Published on June 8th, 2017 | by The Beige Baron0
Marcos Garcia | Here Lies Man
It’s rare to find an album that electrifies in one instant. Here Lies Man’s debut LP — its cover photo a defiant expression of sound and attitude — explodes on impact, shockwave carrying you for a full 39 minutes.
Here Lies Man floods the reptile brain, urging the body to move to its primal groove, a mutant seed older than remembering. Bold slashes of fuzz add thrilling contrast to the sound, but listen deeper, and a host of other references emerge: microtonal manipulations mapped out by the kosmische keyboard wizards of the ’50s and ’60s to the wild art rock of Amon Düül II or CAN.
“Here Lies Man, is, on an emotional level, a way to express the angst of living in the modern era…”
Even before the first track had finished, I’d gotten in touch with HLM mastermind Marcos Garcia—also guitarist and vocalist for Antibalas—to see if we could talk. A day later, we’re connected on Skype. He’s just waking up in LA—is that the hiss of an espresso machine or a hash-pipe?
He speaks rapidly and seriously about a project he seems consumed by. Already into its third vinyl pressing, and with universal acclaim from the tastemaker media, he’s heading to the studio to continue work on the follow-up to this incredible debut LP with drummer Geoff Mann.
Much of the commentary on Here Lies Man so far has been content to frame the sound as “Afrobeat Meets Black Sabbath”—a Twitter-friendly PR line Garcia can’t disown, but seems frustrated with.
So I begin by suggesting the music isn’t about contrasting styles at all. Fela Kuti, the most celebrated practitioner of High Life and Afrobeat, rooted his music in activism. Early Sabbath was dam-splitting rush of frustration at the hopelessness the band was drowning in.
Is the suggested combination not just of two facets of the same thing, and if so, is there a social or political message behind HLM?
“You’ve pretty much touched on the central nerve of the whole thing, which amazingly enough, nobody ever asks about it,” he says. “The political aspect of Afrobeat music, what Fela was doing, is the DNA of the music. So yes. There is a political aspect to this. It’s inherent to the music. What Fela was doing was inherently subversive.
“High Life was music for the upper classes. That’s why it’s called High Life. It was music for them, music for their parties, their parlors and salons…”
BNU: I didn’t realize that.
MG: Yeah, there was the practice of “splaying”, where they would tip the musicians, the better the band, they would slap money on their forehead, or throw money at them. So, with Fela, who actually was a member of that elite class, to actually take that and politicize it, and use it as a tool for commentary against the oppressive regime, that’s an inherently subversive repurposing of the main elements of that music.
If you listen to early Fela, it was very much grounded in High Life, and it didn’t really have legs, it wasn’t very popular. His music didn’t really gain traction until he had his political awakening. And then reimagined the music that he was doing, really drawing from modal jazz, and getting more deeply into American funk. So that’s one part of it.
The Sabbath part, as far as coming from a working-class background, they are an expression of the angst people were feeling at the advent of the Cold War. They are an indication of the angst—and I remember feeling it! If anything, this feeling has been lulled for a while with the collapse of the Soviet Union, at least Americans have been lulled into this feeling that nuclear annihilation is off the table, but recent developments have shown that feeling is coming back, so the situation hasn’t really changed, there was just a lull…
So that being the context, and these are things that I have thought about, I’ve been feeling the way any sensitive person has been feeling for a long time. This sense of … dread.
“There is nothing here for recording that isn’t composed. The way that Afrobeat music works … there is no one instrument that is greater than the other. Everyone has to serve a role.”
BNU: Is that linked in any way to the environment, the way a lot of people have their heads in the sand…
MG: Yeah, of course, when you think about it, it’s pretty terrifying… what trajectory man has been for the last fifty, sixty years. I’m not saying things were great before, I’m just saying the trajectory we are on is pretty alarming.
Those are all things happening in the external world. I play in a band called Antibalas. That band is also grounded in this political discourse and commentary. It has a stance. The idea that politics and music… they go together, right? This project, Here Lies Man, is, on an emotional level, a way to express, or at least to have some form of outlet, for the angst of living in the modern era.
BNU: Lyrically it’s pretty simple; you bury your voice, but with song titles like I Stand Alone, Letting Go, and Eyes of the Law, it seems like you’re saying, “Get me off this planet!”
