Jerry Lucky: You guys first got together in Saskatoon, my home town, what was the music scene like at the time? And what made you choose your musical direction?
Jesse Warkentin: The band's first show was in December of '98. Graham and I were both 19. Our musical tastes were already quite varied. We had just heard "Bitches Brew" for the first time, and had been in love with artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Smashing Pumpkins, Pink Floyd, Sloan, The Who, Jethro Tull and various punk bands for a long time. The local scene at the time was colourful and creative. We organized countless DIY-style events that were generally based on a sensory overload. We teamed up with freeform groups, drone groups, Francophone-quirk groups, experimental DJs and performance artists... it was a trippy time based on exploration and friendships. A few of the bands in these days were Watercolour Movement, Sian Askesis Ensemble, The Albatross Project, Letu Tetu, Lady Gates, Lorca, Crown Nectar and the Junior Pathers.
JL: Was there an opportunity to play live in your early days? Or was your sound more crafted in the studio or rehearsal hall?
JW: None of these groups were recording much at this time. We were all broke. Everyone played a lot of shows. We played at the local pubs and clubs and theatres, sometimes renting out gymnasiums and community centers and bandshells. People were constantly bootlegging our performances, which were becoming more and more bombastic (especially after we included JP Perron on the drums). It was always exciting to hear these recordings. It wasn't until 2001 that we finally got into our friend's garage-studio in a small town called Hague, SK. We recorded our first 2 records there, live off the floor with a few overdubs afterwards.
JL: Was the original intention to be a performing band rather a studio project?
JW: I really don't think we had any intentions, other than being powerful rock'n'roll stars. We were making the music that came naturally to us, rehearsing multiple times a week, or every day. We started to consider doing a recording after we had developed a body of work that we were performing at shows regularly, mainly as a means of documenting the project. I don't think we ever expected for our records to sell. We certainly didn't view making records in an entrepreneurial way. We just wanted to share our strange music. I think we mostly gave the CDs away.
JL: Tell us about how the rest of the band came together and the move to Winnipeg. What brought that about?
JW: We had already gone through a few lineup changes by the time we decided to relocate. Saskatoon was feeling pretty small and insular, and I think we had played the local bars enough and had ants in our pants. I'm originally from Winnipeg, and in autumn 2002 my folks split to Prague, CZ for an undetermined length of time, leaving a large, old, beautiful house open for us. It seemed like a good opportunity to explore a larger centre. We wanted to network, and to tour.
JL: Would you consider yourselves to be a Progressive Rock band? Is that a label that you’re comfortable with?
JW: We are a Progressive Rock band when speaking to Prog Rockers. It is an extremely supportive community. We really know very little about the scene, and have been frequently startled by how enthusiastic, idealist and nearly militant some people are. It's like a strange global religion. We are on a label called MoonJune Records, managed by the omnipresent Leonardo Pavkovic in NYC. Although he sites himself as being "progressive music", he likes to place a special emphasis on "experimental avante-garde" and "jazz rock" when describing his label. Regardless of what he is and what we are, our association with MoonJune has blessed us with much-welcomed exposure within the global Progressive Rock community, for which we are extremely grateful. That said, I think the last time we actually attempted to write prog rock was in 2002, when we were composing the material which became our second record "The Living Sounds".
JL: Thinking back, was there an “ah-ha” moment where you heard some music that really changed your life and influenced you?
JW: These moments have happened many times, and will continue to happen. Mahogany Frog is constantly growing and progressing, and our influences are constantly changing. Seeing Smashing Pumpkins on their "Mellon Collie" tour in '97 was one moment. Seeing Caribou on their "Swim" tour was another moment. Listening to Beethoven's "Allegrtto" from his 7th symphony while I was falling asleep on marijuana a few nights ago was DEFINITELY a moment, and riding the Montreal metro listening to David Axelrod's "Song of Innocence" kinda changed my life last night. Oh, and when ELP shoots that cannon at the Isle Of White in 1970.
