Perfect Sound Forever

Martha and the Muffins

1981: Mark Gane, Andy Haas, Martha Johnson, Jocelyne Lanois, Tim Gane; Photo credit- Martha and the Muffins

interview by Tony Sclafani
(September 2005)

The future sure looked better when we were in the past, didn't it?

For many of us, the "future" we created for ourselves consists of a Dilbert-like pseudo-world in which we're cubicled away from humankind and hemmed in by inhumane corporate rules that disallow the most forms of expression and creativity. We've seen the future of life and it's the movie Office Space.

In this new business school-dictated reality, the freethinking ideals of the 1960's seem less a sign of humankind's progress than an aberration in a world in which oppression, not freedom, has always been the norm. It's hard to buy sentiments like "Imagine" or "All You Need Is Love" when both imagination and love seem like remnants of a society that hadn't yet been swallowed by the monopolistic conglomerates that have (let's admit it) replaced families and relationships as people's primary emotional centers.

Back at the dawn of punk rock, artists like The Clash, The Sex Pistols and Gang of Four confronted these issues. But Canada's Martha and the Muffins created an entire body of work that speaks of such alienation and displacement. In their sobering, idiosyncratic songs like "Echo Beach," "This is the Ice Age," "Swimming," and "Women Around the World at Work," people are emotionally vacant, snowed under by situations beyond their control, or chillingly estranged from fellow humans. Call it "uneasy listening."

Needless to say, these songs were never mainstream U.S. hits (although "Echo Beach" hit the top ten in England), but they all got airplay on progressive and college radio stations in the early 1980's. The band eventually scored a Top 100 U.S. pop hit in 1984 with "Black Stations/White Stations," an indictment of pop radio's segregationist tendencies (this was recorded under the revised moniker of M&M since only leaders Martha Johnson and Mark Gane remained in the band).

Martha and the Muffins emerged in 1980, just as punk was morphing into more palatable "new wave" and a new egalitarian sense of who could play music was emerging (at least in the underground). Like Talking Heads, The B-52's, and The Waitresses, Martha and the Muffins was comprised of both male and female members and merged art-school sensibilities with pop melodies. But since Martha and the Muffins dealt with realism, not romantic fantasy, they were outcasts even among the 1980s pop outcasts.

But realism often ages better than fantasy and Martha and the Muffins' half dozen albums have not only stood the test of time, they seem more relevant the further we drift from the idealistic 1960's. It's not just the lyrics that appear prescient; much of the band's parched, arty output sounds oddly up-to-date.

Most fans of alternative music know "Echo Beach," the band's bittersweet signature tune about a working woman's dream of escaping the drudgery of office life. But the band also band recorded scads of worthwhile material as they progressed from new wave rockers to purveyors of arty dance music (like Talking Heads and The Clash).

Their masterwork came in mid-career with the release of their third LP, 1981's This is the Ice Age. It was first major production by Daniel Lanois (who went on to work with U2 and Peter Gabriel) and it marries sparse, opulently-detailed Eno-esque soundscapes to smartly-written songs about anxiety, dislocation and confusion.

Tinkling pianos are juxtaposed against frighteningly dissonant synths; madcap guitars disconcertingly pop in and out of the mix; tales of oppression, crippling fear, and self-loathing are couched in sweet melodies. The album starts with the sound of a crashing car and ends with a seemingly upbeat chant that turns out to be surprisingly wistful upon closer listening. New sounds seem to pop up in the background with each listening. Songs like "One Day in Paris" and "Swimming" can evokes smiles or shivers, depending on your state of mind. Overall, a haunting experience -- and you can dance to it (some of it anyway).

This is the Ice Age was released on CD for the first time in July, 2005, giving Perfect Sound Forever an ideal reason to check in with Martha Johnson and Mark Gane, who helmed the group through a half decade (and countless personnel changes). Johnson and Gane have been a couple for 25 years and live in Toronto with their daughter. They first met as upstart musicians, though, when the band formed at the Toronto College of Art in 1978.

Mark Gane: I started out as a painter and got into music by accident because that was the spirit of the times. Everybody was joining bands whether they knew what they were doing or not. The fact that they didn't know what they were doing was what made it interesting a lot of the time. As the band got more and more busy I found I couldn't do (painting and music) at the same time.

Martha Johnson: I wasn't going to be the singer at first, I was just going to play my AceTone organ which I had recently purchased and didn't really know how to play. A little while later I started singing; we didn't have a name or anything. Mark's brother (Tim) had a drum kit and had been playing drums for a while. It was very new wave – people playing who had little or no experience. We'd all grown up in the suburbs of Toronto, although the saxophone player Andy Haas was from Detroit. (Bass player) Carl (Finkle) was studying business and I had been studying theater. But it made the music interesting, because we had different influences in music – some liked Motown and some liked Cecil Taylor.

PSF: What were some of the band's other influences?

