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THE CURTAIN RISES ON iDEoLA's Tribal Opera



NewSound 1987

The band Ideola is presently made up of one member, Mark Heard. Any images the name Heard may conjure up in your mind most likely no longer apply. Gone are the days of Home Sweet Home and Solid Rock records. In his own words. Ideola is a fresh start for Mark. "I made this record under another name. It's not supposed to be mysterious or anything; I just put a band together andright now I happen to be the only one in it." This "band" is responsible for the surprising new album Tribal Opera, thesecond release on the upstart What? Records label in association with A&M. A blend of rhythmic digital sampling techniques and acoustic instruments, Tribal Opera is Mark's first release on a major label. It is Ideola's debut release. If the distinction confuses you, think of Ideola as Mark Heard heading up a band whose back-up members are silicon chips and nickel alloy guitar strings. Heard is the vortex of all the record's noise. "When I get an idea I findit's more convenient to slap it right down on tape rather than having to arrange it for a group of musicians and having to explain it to them," he says. "I want to have the option of being more than a solo artist, and more than a structured band. I want to be able to be flexible with whatever form the material I write takes and the Ideola concept covers those eventualities, as well as the present material."In the following pages Heard discusses Ideola's Tribal Opera which was recorded at his studio, Fingerprint records and was mixed to digital (by Heard) using the Sony PCM 1630 system. The first single and video entitled, "Is It Any Wonder," are now available as well. Mark is interviewed, or rather, carries on a conversation with close friend, Milo Carter, a songwriter, singer, guitarist, and prime mover behind the as yet unsigned LA-based band, The Lucky Stiffs, who are currently tracking new material at Fingerprint Records with Heard producing. Also present for part of the conversation were Tim Alderman, graphic artist who designed the Tribal Opera jacket, and Dan Russell, publisher of Newsound.


Milo Carter: This is difficult enough for me, but I think confronted with a tape recorder and the expectation of making some profoundly insightful statements in this context of the interview/discussion, Karl Marx would come off about as philosophically advanced as Mr. Green Jeans from the Captain Kangaroo Show.

Mark Heard: It always makes me nervous when I know that my words are soon to be impregnated on a piece of ferrous oxide imbedded in a band of mylar, but hey, we'll do the best we can.

Milo: I know you so well, I'm not sure where you want to go with this.

Mark: Well, you're not interviewing me - you and I are just talking and the tape recorder happened to drop in.

Milo: What's the way that you look at your lyrics? Are they a commentary of what you see or a commentary of what you feel from within? Do they have outside stimulae or they simply manifestations of your meditations

Mark: I see them basically from a fishmonger's point of view: I suppose an encapsulated photojournalist with narrative commentary here and there, I don't really know anything about writing, I don't know what you're supposed to do and what you're not supposed to do, and I don't know how to talk about it really.

Milo: You just know what you like and what you don't like

Mark: I guess so.

Milo: To me there are a lot of images that create the photographic part of what might be printed news story that I attempt to create with words that are hopefully, if not enlightening, at least comical enough that people look at the images.

Mark: Like if a picture is worth a thousand words, the ergonomic thing to do is to try to use a few words to make a picture that conveys more words. Maybe that's what writing lyrics is all about. Sounded profound anyway, didn't it? I don't know how to talk about writing songs, which I know is annoying for anybody trying to find out my thoughts on those things, but it's really something that's not a totally conscious process. Writing's not something I can sit down and quantify. Most of the time I try to concentrate on the music first, getting it to go somewhere, taking the musical suggestions that are there and translating that somehow into a narrative or a lyrical sidekick.

Milo: The image I get from the title of Ideola's new record, Tribal Opera, is like the flagship of a great armada of words describing the sound and fury of human existence to put it in a very cheesy and poetic style.

Mark: Well, the juxtaposition of the words "tribal" and "opera" is like the visceral emotional part of living in the global village more or less. The operatic viewpoint would be this saga trying to tell the story of life in a particular time frame. So I suppose the two words might interrelate more than it might seem they do, at least in my mind. I think tribal just refers to the human race as a "closely knit group of beings" of some sort.

