Written by Colin Kirkland
The Sinclair dressing room. Sound-check. I look at the men of Madaila – a cosmic improv-pop group hailing from Burlington, Vermont – and mention that I’m thinking about calling them “The Bearded Backstreet Boys” in my article. They nod and smile, but as it comes out it sounds wrong and clunky: too much alliteration, too much boy-band.
Mark Daly (visionary), Eric B. Maier (keys), and Willoughby Morse (young blood) sit eating their pre-show meals and lounging about on a black leather sectional in the back corner of the room. I am an imposter in a den of musicians. My shirt is nylon, fluorescent and flower-covered, part of my own pre-show preparation. At first, I try to blend in as much as possible. But avidly questioning the band during “chill time” in a thrift-store disco outfit makes this feat seem unreasonable. Voices from managers, friends, bandmates, girlfriends and the stage crew fade in and out behind us as we talk about spandex on stage, jamming on pop songs, and that time Dave Matthews Band’s tour bus took a shit on some kayakers.
In conversation and performance, Madaila’s humor stands out to me as quirky and confident, a driving force in making their shtick effective. They are dedicated to their music while simultaneously taking themselves and their journey up to this point – headlining The Sinclair – as a personal satire. Their “Keep Vermont Weird” backbone, indelible sense of community, and playful spirit infuses their first two albums, The Dance (2015) and Traces (2016), with trusting pop-centered tracks that build and open up during live shows. Regular dudes clad in skin-tight spandex and fluorescent colors doesn’t make a mockery of their persona, but allows that persona to root itself in a genre-cluster done differently.
“Mark was super cool, always; I was a nerd,” says Maier as Daly rips apart a chicken wing beside him. Both co-founders grew up together in Middlebury, Vermont. After years of playing in the school band they formed a jam group called Pale Moon when they were fifteen years old. “I like to tell people about our song, ‘City Duck,” remarks Maier with a tone drenched in dry sarcasm, “It’s about a duck going to the city…you can imagine some of the shit that goes down.” I am informed that the band name originated from rides Maier and Daly would take around the Middlebury College campus where they’d stick their butts out of the car window at passing students. Maier and Daley stayed close throughout their lives and performed in other bands together before creating Madaila. According to Maier, their previous band, Chamberlain, “ended quite badly, so Mark retreated into the woods and began playing music that became Madaila.” Because of the turmoil Daly decided to make music on his own. He got in touch with Maier and Jer Coons (bass, biggest beard) who is also from Middlebury. The two of them were working at their own studio, Future Fields, based in Burlington, Vermont. Daly sent his self-written record to them and they produced it. Eventually the band was completed with Morse on guitar and Dan Ryan on drums.
“What is the collaborative process like in your band?” I ask.
“The songs and arrangements,” Maier points toward Daly’s head, “come right out of Mark’s skull. We all have different abilities and interests but part of the reason this band works so well is because we follow Mark’s lead on the songs and how they’re arranged.”
“How do you come up with the songs, Mark?” Daly tells me that he used to write in natural landscapes, like on the banks of their native Lake Champlain. “But now,” he says, “a lot of it is in peace and quiet at my house. I went from only writing songs on guitar to sometimes making beats first or right on a device that plugs into the computer. It’s like a drum-pad but you can play melodic stuff on it too…it’s called a Machine Micro.” This device appears in Madaila’s 2016 Tiny Desk Concert submission, a solid intro video for any first-time listeners.
“Were your outfits decided on before or after the band performed?”
“They were always going to be a thing,” replies Daly. Unlike Pale Moon, when he and Maier were in “full-jam mode” and based their appearance on the philosophy that it was more about what you played than what you wore, Madaila has left the ratty Phish tees behind and now incorporates a full dress-element. So what changed?
Maier explains. “With Chamberlain (previous endeavor) we got to be around a lot of bands like Grace Potter and some artists who really do that full aesthetic experience.” “There are so many bands out there, too,” adds Daly. “You have to try to musically set yourself apart but also visually and aesthetically…we didn’t just want to wear like skinny jeans and flannels anymore. We just tried to set ourselves apart any way we could. It expresses our freakiness; we’re all weird guys.”
When I first saw a Madaila concert, I danced. I danced harder than I had at any show I had been to the whole year. I remember being mesmerized by their ability to pique the interest of some of my friends who rarely listen to full bands, as well as my interest, someone who is still warming up to “pop” music in general. While listening to Traces, their new album, I was confused by how the catchy pop eccentricities – sounds I usually skulk at – were shooting chills down my spine. I listened more and thought, Why does this sound good? Why am I relating?! I had to ask the band what the hell is going on.
“How did you get that pop sound?”
“We all come from a very diverse set of musical backgrounds,” responds Maier.
“It’s fun to play catchy pop arrangements but also have the ability to expand and stretch out because a lot of pop bands you’ll see will just play what’s off the record or it will be concise and that’s fine,” expounds Daly. “But it’s cool to have the option to expand if we want. A lot of us come from an improvisational background and so we enjoy soloing or stretching out a connective groove…especially if it’s live and people are digging the groove, you just want to keep it going, keep them dancing.”
“So you don’t find pop to be an offensive term to describe your music?” I ask, grimacing.
“Definitely not,” exclaims Daly.
Maier mentions the greats: Michael Jackson, Talking Heads, David Bowie.
“Mixed with Radiohead” adds Mark.
“We want to have people dance and feel good…no one’s mad at Michael Jackson for his songs being too catchy,” says Maier. “It doesn’t mean it has to be cheesy. The same thing goes for Talking Heads’ ‘This Must Be the Place.”
That’s it. The improvisational quality, the skilled instrumentation, the open-mindedness not to break boundaries, but never to create them in the first place.
“We jam songs out,” mentions Maier. “We open up sections of the record that are more precise.”
“It’s like tension and release,” says Daly, relating their aim to what Wilco does live; a build-up of alienating noise that finally flushes out at its peak.
“The odd atonal sounds create moments of suspense, which makes the high poppy peaks a little more shiny,” follows Maier. “I call it a jizzy moment”
“Everyone jizzes,” adds Daly.
Weird guys for sure. Thank, god.
Check out Traces!
Entirely self-produced at Future Fields studios.
Music Video off debut record: