Going on 30 years together now, underground provocateurs Mecca Normal are still at it pushing buttons with their art-minded and politically charged music. But those more familiar with the searing, rough-hewn sound of Mecca Normal’s best-known works might be surprised to the hear the layered melodies and expansive compositions of Empathy for the Evil, the Vancouver duo’s first full-length effort in eight years. What’s a constant here, though, is the intellectual depth and socially engaged intensity that Jean Smith and David Lester have been known for across numerous artistic media. PopMatters caught up with Smith to find out more about the concepts behind Empathy for the Evil and how her and Lester’s work in writing and visual arts relate to their music. Empathy for the Evil is releasing on September 30 via M’lady’s Records and Mecca Normal embark on a new tour this week (see the dates below). Their new video for the album track “Between Livermore & Tracy” premieres here on PopMatters.
PopMatters: Empathy for the Evil is a thought-provoking title. Does it inform what the vignettes and scenarios explored on the album?
Jean Smith: Yes. Most of the songs are directly out of two psychologically-driven novels with somewhat warped characters. Empathy is a strong theme in both novels. In Obliterating History—a guitar-making mystery, domination and submission in a small town garage (for which I recently secured a literary agent), characters need to be able to trust each other in order to get what they want. Within the story, a woman trusts too soon, another must learn to trust a liar, and, in the end, trusting a commonly held belief proves to be a life-altering mistake. I think empathy plays a large role in trust—to trust, you have to be able to consider what you’re being told and why. That’s a form of empathy. I find it most difficult to empathize with those who don’t possess empathy, but I think it’s worth the effort. If only in terms of self-preservation.
In the other novel, a museum curator uses abstract expressionism to cure narcissism, which is an incurable personality disorder. I’d heard that female readers want female characters that do important and impressive things, so I thought having a woman—the museum curator—cure narcissism would be good.
Evil isn’t actually a concept I necessarily believe in, or think much about. It seems an easy out with religious overtones. Calling someone evil is just too easy. Empathy, on the other hand, is something I think about a lot. Humans, in my mind, are divided into two groups—those who possess empathy and those who, likely due to some sort of emotional trauma, do not. Those unable to experience empathy are selfish and manipulative. Evidently, it isn’t something they can change. The ramifications of allowing narcissists into one’s sphere are quite unsettling. Things will work out better if you really understand why narcissists are dangerous to your emotional well-being. Understanding may require empathy.
PopMatters: It has been eight years since there’s been a Mecca Normal album. What was the impetus for you and David Lester to make new music at this time?
Jean Smith: There were a lot of factors but, for the most part, it was just timing. It was also a matter of recognizing that we don’t have to be putting out albums every year; that we can go and do other things and maintain the music in ways that are less chaotic. Some of the songs on this album have been around for a few years—which is good. We’ve written in many different ways, but more often than not we end up recording before songs have had a chance to evolve in the way that playing them over time tends to accomplish.
Both David and I have been working on book-length fiction, novels and graphic novels. If nothing else, researching, writing, and editing books is very time-consuming. Being small potatoes means we can structure our lives without feeling like we’re impacting anyone’s livelihood. Bands that are big enough to make money have to keep releasing and touring to pay the bills. As it turns out, a significant lack of fame has worked in our favor in terms of freedom to work in other art forms.
PopMatters: For those more familiar with your 1990s material, it might seem like you’ve opened up your sound more on Empathy for the Evil. Some of the songs seem to have more layers to them, like “What’s Your Name?” and the way you bring horns in on it.
Jean Smith: We’ve added things here and there over the years. In the mid-‘90s, we had an actual drummer, Peter Jefferies. I’ve played guitar on a few tours, and here and there on albums. I started adding bits of sax and synth to the Mecca Normal albums after I made my solo album in 2000, but I think the way the layers feel on this album has more to do with what Kramer added and where he placed everything in the mix. He added organ, bass, vibraphone, and mellotron. I played piano, guitar, and sax.
It was kind of funny with the sax. I mean, I bought an alto sax before there was a Mecca Normal and basically figured out how to play it. But when I saw a sax in the studio and said I wanted to play it, I think Kramer thought I was going to fuck around with it forever and waste a bunch of time and make mixing complicated. That’s his job as the producer, to keep things moving along and prevent the singer from deciding she wants to play sax all of a sudden. Rat [Bastard, who recorded the album] was more supportive of the idea. He was helping me put the sax together while Kramer was standing there saying, “No, no, no. No sax. No!!” Anyway, I’ve recorded enough to know that getting complicated can be a drag when it comes time to mix and since we weren’t going to be present for the mixing, it behooved us to keep it simple. Kramer was pretty surprised when I did the sax in one take and we kept every note of it.
