Maruja Interview: “Such Darkness Coming Out Of Art”

UK’s most exciting new dark post-punk/rock/jazz band Maruja is coming on strong with their recent singles as well as their debut EP, Knocknarea. We talked to the band’s saxophonist Joe Carroll to get better acquainted.

Is this your first interview with a Turkish platform?

Joe Carroll: Yeah, definitely. 

I’m honoured to be the first. Let’s start basic: What is Maruja? And how do you pronounce it?

It’s any way you want to say it, honestly. We get asked about what it is, but then again, we are not Spanish. We don’t have the right to say what it is and what it isn’t. The Spanish is pronounced maruha, but we are from Manchester, so we say maruja

How did you guys come together as a band?

Harry and Matt, our singer and bassist, they were attending a music course in college. They were brothers from the day they met. Initially, they formed the band with two different members, another guitarist / singer and a different drummer. I think they came across a video of me through a friend of theirs. I was doing a college course, I was not doing very well in my exams. I was like, “I’m gonna do music!” Because that doesn’t require any provisioned homework. And then I was introduced to genres I never heard before by people who were passionate about them. They were like, “Oh, you should come to rehearsal,” and I was like “Okay! I actually never thought about being in a band before, but here we go.” Then we started making songs, and I was blown away. I was always into creating things, but that was a whole new level of something I had a connection with. Creating something exciting out of nothing really struck a chord with me. When we started to get really busy, we were like, “Let’s try to rehearse three or four times a week.” That didn’t go well with the previous members, so we had to get a new drummer. The first person we met was Jacob, and it immediately felt like this could be a relationship for the next 20 to 30 years.

Is Maruja your first band, then?

I was in a college band, and Jacob was in a band down south, but nothing serious.

I think it is cool that you managed to come forward with a sound this fully-formed this early on.

Although you hear what we play now, we have been together for six, maybe seven years. And that is when I joined, it’s been nine years for the other two. We’ve gone through so many different sounds, and become its own thing. We are not forcing anything, what’s coming out of us naturally happened. We tried all sorts of things over the years, which we learned from. (laughs)

Was your initial sound that wildly different from how you sound now?

We are coming off of Manchester. You’ll notice that now, there is a lot of post-punk bands. But when we initially started, there were a lot of indie bands. There is still a big hangover from Oasis and The Stone Roses. I’m absolutely sick of it! (both laugh) There was that pressure to do that sort of thing. I remember us doing a gig in a pub early on. There is a man there going, “What’s a saxophone doing in a rock band?” We are trying to do something different, give us a break! Also, for a lot of of us, you learn about what you like, and that changes. You generally don’t listen to the stuff you are into at 16 when you’re 22. It’s what we listen to that comes to the surface when we make music. There used to be more hip-hop and reggae. Then I came in, and we became more jazzy. We used to have some pre-thoughts: This is gonna be a more ballady one, this is gonna be more punk, etc. Eventually, it just amalgamated to whatever feels right for the song. We’ve done all those things over the years, initially badly. The more you do that, the more you learn how to approach those different things. You achieve maturity. So when it comes to writing stuff that has multiple genres in it, we just come up with whatever compels us to write.

Among the songs you released so far, can you name one easiest and one hardest to create?

Yes, probably can. “Zeitgeist” was the easiest. There is a funny story attached to that one. Me and Jacob worked together for the BBC. We were doing these low-level runner jobs, and we were doing nightshifts because we were working at the Winter Olympics. We were waking up an ungodly hour every morning. We would go to sleep, go to practice, and then sleep again. It was a mess. Jacob came to me one day. We had this bassline, this dissonant bass chord. He said he had an idea about it. He could beatbox quite well too, well enough to explain the drumming on his mind. He did exactly that. And this was 3am, so I was knackered. I thought, “Wow, that is sick! I’ll get a recording of it.” Got my phone out, and he just bottled it. Listening back to that initial beatboxing take, it’s terrible. But the idea was there. When it came to writing it, it was just one of those things where you knew the next step and the step after that.

