An Interview With Mark Spence (Royal Chant/Designer Mutts)



Sadly this interview wasn’t done face to face as Royal Chant live on the other side of the world to me. In an ideal world we’d be finding the best whisky and bands we could get our grubby hands on, but alas…we’ll have to wait a while before that happens.

My friendship with Mark started last year I think, or maybe the end of 2011. He followed this blog and wrote some lovely words to me. Words that I sometime read back on when I think “balls to it!!” I didn’t realise he was in a band for a while, but when I heard Royal Chant I instantly fell in love with their music. I’m fortunate enough to call someone like Mark a true pal because he’s just a brilliant bloke with a genuine heart. Of course that is the same for the band in general. If they were assholes, I wouldn’t write about them.

I’ve always loved Royal Chant’s lyrics above most. I love how Mark doesn’t need to create pretentious prose in order for you to truly get where he is coming from. His honestly and that raw tone to his voice is what makes you believe in every single word. If you cannot be honest in what you do, then don’t do it. If only politicians would do the same.

I started writing this a few days ago, but I got distracted and frustrated with what I was writing. But now I have no excuse to get this done as I’ve sliced my big toe, got blood all over my girlfriend’s flat seconds before she was to go out. I pick my moments to have accidents. Walking is going to be fun over the next few days! Anyway, enough with the distractions.

I sent off my questions to Mark hoping I hadn’t asked my pal ridiculous questions, but I like to think I know him well enough to know that he’d tell me that they were shit. Or in this case, give me something to work with. And that he did. What I love the most about our exchange for this was what that he told me the songs that were playing as he was typing up his responses. Here is the first one:

I asked Mark if there was any obvious corruption within the Australian music scene. In the UK and America, you can see who has been marketed as a brand rather than a band, but does it happen in Australia?
“I honestly don’t know.  Possibly.  Probably.  Myself (and thus Royal Chant) exist on the periphery of mainstream media/music, so it’s hard for me to say.  I actually had to think hard to remember the last band that I felt was being “handled” or specifically marketed, but even that seemed mostly self-imposed.  I’ve come across a few bands that were definitely aiming for that 1st tier of pop-wankdom, but it was nothing they didn’t opt-into of their own volition. 

Ultimately, the same rules apply here as anywhere else: money will help.  It can’t make people like you, but it can certainly get you in front of more people and into some enviable situations.  You can get jaded or cynical about that, but the easiest and healthiest thing to do is attempt to operate with an entirely different mindset, to create your own reality. True independence is a realm that few bands actually manage to obtain, and the longer we do this and the more responsibility we shoulder for both making the music and getting it out there the more I realize that most of the B.S. media machine is predicated on people & bands buying into it.  Simply put: don’t.”

Of course people will ALWAYS buy into the shit they are force-fed. Just look at reality shows we secretly watch. The outcome of it seems to always take people’s brains over. In England. Christmas is ruined because of that fucking programme. Every year it seems a regurgitated piece of shit is churned out for people to spend their money on as “stocking fillers” or just you know, a 3 minute piece of audio torture. These shows are everywhere- it is sheer pop-wankdom. This isn’t going to die out anytime soon, and that’s what is truly upsetting. Nothing really lasts anymore does it? Everything is throw-away. When One Direction split up, there will be another pretty boy band to take their place. But what can we do?

“Allow me to digress.  Australia is a very big country with a very small population, whereas the UK is a very small country with a very big population.  Coming from the USA, which is both, Australia seemed very comprehendable.  There’s only a few capital cities, and even Perth is a bit of a stretch for most bands (we’ve never been).  There’s only so many stations, so many stages, so many people that one would need to deal with in order to have the scene “sorted”, although it still seems vast enough for my tastes. 

It’s pretty well established that many bands, once they have had a taste of success and been around the block a few times, tend to get a bit disillusioned with Australia, finding it a bit backwards and provincial, hence the inevitable trek to the UK, Europe, the States, or all three.  It’s a bit back and forth.  There’s heaps of bands trying to claw their way to the top of the Australian heap, and then another level of bands that would like nothing more than to leave. 

Corrupt?  I don’t know.  Probably no more than any other time and place.”

We’re all fucked.

Surely with all the world’s frustrations inside of us, we are desperate to unleash them somehow. Mine is kept in various notebooks that no one reads. Thoughts are private and words are public. There’s always an equal balance I suppose. We look to music to provide some insight into how we can free ourselves. It is so easy to feel trapped and into fall into the traps of modern life. Modern life is dull. It consists of the amount of friends you have on Facebook and if there is an App for anything/everything you do. I really hate, and no part of me can relate to it. Hashtags annoy me, modern slang is fucking awful- and our brains aren’t functioning like they should. Eat junk, turn to junk. Read lies, become a liar. No one wants to have heart or be honest. I think this is ultimately why I really REALLY listened to Royal Chant. I listened as hard as I could because straight away I got it. I got the rage, I got the desire to fix the broken parts and to stop caring for what anyone thought. When a band can drive you like that, then you stop turning to shit when nothing goes your way. So these songs that they write, what does writing songs mean to Mark?

