Best known for his work in Dallas, Texas’ Pleasant Grove, Marcus Striplin quietly released his first solo album last month under the name Margaret Chavez. Expansive and atmospheric, the album (a memorial tribute to his Mother) leans toward Pleasant Grove’s quieter moments, yet stands on its own as a solo work. Recorded on the banks of the Colorado River in Austin, Texas and produced by Erik Wofford (Explosions in the Sky), the 10 songs on A Loupe are delicate and plaintive. Acoustic and electric guitars meander among keyboards, mellotrons, and sparse percussion as Striplin’s voice guides the listener through his own personal journey of grief and uncertainty. But, this isn’t a depressing record. Rather, it’s a beautiful collection of songs that puts on full display Striplin’s growth as a songwriter. Straddling the genres of country, soul, and Americana, the album doesn’t neatly fall into these categories. Certainly, Striplin pulls from those roots, but what he’s created here isn’t generic. It’s honest. It’s raw. It’s organic. Easily on our shortlist for best albums of 2018, listeners will find it fitting for both late night listening, long road trips, and any meditative moments best accompanied by music.
We are grateful to Mr. Striplin for talking to us about the album, it’s creation, and future touring plans. You can purchase A Loupe on CD and vinyl directly from Goliad Media Group and digitally via iTunes. Check out the tracks “Call for Cull” and “Strange Buoys” after the interview.
When did you start writing the album?
Marcus Striplin: I’ve been working on a lot of those songs for quite some time. Some are really new. But, then everything kind of jelled. Rob Sanchez, he and Tony (Hormillosa), were super spiritual advisers with it. At a certain point, I had like 15 songs and I knew Pleasant Grove wasn’t going to do any recording any time soon. So, I was like, well…I’m kind of at a perfect position to put together a record. So, I forced myself to finish out like five different tunes. For instance, “Grackles and Crows.” I think I wrote that in 2001 and sat on it and did nothing with it. Anyone I ever tried to record it with just didn’t get it. When I brought it to the table, I was still apprehensive about it. But, Rob and Erik Wofford talked me into…just fuck it, let’s go for it. The finished product…I couldn’t be happier. So, it’s been anything from 2000 to two years ago that these songs have been compiled or put together.
So, everything was written and mostly laid out in your mind, at least, before you went into the studio?
Marcus Striplin: Oh yeah, for sure. For the first time in a very long time I had done basically the entire album in a demo, just through GarageBand. So, I knew exactly what was going on in my head. There were no surprises, really. There were surprises when the guys started laying down the stuff and adding textures that I had not foreseen. And that was beautiful and really cool. Beyond that, I at least had the blueprint.
Tell me a little about the recording process and working with Erik Wofford. Would you consider him a collaborator on the album or what role did he play?
Marcus Striplin: I would consider him a collaborator. The entire…this session for “A Loupe” was one of the best session I’ve been in. Because of…kind of the captain Erik is…as opposed to a ship he’s got a yacht. He puts everyone at ease. Even though it’s a heavy song, or something like that is going on, it’s like he’s so incredibly encouraging, even if it seems like the tracks are kind of slipping or the ideas are getting away, he has a really awesome way of pulling you back in and making you feel good about it. Some people I’ve worked with kind of let you dangle. That’s another way of kind of feeding into the creative process, I suppose. I just think it’s kind of evil. But, that added pressure can get you to work harder. And I get it. It’s like a good cop/bad cop scenario. With Wofford it’s a lot of positivity. The studio itself is really cool. It’s almost floor to ceiling windows that let all the light in. It’s the brightest studio I’ve ever recorded in. It’s not like a vault. And again, I personally believe that the energy of the Colorado River really helped, too. I can’t say enough great things about the entire session.
The 10 songs are presented as a continuous mix and I’ve read it’s a bit of concept album. But, other than paying tribute to your Mother, there’s songs on there, like “Call for Cull,” that deal with other subject matter. So, what can you tell me about the whole concept of the album?
