Andrew Mars likes to keep busy. After debuting his emotive, atmospheric songwriting project Settled Arrows with 2015’s Public Privacy — an album that finds moving beauty in personal tragedy, the loss of friends and the death of loved ones — Mars existed in that body of work for a year. He released Unsend, a stripped-down solo-piano revisit of the album recorded in one take. He released two live collections, one of Public Privacy performed before a studio audience at South Philly’s Buckeye Recording, and one a collection of covers from the same gig, rooted in his then day job at a piano bar. He even took part in an ambitious production with BalletX last fall, writing operatic lyrics for a production of Sunset, 0639 Hours at the Wilma Theater.
At the time, his next body of work was poised to be more surreal and abstract — and we definitely hear sonically free-form moments on INNOCENCE//The Fall of the Fool, the latest Settled Arrows album, released last Friday on Bandcamp. But topically, we find Mars responding to world events: a tense and uneasy climate both politically and socially, a litany of men behaving badly and a public demanding accountability, an uneasy undercurrent of aggression. On one level, the album is a takedown of toxic masculinity, but it also sees toxic masculinity as one component of much more deeply-seated societal ills. I caught up with Mars this week to chat on the phone about all of these things, as well as the current four-piece configuration of Settled Arrows that will perform live at Ortlieb’s tomorrow night.
The Key: When we talked a year and a half ago and you were still in Public Privacy mode, you hinted that the next body of work would be called Nectar, using metaphors about plants to illustrate human emotional states, and that it would be more surreal and abstract. Can you give an overview of the creative road that led to INNOCENCE//The Fall of the Fool?
Andrew Mars: The Nectar project is still in the works! It’s taking a lot longer than I thought, though, so this is different one. I kind of became derailed by the events in the world – especially Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, the shootings that have been happening. The violence in our country was rocking my world, and also put me in the in place of look at my own masculine anger…examining toxic masculinity in myself. So the scope of this project became something else altogether.
TK: You’ve described the album as a “scifi/horror/fantasy rock opera that explores toxic masculinity and the terrifying disorder attacking a culture on the verge of collapse.” Now, toxic masculinity is not a new problem. It’s existed for, like, millennia. Can you talk about why there’s an urgency to address it now – not just in your creative work, but at large?
AM: I’ve been making a lot of mistakes. I was struck by the parallel I somehow saw in what was going on and the anger I feel in myself. The urge was to hold myself accountable, look at where rage comes from. Is that a masculine trait, the need to lash out? The energy in the world seeming so destructive, the need to tear things down.
It was also my own frustration with things like the way capitalism is structured, the hoops somebody needs to jump through to participate in society. Those were the impulses that drove the project creatively. And of course, America made choices that are interesting. But more than those choices, these are patterns that have existed for a long time. And rather than watching us going around in hamster wheel over and over, it’s time for solutions.
TK: What about the second half of that statement? Is toxic masculinity the terrifying disorder attacking culture, or is that one component of something much bigger?
AM: The songs talk a lot about vampire capitalism, and competitiveness in a way. The commodification of the human spirit. And the disorder I see too is the sense of competitiveness between people, a sense of hierarchy. One person has to be above their peers; some people have eight jobs, some people have no jobs. The inherent classism that has developed seems to be all-pervasive. That, to me, is the disorder; the ways it manifests in our lives is different, but I see a lot of people who claim to be friends stab each other in back, I see people jockying for position because society is not meeting our needs, whether financial or spiritual. It’s the idea of promoting equity when society is based on competitiveness.
Originally this album was going to be called Cry Wolf. My friends are like “Andrew, we don’t know who you are, you’re like Jeckyll and Hyde” because of how I am on social media. That got me thinking about werewolves, and monsters, and how sometimes ideals can turn you into a monster. There’s an opera I listened to by Charles-François Gounod, The Damnation of Faust. And the last song on my record is a nod to the end of the opera, where the choir of the damned takes our soul away. I was so struck by that piece of music, I saw it performed live and it took my breath away.
So there are a lot of threads, but the album is really a look at failure, anger, rage — all those things.
TK: Public Privacy drew on personal trauma and tragedy to create a musical catharsis…but it wasn’t overtly, the songs could stand as vignettes or works of fiction pretty easily, versus autobiography. Does INNOCENCE feel like a personal collection to you, or is it more outer-directed?
AM: It’s more outer directed, even though some of the impulse is me wanting to take myself to task. That’s why I’m calling it a work of science fiction. Public Privacy is like that 60s movie Fantastic Voyage where scientists shrink down and go inside a person’s body; but instead of seeing the the inner workings of my body, you’re seeing snippets of time. How did I feel doing the walk of shame from a Grindr hookup? How did I feel taking mushrooms and skinny dipping? With this album, it’s sci-fi because it seems to tell a specific story, but I’m leaving it abstract so people can find their own story.
I imagine it as a film that’s set in the 1800s but is also futuristic; it’s definitely not about our current time, the film in my head is a sci-fi film. Also, I think it would be funny to be in an action film where the hero walks to edge of cliff and falls the whole time…a little bit like the myth of Icarus, if that makes sense. And it’s meant to be entertaining in that sense, I hope, even though the issues we’re talking about are pretty dire.
TK: I’m interested to hear about the band you’ve been playing with, and how they’ve influenced the new project. In our last interview, you were collaborating mostly with Jesse Sparhawk and Rosie Langabeer. Jesse is still with the project, along with it seems like three other folks? How’d you connect with them and what do they bring to the table?
AM: The cool thing about Settled Arrows is I’ve had an open door policy. People are welcome to join my band and we’ll make it work. And the music I make is essentially me reacting to the human beings who feel nice to be around and work with.
Jesse is like the Wayne Shorter of harp; he can come in and add all this color and momentum to a piece. Robert Beamer on drums is incredible, Yoomi Kwon is incredible on cello. And what everyone is awesome about is listening to my vision for a piece and helping us achieve it as a team. Often they do stuff that surprises me, because they’re doing things I hear instinctually in my head. And we’re starting to work on the next project, and a whole different team is beginning to emerge.
TK: With previous iterations of Settled Arrows, the constant was you and goal was flexibility. Do you feel like the current configuration is more solid?
AM: I do feel like the current group is solid. The experience of making the record was really easy. I’ve had other projects that were really different, but everybody on the team is incredible – including Steve Roche, who engineered the record. It’s hard to find an engineer you can connect with and trust.
It is still an open door policy, and they’re all free to go and free to stay as long as they want. I try to be Daoist and not put expectations on it. The goal for the project in my life, or at least as much of it as I’m able to to create, is for it to have that space to grow and change. But as far as the scene right now, people take genre a little too seriously, and are quick to categorize. To put a limit on how a project is perceived. Ideally, we could do whatever we want, and it would just be called music.
I have other projects I’d like to explore. I have a synth metal album that I recorded a couple years ago, and that’s getting ready to come out. I enjoy challenging myself to stay versatile, and to add something to the conversation with variety of teammates.
Settled Arrows performs live at Ortlieb’s on Wednesday, November 15th; tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.