Words by Luke LaBenne
In Edgar Wright’s new documentary The Sparks Brothers, bassist Flea waxes poetic about the influential duo, saying “Some bands will give you an outfit to wear and some bands will give you a sewing machine, a needle and thread and let you make what you want, but inspire you and give you the energy to make something…”
That’s what experimental rock quartet ME REX have done on their groundbreaking new album Megabear. ME REX is a meeting of the minds of heavy hitters in the London DIY world. Started as the solo project of Myles McCabe, the group expanded to include cheerbleederz members Kathryn Woods and Phoebe Cross, as well as Phoebe’s Happy Accidents bandmate Rich Mandell. Together they have made a work of music that transcends labels like “song” and “album” and becomes something else entirely: a completely unique and customizable listening experience. Megabear is made up of 52 mini songs that can be played in any combination. The album can be played on shuffle and the listener can have a different experience every time.
This opens a multiverse of possibilities for the listener, with endless combinations they can craft their own song order or simply bask in the randomness and experience the happy accidents that the shuffle method provides. The album is playing constantly on the band’s exploration page and each song corresponds to a card in a beautiful designed deck. Not only does the band provide an incredible album with an innovative concept, but also a multidimensional experience that is like no other. Each song on the album is it’s own little world and brings its own energy. Whether its building on the momentum of the previous song or stopping it dead in its tracks, every 30 seconds is an adventure waiting to see what comes next. The unique album concept could distract from the music if these songs weren’t so poignantly penned and thoughtfully crafted. No matter the method of listening or the sequence of the songs, Megabear will leave a mark on the listener.
Off Shelf: ME REX started as a solo project and now grew into a full band. Do you think you would’ve been able to make this project if it had been a solo project?
Myles McCabe: No, all of the logistics of it, and the practical side of making it work is all Rich.
Rich Mandell: It was a lot of trying to work it all out. It wasn’t anything that I’ve ever had to tackle in my regular production work and so it was a whole new problem solving exercise. But yeah, it came out really cool and was really fun to make.
OS: Do you of think this format as the future of music?
MM: I would really love to see other artists use this same format in a similar way to what we’ve done, and also develop it further. There’s a lot left to explore with the format, a lot of ways we were careful because we didn’t know if it was going to work. So with experimenting with key changes and time signature changes, there’s a whole load of space still there.
OS: How did you conceive this idea of Megabear with 52 mini songs that all fit together in endless combinations?
MM: So it’s kind of a combination of two different ideas that I was working on. One was to have a 2 minute song that was made up of interchangeable short cells, where each cell is one line and every line would rhyme with every other one. And the other project was the idea of trying to write one song that was half an hour long. So in the process of writing that long song I realized that I was splitting it up anyway, and sort of from there the two ideas came together.
Kathryn Woods: So you felt like it wouldn’t have been faithful if you were spitting it up anyway to pretend like it was a 30 minute song?
MM: Right, so it would have wanted to be one idea
RM: It was going to be at one point right?
MM: It was! And also 1 half-hour song gets you one stream on Spotify.
KW: Absolutely, and what are we about? Streams.
MM: We wanna rack up those numbers baby! [laughs]
OS: Each song corresponds to a card in the Megabear deck. How did you come up with idea and where can I buy a deck?
MM: You can get decks on our bandcamp or on the BSM website. I arrived at the idea as a lot of aspects of the contents of the album are inspired by illuminated manuscripts like Splendour Solis. And so I wanted to represent that idea, the fact that it’s intentionally going against the idea that an album has to be defined by physical formats meant that I really wanted to do something alternative with regards to putting it out. My first idea was to do a book in that style, but I realized that wouldn’t necessarily gel with the shuffle concept, and so that’s how I arrived at the idea of a deck of cards, and realized I’d independently arrived at the idea of tarot.
OS: Do you think Megabear’s format appeals more to listeners with short attention spans or listeners who prefer to listen to a full album? Or Both?
RM: I think both as you can turn it off at any time.
