Although a recognisable face on the Edinburgh music scene for a number of years – having fronted sludge-rock luminaries Plastic Animals – the gorgeous Artifice sees Peruvian-born Mario Cruzado step out from the shadows and into the light. I’d say tentatively, but there’s a confidence and assuredness bleeding through every second of this intentionally low-key EP that belies any doubt or uncertainty that may have been present in its genesis. Also, I should say that when I speak of light, in true Scots fashion it’s the kind of cold, blue-tinged light that seems only to come with the type of temperature my father-in-law would call fresh.
I’ve lived with these five songs for well over a week now, and I still feel that they have secrets to tell. Every listen seems to reveal another little detail that I hadn’t noticed before – which is quite interesting as on the surface they’re songs and arrangements that tend to be on the minimal side. The kind of minimal that can only really work when the artist understands the power of silence and empty space. In this case, I guess you could say that these songs are very much an opposite of Cruzado’s previous work with Plastic Animals; and instead of the vocal being another texture buried in the landscape, here it’s actively carving it.
Picking favourites is tough, as at seventeen-minutes-and-twenty-nine-seconds it’s difficult to justify not listening all the way through – but I find myself particularly drawn to the utterly beautiful Eta Carinae (which sounds like it could’ve been one of the best songs on Wilco’s Summerteeth) with its glorious coda of “Do you think it’s love, Eta Carinae?” This is sandwiched between the aching lo-fi beauty of Lux and the swooning, Grizzly Bear-esque Ornament – a track full of stark harmonies and delicate, sweeping strings which carry it off into another dimension. The closing two tracks – Phantom Music and Alone With You – are equally perfect; with the former reminding me of the fragile beauty of some of Gruff Rhys’ late-90s Super Furries tunes, and the latter a slow-moving, ominous, dissonant gem.
All in all, Artifice is a superb collection of songs. I’ve had it on repeat since I heard it, and to be honest I’m struggling to think of anything else I could add that would say more than that. Released via the excellent Glasgow-and-Edinburgh-based OK PAL Records, it’s a late contender for my personal end of year list, but also hopefully just the beginning for Blue Tiger.
A conversation with Blue Tiger
Happy to say that Mario agreed to answer some questions regarding the EP, his songwriting, recording process, and some other bits and pieces. As ever, my questions are in bold and Mario’s responses in plain text.
• Hey Mario. Congratulations on the new EP. I thought it was quite something. I love the luscious arrangements and how they’re almost hanging by a thread at times. I found myself searching for the Plastic Animals stuff and thought it was interesting how you’ve really peeled back the layers of what you’re doing now. I like how your voice is front and centre with this new material, less obscured, and I’m interested in how you’ve arrived at this point… if that’s even a question? Ha.
Thanks for the kind words! With Plastic Animals we had this heavy atmospheric sound which relied on the band’s dynamics mostly and that didn’t really allow for a vocal presence to be that essential to the music. It was out of choice to layer it all up and add an extra guitar here and there and we loved it. Once the band fizzled out, I found myself wanting to go the opposite direction just because I’d never really done that. It felt uncomfortable and exciting at the same time. Getting used to the sound of my voice is still something I’m working on but I’m getting there.
• Has the way you approach writing changed with this material?
I made a conscious effort to make shorter songs. Get the right harmony, the right words and visit them swiftly, never outstay my welcome if that makes sense.
• I can hear some parallels with artists like Grizzly Bear and Wilco. I mean, Eta Carinae could be a highlight on Summerteeth. Phantom Music reminds me of Gruff Rhys too, in some strange way… around the time of Guerilla. Anyway, I was wondering who would you say are your main influences on the Blue Tiger stuff? Also, do you think about these influences when you write, or is it more a case of it will sound like what it sounds like?
Thanks! I’m not that familiar with Grizzly Bear except a few tunes that I really enjoyed but I love all the early Wilco stuff. High praise indeed. I’ve always felt spiritually connected to Sparklehorse so there’s definitely an influence there whether I’m conscious of it or not.
• The instrumentation is beautiful across the EP. Are you playing most yourself, or are you working with other musicians? Likewise with the production. I love the uncluttered, kinda lo-fi nature of it. I guess I’m asking about your recording process in a very convoluted way!
I recorded some of these songs before with other people but they ended up not sounding quite the way I wanted them to so I decided to do it all myself. That gave me the chance to write arrangements as I was recording, listening back and revisiting over and over until it was right. I had the time to think about the space in the songs and what was essential to get the feeling or mood I wanted to put across.
Because of this I did most of the playing, otherwise I’d have made other musicians crazy! At the same, I’ve got some very talented pals and they helped me hugely. Robyn Dawson laid down the strings in Ornament and Eta Carinae as well as the rhythm section in Alone With You which was missing something I couldn’t quite work out. Hailey Beavis (50% of OK Pal Records) sang backing vocals in Alone With You.
• Your bio describes you as ‘Edinburgh-based, Peruvian-born’. How did you come to be in Scotland, and do you think the geography is explicitly there in the music?
Back in 2005 I came to be together with someone from here. We fell in love in Lima and kept it long distance for a while, but things didn’t quite work out for us. Geography is kind of in the music because it’s me playing it and I’m not from here. As much as I feel at home in Scotland there’s a fundamental part of me that will always be foreign and which makes me who I am. It’s just one of those things.
• I wanted to ask about the Artifice artwork in particular. I can see the obvious literal peeling back of a layer to reveal what’s underneath – and all the connotations that come with that – but I wondered what the thoughts and process behind it was. Also, who did it, because it’s great and feels completely part of the music?
I put the artwork together and I wanted it to fit the sound so I’m glad that’s coming across well. One day I could just see a picture of me kind of coming out of a swimming pool or pushing out of something into a void. Just a random image but I really liked the way it looked in my head. After that I could more or less just see the whole thing. The idea of having a lot of space also influenced it now that I’m thinking about it.
• As somebody whose music kinda falls into the melancholy realm, have you found this last eight months or so to be a productive time? I mean, I could be wrong here, but I’m presuming you spend some time on your own anyway!
Like most people I’ve talked to, it’s come in waves. The first few months were dilapidated with reckless abandon but having projects like the EP kept me going. I said to myself that as long as I did even a little towards it, it counted. That and the support from my loved ones have been been a saving grace. But oh yeah, I love spending time on my own, a little too much sometimes.
• Lastly, OK Pal seem like a really cool, progressive label with an exciting roster. How did you come together?
Aren’t they just the best? I met Faith at art school back in the day and we’ve been very good pals ever since. I met Hailey through Faith and now we’re also like family. I suggested to Faith if they’d be into working with me after I sent some demos a long time ago and that was that. They have a radically kind approach to life and it shows in their work ethics. I also work as a filmmaker and I’ve had the pleasure to help on Faith’s and Hailey’s music videos. It’s a lovely thing we’ve got going.