Maktub’s Multifaceted Destiny
For more than a decade, Seattle band Maktub has been carving out their own unique path through rock's landscape. So far, their journey can be summed up in one word, unconventional. Almost every aspect of their music and the band itself challenges common perceptions and beliefs.
For instance, it is hard to imagine a soul band rising to the top of popularity in the land of grunge, but that's exactly what Maktub has done, being voted best band by the Seattle Weekly Readers Poll. This dichotomy is just the tip of their complicated iceberg, as the more one learns of the band, more contradictions continually pop up, rendering the band in a category all their own. As they say in the song Blown Away, from their recently released album Say What You Mean, "I'm more than you'll ever know. I'm a different breed. You'll find me in the in between."
Maktub took their name from an Arabic word meaning "it is written" or "destiny," which is ironic considering their destiny is almost a pure opposite of how things have traditionally been written. The band first came together when the rhythm section of Kevin Goldman and Davis Martin (bass and drums respectively) joined forces with vocalist Reggie Watts. Though the musicians were not the typical foundation for a soul outfit, Watts recalls that, "the balance just felt right. Kevin came from a dub background. Davis had played a lot of in the pocket, trip-hop stuff, and I've always been into pretty much everything." The quintet was rounded out by guitarist Thaddeus Turner, and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Spils.
The band originally set out to redefine soul music using their own standards, however over time the band became more of a hybrid as Watts explains, "what we're doing is blending psychedelics, rock, and soul together." This blend fits perfectly into what they feel soul is. "Soul (for me)," explains Watts, "is anything that is honest and projects itself from a pure place. Soul is a loaded term that harkens certain images and memories. I and the band however are using it in a more progressive way."
One of those images that soul harkens to is that of the smooth singer, such as Al Green. Despite his four octave voice range, Watts by his own admission does not fit that mold. "I think there are some people who are singers, and some who are vocalists, and they're both arts to themselves, but I consider myself a vocalist. Singers (I think)," further explains Watts, "are a bit more connected to they're emotions and conveying a story. For a vocalist that's part of it, but there's also the aspect of using their voice as an instrument, as in terms of texture, tonality, octaves, range and intensity."
By treating his voice as an instrument, Watts has come up with his own vocal style. With help of effect boxes, and echo chambers, he has developed a vocal styling that is truly other worldly. This style is displayed on the new album in songs such as "Daily Dosage" where Watts duets with an effects-altered version of himself. Watts says, "Understanding the vocal parameters is one of the most interesting aspects for me as a musician. I've been developing this and experimenting for over 16 years, to be able to imitate varied sounds and textures, with voice effects and EQ effects."
This is one of the many aspects of their sound that sets Maktub apart, especially amongst their Seattle peers. Watts claims however, that the Seattle scene is more varied than its general grunge perception. "We've all been in the scene so long. I've played in over 20 bands, and Thad has played with so many bands, and with members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. We've done shows with bands like Orbiter, Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie." He further explains, "we're all part of this huge network of bands and musicians here in Seattle. That network includes indie, electronic, hip-hop, jazz, blues, whatever. Everyone fits into the scene, even though Maktub's music, I don't know of anything resembling that in Seattle."
Maktub was able to benefit from standing out even amongst this unique collage of musicians. As Watts says, "anytime you have the opportunity to stick out its good, but what you do once you have that visibility is up to you, but having that opportunity to be more visible was definitely a great thing." Despite those benefits the band has been looking to streamline its sound into a more rocking outfit.
Rock is just the latest point in a constant evolution that is Maktub. Watts explains it as such. "We started with the idea of just playing what we love. So, the band has gone through various stages, depending on what we were into from time period to time period."
Watts identifies three distinct points in this evolution. "In the early days it was mostly drum and bass and hip-hop as well as electronic stuff, plus Sade and 70's soul." The second period included, "still Sade, and latter 90's bands like Jamiroquai, and acts coming out of the trip-hop scene. Then we got into more rock stuff like Led Zeppelin, and we recorded "No Quarter" on our last album (_Khronos_). I love taking the best of your influences and making that your own. It's a real subconscious thing, because those influences become a part of you. So, it gets to the point where when that comes out in songs and you don't even realize it, because they're so internalized. We never say we want this to sound like this or that, it just naturally flows out."
Say What You Mean represents the latest point of that evolution. As Watts explains, "with this record we're rocking a lot more and recording songs with higher energy. Daniel started writing songs on guitar and pulling out riffs that we all got into and collectively worked on."
Sticking true to form the band went the unconventional route, when choosing Bob Power (who is best known for his work with various r&b artists including Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, Me'shell N'degeOcello, Citizen Cope, and Ozomatli), to produce their rock album. Watts admits that Power was an odd choice, but he says, "Bob kind of choose us. He convinced me of how important it was for him to make this record. I thought if he wanted to do this so badly maybe I should let him. He really took a risk with this record, and worked for a lot less money then he usually gets."
The band went into it with open minds but still wanted to lay down ground rules and set a clear parameter. "We wanted to make sure he understood that we were going in to make a rock record, and bring out that aspect of the band."
Still recording the album was certainly an adventure for all involved, as Watts explains. "In many ways it was amusing for Bob as well, to tackle rock more directly. Working with him was great. It was a learning process for him and a learning process for us. He has great vision, and an amazing way of implementing that vision."
Their collective experiment has reaped great rewards as Say What You Mean, is an amazingly complex, varied, and truly an original album. It has a dense, heavy sound, but not what one might expect when they hear the term heavy. The songs are not hard, but have a real weight to them, and are deeply rooted with the band's soul shining brightly throughout.
The band's fascination with contradiction and juxtaposition is clearly played out in the album, which features several interesting twists and turns. For instance, it opens with the grand rocking bravado of "Promise Me," highlighted with big drums and great rising crescendos. This is followed by the deep soulful title track, and then the hunting psychedelic "20 Years," before launching back into the schizophrenic energy of "Daily Dosage." They play this game out in the songs themselves. A good example is "Hunt You Down," the lightest and most poppy song on the album. The fun groove masks the song's dark content, someone stalking their ex-lover.
Watts acknowledges how contradiction has fueled both his music and the band's trajectory. "I love extreme contrast, if you have something happy, you should also have something dark. If something is fast, there should also be something undulating, and if there is something slow, there better be massive amounts of tension, or lyrics that sound happy, but are really psychotic." He remarks how, "to me, that is the most exciting stuff and I look for that in art and in everything in life because extremes develop understanding of both sides and establish balance."
The band is excited about their upcoming cross country jaunt to support the album. Though Watts says the band does not take a real different approach to their material in the live setting that too, he says is an evolutionary process. "We're always adding things to bring something new and fresh to people. We're psyched that for the first time we have a full time lighting guy. I'm excited to see how that brings out certain elements of our performance, as well as enhancing the deeper songs from the album. Other than that, all we can do is keep having fun with each other, rocking out hard, and we'll see what comes out of that."
As for the future of the band and where their sound is heading, Watts says, "I personally think we could record a record really soon (and this is hypothetical but), I think that we're looking for a more stripped down and raw sound. I think that is where we're heading."
Predicting where Maktub is heading is a fools bet. The only thing one can safely predict is the unpredictable from a band that has made a career of debunking expectations and sticking to their own unique scenic route. Whatever they conjure up next is sure to resemble what preceded it, work that is uniquely original, and differs from people's expectations. That is how Maktub has always done it and how they will continue to do it. That is how it seems to be written for the band. It appears this is their destiny.