It's been about a year after I saw Maktub live for the first time at the Sit & Spin. They headlined with Source of Labor and Felicia Loud as openers. I dug the vibe; I hadn't seen that much culture in Seattle in the three years that I've been here. Incorporating a bohemian flair with a lot of soul tenets without the "ooh baby baby" bump-n-grind of newer R&B, Maktub mesmerized the crowd with its atmospheric beats, tight grooves and sweet vocals. Since then I've been curious about this band which seemed to be an integral part of this esoteric scene that fostered creativity and community.
I had the opportunity to chat with all four members of the band [Alex Veley (keyboards), Davis Martin (drums), Kevin Goldman (bass) and Reggie Watts (vocals)] at Caffe Vitta to discuss their creative process, their D.I.Y. ethic and their debut Subtle Ways (Jasiri Records). The band proved to be the type of artists that writers like to interview: inspired, loquacious, amicable and articulate. Pretentious and turgid as this interview could have been, the guys warded that off with a relaxed confidence and a sense of humor about their craft.
photo by Daniel Murphy
Davis: Basically, from the very beginning we had a record deal [presented to us]...that went on for about 6 months, this kind of bantering back and forth while the record label was starting to develop and they were going to be funded by Sub Pop...so we waited for them to get their deal solidified. Meanwhile, this producer named Mark Walk [produced Lesley Rankine under the trip hop moniker, Ruby] who was working on a boutique deal with Innerscope, saw us play and he wanted to sign us but that fell through.
We played NXNW a couple of weeks after. Over the course of a year and a half, after we played that show in Portland at NXNW, which was in '97, we just got a slew of calls and for the next half of a year, we did various showcases... After that Mark Walk thing, Loosegroove wanted to sign us. We went through all the negotiations...
Alex: We went through the whole negotiations with Loosegroove twice, didn't we?
Davis: The first time it kinda just fell through. Basically we tried to negotiate it ourselves. We didn't have a manager at the time and I guess we kinda freaked about the whole thing. They were using the Sony contract which was 55 pages...it just didn't work out for whatever reason. We played showcases for every label you can think of. Mostly in town but we made a trip to Los Angeles and played three shows down there...
Where in L.A.?
Davis: We played the Viper Room, the Dragon Fly and the Luna? It's a restaurant that has two different rooms where live music is played. Well, all of that basically fell through because we didn't have a single.
Alex: Well, that's what they said (laughs)
Davis: We played to the heads of humongous record labels.
Alex: We were at The Viper Room and everyone in the whole room was an industry cat.
Alex: The owner/manager of The Viper Room offered us residency on the basis of that show. He wanted us to come back to do a bunch of weekends and stuff. It was all premature cuz we didn't have any product or anything [to offer].
Kevin: After all that fell through, it was just time to make a record no matter what. We already had two records worth of material. It just got to the point where we just did it ourselves.
Davis I had dreams of being on a major label ever since I got in this band and then we kinda realized what that entailed, [especially with what happened to the scene] in the late '90s.
Alex: I think they [the record industry] had a hard time marketing us. Arguably we were a little bit ahead of the time as of a couple of years ago. It's a mixture of different types of music. I think they immediately thought that we had that crossover appeal. They didn't know which market to start with... Should we start with urban? Should we start with rock? Smooth jazz...we had people all over, [from] smooth jazz all the way to Z-Rock / K-Rock type [of format].
Kevin [addressing Alex]: Ahead of the time is a big statement. If you were to describe what that means...?
Alex: I think there have been more hands (now) that lie closer to the vision that we had four years ago. When we started to make this type of music that focused less on guitar, rock-oriented music and more abut groove and dance and more about songwriting and musicianship...getting away from digital sequencing and all that. We wanted to use live drums and a lot of things that they [the industry] were poo-poohing a few years ago. A few artists, like D'Angelo, opened up a lot of things for a lot of people...and Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, Portishead. Massive Attack was really influential for us and there's this new band that Davis and I like called Sleepy's Theme. It's Sleepy Brown from Organized Noise and he did production for "Waterfall" by TLC [starts singing: "Don't go chasing waterfalls..."
