Mark Stoermer is probably better known as the bass player in The Killers, arguably the most successful musical export to come out of Las Vegas. In the summer of 2016, while recording the fifth Killers album Wonderful Wonderful, Stoermer announced he was taking a break from playing live for the foreseeable future to focus on other projects. One of those was Filthy Apes And Lions, his third solo record and second in the space of twelve months. Released in November last year, Filthy Apes And Lions could be described as a concept record of sorts, bathed in ambiguity with references that can easily be applied to the state of America under the current Donald Trump administration. Eager to find out more about his latest solo venture as well as get the lowdown on what the future holds with The Killers, DiS caught up with the amiable Stoermer and found out he actually started off playing guitar in the Vegas four-piece...
DiS: The reviews for Filthy Apes And Lions were unanimously positive. Did you expect such a response?
Mark Stoermer: It was nice to get some positive feedback from the people who have checked it out. I didn't really expect anything so I am pleasantly surprised.
'Beautiful Deformities' came out at as a single the end of 2016. Did the writing process for the album start around the same time?
Kind of. I'd just wrapped up and released my second album Dark Arts and thought about putting out a Halloween single, 'Blood And Guts'. Then I was inspired by 'Blood And Guts' to write another rock opera song, so 'Beautiful Deformities' came about around that time. From that came another writing spree, which enabled me to write the next album pretty quickly, plus there's a cover on there as well which helped. I finished Filthy Apes And Lions in the space of a few months and could have released it in February or March of 2017. But the engineering side took a lot longer as I used the same engineer as we use with The Killers (Robert Root). That's why I delayed releasing it until after The Killers album came out; but at the same time I didn't want to leave it until the following year, as it would have been old material by that point.
What inspired you to cover the Marc Bolan song 'Dwarfish Trumpet Blues', particularly as it isn't one of his better known numbers?
Tyrannosaurus Rex have always been a great source of hidden gems for me. I grew up as a T-Rex fan but in America you could never find those early records except online. So I discovered that song last year and had the idea to cover it, although not necessarily put it on the album. Then when we finished Filthy Apes And Lions I thought 'Dwarfish Trumpet Blues' fitted in lyrically with the rest of the record. It's like a surrealistic dream fantasy world, so I thought it would blend in perfectly with the world I was creating and it made sense to just include it. I also like how back in the sixties most artists released covers at various times - I don't think there's anything bad about reinterpreting songs and putting them on your albums. It's mostly original material but I don't think it has to be exclusively.
I'd agree with that. Also, it could open the doors for more people to discover those early T-Rex records they may not be aware of. Listening to both Filthy Apes And Lions and its predecessor Dark Arts, there is a late 1960s feel about them. Was that period of music and production a big influence on the overall sound of both albums?
It was. I guess that would be another reason why I included 'Dwarfish Trumpet Blues'. Also, as with many of those Tyrannosaurus Rex songs, the original almost sounds like a demo. It was just Marc Bolan, a guitar and some bongos. There was never a proper recorded interpretation of that song so it was kind of exciting to put my own spin on it. The sixties influence comes from what I grew up listening to. I was always a big fan of mid-period Beatles, The Kinks, and The Who, so that's probably why you can hear bits of that period in there.
I have very diverse tastes and listen to all kinds of music. I've been writing more on guitar. I was playing guitar in other bands when I first talked to Dave about joining The Killers. He said they may be thinking of adding another guitar player. And as a side note, I told him I also played bass. Dave called me one day and and said "We're not adding another guitar player, but remember when you said you played bass?" He asked me to try out for them and I became the bass player shortly afterwards. So I put down the guitar for a while; not completely, but I wasn't using it as a writing tool. When I started my solo work I went back to the guitar and the stuff that came out was very similar to what I listened to as a teenager.
Did any of the material on your solo records originally start out as songs for The Killers?
No. They're two very separate things. I write a lot of my songs with lyrics first then I pick up my guitar. Whereas with The Killers I usually just have a bassline or a chord progression and most of the arrangements between me and Brandon (Flowers) come from those. We spend most of the time arranging melodies and lyrics until something comes out. Sometimes we'll do a jam session around multiple riffs. The songs I write for myself tend to be based around lyrical ideas first so I'd never present them to The Killers because we just never did it that way and I don't want to rock the boat fifteen years later.
Filthy Apes And Lions almost feels like a concept record. Was there a running theme during the writing process? For example the claymation video for the title track plays out like a fantasy world horror movie. Was it influenced by the inauguration of Trump and subsequent rise of right wing politics in America?
A little bit. I was writing the album during the election so a lot of these songs came together before Trump came into power. I actually made the video for 'Beautiful Deformities' the day Trump won. It was more of a commentary on what was going on in the world at that moment in time, so it wasn't intentionally about Trump, but you could sense something in the atmosphere. At the same time I was experimenting with surrealistic, subconscious ways of writing - some of the lyrics came out like nursery rhymes but at the same time trying to paint pictures of words with a literal story line. I think a lot of what came out reflected what was going on in the world and how I was feeling; a little bit of anxiety but at the same time a little bit playful. Escapism even. Looking back there are some running themes through the album even though they're unintentional. It was never my intention to write a concept album but now when I see a song like 'Mica Rae' for example, which is an anagram of America, that's about the dark side of the American dream yet it was written before Trump was elected even though some of it probably has parallels with what's happened since. I also have a song called 'The Perennial Legend Of Dr. Mabuse' which is based on the character Fritz Lang created. When I look at that there's a little bit of what's going on in there too. I mention the FBI and this apocalyptic character taking over the world, which again reflects a lot of the anxiety I felt while making this record. I tried to walk the line between hinting at some of these serious subjects yet at the same time also being very theatrical and playful.
