Interview with Concealer

Interview with Concealer, by Hailey Poole.

Sinister, soothing, unsettling, hypnotic, dark, melodic, heavy, ambient, psychedelic, aggressive, murky, raw and sexy. These are just a few of the words Mark Davis uses to describe his band, Concealer. Hailey Poole was able to catch up with Mark Davis and Sean Picard.

Northern Transmissions: When did you two find each other?

M: I first became aware of Sean nearly ten years ago – around the time that I saw him at the Empress after a Pride event, dressed in a sleek blue spaghetti strap dress, with false eyelashes and dramatically teased hair.

We officially met at the Black Dog a couple of years later. I was standing at the bar buying a drink. Someone approached me from behind and put their arms around me. As an introvert not typically fond of bars and only out seeking the company of a forward member of the opposite sex, I was delighted. But, although Sean did bear a significant resemblance to a hot woman, I was disappointed to find I was being groped by a man.

Shortly afterwards, Sean began saying, “hey, Mark Davis, when are we starting a band?” or “when’s practice?” each time we ran into each other. After about the third time, I said “my place, next Thursday.” That’s when he realized there was no backing out.

S: I had the opportunity to see Mark in action when he played a show with Old Reliable at New City Suburbs on boxing day around 12 years ago, and aside from the band being extremely talented I took note of Mark’s charming good looks. As Mark mentioned, I decided it would be a great idea to accost him at the Black Dog and ask him to start a band – really tongue in cheek. After subsequent meetings, Mark finally nailed down a date for us to practice and at that point I realized I had to put my money where my mouth is and actually show up.

NT: Was it fairly obvious that you two were on the same sort of wavelength musically?

M: I was aspiring to a complete departure from my previous work with my psychedelic country rock band, Old Reliable. Sean thought that with me writing the songs we would make something that sounded more like Old Reliable than what we ended up with. I knew that I wanted to play loud, heavily affected bass and that I wanted a duo and easy-to-operate vintage drum machines. Other than that, we had very few fixed reference points and absolutely no collective agenda in terms of sound. By the end of our first practice, we had run through five or six tunes with surprisingly little effort, and we knew that we were onto something that we both were very happy with.

S: My intention going into the project was to be a lot more alt-country meets psychedelic. I really had minimal knowledge of Mark’s musical background aside from Old Reliable and his solo efforts; so much to my surprise I was quite pleased with the initial results. I think we were both impressed with the results of the first practice, as it seemed effortless and very organic. Our first song that we put together was Sank, and that really set the tone of what the band was to become.
How long have the two of you been playing music for, individually and together?

M: I was completely traumatized, embarrassed and demoralized by music lessons at an early age – so much so that I didn’t commit to learning an instrument until I was about 24. At that point, I had visions of lying on my deathbed with my biggest regret being not having learned to play music. I have now been active as a performer for 22 years. I have four albums with Old Reliable, three solo albums, one with Concealer and one with the Robin Hood Ensemble – a group of adults with developmental disabilities whom I mentor on a weekly basis. I am wrapping up my fourth solo album this month.

Concealer has been playing together for about seven years. For reasons too numerous and mundane to get into, it took far too long to release our first album. Our sophomore album is about half done and, thanks to a significant chunk of funding from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts it will see the light of day in a much more timely fashion.

S: I’ve been playing music since 2002 when I started as a keyboardist for a now defunct Edmonton band called 7 and 7 Is. They had recruited me after finishing their debut album, where their producer added a lot of synth to the majority of the tracks. I stuck around with them for a couple years, doing one tour before parting ways with them. Subsequent to that, I joined Headband who had a revolving line-up that changed throughout the years. That band was a lot of fun as it brought together a lot of musicians who played in other bands at the time, so there were a lot of different creative influences. But in the end I was fired… Other than Concealer, I play a guest role on synth with The Secretaries who just released a 7” single.

NT: Mark, what is your musical background?

M: I am completely self-taught. At the age of about 24 I had an irresistible inclination to learn to play guitar. I found myself in a less than agreeable living arrangement with a rotating cast of individuals, many of whom I was not inclined to spend any time with. These two factors led to me shutting myself in my bedroom for hours on end learning the majority of Townes Van Zandt’s catalogue. I can identify notes on my instruments and sort of read music but neither with sufficient proficiency to do both at the same time.

NT: Sean, what is your musical background?

S: As with Mark, I am also self-taught. I picked up a Roland Juno 6 off eBay around 2002. I was a huge fan of Ladytron at the time, and wanted to start an electro-clash band, and that was to be my ticket in. Nobody else liked electro-clash at the time so that never panned out. Other than keys, I had a brief stint as a drummer in a short-lived side project called Treejam, but to call myself a drummer would be to insult actual real drummers… I can hold a beat… ish.

NT: What are your major influences both as a band and individually?

M: Sean and I came to Concealer by completely different musical paths. There is the occasional common touchstone such as The Jesus and Mary Chain. Now and then I may play something for him that he likes, such as The Mighty Lemon Drops; and he may play something for me that I like, such as Black Walls, but generally he has his taste and I have mine; and there is very little common ground except the music that we play together.