MG: If you took it literally, that would be a good reading, but the thing is, the way that I conceived of the lyrical content, and in the way that I structured the album—it’s only cut up digitally into quote-unquote “songs” out of the practicalities of a record label having to sell music—is as 39 minutes streaming. It’s a streaming 39 minutes, and the lyrics of each song can be imagined as lines forming one big song.
So then, when you take them all together, what I’m talking about, and I know this is “conceptual” and kind of heady, the only thing that felt true to the intention of the whole thing, what you’re witnessing if you take all the words and listen to the whole thing, is what I imagine as a whole series of characters in a movie.
And they’re essentially having a nervous breakdown. And at the end of the album, the character, at the end of the movie as I perceive it in my mind, the character is looking over their body, they’re standing, looking down at their own physical form, but they don’t know if what they are looking at is their dead body, or vice versa.
“The idea that we actually believe that we exist is really at the core of the battle, of the struggle here.”
So, the point is, there’s this internal struggle between the human and the ego. And all the external problems in the world are really just a reflection of an internal battle that’s happening. It’s like the death of the ego and the battle with the human, in this human form. And is it a projection or is it real? It’s like not being able to tell which part is my ego, or am I real? Like, if the ego’s not real, am I real?
It’s open-ended at the same time; there are things to be taken from it. The idea that we actually believe that we exist is really at the core of the battle, of the struggle here. We identify with our own ego and we convince ourselves that we exist, but once the ego is gone, well, who exists?
BNU: It sounds Zen in a way, like a koan…
MG: Well, I was a religion major in college; I’m a student of religion. Whether it’s Buddhist or whatever it is, that shit is real! [Laughing]. I mean, if you’ve ever eaten a mushroom… the questions immediately arise.
BNU: And the answers become obvious as well.
MG: Or not! For some people, a psychosis could ensue. And that is what this record is touching upon.
BNU: You had a clear idea of what you wanted to do, and you were looking for the right people to work with for a while. Each player is an incredible talent; individually they are virtuosic. How difficult it is to dictate a certain direction? Are you open to suggestions, do ideas arise by jamming, or is it all pre-written?
MG: It’s not about jamming. There is nothing here for recording that isn’t composed. The way that Afrobeat music works is that every instrument in this type of ensemble… let me just speak to Afrobeat in my experience, right, there is no one instrument that is greater than the other. Everyone has to serve a role. For example, a shaker will play ch-ch-chhh, ch-ch-chhh, and that’s what they play. For however long the song is. Everything is in service of the music.
So, if the riff is like, ba-dah bah-da bom-bom, that idea is coming from a tenor guitar line in Afrobeat. And that doesn’t change, for whatever section of the song you’re in. You’re not using the individual parts for self-expression; everything is supporting the “bigger thing.” That’s the nature of the music.
BNU: So who conceived the “bigger thing?”
MG: I did.
BNU: You wrote it out, musical notation?
MG: Sometimes. Sometimes just recording the parts myself, and then going, “Well your part is this, your part is that.” The guitar and the bass are mostly in unison, but that’s evolving as we’re finishing up the second record, and having them in unison is to get that really heavy sound. And then the keyboards are counterpoint, and the keyboard parts I write after the string parts. Because they are meant to be the commentary to what the strings are saying.
“With Geoff on drums, I had the instant feeling … he started doing things and it felt like he was reading my mind.”
And so going back to what you were asking me about with the musicians, with Geoff on drums, I had the instant feeling—I mean we’ve played together before—but I told him about the project, and he was definitely interested, and we got together, and within less than a minute, a couple of seconds really… I was just like … he started doing things and it felt like he was reading my mind. What I really wanted to hear, but I’m not a drummer, so I can’t say, “OK, I need you to go…” whatever it is.
There are general patterns, because there’s an inner rhythm, but because Geoff was already familiar with the music, I don’t have to tell him anything. I just have to play the part and he automatically could hear that inner rhythm, the drums. And that’s when I knew. This is exactly what I wanted it to sound like.
BNU: I was immediately reminded of CAN, maybe in the way Jaki was so incredibly tight but loose at the same time. He never dropped a beat, but he’s pushing and pulling time and really swinging the fuck out of it.
MG: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s it, that’s the thing. It’s to be, like, leaning forward, but sounding relaxed and swinging.
