"This guy invented this system where, imagine if you've got a piece of paper with numbers, I'm just trying to think of it in my head now," the cogs inside Paul Mac's brain tick away as he finds the words to describe this concept to me. "Say you have three sets of numbers, you can sort of go any direction, and they always add up to the same thing. So it might be say 3 4 3, 3 3 4, 4 3 3, and as you go around the diamond, it keeps spitting out different combinations of numbers."
The concept Mac is simplifying for me is one he learned in a class he took at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and one that he applied to his track 'Six Years in Seven Minutes' that features on his fourth studio record, Mesmerism. The premise for this concept is that the pattern that is generated is always shifting, creating a track that sonically reflects the feeling of viewing a time-lapse video, like you're living life in fast-forward.
This concept is one Mac picked up through his doctorate studies, which he began undertaking at the Conservatorium in 2016. The choice to go back was sparked by a series of events that began with him receiving a fellowship from the Australia Council. With this extra bit of money coming in, he was able to spend more time experimenting and looking outside of his previous framework for creating. Electro-pop was a sound Mac was both comfortable with and known for, but he felt that it was time to push himself.
He began delving into the classical world, attending performances and even creating his own compositions. He worked with Matthew Hindson, one of Australia's most performed and commissioned composers in the country, on a symphonic wind band piece called 'Requiem For A City'. It was during this process that Hindson asked Mac whether he'd thought about going back to study. "I did my last techno-pop album, Holiday From Me, which I fucking loved, but I just felt like that's done, and now what do I do? I turned 50 and I went fuck, I want to try something else. I think I'd been doing that particular thing for too long, and this just felt like a really cool opportunity to try new shit out."
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The choice to go back and study gave him access to resources and knowledge that helped him move into this next phase of his creative journey, one that sees an entirely new way of creating that is captured so fervently on Mesmerism. It was a way for him to both buckle down and give him the space to stretch himself, extend his practice and move away from the comfort of the sounds captured on his first three records.
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Mesmerism was not the first work to come from his studies. The first was a score he composed for a performance piece titled Blak for the Bangarra Dance Theatre, but it was a step in exploring his artistry outside of a pop framework. Mesmerism was never planned, it kind of just came to be. Mac explained "This batch of music, started off as one track, then a second track, a third track, a live show and then I was like oh wow, I have an album, I might as well release it now. It was all made in the spirit so it feels like a body of work."
The hypnotic eight-track record is nothing like you've ever heard from Mac before. There are inklings of his aural DNA scattered throughout, particularly through his melodic and harmonic production choices, but through changing his process and his habits, a body of work that hones in on deep thought and meditation has sprung to life. His time at the Conservatorium has allowed him the freedom to shift his creative focus, and in his own words "By trying something new, I think I've found a strength in what I have been doing previously... I think it's been really opening a door that I didn't realise was there until I just did it."
Mac looks back on his previous records fondly, but recognises that that chapter of his life has come to a close. "I feel as though I've done enough examining of my personality and sharing that with the world and I think the world's heard enough of it [laughs]. I just want to do different things."
As the needle drops on the first track of the record, aptly the title track, it catches you off guard. "That one, there's a series of scales in a row that suggest the kind of melodies and shapes. Then that pattern is applied to the drum sounds and then they play around with increments of time. If you picture those scales going up, they then became horizontal and became rhythms. It was a lot of, what can I do with this? Where can I go next? I love it." The experimentalism on the track alone is enough to draw you in; with each passing second, a new sound finds its way to the fore and another tucks itself away. A mid-track call and response takes the lead until a cascade of pulsing rhythms descend into aural chaos, and finally, leave you with the blissful echo of what was.
The record is filled with poignant theoretical moments like these, Mac looking to parameters and external stimuli to push himself to break free of what he had become comfortable with. "When you start with something external, it's cool because it forces you to go "What am I going to do with this? How am I going to make sense of this?" instead of just doing what you always do," he explained. "Anyone can get a sample and make lots of noise, but it's how you make it a satisfying journey for the listener."
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The frequency and choice of samples on the record takes centre stage throughout, and with the help of a newly-purchased Zoom microphone that clips on to the end of his phone, he had found a way to turn basically anything into a usable sound which would later, have the potential to turn into a concept.
One of the most notable sonic moments on the record is in track four, 'Redfern Address (In Memory Of Vision)'. The track unites both sound and concept for an impactful six-and-a-bit minutes featuring Paul Keating's infamous 1992 address at the launch of the International Year of the World's Indigenous People. What is now referred to as the Redfern Address is regarded as one of Australia's greatest speeches. It saw Keating become the first Prime Minister to acknowledge the impact of European settlement on the First Nations people.
