Words by Anthony Thomas – Image in thumbnail by Eliana White
“Of all the bands and projects that I’ve been involved in, this is the one I feel connects with most people. I’ve never felt this excitement before,” says Hannah Macklin with a beaming smile. Macklin is the face, voice, and brain behind Brisbane four-piece, MKO. Maybe you read my interview with the band a while back, maybe not. Either way, I have been following them closely since. In the time since that interview was published, MKO have released their second EP, Lily Lotus Orchid Sunflower, toured nationally, released a couple videos and somehow maintained a solid presence on the Brisbane gigging circuit. Macklin got in touch recently to discuss a bunch of shows the band has coming up later in the month. A few phone calls, a band rehearsal, and a live performance later and I was sold. Our first interview was a mere taste; now it’s time to really get to know the humans behind the band.
As expected when I met up with Macklin before their recent show at The Box, she was kitted out head to toe in her unique amalgamation of styles. Her outfits are a labour of love, taking cues from street-style, vintage, colour, geometric shapes, Yukimi (Little Dragon), Beyoncé, and Prince, not the glossy pages of fashion magazines or the hottest blogger of the moment. It’s hardly surprising to discover that Macklin’s formative years revolved around performing. Ballet, dance, music theatre, piano – you know name it, Macklin’s done it. “People would ask me what I wanted to do after school and I would say I’m going to be a singer and they would tell me that was cute.” It was a dream naysayers only began acknowledging after years of devotion paid off and she was accepted into the Conservatorium’s jazz voice program. Three years later she emerged with a degree and a newfound to desire to create. “I really had to sit down and think about what I wanted to do, so I started writing songs again.” These songs came to form the crux of eight-piece, Hannah Macklin and the Maxwells (HMM). “It was all original material, closer to 50s and 60s jazz. Not electronic at all. We released an album that I love and am really proud of, I was just never 100% happy with the sound of it.” Putting HMM on an indefinite hiatus meant more time to dabble, experiment and begin demoing with computer software. “The songs that were coming out were totally different, really beats driven. I was writing softer vocals over crisp, electronic beats created on the computer. It was a cleaner, more modern sound and I really liked it.” Going onto explain that song writing on programs like Abelton often snowballs. “I like to start with a beat. It’s not the same for every song but once I’ve got one solid thing, it all happens pretty naturally from there, especially when you’re on the computer. I can usually hear what I want it to sound like and I’ll just keep adding and adding to that.” This process of digital experimentation throughout the early mornings of 2011 quickly developed from a bedroom project into what would eventually become MKO.
Armed with vision and a handful of tracks, Macklin needed the appropriate mix of musicians to actualise these concepts swirling around in her head. Her first point of call was an old university pal, Steele Chabau, who plays bass and synth. “We’re like brother and sister, that’s our relationship,” she says. “It’s good, we can be really open. In rehearsal, if he doesn’t like something he’ll just say he hates it.” I was curious to get Chabau’s perspective. We arrange to meet but my confirmation calls and texts go unanswered. Two days later I receive a text, “Hey pal, sorry about the other day. Had to skip town for a while. You know how it goes.” I can’t help but laugh at how smooth he is. We decide a phone call might be easiest given his penchant for erratic behaviour. I ask about his apparent directness. “I am direct sometimes because I can be. Being open is the only way we’re going to survive. There’s nothing worse than being in a band where you can’t have a say or you feel that your point isn’t valid.” Fortunately, he feels he does have a strong creative direction in MKO.
It was by chance that he found himself in the Con’s jazz course where he met Macklin, who he affectionately calls Macko. After not making it through auditions for classical double bass he was told to apply for jazz despite never having played before. “I didn’t really want to do jazz, I just wanted to play bass.” As it happened, they were short on bass players. Fast forward a couple of years and it’s impossible to classify Steele as one type of musician. He cut his teeth playing in a series of similar rock bands before branching out. While MKO is his first foray into electronic soundscape he also plays in a salsa band, Chacula. “Diversity is great but intense focus is equally as good. It’s always got to be a mixture of the two. I’ve got that pretty much sorted at the moment.” Given society’s obsession with labels, I feel obliged to ask what he kind of musician he classifies himself as, without a pause he responds simply, “I’m just trying to be a legit musician.” What is a legit musician? “Someone who take it seriously. I’m in it for the long haul, not just until I have to get a job. This is my job.”
