Brainchild of singer Haleh Gafori and drummer Matt Kilmer, NYC’s duo The Mast in the recent past has been developing their dream pop in a growingly electronic direction. The project has always been centered around Haleh’s ethereal vocals and airy melodies and Matt’s jungly, intricate beats (mostly played live), but in their latest releases the guitar that was resting on the singer’s shoulder has been replaced by an electronic toy and an iPad, while the drummer’s set up has changed radically, losing almost entirely the traditional drums, replaced by an intriguing hybrid featuring a mix of synths, tablets and exotic percussions. We thought this band would be perfect for our series of Q&A related to gear and the creative process.
What was your initial motivation to form a band, when you started playing?
H/M: The motivation is always pretty simple, to make music and explore. We had been playing with a larger band at one point, and then decided to scale down and see what we could create between the two of us which definitely forced us into new territories sonically.
Drums have a pretty central role in your band… what comes first: rhythm, chords or words?
H: It depends on the song and the process definitely shifted once we started making electronic music. When we were writing our first album “Wild Poppies,” which was guitar and percussion based, I often came up with a guitar riff and melody and Matt would lay the groove down. With the electronic tracks like the ones on “Pleasure Island,” Matt would usually start it off with part of a track and I’d follow with a lyrical or melodic idea. In either case, we’d ping pong back and forth as we’d continue developing the song. With our new improvisational set up that is the source of our latest EP “1”, the creation all happens at once as we’re both playing and recording right then and there. Once the session is done, we might take the 40 minutes or hour or whatever it is and pick our favorite ideas and arrange into a tune.
We used to work separately and pass a song idea back and forth, adding and editing until it was complete. Now that we’re doing a lot of improvisation and jamming together, we make almost everything happen in the same room at the same time and even edit while sitting side by side.
What else has been inspiring your music lately?
H/M: Four Tet has been an inspiration lately, also the scene in Portugal that Principio Discos helped launch–DJ Marfox, NIDIA Minaj, DJ Nigga Fox,very raw and beautiful music. We like seeing and making people dance, that inspires us.
Is inspiration some kind of random blessing, or is it possible to set it in motion?
H/M: Checking out favorite albums can often set us in motion. On the other hand just listening to silence can also be inspiring, as eventually our minds starts composing to fill the space.
Do chemical substances of any kind have a role in your band’s creativity?
Where do you look for lyrical inspiration?
H: On the streets of BKLYN, in magazines, our twitter feed, poems, and conversations.
Is there something you look for when writing lyrics, like, say, catharsis, personal expression, topicality, or positivity?
H: It’s easier to write lyrics when I have an anchor in something material—an image a story. I wrote the song “Nuclear Dragon” about a sculpture of a saint slaying a dragon that’s made out of defunct nuclear missiles. It’s a pretty mind blowing sculpture near the UN, and the fact that they’re real missiles is awesome. The idea for the song “UpUpUp” came when someone was telling me when they’re feeling down, they imagine have an elevator in their mind, get in it, and press UP.
On our latest EP, I’ve just been playing with syllables, and sometimes phrases, but mostly staying away from words and exploring the voice more as an instrument detached from any narrative. That’s new for me. I guess I’m satisfying my lyrical fix in my acoustic project (Sabila Sabila) for now.
What’s the songwriting/arranging process in the band? To what extent is each band member’s role defined?
H: We used to work separately and pass a song idea back and forth, adding and editing until it was complete. Now that we’re doing a lot of improvisation and jamming together, we make almost everything happen in the same room at the same time and even edit while sitting side by side.
What’s your DAW of choice and does it play a role when you write?
M: Ableton Live. With our live streaming setup, we’re able to jam together and record all ideas as they happen so we can then go back and edit songs together later.
Do you create the electronic arrangements during the compositional process or do you have sound design sessions during which you just focus on designing sounds/patches/patterns that can then be used in future tracks?
M: We generally use a small bank of sounds when jamming / writing and then will replace or add sounds during editing. We’re always looking to expand our sound palette and generally prefer organic sounds to straight-up synth sounds. (The soft synth) Iris2 is great for making new sounds from analog source material.
Electronic music opens so many sonic possibilities that some musicians find it hard to know when a sound is “the best it can be.” How do you refrain from constantly trying new options for the various sounds in your arrangements?
M: That can be tough sometimes but usually once something sounds “right” we just go with it.
Are there any instruments, pieces of equipment or musical toys that lately made you rediscover the playful side of creating?
