Mason Proper is an indie rock band which formed in 2004 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States. They consist of Jonathan Visger (vocals), Brian Konicek (guitar), Zac Fineberg (bass), Matt Thompson (keyboards) and Garrett Jones (drums). Their most recent album, "Olly Oxen Free" was released on September 23, 2008.
Four vans destroyed and sold for scrap metal. Five guitar amps crackled, hissed, and went silent, exhaling a final puff of smoke. An irreplacable vintage keyboard face down at the bottom of a flight of stairs, 13 keys cracked and lifted, never to make a sound again.
A string of misfortune seemed to follow the five young men comprising Michigan's Mason Proper (named for an obscure phrase relating to Freemasonry) last year as they toured in support of their 2007 debut album, There is a Moth in Your Chest. Each time they packed up their belongings to head to another town, they would search their bags and equipment for arcane symbols, unexplained objects, anything that might prove to be evidence of the curse of unluckiness they seemed to be living under. "It was a ritual we took up half-jokingly," singer and primary songwriter Jonathan Visger said, "but the second part of the joke was always that if we ever found anything, it would certainly explain a lot."
The band powered on through the mishaps and continued to play as many of the shows as they could make it to, despite sending van after van to the junkyard. The early shows were energetic and bubbling with enthusiasm, but as the band encountered more and more trouble they became progressively wilder and more dangerously frenetic, coping by learning to take a sick delight in watching the chaos around them. They were in the grip of mental instability. During this time period, keyboardist Matt Thomson would often disappear for hours at a time without telling anyone where he was going. He even missed the beginning of several shows, including a well-documented incident at Denver, Colorado's Monolith Festival, where he disappeared into the mountains. Around this time a wild-eyed and bruised Jonathan was quoted as saying, "I'm disappointed if I don't shed a little blood by the end of a show," when asked about his wild and self-destructive performances.
The band's most fervent supporters are a group known as "The New Destroyers," named after an unreleased song the band retired from their live set after noticing that things would mysteriously break whenever they played it. Some of the New Destroyers cracked the coded messages woven into the artwork of Moth, and through it discovered the secret website the band had created, allowing anonymous communication with the band via the same code.
Shortly after they began using it, several unsettling coded messages came in threateningly alluding to private matters in the band's lives. Shaken by the amount of information the person seemed to have, Mason Proper temporarily shut down the site, but not before one last message came in; it decoded as: KEEP GOING CURSESTELLO.
Convinced that this was a reference to the Elvis Costello-like glasses Jonathan wore through this time period, bassist Zac Fineberg and guitarist Brian Konicek refused to do any further touring with what they now suspected was the cursed item. Jonathan refused to destroy them, saying they had sentimental value and that he would just lock them away instead, but drummer Garrett Jones, the most superstitious of them all, stole them in the night and burned them in Zac's fire pit.
After the allegedly cursed glasses were gone, the band decided to turn over a new leaf and look to the future, hopefully leaving their dark past behind them. They met with producer Chris Coady (TV on the Radio, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Blonde Redhead), and with him selected 10 songs from a pool of 30 they had to choose from, aiming to make a very cohesive album, with a tone that reflected the band's collective state of mind as accurately as possible. They rented a small, empty house for a month and recorded the album, and Jonathan met up with Chris again at Carriage House Studios to mix what would become Olly Oxen Free (on the same console the Pixies' "Doolittle" was mixed on).
While some of the songs on Olly Oxen Free do update the dense, electronically-enhanced rock sound the band wielded recklessly on it's debut (which are sure to please longtime fans), it is the times when the band veers off into entirely new territory that are the most intriguing. On "Point A to Point B," nearly all the band's trademark noisiness is gone, while Jonathan sings "In past lives I was wealthy, so probably unhappy. Oh, I'm so glad I died," over a bouncy beat, and a sparse bed of bass and guitar ambience, before opening up to a beautifully simple chorus of, "I swore to myself last time was the last time." The band chose to close the record with "Safe for the Time Being," a song that had surprised the band by becoming an instant live favorite in the months before. A post-apocalyptic slow burner that stays sparse with only a heartbeat kick drum, thin guitar, and the most dynamic vocal melody the band has ever penned, until it explodes at the end in a grand wall of fuzz.
Olly Oxen Free will be out September 23rd on New York's Dovecote Records.
written by Lewis Muzynski, band friend and historian.
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