MASSA NERA interview
Buy tape/12" from Zegema Beach Records
All words/questions from LongArmsLongLegs:
Massa Nera's new album is excellent. I was contacted directly by Massa Nera and was given a sneak preview of the release via the soundcloud URL provided in the email.
I got the exciting feeling that this album is the result of the pursuit of the hardcore sound that Massa Nera has been presenting so far, and also that they are breaking new ground.
1. First of all, I know this is an old question, but please tell us about the band's history to date. There may be many listeners in Japan who become familiar with Massa Nera through this interview.
Mark: I'm gonna give an insanely detailed answer so that we can just refer to this in the future haha.
Massa Nera was originally a different band. Allen and Chris were members, as well as our original bassist and vocalist. I met them at a show in Roselle Park, NJ (the only show Chris ever booked, coincidentally enough). My other band, Our Wits, played alongside them. After our set, Chris came up to me and asked me if I enjoy jazz. I answered in the affirmative, after which he asked if I listen to Toe. I once again said yes, all the while asking myself “who is this kid asking me about jazz at a punk show?”
A couple months later, I saw that they needed a drummer. I remembered my conversation with Chris and figured it would be worth auditioning. I think I was the only drummer they tried out. Upon getting the role, I found out that they were going to rename themselves and essentially start anew. Thus, Massa Nera was born. By this point, they had added a third guitarist, making Massa Nera a sextet in its original configuration.
From there, we started writing. We worked on the songs that became Will it Be Enough for You to Keep Going? (two of which were already written, in part or in full, by the time I joined) before recording them in April, 2016 with Steve Roche (who has recorded everything we've done since, the Envy cover notwithstanding). By that point, we'd already begun writing a couple of the songs that would be featured on no estamos separados and the first 4-Way Split (specifically "I'll be the next to go" and "Un mal cola de hadas"). Shortly after the first ep was released, we began playing shows. I think our first show was May 9th, 2016.
That summer, our 3rd guitarist left, after which we decided that two guitarists were enough. Personally, I think this decision gave Allen the space to really assert himself as both a writer and guitarist. Once we became a quintet, we rewrote our unrecorded material and began working on "The Search for Nothing," "Doing Nothing for Others is the Undoing of Ourselves," and Los Pensamientos de una Cara Palida. We recorded both no estamos separados and our contributions to 4-Way Split in August, 2016 (in one day!) and spent the rest of the year working on Los Pensamientos and playing shows (of which I think we played about 30). We also worked on our cover of "The Monologue of the Century" for that Jeromes Dream tribute album. 2016 was an extremely busy year!
We recorded Los Pensamientos in February + March, 2017 (over the course of 4 days spread across a pair of two-day sessions). Our bassist left the band between the first and second sessions, whereupon Allen got his friend Rick (with whom he played in Forever Losing Sleep) to join. I think we played one show with that lineup before our vocalist left. Once that happened, Chris, Allen, and I decided to do the vocals ourselves, rather than bring someone else into the band. Chris and I had already been contributing lyrically, and the three of us had more-or-less established ourselves as the principle writers, so it made sense. From here on out, Massa Nera would be a quartet.
Our first show doing vocals was Zegema Beach Records Fest 2017, which was our first time playing out of the country. I think that performance gave us a lot of momentum going forward. No one knew who we were beforehand. Afterwards, most people still didn’t know who we were, but enough people did that we were being added to shows with bands like Soul Glo and Flesh Born!
By July 2017, Rick decided to bow out. My friend Nagee (who plays bass in Our Wits) became our new bassist. He was with the band until February, 2018, meaning he was with us during our weekender with Infant Island, our first two Canadian weekenders, and a whole bunch of other shows. He was also part of the initial writing sessions for "Nunca Seremos lo Mismo" (off Hymnes aux désarrois de la peau) and "Adrift (off Derramar | Querer | Borrar, which should give people an idea of how long we were working on this album).
Once Nagee left, we were pretty rudderless. Since much of our time with Nagee was spent playing shows and teaching him our old material, we didn't have many chances to write (beyond the aforementioned songs and a couple other things). After he left, we seemed to write even less, though a few of the ideas that made it onto the new record first appeared during this time. I think we recorded "The Light of My Footsteps" (our contribution to the Envy/Love compilation) during that period as well.
