Mystery Guest: “Inspired by Sun Ra and the musical output of cults like The Source Family in the 70s”

Original photo by Louis Roach. Handmade collage by B.

Retro-futurist pop duo Mystery Guest from Melbourne have just released their first album – Octagon City – on Tenth Court Records. The album is an interesting electronic, minimal-synth record, born out of a genuine curiosity to explore sounds in the studio. Throughout the record we are given heavy doses of a Bene Gesserit, ADN’ Ckrystall, SSQ type 80’s vibe (with the monologue on the album’s opener and title track reminding us of Algebra Suicide), though updated with their own style, clearly informed by post-80’s club culture. We interviewed Mystery Guests’ Patrick Telfer and Caitlyn Lesiuk to learn more about their LP and creative journey.

Can you tell us about your creative journey; how did you first come to playing music?

PATRICK TELFER: I was always interested in the process of music making, but only started doing this after school: I got hold of a Roland hard disk recorder—a VS880—which was really,really cool. I would make silly music with friends as a form of entertaining ourselves, call it “experimental music” and never show it to anyone.

CAITLYN LESIUK: I had piano lessons as a kid, but really started getting excited about music when I got my first guitar. There was something fascinating about not knowing what the “notes” were in the traditional sense: I loved learning shapes and experimenting with them.

Did you have any favourite bands or musicians growing up?

PT: The Beatles is the one that I always come back to! Also Wu-Tang Clan.

CL: My most enduring musical obsession has been with ABBA.

How did Mystery Guest come to be?

PT: It was a project based entirely on a curiosity about the potential of using a studio – it was our first experience of a proper commercial recording studio and we had a lot of fun playing with different sounds and methods of production.

CL: We had played in bands together before, and were both interested in creating music outside the traditional “bass/drums/guitar” format.

Photo: Louis Roach.

What kind of headspace were you in writing and recording your new record, Octagon City?

PT: It was just pure clarity and bliss.

CL: I was somewhat trepidatious because I’d never recorded my own songs before, but it was an overwhelmingly positive experience.

What was the vision you had for the record?

PL: The vision I had for the record was completely surpassed by my incredible collaborators. There’s so much talent in everyone and I feel really lucky to have collected this much of it around me for enough time to make music out of it.

CL: I wanted to explore the idea of making a “musical manifesto”  in the vein of albums like Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis. I felt inspired by Sun Ra and the musical output of cults like The Source Family in the ’70s.

You’re a duo; can you tell me about your dynamic and how you work together? What’s your songwriting process?

PT: A lot of the time I think of a song I like and say ‘let’s make that’. I’ve always had this idea that even if you set out to directly replicate something, the end product will be far enough away from the original that you can truly say it’s a new thing. It’s an interesting way to work – there’s nothing new!

CL: Aside from “The Day Lou Died” and “Moon Moon”, Pat would send me a beat and I’d take that away and start thinking about lyrics and melodies, and the song would start to take shape as we passed it back and forth. I hadn’t ever written songs like that before (or since), but it was an interesting process.

When do you feel most creative?

PT: When I’m happy. I find that my mental health is a little too linked to the quality—as I perceive it—of my current work.

CL: I’m only creative when I have to be, when there’s a deadline… whether that’s self-imposed or coming from somewhere else. I guess I’m still waiting to be touched by the muse.

Photo: Kurt Eckardt.

I love all the electronic sounds in your music; what’s one of your favourite sounds?

PT: White noise has it all! Every frequency is represented. I have a friend who taught me the healing qualities of white noise when it is filtered to sound like the ocean.. like a perfectly symmetrical ocean.

CL: The Mellotron (an early 70s version of a synth made using tape). It’s such an amazing hybrid of old and cutting edge technology of the time.

Do lyrics come easy for you or do you have to work at it?

PT: I don’t ever even try any more!

CL: I try not to get too hung up on lyrics: if I can’t think of anything, I’ll look for an interesting reference in a book or image, and write about that. I wouldn’t say they come easy, but I’m mindful of spending too much time slaving over them.

What inspired the song “The Day Lou Died”?

CL: The Day Lou Died is riffing on a poem by Frank O’Hara about Billie Holiday called “The Day Lady Died”. The lyrics—taken literally—are quite dramatic I suppose: they’re about killing pop stars because it provides the opportunity to reminisce with an old love on the music that you shared. I was also trying to emulate the form and melodrama of songs by The Shangri-Las.

How did you feel when in the middle of creating the record? Were there any challenges?

PT: Knowing when to stop is a challenge! There’s always one more thing you could add… 

CL: Because we’d never played the songs live, and were writing a fair few of them in the studio

What’s the most unexpected thing that’s happened on your music-making adventures so far?

PT: Caitlyn Leisuk.

CL: For want of anything else to do, I often walk around off stage when performing with a double mic lead. I never anticipated I’d perform in such an ostentatious way.  

As well as doing Mystery Guest you also both created, Little Music Lab, a program for children 4 – 12 years old with a focus on learning and play through music technology; what inspired this?

PT: I’ve always worked with kids, for a long time in childcares and kindergartens. I find it to be so rewarding to engage with really young people. There are so many interesting perspectives and ideas that emerge when you enter into a conversation with a child with a really open mindedly. They can be so creative and weird and crazy.. I’ve always got along well with them and music is such a powerful language to communicate with.

Electronic, technological music opens up even more interesting avenues as this can level the playing field in terms of creating music without the need for years of disciplined rehearsal of theory and technique.

CL: I was interested in giving the kids instruments that were thoughtfully (diatonically) tuned, to avoid the kind of cacophony you get when you have a whole class haphazardly playing xylophones and ukuleles in regular tuning. If you set them up for success, even the youngest, least dexterous humans among us can make cool music.

Photo: Louis Roach.

What’s your best non-musical skill?

PT: Cooking.

CL: Philosophising.

Why is music important to you?

PT: Music is important because it opens up new ways to communicate with people. It’s a really good vessel for expression – and it’s so suppressed in our culture – we’re all dying to sing but we almost never do. I mean aren’t we? Or is that just me?

CL: Because it creates community. That was one interesting aspect of exploring a fictional cult: in the absence of organised religion, music is a forum for bringing people together in a shared experience.

Please check out: MYSTERY GUEST. Get Octagon City on TENTH COURT Records. MG on Facebook. MG on Instagram.

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