Interview with Mazes
It was a cold, wintry December afternoon when I sat down to talk to a sniffly Jack Cooper, lead singer of London band Mazes. Originally formed in 2009 in Manchester, the band has seen several alterations to its line-up over the years. This is in no small part the result of the copious amounts of touring that they have undertaken. They embark on a nationwide headline tour this February, in support of their new album ‘Ores & Minerals’, coming out later this year. Signed to Fat Cat, with a well-received first album that was recorded on a boat and released on cassette, Mazes are a band with a genuine DIY aesthetic. They make music in thrall to late 80’s and early 90’s US alt, authentically lo-fi but surprisingly catchy. In a session recorded for BBC 6music Marc Riley called them “a sort of really garagey Kinks”, an accurate description. I spoke to Jack about his penchant for pop hooks, touring with The Cribs and why he won’t write a song for your girlfriend.
The first single from ‘Ores & Minerals’ is “Bodies”, 6 minutes of slightly distorted but sweetly-contained guitar riffs underlay Jack’s vocal musings on bodies. It’s a departure from the rapid pace of ‘A Thousand Heys’, their debut, and takes their sound in a distinctively dance-orientated direction. “I would always get frustrated last year [playing songs from ‘A Thousand Heys’], it became apparent that everything we would play is just very very difficult to move to” says Jack. Would he agree that the new record has a New York disco/ Arthur Russell/ Talking Heads vibe? “Definitely. There’s a lot more going on, every song has really cool bits that I’m still into and I mean, I’d like people to dance to it”. It’s interesting the impact that electronic music, and it’s increasing ubiquity, has had on traditional guitar bands within the past couple of years, an influence not lost on Mazes. Jack tells me his writing process for Ores & Minerals involves cutting up “little bits of drum loops and things”, the interesting things being electronic, “because it’s just easier to cut up that kind of thing anyway”. A self-confessed “not very good drum programmer” he says he then had to “make the instrumentation more interesting to counteract the repetitiveness of the drums”.
Mazes are prolific live performers; touring extensively in support of acts such as Wavves, The Dum Dum Girls and most recently, The Cribs. They also play a lot of their own headline gigs, a lot of the time. In our age of free downloads, it seems that the only vaguely financially viable way to be a band is to tour, almost constantly, as Mazes well know: “when you’re a band at our level there’s an assumption that we’re kinda doing okay and we put out a record on a good indie label and we’ve been on tour a lot”; he pauses, “but it’s really really hard work”. This degree of gigging makes it more like a job than ‘living the dream’. Jack explains to me that potential employers aren’t thrilled about the prospect of you leaving for months at a time to tour, returning just to leave again in a month. The band’s only option became to tour all the time. “It’s almost impossible” Jack adds.
When they first started Mazes the idea behind it was that “it would be all about the song and we wouldn’t put too much thought into it… It would all be about the creation of the song, the first buzz and it being interesting”. How did this transform to live performances? “We didn’t really pay much attention to the arrangements and the instrumentation and stuff, it was just bashing out songs”. Jack sighs, “then it just got really boring playing live”. The material from the second album, being more dance-orientated, requires a more crafted live performance. I ask if they’ve tried out the new material yet. Jack explains, in his own words, that the band pulled “kind of a dick move” on tour with The Cribs last year: they played all their new material, taking the attitude that the crowds weren’t there to see them, so they would play stuff they were excited about. How did it go down? “They were receptive to it. Some of it’s really guitar-y and jam-y”.
Touring with The Cribs must have been an interesting experience? “We were in two minds”. Jack expands on the monetary aspect of supporting a well-established band, “usually those sort of tours will require loans from you label, and not breaking even”. A slight problem when live performances pay the bills? The Cribs were kind to Mazes: “they paid us really good. They understand your position, and they hold that ethic dear”. There was slight concern that, as is the problem for every support act in history, the crowds wouldn’t have time for them. However, pleasantly surprised, Mazes were only heckled once. Still, once more than is ideal? “We get heckled much more than that when we play headline shows so…”. He laughs, “yeah, it was really good. [The Cribs] are nice people”.
As a fan of their music I’m intrigued to ask Jack about a recent Twitter post I saw expressing outrage that Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland’s 2012 album ‘Black is Beautiful’ had not been nominated for the Mercury Award. “It’s my favourite record” he explains. Can we expect to draw any comparisons between their sound and Mazes’s sophomore album? “I don’t know if there’s a direct influence…”. Perhaps in a (very) well concealed love of pop-style hooks, as in Mazes’s previous material: “I really like pop music and melody, I think it comes from when I’m writing a song I never record things straight away, I always have it going round my head for a couple of days so the catchy things stick I guess”. Thinking about it he says “[Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland] actually have some songs that if they were covered by Rihanna they would be pop songs… but they just fuck them up”.
I’m keen to ask Jack about one of his Mazes’ side-projects, Art is Cheap, a Tumblr page of songs that he wrote for people. He charged a £10 minimum admin fee, and wrote all of the songs on one day. He asked people to send him a tidbit of inspiration for the song, whether that be a message, photo, melody or a word. Giving free reign to the public for inspiration is always going to be a double-edged sword; “it was fun for a while but I just got too many unimaginative requests, people would send me an email and it’d be like ‘it’s my girlfriend’s birthday, here’s what she likes, will you write a song for her?’… and I’d be like what the fuck do I do with that”. It wasn’t all bad: “some people got really into the swing of it and they’d send me a poem or a little recording they’d done”. Although it doesn’t seem to be an experience that Jack will be repeating anytime soon, “I’d like to post some of the emails I got, there was one…” He trails off, laughing.
Jack tells me about when his Dad came to see Mazes recently, at a gig in Manchester, “he was like ‘so it’s instrumental now’… I don’t think my Dad gets our music completely”. Isn’t that sort of the point, I argue. We get into a conversation about Dads and music and he tells me a story, obviously important to Mazes, and this interview: “[My Dad] sat me down one time, I was in his car and I can’t remember the band he played me, the CD he was into. It was someone really bad. He was like ‘all you need to do is write one really good love song’. I was like most of our songs are love songs, just not…” Not love songs? “I think it was The Wanted, or someone like that. It was awful. The worst thing is, he used to have really good music. I’m really worried that’s gonna happen to me one day, where you just completely lose touch and you’re playing your kids The Wanted…” Let’s hope we’re all playing our kids Mazes instead.