Interview with Pete Mac (Paradox)

Paradox headshot

Ireland might not be the place that jumps to mind when thinking of grunge-fuelled alternative rock, but Paradox are one such band keeping the spirit of grunge alive, invoking the sounds of their peers, such as Nirvana and Alice in Chains.

Inspired by the early ’90s grunge scene, brothers Pete and Mike Mac formed their band in 1996 and have been producing their own brand of alternative rock ever since.

Over the years, they’ve signed to an indie label, toured America and, after parting ways with their label after just one album, they’ve managed to self-release two more, the latest being this year’s offering, Corporate Pollution.

Pete talks about his music, his influences, the ways the music industry has changed and the pros and cons of being part of it without a label.

Each of your albums has its own style that differs from the one before it. Is this intentional or is it a more natural evolution of your sound?

I would say non-intentional. Every album was written and recorded at a different stage of our lives. I was only 18 when we recorded Circle of Growth and a lot of the songs were written as far back as when I was a 15-year-old kid. We were very much influenced by the grunge scene back then and it probobly shows a lot on that album. By the time we’d done Sacred, we were listening to different kinds of music and a little bit older too. Not sure if we were more mature though… maybe musically. I would like to think that was when we found our own sound.

How do you feel your latest album, Corporate Pollution, differs from the previous Paradox album, Sacred?

Corporate Pollution is just a further progression from Sacred, with a slight political twist. The album’s a combination of songs written over the past 8 years or so. Even though it’s a bit more political, we don’t really want to go down that road too much. Mike and myself were apart for a number of years so when we got back jamming together for this album we had a fresh spark… lots of new songs and new ideas. Again, we’re older and had experienced a lot over the past few years and we put that into the album.

There was a seven year gap between Sacred and Corporate Pollution. What were the reasons behind this?

Mike moved to Canada and I moved to Berlin. Our long-term bass player had also moved to Amsterdam so we were again without a bassist for shows and touring. We got another bass player in 2005 and played some shows in Germany and Ireland but not as much as we did before. I started playing solo and we all just did different things for a while… living in different countries made it that much harder to play live.

In 2009 you released the solo acoustic album In Limbo. What inspired you to release an acoustic album and would you consider recording another one in the future?

I was listening to a lot of acoustic stuff. People like Elliott Smith, Eddie Vedder’s solo album, lots of PJ Harvey. I saw her playing a show in Berlin and it was just her on stage but it was amazing that one person could create such an atmosphere. I wanted to play live on a regular basis and wasn’t sure when Paradox would be back recording again even though there was a lot of songs written. So I started recording them mostly on acoustic guitar and using a 4-track at home. A simple set-up really, recording in different rooms mostly in my apartment, sometimes in the bathroom for the natural reverb. I’m a fan of a lot of acoustic music, solo artists, people like Jeff Buckley who wasn’t your typical singer songwriter. I would love to record another album but maybe in a proper studio and with some more intruments on there… something different to In Limbo.

What was your experience of making In Limbo. Did you enjoy working alone or did you miss the support of working with others?

I enjoyed the experience of working by myself but it was also hard doing everything from playing to producing and mixing. Sometimes it’s good to have someone there to tell you when it’s good and when it’s not or when to just leave something. I found myself fixating on certain parts of the recording that sometimes took up the whole day and that’s not very productive. Between recording and mixing it took nearly 6 months. Usually with the Paradox albums we had them down in 2 weeks, a lot in one take. I eventually handed the album over to be mastered by someone else. My ears were burnt out. I think Mike and myself always work well together in the studio.. A lot of songs were intended to be recorded as a band and some of them were recorded again for Corporate Pollution.

You formed Paradox in 1996 and in your time as a band there have been significant changes in the music industry, most notably with the popularity of digital downloads. What are your views on downloading music (both legally and illegally)? Do you feel downloads are beneficial to smaller bands to get their music out to more people, or do you think the increase in piracy is making it harder for new bands to survive?