Davis: He's done stuff with Outkast, Goody Mob...
Alex: They've got a new record out. Sorta hip hop-inspired, soul grooves with kinda trip hop, drum and bass elements to it. It's comforting to know that we're not crazy and that we're making this music out of our environment and people are interested in hearing an interesting collage...it makes us stronger and try to write stronger.
Davis [to Kevin]: No. [It's not that] we were ahead of our time as much as we weren't with the formula. Y'know they all wanted a guitar player or a horn section. Or they wanted us to sequence and loop the beats.
Alex: Anything that's a bit different, it makes them feel more comfortable if they can add something to it or take something away so that it'll put it into a category that they can work with. We don't have a guitar player and a lot of times, they [industry execs/reps] thought, "If they just had a guitar player the...or if they just had a horn section or whatever."
Kevin: Or how our vocals hook...
Alex: Some of our melodic phrasing, our vocal phrases..our hooks are long or subtle or whatever and they wanted more obvious pop...
As originators for a new sound for Seattle, what is your explanation for why people gravitate towards your music and your shows? There seems to be a move away from the rock scene after the hype in the early '90s.
Kevin: There are a lot of different variables... Different types of music on the bill for the shows that we play. When we play, there might be a hip hop act or an a cappella act or a rock act.
Alex: We used to have dance troupes and martial arts groups do things beforehand.
Kevin: So things like that [are factors]...I mean, I think we all just try to play from feeling.
How did you guys meet?
Alex: We come from different parts. [motioning to Davis] He's a native Seattlite. Kevin comes from Phoenix, he [Reggie] comes from Montana via Europe and I come from Oregon. Davis and I played in a couple of bands prior to this one. Kevin sat in on bass a couple of times for both of those bands. So we already had a working relationship... And it just happened that we were looking into starting a project with Micron 7 which was the band Reggie used to sing and play with, and they decided to take an extended hiatus.
Reggie: It self-destructed...
Alex: And that week, we snatched him up [laughs] and then formed the band. We had a couple of jam sessions and it felt right and we just immediately started writing for about three months and we had our debut show on April 20, 1996.
Where was the debut held?
Alex: We put it on in a loft space.
Reggie: We kinda decided that the first show should be kinda special and unique. We convinced some friends of ours to produce the evening.
Alex: DJ Nasir spun afterwards. We had a sitar player play for us. It was very hip.
What I've noticed about Maktub is that there's this sense of community that you share with other artists in town. Not only is there this sharing, exchange of ideas and collaborations; there's this certain aesthetic about your craft. Where does this stem from?
Davis: I think that's the main reason why a lot of people come to our shows is for the vibe, whether they like the music or not. I think most of them do. I kinda think it's more of a sense of the mix of the crowd and the sense of the community other than the rock community and to catch some live music. I think the sense of community has been one of our goals. When we first started out there were no other bands that we could play with; so we did other things to get people to come down and make it interesting...dancers, or poetry or artists doing installations or whatever it was. It wasn't based on the music; it was based on the vibe so I think that's why so many people come out to the show...
Your side project, Kaya plays every Sunday night at the 700 Club?
Alex: It's a remarkable night. So many different kinds of people are there and they're mixing together casually and it's mellow...
Reggie: It's like church with liquor...like communion in a big way...a lot more dancing is happening at Kaya.
Alex: It's cool that it's a strong part of our music. We always wanted to put on concerts. We always wanted the music to be more than 4 bands, 4 bucks. We wanted it to be a bigger experience than that...we wanted it to be showbizzy with substance. Drama in the music: parts where they're slow and parts that are fast. Parts that are orchestrated and parts that are just plain funky.
Reggie: Just a tight show that's not too heady.
Alex: And it has a little bit of something for everyone and never gets boring because we don't stay on one thing too long. And that's probably why our audience is so diverse.