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Arts and Entertainment

The Mae Shi Versus Orochon Ramen: Spicy Robot Death Match

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The Mae Shi Versus Orochon Ramen. All photos by Carrie Meathrell

So I think The Mae Shi are robots.

I know, I know – they look like your typical cute-as-shit L.A. indie band, but start talking about the Book of Revelations and cybernetic intelligence with them, and you’ll start to get this funny inhuman feeling. And they’re certainly not clunky, "Forbidden Planet!" style robots, but super smooth Cylons, like something out of a Dan Simmons novel: they look just like us. But the shit they’re saying? "Basically supercomputers are being built and we’re going to have to deal with that in the next ten years. It's a part of evolution. The singularity is already happening, is the argument." See? Robots. Totally.

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The new album, Hlllyh, does nothing to dispel this alien sensation. It's both post-apocalyptic and post-modern, almost as if the sentient Moravec-machines from the sci-fi novel Ilium managed to download Black Flag, Klaus Schultze, OC punk rock, and Talmudic commentaries, devise a mathematical equation from it all, process it through ProTools and Melodyne, and then spit back out a hyperactive 21st century punk rock concept album about a vengeful Christ reaping the world for souls.

Aliens. They’re definitely aliens. Alien robot rock gods. They're playing Spaceland this Friday night at 8:30pm with PRE, if you want to study the evidence for yourself.

Point is, I needed to devise a Turing Test, and where better to do it than Orochon Ramen? This fabled ramen joint, located in a down-at-the-heels Japanese plaza in Little Tokyo, is home to the reputed Special #2, a bowl of fire so intense it has sent countless Yelpers mewling back to their cushy internet cuddle-fests. Orochon takes polaroids of any hapless soul who manages the heroic feat of finishing a bowl of this Liquid Death within thirty minutes.


The Mae Shi at Orochon Ramen

So I figured, if I could feed the Mae Shi the Special #2 and they survived -- nay, if they managed to continue making music despite the fires burning in their collective bellies, well -- they had to be robots. Or aliens. Sexy hard-rocking alien robots. Or whatever.

“A lot of [the album] is referencing Revelations,” drummer/singer/producer Brad Breeck explains. “That song 'Pwned' is like an apocryphal chapter – but it’s sci-fi, what could happen in the Bible if aliens got involved!” The record has a frantic energy to it that’s closer to the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament than the lambs and lovin’ of the New:

he said burn em up salt the earth
do it fast make it hurt
forget about salvation
they’ve got a new destination
he said melt the ice crush the stone
peel the skin grind the bone
here’s a new sensation it’s called destiny manifest

Breeck, a twenty-something In N’ Out enthusiast who cites “Goonies” and Britney Spears as major inspirations, continues. “What would things be like if the Revelation happened in Genesis, before the covenant had been fulfilled and Christ had come? The apocalypse would have been just pure reaping of souls, it wouldn’t have been this like grand entrance that we’re told about in Revelation, it would have been like ‘I don’t give a shit, you’re done!’ That song’s about the cheapness of this creation, how little value it could have to a creator who could just make another Creation, like, 'you guys are just raw materials for my next project!'”

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Jeff Byron and Jon Gray test the spicy waters of the Special #2

LAist: That sounds like a sci-fi novel to me.
Brad: The nature of the Old Testament god is kind of sci-fi.
Bill: That song in particular really captures the fury of that idea of the manic street preacher, the crazy guy on the street who’s preaching these apocalyptic messages, with this fury. And he’s totally wrong, but he gets your attention, though, makes you feel a certain way.
Jeff: Do souls die in the apocalypse too or just the world? I always thought of the apocalypse as just skeletons flying around, but maybe I’m getting that confused with Harry Potter.
The Mae Shi: You can upload souls to computers! There’s all kinds of stuff being done, sans mathematics, that leaps logic. Like Melodyne, direct note access. Basically supercomputers are being built and we’re going to have to deal with that in the next ten years.

Can you explain what this has to do with your new record?
Brad: Oh, it’s all about inventing a new language, speaking without vowels, cause we don’t need it, we can understand each other anyway, we’re just quickening the process. I actually just made that up right now.

A classic Mae Shi performance at The Smell, 2004

They do that a lot – make shit up on the fly, toss jokes around like hacky sacks, pull off totally insane flights of rhetoric that can’t even remotely be represented on a page. It’s the kind of thing that happens in a family, albeit a family that seems to accumulate and slough off members at varying intervals.

