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Mals Totem: The Crucial Cut Interview

Mals Totem

In New England, folks are fond of saying that if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes — it’ll change. You might say something similar about Mals Totem, a Boston-born band of Berklee School of Music alum with crazy musical versatility and the songs to prove it. If you don’t like the hard rock of ‘Gargantuan,’ a standout track on their self-titled EP, just skip around. You’ll eventually find quieter fare, such as ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place,’ the Radiohead cover that won them September’s Crucial Cut of the Month contest.

In the Q&A below — the “prize,” if you will, for topping the Crucial Cut poll — guitarist Michael Lostica explains how Mals Totem arrived at their incredibly varied sound and discusses their reasons for relocating to New York City. He also weighs in on the Red Sox, the all-important balance between musicianship and songwriting and the group’s future plans.

First off, let’s touch on the Red Sox. Do you guy care about baseball? Where were you when they won? Where do you stand on the beards?

We’re actually not huge sports fans, despite having spent a lot of time in a city that’s so closely associated with having many. With that said, Boston was filled with palpable positivity during Red Sox home games, flooded with drunken fans and flipped cars. All of us were in NYC except for Dave at that time, and I’m pretty sure he was hiding out in a studio somewhere.

I read that you’re planning a move to New York City. What’s the rationale? Is there only so far a band can go in Boston?

Four of us five have moved to NYC, with Dave remaining in Boston to complete his studies. It’s hard to say that a band can only go so far in Boston, since to us, it’s just hard for every musician to go far — regardless of location. Boston treated us well. It’s where we founded our team, where we studied our craft and where we recorded our EP. (What up, Mad Oak Studios!)

Yet New York definitely has a larger network of musicians and industry professionals. By quantity and variety of venues alone, one could see that the NYC music market is both more vast and diverse. More than that, it’s easy to be stimulated in this city. With it having such a high density of people, places and events, we’re constantly experiencing something new. Such stimulation is crucial for us, and many other artists. As much as we don’t mind the solitude and repetition of practice, those of us that moved to New York have been thriving in its vibrancy.

Your sound is all over the place, and listening to your EP, you hear both loud-ass rock and super quiet Radiohead-type stuff. How’d you guys come together, and what bands did you initially bond over?

Ronnie (bass), Asher (guitar) and Mike (guitar) started out having more of a post-hardcore/prog rock sound, with a different drummer and singer, under the moniker Noize Tank. Angelo (drums) joined us as a sub for a show with that group and its original singer, but continued to stick around when Dave (vocals) replaced her. We tossed the old repertoire at that point, composed new material with our current lineup and changed our name to Mals Totem.

As you noted, Radiohead is one of our biggest influences. But we draw from a spectrum of artists. The Mars Volta, Jeff Buckley, Queens of the Stone Age, Kneebody, Tool, Stravinsky, Bon Iver, Muse, Led Zeppelin and Meshuggah have all been subjects of discussion and admiration amongst us. Some sections of our songs are blatant homages to artists like Pantera, Four Year Strong, and Rage Against the Machine. And of course, we’re always on the hunt for new music to fall in love with and are eager to share such discoveries with each other.

What song on the EP do you consider the most fully realized?

‘Gargantuan’ was the most recently composed song on the EP, indicative of our more collaborative process. Everyone provided crucial input that was realized in its final incarnation. We even had a writing session for it styled like Kanye’s process for MBDTF, breaking off into smaller groups where each cell worked on a different section of the song. Not only that, but our producer, Raúl Chirinos, joined Susan Rogers (Prince) and George Massenburg (James Taylor, Herbie Hancock) in the session that recorded the song, all of whom coaxed the best from us.

And back to Radiohead, our cover of ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’ saw the most attention in the studio, but more out of necessity than of choice. It has a slower pace than the rest of the songs, so to ensure that attention wouldn’t be lost in a listen to it, Raúl worked with us to overdub some additional instruments, add ambient sounds, and weave in some cool effects — all of which we had to reverse engineer for our live performance of the piece. We’re also releasing a music video for it in early 2014 and have been working closely with a video production team to have a powerful visual translation for the song.

You guys all went to Berklee — do you feel your virtuosic musicianship gives you a leg up? Can being an ace player be a detriment to some extent?

Berklee was a great place to meet musicians and future professionals, to expose ourselves to new music and ideas, and to practice our asses off. But really, any band could do that. The only thing that could possibly, yet not necessarily, separate us from other musicians as individuals is how much we’ve consumed of traditional systems and techniques. And once again, any musician could do that. We just did it in classrooms with teachers.

Studying such systems and techniques can be limiting at times, since in Berklee’s academic setting, we were required to use them in a manner that was often restrictive, so limiting one’s toolbox to these systems and techniques is confining.

How do you ensure the musicianship doesn’t overshadow the songwriting?

Continuing from the previous question, we make sure to that everything we do in a song is necessary. If the drums are shredding in a section, that intensity must be dictated by the core ideas of the song. If the a section is sparse and only made of a psychedelic guitar solo and bass, then so too must it be governed by the song. We’re constantly expanding our sonic palette, but are careful to make use of only what’s necessary to convey the meaning and feeling of our songs.

What was your experience like playing CMJ?

We had a good time playing CMJ. It was only one show, but the bill included some friends, and it was our first show since moving to NYC. A lot of old friends from college came out, and it was cool to reconnect with people that couldn’t make it to shows in Boston. That week in general was a good time, just to see a lot of new music, and to see who had been climbing the charts.

What’s next for Mals Totem?

We’re pushing for an early 2014 release of our music video for ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place.’ It’s our first time doing a fully produced video, so it’s been a fresh and exciting challenge. Luckily, we’re working with a great production team who’s dedicated to making it as awesome as possible.

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