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Interview: Murray Lightburn Talks Dears, MASS:LIGHT, and More

Murray discusses creative limitations, breaking out as a solo artist, and the dark state of the music industry.

Interview: Murray Lightburn Talks Dears, MASS:LIGHT, and More
Photo: Andrew White

As frontman of Canadian indie band the Dears, Murray Lightburn has managed to carve out a stable, consistent career that’s earned him a loyal following. In 2013, Lightburn is starting over, in a sense, with his debut solo effort MASS:LIGHT, a pseudo-concept album that boasts a dense electronic sound. I recently sat down with Lightburn in Toronto, and over a couple of pints we talked creative limitations, breaking out as a solo artist, and the dark state of the music industry.

Did you come at MASS:LIGHT with a certain sonic concept in mind? The album sounds as if texture, particularly your use of synths, took precedence over melodies and lyrics.

Well, in the Dears, we’ve always explored synthesis and electronic-type music; we’ve always had our fingers in that stuff sonically. But to me, [The Dears] is a rock band. You know, drums, bass, lots of guitars, face melters, jam sessions that go on for eight minutes. But there’s also this side of me personally, as an artist, who wants to explore these other textures. It wasn’t a rule from the outset, but I wanted to force myself to be more creative sonically, really push myself harder by creating limitations.

Limitations sonically?

Yeah, or budgetary. You know, I didn’t want to throw a lot of money at this record. So, whatever was in my studio, that was it. I did invest in a couple of toys along the way: a Moog Prodigy which is a big part of the sound of this record. I didn’t want this to be a “gear” album either though. I didn’t want to go to too many synthesizers. For me, this was about limitations, so even though there’s a wall of guitars in the studio, maybe I can try and express myself without using the guitar.

Walk me through a bit of the process of making this album then.

I was alone the entire time. I engineered everything myself. I was telling somebody yesterday that it was like two years of the opening scene from Apocalypse Now, like, everything from crying to…I probably drank like 50 gallons of whiskey over the course of two years. I was really wallowing in the loneliness, like the loneliness of a truly solo project. I wanted to make a truly solo album all the way to the end, including the artwork and making the videos, everything DIY. I had help here and there, but I was spearheading the whole thing.

Is part of that process a way of distancing yourself from the inherent collaboration of being in a band?

Yeah, I wasn’t relying on anyone for opinions, no one was telling me what to do. It’s like, I turned 42 this year, I have two kids, and I’m starting to get a clearer sense of who I am and what I want to achieve as an artist and I think this was the definitive work. Not that my music career is winding down; it’s more that my artistic career is winding up and I want to diversify and do a lot more things. This was a really good way to define who I am as an artist, how I want to work and how I want to refine that for the rest of my career.

How much of the DIY approach, of setting limitations on recording, comes from a fear of complacency after having been in the industry for quite a while?

I think it’s a safe thing to make the same record over and over. It’s easy for everyone—for everyone that’s working with you, for the business. To me, it’s incredibly boring. You know, there’s always a familiar bag of tricks sitting in the room when you make a record, and it’s hard not to reach into it when recording. With this record, I went in with nothing, no bags of tricks. I wanted to find new tools because I felt like I had been relying, as an artist, on those bags of tricks for the last 10 years at least. And then when you go out into the industry, everything is done the same. It’s hard to reach a lot of people outside of that system; I don’t have that power. If I did, I would completely reinvent the way people consume music. And then I wouldn’t have to rely on the system that exists.

How so?

Well, there will be people who like the system the way it is and want to squash anything I have to say about it, because they don’t want people to think independently; they want them to think homogenously. Homogenization is the corporate world’s best friend. As in, “We make a lot of money doing it this way, it’s a factory, get with the program.”

It’s a catch-22 in some ways, in that you have to be enough of a brand, you have to hold enough cultural capital to even get away with the slightest challenge to expectations and industry standards.

Yeah, but I’m not trying to make a big deal of it. I’m not writing essays about how shitty the music industry is. I’m still operating within the business, but at an arm’s length. Look at a thing like Kickstarter, which is coming to Canada now. Now Universal is harnessing Kickstarter to start Uvinyl, and it’s like, they’re taking something that’s meant for people who don’t have that kind of capital. Like, you fucking assholes! It sickens me. Now it’s going to happen all the time. You’ll see Bell is doing a Kickstarter for a new kind of phone, shit like that. And the worst part is that it seems like people are just kind of accepting it. It’s so fucking dark, dude. I have to be careful, though, because I want to be off the grid, but I know I have to interact with the grid.

I would think that having that kind of disconnected relationship to your audience and to the “grid” would perhaps have been easier when the Dears first started, whereas today the artist turnover is so fast that you’re almost forced to play the game.

