After moody electronica duo To Kill A Petty Bourgeoisie disbanded last year, instrumentalist Mark McGee branched out in many directions, founding improvisational group Votel (formerly H.U.N.X.) and lending a hand to electro-hardcore act Marijuana Deathsquads. But his chief project is another duo—Father You See Queen, pairing him with vocalist Nicole “Mona” Tollefson and specializing in an elegant, icy, even eerie sound that moves beyond To Kill’s territory without losing sight of its borders. The duo also share a common interest in accentuating their music with visual art; McGee says one reason they signed with Chicago label Flingco Sound System was a common desire “to make the packaging just as important as the actual music.” While their six-song EP, titled 47, isn’t officially out until April, FYSQ’s Jan. 20 show at 7th Street Entry marks the unveiling of a special limited-edition set of 36 handcrafted music boxes—each unique, containing a download code for the album and a scattering of ashes and hair hiding another secret underneath. Created by artists Jason Wasyk and Danielle Voight with creative input from McGee and Tollefson, the boxes have a minimalist and deceptively simple design mask subtle allusive meaning. The A.V. Club talked with the band and the artists about the evolution of Father You See Queen’s sound and the thought behind the boxes.
The A.V. Club: How did Father You See Queen evolve out of To Kill A Petty Bourgeoisie?
Mark McGee: To Kill ended with Jehna [Wilhelm] going back to school in Seattle. It’s not totally done, though. We’ve been talking about doing other stuff, but we’re taking a long break.
AVC: Mona, what did you do musically before this band?
Nicole Tollefson: Nothing that was very public. I went through a phase of writing folk songs and playing in coffee shops, and then for about a year and a half I was writing really abstract stuff just by myself that I figured most people would think was kind of weird. I sent some to my friend Anna, who hooked me up with Mark. Mark used to tell people he pulled me from the farm leagues.
MM: It’s true!
MM: I hadn’t even heard your stuff before, at that first rehearsal, but I trusted Anna. And then you sang an original song, actually, something you wrote, and I was just like “Whoa, all right.”
AVC: Did you have a preconceived notion of what you were looking for?
MM: Yeah! I wanted to replace Jehna. I wanted to keep To Kill going. But at the same time, when I heard her, I didn’t hear Jehna at all. It was amazing. There was an essence of what To Kill was, but definitely not the same thing. It made sense to make another band.
NT: We talked for a little while about playing as TKAPB, but that was Jehna’s work that she had written in her voice. I love those songs. But it felt like playing covers of someone else’s songs to sing Jehna’s songs. I don’t know how she felt about it. I guess she said it was okay. She might have felt weird about someone else singing her work. It was fine, but also, we didn’t want to be bound by what people expected of that band and that sound. We were starting to write stuff, very similar in a lot of ways, but we wanted to have a project that had its own life and its own freedom. We felt it needed its own name and room to grow on its own.
MM: It was a clear ending too. I know a lot of people have been writing about [FYSQ being] a mutation of To Kill, but this is definitely not To Kill. It’s a totally new band; it’s a new sound. That’s one clarification I’d like to make.
AVC: How do you feel Father You See Queen’s sound differs from Petty Bourgeoisie’s?
NT: We decided to make things more minimal, and poppier too. A lot of that is also an expression of what was going on in our own lives. Music is often an exorcism.
AVC: What was going on in your lives?
NT: Well, I don’t want to speak for Mark, and I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I was just in a slightly darker place. The songs we wrote at first reflected that. And becoming happier made me write happier songs.
MM: And I was coming out of an identity crisis. I was with one band so long, and it was my sole project. This was before I started collaborating with other musicians. To Kill always had a rotating cast of musicians, but it was an idea that was almost forced upon them. … I was lost musically when we started to play together, and this was a good grounding project.
NT: Like a constant.
AVC: Speaking of collaborations, Mark, you’ve had a very busy year between FYSQ, Votel, and your other projects. Do you feel overstretched?
MM: I do not feel stretched at all. I actually want to do more. If anything, all those other things I do come back to this band. This is my baby. This is what I want to focus on musically, and it’s exactly what I want to be doing. Not to discredit my other projects at all, because I love them all. But the other things are more extreme pieces that I can bring back to this. [Votel and Seawhores guitarist] Adam Marx and I are going to start something new that’s very dark and droney, very dissonant. We’ll take the essence of it and draw back threads into this project. It gives me new ideas about what we’re doing.
AVC: You said you were having an identity crisis, but playing with so many bands is almost like having multiple personalities.
MM: Yes, but I always had my own sound. One thing I discovered playing with all of these people is that I gained little techniques from other musicians, but in the end I discovered that I do have a sound. Contributing to all these albums helped me realize that. And bringing that to Father You See Queen was like, “Okay, I know what I want to do, and I can do it faster than with To Kill, and I can do it more efficiently and stripped-down and minimal.”
NT: There’s an elegance in minimalism too that can be harder. You can hear it in the songs on the EP. Even though they’re not in the order that we wrote them, you can tell what order we wrote them in because at first we took the approach of being super-lush, and then, as we evolved and wrote more songs, we realized we favored this elegant minimalism.
