Mean Creek is Boston’s best band, and you don’t need to take my word for it—the readers of the Boston Phoenix agree. With two acclaimed albums under their belt and a reputation for riveting live performances, the title is certainly well-earned. Having just released a new 7″, The Comedian [a worthy follow-up to the cthonic intensity and lofty melancholia of their last offering, The Sky (or the Underground)], Mean Creek is preparing to play shows next month in New York, New England, and Pennsylvania. Before hitting the road, frontman Chris Keene was kind enough to field a few questions on the meaning of it all.
Q: Mean Creek’s name comes from Jacob Estes’ 2004 film. What do you see as the connection between that story and your music?
A: We really loved that movie when we saw it, and we felt that the tone, and the mood of the movie fit the kind of music we wanted to write. To me the movie was about a lot of things that I related to, and a lot of the kind of things that we write about. I saw the movie as being about how complicated people are, and how that can make us all feel alienated, alone, and confused a lot of the time. It can make us do crazy things, especially when you’re young and trying to figure out who you are and your place in the world. These were themes that resonated with us long after we left the movie theater. We ended up bringing it up again months later and thought it would make a great band name
Q: How has the environment of Boston shaped Mean Creek, both as songwriters and as performers?
A: I think Boston has had a profound effect on us in a lot of different ways, and I think our music definitely sounds like it’s from New England. I think the weather here puts you in a certain state of mind. The majority of the year it’s pretty damn cold here. You do get a sample of all four seasons, but winter definitely lasts the longest. I’m not complaining though, it doesn’t get much more beautiful than fall in Boston, and I’ve grown to really like winter as well. We’ve been influenced by a lot of Boston and Massachusetts-based bands that have a similar mood to their music, I think, like The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Buffalo Tom, Mission Of Burma, Lemonheads, etc.
I think Boston is a great place to learn how to be a performer as well. The music scene here is really supportive and really great, but I think crowds here definitely make you work hard for it. As a band just starting out, you really have to prove yourself and that can be tough when you’re first figuring out what you’re doing, and you’re playing to ten people. It’s great though because it really toughens you up and turns you into a strong live act. It taught me that if you just truly enjoy the music that you’re playing, and the people you’re playing it with, and put your all into every show, no matter what the circumstances may be, you really can’t go wrong.
Q: Why do you think the readers of The Boston Phoenix voted you Boston’s best band?
A: I’m really not sure, but we were very surprised and excited to have been named that, and felt really grateful! We’ve been working really hard at this band for a while now, and we all care very deeply about it. We really try to write the best songs we can write and put 100% of ourselves into our live show. I think when you’re passionate and excited about something, it gets other people excited about it too. We’ve played a lot of shows here in Boston, and we really try to give it our all each time. Maybe people have been seeing us do that and appreciate it. I’m not sure, but that’s my best guess.
Q: They voted you Boston’s best dressed band too. Where does your style come from?
A: That was really funny when that happened. We’re not a band that’s too into style or fashion, we much prefer the focus be on our music. I think the clothes people choose to wear reflect their personality, whether they realize it or not. I think it’s sort of a subconscious thing. I know we all just like to wear what we feel most like ourselves in. We’re not going for any specific band image, just like everybody else, we’re four distinct individuals. I think, just like most other bands, the musicians and artists we admire influence the clothes we wear. For example, I started wearing Converse All Stars when I was 12 because bands like Nirvana and The Ramones wore them. I looked up to those people as musicians, and I still do. One of my favorite comedians, Bill Hicks, used to dress in all-black for his shows. I thought that was really cool, and helped drive home the statement he was making. It definitely made me want to wear more black. So, things like that just naturally influence you.
Q: Your last album, The Sky (or the Underground), and your new 7″, The Comedian, are both filled with Existentialist motifs; It’s Good to Be Back Again even quotes Nietzsche. Does that reflect your (or your bandmates’) personal philosophy?
A: I’m not sure we have any kind of set philosophy. Personally, I feel confused and perplexed by the world most of the time. I don’t understand anything, and there’s no way of knowing anything for sure. I think the lyrics are about that sort of bewilderment. It’s Good To Be Back Again is a song that presents far more questions than answers, mainly because I don’t have any. I just think it’s extremely important to ask these questions, and think about these things, so that we can at least try to understand ourselves and this world more.
Q: The songs on The Sky (or the Underground) were markedly varied in style, but the album was unmistakably whole. How did you manage to range so widely from track to track while still giving the album an organic, unified feeling?
A: We’re a band that loves all different kinds of music. All of our favorite bands made all different kinds of sounds. We want to be able to play anything that inspires us without worrying about genre. Some of my favorite albums were all over the map. The Replacements’ Let It Be is one of my favorites, and that has everything from ballads like Unsatisfied and Androgynous, to punk rock songs like Favorite Thing and We’re Coming Out.
I think the Sky album sounds organic and unified because we weren’t trying to write different kinds of songs, they just naturally happened because we all love different kinds of music. I think when the four of us play together, no matter what we’re playing, it’s going to sound like Mean Creek. Also, we recorded the whole album at one studio, with one engineer, in one month, so it gives it a cohesive sound.
Q: What can you tell me about the thought process that goes into your album art? Is the cover of The Sky (or the Underground) really zombie Abraham Lincoln?
A: We always want the artwork of our releases to represent the mood, feel, and message we are trying to put forth with the music. The cover of Sky was painted by an incredible artist out of Portland, OR named Matt Gauk. All we did was send him the lyrics to the title track of the album, and he painted his interpretation of that. The thing about a painting, or any art, is that people interpret it in all different kinds of ways, which is great! I always saw that character on the cover as a sort of magician, but I’ve heard a couple people bring up the resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. Not sure exactly what Matt wanted to put forth with his painting, you’d have to ask him. Either way, I was blown away by its beauty and the abstract approach he took toward interpreting our lyrics. I think he’s an incredible artist.
Q: Mean Creek has been compared to lots of classic bands, but what is the musical legacy you would like to establish?
A: I think we want to establish exactly what the bands and artists we all love have established. We want to make great albums with integrity that make people think and feel. When I was growing up, music was sort of a savior and best friend for me when I was alone and confused. It still is for me today when I’m alone and confused. I’d love to be able to do that for someone else. I hope years from now some young kid will put on a Mean Creek album and it’ll make him feel less alone, and maybe inspire him to pick up a guitar and play.