The world is in a bit of a mess at the moment: from the unrest in Syria to the spread of Ebola to protests in Hong Kong, the news is filled with tragic and disturbing stories from across the globe. Yet, there is only so much that the news can tell us, and all too often there are stories that are ignored. Greece is another country that has had a very difficult few years, from the riots against austerity measures in 2011 to the economic issues that are still continuing today, it is something that we only get to hear so much about from mainstream news sources, and something that Mechanimal are addressing head-on. They have created a sound and music that reflects the problematic reality that faces people everyday. The Music Shepherd caught up with the Greek band to get a deeper understanding of how they have curated their deep industrial sound and what has musically and politically inspired them as artists.
The story goes that “Giannis Papaioannou and Freddie Faulkenberry met at a magazine shooting”, but what was it that brought your minds together? How did the prospect of actively making music together come about?
GP: Apart from being a musician, I also enjoy writing, so Ι’ve been working as Editor in Chief for many Greek magazines. Part of this job was to plan fashion editorials. That’s how we met with Freddie: on a fashion shoot. I liked his deep voice and the way he was telling stories. It was around 2011, and I was about to release an EP under my techno alias ION, influenced by the massive demonstrations down in the centre of Athens. I asked Freddie if he would like to contribute the spoken voice part on one of the tracks, called “Low Land.”
During these sessions we listened to some other tracks that were never released yet, Freddie liked them, so I asked him if he’d like to work further on new music with a different approach to my techno productions. He got excited, we started recording more and more, I brought in a guitarist to shape a more organic sound, and we finally decided to make this an audio-visual project with the final addition of a video artist, Angelica Vrettou, who would dress our live performances with backing visuals. The name Mechanimal was taken from Angelica’s alias on Twitter.
When you began making music together as Mechanimal, was there a definitive message that you were trying to get across?
GP: I believe the main message was that “there is some kind of new and unique stuff being made in Athens”. We all liked the idea of building some kind of a mechanical beast, something that is driven by machinery in perfect balance with organic sounds, which should breed innovation in the Greek sonic palette.
FF: I found it challenging adding a vocal narrative to something that would create a moment, or even an image in someone’s mind; so far I had been telling stories by photographing, they were never necessarily mine, they were mostly about my subject, a story I borrowed briefly to say something that represented me as well. Adding collaborators, musicians and Giannis who would write lyrics and then let me channel stories through my voice and performance was an extra interesting challenge and approach to new avenues for me.
How did you decide on your sound, or did it come about organically?
GP: I believe the sound found us. Like I said, we had just finished the vocal takes on “Low Land” with Freddie, and we were sitting in my studio listening to other tracks, so then suddenly iTunes started to play some “hidden” tracks of mine. Freddie asked me “What’s this? That’s awesome, much better than what we just did!”. It all started from there, bringing up tracks that were lying secretly on a hard disk.
How would you describe your drone’n’roll sound to somebody who hasn’t heard your music before?
GP: Drone ‘n’ roll was an inside joke, mostly because our music is based on “big” sustained notes, played by simultaneously driven monophonic synths and massively e-bowed guitars, all running on vintage drum machine rhythms. I think the Mechanimal version of “Low Land”, the one we did for our first album, was the main reason for giving this term to our music. Sure, we have evolved since then, but you can still hear this approach on newer tracks such as “The Den” and “Song to the Sirens”.
FF: We love screwing around with names and we kept on being asked the same damn question in the beginning, about what exactly we played so we though it out as a joke at some interview and then everyone started label us that. It kinda works though.
Your music purposefully demonstrates a restless urban environment and paints pictures of dystopian industrial landscapes. There is evidently a strong political streak running through this. It seems that people have really latched on to your message and what Mechanimal stands for. How do you feel about that? Do you feel you have given people a voice?
GP: It feels good when people near us, our friends, our families, our audience, even the established Greek media forces, truly understand how we deal with social reality. We are not a gothic band dealing with dystopian darkness nor a straight forward political band. We may transmit the message from deserted schoolyards, we may speak about how people in Greece (or even globally) face a tempestuous future on account of the present social and economic crisis of capitalism, but this is what we see outside our studio. The dystopian concept is there, in front of our eyes. So, I often feel like staring at the sun creeping through the corners of an ancient city, then taking notes and then writing songs, when others tend to look down and act like mindless cattle, devoid of any individuality (or power of resistance) whatsoever. So, I’m feeling happy when people realise that there is no concept in Mechanimal that isn’t rooted in things that are already happening.
What is it really like to live in Athens today? What kind of impact do you think the media has?
GP: Athens is facing a change of season. It may take longer than expected, but it’s actually happening. Of course, in all this recession, certain class prejudices make themselves evident. Now, objective reality makes its own demands, but the Greek media just scrolls the cursor on the surface of the crisis problem: where government promises false development and former “radicals” look upon the defeats of the working class in the 1970s and 1980s not as the outcome of the betrayals of their “socialist” leaders, but the fault of the masses themselves. So, extreme and mindless consumerism in the 1990s has brought us head on with problems such as a collapsed education system, massive unemployment, sexual repression, racial discrimination. The depth of the present situation requires serious thought and feeling and artists are not exempt from treating the subject, in their own way, with true diligence.
In what ways is your new album Secret Science a development from your debut? Has the message changed in any way?
GP: If our first album was about the creation of a new kind of mechanical breed inside some obscure lab, this one is about letting the mechanical beast free to educate its spirit, in the environment outside the lab. It’s about its survival codes, dreams, hopes and fears.
FF: On my part it’s different melodically; it requires a whole different approach being melodic to express something sternly and firmly. Melody may have made things a bit more aggressive but it it’s also more familiar to people so it’s a bit more massive and easier to the ear.
What do you try to achieve in the live setting? How important are live performances to you?
GP: By keeping a balance between a wall of sound of pulsating synthesisers, complex techno rhythms, manic guitars and live drumming and the “preachiness” of Freddie’s voice. We’ve played our music live a lot in Greece and now we’re planning our first shows outside Greek borders. From the beginning we wanted to be able to perform anywhere: on the small stage of a punk club, or in the clinical environment of a gallery or in a perfect sound environment of a grand music hall. We have done all. And they were all important performances to the progress of the live band. For example, we started playing gigs with no drummer. Now, there’s a drummer in our shows and he’ll be a major force in the recordings of our new album.
What musical inspirations lie behind Mechanimal’s sound?
GP: Early industrial bands such as Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, symbolic names like Joy Division, Magazine and early Ultravox!, American bands like The Residents, Suicide, Chrome and Tuxedomoon.
FF: A bunch of old 4AD stuff, hip hop, I’m a huge Cure fan and a bunch of 80’s hardcore as well.
Are there any artists in particular that have had a profound effect on you throughout your lives?
GP: As a music fan I could state hundreds of artists that have had an effect on us, but from the beginning this project was carefully built to slowly form its own “live” character. The energy of this unit has often been compared (from just one show) to doom metal bands, hardcore punk ones, drone electronic explorers or even heavy industrial bands. This sounds confusing already, so I prefer to remain silent about our live comparisons and let our fans express what they get from us.
What’s next for Mechanimal?
GP: We are currently finishing a new track for a forthcoming Inner Ear compilation and then we hit the road for a Greek tour in December. After that we shall begin with our sessions for the new album, which hopefully will feature some new collaborations. In spring we’ll announce our first gigs abroad.
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