Yeah, album cycles are really short. Like that Jay-Z album came and now it’s gone. You know, we’re all trying to keep up with the Joneses. We’re living in a weird time, but you can still scrape out a living in the industry. You can be different. But it’s a gamble; I’m still gambling stuff away. My first show in Montreal [for MASS:LIGHT], the first 200 ticket buyers get to bring a guest, and that really had a huge effect on the bottom line of the show. And I could be eating dirt by the end of it, but I just thought, nobody does that and if I didn’t know a band, I might be interested to check it out just because of that gesture. So, there’s a lot of greed in the business, everybody’s just grubbing for money—record companies, artists, agents—and it’s not pretty and I don’t really want to be a part of that. I can’t believe how much time we’ve spent talking about the business. It’s kind of sad.

But there’s a lot to talk about. Like you said, we’re living in a strange time of music distribution and consumption.

I remember even internally, around the time of [the Dears’ 2006 album] Gang of Losers, things were getting really weird and at the bottom of it was a pile of money to be grubbed at by all sides. Then we made Missiles and that was a really fragmented time, but what came out of it was so pure and I was worried that if we made another record in that environment it would have been all about money.

So did you go into recording MASS:LIGHT with the intention of blowing up that perception of art? Does the album have an intentional sound of disillusion or frustration?

If I did have any real intentions it was to really stick to my instincts, which I knew were pure. Everything I did, I was chasing something, and I only wanted to do that. So I spent a lot of time chasing things that were so lucid, things that came in the form of a dream, or I hear the music a certain way then I’m studying and studying it and turning these knobs until finally I had all my sounds lined up. Then I had trouble balancing it, and Adrian Popovich, who mixed the record, said, “Let me take a stab at it.” I had no money to pay him, but he was excited about the project. So I gave him the hard drive and he sends me an email a few days later saying, “I banged this out over my Cheerios this morning,” and I put it on and it fucking tore my head off. I got all emotional; he was just hearing the record, hearing what I did and helping me put the final thing together. He was amazing and kind of saved me from myself.

Your comments earlier suggest that making a solo album is a liberating process, but it also sounds like you’re more vulnerable and accountable and constantly critiquing yourself.

Constantly. There are some vocals on there that I literally sang like 80 times. On the lead vocals, there are no punch-ins. I sang it, and if I fucked up a part, I’d go all the way to the top. I just found if you’re not able to sing something from the beginning to the end then the audience is not getting the whole story. It’s too technical. I didn’t want to think. I’d literally drink until I couldn’t think anymore and then sing for three or four hours. I’d only keep one vocal and then trash the rest and hope that it works. It had to feel live, it had to feel alive.

And you spent two years on this?

I started it around 2011. I think I wrote some stuff in 2010, but 2011 was the first time I walked into a studio and started writing with my pen and paper and sketching out the songs and beats and ideas. Getting started was so, so hard.

Because it was a new, unfamiliar process and setting?

Because, it was like trying to build a house by yourself, holding a 2×4 here, and a 2×4 over there, and you’ve got your hammer and bunch of nails in your mouth and you have no one to lean on to get it started. With the Dears, you’re playing with each other; you’re listening to someone’s beat and hearing a lot of things at once. With this, you’re one person, you’re working on one thing at a time so you have to imagine what the accompanying part is going to work with. You’re building bit by bit by bit and it just takes so long.

You say you built this album a piece at a time, but MASS:LIGHT holds together as a unified concept and aesthetic.

I hope so. I went through a self-editing process and made a lot of key decisions about what to leave on there and what to take out. Making a record is a fucking crazy journey. I think it would be an interesting exercise for, like, music writers to, you know, be a fly on the wall during the journey. Because, I think, “you guys” come in at the end of it. I mean, I don’t expect the average consumer to want to know what it’s like, but it’s like a crazy emotional rollercoaster. The fact that you went and worked on something for that long and worked on every little detail until you felt it was right and had the guts to show it to people is the fucking scariest thing in the world.

So are you worried about how this album will be received? You can’t control how an audience consumes your album, or how a critic writes about it.

Anything where you work on the same thing, a big project with a crazy long journey, is scary. Have you ever seen the documentary Hearts of Darkness?

Yeah, for sure.

It’s crazy. I mean, you’re just in that place of chaos all the time. So I would just expect that if someone was going to write about or critique the album that they would at least put 1% of the effort into it that [I put] into the project, because the process is so deeply involved, so deeply emotional.

Does the anxiety about that influence the decisions you make about releasing and promoting the album?

I just like things to be real. That was the best part about the presale, having a sense, even if the numbers aren’t huge, just knowing that people are having blind faith in something, without being told to do it. I don’t like things to be manufactured. I remember the first time I realized certain aspects of the Dears’ success wasn’t real to me. One time we were playing a gig in Stockholm and we were told it was sold out. We get there and the first few rows are totally enthusiastic, with people who probably bought the record, invested in the project, and then beyond that was a lot of cool-dressed Stockholm hipsters. I remember looking out at them and thinking “I’m never going to see those people again.” I just kind of thought those people were probably told to be here, whereas the people who are right up front are here for real, and they’ll be here next time. With this record, it’s just about staying true.

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