Jacob Marshall of Mae
Jacob Marshall is not your average rock star. For one thing, he likes to talk about quantum physics — which, admittedly, went right over this reporter’s head. (Hey, it’s not his fault I barely made it through high school science.) He’s also refreshingly open about the kind of issues fans are curious about, but rarely hear discussed by other musicians. Overall, the Mae drummer just seems like an impressively deep guy. After chatting with him, you can’t help but feel motivated to consider how you could help make the world a better place. Kind of inspiring, actually.
Of course, Mae fans have been feeling inspired by the music of Marshall and his bandmates for the last six years. The Virginia Beach-based outfit, comprised of Marshall along with Dave Elkins (vocals/guitar) and Zach Gehring (guitar), hit big with their first two releases on indie label Tooth & Nail — “Destination: Beautiful” and “The Everglow.” After selling over 250,000 copies combined, Mae took their signature blend of pop and rock to a major label, signing with Capitol Records and releasing the widely-praised “Singularity” in August 2007. The band is currently on the road promoting the album, headlining a bill that also features The Honorary Title, Between The Trees, and Far-Less.
I caught up with Marshall before a recent show at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA, shortly after Mae performed an early-evening acoustic set to benefit Habitat for Humanity — a bonus they’re offering fans throughout the tour. During our talk, it became clear that the band is definitely in the midst of a transition period right now. But Mae fans, no need to worry. The band is handling the challenges being thrown at them extraordinarily well. They’re keeping the focus on what really matters: the music.
Interviewed by: Heather Kobrin | April 2008
So, I know you very recently got back from playing Japan and Australia, and then you jumped right into this tour. It sounds like things have been pretty hectic lately.
Yeah, we’d been in Japan for about a week and then flew all the way home to Virginia for three days, only to turn around and fly back to Australia for almost three weeks and then fly home again. So we had nine days to put together an entire visual production for this tour. We always try to challenge ourselves to bring something new to each tour, and this was probably the most ambitious step that we’d taken. And to do it in such a time constraint definitely challenged us in a good way, but I feel like it’s definitely worth it. I’m really proud of what we have going on this time around, so hopefully people will enjoy it.
I have to ask — I read about some of the local delicacies that you tried when you were in Japan… is raw chicken going to be on your backstage rider from now on?
It already is! We’re addicted (laughs). I was so scared… I think I can definitely say I’ll probably never try that again unless I’d be offending someone not to try it (laughs).
Ok, so 2008 is the five-year anniversary of the release of your debut album “Destination: Beautiful.” Tell me what this means to you, and why it’s a significant milestone for the band.
Absolutely. For us, we started as a recording project. I was finishing college, and I’d done a two-year funded research project on the relationship between color and sound and art… the interaction between our senses, and how when we perceive art, the emotional response affects us the way that it does. The study was examining how you could recreate or expand that experience by incorporating other senses into that work of art. For us, obviously, music is the foundation… and so we started writing music together and recording in the studio before we’d ever played a show. We were thinking of it much more as a project than a band at first. So we had this collection of songs, and we put a few of them online, and people started reacting to them very positively. Because we had already invested the time and the resources into having our own record, we were able to license it, which is almost unheard of for a new band, to Tooth & Nail for five years. What you’re seeing now is the return of the rights to the band for that master recording after five years, so it’s very significant to us because it was our launch pad. It was what allowed us to break out of our little glass bubble of Virginia and ride the music train around the country, and ultimately, the world.
You’re letting fans help create the setlist for this tour by giving them the chance to vote on MySpace for their favorite tracks from “Destination: Beautiful.” In looking at the results so far, have there been any surprises?
No. I think the biggest surprise has been seeing the reaction from people who are still so passionate about songs that have been around for so long. I still react that same way when I play those songs, which is kind of amazing considering how many times I’ve played them. But there’s such a purity in that particular act of creation, just because there was no reason for it other than to fill a passion inside. There was no audience that we were writing for, there was nothing outside of a room where these ideas were bouncing back and forth. In an age where it seems like bands and music come and go so often, and it’s really hard to keep people’s attention for longer than five minutes, I’m amazed that five years later people still even remember the words and the melodies. But they do, and they sing it as loud as we do. I guess that’s the surprise — and it’s an honor.