Sean has a history with Brit Pop and is heavily into psych. He’s unapologetically rigid about it. He’s the kind of guy that might acknowledge that half the music he listens to may not exist were it not for the Beatles, but would rather shove broken glass into his ears than actually listen to the Beatles… Or folk music, classical, classic rock, most punk rock or the blues. That said, I admire how cutting edge his tastes are. He has the enthusiasm for seeking out new sounds.

I’ll listen to almost any kind of music and I’ll rarely listen to an album more than once every couple of months, but in the big picture of what’s out there, I’m almost as fussy as Sean. There is a very direct lineage from John Cale through Nick Cave to Mark Lanegan, all of whom I count amongst my favourite singers and songwriters. Others are Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Phil Ochs, Nick Drake, Richard Thompson, Lucinda Williams, Richard Buckner and Billy Joe Shaver. My favourite bands are Motorhead, the Beatles, the Kinks, the Clash and Red Red Meat. My favourite albums are John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut, Giant Sand’s Glum, This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End In Tears, Low’s The Great Destroyer and Shuyler Jansen’s Voice From the Lake.

S: My major musical influences come from the sounds of the UK. Stereolab was the band that really inspired me to pursue seeking out new genres and new bands that people just didn’t listen to in Edmonton. Through Stereolab I found bands like Mouse on Mars, Tortoise, The Sea and Cake, and Neu! All of it being very avant-garde and some would say slightly pretentious.

On the flip side, I was a Brit Pop fan through and through. Watching The Wedge on Much Music and seeing Pulp, Elastica, and Suede was just plain fun. To this day I still find myself throwing on tracks from that era when I am DJing and it’s surprising how fresh a lot of it still is to this day.

Then there is the world of psych – The Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre and their related friends dominate what I listen to now. Being able to attend Austin Psych Fest was very influential to what I find interesting these days. Bands like TOY, Asteroid No.4, and The Warlocks tend to seep into music that I try to write. Very interesting time signatures and subtle tones that can make the listener feel slightly uneasy seem to creep into the sound of Concealer.

NT: What is the scene like Edmonton, Alberta?

M: I believe that Edmonton is fertile ground for the arts and has a wonderful, vibrant and supportive music community. However, as with anywhere, Edmonton is also very cliquey. It may just be a semantic difference to most, but personally, while I don’t have any trouble identifying myself as part of a music community, I have no interest in being part of a music scene. “Scene” is a word I rarely use, and when I do, it’s not in a positive way. The word is suggestive of individuals fawning over each other to “make the grade”, to “make the scene”, to be seen as important. So, as a musician working in Edmonton, I am pleased to be a part of the city’s music community; but I have never been a part of anyone’s scene, nor would I ever want to be. Fuck the scene. Be your own scene.

From a professional point of view, there are pros and cons to doing music in Edmonton. There is a long-standing notion that one has to move to a bigger city to seek out a more sophisticated environment and/or be closer to the music industry. Well, all power to you if you’re into paying obscene rent for a property that will be torn down after your tenancy and sold for $1.5 million, and practicing in a pay-by-the-hour studio or sharing a rehearsal space with five other bands, all just to end up being a small fish in a bigger sea. I’ve spent my entire music career based in Edmonton. I am able to pay a mortgage entirely with the proceeds from music-related work; all of my albums have charted nationally; I’ve recorded with Giant Sand and Corb Lund, been nominated for the Polaris Prize, been reviewed in UNCUT, had album photography shot by Elliott Landy, received valuable funding from The Edmonton Arts Council and The Alberta Foundation for the Arts, juried for The Canada Council for the Arts, contributed to film soundtracks and shared stages with or opened for Wilson Pickett, Guy Clark, Alejandro Escovedo, Ray Condo, The Sadies, Richard Buckner, Chad van Gaalen and the Smalls. Perhaps one day I’ll move to the mountains of southern Spain for the view, but I’ll never move to Toronto or Vancouver chasing music industry carrots.

In this day and age, Edmonton is as good a place as any from which to distribute music. The artifact is being devalued by the second and digital distribution can happen from anywhere with the push of a computer key. For those not making their own home recordings, Edmonton is also home to dozens of recording studios and several world-class producers and engineers. The city also boasts a number of excellent record stores such as Listen and Blackbyrd willing to stock independent releases.

On the live music front, the “scene” has been mourning the loss of many live music venues since the demise of the popular and overrated Sidetrack Café, The Haven Social Club, New City, The Elevation Room, and The Pawn Shop. Last year, the sky was about to fall with the loss of the Artery, Space and Wunderbar, and Edmonton was being accused of being actively hostile towards the arts. Fast forward a few months and the live music landscape is as healthy as ever with the opening of The Almanac, The Aviary, 9910, The Needle and The Alley…. And that’s on top of The Mercury Room, Bohemia, The Common, DV8, The Starlite, Brixx, Big Al’s, Cha Island, The Buckingham, The Black Dog, The Empress, The Carrot, The Cask and Barrel, Fionn MacCool’s, Uptown Folk Club, Northern Lights Folk Club, New Moon Folk Club, Yardbird Suite, several world-class festivals and others. The sky clearly didn’t fall. Live music venues come and go for many reasons – shifting demographics, mismanagement, irrelevance, turbulent economies, rent increases and defaults, thin margins, zoning and development issues, burnout, and coke habits…. It’s a never-ending cycle and music will outlast them all.

