Mark Stoermer is sitting in a parking lot in his air conditioned car. Outside the Las Vegas asphalt is 105 degrees hot to the touch. He sounds bright, excited. The Killer bassist—he who wrote the bass lines that made “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” and countless others so utterly indelible—has a second solo album readied. A follow up to his 2010 debut, Dark Arts, explores new territory, territory we recently described as wizard-y. From the fuzzed up, louche psych of album opener "Drifting Caterpillar," to the string-draped, soaring prog-pop of "Are You Stars Out" to the Steely Dan organ grooves of "Take My Time," Dark Arts is a record to sink, track by consecutive track. We're premiering the album in its entirety below.
Unlike many songwriters who start with a melody of guitar lick, Stoermer, who claims he’s “not a lyric person,” can’t finish a song until the lyrics are done, but to really push the process forward he found he needed someone to bounce ideas off. In one instance this came in the form of his pal Merkley and a text message mode of collaborative songwriting (more on that below), but for the most part David Hopkins of the Vegas band Bombay Heavy, was Stoermer's partner in crime. Bonding over a love of 60s and 70s music—from Pink Floyd to Led Zeppelin to The Beatles, plus 90s bands like Blur and Radiohead—unlike on the last record and with Hopkins help, Stoermer took this opportunity to be a little more adventurous with his guitar playing.
"The last album was more story-based and it was my first attempt ever,” he explains. “This one let’s the music breath more where they’re guitar solos and I was able to get those classic rock dreams out a little but. It was fun for us working in the studio and that’s what it was all about for me.”
That, and getting out of his comfort zone, and growing as a writer and musician. We talked to Stoermer about Dark Arts, playing with The Smashing Pumpkins, going back to college, and what’s up with The Killers, below.
Noisey: Hi Mark! I can’t imagine that getting up in front of the mic is in your natural comfort zone. Mark Stoermer: It’s not and even doing it it in the studio is not my natural comfort zone, but I wanted to record these songs and this seemed the best way possible. As far as singing live, I’ve only really only done it twice in my whole life—in a cover band, a Rolling Stones tribute and it was just at a bar. I never even done karaoke; like only once or twice where you rent a private room. I kind of take it as a challenge too. As another way to develop something I haven’t explored musically before. I think it’s natural for me to play bass or guitar, I feel natural writing lyrics, but I don’t feel natural singing in front of people and I don’t know how much of that I’m gonna do.
What song are you most proud of?
I kind of like “Blood and Guts (The Anatomy Lesson)” the most. I wrote that song probably only in a few hours and maybe that’s why I like it because it wasn’t labored at all. I feel like I accomplished what I was going for which is not always easy because I’ve tried it before. I’m mostly proud about the lyrics. It’s about a Rembrandt painting call the The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp the chorus is told from the point of view of the student who is freaking out about the dead body in front of him and having an existential crisis. And the verse is from the perspective of the doctor explaining the body before them and he has kind of a dark sense of humor. I was putting that in a musical setting of stuff I grew up with Early Pink Floyd and The Who and I think I’ve walked the line of not ripping anyone off but achieving that sound.
Who is Merkley?
He’s a friend from San Francisco and he sort of started my creative juices again and he taught me this game called Ping Song where you write a song in text together and you use voicemail and text only. You strip a song down to acoustic and melody, and you write one line at time, each is a response to the other’s line until you have song. The one song we wrote was “Pretend Song.” That process got me into writing more and then I had a bunch of songs that I wanted to show David. That style of writing keep you thinking about lyric and melody first and style and production second.
This album was finished in February. Now that you’ve had some time to step away from it have you noticed any lyrical threads that run through it?
There’s a loose theme but each song is kind of its own story, but if there’s loose theme its in the intro that’s read by Tony Curtis [note: not the deceased actor of the silverscreen] but was written by me. It’s called "Alchemical Formula." To sum it up the dark arts its symbolic way of embracing the darker sides of your own unconscious and accepting yourself as a whole. But that’s really loose, if there’s even a theme to the record. I just liked the idea to start off the record and that became the title.
What are some of the darker sides to you that you’ve had to accept?
That’s a tough question. It’s more about embracing your fears and going with it or turning that energy into something positive. Like if I have a fear of getting on the mic in front of people, somehow use that energy which is a negative energy of sorts and turning it into a positive, which is maybe vague and abstract I know.
It’s about taking that energy and feeling and using it for good.