Myka Wallace joined the MKO party on drums next, much to the surprise of Macklin. “She’s a bit of an idol for me. I was really nervous to ask her to play in MKO because I thought she would say no.” Understandably so, Wallace has been playing drums for about twenty-two years; you could say sitting behind a kit is what she was born to do. Drummers often experience high levels of performative angst due to the formation of a recognition complex when all the glory goes to the guitarists and vocalist. Not Wallace. She prefers the focus to be anywhere but on her. It took a little persuading but she came round to an interview before a recent show, the first thing she said was, “I’m going to make you work for it.” Challenges are fun. Her introduction to the noisy world of percussion came via hanging out with one of her brother’s friends who happened to play drums. She quickly became obsessed. Her parents shrugged it off as a hobby until her ceaseless practising resulted in the emergence of some serious blisters forming on her hands. That Christmas, Wallace received her very own drum kit. She was eight years old.
Like Steele, Wallace plays with a number of bands all of varying styles in the endless pursuit of finding validity as a musician or as she puts it, “Mastering your craft.” Have you mastered it yet? “I don’t think about it, it’s just what I do.” Some might perceive this nonchalance as a sign of disregard but it’s anything but. Wallace isn’t bound by self-inflicted limitations when it comes to music. “Some days I wish I was in a garage-rock band, others I want to be a jazz player and others I just want to play hip-hop beats. I like a lot of shit. Why would I limit myself to any one genre?” This unwillingness to settle for anything but what inspires her at the time stems from her wealth of music history knowledge. Knowledge that goes a little deeper than being able to name every band that has had a number one hit over the past decade, although she may very well be able to. “I really enjoy music history dating back to the blues and everything that came out of that. I like knowing what’s happened before. Music has a great history and not just the musical side but how it relates to history in general.” Our conversation moves onto influence and recreation of what’s been, citing Miles Davies’ autobiography as her inspiration to play jazz. Time is running out before MKO is due on stage but Wallace leaves me with one last piece of wisdom, something I have come to realise she possesses great amounts of. “Some people are influenced by a lot of different things, but others just love a certain style of music and want to reproduce that. It’s all relevant to what you want to do with or what you want to say with your music.”
The MKO puzzle was complete after Macklin played a jazz gig with Peta Wilson back in 2011. “We really hit it off both on stage and after the show, so I asked if she would interested in playing some of my tunes.” Also from a jazz background, Wilson, who plays keyboard and synth, is a perfect match for the other three. I tracked her down at the same show as Wallace. She had a half-full cider that I smuggled out of the venue in my jacket, so we could chat in the alleyway next door. So raw, right? It’s no surprise to discover MKO has pushed Wilson out of her comfort zone as well. “I play jazz. Very different to MKO, it doesn’t have that electro-synth element at all.” Our intention was to talk about her musical past but we were both a little drunk and things got philosophical pretty quickly. Most of the music she writes for herself and other bands is intended to be relatable on a human level. Going onto to explain “a wicked song” she wrote for her other band, Cuca Shop, which explores procrastination, a topic we are all well versed in. I ask her where she comes from and her response is cloaked in metaphors. “I’m a Pisces and I like to think I really do come from the ocean. I used to have flippers when I was born but over time my limbs adapted. That’s actually how I can play the piano now. It used to be pretty tricky. That’s the story of my physical body”.
I’m unsure whether she was pulling my leg my leg or not butour conversation progressed and it became impossible to mistake her deep-seated love of music. “It gives me such an enormous sense of joy that I don’t have words for.” From a young age, all Peta wanted to do was write and make music. Where she deviates from being a typical Pisces is her ability to satisfy both callings. She doesn’t find satisfaction in writing lyrics for songs, saying her ears instinctively tune into the music and filter out the words, but keeps a blog to help alleviate any ambivalence between her two passions. Before we call the interview, Peta mentions her belief that creation is the design of some higher being, which I think really captures Peta as both a musician and a person; “You have to be really present in order to be creative. It’s hard in this world. We’re always projecting or reflecting but only in the moment where you are fully now, can you really be creative.”
MKO is one woman’s grand plan, yes, but it is so much more than that. Each member brings their own unique dynamic to the project. What emerges is a collective of musicians doing whatever they can to sustain an undying need to create music. Myka told me, “Good music is various people getting together with different ideas and creating whatever the hell they want to.” Unknowingly, with those few words Myka captured exactly what it is MKO is. From the behind the scenes details, like accidental samples that go on to form the foundation of entire songs (true story), to the publicly projected concepts, MKO is an experimentation with music. It has placed the genius of four radically different virtuosos’ together in a musical beaker and let the ensuing creative combustion run its course without supervision. The results are fucking spectacular and show no sign of slowing anytime soon. Expect bigger collaborations, a revamped live show and even more hype from me in the very near future. MKO are one of a kind, and it’s safe to say Macklin needn’t worry about her music spending another day alone.