Marcus Striplin: There’s two things. There’s an underlying album as well, that maybe one day I’ll release. What I mean by that is there are two things happening at once. One is that I found this tape about six or seven years ago at a thrift store. I bought it because it’s just a cool looking tape. It’s old. It’s kind of a thing I do. I collect tapes and play them back and just see if I can live in the moment of whatever I’m hearing. It’s just a fun personal game I do. So, I found this tape and bought it and put it on the shelf and didn’t do shit with it for a long time. Then one day, lo and behold, I threw it into the jukebox I have here and hit play and immediately it starts with these people…in my mind they’re elderly people sitting around the table playing this really fucking odd game. And it goes on for like 45 minutes. Then on the other side of the tape there’s a bleed of a minister giving a sermon. So, the underlying other album that’s in here is that tape. It sits on top of the actual songs. So, that’s why you have it in the different segues and things like that, you can hear that tape. So, there’s that. And I probably will put that on SoundCloud, because it sounds really cool.
There’s that and then the actual…for instance, “Call for Cull.” There were so many things going on. After the Cheeto got elected I was super fucking depressed. And I probably gained like 20 pounds since the election because I was really stress eating and freaking out and couldn’t really function for two to three months after the election. And I was fucking numb. And a lot of people were, I’m not the only one. So, I went to McKinney State Park and was taking a bunch of photos and “Call for Cull” kind of washed over me as this nightmare idea. It’s almost Holocaust-like where you’re given a number and then all of sudden…you live your entire life, but you still have this number. It’s a fucking lottery system…one day your number’s called and you gotta go. I think I wrote somewhere, “this dystopian something-something.” But, it was kind of my fears and nightmares and I was just therapeutically dealing with my shit. So, that’s one of those songs in there.
As far as concept, I think the key ingredient is grief and fear and dealing with the elements around you at the same time. Obviously, the name of the band, being Margaret Chavez, is just that. With the exception of “Grackles and Crows,” which I penned years and years ago, everything else is a response to stress and a little bit of depression and anxiety about that environment.
If this is too personal, it’s totally cool – I respect that. But, I was wondering what you could tell me about your Mother.
Marcus Striplin: Oh, man. Well…I’ll give you…I’ll tell you what immediately came to mind when you asked. When I was younger and had my first band called Static, back in Dallas, a thousand years ago. Me and my buds would rehearse at my house over on Prairie Creek in Pleasant Grove and we would rehearse in my room. So, at the time I had a 4×12 cabinet with a Sovtek head, a Big Muff, and I think I was playing a Strat back then. Everyone else had a bass rig and a full drum set. It was fucking loud, you know? We would play until like 1:00 in the morning. My Mom, she was still working. She would get up for work around 6:00. I recall, having that…you know, when you’re a young man things dawn on you and I’m like, “Am I being an asshole?” So, I asked my Mom, is this just too loud and too much? I’m sorry if it is. Because we had a relationship like that. And she goes, and I’m paraphrasing, but it was somewhere along the lines of like, “If this makes you happy, then I want you to do it. It’s better than you being on the streets and doing other things and I love you and I just want you to be happy.” And that message and those words resonated in everything across the board. She enabled me to be myself and to blossom in a way that my Father, before they got a divorce, didn’t. Because, he was a fucking nut-ball evangelical crazy-ass. I don’t know. He’s insane. So, I couldn’t play with toys and couldn’t do a lot of things as a kid. But, one thing he did give me was jazz. We listened to jazz all the time. I grew up listening to lots of jazz records. And, you know, I have to thank him for that because obviously it has affected me in some way. I’m not a jazz player, but I more or less improvise quite a bit live, so I think that kind of carried over and resonates.
You kind of answered my next question. But, was paying tribute to your Mother the main inspiration for this album or were you already thinking about doing a solo album?
