Mekano Set make machine rock music that blurs the line between dark-indie and industrial in exquisite fashion. We chat with two members of the London-based act (vocalist-come-bassist Milk Milkovitch and guitarist Lee Christien) about playing up north, their influences and more.
“David Bowie inspired a bunch of clones with bad hair” – Milk Milkovitch
S] Where does the inspiration come to merge electronic and rock influences now in 2010?
Milk] Willful self indulgence? It wasn’t a conscious decision to be honest. Even if you only like mainstream rock, there’s just as much electrickery and devices going on behind the scenes as there is rock energy and machismo in dance music. Or I could blame my parents. They had vinyl by everyone from Black Sabbath to New Order, The Chameleons, The Sisters, The Stranglers, The Jam, Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, The Kinks. But growing up surrounded by a bit of everything, you forget that’s not everyone’s experience of music. People still have these rules, thanks to the mainstream media. You’re still supposed to like one or the other aren’t you? It’s tragic that it’s still seen as ‘wrong’ if you like rock and electronic stuff. Then you find out that your favourite bands are into all sort of music and you see the light. You start listening to bands that some people don’t even think are ‘real bands’. I think we just really like noise as much as sound, as much as music. And there’s a hell of a lot of fun to be had when you put the emphasis on beats, bass-lines, noise, and treat the guitar as sound effect not just a riff machine. We like trying to get guitars to make sounds that most guitarists wouldn’t even dream of.
Lee] You know how it is – the mainstream is so far behind what’s really going on and they’re scared of taking chances. It’s why the underground scenes are still thriving and the mainstream industry is basically fuc***. Poetic justice for once.
Milk] People don’t have to wait for the NME or some smug TV presenter to tell them it’s okay. Who cares if Lame Lowe says their taste in music is bad. Look at metal, industrial, goth, electro, punk and hip-hop. The mainstream press hated these things when they first started up. But eventually they have to accept it’s what people want to hear.
Lee] A lot of the stuff we like isn’t just about music but about creating a space. I feel that post-punk and industrial, 90’s and 00’s dance music – all these different scenes made the same mistake – it became about looking at a band or a DJ on a stage, hero worship, as opposed to it being about listening to music, creating a space to get lost in and having fun with friends.
Milk] Bands like New Order were mixing rock and electronics without pushing it in one particular direction. That was a long time ago and it’s like we’re still catching up with the aftermath of punk. So it’s just wrong that the mainstream is still lusting after pretty posh boys with a 60’s guitar sound. What is that about? New Order wanted to be a metal band but circumstances put them in the position of almost accidentally making something new. It’s great that they figured out that they had nothing to lose and opened up their sound rather than just trying to carry on being Joy Division. The Prodigy – who’d have thought they’d end up going from techno-cheese to stadium filth? Napalm Death – how many members went on to do really experimental things, industrial, post-rock, even trip-hop sounding stuff way before any of it became mainstream. I want to know what’s going on right now. There must be a ton of people out there doing mad new noises. I don’t think you can compare people like Pendulum, they just seem a bit ‘Bon Jovial’, or ‘Deaf Leper’, and you know it’s basically about the money. It’s a cash-in it’s not a cross-over. So it’s not enough to expect praise just because you embrace technology, especially if comes out the other end sounding like your average rock band.
S] You are often tagged as a “goth” act – how do you feel about the association?
Milk] I don’t mind what people call us. We’ve been called worse things. People who like old-school goth and punk seem to get what we’re about. Old punks seem to like us too. That really means a lot to us. I guess our sound is a bit too eclectic to be classed as modern goth or industrial but the scene has been really welcoming and supportive of us and they don’t mind that we sometimes wear blue jeans and sneakers. They’re not afraid of bands who don’t have drummers or have unconventional line-ups. We like drum machines, bass riffs and fuzz guitars. And, so do they.
Lee] Bands like The Banshees, The Cure, Bauhaus, The Sisters of Mercy – people still love to hear that stuff because it was honest and pretty brave – they were trying to do something new and different at the time. They obviously had their influences – Bowie, Roxy Music, Suicide, Stooges, but they moved on with those influences and made their own sound. It’s sad that they get ripped off so much – and it’s pretty obvious when they do get ripped off because their styles are so distinctive.
Milk] Personally, I can’t stand Bowie. When people go on about how great he is they’re really saying how innovative people like Robert Fripp and Brian Eno were. Is it Eno‘s fault that goth happened? Or. is it Fripp‘s? That swirly guitar sound, angular guitar riffs. We love all that. But just because Cocteau Twins grew up listening to Bowie doesn’t mean I have to like Bowie. Fripp and Eno inspired people to go out and buy or even build their own phasers and fuzz boxes – Bowie just inspired a bunch of clones with bad hair.
Lee] I’d rather be classified as R&B! We’re quite soulful in a way. On the other hand, I do like a skinny guitar riff with a load of delay, and the aesthetics of a decent smoke machine. It’s all about black jeans, boots and nailpolish over white trainers any day.
S] Are there any standout acts in alternative music at the moment in your opinion?
