Sci-fi spies. Dystopian despots. Psychotropic cockney poets. Rembrandt, Jung, Nietzsche, Jean Luc-Goddard and Nick Drake. Not, perhaps, the kind of figures you’d expect to crop up on the second solo album from ‘The Quiet Bass One’ from The Killers. Yet ‘Dark Arts’ from Mark Stoermer involves all these and far more besides and, odder still, was partly written by a process known as Ping-Song.
“It’s writing a song together and basically texting each other a line at a time,” Stoermer explains. “It’s with music, you record it on your voice recorder and send it back and forth. Sometimes these things take two days, sometimes it takes a month. It’s a bit like playing chess faraway with a person. You don’t know what you’re gonna get. What it does when you’re playing the game is stripping the song down to its most essential elements, just a guitar a voice and the lyric, not thinking about the production at all. That got me into a new mindset of doing that for more songs.”
What Mark got, writing the follow-up to 2011’s ‘Another Life’ with a new Vegas collaborator – Irish-born singer-songwriter David Hopkins – was a record far more experimental, psychedelic and electronic than his more pastoral solo debut, and bursting with cinematic, mystical and philosophical ideas. Check out an exclusive first taste of it, 'Spare The Ones That Weep', below.
We sat Mark down for a game of, if you will, Think Pong…
You finished recording the album at The Killers’ Battle Born studio and Palm Studios in February – what’s taken so long?
“I was gonna almost just throw it up online but I decided against that and to do it the proper way. Lining all that stuff up basically on your own and trying to find a record label takes a lot of time, even if I’m doing the small version. A record takes a lot to set up even these days, when there’s not really any stores.”
The record delves into such dark arts as psych pop to acid folk, glitch soul, industrial buzztronica, Floyd and The Who. Who knew?
“I wanted to take a little bit more risk and explore some of my other influences that I’ve never been able to get into, especially with The Killers. I don’t know how many of these I’m gonna do, and I wanted to put a little more out there and take a few more risks. I’m mostly doing this for myself, not because I have to. The process is fun for me when you get complete freedom to do what you want, and it’s a challenge to be halfway happy with it for me. I was definitely going for a bit more rock, even a bit of psych pop in there. Those are influences that are in me that I didn’t really explore on my first attempt, I was focussing more on the singer-songwriter thing. It also came out of who I was working with, because me and David Hopkins have a lot of similar influences but he brought out more of the Floyd and Beatles and even some 90s Britpop stuff like Blur.”
When you say you don’t know how many of these you’ll make, are your solo records just spare-time projects?
“It’s something I’m gonna do when I have the chance and when I feel inspired, we’ll see. I’m not saying I’ll never do it but it takes a lot of time and it’s a lot of effort, and then there’s the whole question of what is a record anymore? If I keep writing and releasing solo songs or side-project songs I’m leaning towards the idea that we should be going with singles and EPs. Most people don’t listen to albums. I think albums will always have a place but I don’t think it needs to be the only way people release music. With The Killers we had those conversations back in 2007 and like a lot of people I struggle with whether albums are relevant anymore. I wanted at least to do a second album because my other album was very short, and then I possibly want to get into doing a song at a time.”
There’s a political slant to some songs, notably the neo soul ballad ‘Spare The Ones That Weep’ – which seems to involve a futuristic rebel leader on a heartless killing spree, “wiping everything clean” - and Nick Drake cover ‘Tow The Line’?
“’Tow The Line’ is there because I felt it fit thematically, it’s an obscure cover. ‘Spare The Ones That Weep’ was inspired by the film Alphaville by Jean Luc-Goddard, which is a world of dystopian fiction, computers have taken over the world and it’s a very cold, unfeeling society. The hero comes in and tries to save the day and destroys the machine and saves the girl from that sort of world. That song is about the film but also about someone watching the film wanting to be in it. At the same time that resonated possibly on a political or cultural level in a way, but that’s all in that film as well.”
There’s also a futuristic cinematic feel to’39 Steps’, a sci-fi spy song?
