby, our labour of love, what with our other bands going on. (Then this band became the best-received of any of our projects. Go figure.) We didn’t even particularly care about playing shows at first. Whether other people liked it/ hated it was not on our minds– it was just an uninhibited expression of us as musicians. The positional exclusion of the audience may hilariously reflect that to some degree, but really it just makes good sense as a two-piece. If we set up conventionally, it would be me looking at the audience and Stef looking at my ass. I imagine she’s tired of doing that after all these years.
MacKichan: With just two of us in the band it makes more sense for us both to be up front. Looking at Therese’s ass is the only thing I miss!
Calgary’s metal scene is really starting to attract attention as of late thanks to the Noctis Metal Fest, but how much of a metal community is there in such an ultra-conservative, oil-&-cowboy-centric city?
Lanz: It’s the hippest and trendiest thing in the world to shit-talk the scene of your hometown, and nowhere is it hipper and trendier than in Calgary. You know what, and I’m being completely honest here– Calgary’s heavy scene kicks ass. It’s alive and well, it’s incredibly supportive, lots of bands are touring and making a mark, and we are particularly experiencing an amazing renaissance of great avant-heavy bands. Noctis is an awesome event and I certainly hope it does help this city gain prominence as an awesome breeding place for brutality.
Remaining tour dates:
11 Aug 2010 Coach and Horses Windsor, ON
12 Aug 2010 19:30 Casbah Hamilton, ON
13 Aug 2010 22:00 LFH (Loft From Hell) Montréal, QC
14 Aug 2010 22:00 Rancho Relaxo Toronto, ON
18 Aug 2010 22:00 The Distrikt Regina, SK
19 Aug 2010 22:00 TBA Edmonton, AB
20 Aug 2010 18:00 128 House Kamloops, BC
21 Aug 2010 22:00 The Secret Location Vancouver, BC
22 Aug 2010 20:00 The V Lounge Victoria, BC
Special thanks to our friends at Decibel Magazine