Dan: Is Tribal Opera a backdrop of some of the things you hate because of some of the things you love?

Mark: Hey, I smell an angle. This relates to the global village, which is permeated by something I'm alternately fascinated with and repulsed by, I find myself fantasizing over what history will turn out to be a hundred years from now. Will it be an accurate recording of what happened within a given geographical place and time, or will it be whatever received the most press? What shots ended up on the videotape? What commentary ended up alongside of it? What is making the compilation of present history seems to have nothing or very little to do with what actually goes on in the world. I find that sad. I find it hard to get over the fact that these media exist for commercial reasons. I'm not saying there's anything implicitly wrong with that, but it slants what goes through the electronic eye, It narrows history down to what is acceptable to people watching the commercials for which the medium exists.

Dan: You've been making records a long time: It seems there's a struggle with certain expressions of your art. Do your frustrations of feelings of satisfaction hinge on whether or not your ideals remain undaunted?

Mark: I hate to use the term artist because I'm just a guy who likes to make noise. Anybody who does that in a social context has the frustration of having to make a living doing it, and that revolves around having companies distribute your work, and pressures that dictate how far you might be able to go, or which directions you may want to lean with the way your music is structured. But that's a struggle anybody who does this has to live with. Some people live with it very easily and throw away their self identities in favor of doing something they know the public will buy. I certainly hopepeople will buy my record, but I don't live in order to do what people want, whether that's what caricature is being held up as the proper one in the marketplace, whichever marketplace that may be, or whether it's suggestions from industry types saying, "you should put more on the snare because that's what's happening today," even though it may be very boring to me. I have to do what I have to do, what I want to do, how I want the music to be, or I lose the respect I need for myself in order to feel that I'm doing my job as a, quote, artist. I have to do things the way they seem best to me.

Dan: Prior to the interview you said you didn't have anything to say, what did you mean?

Mark: I'm pretty said out, I've said a lot of stuff and I just wanna play the blues man. Talk is cheap. We're sitting here with a tape recorder running, eating Chicken curry sandwiches, Iwhich I'm spilling on my bib, and I'm supposed to say something meaningful to lot's and lot's of people or they're gonna be pissed at me because I, and artist who is known to be in fact a Christian person, did not give them something they perceived as edifying. That's a horrible kind of pressure, How di you deal with that every day? Youget up, you go to the bathroom, you eat your breakfast then Joe Public says, "Tell me something important that's gonna change my life!" I'm not that kind of person, I don't know anybody who is. This is an interview. I'm sitting down and thinking off the top of my head, When I write songs I think about them and work on them for a long time to get them just right, I try to say something I really want to say, So it's my hope that instead of me gabbing people will just listen to the record, And if they don't understand it that'sfine; they can listen to something else if they like.

Milo: Analyzing lyrics to explain them to somebody else is like explaining a joke after you've already given the punchline.

Mark: And then they say, "yea, I see how that might be funny." Why do people want to be told something instead of thinking for themselves? I ask myself that question all the time. It's scary when you see that in yourself, You'd rather get information by watching the news than by reading the LA Times. I suppose this country became affluent enough long ago that when labor savingdevices came into popularity, information processing eventually wasreclassified as a type of labor, so now we look for a labor saving device for that. It's pretty scary. We're looking at the results of that every day in the street. We're looking at the results of it in the fact that musicians have to worry about commercial factors when considering what kind of music they want to make.

Dan: Once you put out an album you have to explain to everybody what it means and why you put it out.

Mark: That's boring too, I think we can't underestimate people's intelligence. You have to hope you can go ahead and do something instead of bending and stooping and trying to make it understandable to the most people. There will be people who catch what you're saying, and there'll be people who won't. I think if anybody really tries to catch it they will.

Dan: There's been such a great demand of being specific and also being safe in your specifics.