Thankfully, AJ joined in June, 2018. I knew her from the Skramcave; she had made a pretty incredible ep that fused screamo with chamber music, as well as a criminally underappreciated screamo ep under the name Small Caps. We'd exchanged messages a few times, and she actually attended a show we played in Brooklyn that January. She messaged me about the possibility of Massa Nera doing a weekender with This Place Is Actually the Worst, her mathcore / cyberpunk / electronica / art punk duo. I asked if she wanted to join Massa Nera instead. She said yes, and soon after began playing bass and performing vocals. Finally, we had a stable lineup!
From here, the rest is quick. We played a lot of cool shows during AJ's first year with the band (New Friends Fest 1, for which our friend Taimir filled in on bass; ZBR Fest 2, NFF 2, etc.). We also toured Southeast Asia and Japan, which was probably the highlight of my entire life. We also recorded "Nunca Seremos lo Mismo" in August, 2018. Come January 2020, we finally found a practice space, which allowed us to write and rehearse much more regularly. Covid killed some of our touring plans, but it allowed us to devote ourselves entirely to the new record.
And that's it! Since last October, we've been playing a lot of shows, working on the new record (which is obviously out now, thank goodness), filming music videos, and planning tours. That is as comprehensive a history of the band as any of us will ever give hahahaha
2. First of all, the new album that you played for us was wonderful. It is clearly on a different level from your previous works. My personal impression is that Massa Nera's sound has some elements that are a bit different from the new generation of Screamo trends that have been rising since the late 2010s. I have been wondering what they are, so I would like to first clear that up. Do you guys consider yourselves a Screamo band? And you are trying to update that musicality rather than conservatively inherit it? Isn't that right?
Mark: Thank you for the kind words! I do consider us a screamo band, but I always felt that "screamo" was rather vague and amorphous as far as genre descriptors go. For me, screamo is more about exploring certain ideas (the dichotomy of chaos and fragility, extreme emotional vulnerability, etc.) than it is about replicating specific sonic hallmarks (beyond screamed vocals, which are pretty essential haha). So I guess it might be more precise to say that while I do consider us a screamo band, I don't think we're just a screamo band.
Truthfully, we think of Massa Nera as an art project. We don’t believe we have to sound a certain way, or that we have to adhere to certain aesthetics. We're aware of stylistic trends within screamo (like "the screamo rhythm") and make a conscious effort to avoid them (or at least subvert them). Likewise, we love pulling from a wide variety of musical and artistic influences, even if that results in us writing something that isn't screamo at all.
So to answer the second part of this question, I don't think we're trying to "update" screamo. I think we're trying to create our own sound, something that's distinct to us. Personally, I don’t care if our pursuit of that goal causes our future music to move in a completely different direction, so long as it remains honest and passionate.
3. I think the first time I heard Massa Nera was on "Los Pensamientos De una Cara Palida" released on Zegema Beach. Even at that time, we had a lot of Screamo/Skramz bands in our distro, but your sound had a chaos to it, like the old City Of Caterpillar releases. It is a whirlpool of emotions that cannot solely be expressed through the intensity and urgency of your playing. There is a tension in the length of the songs and between the sounds, and there is an immersive feeling of being transported to another world when you listen. Obviously, I thought it was different from the West Coast bands as well; what do you think Massa Nera's influences are?
Mark: Each of us is influenced by a wide variety of music, including a lot of stuff that might not seem obvious at first! Obviously, many of our biggest influences are the screamo bands that we discovered when we were younger. City of Caterpillar may very well be our biggest influence, but we also love bands like Raein, Loma Prieta, Envy, Malady, Kidcrash, Daitro, Shizune, Itto, Majority Rule, and the like. We also love a lot of our contemporaries: bands like Respire, Sans Visage, Infant Island, Closer, Joliette, Zeta, Blind Girls, Gillian Carter, Burial Dance, Hundreds of AU, Beast Jesus, Supine, etc. The list goes on and on!
