Collective Concerts Presents
1608 Dundas Street West
Toronto, ON, M6K 1T8
Doors 9:00 PM
This event is 19 and over
“In a time where nothing makes sense, or when everyone is trying to make sense of everything, even the right idea might not make perfect sense to everybody at that moment.”
Steve Marion, the songwriter, guitarist, and producer who has made four studio records of primarily word-less, guitar-first music as Delicate Steve, is talking about the bifurcated and reactionary culture of the moment. But by no coincidence he’s also describing musical moments that helped to inspire Till I Burn Up (Anti-, 2019) his forthcoming LP.
The album name comes from a line in Dr. John’s “Walk on Guilded Splinters” where Steve misheard John’s actual phrase “Tit Alberta” as “Till I Burn Up.” But more than fodder for an album title, John’s Gris Gris, and records like it, informed a new frame-of-mind for an artist who has historically set out to make a predetermined statement with every recording.
“The idea of this young freak making Gris Gris in LA, and nobody knowing what to do with it in 1968… He gave me confidence to be a little more freaky and abstract instead of quirky and nicely-packaged like my last album was.” Steve goes on to cite early records by Iggy Pop and Dylan and The Band’s electric tour that were panned at the time and lauded in hindsight. “There is a confidence that comes with abandoning the idea of wanting to create something that everyone might like to check out.”
But all is not bifurcated, and we know two things can be true at once. The confidence necessary for Steve to make Till I Burn Up could also be self-inspired. Now nearly ten years into his career, Steve is a cult artist of his time who has been called to record with his heroes (Paul Simon, Kanye West) and contribute significantly to his contemporaries’ modern masterworks (Amen Dunes, Freedom), all the while recording and releasing his own critically hailed work and sharing the stage with Tame Impala, Mac DeMarco, Growlers and others.
The artist whose songwriting and playing has been marked through by transcendent moments of buoyancy and joy has created a pulsing and propulsive record in Till I Burn Up. He put up at a studio in Woodstock and found himself playing Freddie Mercury’s Oberheim synthesizer and his guitar plugged into Robbie Robertson’s Fender amp.
With the intent to turn away from the times, Steve managed instead to document the sound of this moment — the ever-undwinding feed that feeds the feedback loop of talking heads, twitter tick-ticking like a bomb, the timed drip- like morphine- of news breaking in our hands, the party before the shoe drops, our interior dialogue, all the contradictions…
A song called “Freedom” is underpinned by a grinding circular guitar line interrupted by what sounds like synthetic warning sirens. “Rat in the House”, “Rubberneck”, and “Madness” are blinkered dancefloor rippers suited for a bunker party. “Selfie of Man” recognizes the pervasive behavior and its result, as a literal portrait of our times. It moves along in marched lockstep, with inversely reflecting guitar lines. The album’s closer ‘Dream’ allows Steve and his listeners some free range. Until then, each song is self-contained and self-referential — an ouroboros within a greater ouroboros called Till I Burn Up.
There are turns on Till I Burn Up as dark as anything Delicate Steve has recorded, but not without reminders that a joy ride into an apocalypse is still a joy ride. Like the harrowing moment it documents, Till I Burn Up would not be true if not imbued by contradiction. True to form, this Delicate Steve record is a distillation.
A night in room 14D at New York’s Carlton Arms Hotel is like being submerged in an oceanic
abyss. A jellyfish-like chandelier dangles from the ceiling, while a 24-hour ambient
soundtrack sucks you in even deeper. It’s a representation of Johnny Mackay aka
Fascinator’s subconscious mind – and you can sleep in it for around $100 a night.
Mackay – a former short-term resident at the Carlton Arms – was given free reign to design
a room by the hotel’s art-obsessed owners. So he did what any self-respecting New York
creative would: he turned to his therapist.
“I wanted to try and find the place where ideas come from. So in a semi-hypnotic state we'd
dive in and I’d always end up in the ocean, in a place between two lands.”
Between two lands is kinda the perfect description of where Mackay has been situated for
the past few years, both in a subconscious and physical sense. After the dissolution of his
ARIA chart-topping rock band Children Collide, the singer moved to New York from
Melbourne in 2012 in a self-described moment of masochism. But he soon found himself
partnerless, cashless, and bouncing from couch to couch. And that’s when Water Sign –
Fascinator’s triumphant album – began taking shape.
“I was basically homeless for six months, sleeping on floors and couches around New York.
That's where I started writing the record, in this really shit rehearsal studio I'd rented to store
my stuff in. I was surrounded by boxes of displaced belongings and depressed as fuck.”
Over the next four years, Mackay would chip away at the record in planes, trains,
automobiles and, er, a barn in Nantucket for a song writing workshop. It was there that the
genre-hopping sitar jam ‘Midnight Rainbow’ began taking shape. “I wanted to write a late
night meditation that could work as a soundtrack for getting stoned and cooking,” he says.
He wrote the vocals for the album’s baggy lead single ‘Sex Crystals’ in his sister’s kitchen in
Brisbane, before finishing it off with Andy Szeceres (Midnight Juggernauts) in a studio in
West Melbourne. Directed by Mackay himself, its Garden of Earthly Delights-influenced clip
is another deep dive into his subconscious mind: a place where dancing vegetables and cult
acolytes happily coexist.
“It turned out looking like some kind of weird alternative creation story,” Mackay says,
laughing. “I get resurrected with a séance and that looks like Bosch having a last supper in
Mackay describes Water Sign as a collection of situational soundtracks, influenced by
wherever in the world he was at the time. The album was also informed by the hundreds of
records he was being exposed to as an in-demand New York DJ, playing everywhere from
rooftops, to fancy hotels and on boats floating past the Statue of Liberty.
There are baroque-pop flourishes on ‘Showin’ Off’; ‘Your Money, it’s Ugly’ is a nod to Afro-
beat; while ‘Baby, Gone’ is a ‘60s French pisstake with the entire lyric sheet in the song’s
“I feel like I've been doing an apprenticeship in musicology for four years,” says Mackay of
his DJ side-hustle. “DJing has given me decades worth of albums to make … It gives me
ideas every time I do it. I find it healthy in the way it feeds me.
“It’s fun going from cocktail hour at a fancy hotel where I’ll have Tito Puente or something
like that happening. Then head out to do a proper dancefloor set. It’s forced me to consider
all the different genres you can use depending on the scenario. I started doing these mixes
called: dinner, drinks, dancing, and daybreak. I had that concept in my mind when I was
making ‘Midnight Rainbow’. I think I even started writing a song about taking a bath as well.
Water Sign marks the second Fascinator release under the Spinning Top Music umbrella
(POND, Tame Impala, Nicholas Allbrook). The Perth-born label and artist management
company welcomed Mackay into their family during that dark period when he began writing
the album in New York.
And while Water Sign is a document of those strange times, it also represents Mackay’s
heroic journey from “destitution to almost not quite destitution”, as he puts it in typical self-
deprecating fashion. He’s now enjoying the creative freedom his adopted home city has
“The one thing about New York is you can walk out the house dressed in garbage bags and
around the corner there'll be someone dressed in transparent garbage bags. You can't run
on being weird. Everyone's going to be like, ‘Big deal.’ I did a video once where I was
dressed as a medieval knight on the subway. Nobody batted an eyelid.”