When I was fifteen years old, I wrote MC Taylor a fan letter. At the time, he played in a hardcore band I liked called Ex-Ignota. I was a big fan of their split 7” with Uranium 9 Volt and wrote inquiring about buying their previous single. The band sent back a letter typed on the back of a snapshot of what I presumed to be the band members horsing around in their tour van. For some reason, I kept this photograph, tucking it into the copy of the record they sent me.
Nineteen years later I showed my friend MC Taylor that photo, and we both found ourselves struck by the smallness of the world. In 2011, I might have also written him a fan letter, because I was obsessed with Poor Moon, a record he and fellow Ex-Ignota bandmate Scott Hirsch had made with their current band, Hiss Golden Messenger. It was only after becoming friends with MC that we began to discuss hardcore and punk, and Ex-Ignota came up. Until then, I had no idea he was the guy I wrote the letter to well over half a lifetime ago.
Recently, I spoke to MC about the great new Hiss Golden Messenger album Haw (due out April 2nd on Paradise of Bachelors), the witchcraft of songwriting, and, erm, celebrity crushes.
Wooden Wand: So, we share a birthday.
Hiss Golden Messenger: Me and you and Otis Redding.
Wooden Wand: And Rikki Lake and Michael Keaton, and maybe…Adam Sandler?
HGM: I wish Matthew McConaughey…
Wooden Wand: Oh, we’ll get to that. I have five questions written down, and one of them is about McConaughey.
HGM: Ok, great.
Wooden Wand: How old were you when you guys were doing Ex-Ignota?
HGM: I was 17, and that’s when I met (Hiss Golden Messenger bandmate) Scott Hirsch.
Wooden Wand: Twenty years. That’s longer than a lotta marriages last.
HGM: I know, man. It’s pretty wild. It’s a crazy thing to have been making music with the same person for that long. We definitely have a shorthand now, and we can zero in on what each of us is talking about really quickly.
Wooden Wand: I think that’s invaluable in a bandmate. Which is why I’d always rather be in a band with other record dudes than with hot shit musicians. Because you develop this vocabulary together based on the records you love, like, “you know that one part on that one Link Wray song…?”
HGM: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And you know, Scott and I grew up listening to the same things. I mean, once we were playing together we were discovering the same kinds of music together. These past twenty years have sort of distilled the essence of the stuff we really like. Like, I can talk about Curtis Mayfield, but he will know I’m referencing a very specific drum sound from very particular record. So when I say “Let’s do it like a Curtis Mayfield record,” he know I’m talking about, like the third song on Roots or something. Of course, that has its own pitfalls too. It’s important to step outside that relationship and think about whether or not you’re treading the same ground again. Just like a marriage. You gotta keep it interesting.
Wooden Wand: What was it about hardcore that appealed to you guys? My dad dug metal enough that he would take me to see, like, Kreator and Testament and shit, which was awesome, but then when I got into punk, something about seeing my new musical heroes right at the merch table, in the flesh, really changed the way I looked at music. And then I also quickly learned, through hardcore, that these people weren’t necessarily people I should be emulating just because they played in a band or whatever. They weren’t demigods, they were just dudes. Frail said “Make your own noise.” Hardcore was a total rite of passage for me.
HGM: I think that had a lot to do with it, that obliteration or reconfiguration of the idea of heroes and what it meant to be a “successful artist,” and what role the creator of art or musician has among the community of people around them. Everything in the hardcore scene was so interconnected. The playing field was level. There were people that sold records, there were band members, people that had record labels, people that did zines, people that collected the records. Everyone had their finger in the pie, in a way that felt like there was some kind of equity there. For me, too, it was a point of entry into playing music. I wasn’t the kind of kid that took piano lessons or anything like that. I’ve always been obsessed with music but I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to play it.
Wooden Wand: Interesting point about the equity of the hardcore scene. I wasn’t in a band, but I had a zine. Everyone I knew in that scene participated in some way. In some ways, it’s like the four elements of hip-hop. Distros were the breakdancers, zine writers were the graffiti writers…everyone was involved on some level. On the East Coast, the hardcore we had was largely dominated by the big pants and baseball cap stuff, so when I discovered Gravity Records and all the punk and hardcore coming from the Midwest and the West Coast, it was so wonderfully alien to me. It seemed more like what I was about, or what I wanted to be about. Those records were so cryptic and mysterious and they still hold up today.
