by Eric Broome for Mean Street magazine, February 2000
Who would guess that Macha is from Athens, Georgia? Given the group's exotic brew of zithers, dulcimers, gongs, shawms and gamelan instruments, Djakarta seems a more likely hometown. Or Bangkok. Or Cairo. Phnom Penh. Katmandu. Just about anywhere Hope and Crosby visited. But...Athens, Georgia?
Somehow, a few Deep South slackers pull off the guise of passport-toting cosmopolitans. Primarily the vision of world-music junkie Joshua McKay, Macha fuses cultures and sounds so democratically, it's hard to tell whether Macha is a rock band turned ethnic or an ethnic band turned rock.
"I'd say that we're garage traditionalists," muses McKay, freshly awakened from a nap. "We definitely are a rock band. We operate more with the laws of rock 'n' roll spirit than like traveling bards or a sultan's personal court musicians. But we're playing the acoustic instruments very much for their own beauty."
McKay has been obsessed with this beauty for years, slowly accumulating an extravagant collection of rare instruments from Java, Nepal, Sumatra, Egypt, Thailand, Taiwan, Bali and beyond. Blessed with "a lucky gift of coordination and a lack of any need for traditional expertise," he spent his adolescence expanding his versatile talents beyond early skills on guitar and keyboard. His labors finally paid off three years ago, when he formed Macha with his brother Mischo.
Macha's self-titled debut couldn't have made its international influences more obvious -- a limited-edition issue even added a bonus disc of field recordings taped during a trip to Indonesia. The album was a surprise hit on college radio, and now, less than a year later, the group's second release has arrived.
See It Another Way is another set of tangy, polyrhythmic grooves, swollen with opiated moods and alien arrangements. Though Macha is often lumped with the local Elephant 6 scene (McKay has played on Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, Kincaid and Of Montreal albums), the group avoids its peers' post-Sgt. Pepper pop. Indeed, Western music is scarcely referenced on the new record, beyond the Cure-like wriggle of "Salty" and the dreamy melody of "The Nipplegong." Half instrumental, the disc peaks with one of its thornier tracks: the wordless, exhilarating "Until Your Temples are Pounding." "I think of the vocals as a subconscious guide, other than a centerpiece or focal place," says McKay.
"This album sounds more three-dimensional, and a little more raw," he explains. "There isn't as much layering of sounds -- it's more stripped-down and direct. There's kind of a physical spark happening. It also had a lot of unfinished pieces strung together, which made it more exciting in a way. It mixed and matched recordings from different periods, because it was recorded only four months after the first one and we had been touring a lot during that time."
Logistics remain a major issue for this unusual band. Not only is touring a headache (all those rare, delicate instruments to lug around), but the studio experience itself.
"We haven't been able to set up the recording circumstances we need," McKay admits. "We have so much material, but we can't afford to go to a studio and record it all. We want to get a recording system for here at home, where we can build and craft for endless hours. This is what we're doing on multi-track cassette decks now, but there's a certain sonic ceiling over cassette recordings. I want to integrate the stuff we do at home right into the finished pieces, and so far, the studio has been too much of a task to have enough time to sync everything up. We haven't been afforded that luxury yet."
If Macha ever gains the luxury of major-label support, watch out. The band's creative appetite is insatiable. Already, McKay fantasizes about recording in Western Java with authentic, local musicians. Can you imagine the havoc if Macha had a state-of-the-art studio at its disposal, and an unlimited supply of session players?
"It's just record-making fever," McKay says. "We've got songs and we have somebody who wants to put out our music, so we want to put it out. When you write songs, you're always at least a year behind yourself. You evolve past the songs you've written, but they haven't been recorded yet in their final incarnations. So I'm really anxious to get as much material as possible realized and finished, because we're changing all the time."
back to Scribblings