And then the hardest two were “Thunder” and “Kakistocracy” from Knocknarea. “Kakistocracy” is the last song off the EP. We wrote that about five years ago. We were coming out of those phases I was telling you about and were finally gaining maturity. It was initially a 10 minute song. We came to our producer Sam Jones, and we played that for him. We wanted it on the record. There’s elements of it that we really like, and there was like a 7 or 8 minute intro sort of thing, completely different song. Then it went into the light guitar chords like an outro, and to the big climax at the end. He was like, “You’ve got a song, but you stuck it on the end of like an 8 minute musical waffle.” We agreed, and just ended up using the end of it, and then, weirdly, we used that as the intro for the song. At the end, it’s got its free form. It’s a ball of energy that created this. It’s 6 minutes now or something. But now when we play it live, we push that even further. It was about 9 minutes at some point, and now it’s about 11 or 12 minutes. So that is like a forever growing song, because when we play it live, we like the reaction we get from people. The reaction it brings out of us when we play is one of frustration. It just creates this ever-growing thing, really. So I’d say that one was the hardest, because it’s still in the writing process, and we started writing it about five years ago.

I always love songs that expand after the release, those always feel special. They remind me of this quote: “Art is never finished, but only abandoned.” That also resonates with what you just told me. 

I do agree. You’ve got to finish it though. Sometimes you’ve just got to be like, this is done. 

You get to abandon it at some point, whether by releasing it or dropping it, but if you release it, it will likely have a new life afterwards.

Yeah. It’s hard to find that balance sometimes. For example, with the next stuff that we’re recording, we’re going to be writing them over the next 6-7 months, and then we’re going to take what we’ve written on tour. Once we’ve played them live 30 times, that’s a good point to record them. We’re definitely a live band first and foremost. You do learn so much from playing the songs to people, and “Kakistocracy” now being a 12 minute song is proof to that. We want the energy from the live shows to come through in the recording. Once you learn about the songs from the shows, I feel like it’s the best time to record them. 

Here’s an improvised question: Who do you think has the most exciting expanding live performance right now?

Crikey. (both laugh) The one that came to the top of my head is Swans. 

I can agree with that. I’ve seen them live in Turkey two times, and they were just nuts.

Yeah, they’re very interesting people. I saw them live for the first time about six months ago in Manchester. I’ve never been to a gig that loud before. It was obscene. It was definitely dangerous. 

We definitely take inspiration from it in our performances. The kind of energy that just feels ritualistic. There were people in the audience who were having psychedelic experiences, and it felt like a ceremony. Watching them live, it’s just so repetitive and everyone’s just so inside the music. But at the at the end of their show, it was getting to this level of noise that made me think, “Oh my God, this is so f.cking intense.” The monitors in the venue started crackling and it just felt like the place was going to burst. And then I think they did. The set finished and they walked off, and I was just like, “What have I just witnessed,” you know?

It is a highly uplifting experience and a rave in its own right, I think, in a spiritual shamanistic way.

Yeah, very uplifting. But horrible. Absolutely horrible. (both laugh)

They’re grotesquely uplifting, yeah.

Exactly. I think nowadays, that’s what people are relating to. The Beatles had their time, and people obviously appreciated that very beautiful music, but with the state of the world and stuff, there’s a reason why there’s such darkness coming out a lot of art. There’s always awful stuff and beautiful things happening at the same time, but it certainly feels like we have more frustrations about things happening out of our control.

The norms of what can go popular is changing also in the sense that any artistic piece can have a risky duration time and still have success, particularly in cinema, where we see mainstream films go over three hours. For music, the “release three-minute songs in order to have success” formula is more prone to exceptions than before. They can be longer or shorter, and I feel that our grasp of time passing has shifted in the TikTok age anyway.

Definitely. We’ve got a track called “The Tinker”, which is somehow our most popular song. When we released Knocknarea, we had no sort of fanbase. We had a little bit of a live one, but nothing like now. We really weren’t expecting it to resonate with so many people and become its own sort of thing.

That track, for example, is an instrumental one. It came straight from a jam. The way that we write a lot of our music is from improvising together and that one was from a 5-minute section of a 20-minute jam. We decided we should just go in the studio and try and recreate it.

So we did. We knew it was something that we want to release, but did not expect to do us any favours. It’s not going to get on radio, or that sort of thing. But then it did, and so many people resonated with it.

It sort of made us realize that you can really make whatever you want. We don’t know half the time what is going to do well and what isn’t, which I think is a good thing. The fact that anything can do well is definitely a good thing for the art. It puts less pressure on people.