HGM: They really do. And I think a lot of that San Diego stuff is really important. And you can’t discount the sort of visual aesthetic of that stuff–not just the records but the people that were playing in the bands, too! It was different. People were pissed about that (screamo) stuff. In retrospect it was such a short time period, but people were losing their minds. They either loved it or they were just sickened by it. I loved the politics of it, I thought it was really a great time. I feel like I learned some of the most important lessons of my life at that time.
Wooden Wand: Me, too. I certainly came of age politically, socially…
HGM: We were just trying to figure out who the hell we were, man. I mean, if you didn’t play sports, what were you supposed to do? We were just trying to find our way. The other thing that I was way into–and I’m sure that you and I could geek on this all day–but before I was into hardcore, I was really into East Coast hip-hop. This was like, when I was like eleven years old. I was obsessed with Kool G Rapp and stuff, The Butcher Shop – that era. So maybe part of me, back then, was attracted to these subcultures that were sort of bounded enough that I could wrap my head around what they were about. It wasn’t like “rock and roll” writ large, it was narrowed in a way that I could begin to understand what the markers of the subculture were. I liked that, that I could comprehend it. It was very stylized.
Wooden Wand: Like emo. Hoodies and Timberlands were just the white belts and backpacks of another subculture.
HGM: Oh, totally. Man, I used to wake up at 6:30 in the morning and watch Yo! MTV Raps . Because that was the only time it was on.
Wooden Wand: Hosted by Fab 5 Freddy! Who I would soon learn was this big graffiti writer dude, by reading Spraycan Art and shit. Just like poring over the minutiae on record sleeves, there was always so much to learn and so many dots to connect. And being from Staten Island, we had Wu-Tang, which soon became ubiquitous and would put us on the map. I can go anywhere in the world and tell people where I’m from, and they know ‘Shaolin’ because of the Wu. Before that, we really only had the UMCs…
HGM: And that’s an important thing for any place that has issues of self-esteem or identity. Music can be such an important way to sort of mark your territory. The UMCs, though, you gotta give it up. I loved them.
Wooden Wand: OK, so let’s talk about Haw – this is a great record. I didn’t think I could possibly like a Hiss Golden Messenger album as much as Poor Moon, which, as you know, is one of my favorite records of the past ten years, but somehow, I feel Haw is a step up. “Busted Note” reminds me, perhaps superficially, of the Congos, with the high singing and references to fisherman. There are other references to reggae on the album as well – the title “Sufferer,” etc. What is it about reggae that speaks to you as a writer? As a fan of reggae myself, of course I understand the appeal, but I think I’d have a hard time shoehorning that influence into my own work. You do it in a sort of natural way.
HGM: Well, it’s roots, you know? It’s rootsy in the same way that a Waylon Jennings record is rootsy. Disregarding issues of what is “authentic” or “real,” it’s just roots. The words of my favorite reggae songs are straight out of the bible, which I really appreciate. A lot of those reggae performers are devout Rastafarians, so they come at Scripture in a very clear way. My own relationship with Scripture is very tangled, but in this music I’m trying to puzzle out my relationship with my spiritual life. The bible is an interesting book, but it’s…very flawed.
Wooden Wand: Would you say that Poor Moon is a record about coming to terms with a lot of this stuff? Is that a theme at the heart of that record? You used the phrase ‘puzzling out,’ which I like, because ‘puzzling out’ is not the same as ‘questioning’…
HGM: It’s not questioning. It’s more like repeating a set of words over and over again until they start taking on the form of some kind of answer. I have this collection of words and somewhere within that collection there is an answer, so I keep saying this stuff over and over in different ways, and then, eventually, I think I’ll come upon a phrase that I feel is a statement that needs to be in the song. Not an answer, but something meaningful.
