By Jared Stossel
Mae are a band that, behind the scenes, are rather soft-spoken. We’re minutes away from an interview with all three of them in the back of a small green room located in The Independent, a neat little venue tucked into a block of Divisadero Street in San Francisco. Their crew members hang back before the interview, as the band are in the middle of their VIP meet and greet session with fans out in the main room. Their crew and background musicians (Mae tour with a bassist and keyboardist to round out their live sound) are engaging in conversation, eating food from a local mediterranean hole-in-the-wall called Souvia. We talk about touring and how much they love the food, compared to other places they’ve eaten on the road.
The three gentlemen that comprise Mae enter the green room just a few minutes later. They’re dressed casually in hoodies, t-shirts, and jeans, the same outfits they’ll be wearing when they take the stage just a couple of hours later. Vocalist/guitarist Dave Elkins, guitarist Zach Gehring, and drummer Jacob Marshall speak with ease, yet tinges of excitement in their voices show what has drawn them back out on the road. Mae’s beginnings can be traced back to as early as 2001, when Elkins and Marshall started writing songs together, leading to the recruitment of Gehring and the creation of two seminal records in their catalogue: 2003’s Destination: Beautiful and 2005’s The Everglow. The band would break up in 2010 for several years after the release of 2007’s Singularity, their major label debut on Capitol Records. Some time away from the band started to put things into perspective, and slowly but surely, Mae started to become drawn back together, approaching some of their earliest ambitions and re-evaluating the reasoning behind what they wanted their band to become: a multisensory aesthetic experience.
When the opportunity arose for them to perform at a Forbes’ “Under 30” event in Israel, they took the first major steps toward making that dream a reality. After years of work, studying, and perfecting their vision, Mae became the first band ever to perform a concert with a synced virtual reality experience, let alone in the Tower of David, whose origins date back to 34 BCE. The members light up when reflecting back on the experience; this is where their hearts are at, and it’s clear after just a few minutes in conversation with them. Our full interview with the gentlemen of Mae can be found below, and it lays out everything, from their experiences of putting together their self-titled Multisensory Aesthetic Experience self-titled album last year (via Tooth & Nail Records), to presenting their virtual reality experience at shows on their current tour and what their dreams for the future are in regards to making this a fully encompassing movement. With the way they talk, this could very well be something that changes the way we consume live music in the future.
Note: Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity.
The newest record, Multisensory Aesthetic Experience, shows you guys doing something that I’m seeing a lot of bands starting to do, which is throw the idea of genre out the window, and really letting go of the perception that everything has to “sound exactly like the last record”. What was the catalyst for you as songwriters that made you start to question the way you approached how you would write songs moving forward?
Dave Elkins (vocalist/guitarist): I think over the years, there are little glimpses of that in previous Mae albums. We’ve got some songs from the early 2000s that have kind of an indie rock, alternative feel. We started to experiment with electronic sounds, and we started to learn from other genres and other records that were made. Using the studio as an instrument itself kind of allows you to start at a place where you’re not necessarily thinking about genre, or thinking about “chorus one”, or what the previous albums sounded like. [You’re] really using the creative space to go in any direction that is inviting.
We had a lot of time that we got to spend making this record, because there was no pressure of particular deadline. When you put the band down for awhile, and then you pick it back up, you do it at your own pace. For us, that pace included a lot of creative time. Mae has been a band where our album title is also our true band name, Multisensory Aesthetic Experience. It’s a self titled record for us. When you throw a mission statement in a band name like Multisensory Aesthetic Experience out there, then you’re gonna hopefully take some risks. You’re gonna spend a little bit more time in the creative process, and that’s what making this record was for us. We’re not really trying to avoid genre or stick to a genre or two; I think we had just collected the ideas to put an album together, and this is how it came out.
