photos by Jeremy Farmer
Mahjongg, a quintet of experimental musicians from Chicago — composed of members include founding member Hunter Husar (computer, etc.), Jeff Carrillo (vocals, guitar, bass) and Josh Johannpeter (drums) and new members Michael DeGraff (computer, bass, vocals) and Daniel Quinlivin (keyboards, percussion, vocals) — resists easy definition; many have proposed “art-punk,” while others admit the sound’s “nearly indescribable.” The ensemble does provide its own explanation of Kontpab, the title of its third full-length album, released in January by K Records: According to the band’s bio, it’s “God,” the “almighty,” all of us. Further mention of “prime numbered polyrhythms” and “the septic rivers of the Magikal Forest” (not to mention “pharmaceuticals, beer, and dancing”) makes the intended tone clear: “Congratulations,” the bio reads, “just by reading this your life may well change forever.” The album itself has a similarly oblique feel, with its combination of electronic sounds and organic instrumentation, varied forms of repetition, and obscured lyrics propelled by strong, driving beats. Renown in Chicago for its raucous live performances, Mahjongg cultivates an organized chaos (described by the band as “aural chaos… tempered and perfected”), using a computer both for recording and on stage; three of its members met at University of Missouri in Columbia where each was studying physics and math. According to Paste, “Mahjongg has composed music in every time signature that is a prime number, up to 23.” Kontpab, as an album, incorporates more improvisation than its predecessors, Machinegong and RaYDONcoNG 2005, and the creativity can certainly be heard in the band’s live performance this morning on KEXP.
Interview by Jim Beckmann
Jim: So you guys are K records now, right? How did you hook up with them, because they are out of the Northwest.
Hunter: Well we met Calvin on the Internet back in the 90’s. And he played in Columbia, Missourri while I was there. We did some shows with Dub Narcotic Sound System.
Jim: How long ago was that?
Hunter: This was during 2002, but I met him the late 90’s online.
Jim: How long have you all been a band — your first EP came out in 2004?
Hunter: Since 2001 and then we had a couple of things that came out before. Unofficially, before. But yeah we formed in 2001.
Jim: Right. And you have had some line-up changes since then, right?
Jim: So you started out from University of MO, is that right?
Josh: Yeah. The three of us. [points to Jeff and Hunter]
Jim: And then you guys [Michael and Daniel] came in a little bit later?
Michael: We were formed later, this official band, when we moved to Chicago.
Jeff: We all lived together. Every configuration of the band has lived together.
Jim: Does it always work out? (laughter)
Daniel: The last one album came at so, yeah, it worked out.
Jeff: Yeah, we’re all still friends.
Jim: The information I’ve read online about you guys is a interesting. Probably what comes up the most is the frequent influence of mathematics, and I read that you supposedly have written a song with a prime number time signature for every one up to 23. Is that actually true?
M: We just got 1 & 2. A song in 2.
Jim: You started up and went down?
M: Well. Sort of.
Hunter: But after 23, it’s just compound beat anyway so it seems like there’s something about all the numbers up to 23.
Jim: Right. You guys don’t count one as a prime, right?
Michael: It’s not just us; it’s society at large.
Jim: I find it interesting that some people do. I teach math and a lot of people do count one as a prime.
M: Where do you teach?
Jim: Well they’re art students. So…
Jim: So it is true, you actually have written songs that way.
Josh: It was just an accident. It was kind of like…
Daniel: There are no accidents.
Jim: That brings up a good question: you said there are no accidents. So what role does improvisation play for you guys. Have you ever thrown something in at the last second before… or now, are you still?
Jeff: More now than ever.
Josh: A long-term goal of Mahjongg’s a long time ago was to learn how to create and improvise more quickly with the computer. Integrating people and the computer. Taking out the rigidity of it.
Jim: And by nature it seems like computers since they’re always programmed, it seems like it would be antithetical to be spontaneous.
Josh: We’ve gotten a lot better at it.
Jeff: One of the original formation foundations of the band was to mix electronic music with live music, and once we found a way we liked how it turned out it was just a like loop, and so we wanted to be able to experiment with the loop, and once that happened it was a whole new world. It changed the music a lot, because that’s what we wanted to achieve so it was limitless bounds at that point.
Hunter: Right. Especially now that computers are so fast, we can do so much improvisation with electronics.
Jim: Right. And you do mix a lot of organic instrumentation; it seems, like three drummers at once or something crazy like that.
Jeff: Yeah. Jim: So, how about your live shows? People say your live shows are pretty raucous. So how do they differ from what you do, say, during your recording process, or even in a situation like this [in-studio] — is there anything different about your live shows?
Jeff: We were born as a studio project and became a band. So it is pretty equal. We can build songs up from overdubs and there are songs on our albums that have never even been performed as a band; they were just layered in a studio. And then there are songs that are pretty much just a live recording of us playing.
Jim: So do you have different songs that you could never play live?
Jeff: Uh, we’ve tried. (Laughter) With some of them, it did work out, but it’s like us doing a cover of us.These five people doing a cover of something that was recorded.
Jim: Well I imagine that you probably would assume they are probably going to be different things anyway, right?
Hunter: Yeah, we adapt to a studio situation and a live situation both differently. (Laughter)
Jim: The last thing I wanted to ask, and I’m sure you get asked about this a lot, but you make a lot of references to spirituality… or at least sort of. (Laughter) It’s hard to tell, though, if it’s ironically, as many of you do mathematics and such. Is that a major element of your music and something you think about?
Hunter: I do.
Jeff: I would say — for myself — I think there was a long time where it wasn’t really a big part. But it was a big part of happiness and emotions but the spirituality [wasn’t there] — And I think at one point it became — I think that once this band sort of became our life then I think that made a big difference -– once it went from being like this is a band, you know, we’re working hard at it — but then once it kind of became our life I think that changed it.
Jeff: And I think that also that music is — or the ephemeral quality of music demonstrates to me that it has something to do with the very way we conceive nature in a downright quantum-mechanical sense, and just right down to the very core of our beings I think it’s a fundamental way to relate to the universe.
Hunter: It’s a lot more about channeling energy than spirituality.
Jim: Yeah I’m using that term pretty loosely.
Jeff: It’s just about being happy.
Jim: Again using the electronics and computer stuff seems a little like you’re forcing — not forcing — but bringing the two together in a way people who wouldn’t necessarily associate with each other.
Daniel: Well, some people would.
Jim: Sort of a ghost in the machine kind of thing?
Jeff: We believe that technology will eventually set us free.
Jim: Yeah? Futurists?
Jeff: I’m a futurist, yeah.
Jim: Futurists were facists at the end though, right?
Daniel: Yeah, well… how long do you want this interview to be? (Big laughter)
Jim: I think that’s it, actually.