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The Many Shades of Mahogany: A BYT Interview with Andrew Prinz
July 3, 2008 | 1:19PM

See, I kind of have this theory: there are people that are in love with music and then there are people that are in love with the possibilities of music. The former understand and celebrate music’s emotional and visceral joys; the latter revel in music’s limitless conceptual possibilities. But sometimes, and certainly in the case of Mahogany’s Andrew Prinz, a person can have both love affairs at the same time: The rigorous intellectual pursuit of forging new sonic territory is inextricably tied to an unabashed emotional understanding of how those sounds and melodies affect the heart.

Since the band’s inception in 1995, Prinz has been Mahogany’s primary creative driving force through its many permutations. His background includes a classical music education––the man is just as likely to geek out on discussing Debussy and Shostakovich as he is to wax nostalgic about the Factory Records back catalog. And yes, the man boasts some serious love for OMD (the band covered “Bunker Soldiers” for an OMD tribute album), but he also holds an appreciation for bossa nova and minimalist composition (Steve Reich is a favorite.)

It’s no wonder then that Mahogany has carved out a multi-faceted, hard-to-pin-down sound over its relatively modest output: just two full-lengths (“The Dream of A Modern Day,” originally released in 1998 and then re-released in 2001, and “Connectivity!” released in 2006) and a compilation of non-album tracks (the 2-cd set “Memory Column”). Tossing around sub-genre signifiers such as “shoegaze” or “dream pop” to describe the band strikes me as lazy––while there’s enough melancholy and shimmery atmosphere in their sound to understand why those terms get bandied about, that’s really only one card in the band’s winning hand.

And there’s a lot more to Prinz than just writing and recording for Mahogany––he is also a respected producer, remixer, graphic design artist and occasional dj. Fortunately for us, Washington DC is getting a double-dose of Mahogany this weekend. On Thursday, Mahogany plays the Black Cat with local noise-merchants Lorelei; on Friday Andrew and his musical cohorts will be spinning some of their favorite records at the Marx Café for a special July 4th, post-fireworks edition of “We Fought the Big One.” Andrew was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to speak with BYT about music, art, touring with Bloc Party and most importantly, Robin Guthrie and Elizabeth Frazer’s daughter, Lucy Bell…

BYT: One of my favorite live shows in recent years was the one Mahogany played at the Rock N’ Roll Hotel back in September ’06. Aside from the great music, what I really enjoyed about it was this palpable sense of joy you guys (and gals) were expressing from the stage. It’s funny, for a band known for making a lot of atmospheric and melancholic-leaning sounds, “palpable sense of joy” isn’t the kind of description I ever thought I would use to describe Mahogany (laugh). There is no doubt that you guys love music and love sharing that feeling of euphoria with your audience…

AP: Thank you, it is great to know that we can share that! Maybe music has that say about every emotion…that melancholy and joyousness hold equal weight in the spectrum.

BYT: Something else I noticed at the Rock N’ Roll Hotel show was the almost quizzical expressions on some audience members’ faces when the band first took the stage (if I’m correct, it was Mahogany’s first show in the DC area). With eight members in the band, including a cellist, you certainly didn’t look like the typical indie band. Do you guys still have the same line-up from a couple years ago? Who is playing what at the Black Cat show?

AP: It’s always changing. I was talking with Bobby Pietrusko (previous Mahogany drummer/programmer) the other day about how we did our first UK tour in 2000 with a reel-to-reel that played back all the electronics––very proper old-school tape music-style, and another show in ’99 when we turned up with a giant desktop system, like a Mac 8600––one of the old beige towers. Hilarious. ‘Tech’ as naive/sculptural, performance/response object.

On the other hand, when Mahogany first started in 1995, it was myself, my girlfriend, my sister and my sister’s friend, all playing live synths, organs and guitars. For the shows in support of “Connectivity!,” we had anywhere from 6-8 people onstage, plus support for visuals. Some shows we’ve had up to 15 ensemble members. At our most recent show for the NYC Popfest, we were a quintet with an additional trio of ladies grooving and playing tambourines. So these are all forms of Mahogany. It’s gotta be fun, gently poignant, welcoming…that’s part of the expression.

BYT: A lot has happened to Mahogany since you guys released “Connectivity!” in the summer of 2006, including much deserved attention from Pitchforkmedia, a U.K. tour with Bloc Party and even a performance in Lima, Peru. Has it been a case of the proverbial whirlwind experience for you since your last album? What have you taken away from everything that’s been happening to the band?

