Frontman Dave Elkins addresses Mae’s rebirth, including its new purpose and musical direction, the band’s efforts to raise money for charity, and the pros and cons of being a self-supporting artist.
How’s the tour going so far?
It’s going great. I think we’re officially seven days into the tour. It’s a lot of fun. We’re out with a band called Person L, a band called Barcelona, and Tokyo. It’s really great. We’ve been friends with the Person L guys for a while, and actually the lead singer in Tokyo plays keys in Mae, as far as live goes for us. So, we’ve been familiar with almost everyone we’ve been hanging out with the last week or so. Just last night we went out to dinner with Barcelona, so it’s quickly become quite the mix. It’s a lot of fun.
I hear you have a couple songs in 3-D on this tour. What exactly does that entail?
Well, about a year and a half ago we started doing visual simulation and video projection on our stage. Basically, you’re getting a video with every song. It’s to heighten the experience. This time, the last couple of songs in our set are in three-dimensional space, stereoscopic 3-D. We’ve got Mae 3-D glasses for sale at the door for a dollar. You can watch the songs in 3-D, and then you can have a user name and password to login to our site where you can see the songs in 3-D again on your computer.
Wow, that’s pretty cool.
Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. It’s pretty different, but it’s a lot of fun.
Then you’re also doing a little acoustic set after the show, right?
Yeah. We’re doing this thing, as far as the campaign this year, called “12 songs. 12 months. 1 goal. Make a difference.” We are releasing our songs exclusively on our site WhatIsMae.com. All profit from the purchases of those digital downloads are being forwarded to humanitarian and charitable causes we’re sponsoring this year. Right now, we’re paying for a home that’s being built through Habitat for Humanity in Newport News, Virginia.
The acoustic shows we’re doing afterwards are going to raise more money. We’re about six thousand or so dollars away. We’ve raised actually over 35 grand in the last three and a half, almost four, months. The six and a half grand we have remaining, the goal is to make that from acoustic shows afterwards. It’s like a five-dollar minimum donation and gets you in to hear it. We take requests about what you’d like to hear, and for the most part we’ll play it. We just forward that money along to Habitat as well.
Is there going to be a different charity with each new EP release?
Well, kind of. Basically, this Habitat thing is until it’s done. The goal is to have it out of the way in the next few weeks in time for our hometown show, which is on May 30th. If and when that happens, there should be an exclusive, like welcome to your home kind of thing, that we’ll be a part of. Her name is Rhonda Floyd. It’s her and her three kids we’ll be hooking up.
Then the next thing we’ll be doing is education based. There’s this website called DonorsChoose.org. Basically teachers explain their needs in the classroom and give dollar amounts. What we’re going to do is try and raise a lot of money and provide educational tools and needs for teachers hopefully in every state of the country before we move on to something globally.
The “12 Song” thing goes along with your three EPs entitled (M)orning, (A)fternoon and (E)vening. How did you come up with that concept?
I’ve always been interested in explaining and celebrating life through our music. (M)orning, (A)fternoon and (E)vening – from the artwork aesthetic to the lyrical content and the songs, the music, the whole thing – is sort of like (M)orning being birth and (A)fternoon being halfway through the stage of life. (M)orning also being spring, (A)fternoon being late summer/early fall, and (E)vening being death and winter and those things. It’s trying to celebrate all of them in their own right.
Conveniently, Mae is an acronym that stands for Multi-sensory Aesthetic Experience. (M)orning, (A)fternoon, (E)vening also spells out Mae. It’s just a little something to do with the branding of these EPs, as well as to make it easy for people to connect to the overall theme of what we’re doing.
How did arrive at doing the whole “12 Song” idea?
We started off on a large independent label called Tooth & Nail. Our last full-length release, Singularity, came out on Capitol Records. We had learned a lot of great lessons while we were on both labels. We had a more accessible experience with releasing music when we were on Tooth & Nail than when we were on a major label on Capitol. Once we figured out that we didn’t want to be on Capitol Records – we had had our “shot” at major label success and didn’t view it as a success – we wanted to take matters into our own hands.
So, we parted ways with the label and got a little bit of money to part ways with them. We used that money to start funding our own records. We just sort of asked ourselves, “Why would we sign to X, Y or Z label? Why would we work with X, Y or Z manager?” From there, we started brainstorming on what would be the best thing for our band. What would be the most cherished way that we would want to go about sharing our music and our ideas? So, we decided to stay off a label and create our own and do it this way.
