Interview: Twelve Foot Ninja
Fri, 20 Feb 2015 10:51:03
"I'm just cruising around, walking and talking. I don't have my pass on me so I didn't have any idea where we are,” chuckles Steve “Stevic” MacKay, lead guitarist of Twelve Foot Ninja. “There don't seem to be any clues. All I can see is Walmart and Sam's Club. I have no idea. We're in America. I can see this gigantic American flag. I'm pretty sure I know what country we're in!”
Regardless of the country, Twelve Foot Ninja stand out as one of the most inventive, innovative, and infectious hard rock acts of the past decade. The group’s unpredictability fuels the fascinating Silent Machine, which immediately takes hold from the first note and barely lets go on the last. Somewhere between Mr. Bungle’s mosaic of musical madness and Periphery’s deft polyrhythmic assault, Twelve Foot Ninja rule supreme.
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, “Stevic” of Twelve Foot Ninja talks Silent Machine and so much more.
Did you approach Silent Machine with a defined vision or vibe in mind?
It's like we start with this huge jigsaw puzzle, and then we have to put it together. There wasn't a massive overarching plan. That's what came out. When we set out to write the album, we wrote thirteen songs, and twelve of them were on Silent Machine. We didn't really like the production of one of the songs we recorded. The song was there. I produced this Brian Wilson vibe that wasn't really fitting in. It just sort of happened that way.
How difficult is it to strike a balance between all of these disparate elements and genres?
It's quite difficult to be honest. It takes a long time. Everything takes a long time when you have that approach. It's a tad bit cheesy, but there's a saying that Michelangelo chipped away until David appeared. Not for a minute comparing what we're doing to Michelangelo, but I like that idea that you start with a big block of stone and you hammer away until you beat it into shape. We start wide and then narrow in. We do a lot of scrutinizing. We constantly ask ourselves, "Is this shit?" and, "Do we like what we're doing?" That's until we get to a point where we're pretty happy. Around that time, we've heard everything so much that we're complete unsure of what we're doing. It's like trying to look at a piece of artwork with your face press up against it. There's a point where you realize what you're doing is a little bit insane and you have to hope it's good. That only really happens when you're finished. It is a weird process. It's definitely not a normal "Write a song and record it" scenario. It's constantly messing with things until you get this mutant at the end.
What's the story behind "Kingdom?"
That was an interesting one. "Kin" actually sequenced the whole thing on his iPhone. He had all of the heavy parts down, and he wrote the lyrics. He had the harmonies and all of that. He gave it to me to work on. I translated what he'd done on his iPhone with real guitars and added a layer on top of this sort of Al Dimeola kind of harmonic minor-sounding guitar part. It added a different flavor to what was already there. That one is sort of the combination between "Kin" and myself. Some of his original sounds from his iPhone are in that song. You can hear the eighties-sounding synth part from his iPhone. I actually used this iPhone media adapter that turns your phone into a media module. I was using his programming via Pro Tools to trigger his sequence in high resolution. It came out pretty cool. It's almost got this Middle Eastern country metal sort of thing that's been happening. The collaboration often ends up different so it's not something you would've come up with otherwise.
Where did "Luna" come from?
I started hearing some Cajun music. The genre's called zydeco. You mix two interesting flavors, and you get something different. I was messing around with the bass line and these jazzier chords. "Kin" had this song he'd already written a melody and lyrics too. He started singing it, and it happened. We reverse engineered a more arpeggiated guitar part from the zydeco style. It ended up sounding a bit Incubus-y at the start. It all extracted from that Cajun idea. That's the best explanation I can give for how that one came out!
Is it important for you to conjure visuals with the songs?
Definitely! "Kin" is a great lyricist. He's drawing inspiration from the Twelve Foot Ninja story, which is really an allegory for a lot of things that have happened, experiences he's had, and things he can relate to back to this fable that we've written. Musically, what inspires me and the other guys as well is hard to explain with words. Frank Zappa said, "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture." [Laughs] There's definitely a point where we're entertained by it, and it does connect to a very visual element much like a movie where you can be moved by the soundtrack as much as anything. I teach guitar. Whenever I look at the 12 notes in Western music, if you're looking at a particular key, each note's relationship to the next note has a recurring quality. There's a relationship that conjures a certain feeling. If a composer for a film makes people want to feel a certain way, they know what tool they need to use in order to achieve that. It's the same.
What artists shaped you?
For me, there was an Australian guitarist named Tommy Emmanuel who now lives in the U.S. He's all around America, and he's really kicking ass. I grew up listening to him. He's predominantly an acoustic player. From there, I got into some modern classical composers like Heitor Villa-Lobos from Brazil. He had this bossanova-samba crossover into classical with some of his compositions.Then, it was Mr. Bungle but they were the first band I ever heard that fused together different ideas. From Bungle, I got into the origin of that genre-mashing going back to King Crimson, Yes, and these guys who were always pushing the envelope musically with little to no regard for the musicological roots of what they were doing [Laughs]. Then, there's definitely Meshuggah for modern metal with their syncopated rhythm ideas. I love Pantera. It's everything!
Have you heard Twelve Foot Ninja?