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We Are Temporary

We Are Temporary

Interviewed by
Brannavan Gnanalingam
Wednesday 15th May, 2013 8:33AM

One time Christchurch resident Mark Roberts first came to our attention via his ethereal music under the name The Enright House: releasing excellent debut album A Maze and Amazement on A Low Hum in 2007. Roberts however disappeared for a couple of years, reemerging from his new home of New York last year with label Stars and Letters (home to local acts Black City Lights and Misfit Mod) and now a new musical project of his own: We Are Temporary. With new EP Afterhoughts on the way, we got in touch for a bit of a catch up...

What brought about the new name and how liberating was it recording under a "new" personality? If you put The Enright House on it now, would it simply not work for you?

You know, it's an odd thing being a solo musician, because you can't really break up with yourself. But after touring the US in 2009, The Enright House just felt like it had run its course. Afterwards I felt an overwhelming urge to start over musically with a name that would clearly connect with the philosophy of my music. And "We Are Temporary" is the very marrow of my sense of life. It's tattooed across my wrist, not because it's my band name, but because it's the most important fact of life and disproportionately shapes every choice I make.

And yes, changing my name was definitely liberating. After all, keeping a band name is a lot like keeping a promise to yourself and your fans. It demands a certain commitment to one's musical identity. And I didn't want commitments, I didn't want to evolve my ideas gradually… what I wanted was a clean and definitive break. Releasing Afterthoughts as an Enright House EP would simply not have worked for me. I would have broken too many promises.

Afterthoughts had a long gestation and you reveal a lot of yourself in the album - were these two interconnected e.g. was it difficult laying yourself open in such a way? You've talked in interviews about the struggle/difficulty of giving 100% of oneself as an artist - do you feel you succeeded in this with Afterthoughts?

I grew up with a mother (and a father) who were complete perfectionists. My mom was an opera singer who practiced six hours a day. Singing was her entire world. Her total devotion to a life of singular purpose and her iron will to achieve perfection—I think I internalized that. On the one hand, it was inspiring, on the other hand, it was destructive. For years, I felt like anything other than a perfect record would be a terrible disappointment to me. It paralyzed me.

Maybe I internalized that into my private life, too—any weaknesses felt like personal failures. And while writing this album, I suffered a lot of personal failures. I went through periods of unemployment and weight gain, relationship drama, health issues, debt, and suffered a lot of anxiety about failing as a musician. In the end, I had to deal with all of it somehow, and I found that putting that tumult into my music was all I could do. In other words, it wasn't so much an artistic decision to open up, as it was a psychological pressure valve. And while it made for a messier, less perfect record, it also made for something more interesting and dynamic, I think.

Did I give it 100%? I swear I did. But did 100% effort translate into a perfect record? No. But I'm starting to be able to live with that.

You have previously talked about your disinterest in the pristine, and embracing of the imperfect: it's hard not to view these ideas as influencing the album - with its very naked lyrics, jarring (in a great way) soundscapes, and almost marrying of fragility and aggression throughout. Am I right in continuing to see an influence of this philosophical underpinning in your work?

You know, it's interesting you bring this up, because—to be quite honest—I hadn't thought about it in a while. These songs deal with a lot of violence, anger, and longing, and the sonic "imperfections" (i.e. the distorted basses, the weird whispers, skittery percussion, etc.) were primarily the raw expression of the turmoil I was facing in my life, rather than the result of any aesthetic ideas I had.

In fact, far from embracing the imperfect, my initial approach to the record was to try and make it perfect, and it failed. There's always room to tweak things, but every added layer of perfection and refinement edges out a layer of raw, emotional impact. In the end, I found myself embracing the imperfect again, but I had to fight bitterly for perfection and fail at it first. Perfection, I learned, is a goal riddled with diminishing returns.

Your songs are shorter than in A Maze and Amazement - given your strength with working with mood/textures, how did you find the shorter time frames for exploring your musical ideas - constraining or freeing?

Have you ever watched the show "Hoarders"? It chronicles the lives of extreme hoarders, who are drowning in clutter. Some people can't let go of plastic shopping bags, some can't part from their dead cats and store the carcasses in their freezers. Whatever the physical manifestations are, they all have one thing in common: all people's inner lives are as chaotic as their external living environments. Long story short, I was a bit of a musical hoarder myself. 3 minutes intros? 3 dead cats.

Getting rid of the musical clutter felt like a big sigh of relief. Everything feels clearer, more alive. To me at least.

The music is strikingly eclectic - but it hangs together more via mood than by traditional song structures - was it hard to ensure that the emotions remained upfront with the challenge of a long recording process (and presumably editing process)? How did you keep rawness and vitality with such a long and involved recording process?