You know, records come out every Tuesday. Several records come out every Tuesday. Once your Tuesday passes, someone else’s record will come out. Maybe their music overshadows yours, or their label overshadows yours or whatever. We thought it would be really cool to release one song every month all year long so we could build momentum and keep the stamina going for the band. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how we could share this music with people. We had been believing in the change that’s needed in our country, and even all over the world, and how we could be a part of it. Next thing you knew, we were committing to giving away all the profits for our songs.
Are all 12 of the songs written? How’s that going? Is there any pressure to complete that one song a month goal?
They aren’t all written. Our first day off is Monday, and I’m flying home to track vocals and a little bit of guitar for the song that comes out in May. So, we’re consistently playing catch up. There is pressure, but I think the pressure that has been put on us at this point has forced us to write better music and be more innovative with the way we’re releasing things. To me, pressure to create and record and share music with people is pressure that we’re all excited about having, as opposed to stressed out about.
At other times, running your own label, managing ourselves, being on the road and taking care of the entire thing that is Mae at this point can be a little overwhelming. But, at the same time, it’s better than anything else I’ve ever done with my life, so I guess I won’t complain about it.
I would say about eight or nine of the songs are written. About seven of them are recorded. Actually, 10 songs are written, seven are recorded and the other two I’m working on right now.
Are there plans to release these EPs online as well or are these something you can only get at shows?
Right now, it’s exclusively at the show. We’re actually working on a distribution deal, which will get our label and our record in stores nationwide. It will be for sale on our website after the tour’s done. This is sort of like a motivating tool to get people to come to the shows, but afterwards it will make its way into stores and our personal online store.
At the end of the year when this is done are you going to have some big package that compiles all this together?
Yeah. We’ve been talking about putting out a film of the experience of building this home and the things we’ll be doing in the future to raise awareness and create change in the world. We’re basically giving you a full-length feature film and having that come with the “album.”
Is there going to be a different tour to support each one of the EPs?
Yeah, absolutely. Our next U.S. tour will probably happen in August as soon as the second EP, (A)fternoon, comes out.
I saw in your new promo pictures you have a burning piano, kind of like how on the (M)orning EP you’ve gone back to more of a guitar-driven sound like on Destination: Beautiful. What went into that process?
That was actually a friend who had a piano in his garage he wasn’t using and volunteered us the opportunity to burn it. At first it was just going to be a recording experiment, where we would actually sample the piano being played as it’s burning. Then it turned into a good idea for a photo shoot, as the song that we first released was called “The House That Fire Built.” But as far as the piano goes, it was only used because we had it available to us.
On the record you have two pretty long and expansive songs, “The Fisherman Song” and “The House That Fire Built,” and then you have something like “Two Birds,” which has a little flute on there. You guys seem to be really stretching yourselves musically on this new stuff.
I think the older you get as a musician and the more experience you have, you really want to stretch the limit to the boundaries for yourself. I really have a fun time experimenting with different time signatures, like trying to write a vocal melody but not having it be limited to a simple 4/4 or 6/8 time signature.
When it came to using flute and stuff, it was just fun for us to think about different ways we could release music online and then still have versions that we could share for these EPs. So, the idea was for the full-length to extend the outro and have piano and flute represent two different birds that meet each other, learn to fly and then learn to fly away from each other. I guess in life that’s how relationships can works sometimes.
The fun thing is thinking how we can make these songs different each time because we don’t want to sell the same thing twice. If we can charge ourselves creatively, try and release a song, have it raise several thousand dollars for a family in need, and then put out an EP and use it to support our own way, then we definitely have to be creative and make sure we’re not undermining our fan base and making them think that they’re supposed to buy the exact same thing twice. So it was a little bit of that, and then it was about the excitement of being a musician and learning things all the time.
On the (M)orning EP there seems to be themes of new life and new birth. What was your approach to writing that lyrically?
About two years ago, our keyboard player and our bass player left the band. We parted ways with our manager not too long ago and parted ways with our label, like I was saying earlier. It really took looking in the mirror, trying to figure out why we were doing what we were doing.
Once we got all these different plans in place, it really has felt like a rebirth. It’s felt like this is the first time I’ve been in Mae, in some respects. That’s the most amazing feeling, to be doing this for basically almost seven years now and feeling like a lot of things are happening for the first time. The excitement is fresh and the energy has been rejuvenated. It’s very easy to be writing the morning, the rebirth and the birth aspects, lyrically, of that EP.
Are the other two then going to get a little bit darker? How is that going to work?
Yeah. For one, you have to segue well. You can’t just go right into something that’s darker thematically. The song that will be coming out in May is called “Over and Over.” It’s about how sometimes we fall into patterns of repetition that seem to do more harm than good for ourselves. Sometimes what’s comfortable isn’t what’s best. That was a way I was able to bridge the gap. There’s another song about waking up and making the most of every day. You can say that, but sometimes don’t necessarily want to do that. So, that’s a way I’ve sort of segued thematically and lyrically into (A)fternoon.