Wooden Wand: Sounds like the process of songwriting, which can feel like divination. I know the only function of interviews, for me, is that I learn about myself just by speaking out loud about my process. When I hear myself describe, say, the themes of a specific song, I actually have an epiphany in which I learn about these sort of previously hidden meanings of that song that I may not have necessarily intended. And I guess it’s the same thing you’re saying, about parsing out what these songs actually mean, and using that to sort of rediscover things your own work.
HGM: It’s a strange thing. Do you ever feel like you’ve written a song in trance? Like “Did I write that song? That doesn’t seem like something I would write,” or “That sounds like something I wish I could write. How do I get back to that place and write something like that again?”
Wooden Wand: Totally. Sometimes I pick up a guitar and I feel like I’m covering someone else’s song. I have no memory of what inspired the song in the first place. There are words in the song I don’t ever recall having used in casual conversation.
HGM: Yeah, it’s very strange. We’re in the middle of moving right now, and I’d been over at the new house doing a ton of work, and I had my guitar over there, and I was just trying to figure out what I was going to play on this upcoming tour. And just playing through some of the songs from Poor Moon and Haw and Bad Debt, there was a sense of displacement, being in this empty house with just the guitar, just playing through this stuff in the dark that was like, weird. Like, “What am I doing?”
Wooden Wand: I always resist getting into the sort of ‘medium’ talk, where songs are spoken of like commandments handed down or as things dictated by the cosmos or whatever, but truly, I feel like I observe songs occurring more than I write them or create them. It’s hippie vernacular, I know, but it truly is that – we’re vessels.
HGM: It is that. And there’s nothing hippie about it. Hippies just heard about that and they sorta took it! It’s a real thing. I believe in that.
Wooden Wand: I do, too. It sounds so pompous, but it’s my experience. I’m just trying to capture these things and write them down. They’re coming from somewhere else.
HGM: It’s a magical thing. You and I both are in this sort of low-level music business, we’re just in the small end of it. But you think about all the cogs in the wheel it takes: the label, the publicist, the person doing the art, the guy mastering the record, the people pressing the record…but the only people in the whole process that can make something appear out of thin air are the songwriters. Everybody else has to have assets to work with, but there’s a certain point in the process where you and I have to sit down with nothing and something has to appear. Do you know what I mean?
Wooden Wand: Yeah, totally. It’s weird how, the more songwriters I speak to about this, the more the experiences seem to match. I think Howe Gelb and I recently arrived at the idea that what we all have is some sort of genetic mutation. Let’s switch gears. Is Haw a darker record than Poor Moon?
HGM: I think so. If Poor Moon was kind of the opening statement about a lot of those questions of faith, then I feel like Haw is maybe a bit angrier. There is something dark about the record to me. It was a hard record to make. I was pretty sick for a lot of the time making it, and was having anxiety issues, going to the doctor. It was just a weird time. And I don’t know if the material on the record was doing that to me or if I was feeling strange and bad and that’s why the record turned out that way.
Wooden Wand: But then you have “Sweet As John Hurt” and “I’ve Got A Name For The Newborn Child” offering some measure of respite from the darkness.
HGM: Yeah, but, I mean, the tempos are not as dark, but “Sweet As John Hurt” is a sad, sad song. I think of it as a sad song just because there’s the one part where the lyric is “I cannot sing this part.”
Wooden Wand: I love that line. It’s like a SCENE MISSING frame of a movie. Something was censored.
HGM: Yeah, exactly. Something has happened that’s so dark that the only thing to say is “I can’t sing this part.
Wooden Wand: I really love imagining that line as a studio ad-lib. Like you looked at the lyric sheet and decided, on the spot, that you weren’t ready to make that line public. And it leaves me, the listener, wondering “What didn’t he sing?”, of course. It’s like that great line in “Kiss Off” by the Violent Femmes, when Gordon Gano sings “8…8…I forgot what 8 was for!” I always wondered–what the fuck was eight for?
HGM: Speaking about it now, it sounds a lot more intentional, but that’s one of the things where it felt more like a stand-in line I was intending to replace later, but I just ended up feeling like I should probably leave this. Do you ever have that with your songs, like, you put in something just to have a placeholder, and then it becomes a really important part of the song?
