Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows was first published in 1908. After a modest first pressing, the book went on to countless reprints, becoming one of the best selling books of all time. The story focuses on four anthropomorphized animals, Mole, Rat, Toad, and Badger, as characters in pastoral England. It’s a timeless tale of adventure, friendship, mysticism, and morality.
Which, speaking of morality, I have to admit that I’ve never actually read the book. However, as a pre-Cartoon Network kid, I can’t tell you the amount of times I watched the movie growing up. It wasn’t my favorite, but it was on and it was animated so I watched it a lot.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve exchanged emails with Austin Durry, the lead singer/songwriter for Marah in the Mainsail, a cinematic alt-folk band hailing from Minneapolis, Minnesota. When Austin mentioned that he was influenced by old animated movies while writing their new album, Bone Crown, I couldn’t help thinking back to the cartoon movies that I watched as a kid. I couldn’t help remembering the afternoons I spent on my family’s shag carpet, being transported to a world far beyond our living room.
With their new album, it’s Marah in the Mainsail’s goal to create a piece of art that invites the listener fully into the world they created. To hear Austin describe it, one can imagine dropping the needle on the record player with the same feeling of sliding a VHS into the family VCR or, perhaps more timely, the feeling of turning your phone on silent so you can watch Netflix free of distraction for 90 minutes.
I first met Austin on a short run of shows our bands played together in the summer of 2012. It was nice to catch up with him via email as we discussed influences, lessons learned, and the difference between writing songs from a personal vs fictional standpoint. Our exchange follows.
Dane wrote on 4/20/17 at 1:52pm:
Marah in the Mainsail's previous releases each had distinct narratives that coalesced into larger themes. With your new album, Bone Crown, you all are taking that direction even further with recurring characters, story scenes taking place in between songs, and even character figurines that are available to your Kickstarter backers. What musical and/or non-musical influences are you drawing on as a songwriter to help provide a template for this direction?
Austin replied on 5/2/17 at 7:53am:
It's tough to pinpoint a particular source really. This album concept and story has been coming together for a really long time. I think it started by just loving the woods, loving the wildlife, and kind of thinking about how cool of an ecosystem we have here in Minnesota. That's what launched the direction. I really like a lot of old animal based animated Disney movies. I like how the animal choices are all reflective of their characters. It’s a helpful mechanic when we're trying to tell a complicated story through lyrics. I can say "He's a fox" and you can assume certain things about him as a character without having to go into detail. I also just love the simple brutality of nature and viewing those old cartoons with the hidden truth of what the animals are really like in the back of your mind.
Musically I draw a lot of inspiration from bands like Murder By Death, Woodkid, and mewithoutYou. I like the nontraditional song structure, and the mix of more accessible easy listening tunes with the more challenging, complicated, slow building tunes. I wanna make an album that starts somewhere easy and then pushes people out into the more strange and complicated.
Dane replied on 5/4/17 at 3:27pm:
Ah, I love mewithoutYou. I remember seeing you all play a late night set at LifeLight a few years ago (I was tired and probably wanting to go back to the hotel, but the rest of my band wanted to stay so really I can thank them for giving me no other choice) and it was a powerful set. There was so much emotion and passion to your performance; there was an energy to it. It was a visceral experience. It definitely woke me up and I was glad I didn’t miss it.
Then when I listened to your album, Thaumatrope, it was a much more cerebra experience as I followed along with the lyrical themes while appreciating the more subtle musical moments.
When you were writing the songs for Bone Crown, were you thinking more “These songs will be a blast to play live” or were you more in a mindset of telling a story and seeing it to fruition?
Austin replied on 5/4/17 at 3:36pm:
It's great to hear you remember that! That was such a long time ago. Honestly, I write with a lot more focus on lyrics than really comes across live. It's usually the rest of the band pushing to make it louder and more aggressive, I tend to lean towards slow builds.
This album was definitely written more intentionally than past albums. Trying to balance the story line, and making an appealing flow of energy from song to song. Spreading out the high octane "bangers" as we call them, with the slow dark building anthems. We're trying to guide the listener through the album. With twists and turns that'll hopefully keep grabbing your attention until you've listened to the whole album. We wanna throw down and put on the highest energy live show possible, but recorded albums give us a great chance to slow down and get deeper and more elaborate.
Dane replied on 5/4/17 at 3:48pm:
I think you all balance your music well between the live performance and the more introspective, individual listening experience. I’m definitely a lyrics-first songwriter as well, so I appreciate that approach.
Marah in the Mainsail have been a band for several years now, you all have played SXSW, had several releases, and been on a few tours. What are some lessons you’ve learned over the years that you didn’t know starting out?
