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Feature Sun Jan 18 2009
Controversy erupted on the internet earlier this month when Scott Masson of the Chicago band OFFICE released the band's latest album Mecca as a free download online. We were lucky enough to get a chance to talk to Masson about the current state of this once buzzing band, the mysterious free album release, and where he plans to go from here.
Scott Masson (photo by Kyle LaMere)
OFFICE has become an incredibly popular Chicago band since their inception in 2000, and their sunny pop tunes even brought them some mainstream success (see our previous feature on OFFICE after their release of A Night at the Ritz in September 2007, and the band's blog from SXSW 2007 ). But there has been a lot of drama swirling around the group lately, from changing band members, to firing their manager, to canceling appearances, to questions of when their latest album, Mecca, would finally be released. Last week band leader Scott Masson released the much anticipated album as a free download on sendspace and last.fm. Now the word is that the band has broken up, but as Masson explains, perhaps a break-up isn't quite the way to describe it.
He offered to do this interview via email since he is currently living in Michigan.
Gapers Block: Transmission: Rumor has it that OFFICE has broken up. Is this true?
Scott Masson: Many versions of OFFICE have formed or mutually broken up since 2000, so I think it would be silly to call it anything other than a "project" or "hallucination." The answer to your question is "no," OFFICE didn't split up. I consider every collaborator my friend....brothers and sisters in the pursuit of spanking modern songwriting on its ripe, uptight ass. It's a life-long pursuit though. When one guy quits or 100 folks quit ... it doesn't affect the creative process.
I'd like to take this opportunity to give a shout out to the members of OFFICE who didn't end up on MTV, or in the glossy magazines, newspapers, or blogs. Nobody ever talks about the people who came before, yet their influence on the project was vast. Because these people never flirted with major recognition in the Chicago and national markets, they were spared the ego f*ckfest that followed. None of these people made any demands, nor did they participate in the politics.
Since this project began at the turn of the century, it was my goal to make everybody I worked with feel responsible for the final product, even if my "punch card" would have proven that I was, in fact, the only one working the day and night shift for nine years straight. That's not megalomania. That's just trying to get stuff done. This plan backfired on me, you might say. I no longer have time for banality when things get competitive and lame within a group of musicians. I would have continued working alone as OFFICE if I knew this information earlier.
Album artwork by Fidel Gato
GB: You said in your blog that the new album Mecca was completed in June of last year, and later announced a release date in October, but the album never came out -- until you released it as a free download this month. Why the delay?
SM: Some folks in our project wanted to put Mecca out on a label, but Erica [Corniel] and I wanted to give it away to the public for free. I wanted my friend Sara Jean Stevens to be in our the band, but everyone fought against me on this. Things had just gotten too weird by this point, and I wasn't sure if democracy, anarchy, or a complete dictatorship was the way to run this project. I ended up choosing non-archy... and stopped caring, and got the hell out of dodge. Compromise is for committees, not free spirits.
By September, Mecca was all set to go. We were excited about the final results of the record. I was very proud of it. The songs hit on a lot of different levels, and I was really proud of everyone's hard work. I had been open about wanting to release it for free early on in the recording process. Tom [Smith] was adamant about selling it, and going through the traditional industry route. Mind you, this was only a couple months after I asked James Iha to drop us from Scratchie. I wasn't going anywhere near a business situation, because of how many times I bent over in 2007. There was a lot of talking going on, but no direction. It wasn't Tom or Colin [DeKuiper]'s fault either. Some labels were interested, but nobody was really biting because of the economy, scheduling conflicts, or whatever... or maybe because of my bad haircut!
I turned 30 in September, and a couple days later I got mugged on my way to a recording session the Mannequin Men were having. I had a mild concussion, a black eye, and huge bruises all over my body. I could barely walk for a couple days. Lying in bed, I had an epiphany. This ended up being one of the best things that's happened to me in years. I told my family and the members of OFFICE that I was leaving Chicago. Things were pointing in that direction for awhile, but getting the shit beaten out of me put things in motion. I told them to just work on their own projects, and maybe we'd meet up in a few months. It's a complicated mixture of self-induced stress and external stress. My reasons beyond that I'd like to keep personal, for the sake of my own privacy, and the privacy of those involved with the project. Time moves on. We did our Schubas residency, and had a lot of fun doing it. I moved back to Michigan, and never heard from anybody about Mecca's so-called destiny. We played a show in Ann Arbor on Dec. 17th, and Tom and Colin quit at 4am. They told me to go ahead and leak Mecca, which was my original plan anyway. So... now as the sole proprietor of OFFICE once again, I was finally able to release Mecca for free this month. I made some final revisions before its release as well, to show my gratitude for Tom's behavior upon his departure. Life influences the production, you can say.
GB: Tom left a comment on Chicagoist's review of Mecca making some claims and accusations, and generally, it seems, stirring up controversy. Do you have anything you'd like to say about that?
SM: It's an ambiguous phrase of mine that I throw around when people get a little too serious on the internet.
