With a hometown show in Bordeaux tomorrow night (Nov. 12) to mark a limited 180 gram vinyl release, French heavy psych trio Mars Red Sky will embark on their latest European tour in support of their self-titled debut full-length. The album, in short, is a fuzz masterpiece. In the new European tradition, it melds heavy-weighted tonality with a laid back, natural vibe that comes through in hazy riffs and sweet melodicism. It is every bit the product of the desert sunshine in which it was created.
The band — guitarist/vocalist Julien Pras, bassist/sometime-vocalist Jimmy Kinast and drummer Benoit Busser — uses straightforward verses and choruses to build pyramids of undulating riffs and grooves. They did record in the desert, traveling to Spain‘s Bardenas in the south of the country and soaking in all of the atmosphere the mostly-barren landscape had to offer. As Pras describes in the interview below, part of the idea came simply from the need for isolation.
And though Pras (also an accomplished solo artist and a member of Calc) is described by Kinast as the “brains of the operation,” each member of the band has a distinct role to play in creating the sound. Without Busser‘s insistent bass drum and deft snare work, “Way to Rome” would fall flat in its militarism, and as they form the crux of Mars Red Sky‘s aesthetic, Pras‘ and Kinast‘s tones are majestic and consuming all at once. I reviewed the album in August and it’s been on a short list of releases to which I keep returning. Though the songs are simple, they lose none of their appeal with repeat listens.
As such, I was thrilled to be able to send Pras some questions for the following email interview. In it, he discusses how Mars Red Sky came together, the process by which the songs on Mars Red Sky were created and the assemblage of effects and amplifiers that results in such engrossing tones, the appeal of the contrast between the instruments and the vocals, and much more.
Complete Q&A (plus the tour dates) can be found after the jump. Please enjoy.
Benoit (drums) and I had been talking of playing together for quite a while, and at first we didn’t really know where we were going. I met him four years ago, he was then playing in a band called Berlin vs. Brooklyn. I saw them live once and I was really impressed by his drumming. I offered him to start a band with me and after a couple of rehearsals we found a direction that suited us. I knew Jimmy would be into it, so we offered him to join us. Jimmy and I have known each other for over 15 years, we even shared a flat a few years back, and we had talked about playing together before, we were into bands like Dead Meadow, Witch… so when Ben and I started playing those slow, heavy psychedelic riffs I knew Jimmy would be happy to join in. The funny thing is that he had thought of starting a band with Ben after attending the same B vs B show, and I didn’t know about it before offering him to join us.
What inspired the aesthetic change from Calc to Mars Red Sky? Did you know what you wanted the band to be before you started jamming with Jimmy and Benoit?
The point in the first place was just to jam with Benoit and see what we could come up with. We kind of had a vague concept, and I indeed wanted to do something different from the several bands I was playing in at that time. But we almost accidentally ended up playing this kind of music, which I was really happy with since it was more of a fantasy and not really what we’d planned at first. It then seemed natural to us to call Jimmy in since I knew he would be into it and as a trio we really found our direction. But it sure wasn’t planned at all, it all just happened.
Talk about the development of your tone. Both the guitar and bass have this really warm, full fuzzy sound. How much of Mars Red Sky is based around working with that tone, and what equipment/FX do you use to get that fuzz?
Like I said when we started fooling around as a duo we didn’t really know where we were going. Since we were going to be a duo and there was no bass yet I tuned one of my guitars really low. At first we were trying to combine complex fingerpicking patterns with Benoit‘s sort of Bonham-like drumming, but we couldn’t really get anywhere until I tried and plugged my good old big muff and eventually came up with those more simple, laid back fuzzy riffs and suddenly it hit us that we had found a direction, something that sounded and felt really natural and comfortable. So yes, indeed the sound itself, the altered-tuned hollow body guitar (Cort…) running through the big muff did help us find our identity. I use a bunch of other pedals, especially a Crybaby, Electro Harmonix reverbs (Holy Grail, Cathedral), some cheaper pedals (overdrive/distortion, comp, delays, volume etc…), and while recording I tried several set-ups for guitar overdubs, including a Rat and some other boxes I can’t think of right now… Jimmy plays a Thunderbird running through a combination of Big Muff, Rat, Small Stone, MXR boost, Bass Big Muff… all ending up in a trusty Ampeg amp and cabinet. I myself use two different amps on both sides of the stage.
