By DEMETRIA PHLORENTIA
Bloody hipsters. Neo-Goth poseurs. Those were the words that came to mind when I first visited MUSCLE & MARROW‘s Facebook page. With her coal-lined sockets and asymmetrical-cut Victorian style cloak, it is easy to mistake KIRA CLARK for one of them models from a New Romantic-themed fashion shoot. KEITH McGRAW does not fare any better. All Ginsberg glasses, nicely trimmed beard and sleeked back hair, he is the ultimate portrait of the garden-variety normcore dork you might find shopping at GAP. But looks can be deceiving, or so they say. If I haven’t been held at virtual gunpoint by chief editor of DOOMED & STONED to relish their latest offering, THE HUMAN CRY, I would never have discovered how capable this demonic duo is, at administering their own distinctive dose of HIPSTER DOOM to Portland’s burgeoning metal scene.
With Kira on vocals and guitar and Keith on drums, Muscle & Marrow combines live instrumentation and recorded samples, weaving together a perplexing tapestry of harrowing sounds eliciting a range of emotions from pity to disgust.
Be prepared to take a trip to the darkest recesses of the human psyche and back again as your transcontinental correspondent runs you through the highlights of this offering.
Like Melissa Auf Der Maur singing in A Perfect Circle, Help Me is the perfect opener to the record. Driven by very precise alternative metal-like polyrhythmic drumming from Keith, Kira’s jagged, discordant guitar riffs soon descends upon the pulsating mix. Kira’s vocals ranges from a deranged, middle register scowl on the verses before rising into tremulously helpless howls of “Help Me’s” on the choruses.
Shimmery guitar chords take an airy backseat as Kira delivers her languidly slurred lines; as maudlin as a diseased Lolita doll with a mouth full of broken teeth. With a ear piercingly shrill climax complete with hollow, fuzzed out guitars and soul-crushing thuds, Scissors cathartically channels the self hate and pity in every self-abuser like a Shannon Wright record.
With an invisible pulse that’s more imagined than felt, Madness is perhaps the quietest song on The Human Cry to showcase Kira’s astounding versatility as a vocalist. Sans instruments, Kira’s intimate phrases sweeps over swirling sonic landscapes, like the wind shifting through sand dunes on the Saharan plains. A psychotic gem of a ballad in its arrestingly beatiful, understated charm.
Keith keeps a slow, ritualistic plod as Kira’s terse, syncopated chants invokes the spirits of fire side ghouls. Employing eerie guitar drones atypical of dark wave pioneers Dead Can Dance, this closing number captures the faux-pagan theatricality of Apokalypsis-era Chelsea Wolfe.
Remaining “genre undefined” is perhaps the wisest move for this eclectic pair of outsiders. One can never be too sure that hipster-like aesthetic sensibilities are almost always going to rub Portland’s somewhat purist bunch of boorish sludgeheads the wrong way. But hey, hep cred ain’t easy to bag either. If you think trigger-happy indie pop scenesters are going to consume their brand of atmospheric, off kilter doom – think again.
An email interview with Kira Clark
“Hey Kira, just what the fuck are you, a Hipster or a Metalhead?” Heck, I was so close to it – thankfully, I somehow mustered enough sense to refrain from throwing that stupid question in the mix. Pfft, as if they give a damn about petty, segregationist scene politics. Not them, the mighty, magical M&M. They’ll keep playing their hipster doom, conquer the hearts of hipsters, metalheads and every living being in between, and leave you war pigs to battle it out.
Hi Kira! How would you like it if I call you guys The White Stripes of Doom? Hey, have you guys ever been mistaken for siblings?
Hello! We’ve nave never been mistaken for siblings, but we were just talking the other day about how we never got into The White Stripes. Sorry to disappoint on the first question!
What’s the typical M&M creative process like? What comes first – the vocal melodies or the riffs / rhythm section, or do they all fall into place together very much like channeling and automatic writing?