“I don’t know any more, but I reckon it’s my attempt to make sense of the world. It may be the most truthful I get in life.  It may the be most dishonest I get.  Perhaps I’m singing what I really mean but am too cowardly to say in real life, or maybe it is a mask I wear that slowly changes as I do.  It’s what I can do, for better or for worse. I like words, I like melodies.   Songs are perfect for doing what they do best, but quite inept at doing what they shouldn’t.  I’d like to think I’m getting close to both.
I love songs.  The older I get, the more I am in awe of them.  I will listen to the same song for weeks on end, and am always amazed at their power.  Even “bad” songs can change the world, or at least a person’s world, so I’d like to think I’m a lot less judgemental now than I used to be.”

Music cures all. It stops bad moods, it eases nagging thoughts and it can make you feel good about yourself. For instance the other night when I saw Jessie Ware, it somehow managed to make me feel a lot more love for my girlfriend when I looked at her. I really didn’t think it was possible, sometimes things happen and it’s just bloody beautiful. I also once listened to Radio 1 and realised I disliked a lot of their “presenters” but that’s a different story.

I like to know certain things about bands I love, and they are probably sick of always being asked it- but I like to know what made them want to make music and when they feel like chucking it all in; what makes them want to continue. I knew Mark would give me an insightful answer because he’s that kind of guy.

“I always thought I could do it so I did. I was always drawn to music, even before I could make it.  Singing songs and dancing around, doing stupid performances like all kids do.  Also, writing songs from an early age, and always believing that I was better than I actually was.  Delusion, ego, & arrogance were essential to my development.  I can’t speak for anyone else on that though.

The thought that we can always do better.  I love it.  I’m an addict.  Hearing a great song will definitely do the trick, or being inspired in any way.  There’s always a guitar around, and always some melody in my head and a few words that need to find a home.  There’s got to be ego involved in there somewhere, right?  I guess, whether rightly or wrongly, I believe “I can do that”, and haven’t stopped trying.

That’s pretty rare, but a good sleep and a good idea have always done the trick.  I can count on one hand the times I have thought about chucking it in, and even if that happened I’d keep on making music on my own.  I’m a full-time musician and music teacher, so even if I said “right, that’s enough, no more Royal Chant”, I’d keep humming & strumming in some form or fashion. 

I guess I could always quit the whole thing and do something else, but I’m not really fit to do anything else.  Anyone need insurance?”

The fight that Mark has is evident. It’s in his solo work, with Designer Mutts and with Royal Chant. There is an equal amount of passion in his music, regardless of who he is making it with. The way he is with his approach to music is inspiring. There have been many times where I have questioned why I bother writing about music, but then I read something Mark has written or I listen to Royal Chant and everything starts to slowly make sense. Slowly. Always slowly. I think as well, it is because I know that he means every words. It’s the same with the likes of Patti Smith and Morrissey; you know they mean their words which is why you truly believe in them and cling onto them. You cling onto them with red raw hands and teary eyes- everything you have and are just depends on it. Music is more important to me than I first realised. The older I get, the more I come to depend on it. I’ve never depended on a person, it has always been music. And I think it more than likely will always be that way, for many reasons.

Royal Chant have a song called Nothing Ever Happens, It Just Seems To. The occasional cynic in me really loves this song, and it is by far my favourite song by the band. And it is (so far) my favourite song that Mark has written. I do tend to change my mind a lot, but as it is a song I frequently listen to, I know it will remain my favourite. There is something about it that just basically sums up the daily disappointments and frustrations we all feel. You cannot escape it, ever. Even the toughest and happiest of people are bound to feel a slight twinge of these feelings that many deem as “ugly” or whatever. I regard them as what makes us human; everyone is different thought, thankfully.

I thought now was a better time than most to ask Mark about this song. I’d been meaning for some time, but I held back and listened to it more and more before I asked him about it.

“I’m always happy to talk shop! If I remember correctly, I was working on a cruise ship again at that time.  When I left America I was in pretty bad shape.  For all the normal, human reasons…heart broke, cash broke, strung out, a worthless waster, etc etc.  Hopping on a cruise ship largely saved my life. 

Having said that, once the magic of Europe wears off (or once I become stupid enough to become immune to its eternal magic), playing drums on a cruise ship is a somewhat insane experience.  Repetition.  Endless repetition.  I also flew out to LA twice to record the Water Never Waits EP by Sickboy (my moniker/band at the time).  Los Angeles has never been a good fit for me, from the biggest aspects down to the smallest detail.  It’s a weird, crazy place, and I would be happy to never go there again. Having said that, I did enjoy recording there, but it’s not like I was in some fancy studio. 