First off, I'm super glad you find the EP eclectic, because—to be honest—I was a bit worried I had bent the stick too far the other way. The six songs on Afterthoughts all stem from very different periods in my life, and I worked very hard to make them inhabit a unified sound world. Circa 2011 "Starash" had a full string orchestra, accordions, and even more brass on it; "Afterthoughts" was a barren ambient-house track; "In Perfect Blooms of Color" had more than 10 layers of guitar on it; and "Satellites" was called "Carry On" and sounded like a 2003 Death Cab anthemn. If the EP sounds eclectic now, it was positively schizophrenic back then.

Keeping alive the rawness and vitality, too, was a real struggle, and my first attempts failed. Around 2011 virtually all songs were overworked and emotionally flat. Everything was so painstakingly balanced and produced that I left no room for dynamics and surprise. I was totally despondent about it and didn't know how to fix the record.

Then in 2012, I suffered an accidental overdose that also triggered a series of massive panic attacks. Walking away from that experience, I felt like the cosmos had intervened in my life by pressing a reset button of sorts. It was a crazy time, but the experience left me with this frenetic urge to get on with my life and finish these songs before it was too late. I always loved doing remixes for other artists, and I had always been able to knock them out in a matter of days, so I just kind of decided to approach my own songs like I would a remix. I ripped out the guts and just started rebuilding the songs from scratch—only this time without fussing about and without second-guessing myself at every turn. This process of deconstruction and frenetic reassembly restored a lot of the vitality and rawness the record had been missing.

How much of an influence was the overdose - in what ways were you able to use that experience to re-imagine your album?

In the months before the overdose, my life was getting darker by the day. And although the remix idea came to me after the overdose, I had already started tearing at the songs long before the overdose. I was angry, frustrated, and very harsh with my own work. The way I was dealing with my music was definitely more self-destructive than creative.

The overdose re-humanized me. After that night—despite the psychological aftermath and resulting anxiety disorder—I started to feel a renewed sense of euphoria and possibility. That sense of having been given a second chance breathed a lot of life, warmth, and hope back into my music.

I also felt this profound longing to reconnect with my friends and family again. When I visited my mom in Indiana for her birthday, I stumbled upon a gigantic box filled with old family photographs and crumbing letters. I can't explain it, but I just felt this profound love and connection to my dead relatives. Before the overdose I would have opened that box, looked inside, and moved on. Instead, I cradled the box like treasure, bought it home with me, learned about my ancestors, and ended up using many of the photos as the basis of the EP's artwork.

What was the impetus for the Stars & Letters label and has it proven a useful/collaborative foil to what I imagine is a fairly solitary process of making music by yourself?

Stars & Letters is primarily a way for me to take the DIY lessons I learned over the years and help my friends get their music heard. I'm proud of my friends, I'm fans of theirs, and participating in their journey brings me a lot of joy and contentment.

Running a label doesn't necessarily change the solitary nature of how I write music, but as a human being it definitely helps me engage more with world around me. I spend more time listening to music, meeting people, and absorbing new ideas. So while I still write on my own, I don't feel as alone.

What's the plan for the release?

Ha. Well... as a label owner, the plan is to release Afterthoughts as a pay-what-you-wish EP on July 9th, with various singles releasing for free throughout May and June. There will also be some rad physical album art.

However, speaking as the artist, I feel ridiculously anxious about it all. I honestly feel a bit helpless and overwhelmed with all of the work that lies ahead. I'm also sad to have lost many of the fans I had with The Enright House. To be frank, I've not only lost my fans, but a lot of friends, as well. I've been really bad about maintaining my friendships over the last few years, so my main goal is not so much to build a "fanbase", but to reach out to my friends, to say "I'm sorry", and to give these songs to them—not in the hope of them sending out a tweet or a Facebook post, but simply as a way of letting them know that I care about them and that it would mean a lot to me if they listened to these songs. Beyond that I have no plans or expectations other than to make more music and not to be too precious about it all in the future.

Has the music proven difficult to translate live?

I haven't yet played a single show as We Are Temporary. A few weeks ago I hooked up all my old live gear for the first time in years: it was fun, but wow...was it ever weird. I felt like I was flash-backing to a prior life—it seemed vaguely familiar, but it was also totally overwhelming. With a bit of luck I'll figure out how to build a live set this summer and then muster the courage to play my first shows in Brooklyn around September.

At the end of the day, I still have a long ways to go in rebuilding my confidence, but life feels shorter than ever before, and if there's anything I learned from the ordeal of the last few years: it's high-time I got on with the living of it. Fingers crossed.


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