Have you ever heard of Adventure Time? The critically revered cartoon is set in a mythical land where a boy and his dog strive to conquer evil. They meet a sentient piece of gum and an Ice King voiced by the actor who gave life to SpongeBob SquarePants. When it ended its eight-year run in 2018, The New York Times called it a “masterpiece.” Mark Cuthbertson concurs. The 42-year-old musician has a particular reverence for episode 14 of season 5, a tale titled “Simon and Marcy.”
“For my money, it’s the best episode of anything that’s ever been on TV,” Cuthbertson says. This might explain why the musician donned a toy crown and a fake white wig to portray the Ice King during an Adventure Time-themed show at Andy’s Bar in Denton. It was 2019, the Friday before Halloween. But it was all a veneer: the wig, the crown, the spot-on imitation of the dastardly Ice King, everything. Just like the show he holds so dear, Cuthbertson and his friends donned full fantasy regalia to cast a thin veil of comedy over Cuthbertson’s concert.
“[The comedy] hid the fact that there was something serious going on beneath the surface, at least to this one other person,” he says. “I told them beforehand, ‘This is about us.’”
Cuthbertson is accustomed to this kind of subversive art. With his musical project Fantasticboom, the former philosopher tells sonic stories about love, longing and a litany of mistakes, all wrapped in oft-mellifluous melodies.
“I’ve had two other careers prior to this,” he says, referring to a career in music and a career in philosophy. “This project is my unification of my two careers.”
Cuthbertson, a guitar player, played gigs at the University of North Texas to pay bills and pass the time.
“It was something I found myself doing,” he says. “I was playing gigs on music that, frankly, I didn’t like.”
His true love was philosophy, a passion he discovered during his undergraduate studies, with a particular taste for philosophy of religion — and it shows. Oftentimes, conversation with Cuthbertson can veer off course and touch on God, sin, existence, prayer and the afterlife. It’s not just a way to make conversation; he has presented papers at conferences and been referenced in books about the philosophy of religion.
Following undergrad, Cuthbertson studied at Dallas Theological Seminary, but after a couple of years he decided it wasn’t the place for him. Meanwhile, he was playing guitar to make ends meet, even after he had fallen out of love with it.
“You can learn to hate anything, and as soon as the affection turns the other direction, the other thing doesn’t look as shiny anymore,” he says.
Cuthbertson enrolled in the graduate philosophy department at Texas A&M, but his finances were soon hindered by an unexpected surgery. It was then that a love of music crept back into his life.
Cuthbertson talks about music with the flair of a mad scientist. He can discuss Nietzsche for hours on end, but ask why he loves Steely Dan, and his answer will be succinct.
“I’m in it to connect on some gut level,” he says. “I’m in it for the dopamine.”
He cites bands like Talk Talk (“their last two albums are an everlasting wellspring of dopamine”) and Canadian indie rockers The Besnard Lakes as particularly striking influences. Fantasticboom is indebted to those influences, but it is also a reflection of Cuthbertson’s former career and complicated past — a past he says is riddled with mistakes, but one he's hesitant to explore with much detail.
“I keep imagining everything I say end up in print,” he tells me, uncomfortable with that picture. At another point in our interview, I’ll ask if we can talk about his divorce.
“I don’t think I’m ready to go there yet,” he responds.
Part of Cuthbertson's discomfort is a natural fear of backlash that accompanies the airing of dirty laundry; another part of him hopes the music can speak for itself. His first album, the nine-track How to Build a Hole, released in 2019, is rife with regret.
“If what you’re looking to do is mess everything up, here’s a step-by-step list,” he says. “Since I’ve made a million mistakes in my life, it’s impossible for me not to talk about them in this way.”
Cuthbertson can trace most songs to a specific regret, like the track “this.”
“If this were the greatest possible world, then I could be so much more in this relationship,” he explains of the lyrics. “In this actual world, I am struggling in this way.”
Don’t be fooled by the upbeat melody or what you think the lyrics might be saying. When it comes to his art, Cuthbertson takes a page not from Thomas Aquinas, but from Alfred Hitchcock.
“Alfred Hitchock talked about dichotomy,” he says. “He had learned to make movies without sound, and upon the introduction of sound, he thought it was redundant to make people’s faces say what they’re saying. So you would never see [Hitchock’s actors] saying, ‘I’m happy’ while they’re smiling. You have to set up a juxtaposition.”
While his philosophical musings still color his art and his everyday life, Cuthbertson says his once promising career in academia “feels like a different life.”
“I think back, and it’s odd,” he says. “It seems like a different world, a different human being. To a very real extent, I hope it was.”
To help him craft a layered, dichotomous record, Cuthbertson turned to one of his favorite artists: Besnard Lakes vocalist and songwriter Jace Lasek.
“Years ago, he asked me to produce his record,” Lasek says of Cuthbertson. “He sent me a deposit right away, then it took him five years to finally put the album together.”
When the duo finally met, Cuthbertson visited Lasek in Montreal.
“He walks in, and he points to this really long, philosophical book on my shelf, and says, ‘That’s my favorite book of all time.’ And I thought, ‘OK, this is going to be great.,’” Lasek recalls of the meeting.
Throughout a week of mixing in Montreal, Cuthbertson continued to endear himself to Lasek.
“He would always wonder if certain parts were too long,” Lasek says of the album. “And I would tell him, ‘No. I don’t want it to end.’”
Despite his album’s intentional subtleties, Cuthbertson insists he is not trying to be evasive. In fact, it appears he is attempting to confront what makes him uncomfortable about himself, his past and his decisions.
“This is me saying, ‘Here are things I have to account for, morally,’” he says of How to Build a Hole. “It’s not a way of avoiding talking to anyone. It’s an artistic instillment of something I’d rather say anyway.”
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As he recounts how that night felt, Cuthbertson clarifies the details of the Ice King’s arc, and how it reaches an apex in his favorite Adventure Time episode. In some ways, he says, it is not too different from his songs, especially tracks like “Gabby” and “Meg.”
“In the show, he’s losing his mind because he’s losing this crown, and he’s writing these letters to this girl saying he’s losing his mind,” he says. “He’s talking about how he doesn’t want to act the way he’s been acting.”
Thus, before he took the stage at Andy’s in full Ice King regalia, Cuthbertson gave a heads up to the subject of some of his songs, a person he describes as ”someone whom I once dated.”
He greeted the mysterious figure before the show and told them that the upcoming performance was for them.