Imagine a dark world where mythical creatures inhabit a forest kingdom, worshipping a fox king.
Now imagine the soundtrack and what this world would sound like.
Marah In the Mainsail built their new album Bone Crown around this fantastic tale. The songs flow out like the voice a parent lulling their child to sleep on a cold winter’s night. Ambitious and and times melodramatic, Bone Crown drips in weird patterns, as if under the influence of a non-human hand.
We caught up with lead singer Austin Durry before the six-piece band’s album release show at the Amsterdam on Saturday to learn more about the concept behind the new record and how they dremed up the Great Fox King.
City Pages: What was the process like when you wrote the new album?
Austin Durry: I always enjoy big overarching themes. That’s what lead to the concept of the story that follows the album. I think when I started writing Bone Crown it was really just a simple concept of the forest kingdom. I felt like there were so many stories that could be taken from that, and I like the simplicity of the classic animal archetypes. Classic cartoons have taught us all what a fox is like, what a bear is like, things like that, so from a writing standpoint it’s really easy to portray characters using these preconceived ideas of what the animals are like inherently. Using that as a narrative tool was really helpful in forming the stories and the songs, and I think that’s really the start of what lead to the creation of this album.
CP: Was it always a plan to incorporate such big stories and ideas on the new record?
AD: It definitely was the plan all along. We’ve had two concept releases already, an EP in 2012, and our first LP Thaumatrope, released in 2015. Both had stories and plot lines that tied them all together, but this time we wanted to really take that idea to the next level. Usually I’ll do most of the writing and the big picture stuff, and then I’ll bring that to the band and we all write the music to accompany it.
CP: Can you tell me more about the Great Fox King?
AD: Yeah, you’re not going to find anything about him; we made him up. The concept for the Great Fox King was really just the idea of a fox with antlers at first. The classic fox character being the deceiver, the swindler, usually kind of a cunning lowlife kind of character. Putting the fox in a place of power seems unnatural and I liked that. Secondly, the antlers, also very unnatural to see on a fox.
In this story the animals all respect antlers as a birthright of power -- that’s why they call it a Bone Crown. Not only does the fox have antlers, but he has the biggest, most intimidating antlers, and the animals think of him like a mythical creature that can do no wrong, and that’s why he has the power he does in the kingdom. I wanted to portray that something is off in this forest. Things are out of order and the deceiver had taken the place of power.
CP: How do you take a story and translate it to song without making it extremely literal?
AD: Honestly, I love when lyrics are literal. I love when they paint word pictures of physical places and characters, instead of just metaphors and feelings. One of my goals with this style of writing is to break down some of those basic song lyric standards. One of the questions I ask myself all the time is “If this song was a movie, is it a movie I’d want to see?” I think that kind of personal challenge was really helpful in writing this record.
I usually write from the perspective of different characters, so there’s room to go in depth about grief, sadness, anger, and more abstract things like that, but I don’t wanna lose the literal side of it either. I want the abstract emotions of the song to exist inside the story in a tangible way, where it affects the actions and motives of the characters. I’m hoping listeners will identify with different parts of the story and characters like they would a book, or a movie. Where the emotional connection isn’t about what’s literally happening in the story, but the inner turmoil of the characters.
CP: Your music and sound has always been big and ambitious. How did you change it on this album from the prior record?
AD: This band has evolved a lot over the years. I think since the last album we’ve had a shift in the narrative perspective. When we started, the first EP was a western story, so we dressed kind of old timey, and had some old fashioned western kind of instruments. Then it turned dark and supernatural for Thaumatrope, but we were always trying to portray the characters in the story. Now we’ve shifted into the narrative roll.
We’re not gonna try and make music that exists in the story, we’re going to create a score that reflects the scenes of the story. It’s gotten a lot darker, a lot heavier, and a lot more dynamic than the last record. I think the genres of music we take inspiration from has expanded a lot too. Horns have taken much more of a leading role, and that’s lead to a much more cinematic, epic sound. We’ve also been much more intentional about the writing process, and making each song really flow together. We introduced recurring sonic themes that you’ll pick up on as you listen, that signify different elements of the story and different characters. Like in “Black Mamba,” the animals refer to smoke as “shape shifting shadow snakes” so we wanted to make a sound that sounds like a snake. Then we put that specific rhythmic sound in a few different tracks whenever smoke was present in the story.
CP: My favorite song on here is "The Great Beyond." Probably not a "single," but can you tell me about that track?
AD: “The Great Beyond” was a lot of fun to make. That song is the turning point in the story, when we find out the Fox King’s true nature. I wanted to write a straight up villain song, that sounded like the descent into madness. To start out small, and quiet, and then to just steadily ramp up into total chaos. Definitely not hit radio summertime jam, but it’s one of my favorites for sure. This is one that I really wanted to hammer home that dark theatrical feel.
CP: What other songs stand out to you on the record? What songs do you really enjoy performing live?
AD: “The Great Beyond” is definitely one of my favorites, but I really like “Black Mamba” too. It has a steady groove that I think is cool, but still manages to ramp up, and has a very strong, classic western feel to it. I think “Bone Crown” is the best representation of the band and the genre we’re trying to create. It has a huge waltz rhythm, but it’s really brutal and heavy too. That’s the song I’d show people to get a feel for the band I think. An obvious standout has gotta be “Brave Little Buck,” though. Another big shift in style. I wanted to acknowledge how ridiculous the premise of the story is, by making an intentionally campy, vintage Disney inspired song. We made it super light and uplifting to exaggerate the brutal darkness of the great beyond that comes right after it on the record.
CP: How do you turn such a lush production into a live show?
AD: This is the question we’ve been trying to answer for years. We’ve crafted a set for our upcoming release show that I think has the answers. In a live setting, nobody is concerned about the story, nobody can understand the lyrics most of the time. It’s much more about the energy. We really push each other to the limits of how much energy we can possibly portray on stage.
Having a six-piece band on the road is a massive undertaking, but the sound we’re able to really make in the room with real instruments makes it all worthwhile. We move a lot, sweat a lot, lose our voices a lot, and it’s a whole lot of fun. For live shows our top priority is just making the audience remember us, and putting on an extremely dynamic show. The release show is going to be something really special though. We’ll be playing straight through the new album, in its entirety, with lots of weird surprises in store.
We really wanna bridge the gap between the story focused album and the rock-and-roll focused live show, by making a rock show/theater show hybrid. We want to bring the audience through the story of the album, while keeping them guessing constantly at what’s coming next on stage. I think it’s gonna be a really great time.
We owe our fans so much. We’ve kickstarted three projects, and had an emergency Gofundme when our van broke down, and every time, the fans have been there to support us. It’s incredible. We feel like we owe them a really amazing night, so we’re pulling out all the stops, and doing everything we can to make this show great. We cannot begin to express our gratitude to the people that support us, but we’re gonna try, with this one time, all-in show.
Marah In the Mainsail
With: Good Morning Bedlam, Pierre, H. Rose & the Nomads
Where: Amsterdam Bar & Hall
When: 7 p.m. Sat. Oct. 7
Tickets: 18+; $10/$12; more info here