Mass Gothic

Improvisation in Isolation: Chitchat and Fuckery with Noel Heroux of Mass Gothic

I can’t remember how I met Noel Heroux and Jessica Zambri. They just kind of showed up in my life, unannounced. At the time Jess, who then was best known for her work with her sister in Zambri, was preparing to release her debut solo record under the moniker Solvey. Her album had all the fixin’s and trimmin’s of a pop record yet exhibited a far more atmospheric, exploratory, and undeniably melancholy spirit than any top 40 tune.

At that same time, Noel, her husband of Hooray for Earth notoriety, was readying his own solo release as Mass Gothic for Sub Pop. When I finally got a listen of his record, I was blown away at how both records unintentionally served as companion pieces to each other. They existed as two sides of a single story about Noel and Jess’s relationship—the love, the hardships, the unavoidable sadness, the growth. It was a co-authored epic of love and hurt, and I still find myself unable to listen to either separately of the other. With Mass Gothic’s follow-up, I’ve Tortured You for Long Enough, both Noel and Jess collaborated on the record and continued that two-way conversation, touching on love, tension, and where to go from there. For me, it’s truly a one-of-a-kind storytelling discography where two projects with different perspectives of the same concept merge into one. Find another artist couple that’s accidentally done that. I’ll wait.

And while I became a fan of their art, I also became a fan of them as people—good people who respected a well-crafted Chicken Parmigiana.

Since venues around the world have closed and all events have subsequently been postponed, artists have been finding new methods of performance, new outlets for expression. So far the results of such have proved to be sometimes nauseating (ie.–sentimental anthems broadcast from rock star mansions) or sometimes—in Noel’s case—an interesting opportunity. Using the Mass Gothic Instagram account, Noel has been utilizing his time in quarantine to live stream daily improvisational performances, the likes of which could be described as “noise sets” but with a venturesome experimentation that could possibly be considered a positive step in his songwriting process for future recordings. There’s an interesting element to art when your environment has forced your hand—trapped you inside with no distractions and left with only your inventive impulses, but these kind of creative lockdowns are common practice for Noel and Jess, like some doomsday fanatics who finally got to use that bomb shelter they built when the emergency sirens went off.

We spent an evening on the phone to talk about these performances, his newfound surround of wildlife, and what’s next after Covid.

The Esoterrorist: So how are you handling everything, pandemic and otherwise?

Noel Heroux: It’s interesting to watch America absolutely lose its brains when so many other countries around the world are just constantly dealing with this kind of shit. We’re actually staying outside of the city in this wooded area in Long Island that doesn’t feel like Long Island. There’s this garage down the hill from the house that’s totally unused. And I just turned it into my sort-of music studio. It’s good here, and we’re in a good mental space, trying to take care of ourselves and each other.

The Esoterrorist: So from your live streams, I noticed in your garage setup you have this surrounding table with some sort of motorized lift to it.

Noel Heroux: So it’s a three-car garage with this high ceiling. It’s like, you know, a personal, proper auto garage with this hydraulic lift to put a car up on. I just used it as a table one day just to put my coffee on, and then I threw the guitar amp on there just to lift it up off the ground. Then, I added my computer, then some lamps from home. Over the course of a month it gradually turned into this ultra cozy work station. If anybody came down here from the house like, “Hey, we have to clear this all out,” I’d be slightly devastated.

TE: “This is my ergonomic desk, you assholes!”

NH: It’s great. I lifted it up a little bit today so I can fit my knees under to sit closer to the computer for editing.

TE: Okay, now differentiate between the garage workspace and the car workspace I saw online.

NH: I started in the car for like two weeks. Computer, mic, lamps, same deal. Originally I went out to the car thinking, this is a great vocal booth and nobody can hear me. I realized pretty quickly that there was actually something about the car that sounded terrible, like everything was in a cardboard box. So now I’m in the garage, and it sounds crazy in here, but I actually really enjoy it. And I don’t know, it just reminds me of when I used to live in our practice space in Boston years ago, and this is kind of similarly like the good parts of that are happening here. This is my shitty little garage. Nobody comes down here, and I can just pivot between recording and painting.

TE: So what motivated you to start live streaming daily improvisational performances in your workspace?

NH: As much as I say, “Oh, I don’t like performing, and I’m uncomfortable on stage,”—I’ve said that many times—but I still like it. You know?

TE: I think a lot of artists are realizing how much they need to be a part of that process, now that it’s taken away from them.