Anyways, string all those lines together…my shit metaphors for LA, my mindlessness, my recovery from my former life, my not-quite-adjustment to my new life, general confusion, a bit of optimism, a large chunk of skepticism….
Flat tyres, prescription speed….yeah, that’s LA, and a pretty big metaphor of my life, if I may be so bold. I do remember putting a reasonable amount of effort into that song, as it was a fairly hefty “piece”.  I mean, it wasn’t a throwaway, so I kind of knew that I was dealing with something that meant something, even if only to me.  Some songs are beautiful throwaways, while others are bloated pieces of crap.  Sometimes it’s OK to be serious, at least that’s what I tell myself.”

The band doesn’t really play this song live anymore, but if you’re so lucky to find yourself watching Mark do a solo set- he does a stripped back/acoustic version of the song.

Royal Chant have a new song out called New Nowhere which can be heard here:

Of course you must play it as loud as you can, just to hear how raw it is. For me, it’s the Royal Chant that I know and love. It sounds like something I heard by them over a year ago. They have a distinctive sound that echoes throughout their music, but at the same time they never repeat themselves in what they do. They make bold and unapologetic music that appeals to those that know there is more out there. That there is more to life than what we have. Thing is, we are the only ones who can change that. With a new song out, Royal Chant have no plans to be quiet. They will come to the UK right?!

“Of course we’re coming to the UK!  In the simplest of terms, I want to keep writing and recording and touring, for as long as this band lasts, and beyond (if it should ever come to that).  If you want to get down to brass tacks we’ve got our new Small Town Bruises all wrapped up, and then we’ve got another LP worth of material after that (tentatively titled Societé Catastrophe) , so it’s really just a matter of keeping things together and keeping everyone sane and happy with enough food and cash so that they’re not throwing their whole lives away.  I don’t know if it can be done, but it seems we’re making a decent go of it.  I don’t want to stop and am not planning on it. 

Things we want to do: take Royal Chant to Western Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, the UK, Europe, and the USA (again!).  Rinse. Repeat.”

Music aside, Mark is a pal that appreciates two of the finest things in life; tea and whisky. I couldn’t interview him and not ask about his best and worst whisky. I’ve tried some whisky that made me feel like my insides were on fire, and it is a really awful feeling. I’m not someone who sees the appeal of getting drunk or thinking alcohol is the cure to all social situations. I like whisky because like tea, it has a comforting and warming feeling. Tea is obviously cheaper, and whisky is rarely consumed by me but when you have a bad one, it is terrible. Like anything really, right?

“It happened 3 weeks ago, as best I can remember.  Here’s the scene:  I’m playing drums for this amazingly talented musician named Lioned Cole (who just so happens to be from my hometown of ATL, Georgia, USA), and we’re hanging out in the…I dunno…hangout area with the owner of the bar/venue.  Of course he wants to meld his trumped-up sense of power with actual musical authenticity, so he trots out his bottles of really expensive Japanese scotch/whiskey and commences pouring these heroic shots whilst explaining its value. 

Look, there’s a long story about its origins and cost, but what happened is that I skulled my shots coz I thought he was yelling at me for being too slow, but I found out that he was yelling coz I drank them too quickly and failed to pay homage to their expensive and convoluted origins.  It may have been premium stuff that only rich people can afford, but it felt like firewater going down my throat.

Worst?  Is there such a thing? I guess there’s some pretty nasty stuff at the bottom of the shelf that I’m sure I’ve gotten into at one time or another, but anything will do if you put enough mixer in it.  No mixer? Who cares. Just get it down and it will do what it’s meant to do.”

I haven’t written this much in a long time. But if you can’t write highly about a pal, then who can you write about?! There were a few more questions I asked, but I wanted to keep in with a certain theme. I’m not sure if I know what it is, but for now..the rest is hidden. For a while.

Royal Chant are a band to believe and invest in. They are a comforting crutch and genuinely adore their fans. Their fans adore them.

They are a band destined to play the dingy and sweaty bars with questionable health and safety regulations. Their music is powerful in ways most miss out on doing. They could be your next favourite band because of their sheer honesty and love for what they do.

Brilliant song-writers who do not need to write ridiculous phrases in order for you to connect with the music or for you to feel something completely new. Their advantage is their love for what they do and the music they play.

The sooner they come to the UK and the rest of the world; the better.

Finally, I must add how Mark ended his email as it is possibly the best sign-off ever:

Big hugs from down under.  Hopefully 2014 is the year we make it across the pond.  Your friend in tea, cider, whiskey, & boobs xoxo


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