How did the vocal approach come about? The higher-register singing works so well with the thick guitar and bass. Was there something in particular that inspired that?
It’s just the way I sing, I didn’t want to change anything just because the sound and groove and whatnot was different from what I usually do. I didn’t know if I was going to sing at all when we started but since we were developing this kind of heavy, sludgy sound I thought it could be interesting to try and sing in a lighter way on top of that, so I just tried and sang the way I usually do and that created a contrast with the music that we liked a lot right away. I’ve always been moved by this kind of contrast, I was blown away the first time I heard My Bloody Valentine for instance, even if it’s a totally different thing there’s this incredible contrast, the eerie, quiet vocals hovering on top of their ear-bleeding guitar sounds. Dinosaur Jr. did that too, Bardo Pond, Dead Meadow, Sleep…
How did the writing process for the album go? The songs sound really loose and jammy. What was the atmosphere like when they were being put together?
Some of them did come from jamming, sometimes just playing a little riff while fixing our sounds and amp sets would be the starting point of a new song. But that occurred after a while, the later songs on the album were done that way (“Up the Stairs” for instance). I came up with almost every part on songs like “Curse”, “Strong Reflection,” “Way to Rome”… That’s the way I’d always worked until now, with Calc especially, I would compose the entire songs and come up with almost all the arrangements, drum patterns etc., so we kind of functioned that way with Mars Red Sky at the beginning, but pretty soon we started composing together and I have to admit it’s a lot more fun. Jimmy also brought some ideas. He sings on “Marble Sky” and came up with the main themes.
Tell me about going to the desert to record. What were you hoping to add to the overall feeling of the album?
The point was just to find ourselves isolated for a few days. Jimmy had been to this place before on holidays and since we were looking for a place where we could be totally on our own, with no distraction, nothing to do but record and try and stay focused on that, we thought it might be a good option. We stayed there for only four days and didn’t sleep much. I guess since the songs had been composed and well practiced before recording them, the location itself didn’t really influence the music. Actually the instrumental “Falls” may have been altered by this experience, the wah effects mimicking the wind at the beginning, the way we slowed it down a lot to make it more spacey and muddy (contrast, again)… We play that song even slower on stage now, it’s always on the brink of totally falling apart. We like this kind of feeling, like stumbling on the edge of a mountain.
How was working with Pierre Fillon on the recording? Did you know specifically what you wanted sound-wise? How much time did you spend in the studio? Was it a very careful mixing process, or did you just go with trying to make it sound live?
We had met Pierre just a few months before recording the album, he’d done our live sound on a couple of shows and had done a great job (he’s now our sound engineer on tour). We recorded the basic tracks live, then added some guitar and bass overdubs to fatten it all up, using various pedals and settings to get different kinds of texture, percussions, swells… All the music was recorded in the Bardenas, then the vocal tracks were laid down in Bordeaux. Then we spent months mixing it. The raw tracks sounded great so we tried to keep the live energy and groove intact but still we wanted to make the best of it, so I would often go to Pierre‘s house and we’d spend hours trying to find the right balance, the right reverb tone, etc. I even ended up recording some backup vocals on my own in my tiny studio. That’s where the instrumental “Saddle Point” was done too, I recorded and mixed it all in my cave. So was the bonus track for the LP, “The Ravens are Back.” It was fun to make because I used a couple of keyboard notes a friend and I had recorded drunk one night, over a very cheap-sounding “wolf box” that came with a bottle of vodka, and then I edited and laid down tons of guitars, drums, three different basses, then sang and played this little theme on top of this mayhem. It was a solitary run but we’ll definitely play it live at some point.
Any tour or recording plans you want to reveal or closing words?
We’ll be touring in Eastern Europe in November, then hopefully do another tour in the UK later next year. We’re also really excited about the vinyl release of our album, it will be available in November (you can already pre-order it from our website) and we’ll keep touring as much as possible to promote it. We have a bunch of new material for a second album too, we’re planning on recording that next summer. And I’m myself working on a second solo album that’s almost complete, I’m a little late on my agenda but it should be out next March or April. Thank you very much for your interest in our band, hopefully we’ll come tour in the US someday!
Tags: Bordeaux, Emergence Music, France, Mars Red Sky