On the negative side, there are a lot of miles (or kilometers) between Edmonton and every other urban centre worth performing Concealer’s style of music in.

S: Edmonton has a thriving music community that is a real pleasure to be part of. With that being said, there are definite scenes that exist within that community that I’d rather not conform to. Although I tend to be out and about in the nightlife of the city on a daily basis, I try not to pigeonhole myself into any one “scene.” Unfortunately, by choosing to not kiss everyone’s ass we find it hard to get on bills, as everything in Edmonton seems super incestuous.

NT: When can we expect the new album? And what can we expect?

M: We have completed the tracking of seven songs for the next Concealer album and are ready to book the time to complete it. We are very efficient in the studio, due partly to the fact that we are a duo with no drums to track, and partly to the convenient reality that heavy-wave is not a musical style that necessitates musical virtuosity. Once we have the drum machine dialled in, it never screws up; and we like the rest of it dirty and loose. Due to a grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, we are not hindered by a lack of funds and we should be able to get the album out in a much more timely fashion than with the first album.

S: I find the new album to be a lot more varied than our debut – it’s a more interesting listen and more developed in terms of structure. Dare I say it may be more poppy? It’s still grounded in our roots of Goth-country, heavy-wave but there is some brightness to it.

NT: For those who have not heard of Concealer, how would you describe Feted: Fetid?

M: Concealer’s sound has been described as “electro-noir” and “gothic Americana” but we like to call it heavy-wave. We’re not being pretentious in trying to label our sound with an original descriptor. It just fell into our laps and it fits. A friend heard the album and said it was the kind of music that he had aspired to make but not found the time to pursue, due to his commitment to his band, BC-DC. He just told me Concealer was making heavy-wave music – like new-wave with a heavy metal edge. To me, the descriptor conjured up a mash-up of The Psychedelic Furs, Split Enz, Motorhead and Black Sabbath (all bands that I grew up with but Sean could care less about) and I thought it fit perfectly. He wasn’t in a position to use it, so he allowed us to do so.

feted:fetid is sinister, soothing, unsettling, hypnotic, dark, melodic, heavy, ambient, psychedelic, aggressive, murky, raw and sexy. Hopefully, it will make the listener want to boil eye of newt, drool on their pillow, pop an Ativan, bark like a dog, sway slowly in one place, pump iron, break glass and fuck, all in less than an hour.

S: This is a question that I get asked a lot from friends and acquaintances. I struggle to find an apt response so I also revert back to Goth-country. They get a puzzled look on their face and then smile and want to check it out, as it’s such a ridiculous notion.

NT: Is there an underlying theme to this album (Feted: Fetid)?

M: You could say that the underlying theme is darkness. Most of my songs are dark, except those which I have written for my new solo album since my 11-month-old son was born. Specific subject matter includes being a slave to the man, dysfunctional relationships, futility, insecurity, revolution, the apocalypse, unrequited love, cheating and betrayal.

S: You know, I’m not one for lyrics – they aren’t something I actively seek out when listening to music. I centre my attention around the mood and atmosphere – so we’re a pretty dark band. Darkness and tension, perhaps?

NT: Was it difficult finding your own sound?

M: If a band’s bio describes them as having “a sound uniquely their own” I have no interest in listening to their album. They’re trying too hard and they’re most likely failing. No one creates in a vacuum and we all owe a debt to those who came before us, especially those whom we cite as influences. Every now and then some genius or collective genius comes along, shakes things up and goes on to be cited as a game-changer by a subsequent generation. Bob Dylan changed everything but he owes a great deal to Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bert Jansch and a thousand others. Pavement continues to send ripples through the world of honest music but upon first listen, one could hear distinct echoes of The Fall and The Pixies. Finding Concealer’s sound was the easiest thing I’ve ever been involved in. It’s a natural and accidental mash-up of every last sound I’ve ever heard.

S: Not at all, it was completely organic and unintentional at the same time. We didn’t have a master plan of what we wanted to accomplish and that is why I believe the album and our sound is so successful. Although it’s frustrating when promoters have a hard time fitting us into lineups for shows, it’s actually flattering because the sound is quite unique.

NT: Goals for 2016?

M: Release the second album, write the third album, play live at a fashion show, secure European and Japanese publicity and booking, win the Polaris Prize, ignore all music trends, ignore the scene, take shit from no one, make people dance alone together and convince Sean to practice more than once every three months.

S: To not break up in 2016… and Japan. Japan will love us. And Mexico… And Spain… Really anywhere outside of North America and I’m happy.

interview by Hailey Poole