M: Currently in our setup, I’ve been using balafon (African marimba), and clay udu drums. It’s always nice to have physical instruments to play in a track. The balafon was an important part of the last record. Haleh also has an array of live vocal effects that she can use live to rhythmically effect her voice or filters and delays to make textures.
Has a piece of gear alone ever inspired a song? If so which?
M: I wouldn’t say one piece of gear has inspired a song but our whole setup, which has been evolving for years, absolutely guides the direction of the music and overall vibe.
Do you guitar pedals to forge your own guitar sound? If you do, please list the ones you use the most and let us know why you love them.
What about synths?
How much of your recording is done at home versus in the studio?
H: The studio is in our home so it’s all done here.
What are the pieces of equipment that you find particularly inspiring when recording at home?
M: When recording vocals, acoustic sounds, or instruments, a clean signal chain is absolutely necessary to realizing the full potential of any sound. So the mic -> preamp -> interface combo is vitally important. Depending of the sound source it could change, but it’s hard to go wrong with Neumann U87 -> API 512c -> RME Fireface800.
What one piece of hardware/software would you most like to add to your recording setup?
M: Honestly, right now we need a new computer so we can really get the most out of Ableton with the lowest latency. But other than that, we’d love to get the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor.
Do you have a particular recording style that you aim for, in particular for drums?
M: Really depends on the track. Sometimes we love a tight, close-mic’d sound but other times a huge room sound is more appropriate.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspects of the recording process? On the flipside, what aspects are the most rewarding?
H/M: Most challenging: finishing a track to completion. I guess ultimately it’s also the most rewarding to finish and release music that you’re truly proud of. Though hands down, the most fun part of the process is the initial creative spark.
Is there a person outside the band that’s been important in perfecting your recorded and/or live sound?
M: Not really, since we do everything ourselves–engineer, mix, and master.
THE LIVE SHOW
It’s often challenging to translate programmed music to a live setting, what’s your approach to it?
M: With our current setup – we create all the sounds live using Ableton as a control center / looper / mixer. When we perform songs from our albums, we have stems of songs broken down into parts so we can “jam” on them live and keep it interesting for us while still playing the songs the audience knows and expects.
Do you consider the live show as a faithful translation of your recorded material or simply an opportunity to let your songs free to follow new directions?
H: Lately we’ve been all about improvisation so shows are definitely an opportunity to explore new ground with an audience along for the ride. With electronic music, it’s easy to just play tracks but then you have the same thing happening in every show. We wanted to avoid that and keep the spontaneity we cultivated as instrumentalists. The new set up we have has made it possible to keep things very fresh.
What pieces of equipment do you find particularly useful on stage? (Please mention the brand and model name and say why you like it)M: We use Clear Tune In-Ear Monitors and they are absolutely essential to our live setup. We are doing a lot of live sound processing and looping so there’s no way we could have open stage monitors. We also use iPads as midi controllers running TouchOSC and Touchable to control Ableton wirelessly. It makes things much easier to not deal with cables. I also use an Akai MPK Mini to control Ableton and a Line 6 FBV Shortboard .
Are there any vintage formats that you’re interested in pursuing for the band, like, say, vinyl or cassette? If so, why?
H/M: We like cassettes because they generally make you listen all the way through, even more so than vinyl. But unfortunately the sound quality of tapes just isn’t as good. Vinyl is great if you’re talking about recording analog all the way through the entire recording process to maintain the highest fidelity possible, but lets face it, no one does that anymore. Digital recordings pressed to vinyl don’t really make the listening experience better but it’s nice to have the album art.
With bands doing more of everything themselves these days (recording, performing, self-promoting, etc.) and the evermore multimedia nature of the world, how much effort do you put into the visual component of your band: fashion, styling, photography, graphic/web design, etc.?
H/M: We definitely like making videos. We’ve been editing, directing, and sometimes filming them ourselves: “UpUpUp,” [streaming above] “Luxor,” “Emerald,” and a very cute and kind of silly one that we couldn’t resist making starring our nephew “So Right”. We’ve also been collecting aerial footage with our drone and posting little clips on instagram, will make a video featuring some of that footage soon.
Any comments about the current state of music and art in NYC?
M: I think we’re in a transition phase now where a lot of potentially great bands and musicians are getting priced out of NYC. I think NYC still has one of the best music scenes of anywhere in the world but that could definitely change in the near future if musicians can’t afford to live here.