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Waterslide's Mark Doyon: The Daily Vault Interview

by Jason Warburg

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Waterslide’s mastermind, the musical chameleon otherwise known as Mark Doyon, has been lurking around these parts for some time now.  Little did I know when I reviewed
the 2004 debut of Mark’s previous musical incarnation, Arms Of Kismet, that it would be the beginning of a series of conversations that continues today, with the June 19 release of Waterslide’s debut album Lincoln Signal. 

In trying to come up with a shorthand for what makes Mark so special as an artist, I’m left leaning on the words of others.  When Apple encouraged us a few years ago to “Think differently,” they were talking about people like Mark – creators who don’t just think outside the box, they turn the box itself inside out and upside down and fold it into astonishing new shapes.  The “otherness” of their work can be a challenge, but when you break through… total liberation.

If all that sounds a bit metaphysical for an interview intro, well -- wait until you get to the conversation itself.  Fasten your seat belts and let your mind go.


The Daily Vault: In the past you’ve made music as Wampeters, and then Arms Of Kismet.  Why Waterslide?  And why now?

Mark Doyon: Each is a story, with a beginning, middle and end.  The first couple of stories each took a decade or so to tell.  Wampeters is a story about identity and coming of age; Arms Of Kismet is a story about fate and magical thinking.  Waterslide is a story I'm just beginning to discover. On the surface it calls to mind a sense of fun and innocence.  Underneath it evokes a flood -- a "landslide" of water.  Waterslide could be about creation or it could be about destruction.  Or it could be about both.


It’s interesting to hear you call your musical identities stories, since one of the first things I noticed in reading about, and then listening to, Lincoln Signal is that the songs feel somewhat like scenes from a novel.  When you started writing for this album, did you have this approach in mind, or were you simply writing the songs that came to you at the time?

I did have that approach in mind.  I wrote and recorded everything in order.  At the beginning, I knew the character -- who he was, what he valued, what motivated him, what his situation was.  But I didn't know where he was headed.  I didn't know how the story would end.  As I worked, everything unfolded chronologically, song after song.  I left the story open enough to interpretation to allow the listener to flesh it out in any number of ways, depending on their perspective.  Does [lead character] Dick Drake live or die?  I have my own version of this movie that plays in my mind.  And anyone else will have their version.


I was wondering about how the story ends, because it does seem ambiguous.  So, now a few questions about specific elements of the music.  The opening track “Rev The Engine For The Caledonia Kill” is a sort of surrealistic sonic collage.  At first listen I was completely thrown by it.  By the second or third time through, though, I was thinking that was your intention: to disorient the listener and prepare them to make the leap into the imagined world inhabited by your characters.  In that sense I was imagining it functioning sort of like an airlock or a time machine.  Or am I just plain disoriented?

You'll have to let me know how the story ends for you.  As for "Rev the Engine," you're spot on (and exposing my m.o.).  The song grabs you aggressively and throws you into an unfamiliar place.  Because you have no reference point for it, it feels unpredictable, even dangerous.  You meet the main character, who is having a nightmare in which he is driving a sleek old car through an abandoned, ancient city.  He stops at an intersection and waits for the traffic signal to change.  In this surreal world, do traffic laws even exist?  He isn't sure.  But he knows he needs to make a decision.  He doesn't have forever.  He is consumed by urgency.  The next song opens with him waking up, shell-shocked by the dream -- and by the recent events in his life.

waterslide_lincoln_150You know me – I’m a (semi-)happy endings kind of guy.  The next track, “Wilds Of Idaho,” features a guitar tone that I described in my review as sounding like “the gentle pinging of a music box, locked in a rhythm that echoes the ticking of a clock or the beating of a heart.”  How did you achieve that effect, and what sort of atmosphere were you shooting for with this tune?

I tweaked the EQ a little bit.  I wanted it to have a sort of otherworldly, "backwoods" vibe.  The guy is living out in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, and his life has a very slow, deliberate pace.  The circular guitar figure is like his thoughts, running around and around his head.  His wife has left, she's not coming back, his wife has left, she's not coming back... you get the picture.  He goes over it again and again, trying to make sense of it.  His ideals, via the environmentalist Aldo Leopold, give him something to grab on to.

 

It definitely has that feel; it’s very evocative and one of my favorite tracks on the album.  Chapter Three of your story is “Gone Missing,” another really unique track that I commented on in my review, a kind of twisted elegy to your lead character’s broken marriage.  Tell me more.

Well, his sense of loss manifests in a sort of grand way.  Rather than simply thinking, "I'm going through a rough patch," he adopts this sweeping view -- perceiving an epic loss that spreads to everything in his life.  In reciting the list of extinct species, he is essentially handing out a nickname to everyone who has ever let him down, to every disappointment he has ever endured.  When I finished the song, I thought it might be too strange to put on a record.  It was pushing the envelope, no doubt, maybe a little too much.  But an old friend heard it and he got it right away.  So I kept it.

