I Can’t Breathe: The Earnestness of Jake Mazon and Mac Luster
There’s a kind of wild, manic fire in Jake Mazon’s eyes. It’s not always apparent or obvious, but it’s quick to make itself known. He has a sense of focus when he talks to people, often averting your gaze initially with an awkward thoughtfulness, and instead he stares off into the distance, as though he already knows what he wants to say but the perfect phrasing or idea is just barely out of reach. While he might not be looking at you, talk to Mazon for even five minutes and you’ll discover an unprecedented amount of focus and intention to both listen, and to speak eloquently. But the moment that you begin discussing something he’s truly passionate about, that fire comes out. He stares you right in the eyes, and his thoughts are something to be reckoned with.
I meet with Mazon the day after Valentines day, which seems like a fitting time given how much of the debut album with his band, Mac Luster, is focused around a distant and often direct heartbreak. Even the title, The Joys of Missing Out, is a turn of phrase that, during Valentines Days of yore, could have been seen as all too familiar for the lead singer/songwriter.
He and I walk over to Provisions, a local tavern-style gastro pub, for last call. He’s just gotten off work and his face shows both a tiredness and an excitement. Despite being exhausted from his day job at his stepfathers’ Italian restaurant, this album has been a long time coming. Within it is an outpouring of college and post-college angst and fears.
Mazon’s immediate influences, Joy Division, Modest Mouse, Coheed and Cambria, and even The Cure, can be heard within the record, but central to the album are very real experiences and reactions to real life people. It seems like a fair enough starting point, given so much of the album is dominated by the people surrounding both Mazon and Mac Luster, so I start there. I point out that, in spite of the experiences he’s written about seeming negative, the album never truly goes down a path of true gloom and doom, and I can tell he’s self-aware that people are going to hear the album and those people will probably know that those songs are about them. “There are very few songs on the album that aren’t directly about a person I know that has negatively affected me,” he says. “It’s not a cohesive story. But I think within the journey at the end of it, these are experiences that I didn’t realize I would look back on and (realize) they would be positive.”
Within the mixing and recording and the overall journey Mac Luster has taken, you can tell that the current Jake Mazon is a different Jake Mazon than the one who wrote “KNAB” – a song written in anger directed a former general manager at his college radio station. “They were all written in college, but being removed from it and being able to look at it and being able to look at whoever the song was about, whether it was a negative experience, or a relationship, or my stepdad, and being able to admit that I learned ‘this’ from it was important. At the time I let it negatively affect me. And I was super depressed from it… I would go home and try and figure myself out. I’m probably a better person for having had to go through it and it sucked, but I also don’t want to claim that I’m super mature because of it or something.”
It makes sense that, as he tells it, he has issues thinking of himself as an adult or thinking about his life through the prism of post-adolescence – a moral truth that I think most post-graduate college students choose to conveniently ignore. But even so, there was at least some dedication and maturity involved in the building of Mac Luster, a process that began with his buddy James Miller, seemingly on a whim (as he tells it, the forming of the band stemmed from one interaction with Miller at a party that started and ended with “Do you wanna be in a fucking band or not?”) Through a variety of different drummers and bass players (including his brother and a variety of Craigslist auditions), the dust was finally able to settle with people who seemed to ‘get’ the process including their drummer Clarinda MacLean, who does much of the booking for the band, and Mazon’s High School friend Jackson Wargo, whom he randomly reconnected with when it was revealed they were both going to the same Sufjan Stevens show. Jackson would go to produce the record and, as Mazon says, “Sometimes things just work out.”
Given both of our collective tiredness, we leave Provisions and hit up a liquor store to grab a six-pack to go. Our conversations rest comfortably in the realm of pop culture and music, and Mazon admits that if he isn’t ingesting pop culture that he thinks is valuable for the future, he thinks he’s wasting his time. But still, from Coheed and Cambria to Mad Men to the newest Kanye West album, Mazon has thoughts on all of it and is likely holstering it for musical ideas in the future.
We decide to sit outside and kill the six-pack on my lawn. And the biggest question for the album, and a question it seems Mazon has been dealing with for some time, is if these songs are about real people and real experiences, what’s going to happen when they actually hear them. Is that something he considers during the writing process?
“A lot of the songs I’ve written, it comes from this spurt of emotion. And I’ll write a song, and I’ll go through the next
day and throw out a few words, but I don’t deal with songs in first draft, second draft, third draft or anything. I get it out and it’s very much a snap shot of a certain emotion.”
There’s a brutal honesty to keeping those songs around and it makes The Joys of Missing Out unfold like a series of diary entries being ripped out of a journal. Sure there’s a pop skewing element to a couple of the songs on Mac Luster’s debut, but generally speaking it is a brutal working of the past and that honesty is, for whatever reason, still an odd revelation within music. I bring up society’s John Wayne mentality of being a stern, no-bullshit man whose always right and, despite his initial rough edges, I don’t think anyone could say Mazon resembles that alpha male depiction of the American male, especially if they’ve heard the album. But as he says, it’s less defying the John Wayne projection of masculinity and more just being a good human.
The night gets cold and we run out of beer, the signifier that its probably about time to go our respective ways. And when we start to get into more of the nitty gritty of the production of the album, and the drum tracks, and behind the scenes moments, he has an odd moment of self-awareness where he admits that yes, The Joys of Missing Out might be a shitty lo-fi record, but he’s proud of how it turned out and doesn’t really care what anyone else thinks of it. And he should be. If it’s nothing else, Mac Luster is a labor of love and an excuse for catharsis. It might not be on the radio, but at least it provided a platform to unleash heartbreak and rage and disappointment.
“Mac Luster is very much a live band, and I can set aside those feelings for that moment. I’m more upset at myself (for a lot of these songs) than I am upset at those people. Do I feel this way every day? No. But this was a fucking way I felt, and it’s very easy for me when I’m in front of people to channel that and to think about that place… it’s all a very selfish thing, and if I didn’t (write these songs) the way that I did it, it wouldn’t provide me with the release that would make me want to do keep doing it.”
The next time I see Mazon is at his album release show. As he had warned me earlier in the week, the tapes weren’t going to be ready in time for the show but CD’s and a small amount of merch was going to be available. I order my drink and make my way to him at DiPiazzas in Long Beach, a venue that serves as both a restaurant and a bar with a punk-skewing vibe, and caters to local bands and artist showcases at the same time, much like the one Mac Luster is about to put on.
As I approach Jake, I notice he has tears streaming down his eyes and it was safe to say this wasn’t about the tapes being delayed. The previous day he had been given a serious medical update about his brother – a recent diagnosis that came out of left field. In the midst of a crowd of 40ish people, mostly friends and family, he cried and told me the news; though it was supposed to start in 5 minutes, I wondered, just briefly, how he could bring himself to make the show go on.
But Mac Luster’s songs were created from experiences, and fueled by a man who wears his emotions on his sleeve. If anyone was going to need to perform to get through the hard times, it was Mazon. And sure enough, Mac Luster closed out their set with “Palaver” and “Shut My Mouth”, and there was a degree of sadness and fear and pain that culminated in those two songs as he screamed and fought back the tears that he so badly wanted to release. The earnestness that fuels his music was in full display, from his breaking howls, to his forced smile, to the name“Noah” written in Sharpie on his arm. In all its emotional rawness, the show did go on.
The events leading up to the show, and the performance itself, were the kind of experiences that Mazon excels at writing about. I don’t doubt that when he got home that night, he wrote a new song or two. And if we’re lucky enough to one day hear them, they’ll likely be filled with the same kind of honesty you hear on The Joys of Missing Out.