We’re also influenced by several other heavy genres: death metal (Gorguts, Immolation, Cryptopsy); grindcore (Discordance Axis, Assuck, Human Remains); the more post-rock and shoegaze-infused strains of black metal (Oathbreaker, Sadness, Deafheaven); sludge metal (Rorcal, Sumac, Thou); math rock (Capsule, Don Caballero, Slint); post-hardcore (Thursday, Fugazi, These Arms Are Snakes); etc. We all listen to a ton of softer rock music as well; post-punk, shoegaze, indie rock, power pop, emo, and even stuff like classic rock.
I want to stress that the four of us also enjoy a great deal of music that’s pretty far removed from the world of rock. We pull a lot from those non-rock influences rhythmically, melodically/harmonically, and aesthetically. Collectively, we take inspiration from jazz, bossa nova, merengue, ambient, modern classical, future garage, city pop, vaporwave, techno, hip-hop, cloud rap, salsa, hyperpop, soul, drone, and 1000 other styles of music.
We actually did an article with Idioteq where we discussed some of our main influences while writing Derramar | Querer | Borrar. I’ll link it here in case anyone wants to check it out! (click for link)
4. When you started the band, did you have a vision from the beginning of what kind of band you wanted to be?
Mark: I think we knew that we wanted to play hardcore music with a lot of melodic and rhythmic movement. If you listen to our first ep, Will It Be Enough for You to Keep Going?, the foundations of our sound were already in place. From there, we’ve just tried our best to write the sort of music that interests, excites, and challenges us. I think our new record is by far our most successful attempt at doing that. It also represents the most intentional piece of art we’ve ever created. We spent more time working on this album than we did on all our previous records put together, Los Pensamientos included.
5. You have toured Japan, and Nakagawa Kou of ungulates is an important figure in Japan. How did you come up with the idea of touring Japan?
Mark: Well, we were brainstorming ideas for what was going to be our first real tour. We were throwing around a lot of possibilities, like a full US tour, or a trip to mainland Europe. I think it was Chris who suggested going to Asia. His rationale, if I’m remembering this correctly, was that it would be fun and exciting to do something that very few bands from the U.S. ever attempt.
Initially, our plan was to exclusively tour Southeast Asia. We got in contact with the Sleeping Boy Collective (based out of The Philippines), which led to us messaging bands in Malaysia and Singapore (and eventually Indonesia). Shortly thereafter, we decided to split the tour between Southeast Asia and Japan. This was mostly inspired by our love of various Japanese bands (such as the aforementioned Envy and Sans Visage, but also bands like Toe, Endon, Tricot, Blue Friend, and more), as well as our desire to visit Japan on a personal level.
Since all of us really loved Sans Visage, Kou was the first person we messaged. Thank goodness we did that! Without him, this tour never would have happened. Not only did he book and promote our shows in Osaka and Tokyo; he also acted as our guide during much of our time in Japan. It was an absolutely beautiful experience. He’s a truly lovely, kind individual, as well as a monster behind the kit! We miss him to this day, and hope we can return so that we can spend more time with him, if nothing else. I should also give a shout out to our friend Yoshi (formerly of the band Diane Arbus) for booking our show in Nagoya! It was a joy spending time with him as well! In general, that tour was a dream come true. Like I said earlier, this was probably the best two weeks of my life.
6. Please tell us about the current situation in the U.S. Some of the new bands that emerged in the late 2010s have grown up or broken up, but what is the current situation in 2022?
There don't seem to be many bands like Massa Nera that are still active with several releases. It seems like everyone is short-lived. I am inspired by the new Screamo territory that bands that have been around for a long time are stepping out into.
Mark: From our perspective, there’s a surplus of excellent screamo being produced in the U.S! It’s true that most of screamo groups are short-lived, but there are several awesome bands that have a few releases under their belts: Ostraca, Hundreds of AU, Infant Island, Quiet Fear, Gillian Carter, Eyelet, Snag, Supine, Foxtails, Coma Regalia, Frail Body, etc. If you include the scene in Canada, you can add bands like Respire, Terry Green, Dianacrawls, and TDOAFS to that list (and similarly, including the scene in Mexico allows us to bring up bands like Habak, Joliette, and Satón).