BNU: It really swings.
MG: And I feel like that was what was missing from the proto-Here Lies Man attempts, was that swing.
BNU: I wanted to ask you about the mix, too, because it’s spot on. Did you have much idea of what you wanted there before you recorded?
MG: Well, we did the tracking of the drums and guitar to quarter-inch tape. Dumped it into the computer. And then did overdubs. So part of it was recorded in analog, and part of it in digital. For me, the first record was always supposed to be “proof of concept.” I didn’t feel like there was much time to get very elaborate.
All I can say is I had a very strong sense of urgency to get it recorded. I’m a planner. Knowing that, the sooner I could get it recorded, the sooner I could finalize a band lineup, book some shows, and get it off the ground. And having been stewing on this since 2005, I had a sense of urgency.
“I intentionally create parameters in which each project I do functions. There are intentional frames.”
And, have you ever had an idea for something, and you bring your idea to world, and then all of a sudden all these people come out with the same idea?
MG: Yeah. I didn’t want that to happen. I didn’t think it actually would, but you never know. So I wanted to get it recorded, but without forcing it. It took a year after it was recorded before it was actually released.
BNU: One thing that struck me too is that for a lot of iconic African bands from the ’70s, like WITCH, they were recording on primitive equipment, not a huge range of colors they could achieve. And I was thinking that maybe your choice to limit the tones used on Here Lies Man, you stick with much the same palette of colors, is that a homage to “keeping it simple”?
MG: No, I don’t think… you said “homage”, I don’t think I have ever…
BNU: Maybe a poor choice of words…
MG: No, no, it’s not, I intentionally keep a set of parameters around it; it was intentional that this was going to be the palette. This is it. And for the keyboards, it can only be organ, and electric piano, which I used very sparingly, all the colors you’re getting from the keyboard in that that palette is an organ using guitar pedals to achieve some variation so they don’t sound like the organs everybody already has heard.
So when you’re using organ with guitar pedals, you’re taking that into a synth-like realm without using a synthesizer. I was trying to evoke a certain feeling at a certain time, and wasn’t thinking about what other people have done. So I intentionally create parameters in which each project I do functions. There are intentional frames.
BNU: These limitations must put a lot more pressure on song-craft, the songs have to be good, there’s no using of effects as a mask or a crutch.
MG: Once you know what your palette is… honestly, it’s not dissimilar to the way that I live. I really only wear one outfit, it’s my uniform, I don’t think about what I wear anymore. Am I gonna wear a black t-shirt? Is it gonna be short-sleeve or long-sleeve? [Laughs]. That’s my choice. It creates freedom when you have limitations. I’m free from having to think about that. With sounds, you can get so consumed by … it’s just easier if you know “this is the sound” and then you can focus on the performance.
BNU: Or the composition.
“Afrobeat is like a series of overlapping wheels, like a mandala. There’s always different ways to say the same thing.”
MG: Or the composition. The composition would be the arrangement; Geoff and I arranged it, and even on the second album, we decided on the arrangement, and this is the sound, so let’s just really execute. And as someone who has spent the length of my entire professional career playing the same rhythmic and melodic figures, for ten to twenty minutes at a time, from my experience, you can take the same two bars of a melodic figure, and you can play it ten, fifteen, twenty different ways, without changing a note.
We’re getting into, “How much do I swing to this side of the phrase,” or, “Do I emphasise that note?” For me, with Afrobeat, there’s always an access-point for any of the figures, and the access point is like the hub of a wheel that is spinning. Afrobeat is like a series of overlapping wheels, like a mandala. There’s always different ways to say the same thing. And that’s what I’m doing here, the bass plays it a certain way, the guitar plays it a certain way.
BNU: It’s those changes, though, the subtle flipping of something, when it’s been going for 10 minutes, that’s what slays me. It’s like when the bass drops in a club, or when you realize a pattern has flipped in drone music.
MG: Right. And built into the DNA of the music is that the repetition of the figures induces a certain state of consciousness. So I’m operating on that level, having had the practical real-world experience of playing this music to people for 15 years, that you evoke feelings and states of consciousness with the repetition of these rhythmic figures.
That is all based in the clave. That is this mystical algorithm. If I were to have a religion, then that would be as close as I could come to my religion.