I do remember feeling like the album could be disjointed if we didn’t kind of establish a thread to go across the entire thing. I think the thread we established was just “multisensory aesthetic experience.” I think at this point, we do get turned on by all different types of genres and “anti-genres” and stuff like that, too. That kind of shows itself in this record, because we love music and it doesn’t have to be one specific genre anyway. To be our best Mae, it doesn’t really need to be genre specific at the end of the day.
Zach Gehring (guitarist): In relation to the question, in coming back and creatively approaching these ideas, we haven’t really been around each other individually for a long time, because we live in different parts of the country. If we don’t make a record or play shows, we’re not with each other. We’re out exploring our own ideas, on our own time, for years or months at a time. Then we’ll come back together. When we came back to write this record, or build ideas for this record, we were coming from three different places, so Mae’s cohesive identity is one of in-cohesiveness. We kind of had a blank slate at the start simply because we were coming from very different areas creatively, when we come back together. We have to reorient ourselves to one another, and I think that kind of resets Mae.
I read that you mentioned the theme of the album is “keep moving forward”. Is there any particular track that you feel embodies this idea of “keep moving forward” more than others on the album?
Jacob Marshall (drummer): For me, it starts with the song “Sing”. I think that’s really the beginning of the story. I know that “Kaleidoscope” is the first track when you see the record online. It’s actually the last track on the album when you get it on the disc or the vinyl. Part of that is because there’s a freedom in how we get to release music now that didn’t really exist when we were first starting out as a band. I would say, conceptually, at the heart of this story, is the idea that the journey is cyclical, or almost like a spiral more than it is linear. The idea that the very first song could also be the last song is kind of symbolic of that in a way. There’s a lyric in that song that Dave sings: “Open up until you know there’s more than either/or.” That idea of recognizing the limitations of the previous system, breaking out of that, expanding beyond that, is how I think we’ve each had to deal with limitations in our own lives. It’s not really either/or, it’s like, how do we actually redefine the paradigm entirely? How do we break out of this rut where you feel like you you’re in the same thing over and over again, and it’s not getting better? It’s not really getting worse, but you know that there’s more to your life than what’s happening. To move forward means to transcend, and to include all of the things that made you who you are, and recognize that as part of your journey, that you’re moving into a new direction. Personally, it was about all sorts of things, just from old ways of thinking, old ways of being, and asking really fundamental questions about what’s possible instead.
To set this scene: it’s been nearly ten years since you’d put out any new music. You’d gone on an indefinite hiatus around 2010. When you finally do starting bringing everyone back together, how do you approach going into the studio and writing these songs? Did it feel natural or was it something that took a bit more effort to get back into the groove of?
Zach: A bit of both, I would say. It always feels natural in the way that if you put us in a room together, we’re going to [make music]. Even if the idea is not to make music, if you put us in a room together, then it’s going to go in that direction. Eventually, we will be somewhere near instruments.
Someone’s going to pick up the guitar at some point.
Zach: Exactly. We’ll start communicating.
Jacob: We speak music to each other. (laughs)
Zach: I’m sure the other guys will have their own take on this, but when it comes to actually becoming intentionally creative with an idea or an ambition to do something or write something… for me, personally, there’s this kind of reorientation that it can be uncomfortable at times. It can be affirming at times. It’s always a learning process, so whatever comes with learning is a push and pull between insecurities, excitement and inspiration, and then [doing it] all over again. I think that with Mae’s creative process, it’s both resting or depending on our faith in one another to pull each other out of certain places we don’t want to be, getting each other and moving forward, versus making it difficult for yourselves.
Dave has Schematic Studios now. I remember waking up in the studio at like 11:30, 12 AM, and they were just milling over some bar and some measure.
Dave: Because you dozed off for a minute. (laughs)
Zach: (laughs) But you know they’ll be milling over something, and the possibilities that I think were specific to this album made this process very meticulous, very deliberate, and very patient.
Jacob: I have to brag on Dave, too. He was not only creating and performing, but also producing. To kind of wear both of those hats, to be both a producer and the artist is a lot to balance and juggle. He just did such a great job with it. He was able to create a space of comfort when it needed to be comfortable, but also push things along when we got stuck. It was a really delicate balance to strike, and I think he did an amazing job with that.