AP: We’re sincerely honored with the response we’ve gotten. There are incredibly nice people out there who take the time to make the live shows, be there to look and listen, and enjoy the music. When you meet such good people like this, it’s a feeling of sustained jubilance. So to go to play with the Bloc for those dates, and make it down to Peru, was whirlwind for sure, but more than that, an honor.

BYT: Can you talk a little about how the songwriting process for Mahogany has evolved over time? A lot of the band’s earlier recordings are quite sparse, and of course you were working with fewer band members than you are now…

The early recordings were done in Michigan. We were listening to bossa nova, 20th century classical…we were in art school, music school. It was before we wised up. But we were aware that we had never done recordings before, so maybe we opted first towards honest attempts that were understated—it was more academic.

BYT: While we’re on the subject of your earlier works, I wanted to say that “Memory Column” feels more like a complete album (dare I even say “concept album”) than a collection of compilation appearances, seven-inch recordings and other non-album tracks. What’s even more amazing is that the tracklisting is arranged chronologically, from oldest to most recent recording—in light of this, how did you manage to create a cohesive feel? Were you always thinking of an eventual 2-cd release?

AP: It’s true—the whole time I worked on those songs, I was thinking of ways to a dynamic continuity, probably on pure formal or timbral concerns, and thinking of the recordings being arranged as an album or double album at some point. I chronologically recorded each song to a cassette as it was finished so I could hear it growing. I like using time as a material. Maybe just a little ‘planning’ ahead like that, a little spark made it subliminally more cohesive.

BYT: By the way, how do you feel about those “Memory Column” and “Dream of A Modern Day” recordings these days? Do you ever find yourself in the mood to pop them in and give a listen?

AP: More often it goes that someone will mention something about a song, and that prompts me to go and listen to it again, to understand what they are talking about. It’s been interesting and humbling to discover how certain songs mean a lot to certain people. Music is a very animated and romantic discussion that everyone shares. A lot of our strongest emotions are held inside music.

BYT: One track in particular off “Connectivity!” that never fails to move me is “The View from the People Wall”—what can you tell me about this song? I love the way that all the disparate sonic elements come together on it. I’m especially intrigued by what sounds like a piccolo around the 0:46 sec mark and the subsequent harmony roughly 10 seconds later…

Download MP3 here

AP: We were researching the Eames Office, Bell Labs, Raymond Scott, and other ‘open-system’ design practices––those methods seemed interesting to apply to pop music. The Eames films have such a light, pleasant sense of play while bringing together a lot of different ‘styles.’ There’s an implicit feeling inside of those films that technology exists to lay gently over nature without obstructing it. And there’s a sense of wonder and whimsy as well.

BYT: Another favorite of mine from “Connectivity!” is the track “Supervitesse.” I think I recall reading somewhere that “Supervitesse” became the foundation from which you guys created the “Connectivity!” album.

Watch the video for the song here:
http://myspacetv.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoid=1623997
(sorry, embedding was causing issues)

AP: Yes, “Connectivity!” was first an idea for a 7″ that had “Supervitesse” as an A-side. It was initially written and demoed in 1996 and it has had a lot of versioning!

BYT: It’s been around that long? What did the earliest version sound like?

AP: The first version of “Supervitesse” was called “Vitesse.” Not so super yet. I used one of those old drum machines. It had a bossa nova beat that sounded angular and a little punchy. The remix of “Supervitesse” by Ulrich Schnauss is somewhat similar to the first demo.

BYT: I remember the first time I heard about the “Connectivity!” album. I want to say it was close to a year before the actual release date (editor’s note: the album’s release was delayed when the band’s computer and other equipment was stolen!) but there was already an early description of it on the Darla website that talked about the album’s central theme: the interconnectedness of all things—man, nature, machinery, etc. The sonic diversity on the album underscores this theme. I was wondering if you guys started with the concept first and then made music that worked within that framework or did the music and concept just sort of come about on its own, without much premeditation?

AP: We made many frameworks, that was part of the fun really—to have those as options. What grew out of those frameworks was organic and serendipitous, maybe a bit rebellious and daring. And that was exciting; we had set off some kind of resonant or blossoming harmonic features of these instruments, vocals and words working together.

BYT: Legendary Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie produced some of the songs on “Connectivity!” so I have to ask: What was it like working with him? Didn’t you also play bass guitar for a live show he did in New York?