NH: Yeah, it’s not something I usually think about a lot. It’s just nice to share a little bit, and sometimes I’ll do a ten-minute stream of some shit and then just delete it later. Like, that was fun, a few people heard it, and then I have a little idea that I can possibly make some other stuff out of. I don’t know. Oh shit, there’s a deer right in front of me.

ET: Oh wow.

NH: I’m at the edge of the woods, and I just realized that there’s this deer standing like ten feet away. There’s a lot of deer here. There’s feral cats that basically chose this house as their home base. There’s a couple of raccoons that hang around here, too, and they all get along.

ET: Is this escape to the wilderness like Jackson Pollock the reason you’re painting now as well?

NH: (Laughs) I was literally having this conversation with my friend last week who’s a proper art student. I wanted advice since I’ve never visually done anything other than fuck my guitars up in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing to me [Editor’s note: Noel is referring to performances where he physically deconstructs his instruments, paints them, and creates noise performances with the surviving mutants of guitars]. I asked her about the pitfalls that I need to immediately try and watch out for, and she right away said “Don’t go Pollock.” (Laughs) But that style is fun, and I like that chaos of it.

ET: It’s interesting how visual art is one of the only mediums that is still tied to these academic prerequisites, whereas music in its non-classical folk forms is completely accepted if not preferred.

NH: Yeah it’s viewed as amateurism. But that’s my fucking problem. I don’t give a shit.

ET: The same can actually be true of music journalism, where critics may turn their nose up at something because an artist or band are operating outside of a trend that critics are trying to help shape or influence, that micro-genre flavor of the month.

NH: Yeah, there is definitely something about that. With Hooray for Earth, we had an album that we put out that was fairly well received and got us touring all over the place. That record was very much me, and there’s aspects to it that I guess people identified with, made sense to them, for being current or whatever. And then we had a chance to make a follow-up record and I was just like, we’re going to make a fucking studio record with giant drums and it’s gonna sound like Nevermind. And Peter Gabriel! I was just like, we’re going to do everything uncool that we could possibly do. And we’re going to do it real, real loud and perfect. And we did that. And there were several reasons why things didn’t go well—not even musically speaking but because our record label shut down and everything. But yeah, it was a fucking mess and nobody understood what was happening. Well, it’s fair because it just was what it was. You know, it was a fucking moment. It’s glorious, and there’s a lot of beauty in it, but it was also difficult. Like, let’s tune these drums way up because nobody likes that! I want a 311 snare drum on this! (Laughs)

ET: Well I’m glad the numerical score-based, Pitchfork template of music journalism has kind of hit a wall. I can remember how some of my favorite records got “bad scores” based on how well they branded themselves and not based on the merit of the songs. Back in 2000, Elf Power got an unimpressed reviewer going on and on about how their band name is misleading!

NH: Yeah, that’s why I think it’s great that Bandcamp has started going down the editorial route. They’re this force for good that’s still digital but at least it does provide some kind of online version of browsing a record shop. And their transaction shares are totally reasonable. But yeah, it’s great.

ET: So what’s next for Mass Gothic? Are there any other projects in process?

NH: We have a lot of tracks. On my birthday I’d usually go to a bar and get drunk all day, but I was getting to a point of not wanting alcohol to ruin my days anymore. So I figured we’d just book a studio for a day and force Cristi [Jo] and Joe [Stickney, both of Mass Gothic, Exmazed, and Autre Ne Veut] to join. We basically just had an engineer hit record and played for hours. And then I just took a hard drive with all the files, and over the past year and a half, I’ve been chipping away at it and turning three to four hours of jams into Mass Gothic songs.

I’ve never really approached songwriting with other people like this before. I’m realizing I’m an editor and that I enjoy being an editor. I’m romantically involved with my ideas to a fault and like having a very specific vision, and that’s how I was composing with Hooray for Earth. But there was a democratic compromise that would happen with the rest of the band, so I kind of ruined my chance to be free with that songwriting.

So with the new Mass Gothic material, the vision is coming together in this really interesting way. I’ve dug through old material and pieced things together before, but never from a day-long improvisation. It’s really making sense, though, and still sounds very much like Mass Gothic, whatever that is.

Beyond that, I’ve been cobbling with some of these—not necessarily the recordings that I’ve been doing on the live stream—but similar things that I’ve been collecting over the past few months, just making sense of that. Just want to make the sounds that I like. I’m co-producing some stuff with Jess and producing cover records for a couple of other people, but I guess that’s the whole story.

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