Zach: The benefit of a producer, in most cases, if it’s someone else, is objective ears. It keeps the band on the path of not going off onto the inner roads too much. To have to play both roles of wanting to be creatively ambitious as the artist versus “let’s think realistically here: what’s the endgame?” as a producer. It’s a very difficult task to do responsibly.
Dave: It was a lot of intention, but also being unaware at times of what the intention is, and having to sit and wait and figure that out. Sometimes, that’s straight up lyrical. Like, what story are we telling? Sometimes, it’s just sonics and things in the final mix that a lot of people don’t really to get pick up on. The layering [was]…to say ambitious is because we knew what our ambitions were. We wanted to push boundaries of ourselves, we wanted to marry organic and synthetic sounds. We wanted to write our best story songs, and we wanted to tell our story in a way that was immediately known to us that once these songs are out there, they’re everyones’. [We thought], “how do we write something that can self-express where we are, and know that the second we let it go, we’re inviting people to make it their own. Through that process, you end up learning a whole lot about yourself and your songs after their out. Because people will come up to you and say “oh, this song means this to me.” And you’re like “Oh, I never thought of it that way, because I was stuck in my own journey, and I took it to mean this!” I think that as I get older within Mae, those are things that I understand just a little bit of, where I want to find out how we can all be included, if that makes sense. The members of Mae, and the audience members of Mae. How can we be in this together? I think that this album, with [the idea of] moving forward, is an invitation for all of us, and I believe we suceeded in that endeavor for sure.
You were on Tooth & Nail Records for your first two albums before heading to Capitol for Singularity, but you’ve now since returned to Tooth & Nail for Multisensory Aesthetic Experience. How was that relationship reignited, and who approached who in regards to teaming up again?
Dave: I had produced a band, and I had reached out Tooth & Nail directly. I said, “you guys should check this band out.” They said, “no thanks.”
Dave: I had produced this EP and was really proud of it. The songs were good, the band was good. But it’s more of a thing where like labels aren’t really taking risks on young, up and coming bands until they’ve kind of proven what they’re capable of beyond a couple of songs recorded. So I sent these songs to our friend Jim, whose the CFO of Tooth & Nail.
Simultaneously, on our Facebook at the time, we wrote something on our bio that said “looking for management” or something. Free agents, I think is what we called ourselves. So Jim goes, “thanks for the music, it’s cool, but we’re not really looking to sign any young bands right now. But, I see that you’re in the studio a lot these days. So what’s the plan there?”
I was like, “well, we don’t know what the plan is just yet, but we’re finding opportunities to be creative around each other, for the first time in a long time.” Tooth & Nail has always been supportive and has given us free reign of our own creativity. There aren’t requests to write catchy songs, or do this or that on behalf of the common goal of the band and the label. They’re just like, “make the album that you want to make, and we believe that we can do our part to spread the word. We think we’ve been really good together in the past.” That was really all it was. Of course, we had to go through the negotiation process of signing a contract that everybody wanted to sign, but even down to our virtual reality endeavors that we were making to be a part of this album, Tooth & Nail were just like, “yeah, if you guys have a vision, then we’re gonna support it.”
The label had changed as far as the staff members, from when Mae was putting out Destination: Beautiful and The Everglow, back in 2003-2005. They allowed us to put out Morning, Afternoon and Evening, our EPs after our Singularity record on Capitol, with the same sort of [method of], “do what you want, and then we’ll put it out for you.” I say that not because it’s something to brag about, but I think it’s very rare for bands to be able to create what they want to create, and that a label is just going to support it. I think that humbly, we’ve put in a whole lot of hard work over the years to kind of have license to have a label that will let us just do what we want to do, and Tooth & Nail has been that label. So when they approached us and said, “hey, we see you’re kind of working towards something new, and we’d like to be part of it,” it was really just waiting until the time was right when the songs were ready. We knew what our goals were, and we were going to sign with Tooth & Nail, so that was an obvious [choice] for us.