Lee] I do like some avant-garde rock stuff – Little Specks Of Blood Lust Blood are a great band from down south – sort of electro-metal. Anarchistwood from London do the whole Dead Kennedy’s, Black Flag, 80’s hardcore thing but in a really intelligent way, and with a lot of sex. But I’m just as excited about people like Estelle.
Milk] Anybody that’s doing something other than the same old two guitar, bass, drums and male vocalist thing gets my vote. I like the way Crystal Castles drive people nuts when they play live because they’re fairly unconventional but people still love them. In London there’s a band called Blindness who are doing something like a female NIN. They’ve got real presence and bring a bit of style to that kind of dirgy industrial glitter beat thing. Their guitarist is amazing, she used to be in Curve. Their singer has one of those classic female post-punk voices. She works really hard and she helped us put Mekano Set together. There’s also a guy called Jack Cooper who does the most amazing electro-crooner songs about mobile phones and hangovers. Imagine Iggy Pop doing comedy-industrial. He’s amazing but he doesn’t seem to be gigging at the moment.
In Birmingham there’s one or two guys like Mutate and Alan Neilson (who organises Elementary Records) sticking to their guns where there’s no scene that supports them. The established things like Supersonic and the arts scene round Brum doesn’t support what’s really going on from what I’ve seen of it. It’s good to know that there are people like that out there, and it’s great that they are so supportive of us as well. So it’s cool that there is a sense of community out there, but no particular sound or not just one location. I’m coming back up north again before the end of the year and I’m curious to see what’s happening these days.
S] Based in London, what are you most looking forward to about taking your sound up north?
Milk] we are based down south but we’re not southerners. You know what they say about the northern guitar sound? Northern electronica? We obsess about this stuff. See, there’s an arrogance, an ignorance about London. Even people from Essex are a bit more clued up than London. We’ve basically been overlooked by the scenes down here pretty consistently. We never get asked to play the festivals and the industrial, electro, and goth nights apart from Brave Exhibitions down here and The Darkroom in Wolverhampton.
Lee] we’ve had some amazing times up north already. We should have played Leeds last year but we had too much going on at the time. It is sad that there’s this perception that anywhere north of the Watford Gap is somehow not important in terms of music scenes. That is ridiculous.
Milk] My best mates are all from round Leeds and Birmingham, I grew up in Staffordshire and Cheshire, so I’ve got no delusions about London being the centre of the universe. The northern punk scene contributed more innovation than London ever has. The post-punk movement was a northern thing. Even the electronic side of things. Human League? Cabaret Voltaire? And the whole Warp Records thing. Ska was a Birmingham and Coventry-based movement as much as anywhere else.
Lee] We’re not from the south, we’re not even that English. I was born in Germany, grew up in Ireland. Milk‘s half-northern and half Welsh. That explains a lot eh? Austin who we’ve recorded with is a Geordie guitarist. And, we record and gig with our friend Sahara who plays bass and sings, she’s half-Iranian and half-Parisian.
Milk] Andy who started Mekano Set with me lives in Leeds. Beth (Blindness) who we’ve done stuff with is Scottish and grew up in Africa. Patrick who joined us on bass early on is Irish. We’re an eclectic bunch. I don’t know how it turned out this way but I like it.
Lee] Well, we were talking about this recently – the way people think Britain means London, England.
Milk] Same for the whole Liverpool punk scene. And the post-rock and grindcore thing in Birmingham as well, bands like Scorn, Godflesh, Napalm Death, Techno Animal.
Lee] London had the Pistols and The Clash and The Damned – really important bands for sure, but behind the cool clothes and hair they were basically good old fashioned rock bands.
Milk] Throbbing Gristle were based in London but half of them were from the north. Buzzcocks, The Fall, Joy Division, The Chameleons, Comsat Angels, Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League, you name it – all formed in the north.
Lee] Me and Ade (Mutate) used to go to Manchester and Sheffield and Wolverhampton to see bands when we were kids. There were loads of post-punk bands getting back together in the 90’s so I was lucky enough to see The Chameleons, Julian Cope, Bauhaus, The Banshees, Cocteau Twins, and Magazine more recently. I love the Cocteaus but I couldn’t believe how loud they were. The Chameleons and Magazine were incredible – their audiences had a different energy to the others as well, everyone bouncing like mad but holding each other up, as opposed to walking all over you to get closer to their idols.
S] Describe a day in the life of The Mekano Set?
Milk] I wake up in a cold sweat about 3am. Then again at 4-and-5am. Any other Meks in the house seem to sleep on regardless, unless I start shouting for help, in my sleep.
Lee] I cycle past Milk’s house on my way to work. I refuse to give up my day job. Sometimes I can hear muffled cries…
Milk] He thinks musicians are bourgeois.
Lee] Only when we have to coax you out of your silk pajamas and silver lame dressing gown so we can go see some bands.
Milk] We’ve got our own studio space, a disgusting amount of tat and broken electrickery. I’ll spend days on end working on a mix. It’s not very interesting to watch but it has to be done. So I get as much done as I can before the others arrive, or wake up. Then we play around with the ideas and build them up into songs in the evenings. We don’t see why you have to stick to the 60’s pop song structure of verse, chorus, verse and chorus. So we always try to avoid doing the same thing twice or having anything that’s too conventional in terms of structure. I start working on mixes by about midday.
