By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
One of their oldest friends describes Joshua and Mischo McKay this way. Joshua is the serious, cerebral older brother, apt to ramble on and on at great length and with great passion about the subject of his music. Joshua's is an eloquent, deep-felt discourse that will often go on and on until he runs out of breath; his sentences end in semi-colons. Mischo provides the periods, the exclamation points, the punch lines. He is there to bang home the point. Which is perhaps appropriate enough: Mischo is, after all, the drummer in the family--and the painter, as well, a man who has long struggled with the decision to pick up the drumstick instead of the paintbrush.
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."
Macha is a world away, quite literally, from what the McKays were doing 15 years ago in Dallas, when they recorded a locally released EP called Bananarchy. The record was released under the name Josho Mischo, a moniker bestowed upon them on the spot by DJ George Gimarc, who debuted the boys' song "Abe Vigoda" on his Rock and Roll Alternative radio show. Gimarc and Jordan Sussman, then the host of KNON-FM's Saturday-afternoon radio haven Where's Your ID?, played Josho Mischo so often you would have thought it was the only band from Dallas not named 4 Reasons Unknown or Point Blank. The EP was "a precious little thing," as Matt Kadane affectionately refers to it, meaning it contained smart pop made by precocious teenagers absorbing and regurgitating everything all around them all at once. Each song contained a thousand notions crammed into a few minutes; no single tune could contain everything Joshua had to get out of him.
At the time, Josho Mischo seemed awfully important to those of us in Dallas who believed rock and roll would forever remain in the hands of old men only pretending to be young. It offered hope, solace, not to mention proof that kids our age--15, by God!--and in our sorry town could make a record without grown-ups getting in the way. And it proved that not everyone making music in Dallas wanted to be ZZ Top or MTV basement-tape suck-ups.
"I also thought Josh was some kind of a musical genius," Matt Kadane says of Josho Mischo. "Not that I wanted to play the kind of music he did exactly, but I've always thought that he has a way with melody, bass lines, chord structures, even lyrics."
The McKays would prefer to let Josho Mischo remain buried, forgotten about, perhaps only because they now find the name so cutesy and unfortunate. "What's that?" Mischo likes to say when asked about Josho Mischo. "I don't know what you're talking about."
But Joshua admits he's not so ashamed of the music he and his brother made so long ago. There are often times when he thinks Josho Mischo hints at what would become Macha--the thrill of throwing so much into the pot and seeing what would spill out, the notion that they could make music for themselves and only hope other people would come along for the ride.
"The Josho Mischo EP sounds just like Macha in a weird way," Joshua says. "The stuff has always had shadings of this undercurrent of non-Western melodic and rhythmic sounds. The one thing I make a rule for myself is if I'm doing something that reminds me of something else, I drop it. Josho Mischo was like opening the top of our heads and letting every last idea that could have had a twinkle get full airtime for three seconds in a song with 500 changes. That thing was a complete plug-us-into-the-wall-and-let-it-rip, the product of overactive imaginations. We had 30 songs we could work up, and we were ready to record. That was youthful energy venting itself at 100 miles an hour."
The McKays played live only briefly, from 1986 to '87, with Wes Martin on guitar. The brothers wanted to change the name of the band, but Martin insisted they keep it, if only because the McKays already had some name recognition around town. (Astonishing that the brothers never held it against him when asking Martin to join Macha.) Though Josho Mischo recorded more than 30 songs and sent them to the likes of Gimarc almost weekly, the boys never recorded after Bananarchy because they could never find any money to do so. "And thank God," says Mischo.
Joshua eventually left in late 1987 for Gainesville, Florida, to join Aleka's Attic with River Phoenix. That band would record here and there, even cutting a rather unimpressive four-song demo for Island Records that briefly made the rock-crit rounds. But Joshua was never willing to move to Los Angeles to wait while Phoenix made one movie after the next. Mischo remained in town and finished up his art studies at University of North Texas and SMU; he had, after all, won a prestigious Dallas Museum of Art award when he was 17, besting artists twice his age. During that period, Mischo also played in another band with the Kadanes and Martie Erwin on violin--yes, the very same gal who would become a double-platinum Dixie Chick. (The band's name, best left to the amnesia, was taken from an unreleased XTC song.)
Eventually, in 1991, Mischo and his mother, Cynthia, also relocated to Gainesville. The McKays had discovered that their mother was ill with cancer and thought the move to Gainesville--home of the renowned University of Florida Cancer Center--would do her good. Cynthia McKay had raised her boys alone; the brothers' father, a jazz musician, was "not in the picture," Mischo says. She was left to take care of her infant sons, and she infused in them her love of music--a passion that included Smithsonian Folkways world folk music alongside American rock, jazz, and R&B.
"She was a painter who was in New York in the late '50s and traveled Italy for a year," Mischo says. "She was an incredible human. She was very into music and hung out with all the jazz musicians in Europe in the late '50s. She was into the Stones, Leonard Cohen, Otis Redding, and also had lots of the Smithsonian Folkways ethnic records, and Josh totally plugged into it. He would play these records as a little boy. Her aesthetic created who we are."
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.