Just like when tapes took over vinyl and CDs took over tapes… now it’s all MP3s. I suppose the quality of the music isn’t the same with MP3s. I still like having a CD with a colour booklet to read. Digital music is good for the indie artist though. When we used to sell our CDs before it was always a big expense to press them up with a full color inlay and now when people buy our albums from iTunes there’s no expense. We still sell physical CDs though on CD Baby… a lot of people still want something in their hands. Digital downloads have also taken away some of the power from big labels and given more power to the indie artist. You can record your own album, keep all the rights and sign it up for distribution on iTunes and so on.

You’ve been signed to a record label and you’ve self-released albums. What are your experiences with these two different methods of releasing music and would you consider signing to a record label again?

We were on an indie label from the US for our first album Circle of Growth. They flew us out to Los Angeles for 2 weeks in 2000 and we recorded in a studio there. It was a great experience at the time but when the album was finished we felt like we had no control over what they did… how the label promoted the album… it was like we just had to sit and wait for the label to do the work, if they chose to do so. It took ages for the album to be released and we had no idea what they’d done with it. For Sacred and our other albums we paid for everything ourselves – the studio, artwork, website, and signed up our albums on CD Baby, Amazon, iTunes and so on… and then just tried to put ourselves everywhere. MySpace and Facebook had a lot to do with growing our fanbase. We made our own music videos or got college students to make a music video for us (in the case of the song Infinite). We put our videos on YouTube and from there put the videos on other sites too. It’s a lot of work but if you really believe in what you do and want it bad enough it’ll pay off.

We would still sign to a label again, maybe, if there was more freedom… some proper tour support, even a good distribution deal so our albums could be stocked in store even though they are available on import from a lot of places. Every artist wants to reach as many people as possible and make a living from music. Once a band doesn’t compromise their music for a trend or a label, that’s the main thing. To me a label means business and has very little to do with music.

What is your favourite part of being a musician? Do you prefer writing and recording music or playing it live and interacting with the fans?

Music to me is freedom. An escape from life and all the bullshit it has to offer. It’s always had a huge impact on me from when I was a 10-year-old kid and heard Nirvana for the first time. Writing music is a great way of expressing everything you feel without actually saying it to someone… therapy I guess. Music just has this energy that can be extremely powerful. Recording is probobly our favourite part of being a musician. I’d live in a studio if I could. It’s definetly the most creative part – you just have to have a plan before you go in there. Playing live is fun too and there’s a different kind of energy between the band and the audience. It’s always good when people know your songs or who you are. Interacting with fans is something that we would miss if we were on a label. A lot of bands lose a lot of their fans when they sign to a big label and there’s these barriers. I always try to reply to everyone who contacts us and who’s interested in our music.

Paradox have toured America, the UK, Germany and, of course, your home country of Ireland. Being an independent band, without record label support, is it difficult to arrange tours, especially overseas? How important do you consider touring?

Very difficult. It’s probobly one of the main reasons we would sign to a label. It’s hard to sell yourself as a band to a booking agent or even a venue. We’ve gone down the traditional route of applying for festivals, events, lots of battle of the bands with usually the same canned responses from organisers or just another popularity contest. It’s who you know, for sure. We had a full UK Tour booked in 2010 with a Nirvana tribute from the US but at the last minute the plug got pulled. We still decided to go ourselves by contacting every venue and promoter and in the end salvaged about 8 dates. So it is possible if you’re willing to do it on your own expense. We found everyone on the tour extremely helpful even a lot of times putting us up in their house after the show. If we had more resources we would love to tour more maybe with another band. Even in the digital age it’s an important part of being a band and musician. You can’t beat a good gig.

Do you find the experience of performing live is different depending on which country you’re in? Are there any places you would like to tour that you haven’t played yet? Have you got any tour plans for the near future?

When we first played the US we found people were a lot more receptive to our music than in Ireland. Our first show was in a tiny cafe in Las Vegas with 20 people. We thought it was going to be a disaster but we ended up selling 10 albums… that’s half the people. It was like that with a lot of shows there… maybe the fact that we’re Irish and playing music that sounds like it could be from Seattle. If it wasn’t for visa restrictions we would have stayed there longer and toured all over the US. We had good and bad gigs in Ireland. Germany was good… they pay attention! We would love to tour Canada or play Asia, places where bands don’t usually tour. To be honest, we’d play anywhere. We all have the travel bug. We hope to play some festivals next year in Ireland and possibily abroad too. We’ve played a few shows to support the new album but we’d like to do a proper tour. We’re also in contact with a few other Irish bands that we might organise something with.