Austin replied on 5/4/17 at 4:07pm:
I guess the main thing I've learned is that a band isn't the people that make it. A band is an idea, a product, a piece of art. When I started I thought it'd be the exact same people all the way through, but members come and go and the music lives on. But that's part of the beauty in it too. It evolves over time. With different members comes different musical influences, and the influence of previous members lives on through the music.
I think I've learned the incredible value of listening with your full attention. If you’re gonna listen to an album, let that be the only thing you're doing. The music that moves you deserves your full attention. That's part of what drives my decision to release concept albums.
My goal is to make a piece of music that can capture your full attention like a movie, or a book. I want you to see the story play out in your minds eye. That might not really work out realistically, but that's the dream. Haha!
Dane replied on 5/5/17 at 11:18am:
That’s a worthy goal and from what I’ve seen/heard so far with your new album it seems like you all will accomplish that.
I remember you mentioning back at LifeLight that when you’re listening to an album that’s the only thing you do because you feel that a piece of music is worth that. I think that’s cool. I can’t say I do that myself as I usually have music on whenever I’m writing, running, driving, working etc, but I still appreciate anyone that devotes their full attention to an album, or anything really, as that seems to be getting increasingly more difficult for me. Because…the Internet.
But, getting back to where I wanted to go.
Since this new album is a concept album with a unique cast of characters, are there still things you put into the lyrics that are personal to you? Is there a certain character that you relate to more than the others?
Austin replied on 5/5/17 at 11:36am:
This is kind of a tricky question. I once had somebody tell me they didn't like my music because its wasn't "authentic" because I wasn't portraying my own feelings directly. My response was "is a writer of a great novel, or a director of a great movie, are they ‘inauthentic’ because they create fiction?”
I think great expressive art can be so much more than just raw feelings. It can be grander than that. These songs all come from a place of real authentic emotion. Then I build on that experience and make a more dramatic world with higher stakes.
When I first started music, I remember listening to the radio and asking myself what they're actually saying. If a song was a movie, is it a movie I'd care to see? I just got kinda burned out on the low stakes lyrics. No one would see a movie only about going to the club and partying. Or about how it's summer time. Or about how you hate your ex-boyfriend now. Ya know? This album is indirectly inspired by my life experiences. I'm hoping the listener will be able to dig through the analogies and see the truth in it. It's obscure and hidden. But it's definitely there.
Dane replied on 5/5/17 at 12:34pm:
Right on, Austin. There are times where I can appreciate art coming from either place. Sometimes, I can get really into a song where the singer is just being so open, honest, and vulnerable about something they’ve been through. It’s easy to see the world through their eyes then, to feel a greater sense of empathy, and it’s easier for me to relate/connect with the song if I have been through something similar.
While other times, I can absolutely find myself truly connecting with the more complex metaphors/themes found within, say, a mewithoutYou song.
When that happens, it sometimes occurs on a deeper level. Since the message is somewhere underneath it all, I have to work harder to find it so when I do maybe it means more to me. Sometimes, I can hear a song for the hundredth time and it means something different to me than it originally did. Those are usually the kind of songs that can grow with me as I get older.
As a songwriter, I tend to write from a very personal place. However, when I write fiction, the goal is to make it significantly less about me, while still pouring an equal amount of my heart into the characters. Inevitably, my life experiences end up shaping some of those stories. But yes, a reader would have to know me personally to pick up what may have influenced a given part.
I guess all that to say, I have a space in my life for art that comes from both places. Which isn’t to say I expect all artists to pull from both the abstract and personal or to stay in their individual lane or whatever.
TW Walsh on his new album sings, “I won’t reveal the things/Dearest to me in song/They’re right in front of me/But shining a light feels wrong.”
I love that line and I just wanted to put that in here, because what you said reminded me of it.
You mentioned earlier that your goal with music is to make something that can capture someone’s full attention. What else drives you to want to keep creating?
Austin replied on 5/6/17 at 8:00am:
Oh absolutely. I think both sides are important. Raw honest feelings can be absolutely effective. Honest, open musicians are incredible. Some of my favorite lyrics come from Death Cab For Cutie. They do a great job of showing honest true emotion through dramatic story telling. Personally, my experience was I always felt like I was just whining in the lyrics if I talked about myself directly. I kept thinking there were other issues in the world that need attention more then my personal problems, and whatever was going on with me didn't have any real world weight outside of my own life. Maybe that's just me. I dunno.
I guess for me, I feel like the songs are always gonna come out somehow. I'll always have ideas I'm excited about. The band is just kind of the vessel for me to try and turn the inevitable art into something that can be enjoyed by the world. The love of performance, and the passion for excellence are big drives for me too.
Marah in the Mainsail’s forthcoming album, Bone Crown, will be released later this year on vinyl, cassette, CD, and digital platforms.