MJ: I was influenced by people like Roxy Music and Brian Eno and a little bit of Motown here and there, but I think it was unique because we brought all those elements together and the sound that it made was our own. We also weren't seasoned songwriters or seasoned players and because of that, the energy that we had fueled it rather than our expertise or our abilities. We didn't have any rules to follow because nobody really knew what the rules were, so we just broke them all without knowing.

PSF: From the beginning it seemed the band had a definite style or "feel" that marked it as unique.

MJ: There are certain things that I think run through a lot of our music. One of them is describing situations. It's a lot about situations – where you're at not only physically but in your life. Mark and I were both kind of misfits in our youth. We were not your typical cheerleader or frat boy types. We both were dreamers and stared out the window during school, and had to be told to concentrate. We always felt alienated as children and as teenagers – like not fitting in and not really wanting to when you discover that a lot came out of being solitary.

PSF: When you wrote "Echo Beach," did you think that people would still be listening to it years later?

MG: The song has legs and we could have never anticipated that. If somebody had said then that song is going to be as popular 25 years on, I wouldn't have believed it. But I can see in retrospect how it has appealed to people. My father always said one reason he thought it was a hit is because it's nostalgic, and any song that has nostalgia in it hits a chord with people. And I think to some extent he's right. We're also the only Canadian band or artist to make Mojo magazine's list of "100 Singles You Must Own" ("Echo Beach" was #67). (In Canada) we have an award called the Juno, and we won two of them, one for the song "Echo Beach" – I think it got single of the year in 1980.

PSF: How popular was "Echo Beach" when it was released?

MJ: It did really well (in England). We just sat at home in Canada and got phone calls every week saying "It's at number 22!" "It's at number 18!" It made the top ten. It didn't actually make number one, but it was very popular and sold like 500,000 copies of the single. It was quite a whirlwind. But there was no followup (hit). The followup was chosen by the head of the record company, which was DinDisc at that time. And the band really didn't agree with her but she went ahead anyway with a song called "Saigon." I think (the single) probably should have been "Paint By Number Heart" or "Indecision." After the success in England, Canada followed suit and throughout Europe and in Australia, everywhere it was released the song went top ten as well.

PSF (to Mark): You wrote both "Echo Beach" and "Women Around the World at Work" – how did you come to write songs from a female point of view?

MG: I guess it's because I have a lot of empathy for that half of the human race – it's always seemed incredible that amount of social injustices that continue even to this day. And my mother was a very strong influence on my life. I found as I grew up because I wasn't really into sports or anything, I was generally more comfortable around women. All over the world women are second-class citizens. So I wrote ("Women Around the World at Work") about that and everybody seemed surprised that a man would write a song like that. But I think there's lots of men who feel the same way. And it's not so much the simplistic notion that the world would be better if women ran it, but on the other hand, maybe it would be a good idea to let them try for a while because we don't seem to have done such a hot job.

PSF: Despite the band's beginnings as amateurs, the first two albums (Metro Music and Trance and Dance) sound pretty professional.

MJ: By that time, we'd been playing together long enough that we were playing well. If you'd asked us to do a session for pantyhose or something we probably wouldn't have been able to pull it off, but we knew what we were doing and we connected really well. We had played a number of shows and we practiced every day. So by the time we got to the studio in England and were signed by Virgin Records there was some expertise. But then, going into the studio was a whole new thing for us as well. We were working with a producer (Mike Howlett) who wasn't extremely experienced himself. I mean, a lot of good things and good music come around by accident too. I think a lot of ours did, although I think there is some inherent songwriting talent that we've proven over the years.

PSF: I read there was a non-LP single released before the first album.

MJ: Yes. It had a black-and-white cover of myself and Mark on it. We did it in a small studio and I think we recorded four songs and pressed it as a 45. The two songs on it were "Suburban Dream" and "Insect Love." We had recorded (and early version of) "Echo Beach," but we didn't put it on there – it didn't turn out as well as we'd hoped. I think we were also holding onto that song, for not wanting to give it away too early. DinDisc said the same thing – that they wanted to introduce us as a band first. Then the second single would be the one that they were hoping to have a hit with – which is what happened. So "Insect Love" came out as the first single. It got minimal notice, but it introduced us to the English music scene.

PSF: And the English music press…

MJ: That was something we had to get used to. We stormed out of one interview because the producer was just feeding the interviewer all of these ridiculous things to ask us, like "Why do you sound like Blondie," and (they were) criticizing our appearance rather than our music – the way we sat, the way we spoke. It was a field day – a Canadian band!

PSF: After the first two LP's, the band changed direction with This is the Ice Age. Can you speak on that?

MJ: We wanted to get a little more serious with the music. Production was becoming much more of an interest. And we were much more in tune with (producer) Danny (Lanois) than we'd ever been with Mike Howlett. So it was very exciting to go and work in the studio with Dan and that particular band. I was just really coming into writing songs that weren't so simplistic. And Mark had gone through a lot of emotional stuff right then. All the angst was coming out in the songs. He wrote some of his best songs on that album. It also had a kind of as mood to it that you don't get too much anymore because people don't make "theme albums." I mean, it didn't have a theme, but it certainly had a feel to it, and I think that's what makes it so intriguing to our fans. I'd say most people who e-mail us or write that's their favorite album. It just has something that connects with people. It was a special time in the band's relationship – and for Mark and me as well since that album is when we got together as a couple.

