On “Diner Coffee,” Mamaleek Find Laughter and Nostalgia in Heaviness (Interview + New Single Stream)
Long-established as outré dismantlers of laziness and conservatism in heavy music, Mamaleek have taken curious listeners on an expedition into the murky corners of thought over the course of their six album body of work.
September 16th sees the release of their seventh record, the enigmatically titled Diner Coffee, and though the band themselves remain purposefully anonymous, they spoke with us at length about the surprising themes of the album, including laughter and nostalgia, ahead of its announcement.
On Diner Coffee, the band harness their chemistry as players, as well as the expanded range afforded by the additional personnel they first worked with on 2020's Come & See to create a sense of foreboding, space, and place; as ever leaving the listener plenty of room to make their own way through the chatter and smoke. The song "Boiler Room" premieres below, alongside the full interview.
Laughter is said to be a pervasive component of the record. Laughter has many dimensions; it can be happy, fearful, or disdainful. What faces does laughter wear on the record, and how crucial was it thematically?
I think all those faces are present. On the record we didn’t want to define the use of humour, or our interest in laughter in the singular. It does have a multitude of meanings, it can be a moment of spontaneous joy, it can also be a signal of nervousness or even terror, and we love that confluence of ideas: that through laughter you can somehow find a road towards many places. Sometimes the reference is a little bit unclear; are you laughing at me or with me? Is something funny because of its absurdity, or because of its verisimilitude, its similarity to our own reality? So there are a lot of different ways that it can be interpreted. Ultimately laughter is a natural response, it's an instance of a lack of control over one's soul and over one's body, it's impossible to imagine a life lived without it yet we take for granted..
Laughter is one of life's most simplest pleasures, and yet it seems to get erased from music. And that's where the rubber really hit the road with us, because with this record we didn't want to ignore life's simple pleasures, such as the richness of laughter in our lives and in society. So much of music and so much of metal music in particular is built on posturing, and focuses on simple, very straight, streamlined emotions, geared towards an over prioritisation of something evil or grim or sad, or harsh or violent. That focus actually limits one’s capacity to actually be harsh or dark, but lesser used concepts like laughter can open up a multitude of interpretations within the music.
So that's what we were interested in. I respect a lot of music that waves a humorous banner and finds a way to articulate humour, those are some of the most sophisticated groups to have ever existed, and honestly we consider groups without a sense of humour to be somewhat beneath them. Thinking back to The Residents, or even Primus or, a lot of groups figure out ways to incorporate humour, and they're able to explore deeper forms of understanding and humanity through that. So we were trying to do that. It's important to say that laughter and humour are not just a kind of circumvention of something that is fear based or violent. In many ways, as I was saying earlier, it’s a natural expression of one's anxiety or fear in a moment. So it can be a very sinister thing, as well as enjoyable.
One beautiful thing you hit upon there was how disproportionately negative sentiment is the focus of experimental or darker music. People spend a tiny fraction of their lives thinking evil thoughts, but they laugh every day.
[Laughs] Exactly, it makes no sense, it's quite erroneous.
On the titular reference to diners–which have always fascinated artists. It’s interesting to compare a painting such as Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to something like Norman Rockwell's The Runaway, completely distinct in narrative and tone but not contradictory, because diners are these great levelling places, spaces that serve everyone at the point of need. Where did the band’s interest in the diner come from?
We certainly aren't trying to be too literal with the diner metaphor. Similar to how we see laughter, there’s this ambiguity around the diner, it can be comforting and haunting at the same time, especially today, when they’re almost vestiges of the past, a kind of ghostly phenomenon of history.
We did talk about diners and their representation briefly, and one thought we explored was that they're waystations for souls all over the world, existing aside long truck routes and travel routes, meant for people along the way in their journey. It's another example of one of life's simple pleasures, or it's a moment of respite from the long road. We made this during the pandemic, during a pretty intense time for us personally and culturally, as so many people experienced, so the diner almost seemed like a beacon we were looking for and metaphorically travelling to, a meeting ground. There's also a certain working class solidarity there that's important to us, and an unmanneredness about it, something that respects the virtues and toils of a human.