BNU: Maybe I’m off-point to suggest this, but I got a powerful sense of ’70s krautrock from this album.
MG: I love that you got that.
BNU: Are there parallels between drone music as well? Pieces like Folke Rabe’s Was?, where it’s 30 minutes of a single synth note that subtly shifts microtonally over time, so that imperceptibly it changes and then you get this explosion in your mind, but it’s from one note! Same with Indian classical, the tamboura… there’s not much percussion in drone, yet the percussion of Afrobeat induces the same trance-like state…
“And the idea of shifting of microtones… one of the things I’ve discovered that helps create a mood is detuning the keyboard from the strings…”
MG: I will say that I used to play in a krautrock band called The American Watercolor Movement, in the early 2000s, and that was before I started playing with Antibalas, and that experience … playing in that band … I loved that band so much. And once I started playing with Antibalas, I couldn’t play with them anymore, because I was always on the road… It left me wanting to integrate those two aspects of my personality. And this is it.
And the idea of shifting of microtones… one of the things I’ve discovered that helps create a mood is detuning the keyboard from the strings, which is what you are hearing. I don’t want to give too much away, but if the keyboards make you feel a certain way, it’s because they’re going in and out of tune. It creates a psychoacoustic effect—and now that’s become something I just do.
BNU: There’s commercial appeal to this record, it is instantly likeable, I can see you guys becoming successful quickly. Is that something you aimed for with this project, to put a foot on the gas and really go for it?
MG: Well, to be perfectly clear, my idea of success is longevity. So, I’m not making music with the thought that it’s going to be popular. Can it have sustainability? Yes, that’s important. But is it going to be popular? I don’t…
BNU: … But in terms of time, you have limited time, your time is valuable, so you have to choose which project you’re going to invest your time and effort into, right?
MG: Yes. [Pauses.] How can I say this? I’m compelled to do it. It’s almost like I don’t have a choice. I know on some level that I do, and there are times when I’ve walked away from music and art. Briefly, for sure, but I’m compelled to do this.
“It’s an expression of me through the filter of me growing up in a certain place and time in a certain context, and this is what comes out.”
So if I have to use money from touring to put into it, or sell something to buy a certain piece of equipment, it’s like ultimate nerd stuff, really. [Laughs].
BNU: I have a theory that the file-sharing blogs of the 2000s that digitizing obscure music from all over the world, such as Ghostcapital, Awesome Tapes from Africa, were responsible for the “vinyl revival”. They drove people who weren’t necessarily already collectors to seek out used vinyl, and provided a free education on the vocabularies of world music, be it Javanese gamelan or batucada or desert folk from Mali… it seems that without that familiarity with music languages, it might be harder for casual listeners to appreciate what’s going on in something like Here Lies Man, which people obviously do now. Do you think this band could have been successful or well understood pre-Internet?
MG: Yes. And I say that because… would it have been popular? Probably not. Would it have been accessible to many people? I mean, maybe. I say yes, because, you know my family’s Cuban. My dad was a record producer, my mom was a DJ, I grew up around Caribbean music, I grew up in the suburbs of New York City. So I soaked it all up. And I really don’t see what I do as mixing anything together. I don’t feel that way at all.
BNU: It’s just you.
MG: It’s an expression of me through the filter of me growing up in a certain place and time in a certain context, and this is what comes out.
That concept of mixing is abhorrent to me, “I’m gonna take this, and I’m gonna take that, and I’m gonna smash it together” … it just is an abomination to me.
BNU: How fortunate to have such an upbringing!
MG: Absolutely, absolutely. But I’ll talk about this every chance I get: there is a conversation, a musical conversation, and the African contribution to that conversation, and the European and the New World contributions; there’s no mix… I mean, maybe some people mix things, but usually it seems pretty forced and artificial. I’m not going to disparage anything. That concept of mixing is abhorrent to me, “I’m gonna take this, and I’m gonna take that, and I’m gonna smash it together” … it just is an abomination to me.
I was a student of Afrocuban music when I was in my late teens and early 20s, and then got into jazz and started learning what this Afrocuban jazz was; Chico O’Farrill… and when you listen to what he did … he was of the Afrocuban musical tradition, and in talking to him, he was very clear on how much he loved Stravinski. And much that was influencing him.
BNU: You spoke to him?