Additionally, there are tons of great bands that are either newer, or simply don’t have many releases (despite having been around for a few years). We’d recommend checking out bands like Lágrimas, Lástima, To Forget, Sonagi, Pyre, Burial Dance, Stress Spells, New Grass, In Wolves Clothing, and Yume. From there, you’re liable to discover dozens of bands that even we don’t know!
Truthfully, with all the bands that are currently making music (and with festivals like Zegema Beach Records Fest and New Friends Fest gaining strength each year), I feel like the U.S. screamo scene is the healthiest it’s been in a while! The only thing that’s lagging behind, at least where we live, is the infrastructure for DIY shows, and even this has been picking up as of late. With more nurturing and community-building, I think the scene will be really strong and robust for years to come.
7. There is one striking sentence about the lyrics of this issue.
"Why do I believe compliance will save me?"
It is a line from the fourth song, "Adrift".
What do you think about the regulation of expression from compliance (also called political correctness?)
Mark: Thank you! I wrote the lyrics to “Adrift” (except for the last line; I pulled that from "Shapeshift," which AJ wrote). I'm actually still in my 20's! I'm currently 28, but I finished those lyrics when I was 26. When we recorded the album, AJ was the only person in the band who was 30; I was 27, Chris was 26, and Allen was 25. I guess we're just old souls at heart haha.
In all seriousness, when I wrote those lyrics, I was experiencing an existential crisis of sorts with respect to how I was living. I'd obtained a master's degree in psychology and had spent 5 years working in the mental health field. By most metrics, I was "doing everything right," yet I wasn't happy. In fact, I was depressed. This situation reached a boiling point at my last job. I kept telling myself that if I stuck things out just a bit longer, I’d be able to save some more money, and then I’d quit, or get myself fired, or whatever.. Each time I reached whatever deadline I set for myself, I pushed things back even further and repeated the entire process.
"Adrift," then, was my way of confronting this situation. It was my attempt to confront the phenomena of enduring a toxic situation, despite your awareness of how unhealthy it is, rather because of fear / complacency / etc. It was also my way of expressing my worry that if I kept putting off action, I’d end up like my dad, burnt out and filled with regrets after 30+ years in the same soul-deadening job.
As an aside, I eventually decided to contact a local union. My coworkers and I spent a great deal of time engaged in a very active organizing campaign. Unfortunately, someone snitched on me, and I ended up getting fired before the union could get in. However, I subsequently filed an unfair labor practice charge against my job (for wrongful termination), after which I was awarded a nice settlement. Even before I won the settlement, my mental health improved dramatically after getting fired. It goes to show, there’s no reward for silently suffering at a job that ultimately views you as replaceable. Collective action is the only way forward.
Regarding political correctness: In the U.S. at least, political correctness is oftentimes used as a tool by the right-wing to decry any criticism they might receive for punching down or otherwise discriminating against marginalized groups. The right-wing are keen to bang the free speech gavel, but only when it suits their limited, narrow worldview. They’re using the idea of free speech as a way to deflect from criticism, and as a dishonest means of painting their political opponents in a bad light. If you can successfully convince people that your opponents are simply “politically correct,” you can more easily get them to agree with your regressive, discriminatory agenda. Obviously, we as a band are against racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and any other form of bigotry, so we don’t think we’re being politically correct by adhering to those values. We think we’re just being decent people.
However, there’s also a much more conservative form of political correctness that’s extremely pervasive in the U.S., even if it isn’t always identified by that name. As you say, it’s the sort of political correctness that demands we refrain from speaking truth to power. It’s the political correctness that tells us never to question whether the police are truly necessary (or whether their function is to actually “protect and serve”), or why your boss makes so much more than you despite doing less work (or why we even need bosses in the first place), or whether capitalism is indeed ethical, fair, or just. It’s also the sort of political correctness that tries to control how we look, who we love, and the means by which we express ourselves. Obviously, we’re vehemently opposed to that sort of political correctness. True freedom means creating a world in which everyone can be boundless. That will never happen unless we destroy all the systems that restrict us (such white supremacy, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, the patriarchy, and especially capitalism).