Bill Gray (bass/vocals) and Jonathan Gray (vocals/keyboards) are cousins. Tim Byron, who co-founded the band, has left touring duties to pursue law school, although he will “parachute in once in a while to say "what's up?"’ He is brother to Jeff Byron (guitars/computers/vocals), who’s homies from way back in the day with Breeck and Ezra Buchla, their recently departed singer. (Corey Fogel, the craziest dude you’ll never meet, was also at one time a major player.) They’ve all “attended The University of Life at one time or another, among various other well respected institutions of higher learning,” although new drummer/photoshop expert Jacob Cooper confesses to attending “one month of community college, I think it was called LOL college.”

But the band now is already working on a follow-up to this year's Hlllyh, a new EP with the brand-new lineup that will hopefully lead into another record this summer. (Read Pitchfork's rave review of Hlllyh here.) They played an inhuman number of shows at this year's SXSW (eighteen in six days), and describe the Austin experience thusly: "SXSW is a city in Austin, where it's all music all the time. It’s a different dimension, where lots of scantily clad underage girls are puking all over up in the street and people are trying to sell you Dentyne Ice even though they’re giving it away for free other places. And the girls get mad at you cause they’re hotter than you. And lots of sun. See, normally Austin doesn’t have that much sun, but it comes out when you’re really hungover. Obviously we were drunk all the time."

The Mae Shi at SXSW, 2008

You guys have had a lot of “staff changes” over the past year or so. How does that affect the writing process?
It’s actually very interesting. For the last record, there was one staff change. It’s really broken down into everybody does what they can, and a lot of times, if you feel up to it, you volunteer for a project, and if you’re not up to it, somebody else volunteers you for it. There are certain tasks for sure: if there’s a bass part that nobody really volunteers for, Bill has to play it. If there’s a guitar part that nobody volunteers for, Jeff plays it. It’s a default system. We have our default positions, but everybody does their own thing too – every record has been done very differently. This new EP, we had a formulated way of doing it, but it’s always going to be different every time.

This record seems to have a certain conceptual tightness and concrete theme, a calculated structure. Obviously you were thinking about how it should be listened to as a whole.
The shape of the record came after we had everything. We knew from the beginning that we were going to make a record with this theme, with this big narrative, but the actual shape of the record came after we had all the pieces together. Some were added really late in the game to try to fill in a hole – it was a long process of making puzzle pieces and putting them in place.

One of the interesting puzzle pieces is the track “Kingdom Come”, which is its own epic journey in the middle of two fantastic, accessible songs, “Run To Your Grave” and “I Get (Almost) Everything I Want.” You guys are known for these short intense songs, then you bring in this 12 minute long dance track, right in the middle of the record!
At some point we decided we wanted to make a dance track, then at some point it became about trying to trick people into making this really long journey away from the record. Or, if they don’t want to take the journey, they’re forced to get up and turn over the record. You think of a vinyl record, Abbey Road has side A and side B. It was just an idea.

When we first wrote that 12 minute long song, it was actually 23 minutes or whatever, and our record label made us shorten it, which is completely arbitrary and stupid -- I mean, if you’re really going to take the journey, and it’s that different from the rest of the record, you could make it five hours long – you either take the journey or not.

Now it’s the new iPod generation, people really do just listen to one song off a record, they listen to their music on shuffle – that’s something we just have to deal with. But, part of the art of the thing is the way the record is organized, people still do really care about that. But then again it’s also a challenge to us to think that people might be listening to things in a different way.


Bill Gray and Brad Breeck contemplate Orochon's famed ramen

The ramen arrives, in a hapless shuffle of orders and utensils. Jeff, who had specifically requested “spicy food” for our interview, had inquired if perhaps “Special #2” could be prepared even hotter – “like Special #5? We’ve eaten whole habaneros before,” he tells me conspiratorially. Twice.

The management declines to adjust the menu, and The Mae Shi must be content with #2. Jeff inspects the broth, which is almost maroon, and thick with chile particles. “It doesn’t look that hot.” Robots! And in fact, both he and Jonathan (the three others decline to go #2, as does this reporter, who hangs her head in shame) finish their bowls in the allotted time, despite simultaneous consumption of beer and near-constant complaint over the sheer volume of the soup. I am impressed. Jeff leans in and shrugs his shoulders. “It really wasn’t that bad.” The others point out politely that Jon is dripping with sweat. Bill, who hasn’t even subjected his palate to the spice assault, is already craving a cigarette after these collective gastronomical efforts.

Perhaps they weren’t aliens after all. I still wasn’t convinced.

Run to Your Grave from the mae shi on Vimeo.

It’s funny to me that people often describe you as “ADD Rock”.
Mae Shi: We’ve played those songs so many times, I don’t think anyone with ADD could actually pay attention to playing the songs over and over as many times as we have.

