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Martha and the Muffins

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Martha and the Muffins emerged in the late 70's from the fertile New Wave scene that was burgeoning in downtown Toronto.  They would go on to create such timeless albums as "Danseparc", "This Is The Ice Age" and "Metro Music".  Worldwide hits such as "Echo Beach" and "Black Stations White Stations" won them many fans.  Critical praise abounded, and the band garnered a following that remains strong to this day.  Martha and the Muffins continue to be that rare combination of intelligence, pop craft and undeniable hooks.

In 2010 they returned with a brand new album called "Delicate", and the musical core of the group Mark Gane and Martha Johnson are just as prolific as ever.  I was fortunate to recently catch up with these pioneers and ask them some questions about their past and future musical endeavors. 


1.  Please tell us about your earliest musical memories.  Was there a particular song or artist that made an indelible impression on you at a young age?

MG: My mother played the piano and sang beautifully and my father was an enthusiastic though somewhat tone-deaf singer so I grew up with lots of music in the house.  When I was very small I would sit on my dad's knee and sing the harmony parts to 'You Are My Sunshine', 'Show Me The Way To Go Home' and 'I've Been Working On The Railroad' while he did the melody.  One of the first songs that really hit me was 'Castaway' sung by Hayley Mills in the Disney movie.  I was eight or nine and I fell in madly in love with Hayley right there and then.

MJ:  I don't know when I saw the movie 'The Wizard of Oz' but the song 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' sung by Judy Garland I would name as my anthem if I had one.  My earliest musical memories were of my grandmother playing the piano (she taught piano) and singing songs like 'In an English Country Garden' and another one with the lyric 'Mabel get off the table the two bits are for the beer'.
2.  I've read that the music scene in Toronto in the late 70's was quite exciting and creative.  What were your own personal impressions of this period?
MG: From '75 to '80 it was a small but very diverse scene centered along Queen St. West.  There were punk, new wave, art bands as well as the whole art scene with people like General Idea and The Hummer Sisters.  Everyone influenced everyone else - a real incubator of creative activity.  Everyone was so fed up with mainstream music and Toronto had it's own unique take on that while at the same time being exposed to what was going on in London and New York.  You had Roxy Music from one side and The Ramones and Patti Smith from the other.  Many bands were absorbing new ideas and influences outside the usual genres of folk, country and blues based rock.  Bands like The Dishes, The Cads, The Government as well as MatM were observational and often cynical in commenting on or parodying mainstream life.  The Ontario College of Art had an annual bus trip to New York City every year and that's where I first heard of people like Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk or there would be a Joseph Beuys exhibition - it all fed into the music and art we were making.  

MJ:  Much of the music scene in Toronto in the late 70's centered around the Ontario College of Art.  I saw Talking Heads there in January 1977 as a three piece band.  I played my Acetone electric organ at a few OCA dances/concerts in a band called Oh Those Pants! that played cover songs from 'Runaround Sue' to 'The In Crowd'.  What was happening on Queen St. West was innovative, fun and almost anyone could be a part of it if they wanted to be. 

3.  How do you usually approach the songwriting process?  What typically comes first...lyrics, the beat, the melody, or chords?
MG:  It can happen all those ways, although for me, increasingly I like to have at least some of the lyrics first.  That way you don't tend to get trapped in your old chord or rhythm habits, (unless you want to).  The words sometimes suggest their own rhythms outside of what you would normally do.  I tend to collect lyric or idea fragments, sometimes for many years before they come together into a song.

MJ:  Lately I have been writing lyrics constantly.  I often wake in the night or early morning with whole song lyrics in my head,  I get up and type them up.  I have also been collaborating with some other songwriters less than half my age and we seem to have no problem inspiring each other.  I woke up recently with a whole concept for a new live show for myself and Mark to do.  I also had  around 8 to 10 song titles and ideas upon waking. I hope to realize these dream songs soon.

4.  How has reaction been to your most recent recording "Delicate"?

MG: Most of the hard core fans seem to really like it.  We've had lots of positive reactions from our listeners.  There was a lot of press about MatM putting out another album after so long a break which seemed to be the main point for a lot of writers rather than an analysis of the actual songs.  Even with the internet, the main challenge is making people aware that you've got something out there so it gets out there in trickles over a longer span of time which is OK by me.  Obviously we're in it for the long term and make music based on that premise. 

5.  There was an 18 year break between "Delicate" and your last album "Modern Lullaby".  When you now work together on a song, how does the creative process differ now from when you worked on songs back then?

