Steve Mackay is hard to explain
by John Sewell
While the indie/DIY ethos is something of a prerequisite for anyone in the world of underground music, the starving artist persona is oftentimes a prefabricated ruse. Sure, it’s cool for aspiring musicians to spend a couple of years slumming in the big city, hoping for a foot in the door to bigger and better things. But these self-imposed vows of poverty for art’s sake are often accompanied by an escape hatch that comes in the form of parental support, an empty bedroom waiting at home, and the possibility of returning to college once the allure of bohemia wanes.
For sax-man Steve Mackay, such an escape hatch has never existed. The journeyman musician has based a long career on talent and sheer force of will. With 40-plus years in the music biz, Mackay has seen his share of fallow periods, as well as the personal tolls of life in the proverbial fast lane.
“I don’t have much money, that’s just it,” says Mackay. “But as long as I can still stand up, I’ll keep playing. I’m taking care of myself these days.”
Most known for his work on The Stooges’ cornerstone album, Funhouse , Mackay’s genre-spanning career has included trysts with The Violent Femmes, Commander Cody & The Lost Planet Airmen, Snakefinger, and an ongoing involvement with The Radon Collective, an evolving group of improvisational musicians with different core groups scattered around the globe.
Describing McKay’s music with Radon is difficult, if not impossible, especially considering the group’s transitory lineup. Mackay’s latest solo album, Michigan and Arcticus (Radon), sounds surprisingly well plotted in spite of its improvised construction. Mackay’s playing is at times reminiscent of John Coltrane’s more lyrical and melodic work, the post-bop explorations of Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, and even the grating skronk of John Zorn’s most abrasive work.
“Sometimes we have a jazzy kind of thing going and then, every once in a while watch out—it’s a rock band,” enthuses Mackay. “It can get wild sometimes. On some nights we plan what we’re gonna do and other times it just happens. But there’s always a thematic element.”
The recurring human elements in Mackay’s current touring jaunt include Nashville’s Scott Nydegger and Mr. Natural, a mysterious musician who plays homemade instruments such as the plank. “The plank is a two-by-four with a string and a pickup on it,” explains Mackay. “He scrapes and plucks at that and runs it through some effects, and it sounds great!”
At his last Pilot Light show, Mackay was joined by local noisemongers, Midnight Bomber What Bombs At Midnight. Mackay says he’s unsure who will partner for this week’s show (the thrash-blues outfit Lobster Lobster Lobster will open), but another consort with the Midnight Bomber is possible.
When asked if he’s often confronted by audiences expecting the Cro-Magnon sex rock of The Stooges, Mackay laughs. “Well, they (the audience) get the sex from it, and it gets pretty Cro-Magnon. One time there were people getting wrapped up in duct tape and dancers and band members in piles of office chairs with a synthesizer strapped on. And this was spontaneous, of course. It can get pretty out there.”
When Mackay’s not on the road with Radon, he’s at work with his other, more lucrative gig, the reunited Stooges. “They tell me where the show is, they fly me there and take good care of me, they pay me what they said they were gonna pay me, and that’s it,” says Mackay.
The Stooges’ reunion was an unexpected development that brought Mackay back into the limelight at a time when he felt his career was on the wane. And like his collaboration with the band in the early ’70s, Mackay’s collision with The Stooges mach II caught him by surprise.
“There were a couple of people who wanted it (the Stooges reunion) to happen really badly, and there was someone else (Iggy Pop) who said he wouldn’t do it,” says Mackay. But after a certain point he gave in. For the first gig, there were no promises. But the buzz started from there and the next thing you know, we’re playing all of these huge festivals in Europe.”
Mackay says that the reason for the Funhouse album’s staying power is the songwriting. “Those songs, they’re like, ‘this is what a rock song is, or this is what a rock song can be.’ I really appreciate Iggy’s writing. So it’s going to be fun to hear what he comes up with next and to play on that.” Mackay begins recording with The Stooges in Chicago next week.
Thankfully, Mackay’s sometimes-nightmarish musical travails are coming to a good end. While Mackay’s personal saga might not exemplify a puritan work ethic or a Horatio Alger story, he does feel that he’s finally reaping some rewards.
“I was well beyond expecting any kind of payback,” says Mackay. “But I’ve been blessed with a lot of young, strong and talented people to work with, and my survivor buddies in The Stooges. For years I’d tell people, ‘I was the guy who played on blah-de-blah,’ and nobody cared. And now it’s like, ‘ Oh, wow, it’s you! ”
Who: Steve Mackay w/ Lobster Lobster Lobster
Q & A with local record label/band collective El Deth
by Miriam Kramer
El Deth Productions’ annual Halloween party, in one form or another, is fast becoming spooks-day tradition here in Knoxville. From a barn party to this year’s celebration at the Electric Ballroom, the group has done it all, and this year is no exception.
Q: What are the details of the event coming up on Halloween?
Q: Are there any long term goals for the company?