Artistically, there have been some really important depictions of diners, none of that really came into the conversation, but I think it is interesting. And similar to my laughter remark, I appreciate the dialectic possibility in the location, the sense of the diner being a place for an unexpected occurrence or a chance encounter, something fearful, or a place of solace, or a place of connection, or a place of rest, quite frankly. These places of rest, for contemplation and reflection, like a park bench, or a booth in a diner, those places and locations are being razed, especially in the United States. The erasure of those public places is on our minds.
It's not so different here in Britain, a lot of public spaces or other spaces that don't serve a direct commercial purpose are treated similarly.
Right. And that commercial mitigation of life is something that fills us with a lot of unease and discomfort. And that's somewhat expressed in the ‘coffee’, appendage of this Diner Coffee, motif: it doesn't require the intervention of a barista, you know, the things in life that hold real value don't need marketers, or strategic vision consultants, or thought leaders. An apple eaten on a park bench doesn’t require an ad firm. And these mitigators of our experience and our reality make us feel as though life carries a price that we can't afford, in service of perfection, that is really worrisome for us. It makes us feel like the jobs and the prices we receive for our labour no longer pass muster, and that we need to constantly be self improving or reaching towards that perfect cup of coffee, the perfect this or that. In some ways this record is a rejection of that tyrannical perfectionism that comes from powerful financial willpower.
Out Of Time asked questions about our era, and the band discussed Come & See in terms of the relationship between emotions and space. Coming to Diner Coffee and referencing optimism and laughter specifically - has there been a mindset shift? Having confronted existential themes on those recent records, is there a sense that we're in some sort of afterparty in 2022?
[Laughs] I love the way you're thinking about it. You know, it remains to be seen, we are in a liminal space as of today, and that kind of dread and anxiety or frustration, or discomfort, disquietness looms large on us. And that is the moment we are in, is this the doomed after party? Or is this a stop along the road? It's a little bit unclear, but it does feel like we’re lingering in between spaces, there's residue from recent years that might never vanish, despite the continued reopening of society. There are scars from this liminal time that are here to stay. And we want to reject some overly joyful “get out and be free” rabble rousing or total doom and gloom, seeing this as a kind of dystopian ism, so we're wrestling in between those worlds.
‘Irony-less nostalgia’ is a phrase the band has used in speaking about the record. You've talked a little already about the real happiness and optimism on there, were there any changes required in the Mamaleek entity to tackle what was ultimately some quite warm and comforting subject matter?
I don't know if it was so causally related. We were going through a time of personal change and in order to complete the record we've all made a lot of sacrifices and dedicated ourselves to seeing it through, and I don't know if we saw it in an oppositional way to the way that we were living our lives. It would be case by case with different band members.
It's a point worth stating that our interest in these concepts of old do not harken back to a desire necessarily to cosplay as such, or to reinvigorate ideas literally per the Irony and nostalgia of today: this idea of vintage nineties sneakers or Nirvana, this obsession with the past that younger generations have which is a bit disquieting. Because their desire to relive these things that they didn't get to experience first hand is telling of a lack of future thinking, or the lack of an ability to imagine a future, or even an ability to recognise or understand their present. And so there's a sort of sheltering in place in that kind of nostalgia, throwing on the old band tee, wearing a costume. They feel safer in that codified culture of a time, and that's unfortunate when they should be rebelling and rejecting these vestiges of the past or really contorting and recontextualizing them, instead of just settling for the spoils of the past. And I think that's ultimately a little bit concerning.