MM: There are songs that are just vocals and electronics and nothing else, no instruments. There’s also a study in repetition, and having that evolve into something else. It almost creates a mantra.
NT: A meditation. It creates an opportunity to dive into and live in that sound a little bit. A lot of people get really impatient with music, but this forces you to really explore and let that sound expand in your mind. I feel like a theme that we carried on from what you and Jehna were doing, too, was this balance between organic and technological, and masculine and feminine, and delicate and harsh. I think that’s the main theme [of 47].
MM: I’d say that. The juxtaposition of both of them. I’d say one thing that’s different in a huge way from To Kill is that Father You See Queen takes more of a feminine approach. It’s very emotional. Most of it’s in your [Mona’s] point of view, I’d say.
NT: I write everything I sing, Mark writes all the beat stuff, and somehow it just works. It’s been really easy to work together. We trust each other.
MM: She does most of her vocals by herself, and then we bounce ideas back and forth, back and forth. The writing process is different than any band I’ve been with.
AVC: How did it work with TKAPB?
MM: It was long and grueling, but in a good way. She was my girlfriend, and we lived together. So it was an ongoing process. You can hear it in the music, that struggle.
NT: That’s part of what makes it beautiful.
AVC: In addition to collaborating with musicians, you’re also working with artists from other fields, like Jason and Danielle.
MM: Another thing we wanted to do with Father You See Queen was to focus on visual art, not just music.
NT: In the future, we want to collaborate with people who can bring costumes and visuals and film.
MM: We’re very visual people. We’d love to do a live film soundtrack at some point.
AVC: How did the idea for these music boxes come about?
Jason Wasyk: How do you make an album an item of value? People don’t buy albums anymore, so instead of just downloading something, what can you do to make something that means something? Instead of making it simpler, you make it more complex.
Danielle Voight: For me, after listening to 47 multiple times, I felt it was a very moody, emotional album, with a lot of textures. There’s a lot of beauty mixed with eeriness and darkness. Part of my intent was to give each of the boxes a bit of that mysteriousness and eeriness, so that it was almost like it takes a part of yourself to open them and see what’s inside. And with what Mark and Nicole came up with with the ashes and the hair, and underneath is more sound, it’s very eerie and beautiful.
JW: Her work was a lot harder than mine, too. I just had to sit down and make them one at a time. My work was very much about the attention to detail and the craftsmanship. Danielle made them beautiful; I just made them simple.
AVC: When you hear the term “music box,” you might assume that these are actually devices that play music. But that isn’t quite what’s happening.
MM: Our first thought was to make them functional music boxes.
JW: The mechanism then becomes more difficult. It’s still something we could do. But this evolved into something so different that I’m happy with it.
MM: I found it more interesting that they’re still music boxes—there is music contained in them. The hidden beauty inside is that there’s a microcassette with 20 minutes of music in there. … And nobody has microcassette players anymore; they don’t make them. So there’s a bit of music in there that you probably will never listen to. And would you want to dig in there, with the hair and the ashes? Because I don’t know that you’d even notice that it’s in there unless we told you.
AVC: One instinct would be not to dig through, because it’s an art object, which is something you’re told from childhood is for looking and not for touching.
DV: You’re always taught that with art that you’re not supposed to touch it, but if you do dig in there, there are these little secrets for you.
JW: There’s something so archaic [about the boxes]. And as I mentioned before, buying an album itself is kind of an archaic notion. So we’re making something unique, and we’re paying homage to that notion—if you think a CD is antiquated, check out what we have!
NT: [Laughs.] Why not play with that idea, and make whatever the heck you want? We decided to take the positive spin and let it give us the freedom to do whatever crazy, weird thing we wanted.
DV: I think that’s so beautiful, because there are so many musicians out there who are getting angry and feel like music is lost, and don’t see a way to explore other avenues. That’s what I thought was so fantastic about this project. It was a way to bring it back to being about the art.
AVC: Is there a story behind the ashes and the hair in each box?
NT: Mark and I were talking about things we could put inside the box, the creepiest stuff we could think of. And we thought ashes tell a mysterious story. You don’t know what the ashes are from. People keep ashes of people that were important to them, or a cat, or maybe something that you burned that didn’t mean anything, or something that did mean something to you. It’s mysterious and very personal.
AVC: How does the music on 47 relate to the boxes?
MM: It’s a general aesthetic, more than anything. There isn’t a direct correlation between the boxes and any individual track on the album. It’s a way to package the feeling. I can’t tell the listener that this has a direct meaning.
JW: What you feel is what you get out of it. We can’t control that.
NT: We don’t want to steal that from somebody either. … We’re not super-experimental, obviously. We’re somewhere between experimental and poppy. But that’s where our experimental side comes from. We’re not trying to appeal to people’s logic, or ability to explain something. It resonates with something in your psyche and your body that you’re not able to explain. It’s the same with our music as Danielle and Jason’s art.