Music feature: Cincinnati post-punk quartet Mardou sticks to the shadows
Dylan McCartney, singer/guitarist for scruffy Cincinnati post-punk quartet Mardou (pronounced “Mar-dew”), wouldn’t describe himself as an optimist, though he’s trying a bit harder to look on the bright side these days.
“I don’t want to be [a pessimist], and I try my best to avoid it, but I guess it’d be a fair thing to say,” said McCartney, 22, in a late December phone interview. “When I was a kid … I had expectations for myself, but it always seems more bad things happen than good. I have this fear I’m going to be … that guy who’s 40 and hasn’t done anything yet.”
These angst-ridden vibes frequently surface in the band’s songs, which tend to suggest a sense of hopelessness or desperation. “I’m bleeding out/ You’re bleeding out/ We’re bleeding out,” McCartney sings in a trembling voice on the otherwise propulsive “False Futures.” “If hell is real it’s here inside this house/ Let’s paint the walls!”
Things come even further unglued on “Cut Me in Half,” a Nirvana-esque punk-rumbler where the frontman approximates the sound of a banshee being shoved through a wood chipper when he repeatedly howls “I’ve had enough!” as the tune reaches its climax.
“Every time we play that song live I lose a little of my voice forever,” said McCartney, who was born in Cincinnati to a teacher’s aide mother and a social worker father. “It’s the angriest song I’ve written … and I want anyone listening to it to feel how I feel.”
The singer launched Mardou in the summer of 2013 as a means of dealing with these mounting frustrations, shirking off his initial discomfort at taking center stage (McCartney is a drummer by trade, and still mans the kit for Cincy garage-punk crew Vacation) because the desire to purge these internal demons proved unshakeable.
“The first several months when I was the frontman I felt a crippling anxiety, but it was like, ‘I have to keep doing this,’” he said. “When I play a show with Vacation I’m happy, and I love it. Not that I don’t love this band, but when I play a show with Mardou I feel more stress because it’s something that comes directly from me. This is so personal to me, and all of the songs are about negative feelings I have. I don’t think any of them are about happy thoughts. They all come from this weird place, so playing them live is a strange experience for me, and I always feel very tense about it.”
Early on, McCartney did much of the songwriting on bass guitar, a decision that pushed the music further into these subterranean levels. As the frontman explained, “Whenever I write a song on bass it ends up being a lot darker than the songs I write on guitar,” owing at least in part to the instrument’s doomier tone. It also helped that he grew up idolizing musicians that openly struggled with all manner of physical and emotional ailments, most notably Ian Curtis of Joy Division and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.
“I’ve always respected those artists who felt the things I feel, which is anxiety and paranoia and loneliness,” McCartney said. “There’s always something I’m feeling or going through, and writing things down has always helped me deal with it.”
Though the band owes a heavy debt to these earliest influences, Mardou’s sound has continued to evolve and shift as the four musicians develop a deeper comfort level with one another.
“We want to experiment with different ways of songwriting [because] that keeps it interesting for all of us,” McCartney said. “We like so many different kinds of music, so we’ll sit down and mess around with something … and then it will turn it into a pop song or a [post-punk] song or something else entirely. I always want to keep challenging myself and not get comfortable with one sound.”
It’s a malleability the guitarist traces to childhood, where his father exposed him to albums by the likes of Nirvana, Bob Dylan and the Clash, instilling him with the notion that guitar-driven music could take many forms and function as more than a mere diversion.
“My dad taught me to appreciate how important music is, and he introduced me to the bands I wanted to be,” McCartney said. “Rock ’n’ roll … is so beautiful and powerful, and I’ve always had that belief. [Music] has always been the most important thing to me.”
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