JL: I’m assuming you do play live, what’s the status of Mahogany Frog on the road? Is the band a full-time gig?
JW: We tour a couple times a year. We spent 3 or 4 years doing long grueling tours throughout Canada, trying to play every bar that we had ever heard of. Now we try to focus our tours on more lucrative gigs, like Pop Montreal or Prog Day in Chapel Hill, NC. The only way we could make this band a full-time gig is by touring constantly, which we are unwilling to do for various reasons. But we love touring, and have so much fun on the road.
JL: Your new disc, Senna…it’s your sixth release…what’s the reaction been so far?
JW: People mostly think it's the best, except for my ex-girlfriend's father's girlfriend, but she'd rather be listening to Bruce Springsteen anyhow. Some of the reviews rolling in make strange references to bands that I've never heard of. Most of the reviews are in different languages, but I like the way that the words look. I think it's caused a bit of a stir... kinda like when the Beatles released "Sergeant Pepper's".
JL: Did you approach the recording of Senna, any differently than your previous releases? In the regard perhaps you might explain how a typical mahogany Frog tune comes together? (If there is such a thing as typical)
JW: SENNA is our most involved project to date. We recorded it in a wonderful studio with a talented engineer, and had completed an immense amount of pre-production beforehand. The main guitar and keyboard parts were pre-recorded in our drummer's basement or in the studio at Video Pool (where he is employed), so when we entered the Private Ear Recording studio we could track bass and drums simultaneously to create a live feel with the rhythm section. Certain sections were recorded live and some were layered. It was the first time we had successfully melded multi-tracking and live-off-the-floor techniques in this way, and we feel that the results are successful. I think that the music on SENNA is more developed than on previous efforts: we were trying new techniques with sequencers, programming or pre-recording backtracks and sometimes leaning towards hip-hop/Motown-style drums. I don't believe that there was a conscious effort to make music that is smoother or more palatable... we've been slowly finding our sound over the past decade and are becoming more adapt to executing what we're hearing in our heads. A lot of our creative focus was geared towards creating the right sounds: we wanted the record to be dirty and explosive, lush and beautiful.
A Mahogany Frog song comes together in a very specific and magical way, but unfortunately I am unable to disclose the details of our methods. It's kinda like the Caramilk Secret, or the recipe to my grandmother's mustard.
JL: Your music is all instrumental, which in itself isn’t always easy to market, what was the intention here? Couldn’t find the right singer or love to let the instruments sing?
JW: I think we often forget that we play instrumental music, as it's never been a conscious decision. We had some singing in the olden days, and we write (and stockpile) music intended for a vocalist. Our bass player Scott is actually the last living Castrato, and it's odd that we don't take full advantage of this abnormality. I guess we've never felt as though vocals are necessary. We're love melody and tone. We love expressing mood and emotions. We love riffs and feedback. We like to paint a picture with sound.
JL: What’s the biggest kick you get out of music these days and on the same path, what’s the biggest downer?
JW: I think the biggest kick is playing a successful live concert. Our SENNA release concert in Winnipeg, MB in late September was certainly one of the high points of our career, and of my entire life. Sometimes our show can be hypnotic and transcending. It becomes less about the notes and instruments and more about the waves of volume, the energy and the community. At this point we're not musicians, but astronauts or some shit.
The biggest downer in the band is when we second guess ourselves, become self-concious and doubt ourselves, and wonder why we've been doing what we've been doing when we could've started a Genesis tribute band years ago and not work in rub & tugs for the rest of our lives. But then we play a show and we are immediately absolved of these doubts and fears. The human condition is a curious beast.
JL: I was going to ask what’s next on your agenda, but I suppose it’s promoting the new disc?
JW: We are organizing a UK tour, and South America tour, playing some local shows and writing a whack of new material.
JL: All the best and thanks for chatting.