I noticed in the notes I received that you guys are hosting “VIP Mae Days” at shows, with a VR one-on-one experience offered for fans. Can you tell me a little more about that? I’m intrigued.
Dave: Yeah! So that’s one of the reasons why we’re as active as we are again. A few years ago, Forbes had an event in Israel called “Under 30”. They’re collecting all of these individuals who are super influential in all aspects of life, from tech, medicine, education, art, music, athletics, etc. They put them together in a two-day summit in Tel Aviv, then a two-day summit in Jerusalem. At the end of the four days, there’s this big party at the Tower of David. We were invited to be the first band to perform a synced virtual reality experience. There’s like 600-plus people at the Tower of David, and we’ve written this musical piece that has virtual reality to accompany this musical experience. People are taking their phones, they’re walking into the Tower of David, they’re handed this cardboard VRV Finder, and they’re putting their phone inside it. They’re experiencing these visuals in a 360 VR way, and we’re performing simultaneously.
We became the first band ever to perform this synced virtual reality experience concert. That was just the beginning. I’ll let Jacob take over from here, because this is something that Jason has been working on for a long time.
Jacob: So I just got this video that I haven’t seen yet, but this is from that performance.
(Jacob leans over to show me the performance on his iPhone screen, capturing the moment when 600+ people are watching them at the Tower of David, synced with a virtual reality component as they play on)
Jacob: This is the oldest venue on Earth; it’s 3,000 years old. They had a projection mapping of the history of the city of Jersualem take place on the inside of the entire tower. We basically got to put all of those people into VR together. After that, they came out of the VR, and that was what greeted them. So they’re basically watching light and images fill the area.
Jacob: It was so, so special. And it was massive. We’re gonna do that tonight! We’re gonna let people have this experience, or a version of it, because not everybody is going to have the [VR] boxes. But we’re selling a virtual reality version of the album. We’ve got custom immersive light paintings that come with every song, so imagine being inside of a visualizer that’s moving around, rushing over you. We’re working with neuroscientists to develop a haptics system that actually lets those particles and sounds, as they rush over you, activate vibrations, so that you’re feeling the music and quite literally seeing it. Think of it as a chord that spans beyond sound and into the languages of our other senses. That’s really what “multisensory aesthetic experience” is meant to be. It’s like a synchronization that plays out like a musicality for the body.
This is amazing. When did the idea for this first start coming about?
Jacob: Personally, when I was 17. (laughs) It’s really kind of a life’s work. It really is. In the beginning, we were having these conversation in an iHop at like 2 in the morning, dreaming on the back of a napkin what it might look like one day. This is way before any of these technologies were even close to [coming about]. We weren’t even thinking about the technology aspect, we were thinking more of the experience aspect of it. In the last five years, so many advances have happened technologically and enabled this kind of experience to now happen. Within VR specifically, it almost feels like there’s a solution in search of a problem. People aren’t quite sure what to do with it, but the moment that I saw it, I thought, “oh my god. This is the canvas we’ve been waiting for.” To really place someone inside of the music in that way has always been the goal. We just didn’t know how to do it.
The artwork for the album is mind-blowing. What does it represent in terms of the album as a whole, if it does indeed tie into the overall sound and theme of the album?
Zach: The artist that created the image for the cover is named Melissa McCraken. She has synesthesia. She listened to the record, and that’s what she saw. It wasn’t an interpretation of what she thinks she would see; it’s literally what she saw.