MG: Yeah. When I was in my 20s, I got hired to be his assistant at his weekly gigs in Birdland in New York, and I had to set up the bandstand for the guys, turn the pages of music… Anyway, what I’m saying is that he wasn’t mixing anything, he was just, he loved Stravinski, but he was coming from a jazz tradition and an Afrocuban jazz tradition, there was nothing forced about it.
It’s a conversation that’s been going on for hundreds of years. The way that the music of the African diaspora thrived and was forced underground in order to survive in the Caribbean: those traditions were being influenced by European harmony, it became a new expression in the Caribbean, which then influenced American music on the mainland, and then re-influenced African music on the African continent… that is what a conversation is.
BNU: It’s a weather system.
“Geoff and I agreed that we weren’t going to record anything that we couldn’t perform live. The intention was always that it was to be a live experience.”
MG: Yeah. It just moves around. “I heard this and now I’m thinking this and now I’m saying this in another form. And someone in New York heard it, and they heard it this way…”
It’s like a game of telephone. It just starts shifting, reinterpreted by people. That’s how it evolves. But at the core of it is the clave. That is the one thing that is forever. That’s why it’s a mystical thing, it’s this algorithm, and its something that our ancestors expressed and have passed on to us. So understanding that and being grounded in that tradition, you could say that the clave is a framework; it’s a border; it’s a limitation.
The amazing thing about the clave is there are all these permutations of the clave. And so that’s why it’s inexhaustible and it’s forever.
BNU: It’s traced back through branches to the fundamental root.
MG: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying; it’s the trunk of the tree. Every kind of music that is popular in the western world, and in Africa for that matter, at the core of it. If you listen to Bo Diddley – ba, ba, ba, bah-bah – that’s the clave. So overt! So for other music, for Afrobeat music, the clave is there, but it’s not being played overtly. What you are hearing is the permutations of the clave, the rhythmic interplay of different layers of those permutations.
I struggle with being pedantic, but I’m operating from a place where I have a deep relationship—it’s at the core of my musical being. That’s where I’m coming from. It’s never been, “Well, I want to take this, and I want to take that,” it’s never been that way for me.
BNU: You’re at pains to show that mixing things deliberately is fake and unauthentic; you’re saying this is you, an expression of you.
MG: Well, yeah! [Laughs] For me, it’s a mystical thing. The clave is a thing of wonder. And in concert with the muses, that is why I’m compelled.
BNU: Going back to what you said about the members of the group playing specific roles, do you think that there will be a possibility of incorporating guest musicians in a live situation to act as an extension of that? Does the music lend itself to that, or is it a closed loop?
MG: I don’t think it’s a closed loop. We could flip it and ask, is there anyone out there willing to be in service of music? I think so. I think there are.
BNU: Did you visualize this project as something that was for presentation live, or as a recording? Is the mixing of it a necessary component to make it work best?
MG: Geoff and I agreed that we weren’t going to record anything that we couldn’t perform live. The intention was always that it was to be a live experience. That being said, what you’re hearing on the record is the distillation of the idea. What you hear live, there’s room built into the music for it to be expanded upon. To be expanded upon rhythmically and with rhythmic figures.
You don’t really hear solos on this record. Like, melodically and rhythmically, in the context of any given piece of music, that’s the difference between the recording and the live.
“I hear so many rhythms, I could flesh this out into a 12-piece, but it’s not practical at all.”
BNU: With Antibalas, there’s what, 12 members? Is Here Lies Man capable of sort of incorporating that many players?
MG: [Bursts out laughing] I hear so many rhythms, I could flesh this out into a 12-piece, but it’s not practical at all. We’ve talked about touring together, but yeah, if I unlimited funds, I could flesh it out. Is it practical? No. [Laughs].
BNU: Concerning touring, have you sketched any plans yet in that direction?
MG: We just confirmed our first three shows in the UK for September, we just got a booking agent. And I will say that one of the coolest things about this is that the response we’ve gotten from the UK has been so strong, more than anywhere else. It’s been amazing, it’s resonating there more than anywhere.
BNU: Well, they could probably do with some cheering up with Theresa May in charge…
MG: [Laughs]: Yeah well, we could probably all use some cheering up. I’m super excited to be going there. There is such a musical legacy in the UK and to find a home for this, to me, is amazing.