“I have a couple of songs on this one where I experimented with more stream-of-consciousness style writing where I was trying to write surrealistic poetry or say the first thing off the top of my head and write it down. ’39 Steps’ was that, I typed most of those lyrics on my iPhone in 25 minutes, going to bed. I refined it but 85 per cent of it was there in the first five minutes. On my first album I was writing lots of stories that mean something a bit more linear, logical lyrics. I tried to break away from that. But when I stepped back and looked at it, it also has that feeling of being isolated in society and has a dystopian fiction vibe itself.”
Are you banker-bashing on ‘Avarice/What’s Coming’ and ‘The Break In’?
“Yes and no. ‘Avarice…’ is about greed but ‘The Break In’ is a self-deprecating way of looking at greed, looking at yourself and thinking maybe you have too many possessions or you care about your possessions too much. ‘Avarice…’ is about greed and the economics of today and that would include banking and all that.”
With surrealist philosophical poetry from 78-year-old Tony Curtis dotted around songs called things like ‘Alchemical Formula’, quoting Jung and Nietzsche in a cockney accent, and songs like ‘Blood And Guts (The Anatomy Lesson)’ talking about “grand illusions” and musing on the schism between science and spirituality, is there a bit of a mystical side to you coming out?
“I was already there for a while and there’s a little bit of that on my first album. ‘Another Life’ I guess you could categorise as kind of mystical poetry. ‘Blood And Guts’ is actually inspired by a Rembrandt painting called The Anatomy Lesson Of Dr Nicolaes Tulp but I do my own take on it which has more of an existential angle.
I don’t know if I’m a mystic or anything but I tend to gravitate to some thing that some people might call that. I dabble in films and literature that you might put in that category. It’s more from a symbolic and psychological point of view rather than believing in these things in a literal way. It’s the things that magic and mysticism and poetry can represent. Back in 2005 or 2006 I started getting into the works of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, who was a mythology scholar. ‘Alchemical Formula’ is kind of a reference to Jungian psychology, which can be viewed as semi-mystic in its own way. That first speech that Tony Cutis gives is embracing the dark side of yourself. There’s a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche where he says essentially ‘don’t cast out all your demons, they might be your best part’. Joseph Campbell used that quote to describe embracing some of your darker side and using it for good, that’s the way I interpret that. Sometimes the things you think are negative just need to be re-evaluated and used in a different way. Embrace yourself as a complete whole.”
You’re working with The Killers in the studio but not playing live at the moment – are you settling into a backroom role?
“I’ve been so busy with this release and I’ve been busy in the studio with The Killers currently. I’m also doing something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, take a few university courses. The ultimate goal would be to finish my bachelor’s degree which I stopped way back when The Killers starting going on tour. That’s always been in the back of my mind. We’ve been doing this for 14 years and we’re all in a good spot where we’re all handling it like adults. I’m doing the things I wanna do and they’re doing what they want to do. Everybody’s getting along and we’re working in the studio, but I wanted to focus on other things. I guess it’s not typical. Usually there has to be a big fight or someone tries to break up the band or people start suing each other over things like this, but we’re not there, I think we’re handling it pretty well. Life is short and people should be able to do what they want to do and we’re all on the same page on that.”
Will you ever tour with them again?
“I don’t know. We’re taking it year to year now. I’m definitely not doing their shows this year but I was just in the studio with them tonight. The album’s coming along. It’s a long process. There’s a lot of ideas but I think we’re still feeling it out. We’ve been at it for a while but it still feels like early days because it can go a thousand ways. None of the songs are set in stone at the moment.”
Any plans to tour the solo album?
“I’m kinda figuring that out. If I did any shows it wouldn’t be a real tour. I’m pretty much doing this for myself for fun. It’s fun for me to play music still, I’m toying with the idea of doing a few shows but I don’t have a band and it’s not that easy to just throw one together, not one I’d be happy with anyway. We’re talking, maximum, a handful of dates.”