The lyric which stands out for me is "All I wanted was to live forever" from 'Nosferatu Blues'. Was that meant to be a defining statement for the album?
'Nosferatu Blues' for me is about growing up and being obsessed with Halloween and vampires. That sort of thing. So the line "All I wanted was to live forever" was part of that obsession, the immortality of being a vampire. I guess it is open to interpretation, but that's where the inspiration for that song came from. The verses are about dressing up on Halloween.
Lee Hardcastle made the claymation video for the title track. How did he become involved with the project?
I discovered his stuff when I was looking up claymation directors. I've always been attracted to that sort of art. Growing up I loved claymation videos and movies and I've always wanted to be involved in one. I like how his videos are edgy but also quite funny at the same time. He shares the same sense of dark humour as I do, and we went back and forth over the concept for the video which is essentially that animals take over the world, which is depicted by the zoo. Lee actually came up with the idea of the mad scientist, almost like a kind of Dr Moreau meets Twelve Monkeys theme. He took some of my lyrics for inspiration and we talked about what I wanted. Then he went from there and I'm really happy with what we came up with. I really like that when you collaborate with someone that gets your idea then takes it somewhere else. I believe Lee got what I was going for, even though it wasn't what I had in my head at the start.
You worked with David Hopkins and Robert Root on Filthy Apes And Lions having previously worked with them on Dark Arts (and in Robert's case, also the last three Killers records). What did they bring to the recording process? Do you see yourself working with them again in the future?
Robert Root's a great engineer who gets more experienced as the years go by. Working with an engineer can be a very personal thing and I feel comfortable with him. You have to know that you're not embarrassed to do acoustic vocals in front of them for one. David Hopkins is the main reason why I even made a second solo record. His keyboard playing is exceptional and he's also a great songwriter too. Occasionally he co-writes but he's mainly arranging strings and horns, and co-produced with me on my last two records. Even when I'm doing a solo record and I'm not working with a band, I still like having someone to bounce ideas off and that's what David's become for the last two albums. In fact, me and Robert are currently working on David's solo record at the minute. I wanted to produce it but now I'm playing bass on it so it's looking like I'll be more of an executive producer. I'm releasing it on my tiny little record label in March.
Do you see yourself making a fourth solo album?
I don't know. I'm kind of in a weird spot where I see these three records as a trilogy then that's it. That doesn't mean I won't make any more music. I want to explore different musical styles and maybe even put together a project of some sort in the future. I'm not writing currently but I do see myself making music forever. I'd like to focus on smaller releases even though most people don't buy records these days. I know they're out there and it's hard because everybody's streaming, but I like the idea of doing smaller releases more often. Maybe release a couple of singles or an EP under different project names? We'll see.
You mentioned your own label. Are there any other releases planned in the foreseeable future as well as your own music?
No. Not at the moment. We're taking it one at a time. The next release will be the David Hopkins album then I was going to be open to maybe releasing another artist. I have a couple of people in mind but first let's see how David's album goes. My label's almost non-existent as it is. We do what we can, so I'd rather take it one release at a time for now.
You've taken a break from playing live with The Killers for the Wonderful Wonderful tour. Will you be touring your solo record instead?
At the moment I'm not sure. I had some shows booked in but had to cancel everything because of a back injury. I did a few shows for my second record and they went OK. I'd really need to get a band together in order to do these songs justice live, which would take a lot of practice. Ideally there'd be five or six guys on stage which realistically might be a bit tough to manage so I've been considering ways to do it stripped back. If I can find something that works it would be more likely I'd do that, but then there's so much going on in most of those songs I don't want to play to a bunch of backing tracks either as some of the instruments on there, like the strings and the horns, are essential. So I'm torn as to what I'm going to do. These songs need to be played live but to make it work properly would take an awful lot of planning logistically, especially if we're not playing big shows. I'm struggling with how and where to do that but it's in the back of my mind.
Are you working on any new material with The Killers at the minute?
Nothing new. I heard Brandon's writing. Robert Root just flew out to him to do some demos. He's recently moved to Utah and at the moment I'm the only one left in Vegas. I haven't worked on any Killers material since Wonderful Wonderful, which only came out three months ago. The plan going forwards is I'll only concentrate on the writing side so we'll see what happens. When the time comes we'll probably work on another record - maybe in a year or so. As for the touring side, we'll see how that goes. I probably won't be playing many shows on this tour, but you never know...
Do miss anything about the touring side of things? The interaction with the crowd for example?
There are aspects I miss such as interacting with the audience but for the most part I think it was time for me to stop touring. I did it for a reason. I'm grateful for everything I've been able to do because of The Killers. I've accomplished so much through that band but at the same time, it was the right time for me to take a break for multiple reasons. So for the most part, I don't miss it yet. Let's put it that way.
The Killers first broke through in the UK, even before they did in the States. Do you still feel some kind of affinity with your fanbase over here more than in other parts of the world?
Definitely. The US never wanted anything to do with us in 2003. We would be nowhere if it wasn't for the UK, and things took off there so far ahead of the US. That made a whole career for us which has continued to this day, so I'll never forget how the UK took to us. We were actually coming over at least once a month during the first two albums. It became like a second home. I could be wrong but I think we've made over 40 trips to the UK. I've even considered moving to the UK to try it out for a bit. I have a lot of friends over there and as far as our career goes we owe the UK everything.
What advice would you give to new bands just starting out?
It's rough. It's always been rough trying to make it in music so be true to yourself and do what excites you. If it excites you hopefully it will excite someone else. Also, don't think too much about whether you fit in with what's happening right now. I genuinely believe that if you get together and make music with a group of people who are as excited about what you're doing as you are there's an audience out there. You might not find that audience right away but if what you're doing is genuine they'll find you and eventually help you rise to the top.
For more information on Mark Stoermer, please visit his official website.