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It's a few days into this year's South by Southwest festivities, and the members of Oakland-based synth-rock band Mwahaha are 1,744 miles from Austin, sitting on well-worn couches at their Fruitvale studio. They drink shitty beer and smoke nicer-than-average cigarettes. Their collective demeanor is, in a word, unhurried. Topics of conversation include: the March 25 release of their self-titled debut and its unconventional, painstaking creation; a European tour, scheduled to begin in June; and why SXSW pretty much sucks the big one.
On the latter, guitarist Cyrus Tilton elaborates.
"We heard — but we didn't really think it was true — that you don't double-book SXSW showcases because it pisses them off," he says. Last year, when Mwahaha was invited to Austin, they made the mistake of accepting an additional offer to play at Warp Records' showcase — apparently a cardinal sin at the hyper-saturated festival. "So we show up to the official one that they invited us to, and the guy at the place is like, 'You're not playing tonight.'"
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"We were pretty much escorted out," adds bassist Nathan Tilton, Cyrus's brother.
Lesson learned. But if ignorance about established protocols has pissed off a promoter or two, it's also imbued their music with an impressive, radiant density. Songs like "Rainbow Diamond" and "Love" are jammed with guitar noise, agonized vocals, and walls of hissing synths. Others, like "Rivers and Their Teeth," were built, then torn apart, then completely reassembled around something as simple as a five-second fraction of a riff. After 11 years of playing together (first under the moniker NED, then as Mwahaha), the Tiltons and lead singer Ross Peacock have hit a pleasing, if volatile, equilibrium; they are masters of crafting dark, cacophonous pop that's accessible in spite of itself.
That's not to say the project was easy — or even remotely efficient. The band members started recording the album in their studio about three years ago, then decided to start again from scratch when their first drummer left. In 2011, they took their rough drafts to Eli Crews, the Oakland-based engineer behind tUnE-yArDs' W h o k i l l. But because they kept zipping back to Fruitvale to re-track parts, the "mixing" ended up taking about two weeks. Things got a little tense.
"Some songs had as many as 80 tracks that weren't terribly well-organized," says Peacock. "It was a give-and-take. We [and Crews] had moments where we butted heads."
The album was finally released independently in December of 2011 (thus the SXSW appearance last year), and then picked up by Plug Research, an L.A.-based label that's home to artists like Bilal and Naytronix, the side-project of tUnE-yArDs bassist Nate Brenner. Having a boost from an actual label, Nathan Tilton says, is a welcome change for a band whose rehearsal space necessitates a couple of hefty security gates, and whose tour van is missing a window.
"Money is always an obstacle with starving musicians," he says, shrugging.
There is a silver lining, though. Having already recorded and tweaked its debut album, Mwahaha is well under way with a follow-up. The band will have ample opportunity in Europe to work out new the songs live, hopefully yielding more focused textures.
That's the theory, anyway. In their studio, Nathan Tilton sits down at a computer and cues up a few new tracks. The first, tentatively titled "I Drove All Night," gallops along in an odd time signature as synths blossom and blare. It's a Rubik's cube of a song, but when it clicks into place, the effect is dazzling. The next track, whose working title is "Autumn," is more restrained and even a little bouncy. True to Mwahaha form, it remains slightly off-kilter until a crisp melody emerges like a hanky pulled from a magician's pocket.
Nathan Tilton and the others listen intently, sipping their beers. They talk about how the new album will have "less hard turns" and "not so many abrupt changes." It will be more "pop."
But a quick glance reveals that there are already about 40 guitar parts stacked atop each other at times on these new tracks. And there are, by this reporter's count, no fewer than 11 synthesizers tucked into various corners of the 12x12-foot rehearsal space.
"None of us are properly trained musicians, so we're very reliant on textures and tones," Cyrus Tilton says. "When we find those textures and tones, we're not ready to get rid of them."