You are getting praise from various platforms and people, including one of my favorite reviewers, Anthony Fantano. Does that level of recognition put any pressure on you as you’re building towards what I’m guessing will be your debut album?

I mean, being mentioned in the same breath as Anthony Fantano is weird. We were talking about Swans before. He’s introduced all of us to such incredible music just from his videos, you know. But because we’ve been going for so many years, we are at a place now where we really know what we want to follow. Not necessarily what our music sounds like, but also the attitude we approach our art with.

Obviously we see the support, and it is incredible seeing how we have connected with so many people. That is mindblowing. But in terms of it affecting what we make, I don’t think we’re ever going to be like, “Oh, people are enjoying the punkier tracks,” or whatever. “People like ‘The Invisible Man’. Let’s make something like that.” It’s never going to be that sort of thing.

I wouldn’t say there’s more pressure. But we’re definitely reveling in having eyes on us for the first time, because we’ve been doing it for years and we’re so passionate about what we do now. We feel like we’re really ready for it.

I need to ask you about where you’re building towards in terms of new stuff. How is it going? Is there a debut album coming, which I guess will be beatbox?

(laughs) Yeah. Purely acoustic. Beyond acoustic. Just with our mouths.

I can’t say we’ve decided where we’re going to. We see people online and everyone’s like, “They’ve got to release the debut album.” They like to know where it is. And we’re like, “It takes a long time and a lot of money, and we have neither of them.” There’s a lot of exciting stuff coming this year and that is all I’ll say. We’re always writing, and you gotta let us cook. 

I needed to ask this question, but of course, no pressure. You take your time and drop it when it’s right for you.

Exactly. When it is ready.

We’re definitely a live band first and foremost. You do learn so much from playing the songs to people, and “Kakistocracy” now being a 12 minute song is proof to that. We want the energy from the live shows to come through in the recording. Once you learn about the songs from the shows, I feel like it’s the best time to record them. 

Joe Carroll

If you have your music streaming platform at your reach, can you name the last three streamed songs? 

It’s currently on “Juicy” by Biggie. I’m listening to Ready to Die again, because everyone should. Everyone.

There is this EDM track. It’s called “Under Belly,” by Blawan.

And then “Terra Firma” by Enola Gay and Mount Palomar. Enola Gay are our boys. They’re probably the the act that we’re closest with. We recently did our first show in Ireland with them. But our first ever show with them was on Saint Patrick’s Day in Manchester, and it went off. We were like, “Whoa, there’s something going on here between us lads.” We’ve been really close ever since. They introduced us to Mount Palomar, who’s a DJ.

He used to do shows in Berghain in Berlin, and he’s incredible. He’s actually supporting us for our London and Manchester shows for this upcoming tour. Me and Harry are going to jump on stage with them and do some tracks before we play. So that should be fun.

Big shout out to them. 

Needless to say, I hope to see you live someday too.

Man, we want to do a place like Turkey so badly, but it’s just so expensive nowadays. It’s not the same industry as it was, unfortunately.

Nothing’s been the same since Brexit, huh?

That word is a lot of the reason why our music sounds so aggressive and angry. It really is. It’s just awful, man.

You’ll manage somehow.

We definitely will, and we’re very lucky to have the demand for people wanting us to come to these countries.

Let’s imagine we are at a Musicians Theme Park 100 years from now, and Maruja has a memorial stone with one of your lyrics written on it. Which one would you choose?

Well, I’m not the lyricist, Harry is. But I’ll try, and there’s one of our tracks, “One Hand Behind the Devil.” I’ve always really liked the ending of that one: “One hand behind the devil, the other touching grace / Thoughts begin to meddle, push morals out of place / The opium of faith lies between the love and hate.” I remember hearing that and I was like, “Whoa, that’s sick.”

Yeah, that’s extremely poetic.

Yeah, Harry’s been writing lyrics for years and years. It’s a real sort of therapy for him to speak about, you know, our frustrations as musicians, the stuff we’re going through. It’s been a wild few years. So to be able to have someone like Harry who can spread such a beautiful message to all these people that we’re now being put in front of is such a feather in the cap for the rest of us.

You can check out Maruja’s official website here and Bandcamp profile here.