And so we wanted to draw a distinction there, that our look towards diners and in coffee is more metaphorical, and even though we do enjoy those older concepts or products, we're trying to mainly work within metaphor and imagery. A distinction from the kind of nostalgia that is overriding culture, even in metal. It's disappointing, because boy do we love nineties metal, that's what we grew up on, nobody loves that shit more than us, but out of our love let's not repeat the past so straightforwardly. It's offensive to the innovative spirit that manifested that music in the first place and to recreate it almost entirely, in the exact same way, is a repetition that is almost ungodly. It lacks any sort of real spirit. It might be fun for the performer, and God bless them, I hope they have fun. We are passionately devoted to that music as well. But our love and expression of that hopefully feels different.
Members of the band have in the past stated that the way that Mamaleek exists means you're mercifully free from the pressures of touring. You were set to play as part of the Flenser showcase at Roadburn festival a couple of years ago, which unfortunately never came to fruition, was that a statement of a desire to play more, what's the group's attitude towards shows in 2022?
That remains to be seen, we are interested in playing shows. The degree to which we will be able to and where we'll be playing is still unknown, but the growth and the expansion of the band also expanded our interest in and ability to play live. What never came is unfortunate because that period of the band was pretty special. I'm glad we did get to play two shows during that time. And between those two shows there was this huge evolution. That third show would have been something, I think, but who knows what the next show will bring. And we're off in a new era, so we'll never try and recreate what was to be at Roadburn. But this new era, this new iteration would be quite special, quite interesting. So yeah, we are definitely interested in exploring that. The degree to which that will be achievable remains to be seen, but we're all enthusiastic and love playing music together.
The new record is in some ways yet another new direction for the band. We're constantly trying to surprise ourselves and engage our own interests in that regard, and that's why every record hopefully feels utterly distinct from the last. Maybe this is just a matter of my own reflection, having made so many records at this point, but I also feel that this one is a synthesis of the techniques we’ve explored in the past, there's more that we've incorporated live - ensemble playing and improvisation, but we've also reintroduced older techniques of recording and performance that we used on those earliest records. So the hybridity of approaches and techniques musically make it something of a special record for us, and I would be very curious of how it would sound live.
The record contains field recordings, samples, and improvised harmonica sections - these are all elements you've worked with in the past. Is there a time set aside prior to recording to explore these elements? Or are they typically discovered in moments of spontaneous inspiration?
It's a combination of both. There's a long gestation period that we afford ourselves, which was especially true of this record. Those parts are collected and they're found, and they're worked into the compositions of the records themselves. Sometimes they really build the connective tissue of songs, they can be the spine of a song, or they can give the impedance for a vocal idea or a guitar line. So there is a period and it's indistinct, it's not saying we're going to do field recordings for a month, it's just a little bit more personal, and collected based upon inspiration at the moment, and location, which is constantly changing for some members.
Then there's also an improvisational in-studio aspect, where sometimes we are just throwing things in right in the present moment. It's a combination of both spur of the moment improvisation and elements that have been hand curated even before we start to write songs.
The cover art is an incredible piece, evoking Rothko and Bacon, it's vivid I think is the right word. Is there anything that you can or want to share about the art?
A band member did it. I really appreciate you saying that. At the time it was created we discussed the visual presentation that we were aiming for at length, but we were also just working instinctively and intuitively, and we wanted the artwork to have a blend of crudeness, expressiveness and to be layered. Being something that felt human and handmade was certainly important, and also we're quite turned off by traditional metal aesthetics, you'll see elements of that in there certainly, but we didn't want to make a metal album cover that's for sure. We wanted something that felt striking and representative of the multitudes of the record itself.
Are there any further thoughts you have on how the audience might approach the full album when it’s released?
It's not coming from a place of pretension, certainly. And it's not coming from a place of ambiguity for ambiguity' sake, or a preciousness about the sources of the sound. Our approach really comes from our desire to keep things somewhat magical and open for the audience. We've really tried to protect the audience's agency in interpreting our music because that gives them the most power. And ultimately we're here to serve this music, and the audience is playing a role in that too. So we're aligned with the audience, even with our own music, we're all here to service it. Hopefully the things that we've said will only help listeners bring more of themselves to this. And we're right there with them.
Diner Coffee releases September 16th via The Flenser. Pre orders are available here.