PopMatters: Since both of you are accomplished artists in a number of formats—music, novels, graphic novels, visual art—how do you see different artistic media coming together? Is there a sense of synergy between them for you? Are they different tools for getting across a message?
Jean Smith: Since we started in the mid-‘80s, we’ve been doing a type of activism that deals with injustice. Whether it’s sexism, capitalism, poverty, historical reference points, or interpersonal relations—to me, it has always been about using an electric guitar and a voice to reject, articulate, embrace, and lament. Somehow the music is still based in the two elements, but now there’s also a sort of amalgamation process, a redefining of artifacts that takes place over time. Lyrics come out of books, certainly, but it gets more complicated than that.
When David’s graphic novel The Listener was published in 2011, I wrote a stage adaptation within which we each played several characters from his story. We toured using PowerPoint to include sequential panels from his book, which had several themes that related to Mecca Normal songs, so we performed those live. We were in pretty deep, presenting a theatrical event in libraries, art galleries, and classrooms. It was both an adaptation of David’s graphic novel and an adaptation of the lecture we created around 2002 called “How Art and Music Can Change the World” that we toured in the U.S. in 2009 as part of our 25th anniversary tour—25 shows in 25 days. That got pretty rough near the end. Some days we were doing a classroom in the morning and then driving to the next city to do a rock show that night.
So, this time, even though it’s our 30th anniversary this year, we’re not saying much about it. This tour is about our new album. We’re not doing 30 shows in 30 days, because… well, I can clearly recall doing the lecture in New York and I was so tired that when my lips touched each other in the normal course of speech, it felt like quite an effort to pull them apart again to start the next word or syllable.
It seems that as we accumulate more finished material, there’s more to work with and more work comes from that. By adding the lecture to our repertoire of activities we created another layer of assessment. At that time, we wanted to move away from doing radio interviews and keep the event in one location, which we didn’t really want to be a rock venue. We wanted to be presenting ideas in the daytime in places where people typically gathered. Places that weren’t focused on alcohol and late nights.
We’re inspired by each other in terms of discipline and productivity. When we started out, we were both visual artists, so that isn’t something that was added along the way. For me, writing novels came out of being a storyteller functioning as a lyricist. I started gravitating to the longer form and I began viewing albums as having story themes rather than a collection of songs from a specific era.
In 2010, we had an art exhibit called “The Black Dot Museum of Political Art” and then, in 2011, I wrote a novel using the same name, in which I described a lot of paintings done by a protagonist who is a narcissist. After completing the novel, I realized I wanted to paint the paintings I’d described in the story. I’d never done anything like that, visualized and written about imaginary paintings. I did two series of paintings—“Raven Coal Mine” and “No Coal”—and then, when we started to write songs, I used text directly out of that novel for the lyrics. But none of this was planned. It just became a way of moving through an examination of narcissism.
The Black Dot Museum of Political Art has since become a mostly online entity that functions as an archive with occasional exhibits and events. At one point, on the advice of someone who works for the U.S. Department of Education, I approached the Institute of Museum and Library Services with a budget for funding a brick-and-mortar museum, but nothing panned out with that and, right now, I feel the way the museum is positioned is viable. It’s off-stage, ready as necessary to facilitate and agitate. If I had about five million, I’d put together a collection of political art and music that intends to create progressive social change. It would be great to have a central collection of political art available to inspire future activism.
As for synergy between the various projects, I find it difficult to think about the novel when I’m thinking about the museum—or to think about particular paintings while I’m singing. Yet, all of these projects are hinged to methods that David and I have developed as life-long creative partners. That we don’t work in isolation—even when we’re working privately—gives us both a sense of context. Continuity in progress. As with everything that has come our way, including horrible reviews, obscurity, and generally just scraping by, we tend to use what is at hand and turn it into something uniquely fortifying. You can do this with art if being an artist is enough for you. For myself, knowing that I have inspired other people is a huge luxury that I use as fuel. This is why I believe so strongly in creating an archive and resource specifically for political art. It will build on itself in all sorts of wonderful ways.
PopMatters: As you mentioned, it has been 30 years since Mecca Normal first came together as a band. Where do you see yourselves in 30 more years?
Jean Smith: At 85, I hope I’m savoring the exceptional times we have yet to create.
MECCA NORMAL TOUR DATES
September 23 - New York City, NY, Trans-Pecos
September 24 - New York City, NY, Le Poisson Rouge
September 25 - Boston, MA, Lilypad
September 26 - Providence, RI, AS220
September 27 - Easthampton, MA, Flywheel
September 28 - Hudson, NY, John Doe Records and Books
September 29 - New York City, NY, Troost
October 1 - Philadelphia, PA, Random Tea Room
October 4 - Washington, DC, The Back Alley Theater
October 18 - Vancouver, BC, Wrong Wave Festival
November 15 - Vancouver, BC, Media Club