MG:  We're still mostly using the same range of approaches to write songs.  Sometimes Martha or I will start an idea separately and complete it together or it will come out of an initial collaboration.  Maybe one of us will pick up on an idea the other one had discarded and make something good of it.  After 30 some odd years it's pretty symbiotic.  Martha over the last few years writes constantly and at all times of the day and night where I tend to pick up fragments of lyrics or music and store them away, sometimes for years, until I am forced or compelled to complete them. During the "Delicate" sessions several of the songs I initiated didn't make it to the final album - we had so many and somewhere in the middle of that project the song lineup changed - not in a bad way - maybe we should have released a double album... 

6.  In the 70's and 80's, there seemed to be more of an abundance of artistic statement in songs (and in videos).  An inherent "artsiness" was not uncommon, whereas today this artful approach is almost non-existent.  Why do you think this is?

MG:  Part of it was just the times.  It comes in cycles.  There was a brief moment when record companies thought they could make money with punk/new wave/art pop so some fairly unusual bands got in.  Then the so-called New Romantic thing happened with Duran Duran etc and it closed up again.  Later, the multinational record companies took such a hit with illegal downloading that the loss of profit margins made them very cautious about who they signed, thus the tendency towards signing "safe" or at least pleasantly predicable musical acts.  Today, many artists and producers use the same digital software programs to create music with the result that the approach and production all start sounding similiar.  Things like heavy auto tuning on everything should be banned for a hundred years.  I think we're also in the middle of an anti-intellectual phase, at least in North America.  Some people and parts of the mainstream media find "artsiness" self-indulgent, elitist and a waste of the taxpayer's money.   

7.  Some musicians view the internet as a helpful tool to distribute music, while some view it as an evil detriment that has killed "the biz".  What are your views on it?
MG:  It has been a total godsend for artists like us, who have suffered in the past because their record companies tried to dictate what they wanted from the artists.  When we didn't play the game, we were punished for it with little or no promotion of our releases, lower recording budgets and little or no interest in ever reissuing our back catalogue. Record companies typically have kept 85% of the income for themselves and used our 15% to pay off our recording and touring debts so we were lucky to even ever see that.  The system stinks and should have been tossed out by government legislation years ago.  Instead you have people like Richard Branson being knighted by the queen for being a billionaire robber baron. With the internet there is no need for any company to "own" your creations.  Artists are launching their own very successful careers with the internet as the primary vehicle.  You can have as much direct contact with you listeners as you want.  Younger acts take all this for granted but it only started in the early 90s and it's revolutionary, a game-changer.  It's like being the little proto-mammals scurrying about the feet of the dinosaurs, waiting for them to fall.  

8.  A lot of your music has incorporated international rhythms and a pronounced "world music" influence.  Have you always had a great interest in ethnic music (even before Martha and the Muffins were formed)?
MG:  I was interested in all sorts of music throughout my high school and art college days, not necessarily "world music" as such.  As much as I love and write music in various "popular" forms there's the other side of me that likes all the "other" stuff, free-form, improvisation, ethnic, noise, random sounds.  I have an extensive sound library I've recorded over the years of field recordings, weird sounds etc that sometimes end up in our songs as textural elements.  

9.  Daniel Lanois once commented when asked if he preferred analogue or digital recording that it was more a matter of technique and not format, and that recording approaches and methods have changed dramatically over the last few decades.  Would you agree that the techniques Martha and the Muffins use for music making have changed quite a bit over the years, or are things roughly the same?
MG:  I've been using the same basic approaches to recording since I and my friends started fooling around with tape recorders in high school, ie. what happens when you change the speed, flip the tape backwards, overload the inputs, etc.  The technology has changed and in some respects it has made it almost too easy to create what used to be unusual combinations of sound.  In the end the ideas and emotions have to be there regardless of what wizardry or cleverness you have at your fingertips.  Otherwise it's mere novelty music.  There are plenty of people doing that these days. It was interesting when I saw a piece on Dan when Neil Young's 'Le Noise' came out.  Many reviewers talked about how innovative the recording approach was but Martha and the Muffins were doing that with him 30 years ago with 'This Is The Age Age' and 'Danseparc'. Of course long before that, similar techniques and approaches were being used by the modern avant-garde composers like Stockhausen, the musique-concrete people and the Futurists with their noise machines.  

10.  Please tell us about the international success of "Echo Beach".  Many Canadian bands were fortunate to have a hit in their own country, but you had a worldwide smash.  What was that like?  What are your brightest memories from this experience?