Lee] By which time he’s drunk enough to sing…
Milk] And he’s drunk enough not to notice that I’ve unplugged him. I never drink before midday, unless there are ladies present. ‘Corona for breakfast dear?’ Refreshing.
S] Have your ideals and aims with regards to the project changed since you started it?
Milk] It just started as a bit of fun. It still is. Originally it was me and Andy and John Table doing dark ambient stuff. We met Beth who now fronts Blindness and started to turn the long soundscapes we were doing into shorter grooves and we were brave and desperate enough to want to do gigs. It took a while to really get our sound together. We spent ages just trying different arrangements and instruments and sounds until we finally found what we were happy with: fu**** up guitar, the bass or baritone doing the riff, a decent beat.
Lee] I think it’s pretty good to not worry about stuff like that too much. Every moment should be an honest moment. Especially when it comes to music and art. It’s not good to over-analyse these things too much. But if we didn’t then we wouldn’t be human. We do our thing, and then take a look at what it’s about afterwards. And laugh.
S] Can you talk us through the inspiration of two tracks in-particular, ‘Don’t Eat The Sweets’ and then ‘Speak In Riddles’?
Milk] ‘Speak In Riddles‘ is about being constantly misunderstood. Realising people see you how they want to see you, and how that can be a long way off what you think you are, or how you want to be seen. And tying yourself up in knots trying to make yourself understood, by hedonistic girls who probably don’t care what’s going on in your head anyway. It’s on the EP we’ve just finished mixing. We’ve got an album’s worth of songs but we’re still working on the final mixes. We’re calling the album ‘Hahaharem‘.
Lee] The guitar on ‘Riddles‘ is ridiculous. We played a gig with a load of really straight rock bands in London. My little sister was in the crowd and she said as soon as we struck the first chord the entire room took two steps back. It sounded like a jet engine taking off. Someone had fu**** with the amps. We just carried on regardless. But we came away feeling good seeing as how we ended up being noisier than the supposedly ‘heavy’ bands.
Lee] Sahara turned up at the last minute and we got her up on stage. She looked like Rachel from Bladerunner for some reason. She somehow managed to spill a whole bottle of brandy all over me and Milk just before we started playing. We played the whole set with the smell of brandy in the air, dripping down our necks. Nice.
Milk] ‘Don’t Eat The Sweets‘ was the first Mekano Set song. It’s about feeling stranded. You want to make music but you’re living in a place where it’s just not going to be possible. I started working on it when I was living in Stoke. I’m in this gang of black-clad boys and girls with blue and orange hair, we were so naive and we couldn’t work out why the BNP-types, big gangs of sexually repressed men with moustaches and bulldog tattoos, kept beating the crap out of us every time we came home from the local indie night. Chucking bottles and bricks at you, kicking and punching the girls if they were alone. I got my cheek ripped open by half a house-brick thrown from a moving car – a car with what looked like a perfectly ‘normal’ looking man and woman. When it hit my face, they both cheered. That was an eye-opener. When you’re young you think you’re invincible. The more you see how fu***d up the world is, you can’t go back. Our flat was so cold and damp that the keyboard I was writing the song on froze up and cracked in half when it thawed out. Fond memories.
S] What’s next for The Mekano Set as we approach 2011?
Milk] We’ve finished an EP as a taster for the second album. That’s all done we’re just mixing it all down and having a nap. We don’t like being pressured.
Lee] We’ve been working on a DVD of stuff with Elementary Productions who are based in the Black Country. In 2011 we’ll hopefully start gigging around more. We have been offered gigs in Europe and further away and it is something we want to do, but only when the timing is right.
Milk] I can’t believe we’re still going after everything we’ve been through. If we don’t have at least one gig coming up I tend to go a bit mad. Or more mad than usual.
S] If you could remove the soundtrack from any film and replace it with the music of The Mekano Set, what film would you choose and why?
Milk] That’s a great question there! ‘Weekend At Bernies‘?
Lee] Cool! Loads of bands talk about wanting to do soundtracks these days so I’m wary of thinking about this stuff. We use video projections and visuals live whenever we can.
Milk] We do live soundtracks to short films with Abstinence and Sensibility. Doing that, and just going to see films always reminds me how much sound contributes to movies – if you go to a proper cinema to see a film and the sound effects are loud enough for you to feel them as well as hear. Same as going to a gig or a club. The way sound can effect the whole body, move the air, move your innards, make you need to go to the toilet, or nod your head, jump around, or just have a cry.
Lee] I’d like to do ‘The Wicker Man‘ – even though the soundtrack is amazing. And maybe Dune, and re-do some of the sound effects.
Milk] Yeah, I love ‘Dune‘. I know it’s not a good film but it’s one of my favourites. The soundtrack’s not good so… we could totally do some exotic noises on that. We’ve talked about doing some soundscape things with Ade from Mutate as a sort of soundtrack to the ‘Dune‘ books. ‘La Jetee‘ is a cool atmospheric film that would be great to play along to, with sympathy.
For more information visit the official MySpace.