GB: OFFICE played a residency every Monday in October at Schubas and the band seemed at the top of their game. What happened between then and now? Did tensions already exist at that time?
SM: There were no tensions at the time that I was aware of, apart from the normal shit-talking we all do. I don't even remember the Schubas residency, 'cuz I was pretty vacant around that time. The members were definitely running the show, and they were doing a great job of keeping it together. I was ready to just do something else. Three albums, lots of weirdness, lots of productivity, unemployment, personal stuff, business, etc... all since 2006. Once I moved back to Michigan, I was just getting my job rolling, and figuring out the new path. OFFICE was on the back burner. The others were doing their thing in Chicago.
GB: How is Mecca different from your last project, A Night At The Ritz? The band has a couple of new/different members on this album — did that make a difference creatively?
SM: Mecca is an album. It was an in-house production from front-to-back. The material was all woven together and written throughout the course of a specific period, as opposed to The Ritz.
Sonically, Mecca is different because the material did not require the synthetics of earlier OFFICE music. The only synthesizer that was used on the album was Justin Petertil's Realistic analog synth, which was given to him by an old lesbian Trekkie living in Andersonville. She bought it back in '78, when she was doing a lot of science fiction conventions and performance art. That was only used on two songs. The rest was organs, upright piano, melodica, toy piano, harpsichord, glockenspiel, vocals, and manipulated acoustic and electric instruments, etc.
The bass playing on Mecca is fabulous. It was a pleasure working with Colin, who is such a nice guy, and a brilliant bass player. Tom's guitar playing on the album really proves that he is, in fact, one of the best guitar players out there. Listen to the electric guitar on the song "The Silent Parade," and you'll hear an avant-garde jazz player in there. Maybe it's the fact that he's a lefty, but his touch is unique and stunning. Erica's drumming is rock-solid and sonic, and her voice is pristine, as always. She's a pleasure, and I hope I can work with her in the future.
Justin created some really cool textures over the tracks, but that's no surprise. I've been working with him since 2001, and he's always blown me away. For me, my favorite part about Mecca is the freaky production. There were a lot of frequencies and voices to sculpt and manipulate. After being called a new wave band by the press, it was a pleasure making this album. I'm not sure there is anywhere to go other than quiet and subtle after this. Maybe the sudden change in the project's location and personnel is the perfect time to take OFFICE in yet another direction. How much longer can we turn up the guitars, and have those bombastic drums? Did it.
GB: You've called Mecca "a pretty intense body of work, not exactly party music." I think many of your fans would disagree -- there are some seriously catchy pop hooks that make me want to dance around my living room! Are you referring to the album more lyrically?
SM: I was probably referring to the lyrics. It's just really bizarre, that's all. Beneath the surface of pop melody, those productions and images are super weird and honest. Maybe they were intense for me because I produced them, so I know the extent of their depth. In the past, I probably would have been more prone to push the cleanliness up in the mix. In the case of this album, it was my goal to try and make it as raw, unpredictable, and organic as possible. It has its pretty moments as well. Let's dump it all onto tape at the end, and get a nice sound that couldn't be stuck inside any era. This album sounds like it was recorded in another world. The drums alone sound nothing like other drum recordings out there.
GB: What can you tell me about your new multi-media project, Action Scene?
SM: Action Scene is a sculpture / video piece I'm currently making. I'm hoping to get it done in the next couple weeks so I can put it up on the web. It's a fun lil' piece about the characters I used to run into around the big city, so therefore, it deals more with identity issues, rather than anything autobiographical. That's about all I should say.
GB: And what about OFFICE? You mentioned you were doing some recording still under that name.
SM: The new OFFICE recordings I'm making with my friends out here are about aspects of life that don't concern pop culture, chaotic behavior, cosmopolitan moxie, or being involved with uncomfortable social situations, etc. These are songs of love, silence, escape, and a simpler "behind the scenes" look at American culture. I'm not trying to be The Boss, but I am interested in researching the auto industry, strip malls, flea markets, senior citizens, and the side of life we all tend to pass by as "boring" or "unglamorous." I'm sure it'll be a hit with the DJs who are currently looking up the latest Girl Talk mash-up for their Serrato set.
I've written many albums during my 20s about that other stuff. I have access to a lot of great musicians around this little town, as well as in Detroit, since I grew up here. This girl Jasmine, who works at the coffee shop in town, has got a beautiful voice. She's been doing some singing with me, and my friends have been helping me out with the music part. It's a lot easier out here. No expectations. No drama. No traffic up in these streets. It's like heaven. Maybe I'll come back to Chicago someday. It'll have to be a less-stressful situation. That is a great city, and it was always exciting.
About the author:
Michelle escaped from small-town-Missouri to big-city-Chicago because she wanted to live in a city where she didn't need a car. Little did she know what a nightmare the CTA is. She can usually be found at a concert, on the beach, or under the bar. She also has a blog about -- get this -- music.