Article by: Colton Eddy
Across the Canadian board of music, Murray A. Lightburn is best known for his craftsmanship with the acclaimed collective from Montreal, The Dears. Through various incarnations, the heart of the band has always been the chemistry between Lightburn and his wife, Natalia Yanchak.
With his first solo effort, an electro-pop opera of loneliness that carves deeper with each groove, we find Lightburn “on the corner of the impossible and the dark.” It’s where he asked us to wait years ago, as he emerged onto the scene with The Dears' End of a Hollywood Bedtime Story.
Now, brewed in an age of digital suffocation, MASS:LIGHT is an urgent message from a man seemingly born-again with a passion for his art with an intimate, electronic exploration. Even the distribution is personal, with the album exclusively released on digital and limited edition vinyl for which he has silk-screened 300 sleeves, each numbered and initialed – some of which include pre-worn, pre-shrunk classic black polo’s off his back. Those efforts alone speak volumes to what this man has invested in this album.
On a late summer morning, Lightburn spoke with Sticky while running errands with his wife and children. In our conversation, he peeled back the layers of his latest record and explored the reinvention of a man though fatherhood.
Sticky: How long have these songs for MASS:LIGHT existed?
Murray: I started working on it a couple of years ago and I kind of knew from the beginning that it wasn’t going to be presented to The Dears boardroom. I actually didn’t really know what I was doing in terms of what kind of project it was or whether or not I was even going to release it for a really long time. I only made the decision to put it out maybe a couple of months ago. Basically after I started making the moves to press the vinyl and, even then, my original plan was to only press fifty copies and give them away to my friends and family and some of my peers and a couple of my rock journalist friends.
Sticky: How did the transition happen between being a secretive project to wanting to share this with everyone?
Murray: My motivations for making art and I kind of needed to find that sort of innocence again, you know? It’s weird man, after you put out your first album and you’re in the system and you’re a part of the machine. Which is another reason why I didn’t shop the record around to anyone. I didn’t look for a record deal. I still don’t want a record deal. I basically made a record label of my own to put this album out because I wanted to hold onto the innocence as long as possible. I’m talking to you and I did hire a publicist, only because one of my journalist friends said that I have to. That “we won’t talk to you unless you have one.” [laughs] I don’t have a booking agent. I don’t have a manager. This is coming out of my own label, completely DIY. It’s kind of like, I have the opportunity if I could do it all over again knowing what I know now – that’s basically what I’m doing. I’m on the ground floor and it is terrifying, it’s awesome and there’s a lot at stake. I mean, I’ve basically sunk every last penny into this project. I haven’t got a single grant. Although I did JUST get my first grant and that is only because of how much work that I have put into the project already. I made the first video ["Motherfuckers"] on my own dime and on 16mm film, which was exciting. But yeah, I’ve kind of brought this thing to market without any help, you know? At all. None. Like the video has gotten maybe almost three thousand hits on YouTube. There’s no media partners, no sharing, nobody being told that this is cool or not. We have sold a bunch of records already on the pre-sale and all of these people are just diving in, a huge leap of faith cause they are not being told to buy it other than "Hey, I just made this thing. Hey, here’s the first track as a little taste. If you’re interested, pick this up on this format". This archaic format. To some people it is archaic, you know? Some people don’t have turntables.
Sticky: How much does people caring and reviews of your work matter to you?
Murray: Well, it is always going to matter to a degree, I think. What drives me crazy is when people do it in a half-assed way. At least, if they could cite, if they could sort of be smart enough to recognize what it actually is. It is one thing to say it is no good or that this has no merit at all. It is another thing to say, "I don’t like it." It’s two different things and I think a lot of the problem with the idea of criticism is that the idea is based on the "I don’t like it" because "I don’t like this guy’s face" or "I like something" because "I like this guy’s face". Or when it is so arbitrary and random and it is never really based on a depth of knowledge in music. I’m talking about knowing what harmony is or the level of work that goes into making a record. I think some people completely don’t give a shit what goes into making a record. Nevermind making a record with a band, but imagine a record by yourself. Every single sound that you hear on it is made by one person. It was such a big undertaking to do that and it's funny that all of that work will be reduced to, in a lot of cases, one paragraph. Which is fine! It is up to the listener and the audience to soak it in, right? But it’s just so much weird. There seems to be a lot of responsibility there and it is kind of silly. A lot is riding on that, to see what these so-called authorities have to say because they have piles of CDs on their desk, but a lot of them are not qualified.