(A)fternoon’s going to have maybe some darker content. It’s about how we can tend to disagree sometimes and how the world isn’t a perfect place, but also about how beautiful love is and how you find that to be what you need as you mature and experience life, how love and quality of live continually go hand in hand. So it may get darker, but it also may get hopefully more beautiful and celebratory.
Have you heard Jon Foreman’s solo EPs that he did last year?
I have not heard them but a good friend of mine talked about how good they are, how kind of quirky and different they are from the Switchfoot stuff. He told me I needed to check it out.
He did one for each of the four seasons, so it’s kind of similar to what you guys are doing.
Oh, wow. That’s really cool. That’s awesome.
Anyway, one of the songs I really like off (M)orning is “The Fisherman Song,” which I thought was really cool and reminiscent of when Jesus was recruiting the first disciples. What’s the story behind that one?
We came from the church as a band and we progressed out of that scene. To be thinking about what Jesus means to me, personally, as a 27-year-old adult, as opposed to an 18 or 19-year-old kid when I first started writing songs for Mae, is a totally different experience. People will say in the Church that what matters most is your connection or your relationship and your understanding personally of God. I am going through a season of understanding that to be very real in my life in a way that I never have before, just a personal understanding.
So, I wanted to do a song that would sort of explain if I were to meet a Jesus character or representation of Jesus in my life today, what do I think I could possibly get out of it? I think the most important thing I would understand Jesus to say is that love isn’t comfort, love is sacrifice. Love is compromise and commitment before it’s a feeling and before it’s an event. That just sort of came out of the song.
That’s currently my favorite song on the EP. It was the last one we recorded, and I really connect with it on a personal level a great deal. So, yeah, it was sort of like meeting a Jesus character on the beach and getting some good advice from him.
I’ve heard you talking recently that you might end up rerecording that song with a guest vocalist. Is there any development with that?
No, not yet, really more so just because we’re on the road. The idea would be to add onto that song. Maybe even try to release it in between two songs in the future to generate some more income. We’re thinking about adding some horns and some strings and some additional vocals. Then that got to the point where we were thinking, “Well, maybe the fisherman could actually be a different vocalist.”
It’s all about having fun with the songs and assuming they’re never really finished. Even after they’ve been released, they can always be rereleased because the motivation here is to raise money and awareness for other causes and other people. So, that’s just one thing we’ve been discussing over the last few weeks.
Now all this new music you’re producing yourselves, right?
On your last one, you worked with one of the biggest producers out there, Howard Benson. What’s that transition been like, going from him to recording everything on your own?
I produced Destination: Beautiful, our first record, but I was so young I didn’t understand what that meant. After working with Ken Andrews, a personal hero of mine as a kid, on The Everglow and working with Howard on Singularity, I think I’ve realized at this point as a musician and an artist how to be someone who understands recording, getting good tones, and the things that need to come across well and captured correctly to have a sonically stimulating, pleasing record. I think the time has come, honestly, for me to really try and just produce it on my own or with the band.
I feel like the thing that has always been unfortunate is that I’ll hear a song in my head, or I’ll be going through the writing process, and then once the song’s recorded there’s always been something missing that I was hoping to hear that wasn’t captured, whether it be because of a budget or because of time or availability.
I’ve always wanted to hear real strings on our record. We always were offered synthetic strings recorded on a keyboard to use instead. Well, this time on “A Melody, the Memory,” our March release, that was the first time in Mae’s career that we were able to record and use real strings and real players. I got to arrange the parts myself. That was really rewarding and something I’ve personally wanted to do since as long as I’ve loved music and have written music.
In almost every single way, it’s completely fulfilling. It’s more work, but the end result is beyond satisfactory. It’s exactly what I’ve always wanted to hear the songs I’ve written to sound like, and we’ve finally gotten to that point. It’s very exciting.
Do you have any interest in producing other bands at some point?
Yeah. Actually, there’s a band from back home, called Recap, that I’m working with right now. My goal would be to spend my free time in between Mae projects producing bands and artists in the future.
You are now a self-supporting artist. Has that been more or less difficult than you imagined it would be?
I think it’s equally both. Sometimes we would complain about what our manager wouldn’t do for us, or what our label wouldn’t do for us. Now we know how difficult it is to actually get things that you wish available to your band, whether it just be exposure or picking the right song at the right time the way that labels kind of think things need to be. Sometimes, it’s a no-brainer. It’s like write good music, put it out there and play for people who like what you’re doing. Meet them where they’re at, and try and give them a good experience.