With the Human Cry the guitar and vocals always came first followed by drums followed by samples. That record was very organic and singer/songwriter in terms of the process. With the record we’re currently working on it’s totally different. It’s a much more cerebral, almost abstract process. Usually I’ll come up with a very tiny guitar part or vocal loop and then we’ll get it onto the computer as quickly as possible. We’ll work off that very rough demo via the computer and nail down samples and vocal parts followed lastly by live drums. The samples and vocal layering has become much more important so the process is quite different.
Describe your live set up. I understand that you guys run pre-recorded samples through the PA, doesn’t that mean that each song has to be perfectly timed? Isn’t that a nightmare for Keith (do you have any guide track hooked up to your headphones or something?)
It’s mysterious isn’t it? We’re just two people and with the complexity/density of the world we want to create there is no way around the backing tracks that we use. We could ask people to play and sing the parts live, but this way we retain full creative control and also, we can’t imagine having anyone else in the band, in this strange little world we’ve created.
Describe the recording process for The Human Cry…. Was everything tracked live, or tracked and mixed separately?
The Human Cry was done on tape so everything was done live with the exception of doubling some guitar afterwards. It was fun, but I think we want to be very, very meticulous this time around.
For the songs Madness and the quieter parts of I’m Old, how did you guys track your parts without a pulse, rhythmic guide?
There was a secret click track in my ear that was very hard for me to get used to at first, but I learned how to simultaneously listen to and ignore it eventually.
So Kira, I know that you write and edit, how about Keith? What does he do for a living? Could you guys tell us a little about your academic background, what you guys studied in school or what sort of formal training you had…
Actually I wait tables. I used to write and edit mostly fiction and poetry for a small press here, but music took over. Waiting tables is the easiest and most flexible way for me to make money. Keith studied composition at Indiana University and is a sound engineer which is how he is able to make these incredible sounds for our songs.
So would you guys say that apart from M&M, you guys are working jobs that you really love?
I definitely don’t “really love” my job. Can one be passionate about Barbecue? Perhaps, but I’m not. I am grateful for my job, but it is purely a mechanism that supports this band. I am looking forward to the day I quit and we tour forever and ever. I think Keith feels similarly. We’ve decided to put any sort of conventional life on hold until we feel like we’ve exhausted this music life. We are fortunate to be able to do this. We are fortunate to be able to make music and art our primary focus and still have a roof over our heads.
So, this music/art project thing which is M&M, I believe it is completely self funded? Do you guys apply for grants or something to keep it going or would you say that your friends in the scene have helped and/or contributed in some way with their craft and expertise?
We’ve occasionally had help from friends with video shoots etc, but we’re at the point where we want to hire people who fit perfectly with our aesthetic. It’s not that we don’t have talented friends, but we want to work with people who just instantly understand and relate to the world we’ve created so we try to save money when we can. We’re lucky in that we have very cheap rent. With the next record however we’re going to include a small chapbook with drawings and poems and I’ve got wonderful friends who are willing to help with that.
So you guys met at the bookstore. I think it’s swell, from book buddies to… musical soulmates? I mean I’m curious, but when did you guys decide that you wanna make music with each other instead of staying book buddies?
Well, Keith was my boyfriend and he was playing keys in a band. Meanwhile I was writing all these sad songs alone in my room and I decided I wanted a drummer. It took some convincing, but here we are. Our musical tastes have changed and evolved together and we influence each other greatly. We’re different enough that we can push each other to places we might not have gone otherwise. I’ll say “listen to this insane woman totally losing her shit” and he’ll say “listen to this brilliant composer making scratchy sounds on strings.”
But yes. Books. Books are the love of my life. Maybe even more than music honestly. I was raised with literature being always very important and I feel the most alive when I’ve read a poem or story that jolts me into being a human again.
Any last words for your listeners?
Never abandon your otherness.