My Gold Mask, featuring demure guitarist Jack Armondo and nimble percussionist-cum-crooner Gretta Rochelle, now joined by drummer James Andrew, produce a rare breed of alchemical music that dumps the notion of simple genres. Behind the door of their soundscapes, they conjure a post-punk arthouse cabaret combining elements of popular and avant-garde traditions from Diamanda Galas and Jarboe to Glass Candy and Chromatics that revel in operatic surges and deconstructed cultural fare with flair. Their new album, Leave Me Midnight, released on February 19 on Goldy Tapes, is a richly woven, otherworldly sonic palette.
I know the band has worked with other locals like Psalm One and the Hood Internet, but I always wondered why the band has stuck close to its roots in Chicago and not been drawn to New York City or Portland.
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Tell me about your affinity for the city and it’s “discerning audiences”?
Gretta: Both Jack and I have lived here for about twelve years. I was going to move to Brooklyn early on, but the longer I waited, the more I ended up meeting a lot of amazing people. We have an intimate group of friends and there are so many talented artists here that we feel lucky to have played or worked with. Also, I think we have grown fond of writing here. We really utilize the long winters to flush out our emotions sonically. Environment is really inspirational to us. And lastly, we have a big ass practice space that I doubt we’d ever be able to swing in a place like New York.
Jack: I was actually born in Brooklyn, so I always feel like there is a part of me there, but we are happy to be in Chicago right now.
The saturated colors and psyche of ’70s films from directors like Argento have shaped this record, as Gretta has admitted, and the album cover evokes it as well. Do you feel the new album is itself a nuanced cinematic concept of “alternate realities,” especially in songs like “In Our Babylon”?
Jack: We wanted an album that sounded almost otherworldly but was driven by emotions. A lot of film and art have that quality, and it can inspire us. Argento movies always have these really manic characters as well and we like that. There is admittedly a bit of drama in our music.
Gretta: Absolutely, we like to think of each song as living in it’s own reality, it’s own space. They are like little vignettes. Also, I do have a type of color blindness where many colors are muted, so color saturation is appealing to me!
I know Gretta has moved away from being a “one man show” scenario, handling all percussion and singing, which allows for more audience interaction now, but what led to the core idea of the band initially being just the two of you?
Jack: Some of it was out of necessity but part of it is that Gretta and I communicate in a very particular way and when we started MGM we really wanted to explore ideas with just the two of us. We were more minimal in our approach, but as time went on we realized we were maybe limiting ourselves with what we could do live, so bringing on James has been really great. The challenge is adding to the sound without adding too much.
The band’s songs have been featured on shows like Gossip Girl. Does that represent your way of invading pop culture from within by unleashing post-punk attitude and style in cable network platforms, or just a simple licensing deal?
Jack: A lot of people found our music from the show, and we appreciate anything that helps connect our music with people. Who knows, maybe we expanded some musical tastes … but really if you look back on it, Gossip Girl has had a lot of really great music on the show. We were thrilled when they asked us.
Gretta: Punk attitude is so very “Jenny Humphrey”.
If I recall correctly, the band was invited to play during a fashion show in New York City not long ago — not unlike the Gossip. How do you feel about the fashion industry itself, which is as notoriously complex and controversial as the music industry?
Gretta: You know, I really love fashion. and to have been invited to be a part of such an amazing event was exciting to me. I’ve always said that MGM is more inspired by moods, environment, and all forms of art, including fashion. As far as the fashion “industry”, I don’t know about that at all.
Jack: From what I can see of the fashion industry, it seems not all that different from the music industry. And every industry has a crappy side to it. But really, the art of fashion is fascinating to me. You have to try to separate the industry from the art, as impossible as that might seem.
The band is well-hooked into digital media, like avidly using Spotify, YouTube, Tumblr etc. but how do you feel about the current ever-evolving media landscape for music? I know you still pay attention to packaging your product, even in the era of rampant MP3 file sharing.
Gretta: Not only is album art very important to us but so is sound quality and given the limits we have, we both work hard to pay close attention to the sounds we choose and how we package our work. The final product has to be something we are both happy with, and album art is definitely part of that for us. We were excited when Highwheel Records told us they wanted to release the vinyl version because vinyl is such a great way to experience an album. But as far as file sharing and an ever evolving media landscape, we are in love with the fact that more and more people are able to get a hold of our music through these vessels.
Jack: I’m just happy that people are listening to our music wherever they get it from. When people from all over are connecting with your songs, it’s a good feeling and inspires you to want to create more. So, in that way, the Internet is awesome. Things will keep changing, and you just have to go with the flow. Sound quality is something you can never control completely anyway. We just make sure it sounds right to our ears. And yeah, cover art is still important to us. Even my iTunes library has every album cover attached. But is it important to everyone? No, but that’s okay. Ultimately, we do the things that we like to do first and foremost.
The remix of “Bitches”, in which the Hood Internet weaves, wraps, and warps your grooves around “Love Is a Drug” by Roxy Music proves your former analog style can easily mutate into powerful disco. Did you enjoy seeing your songs take on second lives?
Jack: We love remixes because it’s almost like your music is continuing to evolve even after you are done with it. It keeps it alive in a different sort of way. We love dance music too, and it’s cool to hear our music filtered through a different lens. Plus, we get to work with awesome people like The Hood Internet, or Alex Zelenka.
For a sophomore release, did you feel like you needed to take more risks, or stake more musical ground?
Jack: We wanted to try and refine or focus our songwriting. Our first full length was a little all over the place because our nature is to try new things, and we were still discovering ourselves. Which is okay, but with Leave Me Midnight we wanted an album that really worked as a whole. There are still hills and valleys to the track list because we have a hard time staying in one place for too too long. But the experimenting came more from the sonic side I would say. Playing with mics, tones, and electronic drums.
Gretta: After we had all the songs we wanted to record for this album, we took time to discuss with our engineer what we envisioned for recording. We took some chances during the tracking to solidify the depth of the audio, utilizing off the cuff ideas that Jack thought would work … and thankfully, they did and became the core texture of what we used for the record.
You have played SXSW and CMJ fest in the past. Do you think these have succumb to enterprise and pitching, or do you find them to be procreative and community-fostering?
Jack: I think it can be both at times. There is a lot of advertising and hustling going on, but there’s a lot of love of music too. It’s amazing to be able to take in so much music all in one place.
Gretta: I feel like fests like South By Southwest are important to take part in as a band simply because the chaotic unpredictability of the whole experience is one of those things that helps you grow as a unit and helps you really bond as an artist on a performance level.
Just some curious last questions, what is written all over the head of Gretta’s drum skin, and what inspired that percussive style, like actually playing the bass drum shell?
Gretta: What you see on my drum head are set lists and sometimes lyrics. I will usually have up to three or four set lists per head before it gets changed. As far as playing the bass drum shell goes, I would play anything on my kit to make a different sound. When we first started MGM, I had only a bass drum and a tom. I simply liked the way the bass drum sounded better than the rim on my tom for certain songs. It was more hollow. I like hollow.