Jacob Live – Photo by: Mary
As a band, you’ve clearly demonstrated a very genuine commitment to connecting certain charities with your fans — working with Habitat for Humanity on this tour, and Toys for Tots in the past. Do you worry, with so many big-name celebrities now being very public about their philanthropic work, that being socially conscious is just a trend, something that’s viewed as hip right now, or are you hopeful that people are actually changing the way they think about the world?
I would say that either is a good start. I don’t really care what their motive is, but I know that ours is to learn. Since we’ve started this band, we’ve always wanted to be connected to a charity, or to start our own. We’ve had, I can’t even tell you, how many conversations about what it is that we’re supposed to be linked to, or that we’re supposed to use our platform to shine a spotlight on. And there was never a clear-cut winner. We each had different things that we were passionate about and that we wanted to learn more about or donate our time to. I feel like a lot of the bands that we look up to are attached to one cause, and it just didn’t make sense to us that way… There are so many organizations out there that are doing good things that we don’t even know about, so we’ve decided to use each tour to learn about a new one and be the bridge between that organization and our fan base, letting that experience flow though us and hit our fans through the acoustic shows before the set, through the online webisodes… To get the chance to have met some of the people we have through the Toys for Tots program, or through even our limited time so far with Habitat, it’s been awesome. These people have dedicated their lives to these organizations, and it’s overwhelming to see something like that and to be affected by it. And that’s what we want — to be affected and changed and be able to help change in the process.
You’ve played with everyone from Foo Fighters to Weezer to The Fray. Any particular favorite?
Yeah… I mean, what an honor to get to play with Dave Grohl, and Weezer. My favorite part though, is getting to take out the bands that maybe haven’t been heard of by as many people. We’ve got The Honorary Title on this tour — I love that band. What a treat to be able to listen to them play every night. In the past, we took out a band named Copeland who are one of my favorites, and we got to do a tour with Mute Math. To see these bands right before the world gets to see them and be a small part of that process, is… I love that so much.
Let’s talk about the new album, “Singularity.” Compared to your previous two releases, this record has a harder sound to it. I understand though, that you view this as simply a representation of what you were feeling from a creative standpoint at the time, and that it doesn’t signal any kind of focused attempt to change your sound, is that right?
Absolutely. I think for us, each of our records is always a flag being planted at wherever we are on the journey, and we view the records as chapters in a story… I think you see in “Destination: Beautiful” a very hopeful, naive, glorious vision of what it looks like to see through the window to the world that you’d like to be immersed in. That’s the beginning. “The Everglow” is the story of what happened once we broke out of that bubble. Once we actually allowed the music to carry us around the country and around the world and experienced a roomful of people singing along to every word of our songs.. So “The Everglow” is a story with lots of highs and lows, and it’s very hopeful because it’s about the process of actualizing a dream… I think “Singularity” was realizing that once you get to that destination, once you’re operating in a realm where you understand that anything is possible, you have to step back and re-evaluate… What we realized over the process of creating “Singularity” was that there were a lot of things we had taken for granted by being in an artistically comfortable situation like Tooth & Nail, and that there were higher expectations and higher prices to pay to reach a larger audience. We had this music and this message that we wanted to share with people, and it seemed like a very logical step. What we’ve learned in retrospect is that no one knows what’s going on in the music business right now. The whole thing is in a state of turbulence and chaos, and everyone who thinks they have an answer ends up being proven wrong about a week later. And we don’t have the answer, but what we do know is the only thing that matters is creating what you believe in, and trying to play that and recreate that for as many people as you can… “Singularity” was a natural reaction to what was happening and the uncertainty that was happening all around us. And “Singularity” actually is a term in physics that represents the ultimate unknowable…
Is there a song on the record that means the most to you personally?
