You might not know it by looking at today’s pop charts, but instrumental rock music has a long and storied history going back to the surf and quasi-surf sounds of artists like Dick Dale and the Ventures to many of the Allman Brothers songs in the ‘70s up through today with groups like Explosions In The Sky and mostly vocal-free Mogwai.
Michael Astley-Brown continues that tradition with his Maebe project, whose eponymous album was released last year. The LP—seven intricate-yet-sinewy, guitar-driven, instrumental songs—is all the more impressive since Astley-Brown recorded it while holding down his full-time job as digital editor-in-chief of Guitar World.
MAGNET spoke with Astley-Brown about making music, the role of the guitar in today’s pop world, Taylor Swift and more.
Most musicians flee from labels, yet your Instagram profile gleefully states that you make “nerdy post-/math-/alt-rock.” Unpack that for us. When I listen, I hear guitar-based, melodic, instrumental music that draws on a variety of progressive progenitors. Your album is a cohesive collection of moody tracks, yet each is distinctive.
When I first started Maebe, I would self-effacingly tell people it was too technical for post-rock, not technical enough for math rock. So, while I take a lot of cues from Mogwai in terms of building a sense of atmosphere, I’m too self-conscious to sit on the same two chords for seven minutes, which is what takes the music in that progressive direction—although never quite to the mercurial degree of math-rockers like Tera Melos or Don Caballero. I’d say the bands who had the biggest influence on that sonic formula are cinematic riff visionaries like Oceansize, And So I Watch You From Afar and Alpha Male Tea Party. AMTP’s guitarist, Tom Peters, actually mastered the album and provided invaluable mixing advice.
My roots lie in alt-rock, though—I was weaned on Rage Against The Machine, Soundgarden, Deftones. That’s where my love of big riffs originates, and that influence is pretty evident on tracks like “Partition” and “Blood Gloves.” That said, I recently updated my Instagram bio to include “prog” rather than “alt-rock” as, in hindsight, that does actually encapsulate the music better.
Instrumental music obviously can’t rely on vocals to carry the melody of a song, but your guitar does a good job filling that role particularly on ethereal tracks like “Your Side / My Side.” Talk about the importance of melody in your work.
There have always been two geniuses of instrumental rock vying for attention in my songwriting. One is post-rock, the epic soundscapes of Explosions In The Sky and Russian Circles, and the other is the more traditional lead-guitar styles of Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. I think it’s the combination of these two strands that makes up Maebe’s DNA. I want to make music that not only moves but also sticks with people, and melody is the root of any long-lasting musical relationship. I do try to keep the rock-guitar excess in balance, though—just enough for the occasional “wow” moment, but never so much that it verges on cliché. “Your Side / My Side” is a great example of that—the track reaches its climax with a guitar solo that features a handful of shreddy techniques, but I like to think the melody is always driving it.
You chose to self-release your album. In another interview, I raised the point that it’s never been easier to record your own music but perhaps never harder to get people to listen to it. I’m curious. What do you think are the most effective ways for independent artists to market their music today? Getting on playlists? Their own social-media efforts? Do reviews in digital or print magazines still matter?
I’ve never had a whole lot of self-confidence in my musical ability, so Maebe was born with absolutely zero ambition. As a result, I didn’t think my release strategy through. I pitched to the odd blog here and there, but didn’t get much of a response. On release, I sought out the curators of some of Spotify’s more popular post-rock and math-rock playlists to request their consideration. Not all were successful, but those that were certainly provided a welcome boost in listeners. As with all the best pitches I’ve received in my line of work, it helps to be courteous, respectful and understanding, whatever the outcome.
Through a few friends and colleagues, I managed to secure a couple of small slots in print and online titles. The best response came via the U.K.’s Prog and Classic Rock magazines, which included a track or two on their covermount discs, which led to a marked increase in Bandcamp visits and some kind messages of support. For me, this really highlights the value of curation from a trusted brand, whether that’s those covermount CDs, reviews or playlists.