In a year where the Djap Wurrung peoples in Victoria are fighting for over 260 800 year-old sacred trees, including a traditional birthing tree, to not be bulldozed and replaced by a highway, or even in the last week where both major political parties' commitment to closing the gap has been called "totally inadequate", reconciliation and reparation remains something the Australian government in all forms continually refuses to address. Mac's inclusion of this speech in his record brings something vital to electronic music in 2019, and that is purpose. "It just felt like a really natural fit because it's something that I feel close to and I felt that I could do something musically that could be in support or sympathetic to it," Mac explained. "I hope that even with this interview and the one that was on NITV this week, if five people mention that song, then that's five opportunities for people to hear that speech which hopefully puts it back into the consciousness that might get picked up in conversations. I think that's a healthy thing to do."
It's important to note that the track only includes the moments in Keating's speech where he is addressing white people and how we can and need to do better. I asked Mac about this decision to recontextualise Keating's words, and he said "I think we should be listening to Indigenous people and should be engaging in dialogue surrounding how we can move forward, at least in recognising, having some kind of equality and moving forward as a nation. I'm not pretending that I have any form of answers, but I'm all ears. I think that's what the speech alludes to; we should acknowledge what we've done. Part of the acknowledgement is listening to what the next step is."
Mac's sense of place is something that remains integral to his work. He is continually responsive to the world around him, so much so, that it's engrained into the DNA of his work. Whether it be through the manipulated recordings of a bustling Newtown flamenco studio, or in his more collaborative works, his work is rooted in location and acknowledgement of that.
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On the collaborative side of the record, Mac leant in to his new found love of ensemble sounds and found a way to integrate that into the record. He worked with Ensemble Offspring musicians Lamorna Nightingale on track three, 'Nightingale' and Jason Noble for track five, 'Charnel Hill'. "At the start of this whole Con process, I really sort of dived in to try and find new classical music, just to see what was going on and to try and stretch a bit." In his being an audience member, he began to challenge himself to find other forms of music that were both interesting and would push him.
"I started going to all of [Ensemble Offspring's] concerts and just getting to know them and then suddenly, "Hey, do you want to come over and record some flute?" or "Hey, do you want to come over and record some clarinet?" and see what happens, with the most exciting part being "and see what happens"."
On the other side of the spectrum, the visual aspect of the record in both its online and live forms sees Mac collaborating in an entirely new way. Working with Damian Barbeler, a Sydney based visual artist and composer, Mesmerism's online visuals reflect the record's meticulous production style. 'Cataplexy''s clip adopts synaesthesia as its mode for conveying sound, while 'Seeking a Home in the Goldilocks Zone' manipulates constellations into warped trails. On 'Nightingale', patterns are projected onto generated 3D imagery of a person and contrastively, 'Redfern Address' blurs the camera entirely to show nothing but myriads of light in various forms.
The live show sees Barbeler and Mac collaborating for an audio/visual feast designed to bring the record to life. Notably, it was through this process that 'Cataplexy', the first single from the record, was born. When finishing up the record, Mac wanted to create a track that would act as the record's closer; the banger if you will. This final four-to-the-floor push was a result of basically not thinking too hard about it. Mac mused, "It's always that last minute one that you're not thinking too much about that ends up being the nicest one."
Despite his words, the one thing that continually strikes me about this record is the thoughtfulness of each moment included on the record. There's a process and a journey embedded into each second of it, encompassing all of the elements of love and loss, people and places, mistakes and triumphs. But it never once feels forced, and I think that is what it means to be self-aware. Despite the record's radical change in sound, Mac's musical fingerprints are all over every moment of this record, right down to its title, Mesmerism.
"Mesma was a person. If you go back to the 1800's, there was a lot of what we would consider natural therapies. Mesma had this weird technique where he would put magnets on your skin that were meant to draw certain energies out, which all sounds very kind of new age-y, and he probably believed it," Mac explained.
"He did group work as well, where he included music in the background. It became a kind of group hypnosis thing. As the word evolved, mesmerism means a hypnosis. It came up on my word of the day app, and I looked it up in the dictionary and thought okay, I'm going to write a track that is mesmerising, or is mesmerism."
This interview took place a few weeks after the record had been released. I asked Mac about whether he'd gone back to listen to the record since its release. "I did on Friday because I wanted to hear it off Spotify and see what it sounded like. It's cool. I haven't listened to it from start to finish for a long time. You know, you do it months ago, it gets mastered in bits, you hear the videos. You hear bits of it, but not the whole journey. It's such a trip."
Mesmerism marks more than just a new record for Mac. It marks a moment of personal growth, of reconnecting with ones passion and finding that inquisitive, innate drive to chase a feeling. What's resulted is a contemporary body of work that defies convention, walks the very thin line between pop and classical and in the process, wholeheartedly moves you.
"I really like headphone music and I really like walking along the street or the train with headphones. It's a really nice journey. I'm super happy."
Listen to Mesmerism in full below.
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Huge thank you to Paul, Liv and the team at Thinking Loud.
Words & photos by CAITLIN MEDCALF