There are elements of alternative rock and grunge in your music, as well as a strong melodic side. Which bands influenced you to start making music and which bands inspire you today?

I discovered music in 1991. I was 10 years old when I first heard Teen Spirit. I can honestly say it that song and that band changed my life as it did with many more people. After my cassette copy of Nirvana’s Nevermind had worn thin from being over played I discovered other Seattle bands like Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam to Mudhoney and Soundgarden. I picked up the guitar when I was 12 years old in 1994 when the whole grunge scene seemed to disappear as fast as it had appeared. A lot of our older songs were heavily influenced by everything coming out of Seattle. Alice in Chains were a band that we both took a lot of inspiration from and still do today with their use of harmonies. Silverchair‘s Neon Ballroom was another album that really inspired us. We also listen to our own different styles of music and try to bring that into the band aswell. Our longest playing bass player was a huge punk rocker and loved ska and that totally worked on the bass when playing our songs live.

Do you and Mike have similar tastes in music? Has their ever been any conflict there?

We definetly have different tastes. Mike grew up listening to Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crue and bands like that and I listened to bands like Nirvana and Sonic Youth. Maybe when we were younger there might have been some conflict between Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses. We both love Alice in Chains so that worked well with Paradox. I listen to a lot of acoustic and indie stuff that Mike wouldn’t be into and he listens to bands that I wouldn’t be a fan of but we both have an appreciation of music in general and have been playing a long time so we both just make it work.

Music is obviously very important to you and a big part of your life. Do you spend a lot of time listening to music as well as making it? Which albums have had your attention recently?

I listen to music all the time. No matter what I’m doing I nearly always have it in the background and if not then I just have it in my head. Recently I’ve been listening to PJ Harvey’s new album Let England Shake, Sonic Youth‘s The Eternal, The Vaselines‘ Sex with an X, Eddie Vedder’s new album Ukulele Songs… Mark Lanegan, R.E.M.. I came across a few newer bands like The Silversun Pickups, Best Coast and Warpaint that I like. I still listen to older stuff depending on my mood really. If I don’t hear an album in a while and then put it on, like Jeff Buckley, I still get goose bumps and inspired in a new way. I listen to a lot of undergound bands too that I find online… some really good bands just not getting enough attention.

Do you have any favourite Paradox (or solo) songs and what makes them stand out to you?

It’s hard really to pick a song that I wrote without criticizing it. I listen to Paradox in a different way and it’s hard to be objective. Songs that mean a lot to me are maybe Pretend Friend, In Limbo… songs that were written at a certain time or place. I like Mr. Bureaucracy and think it’s the song that has the most potential from the new album. It’s a song that Mike and myself can listen to and be proud… I think it’s a progression.

What are your thoughts on the music industry today and in particular the rock scene? How does it differ to when you formed Paradox in 1996?

I think rock music is a lot more styled today. I can’t say I’m a fan of bands like Mando Diao or The Strokes… or emo. I like bands that you can relate to and so many bands today seem so far up themselves that the average person or kid just can’t associate with them. I know there might not be a scene again like what happened in the 90’s… it’s just what I grew up with. It’s good that bands like Pearl Jam are still playing… even Alice in Chains without Layne. There’s a few good female indie rock bands around at the moment too.

What are your next plans for Paradox? Are you hoping the gap between albums will be shorter than the seven year gap between Sacred and Corporate Pollution?

We plan on pushing the album a lot more. A lot of internet radio stations have picked up on Mr. Bureaucracy and we also hope to make a video for the track at some stage. I already have some more new stuff written so I would say the gap might be smaller… not sure if we’re already planning another album just yet. I guess we’ll see how Corporate Pollution works out first.

Paradox group

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