Seems like it fits to me… Moving on, toward the middle of the album you seem to hit a sort of midtempo groove for a bit, until “Off Grid On Target” arrives and once again introduces a whole different musical palette.  Maybe you want to comment on that, or maybe you just want to fess up about who your favorite Texas boogie act is…?

I don’t really listen to much boogie, but maybe the formative exposures to ZZ Top bubble to the surface now and then.  The song has a Crazy Horse vibe to me, with the chugging rhythm guitar and delay.  The guy's alienation is starting to boil over, to where he's not interacting with other people and is taking too much of his own counsel.  The newspapers are piling up on the front porch.  He needs to get out more, to benefit from the presence of others.  But he's already off the grid.

Interesting -- I thought I heard ZZ Top in the rhythm section (and the big fuzz-tone), but Crazy Horse makes sense too.  So… to me, the heart of the album lies in “Fiddlesticks (Roma)” and “Spike The Tree” – the former wistful and longing, the latter wild and reckless.  Are those two essential components of Dick Drake’s personality, and journey?

Those are the poles of his personality.  He's a purist, an idealist... and what he sees as the failure of the world is a call to action for him.  He values nothing more than the act of loving and supporting another person.  Yet he bears no small contempt for the human race.  I think of this kind of character as the "empathetic misanthrope."  He cares so deeply for others that he risks becoming alienated from them.  He's Galahad, he's Don Quixote.  He expects more than he should, given the lay of the land.  Yet that is arguably what sets him apart.  As Elwood Blues put it, "we're on a mission from God."  And it’s really like that in a way.

Galahad, Don Quixote and Elwood Blues... that's some distinguished company.  So, back to the big picture.  You said something on your blog a while ago that I mentioned in my review of Lincoln Signal: “Not all concept albums are great albums. But all great albums are concept albums.”  I was thinking about that this morning and trying out a counter-argument in my head. Then I started running through the list of albums I consider great… and decided I agree with you.  Why do you think that’s true?  

Well, all definitions of "great" are subjective.  But since you asked, I'll say a great album skillfully tells a story with a point.  The story doesn't have to be a linear narrative.  It doesn't have to have a plot.  It doesn't even have to have a literal setting or proper characters.  But a great album is about something in particular, and it exists to communicate that thing to you.  It knows exactly what it's saying to you.  It knows the impact it wants to make on you.  A great album is essentially the demonstration of the intent of the people who created it.  And that begins, I think, with an idea, a concept.

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I like that definition a lot.  Well, now that we’ve had a wander out into the realm of creative philosophy, maybe it’s time to reel it back in a bit.  Which of your musical influences had the biggest impact on Lincoln Signal?

Some are obvious to me -- Wilco, Flaming Lips, Dylan, Neil Young, Captain Beefheart -- but it's a high-speed-blender mix of them that informs what I do.  I was listening to the Lips' The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots when I started, along with some of Beefheart's later work like "Ice Cream for Crow" and "Bat Chain Puller."  That stuff is so stubbornly original that it feels unassailable to me.  I like the idea of the artist as outsider, as only the outsider -- the "orbiter" -- can really see the whole ball of wax at once.  Once the artist is "inside," they see too much of the trivial business, and listen too much to the expectations of others.  They lose the perspective they had before others had a stake in them.  So those outsider artists, even the well-known ones, are the ones who resonated with me on this record -- the ones who don't seek approval or permission.


Alright, last question.  Imagine you’re in one of those rare places, that barely even exist anymore – a record store.  You’re browsing in the bins and notice that the person next to you has picked up a copy of Lincoln Signal and is peering at it, full of curiosity.  What’s your three-sentence description-slash-pitch to try to close the sale?

That's a great question.  You might have nailed me down with this one.  I might have to ask for your help in getting loose.  But OK...  I wouldn't say anything to the person.  I would just watch.  Do they seem intrigued?  Not so much?  Maybe I would pick up a copy and nod approvingly, just to try to get a rise out of them.  And we would talk a little about the album.

If you asked me the same question about a person thinking of buying a hot dog on the street, I could easily answer you -- "Better beef.  Slow-cooked.  Fresh condiments, etc."  But an album isn't quite like that.  Lincoln Signal is a road sign on a particular stretch of highway.  You drive by it in your car.  It's a little something for you to encounter on your trip.

Thanks for the conversation, Jason!

 [Many thanks to Mark Doyon for the interview. When he’s not otherwise occupied firing our imaginations with the music of Waterslide, Mark is also the creative director of Wampus Multimedia, a music label, ebook publisher, and identity and branding group.]




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