How Quentin Stoltzfus made the perfect Mazarin record.
I'm kind of a space cadet," admits Quentin Stoltzfus in the middle of our sleepy, sprawling conversation about his band Mazarin's new album We're Already There. "I think about a lot of different things all at once, trying to bring them together."
He cites our phone interview as an example. Besides the sound of us talking, he's hearing his air conditioner, the echo of his voice in a stairwell, cars going by, planes flying overhead and the wind blowing.
"I'm simultaneously perceiving all these," says Stoltzfus, "and music doesn't always reflect that. Not that it has to, but I've always thought that they blend so well together. To listen to a song and hear lots of other things happening ... I think it's a natural way of listening."
Anyone who's heard a Mazarin record knows exactly what he's talking about. Even Stoltzfus' catchiest songs-all propulsive shimmer, bubbling bass, head-bobbing beat and blithe vocals-are littered with loops, samples and other cryptic machinations. At first it seems to obscure the songwriting, but it turns out that is the songwriting.
"When we went in to do this record, I said, 'Okay, I'm not going to do the [background] sounds this time. It's going to be straight-up songs, very simple,'" he recalls. "And then of course one year later all the songs are getting, like, backward guitar. It's something I'm hopelessly addicted to at this point."
That addiction began back when Stoltzfus was drumming in the Azusa Plane, an outfit famous for scads of arty feedback. He was living in West Chester, where he'd just dropped out of college, and was making his own experimental soundscapes on the side.
But a funny thing happened on the way to dissonance-he started strumming and singing. Producer and friend Brian McTear heard those early basement recordings and insisted that Stoltzfus make a proper album.
A year later came Watch It Happen, Mazarin's lovely low-key debut. (The band's name was inspired by a book mentioning the French cardinal Jules Mazarin.) The record featured players from dreamy local bands like Lenola and Aspera Ad Astra, and McTear produced it.
Then things got a lot more interesting. In December '99 a British release of the song "Wheats" was branded "Single of the Week" by the U.K. music bible NME.
"That was huge," says Stoltzfus. "Next thing I knew, I was over in England getting all these offers. It was very strange."
It was also ironic, considering he didn't even like the song. He had to be convinced to record it in the first place. A eulogy for a collapsed relationship, it's more personal than the songs he usually writes-"I must have spent 30 rainy days/ Writing this simple melody/ To tell you that I'm over you/ But oh yeah, that's right/ I'm not over you."
"I think it expresses this confusion you have with love," Stoltzfus says. "And it did a lot for me. But at the same time, you're ready to move on."
Mazarin's second album, 2001's A Tall Tale Storyline, didn't achieve the same traction, despite a solid single in "Suicide Will Make You Happy." Maybe it was difficult tracks like the opening "Go Home," or simply the result of heightened expectations. Either way, the band toured for six months-including shows all across Europe-before coming home broke and exhausted.
It was a hard time for Stoltzfus, and he decided to take a long break from Mazarin. But McTear kept pushing him, as he always had, until Stoltzfus agreed to start work on new material.
In the years between albums, Stoltzfus played with other bands, built a studio in his Fishtown home and moonlighted for a moving company. He also slept a lot. An awful lot. Sleep is a frequent subject in his songs, as is drug use.
"I have a very active sleep life. I'm a heavy dreamer," he says, explaining that he sleepwalks almost every night. "It's almost like an experience with drugs. Sleeping and drugs touch on similar thought processes."
We're Already There opens with a song you wouldn't expect from someone so tight with the Sandman. "The New American Apathy" takes aim at people who think watching the news is enough these days. It chips away at escapism and our collective false sense of security, asking, "Who wants to be oblivious?"
"I really don't skirt around the issue," says Stoltzfus. "It's a direct reaction to the whole ... I don't even know what to call it yet. It's the modern state of affairs. I don't know how to describe it. I guess my way of describing it was writing the song."
Somber tone aside, it's an engaging tune that sets the stage for the rest of the record, which may be Mazarin's best yet. The pretty parts are prettier, even as the weird parts are weirder.