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Joshua is the singer, the songwriter, the electric guitarist, bassist, the dude on the hammered dulcimer and vibes and Sumatran gongs--in other words, the guy playing "the fun machine," one of the myriad instruments listed on the self-titled debut from Macha, the McKay brothers' latest band. Rarely, it seems, have two men so lived up to their on-stage roles off the stage as well.
"And their fundamental sense of the world hasn't changed in 20 years," says former Bedhead singer-songwriter-guitarist Matt Kadane, who grew up in Wichita Falls playing weekend rock with the McKays and Matt's own brother and partner-in-mood-music, Bubba. "Josh is still an optimist and has the same interest in music he has always had. And Misch is still slightly neurotic but enough of an optimist to know things will get better."
Joshua and Mischo appear to be the quintessential two sides of the same coin, a phrase Mischo even uses when discussing his relationship with Joshua. Joshua is 33; Mischo, 31. Yet both brothers were born on the same date: May 31. "How that worked out we'll never know," Mischo says. "It's funny if you give any weight to astrology. We're both Geminis, and we're pretty different but also absolutely identical. There's about six of us among the two of us."
Joshua and Mischo have played in bands together since they were children growing up all over Texas--in Houston, Wichita Falls, Denton. Once, a very long time ago, they released a local EP under a name they would rather forget and not at all discuss unless pressed. They have played in bands with other people, including the Kadanes, and recorded together in bands with names (such as Emperor Moth) and without them. Every few years or so, they would part and go their separate ways: Joshua to Gainesville, Florida; Mischo to Denton and Dallas. Mischo back to Wichita Falls, Joshua to Indonesia.
But they would always come back together: Now, the brothers share a home in Athens, Georgia, and once more they are in a band together, Macha. And it is an exquisite band at that, the end result of years spent stretching "pop" till it splinters into a thousand tiny, beautiful fragments. Somewhere deep inside the music the McKays are making--along with sidekick Kai Riedl and former New Bohemians guitarist Wes Martin, who joined Macha after the recording of the debut was finished in August--are catchy, accessible, inviting rock songs. They've got the beat and know how to use it on songs like "The Buddha Nature" and "Double Life," these indestructible piece of pop-pop-pop that even the parade of Indonesian instruments can't obscure.
But that's the point: The rock on Macha is coated in oddball, imported instruments so exotic they seem almost made-up to Western ears raised on guitar-bass-drums. Sumatran gongs, Nepalese shawm, guiro, santoor--are they instruments or delicacies? Macha, released in November on the tiny New York-based Jetset label, is the Reese's Peanut Butter Cups of music, what happens when some very smart guys start dipping their rock and roll into a world-music miasma to make some third-world pop in a first-world setting. Mood takes melody in a best-two-out-of-three rubber match, with rhythm mediating the whole affair: Strip away the Indonesian instrumentation, including the Telempong nipple gongs, and "The Buddha Nature" becomes one rockin' little radio song.
"Like," says Joshua, the band's main songwriter, "'The Buddha Nature' has this ball of..."
"...cataclysm...," Mischo adds.
"...and as we went along," Joshua continues, "the development was getting closer and closer to a kind of non-cerebral, non-literal music."
Macha is the result of the few months Joshua spent in Indonesia at the end of 1993, when he left Gainesville with a few hundred bucks and went in search of the gong orchestras he heard his mother play for him as a child. He took a tape recorder with him and spent October through December 1993 recording the sounds made by the Balinese, Javanese, and Sumatran musicians he spent all his time with during his stint overseas. The result is the second, "bonus" 20-song disc included with Macha--a dizzying, titillating travelogue that would have made Smithsonian Folkways founder Mo Asch very proud.
"It was getting away from the brain and toward pure feeling," Joshua says. "The record took me right out of my brain. It was fight-or-flight reality making the record--more physical, more rhythms, less melodic. I've been writing on a single instrument for a long time, but there had always been this other zone of this pure sound experience, and we're able to have those things co-exist in a way that I am satisfied with. There's no limitation put on my writing at all."