Interview: Mark Stoermer tells the story behind Dark Arts

The second album, as any artist will testify, is always the trickiest.  The first album is usually the product of years of writing, production and heavy procrastination, but the sophomore offering often has a lot to live up to.

Mark Stoermer released his debut record, Another Life, in late 2011 and it was met with widespread acclaim. Stoermer described the record as being more story-driven, and said that with Dark Arts, he wanted the music to do more of the talking.

He’s not wrong, as it is evident throughout that a lot of thought has gone into the sound of Dark Arts.  It opens with Alchemical Formula, a spoken-word introduction asking, amongst other questions: “Is nocturnal living bringing you down?”  The words were performed by the narrator, Tony Curtis, and written by Mark, and show that this is going to be very different from his last offering.

There is a sound reminiscent of the Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatles running through the album, with a distinctly ethereal, spacey sound to a lot of the tracks including “Blood and Guts (The Anatomy Lesson)” and “Are Your Stars Out?”  The influences behind the sound are evident, and it culminates in a record that’s as good, if not better, than the first.

Indie Inferno decided to quiz Mark on the inspiration behind the idea of Dark Arts, and his future plans for touring.

How long did the record take to complete?

Most of the recording took place from July of last year to October, and was done fairly quickly, probably in a total of 4 or 5 weeks of studio time. However, it was the mixing and the mastering process that took a long time, and this was not completed until March.  The process of finding a distribution company on my own held up the release even further.

There seems to be a preoccupation with all things dark, mystical and macabre, as the title suggests. Is there any reason behind this?

The album is a not a concept album, per se. However, there are some continuing themes, as you suggest. If anything, the concept of the dark arts, which is stated in the speech given by the narrator Tony Curtis, and written by myself, loosely ties the album together. The “secret alchemical formula” is about conquering your demons, so to speak, and embracing all aspects of yourself. This was influenced a lot by the works of the mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell, as well as Jungian (Carl Jung) psychology. In terms of Campbell’s concept of the hero’s journey, much of the album could be looked at as the descent into the abyss. Within the abyss is where the hero slays the dragon.  After tasting the blood of the dragon, they return to the city triumphant and stronger.

There is a sound of the Sgt. Pepper’s era – Beatles running through the album. What inspired you to do such a different sound? And what inspired the philosophical reflection running through the lyrics?

The Beatles are the greatest and most important rock band to ever exist. The first album I listened to all the way through was Sgt. Pepper’s. It would be impossible to measure the influence The Beatles have had on me musically from the age of 10-years-old onwards. If that influence is apparent in this album, I think it has to do with my approach to making this record was quite different than that of my first. Another Life, which was my first attempt to writing complete songs, was much more story driven. While this album still has stories from song to song, I think I wanted the music to breathe more and also wanted to explore more aspects of my guitar playing. The result was possibly more similar stylistically to my music influences growing up, such as the Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Who… I guess it just came out that way once I focused more on the guitar.

As stated earlier, the philosophical reflection is loosely related to the dark arts theme, but each song has its own theme as well, and I drew upon the experience of life – from films, books. and even paintings.

Do you have a favourite track on the album?  (Mine is Blood and Guts…it seems to stand out)

I would have to say, at the moment, “Blood and Guts” is my favourite song on the album, too. The lyrics were inspired by the Rembrandt painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, and I’m happy with the way the lyrics came off with the dialogue between the student and the teacher, and all that back and forth contrast and juxtaposition.  I also attempted to play these songs live during some rehearsals recently, and this is the funnest one to play so far.

What drives you to make your own music rather than being in a band?

I’ve been making music essentially since I was 14, sometimes by myself, sometimes with others. In general, I prefer to collaborate. But, it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, I have ideas that I just have to finish on my own. There are pros and cons to working in a band setting, and another batch of pros and cons for working solo. But, I was fortunate not to have to completely do it on my own when I enlisted the help of collaborator / co-producer David Hopkins on this record. I think I always prefer to have someone to bounce ideas off of.

How do you approach the songwriting / creating song process?

Each song comes out a different way. However, I have found in my experience that I usually cannot finish a musical idea until I have the lyrics finished. And, many of these songs were actually written with lyrics first. As a listener, I listen to music first, but as a writer, I found that if I don’t have a story, I don’t have a song, and I can’t finish. Once I have the lyrics is when I get stuck, because I feel that it can go so many different ways. I’m not sure if I want to make my lyrics into an electronic song, a metal song, a space rock song, or a reggae song etc.That is the point when enlisting other people can be beneficial to rein in the options of sonics and production.

Where was it recorded?

Most of the album was recorded at Battleborn Studios in Las Vegas, as well as at the Studio at The Palms where The Killers recorded Sam’s Town back in 2006.

Do you have any plans on touring?

No plans just yet, but I’m experimenting doing rehearsals with a great bunch of guys at the moment. And, if I develop a live show, I want it to grow organically and take it step-by-step.

Dark Arts is released on August 5th.

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