Jacob: Synesthesia is a condition where you senses get blended, in a way. A certain, small percentage of the population has this situation where when one of your senses gets activated, like sound…normally, we’d have a pretty clear separation between our sense. But for people with synesthesia, it’s blurrier. For her, she’ll hear music, but it’ll also activate her visual cortex. She’ll have responses in the visual dimestion of the brain from just a sound. She’s hearing music, she’s seeing it manifest. That’s another one of the things that’s kind of a “north star” for us, creatively, is that something like that exists and we study it and we can understand it. But this is the first time that we actually got to create with it. She’s a successful artist, and she’s young, maybe 26? She’s very well regarded around the world. We spent about a year with her in this process, sharing everything from the original demos and lyrics and ideas that were informing the record. The final record is what went with [the artwork].
As we slowly released the record, we actually released sections of the record [artwork] that corresponded to the different songs. We put out “5 Light Years”, and you see this close-up that’s super detailed. And then another song would come out, in the same vein, but it’s a totally different part of the painting. And when the album covered was revealed, people could see that was the entire record.
What do you hope that audiences take away from listening to Multisensory Aesthetic Experience?
Zach: I think there’s a lot of depth to the record. When I think of myself when I listen to music, I think just being able to with each listen go deeper and deeper and recognize things that you didn’t recognize before, hear things you didn’t hear before. I’m still hearing things in songs on the record that pop out to me that make me feel in ways that I didn’t know were there before. For me, it’s about sonic depth, in relation to the larger M.O. If I’m responding as a music listener, I want this to be an explosion that goes with a slow burn. You have this excitement and the songs grab you right off the top, but the more you listen, it just becomes this slow burning thing.
Dave: Inclusivity. I think that for all of the goals that we had in the studio sonicaly, one of my favorite things about the record is what the lyrics are saying across the whole thing. “Open up until you know there’s more than either/or.” The lyric “where do we go from here? There is no love in fear. So where do we go?” There’s a lot of spiritual tackling of issues. Kind of wresting with the concept of God. Our human duty to love each other and to include each other is something that I think a lot of people in our country are waking up to, but a lot of people are also still deaf to. I think whatever spiritual practices, whatever religions that people can subscribe to, I think what we’re trying to figure out is how to be spiritual beings that want to sing and talk about spiritual things without being pidgeon-holed, without being subscribed to one particular faith or practice or religion. Sometimes, life is just super hard and you have to go through the trenches and the struggle in order to figure out what it all meant. And sometimes, you don’t figure out what it all means, and you just know that the journey that you’re on is helping you, hopefully, love people better and love yourself better, and with the realities of life in a way that brings hope through struggle. I think that just begins with the invitation of inclusivity. I learned a whole lot in those places over the last few years, and I wanted to make sure that I was able to express that lyrically in the Mae record.
Jacob: I loved that, that’s beautiful. I would say connection, in a very adjacent, complimentary way. I would say connection certainly between our senses, the idea of resident that you feel and can articulate. If you think about the way sound and music work, you have a melody that moves horizontally through time, it can go up and down. You can stack on top of that a harmony. If they’re separated, and there’s just two melody lines, there’s something that happens when you put them together that just gives you goosebumps. When it hits you, you’re like “whoa!” In combination, it’s really more than the sum of its parts. There’s something about that connection, the way that it hits that unlocks something. I think that we as people find creative chemistry. There’s something spiritual in that where you just know it, and I think that’s what we need to be a bit lucky enough or fortunate enough to find in each other, this ability to vibrate together in a room that makes us feel the way we want to feel, and the way that we hope other people can conjoin us in. The way that things are connected, I think, is the most powerful thing. If you walk into anything, from the way you approach your day, to the way that you treat people that don’t hold any significance to you, the way that you could actually be present in that moment, and allow yourself connect on a slightly deeper level. I feel like that’s the first step in opening a heart or mind to inclusivity. It’s like recognizing that we actually are all connected, whether we want to be or not. That our fates are shared, and that the lines that are on the map aren’t carved into the Earth. There are things that we’ve created. Above and below a culture, a faith, a skin color, or any of that is humanity. If we can actually get to a point where we see humanity in each other, and even in the people that we don’t necessarily, initially, recognize as our ally or friend, we can find that place of humanity, and everything else is just made up.