Dead Astronauts, Perturbator, Dana Jean Phoenix, GosT, Betamaxx, Protector 101, Deadlife.. they all have one thing in common… They’ve all worked with artist Hayley Stewart! As well as collaborating with all the aforementioned artists, Hayley was a member of Dead Astronauts for 5 years before she decided to leave the project to focus on her solo project Mecha Maiko.
Mecha’s brand new EP, Okiya, was released in January 2019. We decided to learn more about the EP and and find out what other side projects Hayley is working on.
SYNTHAPEX: Hi, Hayley! First of all, congratulations on the release of your newborn Okiya EP. How do you feel about it?
HAYLEY STEWART: Thank you! It feels liberating. I think it’s unveiled another facet of musical influences that have always been lingering beneath the surface of my more poppy tracks. Lately I’ve been looking at it like a permission slip to do whatever I want moving forward. I’ve had the most fun and satisfaction making this EP out of anything I’ve released so far, so I want to try to recreate that feeling.
If I’m not mistaken, Okiya is your first concept release. Did you enjoy writing songs that tell a common story more than working on conceptually autonomous ones?
It is! Most of my writing prior to this came from sort of gut-level, unconscious plane where I tended to see each track as its own entity. The production format for the EP was to take one track and mutate it or have it bleed into the next, which helped to set the mood and write the story. It was really refreshing working this way, although it required some discipline because I’m the type of person to work on a dozen track ideas at the same time.
“Some of the sounds I used in this album were pulled from Japanese music recorded between the 1920s and 1940s”
This way of writing required me to focus my attention and develop a vision for each track as a part of a whole, which I had struggled with before. That being said, even though I loved writing this way, I don’t think I could do it 100% of the time – there’s still something special about those gut-level creations that can sometimes surprise you. I’m just happy I’ve added this mode of working to my arsenal.
Usually, when synthwave-related artists make concept albums, they come up with stories happening in the distant future. The story of Okiya takes place in the first half of the 20th century. To me, this idea sounds fresh and cool.
I’m not sure I can recall anybody else related to the synthwave scene doing something similar before. So why have you decided to take your listeners not into a hi-tech future, but back to the past?
I had been listening to a lot of old recordings of traditional music across different cultures and thought it made sense to nod to the past. Some of the sounds I used in this album were pulled from Japanese music recorded between the 1920s and 1940s, so I wanted to be true to the era (even though some of the musical styles have existed for ages).
I wanted to engage with a parallel universe where some scenarios we think of being possible only in the future actually happen in our great-grandparents’ time. The possibility for finding life off-planet – or for having that life find us – seems to me like something that could unite and enlighten humanity, or accelerate its doom, or both.
Futuristic narratives often assume that we’ll be here for centuries to come, and often cast humans as a heroic set of colonisers – I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to taint a nostalgic era with an accelerated version of the issues we face today to point out just how much technology shapes us, and include the presence of larger, more advanced beings to underscore how fragile we and our environment are. It’s no coincidence that in this version of history I wrote, alien contact stops the course of war among humans – there’s simply no point when we look at ourselves from this scale.
The Mad but Soft LP sounds different from what you’ve done for Dead Astronauts and I have always been sure that second release by Mecha Maiko would sound in the vein of your debut solo album. But when I heard your self-titled single from Okiya I was pleasantly surprised. I would say it still has your recognisable sound inspired by synthpop, but at the same time this song doesn’t sound like synthpop to me at all.
In your opinion, have you already found the way you want your music to sound or will you go deeper into experimenting when writing new music?
That’s a tough question. I think one of the reasons the sound has changed so much is because I’m rarely satisfied for very long with what I do. I’m definitely going to continue to experiment a little bit more, but that doesn’t mean I plan to abandon any genres I may have touched on along the way.
What was your biggest challenge while working on Okiya?
My biggest challenge was figuring out how to integrate vocal elements, if any. I have a habit of putting vocals into every track, but I found that even if I came up with a catchy vocal line somewhere, it often detracted from the overall vibe I was going for. Eventually I realized I was trying to make vocals fit into the EP because I believed that would be expected from me, and deep down I didn’t want to disappoint. Once I realized that was affecting my judgment, it was easier to let go of them.