MG: Everyone in the original line-up of Martha and the Muffins would give you a different take on that. For me, especially as the writer of the song, it was all a bit unreal.  We were plucked from the little scene on Queen St. W. in Toronto and presented to the jaded but curious London music press who seemed quite surprised and fascinated that Canada had produced a band that wasn't the usual heavy metal or folk act.  There was a lot of press about the odd band "from the colonies".  The people at Virgin kept saying the song was going higher in the charts and then there was Top of the Pops, meeting famous people, etc. - this all bounced back home where we had our moment in the sun as Canada's coolest musical export.  While it was obviously beyond my wildest dreams, the actual worldwide success of the song didn't really become concrete until I received my first royalty cheque and then I had something tangible to hold onto against all the numbers and hype.  It was quite mad really.    

MJ:  For a while we were the toast of the town wherever we went.  I think playing Paris at Les Bains Douche with the show going out to thousands of people in Europe over the radio will always represent a high point in my career.  After the show we were taken to a restaurant called une deux trois where many people from the press were waiting to speak to us and hang out until the small hours of the morning.  I wrote the song 'One Day in Paris' at that time.  It was a bittersweet time for me and I think the others in the band too.  You could see the end of the early era in our band's history looming.

11.  Is there one of your songs or albums that you are particularly proud of?

MG:  That's hard because we've done things in so many genres. Virtually everything on 'This Is The Ice Age'...a lot of 'Dansparc'.  Individual songs? 'Luna Park', 'Nation of Followers', 'By The Waters of Babylon',  and from the last album, 'Love Began With Eve', 'Even In The Rain' and 'Life's Too Short To Long For Something Else'. I think one of Martha's best songs is still 'Paint By Number Heart'. I can't believe no one's covered that yet.  

MJ:  I always hope to write a truly enduring song that speaks to many and touches their emotions in a personal way.  I think 'Life's Too Short to Long for Something Else' on our 2010 album 'Delicate' definitely is in this vein.  'Paint By Number Heart' is still one of my favourite lyrics I wrote and it was always a lot of fun to perform.  'This Is The Ice Age' was our first album co-produced with Daniel Lanois.  It was the beginning of a very musically creative time for Martha and the Muffins and this makes it a very important album that I am very proud of.
12.  Are there any plans to release "Mystery Walk" on CD?
MG: Yes, we have to remaster it, then we'll put it out ourselves, complete with the B-sides and extended dance mixes.  Coming soon I hope.

13.  What advice would you give to any up and coming young musicians who want to have a career in music?

MG: Keep your publishing, that's where the money is.

MJ:  My mother warned me about the temptation of drinking and drugs that surround the music business.  When the boredom and excitement settle in, often these demons invade and ruin things.  I was not the type but still I'm glad my mother mentioned it.  Be aware of what you are doing to yourself.

14.  Martha, are you still interested in children's music?  Any further recordings in this vein?

MJ:  I have enough songs written to be able to release a second children's album and some of those songs I began recording years ago.  As these songs are timeless I hope to get them out to families at some point.  I also have a group of children's songs based on Canadian children's books.  They should see the light of day too.  One song called 'And My Heart Soars' (lyrics by Chief Dan George) would be an amazing second national anthem for Canada.  Who do I go to with this idea?  That is the big question.

15.  I understand that you recently fared quite well in a poll that was run by The Toronto Star about "The Best Toronto Band Ever".  How does it feel to see that there are many folks out there who still respect and admire your music?

MG:  "Best" type lists/polls are highly charged and subjective so you have to take them with a grain of salt.  Nevertheless we were genuinely shocked ending up ahead of some of Toronto's far more commercially successful bands and honoured to be in their company.  After 30 years, we still have our loyal listeners.

MJ:  There were some pretty unexpected results but it was interesting to get to 2nd place. Congrats to The Diodes. 

16.  What's next on the horizon?  Any further recordings or live shows?

MG: Martha and I are writing with younger artists like Hill Kourkoutis and with Will Whitwham from The Wilderness of Manitoba. Getting connected with the kids is totally invigorating.  Both of us are kicking around solo projects as well.  I'm working on a project with Charlie Roby, a musician/recording artist and friend who lives just up the street.  We meet every Wednesday and make odd noises in the hopes of releasing an album that won't take too long to make. 

MJ:  I have an art/music project in mind for me and Mark that would find us performing in art galleries rather than clubs.  It's too new in my mind to talk about yet.  I've always wanted to write a song with Paul McCartney - who knows what the future holds.


-interview by Gary Flanagan