I loved that you had this personal tradition of listening to a full album before you went to sleep. I definitely used to do that as a teenager but I don’t know if people do that anymore. What were some of your favorites to listen to?
Well I used to do it every night and I wouldn’t repeat. I would get tired of music quickly. I wasn’t a singles person or a greatest hits person, so I’d have to have to listen to an entire album and then come back to it a month later. Every now and then if it was an album that I just got, yeah I would listen to it three or four times in a row first but then put it a side and it in rotation almost. But yeah Beatles Revolver, Pink Floyd Animals, Led Zeppelin Physical Grafitti, but also 90s stuff at the time, Bleach and Nevermind. It continued right up until we went on the road and music kind of changed and record stores started closing. When we went on the road for the first time I brought my CD booklet with 500 CDs with me and once I remember at the Tower Records instore in LA I thought I lost it and I had a panic. It took a couple hours to find it. We were on tour for Hot Fuss and I would bring the Discman and continue that practice all the way until my mid-20s, but once everything became digital it changes. I still wanted to make an album like that even if those days are over. It’s a tribute to the past in a way I guess.
What were some of your non-musical influences on this record?
Books and films mostly. “Spare the Ones That Weep” was lyrically based off of Alphaville by Jean Luc Godard. But I’d like to think it’s about more than just the film. It’s about a person watching the film, wanting to be a character in the film, and sort of a tribute to Anna Karina as well. The video inspired by the movie too. It’s kind of the oddball musically. “Are Your Stars Out?” is lyrically based on the J.D. Salinger book Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, which is the continuing story of the Glass family. Seymour wrote a letter to Buddy Glass who showed him his writing and in the letter he says that line “Are your stars out?” which I used and the gist of the letter is, yeah you’re writing’s good, but are you really putting it all out there and giving it everything you’ve got? The idea of the lyrics in the verse is an older brother speaking to a younger brother. And “Blood and Guts” is based on a painting.
Gotcha. So what’s going on. You didn’t play with The Killers at Gov Ball. Are you going to be writing on the new record and not touring? What’s going on?
For now I’m just not touring. We’re still working together. We’ve roughly done around 1000 shows in 14 years, we’ve been a band since 2002, we’ve been on the road since 2003, and I know we’ve slowed down a bit but still, everybody’s got different goals in life, but I didn’t want to be on the road right now. We came to an adult decision that they’re going to continue doing what they’re doing and I’m going to do what I want to do do and one of those things involved releasing this record. And the other thing is trying to finish my bachelor’s degree which I put on hold since 2002. A couple of times I’ve attempted to take classes and I’ve had to drop them. Right now I’m taking an online class but I’m still exploring some avenues of possibly going somewhere.
What’s your degree in?
Well my major was in philosophy but now I’m leaning towards doing art history.
Why is it important for you to do that?
It’s been lingering in the back of my mind to finish something I started. Education is important to me. I’ve struggled with that: can I educate myself more on my own, the answer is yes, but it’s still not the same without the discipline of something pushing you. It’s just a piece of paper at the end of the day but there’s something to having a schedule. You have something to speak for: there’s a deadline, you have to read such and such book and write such and such paper. There’s definitely value in the structure to it all. It’s all about education and I want to expand mine. I’ve always thought when I was studying before the band, if I could do this every day and not work, that’s what I would do. And I got to the position where I could do it every day and I’m not getting any younger. The best way is to learn and not have to do something just for a career because I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do music for a living.
Indeed! Just back to The Killers for a second—a new LP hasn’t been announced has it?
Nothing’s been set in stone; it’s too early to even comment on. We are working on it and have been for a year but we’ve started and started all over again. It’s unclear what we would or would not use.
And just finally! You went on the road with Smashing Pumpkins a few years back. I’m sure like me you were a huge, huge fan of theirs in the 90s.
Siamese Dream or Gish would be an album that I fell asleep to and even Mellon Collie… I wasn’t going to say no. I’d met Billie a couple of times briefly but he called me and told me the situation, how they made a record but didn’t really have a drummer or bass player at the time but they wanted to tour it, and it was a great experience. I loved playing those songs and it was a way for me to play in band that operates in a different way to The Killers. Little bit more rock and prog moments, jammy at times, really loose, four guys up there, free forming it sometimes because some of the song weren’t set in stone. But pretty much it was a best of set and we went around the world!
Kim Taylor Bennett first interviewed Mark in 2003. That's weird to think about. She's on Twitter.