MG: This is the Ice Age was a very turbulent time and I think that one was maybe one of the most honest and stripped-down manifestations of that feeling of alienation. There were no filters. Virgin Records said: "We're not really interested in you anymore. We'll give you some of the album budget and you can go away and do whatever you want." It was bad in one sense, that we didn't get the full budget, but they left us alone. So there was nobody coming in every day going (affects British accent) "Oh we don't hear another single! Where's your `Echo Beach?!'"

MJ: And then we told them that we were gonna work with a fellow named Daniel Lanois and they said "Who? We want to get you somebody with a name!"

MG: To be fair, he had no name yet.

MJ: He had the talent.

MG: Yeah, he definitely had that.

PSF: At the time Jocelyne Lanois was you bassist. I have a joke that she kept pestering you guys, saying "My little brother wants to be a producer... can we use him?"

MG: It was like that really, except he's her older brother. When she first joined the band she said, "I've got a brother Dan. He'd probably let us go demo the next album in his studio." We went, "OK, why not?" The way George Martin was the fifth Beatle he was the (additional) Muffin. There was a very big collaborative sense. And the wonderful thing about working with him was that nothing was too weird. He had an instinctive feeling for what worked and what didn't.

MJ: He also totally immerses himself in each project that he's involved in.

MG: Yeah, if he's involved in something you never see him because that's what he's doing. But it's great if you're the one who is working with him at the time.

MJ: Most people would think that we were hounding him, because he's gone on to such fame and fortune working with all these name artists. But in fact, he was just sort of getting his chops together. He'd already worked with Brian Eno a little bit. That was what convinced us to work with him. We liked his style and his personality and the music that he'd done. I think we both grew a lot over the first couple of albums that we did. Because there's a lot of experimentation going on. He'd done a lot of commercial music – just local ads and things, and he'd done a lot of country stuff. So this was really new for him to work with a new wavish type of band. We expanded each other's talents and took each other to new places.

PSF: Is it my perception or is your work (especially on "Ice Age") indicative of the alienation many people feel in modern society?

MG: Well, I've always felt it. I've never felt like I was part of the modern world. I think I would have been quite happier living in the 19th century as a landscape architect or something. When I hit school and got the shit kicked out of me for the first time even on a subliminal level as a little child I was going "You know, I think I get the drift here that I'm not gonna fit in." From then on, it started obviously informing everything I did.

PSF: For your final three albums (Dansparc, Mystery Walk and The World is a Ball), the band got into a more dance-oriented groove. You even scored an American hit with "Black Stations/White Stations" (#63 in June, 1984). Social commentary in a dance song?

MJ: "Black Stations/White Stations" did pretty well in England as well. It got some airplay and some recognition from the dance scene. The song was influenced by a couple of things and one was our amazement at the segregation in radio at the time: "Hey, this is 1984, what's going on? Music is music." The other thing was that I was driving around one day and the disc jockey was going to play "Brown-Eyed Girl" and he explained how the song had been written as "Brown-Skinned Girl," but it just wasn't cool at the time when Van Morrison came out with it for a song to be about a brown skinned-girl and a white guy. So I was thinking along those lines at the time. The song was very different when we wrote it originally. It wasn't funky at all. But then we took it down to New York's Power Station and got a funky rhythm section who had played with Luther Vandross and it took a turn for the better.

PSF: Do you feel the band should have been more commercially successful?

MJ: I think we would have a lot more recognition today with what we were doing. I think when we were doing music that was considered avant garde or "out there," it wasn't accepted by commercial radio stations – or at least not as well received as the strange music of today. I mean, there's so much weird stuff out there now – The White Stripes and things that never would have taken off in the ‘80's.

MG: I also think we also alienated both ends of the music spectrum: people who liked pop music often criticized us because we would ruin it with weird sounds, and then the avant garde world didn't think we were avant garde enough. We did tread across many genres and that was probably one of our biggest downfalls – not downfalls musically, but one of our biggest barriers to reaching wider audiences. Although, as Martha says, it's so wide open now. I feel like if we'd have been around now we'd have been a bigger band. Maybe we were just a quarter century too early. I don't know.

PSF: The fact that the material has been reissued must mean that fans still listen, though.

MG: We get tons of feedback from fans, but in the outside world, the accolades seem to have happened few and far between. We weren't concerned with wealth or fame – that was typical of the whole new wave/punk thing. It wasn't about going to "rock school" and becoming a successful band and getting on television. We never even thought about that. We were just having a great time. We've got a lot of fans that really like what we do. That's always been very gratifying and has really carried us through the really low points, because there's no barrier between them and us, particularly through the Internet. They can write to us -- "You don't know how much your music means to me"-- and I believe them and I let them know that. We're still really grateful for that and never take that for granted.

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