Macha men

More than a decade after fronting one of Dallas' first new-wave bands, Joshua and Mischo McKay go out of this world

After she had given Joshua and Mischo everything she had, it was the least the boys could do to stay with her till the very end, and when she died in 1992, Joshua and Mischo were at her bedside. A year later, they would form Emperor Moth, whose despondent output the brothers insist was merely a somber echo of their mother's death. "Emperor Moth was formed when we were taking care of our mother during the last month of her life, and it was bleak and remote," Joshua explains now.

"Their mother wasn't a religious person, but she was spiritual," says Matt Kadane. "[So] even if the music got a little darker, there was still this sense of affirmation beneath it."

In time, Joshua would leave for Indonesia, and in August 1996, Mischo would return to Wichita Falls to attend Midwestern State University on a scholarship. He wouldn't stay long--two horrible months, to be exact. He insists he would wake up each morning in tears, wondering how in the hell he ended up back in the Falls, back in school, away from music. Mischo had grown disillusioned with academia and "the whole snotty world of art." He hadn't lost his love for painting; he simply realized he'd rather hang out with musicians than with artists.

In November 1996, he hightailed it to Athens, where Joshua had set up residence upon returning from Indonesia; they now share the home where R.E.M. recorded its very early demos. That the McKays, Riedl (who never played in a band before joining Macha), and Martin (who moved to Athens from Dallas last summer) ended up in Athens seems appropriate, not because of what that city once represented to a once-burgeoning Amerindie scene, but because of the bands that now call it home: Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel, among the better-known bands in the so-called Elephant 6 collective. Macha is by no means part of the collective--though Joshua and Kai Riedl do play some percussion and other "crazy shit" on the Olivias' forthcoming album Black Foliage. And contrary to a recent story about Macha in Raygun, Macha's first gig was not in the Elephant 6 house, but in another friend's home.

But Macha does share with the members of the collective a very definite aesthetic: They are pop bands that have outgrown the format, moved beyond it, learned too much to be limited to guitars-bass-drums. Macha, Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo--they are all like newlyweds who wake up one morning to find they and their six children no longer fit in the garage apartment. They're no longer content to play guitar when there's a zither around; why play drums when there's a hammered dulcimer sitting in the corner? Like the E6'ers and even their old friends the Kadanes, who create play-quiet-listen-loud symphonies using rock's most familiar tools, Macha has shrugged off the worn-out in order to fashion a new breed of old favorites.

Some of Macha--which was, astonishingly, recorded in a mere two weeks--sounds ambient, dreamy, capricious; the first track, "When They First Saw the Floating World," plays almost like the soundtrack to a children's cartoon. It's giddy and beautiful all at once, zither and gongs and organ colliding in wave after wave of smoky sound. It's the perfect introduction to an album full of such hide-and-seek sounds, which include Joshua's moan-to-a-whisper vocals (there are lyrics, though damned if too many of them ever surface for long). But most importantly, the imported instruments and sampled snippets aren't used as cheap-whore adornments. The songs might well stand on their own without the zither and Moog, but they wouldn't be able to run very far.

"I've been a real snob about traditional world music, because it's what I've listened to for 90 percent of the time," Joshua says. "I had a real bad attitude about people sampling the Bulgarian Women's Choir and turning it into an ornament, something to spice up an otherwise baseless empty musical composition. It's just so ingrained in my musical lifeblood. It had always been a major part of my orientation."

"There's a desire to just test the limits and create something that appeases the senses," Mischo continues. "We just want to make music we enjoy. A lot of people in this town--hell, in the world--make music to attract major labels, to get famous. And the people here--us, the guys in Neutral Milk or the Olivias--just want to make a contribution to a higher cause." He pauses, then lets out a chuckle that sounds like a suppressed cough. "Not to sound lofty about it.

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