Jagwar Ma: Discussin’ “Howlin'”

Howlin’ might just make you scream—in the best way possible.

It’s been a long time since we’ve experienced an alternative record this majestic, magnetic, and marvelous. Nodding to the synth elegance of the eighties and early nineties with a strict adherence to shimmering melodies, Howlin’ proves immediately rapturous. Meet the future. Meet Jagwar Ma.

In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect. Jono Ma of Jagwar Ma opens up about Howlin’ and so much more.

Did you approach Howlin’ with one vision or vibe in mind?

Yeah, we weren’t thinking too much about what we were doing while we were doing it. We were just doing it. The cohesion wasn’t difficult because there are only two of us. I was doing all of the engineering. There was literally no one else in the room while we were recording. It was literally just two people and a limited amount of equipment. Those imposed boundaries and limitations made it easier to make a cohesive record. At the time, we weren’t conscious of it or saying, “Let’s make a record that sounds like this”. We just went to the studio and made a record.

So, the elements helped the focus.

The elements definitely did—as in the people and equipment. We did it in a few different studios. We did a bit in Sydney, a bit in France, a bit in London, and a bit in Berlin. I’m one of those people who believes once you shut the door to the studio it’s about you and your ideas and not where you are geographically. I think the limited amount of people that touched the record helped. We didn’t have a label at the time. It was just our own ideas. That helped keep it quite a smooth-running project without much indecisiveness. It made a cohesive record in the end.

Was it important to create a deep listening experience with these warm soundscapes?

I think at the surface level we were trying to write really good songs and have great, memorable melodies with solid grooves and rhythms. I wanted to get in deeper on the production side of things. There are more things to discover on repeated listens. We wanted to write music that would work on a shitty pair of laptop speakers but also have this rich other world when you’re listening on great headphones or a great soundsystem. The vinyl is a double-album. There are those different levels of discovery.

Did you aim to tell stories and paint pictures with the songs? You can see the music as much as you can hear it.

Thank you! I take that as a great compliment. I think some of the best music is very visual. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing necessarily, but we definitely wanted to create rich soundscapes and have a great deal of detail in there that can create this world whether it’s visual, purely sonic, or both. There are a few songs that we did consciously talk about visual ideas as we were working on them. Generally, it was quite an organic process. As I was digging deeper on the production side of things, I was trying to create the sonic depth which yields that visual at the end of it.

What were those visuals you thought about?

One track “Did You Have To” was very much about this concept of Super 8 home videos. You know like the beginning of The Wonder Years or something like that with memories. It’s that tactile aesthetic of Super 8. It’s quite grainy and saturated. The colors are hyper-real. I wanted “Did You Have To” to have that sound tonally. It’s fun to have directions like that to explore with. Last week, we got back from Berlin. We went to this club called Panorama Bar, which is pretty amazing for house music, techno, and various other electronic genres. We wanted to create that environment again in our own way with “Four”.

What does “Backwards Berlin” mean to you?

This sounds so wank-y and like such a copout [Laughs]. However, that one is sort of like a dream. We were trying create something quite lucid and free as opposed to some of the other songs, which are obviously quite driving and intense. We just wrote music regularly. At the end, we had a great body of work we were constructing this journey out of. This seemed like an appropriate way to soften the landing.

If you were to compare Howlin’ to a movie or a combination of movies, what would you compare it to?

Great question! I’m tempted to name some of my favorite films, but I don’t think they bear any resemblance or relationship to the album. I want to say Apocalypse Now or Chinatown. They’ve got really dramatic, brutal endings. I don’t think our record has that. Our album is a little more passive than those two films. I can’t think of something off the top of my head. Let’s pretend it’s Apocalypse Now. In reality, it’s probably more daft like Austin Powers or more mellow like Lost in Translation or something. I want it to be more of a masterpiece like Apocalypse Now [Laughs].

Maybe you could say the final act of Apocalypse Now when Martin Sheen meets Dennis Hopper and Marlon Brando…

[Laughs] In reality, I’d say it’s more like the beginning of the film when they’re cruising up the river and waterskiing to “Satisfaction”. There are highs and lows on the river, but we don’t get to that extreme darkness until he meets Brando, they sacrifice cattle, and engage in all of those other rituals.

What artists shaped you?

Jimi Hendrix is one of those artists both of us continually go back to. It’s one of the first things I got into as a kid, and it’s still pretty amazing. It’s hard to beat Jimi and James Brown. For me, I’d even say Sly & the Family Stone. The old soul and Motown never seems to date.

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