AP: Yes, Odell Nails (Mahogany drummer, of seminal Detroit dream-poppers Majesty Crush) and I supported Robin as rhythm section when he played in NYC. We collaborated with Robin by phone as he was in France. But we’ve met up so many times since, even down in Lima, where we worked on another record with our friends in a Peruvian group called Resplandor.

BYT: Yes, the “Pleamar” album! I love that record! I have a cd alarm clock and I kid you not, I’ve been waking up to that album every morning for the past month! The only problem is it makes getting out of bed very difficult (laugh). I just want to keep listening! OK, while we’re talking about the great Robin Guthrie, I also have to ask about the collaboration with his daughter, Lucy, on the alt take of “My Bed Is My Castle.” With her mother being the incomparable chanteuse Elizabeth Fraser, that’s quite a gene pool she has!

AP: I know, I’m curious if there will be a Lucy Belle solo record one day soon. Her vocals on the alt take of that song were at Robin’s request—we didn’t know it was going to happen at all. So when he sent us the track, that was a quite a sweet surprise.

BYT: Of course, Mahogany is just one of many creative outlets you have. Can you talk a little about your work with the Simultaneous Workshop? You design book covers and cd covers, correct? How did you become involved with that? And are you still doing it?

AP: Yes, I’m working on a book of photography—very beautiful photos made by Ernest Hemingway’s grandson. I’m also doing some art direction for a London-based label, Happy Robots.

The Workshop will soon be in its tenth location. I’ve been working in graphics and the print trade since I was 17 or so. It’s been interesting to see the changes in print and publishing—there are new opportunities on the way.

BYT: I know you are also someone who loves and is inspired by art. One common thread I noticed with a lot of the artists I’ve seen you mention, such as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Theo van Doesburg, Frantisek Kupka or Sonia Delaunay, is not only a brazen rejection of many establishment artistic precepts, but also a desire to bring together disciplines or artistic areas that were previously separated: i.e. Moholy-Nagy pushed for integrating technology and industry into the art world; Delaunay brought abstraction into fabrics and clothing; some of Kupka’s abstract works have a basis in realism, etc. I can’t help but notice how that philosophy has influenced your music over the years. While many of your shoegaze or dream pop peers cling to a traditional way of doing things (and to quote George from Seinfield: “There’s nothing wrong with that!”), Mahogany is constantly pushing, evolving and challenging your fans and critics’ perceptions of the band. Can you talk a bit about how your love of art has informed the way you not only make, but think about music?

AP: There’s a pragmatism and robustness to a lot of the art you’ve mentioned. Even though it is considered ‘modern’, the materials used at that time are still highly organic, especially by today’s standards. Also, those artists seem to each have very unique output, yet they were actually quite unified by a school of thinking then. Whether that school of thought was manifest in the Bauhaus, in the De Stijl or Wendingen magazines, or in the artwork itself, the stuff that has survived is a testament to a certain kind of strength and beauty: something needn’t be new in order to retain great beauty, but it does need to be crafted and maintained in certain timeless ways. We have a lot to learn from pre-war modernism still.

BYT: Do you have any ideas yet about what new musical territories Mahogany will be exploring on its next release?

AP: Always.

BYT: Feel like sharing what any of those might be? At the very least, is it fair to say that you will be trying some things that are a little different from the “Connectivity!” album?

AP: I’m always up for trying new things so that’s certainly part of the plan. I have been slowly teaching myself piano for a year now.

BYT: By the way, how far along is Mahogany with the next full-length album at this point?

AP: There are several ideas in progress…

BYT: I so hope that you are using “ideas” as a euphemism for “completed songs.” Haha!

AP: Touché. I’m doing my best to work a little more quickly these days.

BYT: Good to hear that! Thanks for the interview and cheers Andrew!

AP: Many thanks, Rick.

http://www.myspace.com/mahoganyinthecity

Catch Mahogany at the Black Cat backstage tonight @ 9pm with Lorelei for only $8

And hear them DJ this Fri:

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Recent Comments:
  • david says:

    brilliant interview, congratullations. it is (more or less) the interview i always wanted to do to andrew. hehe.

    all the best and keep those great ideas up.

  • ross says:

    supervitesse reminds me of 90′s mark e smith & co production and feel. cool.

  • John Foster says:

    If you have even the tiniest appreciation for shoegazer songwriting get your butts out tonight. It is going to be a good one. I’m serious.

  • chris says:

    Wow, what a hefty interview–excellent job, Rick. I would have been happy to see Lorelei but Mahogany too? This is gonna be a good show.