The Red Masque are a Philadelphia based avant/space/I'm not sure how to describe/label them progressive band. They embrace so many different styles of music, from the fragile and beautiful to the primal and aggressive...often within the same song. Each album builds from the successes of the previous, and they are always pushing their musical boundaries on each release.
I became a fan of theirs based on a single song..."Beggars and Thieves," released as a single a few years back as a teaser for their 2004 album Feathers for Flesh. That album got a huge amount of play at my place, and if I had been putting together top ten albums of the year lists back then, it would have easily earned a spot. It's been four years since that album came out, but the band has finally unveiled their latest opus, Fossil Eyes, released on adHoc/ReR USA Records.
I was pleased when vocalist Lynnette Shelley agreed to pen some replies to my questions for this blog. She's a professional designer when not working with them band, and in fact much of the band's visual style on record is the result of her art and design work (the debut EP, Feathers for Flesh and Fossil Eyes all feature her cover art). Her replies are expansive and insightful, and my hope is that they will help you, Constant Reader, get a better feel for this unique, boundary pushing band.
1) Can you give us a brief history of how The Red Masque came together?
LS: Brandon and I started The Red Masque in February 2001. Previously, we had played together in a few bands in Delaware, where we are both originally from. I moved to Philadelphia in 1999 for a job, and Brandon followed a few months later. We auditioned musicians for a while (even playing with some others in Baltimore, MD, for a while, before forming the prototype The Red Masque band lineup in 2000. Brandy of the Damned (from the George Bernard Shaw quote) featured original TRM guitarist Steven Blumberg, and keyboardist/concert harpist Nathan-Andrew Dewin, and another drummer. That drummer quit before our first gig, and we eventually replaced his spot with Kevin Kelly in February 2001. Our first gig as The Red Masque was less than two months later.
2) How would you say your recent album Fossil Eyes departs from or expands upon the previous release?
LS: Well, I think this album is the first album of ours that is true concept album. We specifically structured the album with “intercessionals” situated between the main material. These intercessionals can be considered like mood pieces or mini-soundtracks to carry over between major album pieces (“Carbon 14”, “Das Snail”, “The Spider Is The Web”, “The Anti-Man”, “Polyphemus” and “Carbon 13.”) As for the album theme, lyrically, the songs use the natural world to explore various human philosophical/moral questions. For example, “The Anti-Man” is about war, told through the point of view of the rebels. In this case, the rebels are insects warring against humans. Or, in the case of “Das Snail”, the protagonist wonders who he or she is. Do past events and current circumstances define a person or is there an innate sense of self that breaks free from these boundaries? Is a person like a snail, whose body conforms to the shape of the shell it inhabits or does he or she have his or her own unique mental structure?
From an auditory point of view, Fossil Eyes is definitely sonically denser and, in my opinion, the songs are better written. The song production also has a more organic approach.
3) Your first two releases, Death of the Red Masque and Victoria and the Haruspex, came out on CD-R. Is there any chance that they will be reissues, perhaps by ReR?
LS: I doubt it. Physical CD sales are going down across the board while downloads are going up, and many predict the death of physical cds in the next few years. From a monetary point of view, it wouldn’t be worth it to release them as physical CDS. However, we are releasing them for “pay what you want” digital downloads from theredmasque.com.
I do hope to re-record “Tidal” (from DotRM) and “Birdbrain” (from VatH) at some point though, and release them as bonus tracks on album album perhaps.
4) You've provided cover art for almost all of your album releases. How do you feel the artwork ties the package together?
LS: Well, I am a professional artist and a graphic designer so I like making artwork for the albums (though I would redo the album covers on the first two albums as they look a bit amateurish at this point. But I was an amateur designer back then, and the first two albums were very DIY projects.) It ties the package together in that I think the artwork matches the music and makes it seem a little more ‘complete’ as opposed to a collection of electronic files. I don’t like CDs for artwork as much as an actual LP cover, but with the right budget, you can make some really beautiful booklets and packaging.
5) There was a long period between the release of Feathers for Flesh and Fossil Eyes. Do you feel the majority of the difficulties that hindered the album's release are behind you?
LS: Well, yes and no. Yes in that the major problems we suffered on the last record were due to Vonorn’s health situation. We had to wait for him to get out of the hospital, and learn to walk again, let alone learn to drum again. But the band is also not a full-time gig, so we don’t get to work on it 24/7. We also have to do most things ourselves, so all of these things take time.
But, knock on wood, we will have a live CD out next year on a label, and hopefully another new album will be out in much sooner than four years. I’d ideally like to release something new every other year.
6) Who do you think have been the biggest influences on you as a musician and artist?
LS: I don’t have a biggest influence. There are bands and artists I like for various reasons and you could point out various things in our music that sound influenced by this or that band, but I’ve never sat down and thought I wanted to sound like a particular band.
I know I like the controlled chaos approach of Van Der Graaf Generator. I love the live shows of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Acid Mothers Temple. I like Diamanda Galas’ and Peter Hammill’s vocal theatrics. I love the rhythms and heavy bass of groups like Magma. I like the heavy distortion of King Crimson mixed with moments of quiet beauty. I admire the Art Bears songwriting tremendously. I love the lyrical melodies of Pentangle and Fairport Convention. And I love the mix of light and dark in Comus.
But the music of The Red Masque, for better or for worse, is its own entity.
7) The Red Masque's music is very dramatic, relying on dynamics, shifts in tone, and deep lyrical content. Would you like to see the band work in anything from a multimedia/theatrics standpoint in a live setting?
LS: This is something the band has talked over many times. In theory I would say sure. From a practical point of view, I find the simpler the shows are the better the result. Unless you have your own sound crew, lighting crew, a lot of time to soundcheck etc., all of that would overcomplicate things. We are usually lucky to get 20 minutes to do a soundcheck at most venues.
We do have a guy, David Pym, who is working on videos for us, so we hope do things with him that involve video projections and the like. The one thing I am sure of is that I don’t want the theatrical/visuals to hamper the music because I think that will make the live show worse for wear. I’ve seen bands with these huge multimedia presentations and the music usually becomes secondary at that point. I wouldn’t want that to happen to us. I like our live shows to have a very primal, intense feel.
8) What would you say has been your biggest moment musically with The Red Masque?
LS: I am still looking for that biggest moment. There are definitely great shows though. I know the last show we played at Orion was probably one of our best. Playing at the NJ Proghouse is always fun. Playing with Dave Kerman and Paul Sears was a definite trip. Meeting other bands from all over is definitely a highlight. But I don’t think we’ve reached our biggest moment yet.
9) What's next for the band?
LS: A live CD on a label in 2009 (can’t go into details just now), plus working on new song material for the next album. We will also be putting out a video of an entire concert out for free download, hopefully within the next couple of weeks. I have been talking with the band Comus about possible East Coast, USA, show(s) so we’ll see how that pans out. We are also looking to possibly add on a multi-instrumentalist. Any interested parties should email email@example.com. We are also looking for festival gigs that we could possibly hang a short tour around, so if anybody wants to book us, also email firstname.lastname@example.org.
10) Do you have any final thoughts for us?
LS: Thanks for the interview.
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