Marcus Striplin: Well, here’s the deal. Since I’ve lived here in Austin, which is nine years, I have really been trying to get all my ducks in a row. The first concept was just me doing a record…everything was a bit discombobulated, so what I’m giving you here is just how this all came to be. So, I did something, I recorded this demo that I really liked, but it kind of sucked. Whatever. And then I named a band, put a small band together called Ira Ann. We played one show and it was fun. But, no one could do anything. All the musicians were so busy and there was no way it was going to take off. And the third attempt was called A.D. Blood. And I got probably four or five A.D. Blood songs that will either be part of another Margaret Chavez record or go on the Pleasant Grove record. But, I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s other songs and so the day that it kind of hit me, it was like okay…at first it was going to be M.W. Chavez and I was like…”no, that kind of sucks.” Then it was like…you know what? Fuck it. I love Mom, let’s do it. Margaret Chavez. And I was happy. In that moment, I was like “okay, let’s write it down.” I made a list. I rarely make lists. I wrote down all the songs that I had at the moment and it was like…okay I need to fill in the gaps. I think I had to write four other songs just to feel comfortable with even moving forward. Like the title track, “A Loupe,” came out of that. A lot of those songs came out of that…”Call for Cull.” So, that’s how that happened.
Do you see yourself doing more stuff under the name “Margaret Chavez?”
Marcus Striplin: Oh, for sure. I’m already thinking of the name of the record and some art that I’m working on. I’m kind of playing around with the idea of calling it “Margaret Chavez II,” like a Zeppelin record or some shit like that. But, I haven’t settled on it yet. But, I do know that I’ve come to terms with…now that Margaret Chavez has been established, this is kind of going to be like my playground. I don’t know. I’m just thinking about the next Margaret Chavez record being metal drone. Different things that I love so much that I can’t do in Pleasant Grove. Not that I can’t do it, but for all intents and purposes it would not totally work in that realm. This will be my outlet from here on out. Yeah, I plan to make lots of Margaret Chavez records.
I know you played five or six shows recently, but do you have any touring plans to go along with this album?
Marcus Striplin: Yeah, well that’s what I’m putting together right now. Like anything else, money is an issue. There’s a couple of different things. I’ve signed on with a booking agent for the first time and that’s pretty cool. So, we’ve been talking about what we’re going to do in that realm, if it’s going to be solo or duo. The duo shows are really cool. Josh and I just got back from doing that Texas run. He plays with Israel Nash. Joshua Fleischmann is the drummer for Margaret Chavez at this point. He’s a super cool dude. We get along like gang busters. I love the concept with the duo. The entire band could either be me, a duo, a trio, or the quartet. We’ve done it all different ways and it works all different ways. So, for touring, I’m kind of gearing up in my head as either solo or duo. East Coast…most definitely will be doing a run out there a little later, end of summer, and then West Coast. Basically, what I’m going to be doing is renting a car and bringing my guitar and pedals with me. Flying to New York and doing that area…Boston and Philly. Same concept on the West Coast. And then we’re talking about Europe, hopefully in the fall. Especially because this year is a re-release year for Pleasant Grove. We’ll be doing a few shows, but we don’t have any big plans for touring because at the same time we’ve got to get ready for a new record. I think Margaret Chavez will keep me occupied for the next eight months or so.
My last question was going to be about the status of Pleasant Grove. What’s the future hold for the band?
Marcus Striplin: We’re kind of doing this deal with State Fair records where, it’s going to be like under their umbrella, but on a side label. They’re the guys who put out the Vandoliers and all that stuff. They’re going to put out a reissue of Auscultations of the Heart on vinyl and CD. It’s being remastered right now with Matt Pence and remixed. So, that will be really cool to hear it in a modern world, I suppose. We’re going to do that with The Heart Contortionist as well and try to get it a proper release. And that’s all going to happen within this year. Or at least one of those will happen this year. But, I’m already writing new Pleasant Grove songs. I think right now, I’ve got maybe four. I always want to walk into the studio, or wherever we’re going, with at least seven. That way I have seven, Bret has seven, and then we can pare it down. But, yeah man PG forever, you know. We’re still going strong. But, like anything else you’ve got to have a release of some sort, literally and figuratively.
Why are you remastering Auscultations? Is that because there’s things you’re not happy with on the original mix?
Marcus Striplin: No, not necessarily. I love the record. But, when you have something like that and you want to dedicate it to vinyl it needs to be remastered for vinyl. It’s more of a technical thing than anything. But, also it’s a chance for Pence to kind of listen to it and go, “Oh, I can tweak this or tweak that.” There’s so much trust we have in him that it’s not like he’s going to hand us a turd. So, I feel pretty good about it.
– Listen to “Call for Cull” –
– Listen to “Strange Buoys” –