The Makers The Makers have long stuck out in the West Coast garage-rock scene for being just a little too flamboyant and creative, dressing in frills and leather and singing songs that aren't just about hot rods and GTOs. When they went for the gold a few years ago and fully merged into a high-glam/garage-punk hybrid, they alienated half their original fan base, yet their music got better and more focused. Now they've trumped the scene once again, with Rock Star God (Sub Pop), a genuine rock concept album with a pumped-up beginning, drugged-up middle and blissed-out end. It's filled with decadent rock mise-en-scenes like "Room 600, top floor of a downtown apartment building: Our hero has collapsed. He pauses for a moment to look at the electric guitar lying to his right, face-down." They're a bunch of shmucks passing as major rock gods, yes, but in conversation here, singer Mike Maker shows that he's no less deluded about the "honesty and sincerity" of dressed-up theatrical rock than your average overpaid video star (hello, Billy Corgan), so who knows?
Mike Maker: It's based on the world of rock 'n' roll. It focuses on one character that we refer to as the rock star, who is basically just a composite of all of us in the band. And it chronicles this character through a semi-mediocre rise. He has to deal with the untimely suicide of his girlfriend midway through the album, and goes through a lot of strange situations involving sex and drugs, and then the album kind of reaches its boiling point and drifts away into a nice little lullaby, and it ends on a semi-optimistic note... The album kind of explodes at the beginning with exciting rock 'n' roll pop songs that are optimistic in nature, and then it twists and turns into something that's much more abstract and unorthodox. The song structures change.
In a way it brings to mind The Wall or Ziggy Stardust, with a rock star as someone who is alienated and destroyed by extreme fame. You're saying that it's based on you guys, but you're basically an underground band.
The difference between the concept of this album and something like The Wall or Ziggy Stardust is that they were aiming high, and we've always tried to take the sincere approach and only write about what we know. We're not science-fiction writers. We make music about our lives. The album is not about somebody who is a rock star in the grand sense, not a David Bowie-type character or something like that. It's about real people. In everybody's lives they have their own rock stars and their own heroes and their own villains. It doesn't always have to be somebody famous. We all have our stories to tell. This is our story.
That takes me by surprise a little bit because the album seems like it's supposed to be a little bit fictional. You guys even sort of look like you're in character.
There definitely are elements of that. We go by different names on the album, and we do try to make it seem like a production, with a cast and players. But that's only so that we can tell our story. It's just a strategy that artists use to tell their own tale and be able to tell it a little more intensely.
There's a lot more variety in the sound on Rock Star God than I've heard from the Makers before, which was pretty much straightforward garage rock. What is it about the concept that allows you to do that? Is it just putting on the costume and getting into character that frees you?
I think so. Like I said, it's a strategy that we have to use sometimes just to do battle with our own insecurities. I think through the concept we could be a little more honest and be a little more self-effacing. A lot of the time it's harder to always be revealing yourself, and referring to "I" as myself. Sometimes that forces you to be a little more on guard than you'd like to be. When you disguise yourself as somebody other than yourself, it actually frees you up to tell your story and to be more revealing by using this person to realize your vision.
Do you want this to be taken seriously as the story of the Makers?
I want it to be taken as something that is the Makers. It's not like we're writing about anything that we don't know. All we can do is tell you what we are, who we are, and try to find some understanding with the people listening... I think the album stands on its own. I think the songs are good, and the concept definitely doesn't get in the way. It's just a story. It's no different than if you were to watch a movie or read a book; there's a concept behind all those things. I don't see why an album has to be any different.
It seems to me that it changes the whole approach, and in good ways. Just the fact that you were trying for a big narrative seemed to inspire you more.
I think so. When you're telling a story, you create certain scenes in your mind, certain settings and arrangements?a visual. And when you create music with a visual in mind it tends to be bigger, and somewhat exaggerated. Which is what I think glam rock is all about?exaggerated rock 'n' roll.
I'm pretty impressed by all the detail and the finesse that went into the album. It's got a really interesting structure, and there are a lot of neat little echoes that run throughout it. Like at the beginning the band is shouting "M-A-K-E-R-S" and at the end it's "F-U-C-K-E-R-S." There's a lot of stuff that suggests you guys spent a lot of time planning the whole thing out.
There was a lot of time spent on it. We definitely wanted to have that theme there all the time, the glory of rock 'n' roll, the bittersweet tragedy of living that lifestyle. We've dedicated our lives to playing music. So there is a story to be told there. You don't have to be the singer from U2 to have a story to tell, to have glory and tragedy and depth to your life. You can be just a small person from a small town.
When you get down to things like the hospital trip and the girlfriend's suicide, is that autobiographical?
I think the lifestyle kind of tears away at your soul. Like all the reasons you get into it. It's hard to hang on to those small reasons that force you to make music. Like the passion of it, the need to just be onstage and to scream. It's easy to lose that through all the business and the bureaucracy of trying to put your album out and trying to do a show and not get ripped off and get out on the road and make a little bit of money so you can pay your rent. It's a tough life. You have to give up everything to do it. There are sides to it that are amazing. You can't give up. It's like a drug. You just can't let it go. But you're always thinking, this is ruining my life and I've sacrificed so much just to do this. And therein lies the tragedy. We've all sacrificed so much, and we've lost so many people. And you can't help but think it has so much to do with the lifestyle we've chosen to live.
So somebody's girlfriend really did commit suicide?
The story is all there. It's all the Makers.
Give me some particular examples.
The album is pretty much the story of one year in the life of the Makers. I don't want to get too in detail about it, because I think the album is as far as we want to go with it without saying too much.
I guess I didn't realize it was supposed to be autobiographical. I don't get the sense of confessional, personal history here.
Well, that's the big difference between the traditional concept album of the 1970s and also that's what's responsible for the stigma people have toward the concept album. It's just that the concept is usually so absurd. And it's only because it happened to be something that was overdone in the 1970s. But for us it means something completely different. And I would probably approach the album with a little bit of skepticism, because I too remember 2112 and that's what comes to mind when I think of concept albums. But I mean, we're modern people. We're not trying to revive anything from the past. We're not nostalgic people. We're just totally modern men. We don't want to hand people any sort of phantasmagorical cosmic bullshit.
Well, the case could be made that dressing up in outlandish leather and stuff is also a fiction. It's tough for me to see the sincerity that you're talking about when your band is all glammed up.
The difference is that with us, what you see is what you get. I don't expect everyone to understand that. You're not gonna really know who we are. We're not high-profile. But the way we look, we look that way all the time. A lot of people take that the wrong way, that we're some sort of elitists. We're just freaks who like to dress up. We're not real eccentric people. We live normal lives. We scrape by every day. We live hand to mouth... But there's one thing that anybody can get from our albums: honesty and sincerity. And as absurd as it may sound, it's exactly who we are. From the stupid clothes we wear to the stupid stories we have to tell, it's us.