8. I was very surprised by "Shapeshift." This track is very different from your previous hardcore sounds. What was the process behind this track?
I mean, how did the songs on this album come to be?
The unpredictable development is thrilling, yet not too bizarre, and everything seems natural at the same time.
Mark: It was Allen’s idea! Allen more-or-less wrote the “thrash” section of “Shapeshift” by himself. When he originally presented the “Shapeshift” demo to the band, it included an extended trance outro. Around this time, Chris was heavily immersed in the world of electronic music, so he took that idea and ran with it. The actual techno / future garage / etc. track that made it to the record is 99% Chris. The rest of us contributed a couple of ideas.
Without giving too much away, we were very deliberate about ending Side A with that section. Some people might find it disruptive (indeed, it seems like this is the most divisive section of the album by far), but we view it as essential to the overall flow of the record from a thematic standpoint.
As for the other songs, the writing process was extremely collaborative! In general, someone will come to the band with an idea, whether it’s a riff, chord progression, or rhythm. From there, the four of us build the song piece-by-piece, usually editing and revising each aspect of it several times. On some occasions, a song is brought to the band in a more fully-formed state.
9. There is a song called "April 7th." Is April 7th a date when something happened? Or is it a day that means nothing?
Mark: If I recall, April 7th was the day AJ quit a particularly depressing, exploitative job. Either that, or it was the day she began writing the lyrics for that song. Either way, it holds personal significance to us! However, in the context of the album, the title is deliberately unremarkable and mundane. April 7th is “just another day,” a sad comedown after the future garage freakout that ends Side A. Again, without telling anyone how to listen to the record (which isn’t any fun), that’s 100% intentional.
10. In addition to the chaotic music, what prompted the lyrical expression to delve deeply into the inner world about views of life and time?
When I read the lyrics of other Screamo bands, they are either pretty straightforward expressions of anger, or on the contrary, abstract, or both.
Your lyrics are neither of those things, or rather, there is something that sticks deeply inside. I think the sound also enhances this effect.
Mark: Simply put, each of us were going through a great deal of turmoil while working on the album. Much of that stress had to do with our jobs, capitalism, mental health, and the interrelationship between those things. After completing drafts for about five songs, we compared lyrics and found out we were all writing about the same things. Once we came to that realization, we made the decision to make those subjects the focus of the entire record. It was important for the music and lyrics to enhance each other, so we’re happy you feel they did!
11. The title is "Derramar | Querer | Borrar" and I don't know what it means, but it's not fun to listen to the answer here, so I'm going to interpret it for the listener.
But I would like you to give me just a hint at the end.
Mark: A hint? Why not! The meaning of the title isn’t meant to be a secret, but I’m game.
Here it is: each word appears in the album at least once, albeit in a conjugated form. “Querer,” however, doesn’t appear in Spanish; it only appears in English. In fact, one of the song titles is essentially the present-tense conjugation of “Querer” in English. Can you guess which song that is?
Sorry if that’s a bad hint! Obviously, I won’t be working on any murder mysteries any time soon.
12. Now I would like to add one last question.
In his opening response, Chris asked, "Do you like jazz?" I wonder what the reason was for asking that.
Mark: I think Chris asked me that after watching my other band (Our Wits) perform! I admittedly really enjoy jazz, and at the time I played in a couple jazz ensembles at college. I guess Chris could detect that influence in my playing and wanted to confirm it. Once I answered "yes," he started talking about Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, confirming that he liked jazz too!
13. I hope that this interview will help listeners find something else to enjoy about this masterpiece of Massa Nera's work.
I was like, "I see!" and there are some parts that made me want to listen to it more deeply.
Any last words?
Mark: Thank you for giving us such thoughtful questions! Also, a sincere thanks to anyone who has listened to the new album, even if it wasn't for you. The fact that people have taken the time to give it a chance means a great deal to us. We hope to return to Japan at some point! I feel like it's going to happen; it's just a matter of "when."