"We're a brand new band and we're just getting started." This is how Autry Fulbright II, the man behind the Austin/Brooklyn band Midnight Masses, ended our call last week. Which was weird, because he's been performing under that name since 2008.
But first, the video. Directed by the band's own Jordan Marecek and starring Kaiman Kazazian, "Am I a Nomad?" is heavy with symbols (the cross, the All-seeing Eye) outlined in flesh and shadow. The song comes from Departures, Midnight Masses' first full-length, which came out in July. Both video and LP are psych noir: somehow hazy and high-contrast, contained and obsessed with death and faith all at once.
Fulbright shed some light on those obsessions in our phone convo, excerpted below. A few things of note: he started the band shortly after the death of his father, a preacher in the Jehovah's Witness church. With a lineup that could morph from four to 14 members, Midnight Masses released a single and an EP and then fell silent for four or five years -- in part because one of Fulbright's closest collaborators, TV on the Radio's Gerard Smith, died in 2011. Fulbright joined ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead and toured a lot. Finally, he pulled together a core band and a ton of guests -- members of Dirty Projectors, Mars Volta, Atoms for Peace, Here We Go Magic -- and made Departures. It is well worth the wait, even if you didn't know you were waiting.
What's your life like since the album came out?
Ever since I first got paid to do a show -- which was probably like five or ten bucks 15 years ago -- I've always been in multiple projects and interested in experimenting with other styles. Trail of Dead is often my main focus because it is the busiest band at the moment. Then I have this new project called Vanishing Life, so that'll probably be busy when Trail isn't, but everyone else is in another band in that, too. I also co-produce and cowrite records with people and do one-offs. I'm really interested in playing as much as I can. I think that's a rising trend, too, with superstars like Jack White, Dave Grohl and Josh Homme. They're in multiple bands 'cause they love it; they're certainly not doing it to make a living. I'm kind of in that school. Probably the janitor in that school, but in that school nonetheless.
Are there sounds you've been making that would surprise people who know you through Midnight Masses and Trail of Dead?
I think the thing that people would be most surprised by is that Midnight Masses live has always been different from records. Records are almost like this snapshot of a certain situation or time period. Seeing Midnight Masses, you can get the 11- to 14-piece ensemble with string section, and then I can do the four-piece thing I've been doing, and I can do that several ways too. It's just going to be something where I keep people... not "guessing," 'cause it's not like people are sitting at home, being like, "What are they gonna do next?!!" It's more that I keep myself guessing and evolving, and we do have a revolving cast of people to play with.
What's the oldest Departures song, and what's the newest?
The oldest song is "There Goes Our Man," which makes sense for people who have any backstory of the band, because it's kind of an ode to my father passing away. And then "All Goes Black" kind of tells the story of my dad passing away, and me transcending grief and creating art and music to therapeutically and cathartically deal with that grief. "Departures" and "Clap Your Hands" were written just a few months ago, whereas "There Goes Our Man" was written probably five years ago.
Do you see Midnight Masses moving beyond that elegiac theme that created the band in the first place?
I'm not sure. While I'm definitely not in that same mindset of approaching specific grief and loss like I had with a good bit of the last record, there's always experiences that I feel can at least be represented by singing about death or loss; that's just how I write. I grew up super religious, but the thing I took from it as an adult is it was more metaphorical for art and music. I'll always write about death and loss, but it may not be, as you say, this eulogy, this continuous memoriam. I've been talking about writing about love, which is something I really don't do. Some of the songs on Departures, you know, they may not be specifically in reference to what seems to be the most apparent thing. I might be singing about an ex-girlfriend, or God, or my dad or Gerard Smith, or any people I've lost.
What has your religious practice been as an adult?
Art is a very reverential, worshipful and spiritual aspect of my life; in fact, it's the only one. And recognizing nature and the power of love and the triumph of the human spirit, as long as it's respectful of the earth and other creatures -- that's probably as far as I get into religion. I'm not a huge proponent of organized religion. It's something that I feel has done quite a bit of harm, and complicated situations have arisen from people's obsession with it.
Was that something you struggled with as a kid, when it was a regular part of your life?
As a kid, everyone struggles with their feeling of identity and mortality, and I think religion offers an answer to questions regarding, "Why am I here? Why is there suffering in the world? What will happen to me when I die?" Unfortunately, as a young person, a lot of people are telling you what to do. It only gets more and more prevalent in your life. First it's maybe just your parents and your teachers, then it's advertisers, then your boss and then, in the case of being a musician, maybe it's your agent, your publicist, your label... But there's always people who have an idea of what's the best way to live. I believe that when you die you're just dead and that's it, but people have this fear of the second before death, or the time before they have to acknowledge the fact that this very natural thing that's been happening forever is going to happen.
What church did you grow up in?
I was raised a Jehovah's Witness. Many of my family members still are Jehovah's Witnesses, and they're very happy and comfortable doing that, and I totally support their happiness. I still feel like you can have a very fulfilling life, and a very peaceful death, whether you believe in heaven or not. And I think your life is a lot more disturbed if you're more concerned with whether other people are allowed to marry because they're the same sex or whether you feel that certain people should not be allowed to do certain things they want to do, and you feel like you are gaining your own salvation by impeding other people's happiness or freedom. That does not seem very productive to me.
What about that revolving cast you mentioned? Departures is heavy with references to other artists: there are songs called "Golden Age" and "Everywhere Is Now Here," and in fact you just made a short film called Now Here Is Nowhere...
...which is an album by the Secret Machines. Midnight Masses and Trail of Dead have toured with the Secret Machines. I am aware of the record, but it's kind of like a play on words that I also liked and wanted to use. It is more of a representation of where one is at as an artist, a feeling of displacement, whether in spirituality or in life. And then with "Golden Age," I know there is a TV on the Radio song. In fact, when Jaleel [Bunton, of TVOTR] was working on the record, he was like, "Don't name the song 'Golden Age!'" I was like, "Well, 'Golden Age' could be cinema, comic books..." Originally, "Golden Age" was also a reference to a Jehovah's Witness publication that was written early in the 20th century. Lyrically it has nothing to do with any of those things. It's talking about an age that's gone that you're reminiscing on.
Is there any through line connecting all the people who guested on the album?
It's just like a neighborhood. There are people I know who I felt could contribute something, and it's cool that they did. I don't think I would have that many guests or that it's necessary to do that -- that time period is over -- but it was a cool experience having a bunch of my friends being a part of it, and there are going to be a few who will be showing up live here and there. You'll just have to go to a show to see it.
Departures is out now on Superball Music. Midnight Masses are playing Union Pool tonight and Mercury Lounge this Thursday.