A Brief E-Conversation with Mary Ocher: Influences, Automation, and Xenophobia

A brief internet conversation with Mary Ocher: influences, automation, and xenophobia

On June 16, Mary Ocher performed at the Lilypad in Cambridge, MA as part of her North American tour showcasing two of her newest albums, “The West Against The People” and its accompaniment, "Faust Studio Session and Other Recordings." They were both released in the spring of 2017, on Krautrock veteran's H.J. Irmler's Klangbad label.

I had the pleasure of checking out her live show which, despite the imposed intimacy of the small, personal venue, held up on its own using Mary Ocher’s sublime voice atop a variety of eclectic sounds and instruments. The music itself ranged from a modern envisioning of folk-protest songs (showing instrumental restraint through her roots-true use of guitar and voice), to charming and powerful piano ballads, to music you’d only hear on the most obscure indie sci-fi movie soundtracks.

Ocher's music, while highly variable and experimental in sound, is slightly more grounded in its thematic and lyrical content. On her website, Mary Ocher released an essay alongside the release of her album detailing her thoughts on the state of paranoia and xenophobia in The West, a complex topic that has only become more relevant in the months following the essay and album’s release. I connected with Mary in the days following her show, to talk about some of these more complex themes in her new album:

AK: Xenophobia is a large theme in your latest album. In your essay, you talk about its roots, and how it is formed from the insecurities and paranoia ingrained in the host society itself. What’s your perspective on how greater displacement in the labor market and automation are only heightening these insecurities?

MO: I was trying to say that i think nowadays people no longer consider their job their identity (due to the prevalence of part time work, freelancing...), it seems that people find other ways to define who they are... mostly through leisure, and i suppose that the level of income still plays a role there.

I’ve met a few individuals, who were all outcasts, quite bitter, and invariably lonely. I met two or three of these people who sympathize with the Alt-Right because they [would] rather turn against people than try to make things more inclusive—even when that inclusivity could help their own social estrangement.

As for automation—everything is becoming impersonal. In the [near?] future there won’t even be call centers, just endless loops into which you must shout commands; it will keep telling you it still didn't quite get what you just said. :0

AK: In some ways do you feel that your music is speaking to these sorts of people? You have song titles such as “The Endlessness (Song For Young Xenophobes)”; are the xenophobes mentioned the same sort of outcasts you’ve met during your tour?

I don’t sympathize with them and they don’t sympathize with me. Recently i was able to have a civil conversation with someone who admitted he was a Trump supporter. I was curious as to how someone could operate on this basis... it still doesn't make much sense to me. I think it's mostly for the shock value itself, but I still don't fully understand their rationale.

Relating this back to automation: dealing with outsourcing and waiting through loops affects my mental health terribly. After spending days dealing with the airline that lost all of my gear coming back from the long tour, you realize that you're not dealing with people, but rather machines or faceless clerks—people who are not even employed by the company, have no responsibility, and have no benefits... I recently reread “No logo," which describes how we are living in the aftermath of the world described in it, back in the 90s when sweatshops and mini-jobs were nothing but novelties.

I also just read Ray Kurzweil's ”The Age of Spiritual Machines"; he is fascinated by the idea that Artificial Intelligence will replace most customer service jobs, and also with the idea of transforming into cyber-humans as the next level of evolution. He believes that instead of us becoming less human as a result, the machines will have to become more humanlike, despite it being quite far from this impinging upon reality in the current moment (or so we hope). At the moment, Kurzweil works at Google's gmail auto-response department. I’m not a big fan of their matter-of-fact casual invasion of privacy attitude, or their monopoly on, well, information. That scares me. It's the thing closest we have to Big Brother.

AK: Do you feel like music gives you an opportunity to speak to these kinds of people, people that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to communicate with, with just words? Or do you think your music ultimately exists in a bubble, unable to reach those who aren’t already in close agreement with your opinions and beliefs?

MO: Sadly it seems that what i do exists only in—a little bubble and it really only reaches those who want to find it, when someone else stumbles upon it by accident, they usually leave weird comments on youtube and it ends there.

AK: Right… well to pivot a bit, your album The West Against the People uses sounds and voices that largely seem to stray away from conventional Western noises. Was that intentional? Or do you in general seek out to create music that uses outside influences?

MO: Haha. This is perhaps the first time in history that i like something that is more or less popular at the same time that it is popular. I listen to a lot of African, Asian and South American recordings (check out radiooooo.com, it's the best site on the web!) And i hope someone will write a biiiiig expose on reissue and compilation labels that dig out these recordings, i should harass The Wire about it more!

I’d secretly love to do the whole thing myself and talk to labels that I like, but other things are much more urgent.

I’m very curious as to why no one has properly covered this fascination with something "foreign" and "exotic", and though some of it is really honest curiosity and enchantment, i also think there are other elements, there’s tension between cultures that have been suppressed, colonized and others that did all the dominating. Thai culture from the 60s and 70s has plenty of American influences because American bases fighting in Vietnam were located there, playing a lot of us radio...

So there you have it, folks: welcoming environments for performance, experimentation, collaboration; unbridled scrutiny of systemic mechanisms forged with a happy medium-reverence for forgotten beauties of the past. Thank you for your empiricism, your questioning, and your frankness, Mary. And thank you for your organizational fortitude and everlasting patience, Rosalie. Until soon, Andy & WHRB

Andy Kim DJs for The Darker Side. The Darker Side has air every Saturday night 10pm-6am and Sunday night 10pm-5am.