Mark: What is specific? A guy in an interview once said to me, "We've got fifteen seconds left. Hey, anything else you want to tell the people? What's the most important thing you want to leave these people with?" I said "if that's the way people get their information about what is important, I'm not gonna say anything, because I feel sorry for those people." There are a lot of corollaries to that. Usually interviewers who are Christians who know I am Christian tend to ask me to synopsize everything I know about Christianity inten seconds; I don't think any of us can say it properly spread out over a lifetime, although a stab at the latter is perhaps the more genuine, truthful and sustaining approach. Truth as an axiom is not as vague as it may seem, but truth as a particular is almost completely vague and has to be worked out individually, constantly.

Milo: The sound on Tribal Opera is different from any of your previous recordings. Do you owe that to knew technology that came your way?

Mark: It's owed to a knew thing called a budget that came my way. It's owed to a musical progression I've been going through because I haven't recorded an album in nearly three years. These "best of" things that are coming out now. I don't have anything to do with them. So to the public the Ideola album may seem like quite a departure for me, but it's the first time I've been able todo what I'm interested in musically without pressures coming from a cultural camp or from a company camp. This is the first album I've made for a major label and there is more room for me to knock around within the walls of my own caves of psyche than there has been in the past.

Milo: Are you generally pleased with this album?

Mark: I was pleased with the material when I wrote it and I was pleased with the mixes when I finished them. Now it's time for me to move on and think about writing for the next project.

Milo: How much input did you have in the final outcome of the album? Did it work out as freely for you creatively as you wanted it to?

Mark: Well, no situation is perfect. You have to make sure that you hand it in on time. I could have used a few more weeks in order to spread out the mixing instead of having to do all the mixes in a week as I did.

Milo: So it was fairly autonomous to the extent it could be, given the way the industry works?

Mark: Yeah, I had twenty songs and we had to narrow it down to ten. The What? people and the A&M people were helpful in providing me with some objectivity about that, "How to grow up big and strong" is such a long song and is perhaps a bit verbose for some interests involved, but I was able to say "I really want to cut this song." They basically left me alone, and I went and locked myself up in this studio until it was finished.

Milo: Was there a particular concept for the Tribal Opera theme?

Mark: The two words juxtaposed summed up much of the feelings in the music, a kind of neo-Darwinian village atmosphere in which the narratives of most of the songs take place. I said once before that opera is a saga, usually depressing, told by people uttering loud notes with their mouths wide open. That seems to be what's going on on this album, so what can I say.

Milo: The question was posed because every since Sgt. Pepper there has been an effort within the pop critical media to produce concept albums. It's overbearingly scrutinized. Do you object to that sort of thing?

Mark: If anybody tries to come up with a singular thread of meaning or a macrame as it were, they might have some difficulty. But basically, there are theme's of thought: All the songs were written in a period of time spanning the better part of one year, I suppose, and there are bound to have been threads of thought running through my mind during that period of time, changing slightly with each passing day. But I don't know how to impose a clean outline on them. The visceral aspects of everyday life in society as weknow it, the tale told by some sort of muse, if I dare even put myself on such a pedestal, is the tribal opera with which we are all so bloody familiar.

Milo: Your approach to the record to me was more rhythmic.

Mark: The basic structures of these songs revolve around rhythm and melody first. Those are the things I spent the most time with in writing the material -- the rhythms and the melodies and how they interweave. I chose to use guitars and keyboards and samples and such things more or less as musical percussion rather than the continuous stock kinds of pads that are generally associated with pop music these days. So most of the instrumentation is anattempt to reinforce either the rhythmic or the melodic content of the songs. I went for building atmospheres in each of the songs that would reinforce what the song was about. The dissonance of "Talk to Me" for example: The jungle approach of the tom-toms and Wengi drum as the song speaks of this guy on a chain gang and his inner turmoil as he lives out that position everyday, and has time to think about it. The music in each piece is more or less a stage for the kinds of thoughts being expressed.

