We talk to Jim Ver and Ted Reglis, otherwise known as Mockbirth, about the awful social state of Greece, Tom Waits, Charles Bukowski and the blurring of lines between scenes and cultures.
Mockbirth‘s grimy, downbeat vibes encapsulate the feeling of many in the conflicted city of Athens – a tense hotbed of political, social and economic unrest that has captured the lazy gaze of the world’s media as well as our own. And, whilst that might seem an overly diluted description of a extremely complicated situation, perhaps even patronising, our recent interactions with some of Greece’s artists and musicians has taught us the most accurate insight is gleaned through listening to what real people have to say. The mass-media may report the psychological impact on the young generation, like how the metaphorical and literal collapse of a country steeped in such rich ideology and beauty is drowning them under an oil-slick of mass unemployment, governmental crisis and the threat of national bankruptcy, or how suicide rates have increased by a staggering 45% in the last five years. But these blanket, faceless statements only serve to attract sympathy, empathy and confused apathy amongst outsiders like us.
It’s really through the bleak silver lining of the increasingly resolute music scene that we’ve been able to gain the smallest window of understanding, be it through the hopeful optimism of KU, the social observations of LogOut, or the bitter vitriol of Ruined Families. These artists, just a few of many, represent different pieces of the same distorted puzzle – the dreamers, the punks, the angered and the downtrodden. And, for experimental trip-hop duo Jim Ver and Ted Reglis, those that dwell in the disillusioned underworld.
“Sometimes you can only see the steam coming through the surface but it feels like things are about to push their way out, no matter what,” Reglis ponders. He’s talking about the lack of a strong trip-hop scene in Athens, but it applies to a greater mentality. “We write lyrics for people who live off-the-grid; the lowlifes, the scums, the wretched ones. Those people are burning day and night and I think that’s because they have this certain light that attracts us. Those people are our everyone. Those people are our heroes and our punks,” Ver adds. Reglis is slightly more forceful when quizzed further on who those ‘punks’ he talks about on ‘Tristan’ are – “The punks are everyone who dares to breath an exhalation of mine, no exceptions.”
Musically speaking, their grim aesthetic very much suits that mantra. Intense levels of bass-driven beats played at slow tempos, like Portishead or even Radiohead, are rich in experimentation and full of interesting nuances. “When it comes to songwriting I tend to think the song at hand as an image in my head. As a painting if you prefer. So you have to have or make the right colors in order to present it. This is where sound comes in,” Ver explains. His wiry guitar solos in ‘Lust’ attest to that, as do Reglis’ ever-changing vocals, which swing anywhere from distorted speech to crooning falsetto and everything in between. “The creative process is something I can’t explain – it just is. It’s like having a thing in your head which you are constantly changing until it forms into something you like. Then again, sometimes it’s better if you don’t get too attached to it. This way it obtains a more unique feeling,” he adds. Ver then offers a potential explanation as to why Eskimo moves in diagonals throughout its 14 minute runtime – “Experimentation occupies a huge place in our creative process. When you add the classical studies and influences we have, you get the whole picture. After this admittedly lawless, hazy and experimental mechanism, we try to bring the result back to our roots.”
When it comes to songwriting I tend to think the song at hand as an image in my head. As a painting if you prefer. So you have to have or make the right colors in order to present it. This is where sound comes in
When on the subject of influence, Tom Waits and Nick Cave come up, but Reglis provides a more spaced-out, reflective point-of-view. “I could write a song thinking of Charles Bukowski just sitting and looking out the window through a thick layer of smoke. I don’t have to read him anymore to inspire me.” You can see how this infusion manifests on tracks like ‘Thrall’, but Ver believes that things bubble below the surface too, just like the silent anger that runs rampant through the streets of his hometown. “Influences are clearly reflected in our music sometimes, but there are some notions that are not that obvious. If you haven’t read or heard the lyrics you cannot be sure about how Tom Waits or Nick Cave influence us. But I think that what we do derive most benefits from the style and the way of life those people lead.” There’s no doubt that the golden-era of 90s trip-hop plays a huge role in the way Eskimo sounds and feels, but Reglis is quick to credit the bigger picture – “Well, many years of mixed influences played their part.”
When asked if their unique brand of downtempo trip-hop attracts a certain audience or is part of a specific scene or culture, Reglis points to an altered state-of-mind amongst society’s classes. “Some time ago, people were divided in many groups by their taste in music, clothing, hairstyle and other things. Now, I feel like these groups are fewer, larger and with less differences. I feel like gaps are shrinking, or perhaps there is a thriving variety of individuals, so big, that there is no need anymore for such divisions. It’s weird, but I don’t want to rush myself into criticizing it yet.” Ver agrees to an extent, suggesting that the lines have become blurred. “I don’t think there’s an underground Trip-Hop scene in Athens. There are people with amazing talent in various music genres, but they don’t get the attention they deserve. Actually most of the times they are much more popular outside the borders than inside.” When we talked to Keep Shelly in Athens, they too talked about how they were more successful overseas than in their own country. It’s perhaps the economic strain placed on Greek people which is stifling the growth of these homegrown artists, then. “I’m not sure about who is attracted to us yet. The feedback we get is ambiguous and somewhat vague,” Ver muses.
Some time ago, people were divided in many groups by their taste in music, clothing, hairstyle and other things. Now, I feel like these groups are fewer, larger and with less differences
What’s clear from listening to Eskimo and talking to Mockbirth is that they draw from their surroundings without being dictated by them. There’s a free-spirited approach to the songwriting, a paradox to the stifling nature of Athens itself, which adds spice to a trip-hop sound that still makes your head nod and your finger tap. There’s some white-hot flashes of anger too, you see it clear as day on ‘Tristan’, but they’re controlled and direct, something that Ver suggests is down to his strong working relationship with Reglis. “Some things become better when lots of people participate, other things need space for individuality to be expressed. Our songs are the outcome of this creative freedom and space. That is the case so far. Each one of us is better at something and that is perfectly understood and embraced. I like that kind of team work.” For Ver and Reglis, this unity is exactly what makes their sound so fitting, and for everyone else in Greece, unity seems to be the most powerful asset they possess as they aim to rebuild from ruin.
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