MM: Sure, you can do several segments that form into one short song. Though the way that I imagine people experiencing it is as a full album, as when you switch it on, you’re kind of in the middle of it, it doesn’t have a beginning. Experientially, it can be a bit jarring at the beginning and the end as you’re jerked in and out.
KW: And there’s no defined point of exit so you don’t know when it’s appropriate to stop.
RM: But at the same time though, the more you listen to it, the less jarring the beginning becomes. That was always my concern while we were making it – that you’d put it on and go ‘what the hells going on?’. But then by the time we got to the tenth test version, every bit of it was very familiar.
MM: Because it’s a lot to ask of every section, that every song is a song beginning, and also an end, and also is a seamless transition.
OS: What was the recording process like? Did you record all of the songs in the same session or in little chunks?
MM: It was long! But we initially did a day in Rich and Phoebe’s room in New Cross with a midi keyboard and a book that I’d written all of the songs into. Just laying down all of the guides.
RM: Yes, that took a while. But from there, I don’t know if we ever went at it for more than 5 hours at a time?
MM: Yeah but there were weeks at a time where I’d see you every day! [laughs]
RM: True! But not necessarily all for this. But yeah, we built it slowly, and it gradually took form. But then we recorded all of the real piano in an afternoon, and all of the vocals in an afternoon too.
OS: The lyrics are beautifully written on this album. What was the writing process like, did you write the lyrics by yourself or did you craft them along with your bandmates?
MM: Thank you! So the process wasn’t that different to my usual writing process, as I tend to write in single lines and then fit everything together afterwards. So it is just a matter of doing that on a larger scale.
OS: I resequenced the album into my favorite order of songs and I interpreted a narrative of someone going through life and though they grow and change they return to the same thoughts and feelings. Did you have any story arc in mind for these lyrics or did you just write them each as separate little scenes?
MM: There’s not an order or a narrative to it. It’s more of a set of ideas that will cause the listener to project a narrative onto it, as the question kind of demonstrated.
OS: What was the most challenging part of making an album like this?
MM: I think all of the stuff that I really struggled with, I eventually got other people to do! So the art, I had this idea for it, but it was way way beyond anything that I’d be able to accomplish, so I went to Jono and he did an excellent job with that. The recording of it, Rich did a great job.
RM: Not excellent?
MM: Fantastic! Brilliant! Perfect!
KW: The bits that we did?
MM: Transcendent, exquisite! And also the promotion side of things and the organization of the band as a whole, we’ve got people helping with which is something that I could never do by myself.
RM: We were talking about this the other day, at one point you were talking to a label that was going to just give you money and no help. It’s funny how different things would have worked out if it had gone that way.
MM: I would have spent it all on hummus!
KW: I think the term ‘ideas man’ was created for you. You have great ideas! But help is needed to execute them.
MM: That is true, I’m not an executioner.
OS: Was there ever a time where you felt like it wasn’t going to work and you should just scrap the whole idea?
MM: Yeah for the whole time. Even the morning of it coming out on Spotify. We were chatting like “it doesn’t go seamlessly when you shuffle it!” but we tried out a few different things and got it working. When you play it in order it’s seamless but when you shuffle it it’s not gapless. But there are ways around it, you can set the crossfade to 0, but not off. It varies from device to device.
KW: But there was no way to know how it was going to work across all of the streaming formats. But also people would want to look for loopholes as is the nature of people.
RM: But we have the website which works as intended too.
OS: The exploration page is such a cool idea. How were you able to make it stream so seamless on the site?
MM: That was all Lee Martin, again, something that was beyond any of us and something we wouldn’t have even thought of doing on our own. He’s done a blog about the making of it.
MM: I know nothing about that sort of thing and I found it a very easy, accessible and interesting read.
OS: Is the album order the “correct” listening order? Is there a “correct” listening order?
MM: No again with the vinyl order we made it deliberately different to the order it comes in on streaming. We’ve got plans for a few other formats that will come in different orders as well, and that’s to emphasize the idea that there is no correct order.
OS: How do you plan to top it on your next album?
KW: I think you can’t write music by thinking about topping things. Every time we write something we want it to be new and exciting to us, but those are the only criteria!