Mark Spence has had a very busy 2018 putting out released from Royal Chant and Designer Mutts, as well as touring with touring with Phil Jamison and being a drum teacher. Mr Spence took some time out from his busy schedule to talk to Tomatrax about his latest adventures!
What is the difference between Designer Mutts and Royal Chant?
On the most basic level, Royal Chant is a three-piece garage band comprised of people with real names and identities playing music that more of less “means” something, while Designer Mutts is (usually) a two-piece outfit of fictitious band members who play extremely simple songs on a hodgepodge of instruments. You could say that Royal Chant is the “serious” band of the two, but that’s such a stupid claim to make I can’t even bring myself to say it. Oscar Wilde said “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he’ll tell you the truth”, and that resonated with me when I was putting together the Designer Mutts album. Its almost like I’ve been doing Royal Chant so long that it was nice to have another completely different, wildly exaggerated mask to hide and write behind.
When you write songs do you know which “band” will play it?
For this last round of recordings, yes, very much so. Designer Mutts has a certain musical aesthetic, let’s call it “busted anti-folk”, and since many of these songs were being written for and used for the very specific purpose of a film soundtrack, it allowed each band to have a clearer definition of itself. I think that will continue moving forward, but maybe it will just come down to Royal Chant songs feeling like more proper band and studio efforts, while Designer Mutts will maintain that bedroom aesthetic.
You also put out some solo recordings, are there any plans for any further solo releases?
In theory, yes, but I’m having a hard time truly envisioning that happening in the near future. I mean, I’m always humming and strumming by myself anyways, and still playing the odd solo show here or there, but there hasn’t been any great urge to write strictly for just myself. The majority of my songs could be played by me solo, or in some form as Designer Mutts or Royal Chant. So far, nothing that I have written lately is pulling at my sleeve and telling me to “keep this for yourself.”
Where did the name Virtue Signals come from?
In all the amazing (and long-overdue) social changes that have happened recently here in Australia, America, and around the world, the idea of “virtue signalling” certainly began to piggyback on the conversations and actions of progressive change. It was literally just a cynical term that I had been hearing a lot and contemplating even in my own actions, so it was probably near the surface of my conscious when I was working on the album. It’s just an abstract term that has a variety of concrete meanings when taken in isolation. I’m rather fond of it as a description of human behaviour as well as an album title, but it also implies a level of cynicism that I don’t actually feel. It might strike people as humorous, especially when paired against the album cover, but that was not my intent.
Where did you get the idea for the albums cover?
Those were the first shots we had after we had stumbled on the idea of taking Designer Mutts into a different world, consisting of Johnny Mac and Tyrannosaurus James from Porpoise Spit, Australia There’s something perfect and surreal about it, (to me anyways), and the feeling that comes with saying “This exists because we say it exists”.
What inspired you to include a remake of the previously Royal Chant released ‘Bored Awake’?
That was actually a really old demo of the song, before I ever showed it to the band and before it took on the bruising & blistering form that it has on record. It was originally a bit of a dirge, as you can hear, and it seemed to fit the flow of the Virtue Signals album rather well. It puts the lyrics in a new light with just the affected voice and guitar, and I had always kept the recording in my back pocket for a rainy. One of the films I was working for needed a specific type of song, and nothing I was writing was working, so when I offered this as a last resort they responded with an immediate yes.
You made the album “Name your own price”what made you decide to effectively make the album available for free?
Because very few people are buying music to have in a hard copy these days, which I don’t really mind. The change to streaming has been so swift and absolute, so rather than fight it I’ve tried to make it as easy as possible if anyone actually wants/needs a hard copy for whatever reason.
You’ve been making music for over a decade, is it hard to keep coming up with new ideas?
Yes and no? There are certainly times when I will pick up a guitar and I’m not feeling much and it’s all blah, so when that happens I try to take it as a cue and move on to something more productive and not fret about it. Having said that, there will always be a fair amount of work that goes into writing anything, and I don’t mind that in the least. I know some people, including me in my former years, who prefer to treat songs and songwriting as something magical and special and fey, but….it can still be all of those thing and take a lot of work, thought, and editing. This past year has been fairly prolific, by my standards anyways, and a lot of material has come within a fairly short amount of time. So, the short answer is: it depends.
Across your projects you’ve played guitar, drums, harmonica, and sung, do you have a favourite instrument to play?
Well, I make my living playing & teaching drums, so I should probably say that, but I feel just as comfortable with a guitar in my hands and singing into a microphone.
Is there any instrument you’d like to play but are yet to?
I had to play piano for a few years in college in order to complete my studies, but I wish I was much, much better at it. I now use the keyboard for writing or for teaching theory or doing really basic lines & parts in songs, but at no point would I ever consider myself a pianist or keyboard player.
Is there any instrument you’d never touch?
I have no real desire to learn any wind or brass instruments, mostly because I’ve been around them for so long and know how much time and work goes into them. They don’t speak to me in that way.
You also teach people to play drums, how does teaching music compare with playing music?
Sometimes I get really tired of music and even sound in general, and sometimes I just get tired of explaining things. It can take a while for my brain to get into a headspace suitable for creation rather than one suited for exposition. They are wildly different, even though they can help and inform each other. Teaching is just like any other job, so of course you can get sick of it and feel drained, but overall, being involved with music and helping shape the next generation of musicians is pretty rewarding.
You’re also a big book reader, what are you reading right now?
The World of Mr. Mulliner, by P.G. Wodehouse. It is extremely light fiction, in the best sense of the word.
Do any of the books you read act as inspiration for your songs?
Most definitely. I used to lift random phrases or images, or rework themes and ideas in my songs, or borrow rhyme schemes from poems I was enamored with. I was open to using or stealing anything and everything, especially because the entire meaning can change by the sheer fact of having a melody or changing the emphasis of of words or phrases. I read a whole lot of non-fiction news & politics, which I have realized is the equivalent of fast food, and it’s really made me rethink the simplistic notion that “reading = good”. I can feel the difference between reading worthwhile, inspiring material compared to verbal junk. There is a big difference between thinking about and considering an idea rather than just regurgitating facts and whatnot, so I try to take an active, aggressive approach to what I am reading in my spare time.
You can also watch the short film Desire Trilogy here, featuring some of Mark’s music.