I'll never forget a photograph I saw about ten years ago at Dachauconcentration camp. It was a giant mural blowup of a child in the Warsaw ghetto -- his face was to the camera, but he wasn't aware the camera was there. He had his hands in the air and behind him was a Nazi soldier with a machine gun to his back. The expression on his face could not be adequately described with volumes and volumes of words. To see that kind of slice of real horror affected me. The photo sticks in my memory. Movies sometimes have that effect. They can bring dormant emotions up somewhere out of your Freudian being, and for a moment you glimpse life, and you glimpse the value of what you hold dear. And then you walk out of the theater and get in yourHonda and go get an ice cream cone at the mall and forget all about it. I've always wanted to try to write songs that would in some small way do that. Not the forgetting part but the effecting part.

Milo: It's the idea of trying to create a reaction within the listener first, you try to recreate that reaction for yourself, and hopefully what it's going to do to the thought reaction within the listener. When music becomes a commercial venture, however, some of those higher aspirations we all have for writing might get lost.

Mark: The way the television mentality operates -- let's say a TV director goes to Dachau and sees this photo by some quirk of fate on a tour bus; or better yet, he sees a movie that's had a profound effect on people because it touched nerve endings. He derives the formula for that movie and has a script written and they make a series out of it with all the technical elements. It has a child, some guns, all the elements, but no guts. It's lost the contextof that photo -- the war, love in the war, hate in the war, captivity in the war -- it's lost all the human elements.

Milo: It's a window dressing for the actual event.

Mark: Right, and it's easy to have that happen. And it's so impossible in a three and a half minute pop song to do anything to reach beyond that, but it's worth striving for. I want to mention another photograph I saw recently: It was a group of Russian soldiers in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. These eleven soldiers were gathered together on a battle field standing among all these dead enemy soldiers laying around. The Russians were smiling like theywere on a picnic or something. That was interesting. There was a media awareness even in 1905, when people were just getting used to being in photographs. Were they smiling because the camera was there? I've never had a battle experience-where you fight with guns and come out alive. Maybe you might be exuberant after such an experience, I don't know. But to see all these dead soldiers... I wonder if the Russian soldiers would have walked through the tangle of bodies and smiled if a camera hadn't been there? Maybeso because their happiness at finding their cause furthered might ofoutweighed in their minds the loss of human life for the enemy. That, I think, points to a phenomenon that occurs in society; the public distribution of one's personal reactions to life becomes somewhat distorted or mutilated by the fact that it's becoming public and accessible to anyone.

Milo: You get a perverse sense of the situation.

Mark: Yeah, "We wipped their asses. Their dead!"

Milo: That probably isn't the case, but there's almost a perversity to it.

Mark: If the camera weren't there, would they be visibly smiling? One of the primary things in the song "How To Grow Up Big and Strong" is the phenomenon of those soldiers smiles. We won this time, we killed the guys, we smile. We're the victors, we take the spoils, we gain the land, we're the heroes, they're dead, let's all smile. In this whole Darwinian thrust of the survival of the fittest , " we're the fittest, therefore we win." There's something perverse about that: you can see it in the capitalist systems of the world where it doesn't matter whose toes you step on just as long as you survive, as long as you're the fittest, as long as your financial genes dominate the gene pool; you can see it in the communist societies where it's "out people must survive, therefore, you, as a person, are going to have to make sacrifices." You can see it in the Nazi ideas about genetic engineering for the good of the state. In all of these instances the value of the individual human is subjugated to the direction of the larger whole. The song is not just about that attitude, but the egging on and coaxing on of that attitude by the instant posterity the media can afford.

Milo: I see a tie in Tribal Opera in that tribal denotes to me the primitive aspects of human society.

Mark: But are all tribes primitive? There's an electronic tribe which lives in hard disc teepees.