We also know that if it doesn’t get done, it only didn’t get done because we didn’t make it happen. We don’t have any blame to throw anywhere except for us and our resources, which is a learning experience. But to have a record label at the age of 27, to have produced this EP and these other EPs that are coming out, and to have raised $35,000 in about three and a half months – these are all dreams come true and some things I couldn’t even dream up when I was younger and dreaming about what this music life could be. It’s really difficult, but it’s always rewarding. It’s consistently both.
I just want to mention Singularity one more time here. That record seemed to have a little bit of a split reaction with fans and stuff. What do you view that record in hindsight a couple of years later as?
That’s a really good question. Pretty much right after Singularity was released, our keyboard player and our bass player left the band. As far as a music writing experience, that was more of a group effort than any of our other records had been. It’s interesting because a lot of people would complain that you didn’t hear enough keys and piano on the record, but our keyboardist and piano player at the time, Rob, wrote more on that record, and used the keys to do it, than any other record that had been written in the past. It was just he was writing stuff on the keyboard or on the piano and saying, “Why don’t you try playing that on the guitar?” So, it’s weird. It came from the keys, but it was translated over to guitar. That’s exactly where we were at the time.
I feel like the band sort of turned into a different entity because it was really difficult for us to communicate about certain things. Our ex-keyboard player is 10 years older than I am. He’s close to 40 and was a law school grad the same year I graduated from high school. In a lot of ways, we just didn’t really connect on a deep level. Over time and after getting married, you kind of decide what your priorities are and what your priorities aren’t. I feel like Singularity was a representation of the disconnect that we were all feeling during those writing sessions.
Mark, our bass player who also left the band, is the guy who engineered Destination: Beautiful and also engineered the (M)orning EP. He also played all the bass on the new songs. As far as other bands I’m working with, I work out of his studio with him. So, we’ve got an excellent relationship. I think we even work better together now when we aren’t in the same band than maybe we did when we were sort of learning who we were, and trying to figure that out in the context of our band as well.
I’m still very proud of Singularity, but as far as releases go, it’s my least favorite release by our band just because it definitely wasn’t as hands on the way the other two records were. We always had a dream and a vision for these records in the past, but Singularity seemed to be more like a collection of songs we had been working on because it was time to release a record.
After you ended up splitting with Capitol, was there a time where you thought maybe Mae might be finished, or did you always plan on continuing?
Because of all the situations that had presented themselves to us guys in the band – at the time our manager had helped us get through a massive amount of debt – we just didn’t really know why we would continue. We really needed a spark. We needed something that was going to grow into something bigger for us to understand our purpose, both individually as men and collectively as a band. The mission that we’re on now is exactly what we needed to get us to where we are today.
So, what does the future hold for Mae? Will you continue to go through with your own label and that side of things?
Well, we do have these two additional EPs that will be coming out this year, and we’ll be doing plenty of touring all year long. 2010 will just be a time for us to wipe the slate clean and try again – figure out how we can enjoy what we do, and make it unique and special for us and for the people who support what we do.
As far as our label goes, it’s called Cell Records. It’s about the inner workings of community, as opposed to just trying to make a quick buck, so obviously it’s a pun. We hope that every release from now until the end of our existence as a band will be under Cell Records.
With the way the music industry is right now, do you see more bands going the way you are by doing things on their own and the independent route?
Yeah. The economy and the industry are one and the same. If you don’t have money to spend, the last thing you spend it on is entertainment, and so the music industry has suffered. Everyone, for the most part, knows that the Internet, file sharing, iPods and MP3 players in general have greatly affected record sales. So instead of thinking that record sales indicate the success of a band or an artist, you have to redefine success for yourself.
For us, success is raising $35,000 in three and a half months independently. It’s going on tour with no label. If you sell out a room, that’s success. If you don’t sell out a room, the success comes in learning what we didn’t do correctly and how we can make sure that people will be coming to that city to see us play next time. There’s always a learning curve and there’s plenty of room for growth, but success is redefined for us now. We’re very happy and revitalized, in a sense, to be a part of that learning experience.
Do you have any other closing thoughts you’d like to share?
Come out and see us on tour if you can, and keep checking out WhatIsMae.com every month. “Over and Over” should be out in a few weeks, maybe by mid-May. We just have to pick a significant date, as we’ve been doing every month, that brings it all together. The first one was January 1st. New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, the first day of spring and the dreaded Tax Day were the last four releases. So, we’ll look for a day coming up in May that sort of brings everyone together for some reason or another, and we’ll release that song on that day. Just stay with us on WhatIsMae.com and look for us in a city near you, coming soon.
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press