I think “Reflections,” probably. It would be easy to say “Last Transmission II,” because it’s kind of the answer in a lot of respects. Even the vocals… there’s this layering that takes place where each of the questions that are presented over the course of the record are answered by a different layer of a melody. It’s very hard to hear, but you can pick it apart if you really listen. So in terms of the meaning, I love that… A lot of the time, we tend to live in our reflections. It’s much easier to romanticize about a love or an opportunity that was lost, or to wallow in fear of a past failure, and to allow that to keep us pinned down from trying again for risk of failing again. But there’s a line towards the end of “Reflections” that says “So throw a stone through these reflections and scatter light in all directions and sing,” and that’s kind of the point. When everything is chaotic and jumbled around you, the act of breaking out of that — that’s the key to unlocking ourselves from being passive to being active, or from being controlled to being in control. It’s not that anything circumstantially changes in that moment, it’s that everything changes in that moment, because your perspective has shifted. And when your perspective shifts, all of a sudden you’re free. And that freedom… you can’t put a price tag on.
Dave Live – Photo by: Mary
In talking about the record, Dave has said that the members of the band “understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses now more than ever.” Is there anything you can share about the process you went through to get to such a positive place? Is it something that evolved during the recording sessions for “Singularity?”
I think a lot of truth is in the idea that it gets darkest before the dawn. I think the black hole that we found ourselves falling into, where nothing looked familiar and nothing made sense, was somehow necessary to create the perspective of coming out and emerging on the other side, and actually recognizing things again. No one likes going through hard times, but when you emerge from that, your perspective has changed. And the things you’re grateful for that you had taken for granted, all of a sudden just shine with a new intensity. I just appreciate things so much differently, and that has affected us in every way that you can imagine… I mean, we lost two of our band members because we toured for a long time and ended up losing money because our expenses were too high. They were married, and it didn’t make sense to be away from the people who they loved for that long, only to lose money. There’s a reality aspect to every person you see on television or hear on the radio that you may never know, because the whole industry revolves around creating this fantasy. It’s a lie… people want to believe in something that’s better than their reality. It’s a hope, but that’s not where the hope lives. I’m telling you, having been inside the bubble, the hope lives in the fact that you’re going to have those struggles. That’s the reality, for everyone. It’s not like Brad Pitt never has a bad day. But when you fight to overcome that, and you see the value of the people you have in your life who help support you when you can’t support yourself, that’s what’s real, that’s what’s worth celebrating.
I know from reading your blog that there are a lot of changes going on with the band right now. Is there anything that you’d like to express to your fans to reassure them?
Yeah, absolutely. I love being honest about this stuff, because I think there’s power in that. It’s hard right now. We lost two guys in the band who were some of my best friends, and to have that disappear as a part of my foundation is really hard… We talk a lot, but it’s just different because you’re not surrounded by them all the time. We have some new guys that are out with us, also from our hometown, who are amazing. They add such a fresh energy, and I’m finding a whole lot of life in that. But our label has fallen apart. We’ll probably be off the label any day now… we’re actually hoping to be off the label (laughs). We’ve also parted ways with management. It reached a place where we both agreed that it didn’t make sense to keep going in that direction anymore. So we’ve gone from this whole gigantic way of doing things — the tour bus and the major label and the big management company — it’s all a mirage. We’re back in a van, we have no management, and we’re talking about completely different ways of releasing music — allowing our fans to have it, in a way. We’re driving through the night, and just enjoying being on tour. We’re working harder than we’ve ever worked in our lives, but also feeling more fulfilled at the same time. All of those things that cloud your vision have been eliminated… I look back at what we’ve done in the past and I’m proud of it. I look to the future and I want it to continue, but I want it to continue in the way that it began. We’re more excited now than ever. We don’t have plans to be with a manager or a label. It’s kind of all or nothing, and we’ve chosen all in terms of the music and nothing in terms of the other things that have clouded it. And we’ve never been happier.