Milo: To me it's not the technology involved. It's the underlying primitive aspect of the survival of the fittest. We'll be as primitive to future history as the eleventh century barbarians are to us, and you addressed that in "The Golden Age" on an earlier album. In weapon technology, there's a great deal of distance between the person who pushes the button and the people who are killed by it's results, but it's still a weapon. On a more personal level you still have dead bodies, but you don't have to be connected with them. But it's still just as primitive. My father was in Hiroshima three weeks after the first atomic blast, and the lasting impression on him was not of victory, but the devastation of human beings. It's not the primitivism of 1905 as compared to the primitivism of medieval wars with scimitars and blades and lances...

Mark: It's more or less moral primitivism.

Milo: The sound and the fury of this society is perhaps more technologically advanced in the way it's conveyed, but the underlying screams and noises being heard originate from the same types of situations and same types of human suffering and struggle. I see that as part of the primitivism you addressed in Tribal Opera. It's interesting that the media doesn't change the basic level story, they just change how it's presented" the 8x10 of a very sad story becomes sensational instead of being as personal as the actual situation thatthe photograph portrays.

Mark: Yeah, you must have an album cover that serves a sensational function, not in order to get someone to listen to what's on the album, but to get them to buy the album in the first place, because it's a product. You have to do interviews and you become an iconic representation of yourself. Have you ever seen Matthew Brady's war photos? I saw some recently with text describing how he would sometimes drag dead soldiers for yards and set them just so and pile up rifles for the proper effect and so forth before making a photograph, so that it made the biggest impact. Of course, I don't know which is easier to take, something like that, or a straight documentary style snapshot of Me Lai. The PR is of more value than the event itself. How you make the thing look is of more importance than how the thing really looks. What you say the thing is is more important than what the thing really is. Manipulation of that sorthas followed us so closely, you can hardly do any public event today without manipulation coming into play.

Milo: It strikes me that television is doing that now.

Mark: The nature of history on a videocassette as opposed to reality. Now media creativity has lagged to a point where when the "Arms To Iran Money To The Contras" scam occurs, we even have to have this name for it, we have to coin a phrase, and we have to compare it immediately to past known situations of similar makeup, namely Watergate. We have to compare Nicaragua to Vietnam. We can only see through the eyes of a form of sick nostalgia whereby we gaugeour present actions by our actions of fifteen or twenty years ago, and what's really going on can get overlooked in the process. We seem only able to interpret events in light of our media experience of the past. Something's being lost in the translation from reality to information. Somehow we're not seeing what the world really is anymore, as if we ever were.

Milo: I see within the political system the candidates and public officials are more interested in how their actions are going to look.

Mark: Of course. That's what media politics is all about.

Milo: It's even more so now, because there's such a strong media image connected with political success. Reagan is called the great communicator.

Mark: So why can't he get North and Poindexter to talk?

Milo: It's tied to his ability to use the media to make himself look better than perhaps another figure.

Mark: Well, isn't that what we recording artists are doing? Aren't we creating sonic illusions and then having to say in interviews, "don't pay attention to that man behind the curtain?'" We produce this grandiose product that sounds like all this stuff going on and it's really a bunch of little semiconductors with algorithms running through them, and little metal wires vibrating, and our little voices singing in perfect harmoneeee. We do it without thinking. We have at our fingertips ways to conjure 200 instruments if that's what seems to be needed. I feel bad for all the poor creative geniuses throughout the ages that didn't have something like that, and here sit we dumb-ass musicians ordering around 200 musicians that don't exist.

Milo: I figure I need all the help I can get.

Mark: There's a syndrome today where to be cool you must be a second generation, twice removed, bastard son of a sister of the punk movement -- cool is raw and unrefined. Anything technical is distrusted, because drum machines and sequencers have been used badly to overkill. Whereas, in England this all seems to have happened a few years ago, and the real creative forces have learned how to master the new technology, how to make it breath in actual emotional musical substance, rather than allowing the beat box syndrome tocontrol what the music becomes. I know I may have a harder time on the college airwaves because the move on this album is away from a live band to a more controlled use of the rhythms, though unrefined.

Milo: When England went back to a more raw sound, some people discovered how to use new technology, and there was a lot of paranoia that the technology was going to completely sterilize the music. But people like Peter Gabriel and Eurythmics have proven that it doesn't have to sterilize the music, it's just taking a little time to master it and make it human.