We made this rule that we really don’t really follow, but for a long time it was really true: that we could never repeat anything more than once. In a normal song you hear the same thing five times, and there’s no reason to do that. The history of 20th century classical music has proven that is the case. Form is overrated. Especially on a record like “Terrorbird,” some people were saying “oh your songs are so short. They’re great, but they’re so short.” Well, listen to them again! There’s just as much information or more than there is in a regular song. The Minutemen made some of the best records ever out of very short songs.

But for this record we decided we would do chorus and verse. Cause it’s really fun! It’s an effective tool! If you’re reading a book, you’re not going to read it back and forth, back and forth. It’s all linear, it’s all – what if you read a book, that went: “she went to bed. She pulled the covers up over her head. She went to bed. She pulled the covers up over her head.”

Bill: But think about it, we are a very visual society. I mean, I think Mark E. Smith had it right, when he said repetition the whole point of the musical agenda – all you have to do is repeat something and you have a song.

We embrace that with all the electronic music that we make. People always talk about – “Oh if it’s a good song, this is the structure it has to follow.” And that’s totally not true – structure makes it easier to understand a song, but it doesn’t make it good. What if they made all the houses in the suburbs the same? Wait, they do! You know?

Run to your Grave is a super hit song though, dudes.
Brad wrote it. It was the song that started this record. It was either that or a song with the working title “System of a Down.” Brad came to us and said “Run To Your Grave,” and we were like “ehhhh….I don’t know, it doesn’t really sound like us,” but in the end it was kind of validating – we can make a record without Ezra. It was hard to even think about how we were going to make a record without Ezra, and this was one song where it was like – “Brad can sing it!” We tried to find another person to sing the song, we all tried singing it together, but then it just worked.

And then you got everybody in the world to be in the video.
We never do anything ourselves as a band, we’ve always relied on other people, we put out a DVD of friends making music videos for us, and how much we’ve relied on friends. We’re gonna keep doing videos, we have so many ideas for crazy videos.

Bill: The ideal situation though if we had time and the resources I think it would be way better if we made all the videos ourselves because I feel it would be more cohesive. I always get bummed with other people doing our videos for us. Because – well, and this is something our old bassist Tim came up with. It’s that this band is a vehicle for everything else we want to do – like if I want to design a t-shirt or make a website or make a video, I'm going to use the band to accomplish those things.

Jeff: Or paint my car.
Jacob: Or go to college. Or finally learn English! [They go on one of their skittering jokes again.]
Bill: I feel like we’re letting that idea down if we don’t do things ourselves.

Jeff: We make music using any means necessary – if we only have the means to do a certain thing, we’re going to. I always think that iMovie is a perfectly good way to edit a film. If you’re good at using it, why not? If all you have is a camera phone, then why not make a video using that? If that’s all that you have, but you still have all the ideas there, why not make the most of it?

Jon: Everybody that I know I could pretty much say I met through music. Almost all of my friends I met through a friend and even that initial friend I met through music. Even Bill, he’s my cousin but I still feel like he’s my music friend, cause that’s where we bonded. Even as kids, we didn’t like each other, you know, he thought I smelled and he hated me. It was like a forced visit at his house -- our moms made us hang out.
Bill: I was a bigger dick then.
Jon: Then we played music together, he started playing guitar and he found out I played guitar, and from there --
Bill: Jon taught me how to rip. We fell in love through music. If it weren’t for music we would have killed each other.
Jon: If it weren’t for music you would have stayed weird and I would have stayed weird. Oh wait a second --

What makes playing in LA different?
We love LA. It’s a love-hate. It’s a shitty place to live, you can’t get food stamps like you could if you were living in San Francisco or Portland, but there are so many opportunities. The best part is being a band in Los Angeles. Nobody likes to go to shows in LA except for a select group of people, and those people are really fun. They’re all up on stage while we’re playing.

Do the kids dance?
Well, hell, we’re gonna boogie down. We’re gonna have a real Mae Shi hoedown!


The Mae Shi with a Japanese aerospace hero.

When we emerge from the restaurant, it’s started to rain. For a moment, they stop being machines and turn into real boys, taking turns sliding over slick pavement into the street. There’s a statue of some Japanese aerospace dignitary outside of the courtyard that becomes a prop for an impromptu photo shoot. These guys fall into camera-ready positions almost too easily -- and suddenly I notice that there's a rocket ship attached to the statue they’re standing under. Of course! Robot aliens! This is where they parked the thing!

Jeff says, “Come on guys, it’s time to go make music.” They climb into their ship, and just like that, no more bodies, only souls.

The Mae Shi are playing Spaceland on Friday at 8:30pm with PRE if you wanna hitch a ride. Buy tickets here.