Sticky: Anybody can have a blog now.
Murray: Anybody could have a blog and anybody can critique music, apparently. Based on knowing pop culture. A lot of the younger ones, their knowledge only goes back five or six years. Maybe ten years. Maybe. Anyway, I don’t really care. At the end of the day, it is kind of like I have to keep moving on. I don’t let myself bask in praise and I try not to wallow in negativity as well. At the end of the day, I’m a lifelong artist. That is what I do. It’s like I am pursuing art and expressing things in a way that I hope is good for the population, you know? [laughs]
Sticky: Do you feel like you could write your masterpiece, something that is completely creatively fulfilling, and bury it somewhere for nobody to hear and still be fulfilled?
Murray: That’s a good question, because I have been working on photography for the last few years, again. I was doing it in my early twenties. Me and my pals would bring our cameras everywhere and stuff like that. Then I kind of shunned it for fifteen or twenty years, and then I recently got back into it and I’ve been shooting pictures and trying to get my game going, working on that to the point where I have gone somewhat public with it. I had a photography blog where I’d have a little write-up and it was all about me learning, right? There are literally hundreds of pictures that I’ve squirreled away on my Flickr and only recently have I started to go public with some of these pictures that I really feel good about, you know? So I guess in a way, it sort of addresses what you were asking. I have been feeling really fulfilled from doing it and exploring it. And I’ll tell you, while making this record by myself with nobody hearing anything, somedays it was like you left in defeat, hanging your head. I just dropped a track called "A Thousand Light Years", and just that it exists was almost enough for me. For years before The Dears put out their first album, I was doing recordings and playing them for my friends, but I never reached anything. It wasn’t until I was 28 that I released an album.
Sticky: Taking on these added pressures, while at the same time, you’re a father now, it seems like an interesting time to do all of this.
Murray: It’s the best time, because really, my kids inspire me to work hard and do the best that I can do because I want to set an example for them. Something that hopefully they’ll pick up - they’ll pick up some of my work habits and learn. We all don’t even realize when we are picking up stuff from our parents, you know? So I wanted to kind of show them that their dad is not a bum. [laughs]
Sticky: And you’re going to have that accessible documentation of what work has been done, on vinyl or whatever digital format.
Murray: Yeah, that is kind of part of why I was pushing for this vinyl thing, because it’s a lot more of a record. Literally a record, but it is something that could withstand a bit of abuse and it will kind of always be there. So I have these tapes that these reference tests that I did the first time that I went to the mastering house and the studio there. Basically, they cut SIDE A on one lacquer and they cut SIDE B on another. They’re in this sort-of pizza box with a bolt, sort of bolting them down so they don’t move and they’re preserved. You know, they’re just reference copies that I kept for the kids to have one side each. I’m pretty sure that we’re capping it at two kids anyways. [laughs] So they’re going to have the first cuts of this record that they inspired me to make.
Sticky: John Lennon famously had fatherhood shape his music. Did you keep another musician in mind as you took these steps?
Murray: Not really, no. It is pretty famous the way that he did, with "Beautiful Boy" and all of that and it was pretty out there. I guess one say could it was a good marketing angle, but I think for me that the stuff is pretty personal in a way. It is also something that millions of people could relate to, some of the sentiments. I have been talking about the album with just a few people, like yourself, and one of the things that I have come up with while talking about the album – if I had to come up with what it is about, I could say that in a way it is about fathers and sons or a man’s role as a father and what you aspire to achieve in that role. Just how that role shapes our society in a big, big, big way. Through the ages, the circumstances of that person’s life and the conditions under which they have to raise kids and raise the next generation all factors into this stuff. So that is kind of in the narrative of the album, this character. It was meant to be sort of a musical. It is less about me and more about an amalgamation... the voice on the album is sort of an amalgamation of various men who have had various experiences and how they have dealt with those experiences and what their actions have been since and what they have learned. So it’s not so much really based on me. I’m in there, I’m part of the DNA of the voice of the record, but there are also other voices that are part of the DNA, you know? Does that sound super flaky?