Mark: It's hard to use technology as a person uses an instrument. Some people didn't understand the mixes that I did for Tribal Opera, because I was trying very hard to stay completely away from the gated reverb sounds that have been around now for five of six years, the non -- lin settings. Most pop music ncorporates those programs pretty heavily, and I'm weary of hearing it again and again. When Peter Gabriel and Hugh Padgham first used it on "The Intruder" it was exciting, and they did it manually! I ended up using very little artificial reverb at all on the drums sounds on this record, particularly the snares. In the samples I used a lot of open mic room sound mic-ed in. So it doesn't sound as pop, which is precisely what I want.

Milo: To make judgments on whether something is going to be hip by those criteria serves to limit the medium more than it does now, because all the technology has done is to open up the possibilities.

Mark: I have a hard time worrying about what's hip. I just feel like I have to move ahead in my work and progress on my music as far as my limitations and the technology or conscious lack of it will allow me.

Milo: What is cool? I mean, if I want to wear Hush Puppies, I'm gonna wear Hush Puppies.

Mark: Well, there's the opposite syndrome too. I have a friend who would say, "oh no, I'm selling too many records. I'm becoming too popular, the public is accepting my work. It must not be artistic anymore." That syndrome will make you say "I wanna do something that nobody will like, because then it will be really artistic." It's hard to know how to consciously think about or be too concerned with what is cool today. I can't think about it, I just have to do what makes sense to me.

Milo: Do you ever use or pull from literature in your lyrics?

Mark: I do by way of subliminal reference I suppose, and not by direct quote. I mean, there are allusions in these songs to things I've read other than the Marvel Comics series and "How Not To Get the Bends When You Scuba." I don't make a lot of those references, although I think the way the cymbals are hit on Tribal Opera is directly and allegorically, perhaps, taken from the works of Rimsky-Korsakov.

Milo: I favor Tchaikovsky myself.

Mark: He used cannons, not cymbals.

Milo: Oh, that's why my music is so rough! For me, sometimes I try to fit little pieces in to show how literate I am. I've read at least, oh, three quarters of the Harlequin Romances by now and I try to inject those into as much of my creative endeavor as possible.

Mark: Well, the more you try to do something, the more it doesn't work, you know. The things that come from your subconscious that work are the things that live there. In your case, I don't see the Harlequins as tenants. I do know a guy selling Cliff Notes for the Torah, though, and I'm sure it'll be a big seller.

Milo: At some point the public gets saturated with personalities the same way they do with ideological things, and when they make a person an event, they take away the person's identity. That is the disturbing part of the whole pop culture machine-the way it grinds out new events with human beings at their core, and it chews them up. As you say, it's the same as a product-Fiddle Faddle was really big at one time.

Mark: Familiarity breeds contempt, that's for sure. I think undue stress is put on public figures of any sort. There's a lot of focus and attention given to media figures including musicians these days. Credibility is given to their viewpoints and they're made out to be sages or philosophers of sorts, which they just aren't. I feel like we're trying to make some music that works for us and hopefully for some other people too. I would hope there comes a time when the public says. "Enough, enough - we don't want any Peoplemagazine mentality syndrome anymore, we don't want to hear musicians talk or politicians sing." By the time someone becomes a public figure, his work is tangential to his "great responsibility to be a public figure" after which, by exposure, he is usually beaten into the ground by the press until people are sick and bored of hearing about him and therefore forget his work as well. I'm not interested in any of that crap. The media ramifications of the music business really don't have anything to do with the creative process, and thatprocess is where my interests lie. I just want to get better at writing music. You just have to try to live outside the whole pop mentality as much as possible. I just wanna be a musician. I just wanna do what I do. I don't want to have to talk about it for the rest of my life.

Milo: I think it's a great album.

Mark: Oh, thank you -- here's your ten.

Milo: I thought it was supposed to be twenty.

Mark: That's if you mention it twice.

The End


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