Wooden Wand: I don’t know if those lines ever become important, but I definitely relate to having those pesky syllabic stand-ins all the time. Unfortunately, they often make it on the record, and they are invariably the lines I wish I’d taken the time to replace or fix when I hear the record years later. I figure “this’ll do for the demo,” and then you get used to that line being there, and then you find yourself at the studio, and it’s like, “Uh oh. Guess I’m stuck with it.”
How did (collaboration with guitarist Steve Gunn) Golden Gunn come about?
HGM: That idea was basically put together by (Three Lobed label head) Cory Rayborn. He had it in his head that it was a good match. I was 100% game, of course, because I love Steve Gunn’s music. I was more like “Do you think he’d wanna do it? Sure, get in touch with him and see if he’d wanna do it!” And then we sorta met and started talking around the time of the Hopscotch festival. We had to do a long drive together, and on that drive it became obvious that we could do it pretty easily because we had a lot of the same influences and were into the same shit. Basically, JJ Cale.
Wooden Wand: Ha! Down to the logo! I love it.
HGM: I think it turned out pretty interesting. It was unclear up until the album had been sequenced how the album was gonna fly. There’s a looseness to it that I can now appreciate. When I’m making a Hiss Golden Messenger record, I usually know exactly how the record’s gonna turn out, I already have it constructed in my head, and with the Golden Gunn record, I didn’t, and I was a little nervous about that. But in the end I think it was for the best, because there’s a certain kind of not-super-serious vibe to it that I love.
Wooden Wand: I think it’s a nice counterpoint to Haw. And my wife and I have been listening to it on a nightly basis. Of course, we also really, really love JJ Cale.
HGM: (Laughs). Golden Gunn: a record for people whose JJ Cale records are worn out.
Wooden Wand: Ha! No, but of course it’s a lot more than that. The way Steve sings on “Dickie’s Theme’ is so…smooth. I’ve never heard him sing like that. It feels like it was the studio chemistry that allowed that to emerge. I think it’s a really special record.
HGM: Thanks so much. I’ve always felt that Steve is just as good a singer as he is a guitar player. Also, talk about another dude who way way deep into hardcore stuff.
Wooden Wand: We’re everywhere!
HGM: Ha! Yeah. Steve and I were having a hilarious conversation about Shelter.
Wooden Wand: I loved Quest For Certainty.
HGM: We’ll have to start a Shelter cover band.
Wooden Wand: I’m in, dude. Well, as promised, you’re not getting out of this interview without explaining your strange, disturbing fascination with the actor Matthew McConaughey.
HGM: How did you know about that, anyway?
Wooden Wand: We got a little drunk last time I was in Raleigh and briefly touched upon it.
HGM: Oh yeah. Well, I have no qualms whatsoever about ranking him as one of the greatest actors of our generation, even though I probably haven’t seen a new movie of his in a few years. I haven’t even seen The Lincoln Lawyer, and that was a couple years ago now. But no, I mean, I really do like that dude, actually. It seems like he’s having fun, you know? He’s just, uhh…my wife is a little grossed out by him, but…
Wooden Wand: He’s pretty smarmy. He’s in Dazed and Confused, right?
HGM: (suddenly incredulous) Yeah! Dude, that’s like his breakout role!
Wooden Wand: So do you, like, actively go see these rom-coms, or are they movies just like, something you’re OK with enduring when you’re on a plane or something?
HGM: No, I totally rent those movies.
Wooden Wand: Wow. This interview is fast becoming an expose’.
HGM: Everyone who knows me well knows that rom-coms are pretty much the only genre of film I watch. Sometimes I’ll make it through an art film of some kind, but I feel like things are insane enough in my head. If I’m gonna sit down and watch a movie, it’s gonna be something like Fool’s Gold, with Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson. It’s escapism.
Wooden Wand: I guess rom-coms are the modern equivalent of the melodrama. Like, the Imitation of Life thing. Forget your troubles for two hours.
HGM: I do plenty of heavy viewing and heavy reading, but I do watch a lot of rom-coms. I love the genre. I just saw Wanderlust starring on Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston. Someone last night told me they won’t watch anything with Jennifer Aniston. I guess I can understand that…
Wooden Wand: Aniston seems like a weird, random line to draw. Compared to some others, she seems rather benign.
HGM: (Laughs) Benign. Like a tumor.