Sticky: Not at all.
Murray: I guess that is kind of what I was hoping to achieve with the album. It is all in there, it's just that people have to find it and I don’t go into making albums lightly. Conceptually they’re very deep. I could write maybe a hundred pages about what the album is really about and references and things. Everything from Milton’s "Paradise Lost" to – there are so many references involved there that I’m pulling from – to something like The Dazz Band, "Let It Whip", or the Gap Band! Everything from "Paradise Lost" to The Gap Band.
Sticky: I was reading your conversation from a little while back with Martha Wainwright. There was one question that you asked her that I’d like to ask you: Do you consider your music to be all original?.
Murray: I think that now, looking back and trying to remember what my train of thought was when I asked her that, I think that it's that idea of making music in 2013. When I was making this album, I was trying to create a new style of music that has its heart in rock and roll, which is a big part of my background. But it is also very R&B-ish, but rendered in this sort of organic, electronic vibe. At the heart of it, there is this drum machine that I used a lot and it’s a Sequential Circuits Drumtraks machine, which is the praised drum machine from those days. When you listen to those drum samples, they have this weird kind of real sounding tone to them, but it is totally a machine. I guess that I was trying to make sort of an artificial intelligence being with the album; I was trying to invent this kind of music that had bits of the real world in it, but it was actually totally electronic. I had real strings come in and I debated whether I should use real strings or if I should make digital strings. Same thing with the brass, but I felt like I need this human element because that’s going to be embedded into this track in a way that reminds you that it is a human record. So I left a lot of very human elements, including some of my vocal performances that are not spot on at all. I sang my ass off, but there is definitely moments where it is pitchy and definitely not the greatest performance. I left those in. Even at one point, I had this vocal for the second track and I tried to re-sing it. Maybe I re-sang that a dozen times and still went back to the original vocal from the very first time where I barely knew the words. The ink was still drying and I sang the track and it is still the best interpretation of those vocals, you know? The same thing with the very last track as well. Same thing. Fresh, fresh, fresh vocal and I just left it because any time that I tried to recreate it, it just wasn’t the right frame of mind. It was weird. It was too intentional. It is a delicate balance to make a record like this, where there is a lot of mechanical, almost robotic stuff going on and then at the same time there is this real humany kind of stuff going on and that’s exactly what I wanted to make. Something that was not too cold, but a little cold, you know?
Sticky: Might be reading too much into it, but is it your commentary on how an analog heart is lost in the middle of this digital world?
Murray: Oh, definitely. It was totally intentional. That’s one of the subtexts in the presentation of the album. Our modern way of livin. I’m definitely inspired by the fact that you look on the streets and almost everyone has their face buried in their phone while they are walking. They are crossing the street and they are on their phone. Everybody is constantly on Facebook and so connected into this virtual reality. There’s this guy called The Japan Camera Hunter or something like that and he’s an analog camera guy. I follow him on Twitter and he recently wrote this little blog about how his phone is basically ruining his life. [laughs] And now he goes on photo walks and he turns off his phone and doesn’t think about anything. It's just him, it's his camera and he is just walking and he’s taking pictures. So I’ve started doing that too. Because it is so easy to become tethered to your device and tethered to your e-mail and tethered to being in touch. It’s ridiculous, actually. There’s so much that happens there. I didn’t grow up that way, so why do we need it now? It’s really, really strange. So I guess there is a bit of a statement there, a bit of commentary there, but it’s not meant to be in a heavy-handed way; it is very subtle.
Sticky: Has an audience had the chance to hear any of this record performed live?
Murray: I’m doing my first show at POP Montreal, so the main thing that I’m doing is more like a one-man play. I perform the album with really minimal sets - it is a backing track and me and I perform the songs live. There are a couple of costume changes. It’s more theatrical and performance wise, it is a bit rock’n’roll, but at the same time it has got its foot in musical theatre. I had really grand designs and this is kind of a test pilot for another project that I’m developing that is really extensive. It is a full, full-blown musical that requires actors, a pit and the whole thing. That is kind of where I am headed creatively, so we’ll see where that goes. I might have to try and get more funding for the project and pitch it to people. Something like that. Anyways, that’s the future!