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Boston’s own Kal Marks have spent the past decade taking introverted, contemplative songwriting to impossibly loud places, and their latest album, Universal Care (out today on Exploding in Sound Records) is no exception. Opener “Fuck That Guy” rings with the foreboding sense of an 18-wheeler backing up to hell’s loading dock, and it’s only fitting, because this record comes with a lot of dark material to unload.
Universal Care’s songs start in the gut, and by the time the words leave frontman Carl Shane’s mouth, they sound like they’ve fought long and hard to get out at all. “Springtime in January” takes on global warming in a blistering two minutes (the most distinguishable lyric being a guttural, panicked “ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod”) while “The Afterlife” addresses death and the hereafter in scorching tones. But amid all that, the album also features some of the band’s prettiest and most experimental tracks, complete with piano, organ, and mellotron, along with simpler numbers like “Ode” that call back to some of their earlier work. It’s a demonstration that 10 years in, Kal Marks has yet to commit to a single sound -- and we’re all the better for it.
Ahead of Universal Care’s release and a spring tour (with the band's eyes on a new van), Vanyaland caught up with Shane to discuss the making of the album and what’s changed for Kal Marks since he first started the project.
Karen Muller: In the past, you’ve mentioned that you aren’t looking to make any direct political statements in your lyrics, but an album title like Universal Care feels especially timely right now. What’s the story behind that title?
Carl Shane: We picked it mainly because it just sounded and looked good. It's something most people want and probably deserve, but in reality we may never see it in this country. This record has a lot to do with death, which I find has been happening more frequently in my life because folks aren't getting an adequate health care. Most people I'm around are working overtime, just in case they get sick. That's frightening. That's no way of living.
I started working on the new songs immediately after finishing the previous album. At the time a good few friends and acquaintances had passed. I also couldn't help to notice a lot more people in the local music and arts community were in rough shape mentally or physically. I remember talking to my mother, who's a nurse and very caring generous person, about how it was affecting me. At some point I said that I wish I could make music that could help people. I went ahead with that intention, from then on. I know now that thought was positive but kind of insane. Music can comfort you, I can't say it can heal. Also the album still came out extremely dark sounding. The title track is about giving life a chance despite the horror around.
What did you have in mind for this record when you started working on it?
We went into it wanting to use more color in sound. More vibrancy. I had been listening to a lot of Cocteau Twins, and I had been trying to combine my guitar sound with theirs. I particularly wanted to add some more cloudy sounds to counteract the abrasive sounds of the rest of the band.
Did that change at all as you dug into the process?
For the most part we have the direction in sound figured out before entering the studio, but there’s always a turn we don’t plan on taking. The melotron we didn't plan on using, because we thought it was inoperable. We actually figured it out an ended up using it on seven songs.
Universal Care feels as intense as your past records, but instrumentally speaking, it’s a bit more experimental. What led you to branch out?
Most bands don’t last long. Most don’t get around to trying new things. We aren’t trying to completely reinvent our sound, but we also don’t want to make the same record over again. We’re all open people. I think we want to get further into a "genre-less" sound. We like so many varied kinds of music, it would feel like a waste to only work on a small group of influences.
Outside of music, what are your main sources of inspiration right now?
I've been really slacking on the reading. I'm trying to read poetry before bed. I love comedy and that influences my lyrics. I love movies. I think the craft of movie making kind of relates to making an album. Trying to build something.
Which of the new songs are your favorites to perform live?
"Fuck that Guy" and "Grand Mal" are such a great release of aggression. I've haven't been in a fist fight since I was a kid, but those two are kind of the equivalent. Like it's game day. "Loosed" is great because it's got a great groove to it. "Today I walked..." I love too, because I think it's some of the best lyrics I've written. The closest to a love song. Kind of live out my Dylan, Waits, Cohen obsession on it. It also helps to have a slow song in the set to give everybody a rest.
You’ve released songs as Kal Marks for over a decade now. Aside from the addition of your bandmates, how has your creative approach changed over that time?
Every song is different. Servicing the song has always been the main priority. What's changed is that with the guys, that I've been playing with for the past five years, they can really augment the song. Change the rhythm, arrangement, volume, sound. It's really exciting. I don't think I would’ve been making these sounds 10 years ago, but my individual process hasn't changed. I just sit down with a guitar and screw around till something happens.
KAL MARKS + NICE GUYS + BAT HOUSE + FURANIMAL :: Saturday, March 10 at The Cambridge Elks Lodge, 55 Bishop Allen Drive in Cambridge, MA :: 8 p.m., all ages, $12 :: Proceeds to benefit Taller Salud :: Facebook event page :: Featured image courtesy of Exploding In Sound