Last summer you released a compilation called Unloved & Unreleased comprising of your rare recordings. Since it’s already sold out, are you going to reprint it someday for those who have missed their chance to buy a copy or just for the huge fans of Bizooey?
Well, first of all, I doubt there are huge fans of Bizooey, haha. I may very well reprint it in the distant future, although I do plan on trying to hash out a couple tracks that I think might be worth resurrecting for my next album. For now it’s just a really strange and fun thing I’m happy to see scattered among fans.
Last year you produced Dana Jean Phoenix’s track, Be Alright. Could you please tell us about working on that one?
Dana contacted me about producing a track for her album, which was a part of our trade agreement – she performed vocals for a track on my album, so I would produce for hers. I sent over a few songs I had been working on but would be happy relinquishing control from in case there was something that already sort of fit.
Immediately she connected with Be Alright, which originally I had begun writing as Forgive You as a working title. I had tried some vocal ideas before handing it over to her, but nothing I was crazy about lyrically, I kept falling into a weird self-righteous hole and I was getting annoyed with myself. So I stripped everything back and sent it over.
She recommended a couple tweaks to the instrumental and laid down some vocals that, much like what happened in Cold, were a billion times more catchy and cool than anything I was trying to write at the time. It’s really such a great feeling when you’re able to work with someone who just seems to breathe life into everything they do.
I’m going to mention some songs by other artis that you sang on. Could you tell us a little bit about each of them?
Betamaxx – Something Else
I wrote the lyrics to this while pretty deep into a space/aliens kick. I think it shows. It’s also been a great pleasure to perform live with Nick because I actually get to a) not be alone onstage and b) roam around and not be tied to a keyboard! Man, I totally get why bands have singers who do nothing but sing. It’s liberating.
Crying Vessel – On Our Own
This song makes me feel so much cooler than I am because well, Slade’s band is super cool. His sound is so 80s inspired, I’m surprised I don’t see more Coldwave bands like his playing alongside synthwave acts. I had recorded some video footage of myself singing this song for some of their shows they had in Europe this past year, but I’m not sure how exactly it turned out. Maybe someone who went to Wave-Gotik-Treffen can let me know.
Protector 101 – Dead Broke
I had vowed to stop working on collaborations and then Protector 101 sent me this and I couldn’t say no. I feel like many of the people in my life are just one piece of bad legislation or missed paycheque away from being dead broke and have nothing to fall back on; and have no clear vision of what their lives will be like as they enter old age because of it. The song is about not falling into the trap of scapegoating other marginalised groups who struggle just as much, if not more, than we do. The people we should be taking the fight to are sitting at the very top.
Mellow Fields – Hellbent On You
This song has changed so much since the first demo I recorded, I barely recognize it! Okay, I’m exaggerating. He sent me a bunch of stems to record to, and I whipped up a version of the track with just drums and guitar. The result was so simple and dreamy that it really made me want to start some kind of shoegaze-pop act with Mike. It could happen.
Perturbator – Sentient
This is the track that makes people think I’m famous.
What are your plans for Mecha Maiko for the rest of the year?
My plans are to line up some shows in Europe, put out an album that people can really dance to, do some more DJ nights, and apply to a couple residencies so I can really focus on crafting whatever I get up to next. Currently, my next show will happen in July, where I’m playing Outland Toronto with Timecop 1983, Michael Oakley, Dana Jean Phoenix, Parallels, FM Attack, and Kalax. Too excited for that one.
Thanks for finding some time for this interview, Hayley! Finally, a traditional question, what would you like to say to your Russian fans?
To my Russian fans, thank you so much for your support! Apparently, you’re where most of my Soundcloud listens come from. If any of you have good venues in mind, send them my way! Half of the battle of booking tours is just figuring out a suitable spot. Also, do you guys really like Jaguar? Bless anyone who drinks this regularly and is still alive. My boyfriend tried a sip of it once and I could smell it on him for the next 36 hours. Shit’s like rocket fuel.
Listen to the EP:
Special thanks to Amari Satsu for checking the questions and making some of them better, Alexander MH for helping to translate the interview into Russian, Oleg Vasilenko (ISTORIK) and Jonny Farmer for making the release of the article possible.