For independent artists, the best advice I can give is to build a social-media following first: Lean into what makes you unique, and the playing or personality only you can offer. Give your audience what they want on socials, and they will support your activities elsewhere. Again, I’m far from a shining example—balancing filming videos alongside a demanding day job is not my strong point. So definitely don’t take the approach I did, which was to release the album, then try to build a social-media following afterward.
In addition to making music, you also serve as Guitar World’s digital editor-in-chief. From that vantage point, what’s your take on how the guitar is being used in popular music? The “death of the guitar” has been predicted for many years now, or at least its centrality to pop music, and the bankruptcies of Gibson and the Guitar Center chain of stores over the last couple of years would seem to lend a bit of credence to that notion. My own take is that it’s simply being used in different ways than the role it played in classic-rock bands. It’s also being played by a more diverse group of people.
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. The guitar has never been dying; rather, the role of guitar in popular music has been changing. Today, it’s one tool in an artist’s arsenal, rather than being the sole focal point, as it was in the ’70s or ’80s. If anything, that dogged pursuit of classic rock has held the guitar back, while artists in hip hop and EDM have always been open to new sounds and collaboration, and thrived as a result.
From my perspective, the industry was sluggish to react to the shift, too. Certainly, 10 or 15 years ago, I didn’t feel like there were any major guitar publications or brands that represented me or the music I enjoyed. It’s no coincidence that we’ve seen the explosion of the effects-pedal industry in the past decade—these are the builders and musicians who have been evolving what the instrument is capable of and the role it plays in contemporary music. It feels like it’s only in the past five years or so that we’ve seen the industry really stand up and take notice of the increasingly broad spectrum of guitar players, both sonically and in terms of their gender and background. That’s been such a positive shift, and I genuinely believe that this change in attitude, in conjunction with the boom of new players taking up the instrument during the pandemic, will lead to a renaissance in guitar playing. I only wish it had come around a little sooner.
One of your recent Guitar World articles talked about the somewhat toxic comment culture for guitar players on social media with their posted efforts, covers or original songs, getting criticized and torn apart. I’ve also seen that directed at artists like Taylor Swift who don’t fit the mold of a classic guitar hero. If the guitar is experiencing a bit of a player slump, real or not, I would think celebrating anyone’s contribution would be a good thing. Thoughts?
Guitarists can sometimes be curiously contradictory animals: They strive for the instrument to be the center of attention, but if the player in the spotlight doesn’t fit the vision in their head, they have a tendency to lash out, and—as with so many other areas of society—social media tends to give undue prominence to these voices.
There is no one definition of what the guitar is; it can be a songwriting partner, a conjurer of ethereal ambience or a vehicle for breathtaking technical wizardry, but none of these roles is somehow inherently better than the other. The guitar can be whatever you want it to be. As someone who has struggled with their own confidence on the instrument, I can testify to the destructive thought patterns that toxic internet commentary can bring.
Nobody is saying all guitarists have to burn their Led Zeppelin tab books and learn to play “Shake It Off,” but it’s important to remember that artists like Taylor Swift are versatile, often prolific, songwriters who have inspired tens of thousands of aspiring players to take up the instrument. And whatever style of guitar playing you’re into, that can only be a good thing.
What do you have planned for 2021 under your Maebe handle? Are you working on new music?
2021 will be the year Maebe launches proper. The debut album fulfilled a personal goal, but the positive reaction has hardened my resolve to take everything to the next level. I’m already partway through recording a 10-track follow-up. It’s heavier, more melodic and more diverse, and I’ve really stepped up my production game. I’m beyond excited for people to hear it and hoping to pitch it to a few labels, too.
There’s a live band ready to go, as well—we recently released a live lockdown version of “Partition,” recorded in our homes before we even managed to get in a rehearsal room together. If we can get a few gigs under our belt, that will be another huge milestone. This whole experience has been a humbling journey for me. I’m still figuring out exactly what the destination is, but I’ve learned a hell of a lot getting there.