Markus Lake came of age in the Calgary punk scene in the early 2000s, when he and I first met. As a teenager, he participated in activist projects like Food Not Bombs, promoted shows, and played in the abrasive, arty post-punk band The Incandescence. After moving to Montreal, he continued playing in bands while launching his solo experimental project, Markus Floats, via a 3” CD, a limited edition of only 20 copies.
Nine years later, he’s signed to Constellation Records for the release of Third Album. In a process that he compares to his paintings—such as the vibrantly colorful abstract shapes on the album’s cover—Markus believes the ongoing act of creation is more important than each individual project. Yet Third Album rewards with deep listens to its emotive electronic melodies, granular textures, and mesmerizing arpeggios weaving together a suite of songs with themes of forward motion. It’s the culmination of Markus’s work so far, but like the hyper-prolific artists he mentions in our interview (Fennesz and Prince), also just one drop in his deep pool.
Markus continues to play with a wide range of collaborators including free-improv quartet Egyptian Cotton Arkestra, synth-pop group Elle Barbara’s Black Space, and Neighbour’s Guitar, a punk band with him on lead vocals. He shares thoughts on the overlapping aspects of his creative projects, speculations on the future of pop music, and why it’s meaningful to integrate spoken word recordings from the Black literary canon into his live performances. In the wake of COVID-19, Constellation has now made a selection of releases such as Third Album available digitally one month before their physical copies arrive, with all digital proceeds directed to the label’s artists. Listen and read on for our conversation. words / j locke
Aquarium Drunkard: How did your experiences in the Calgary punk scene shape your way of thinking?
Markus Floats: Oh man. That was my adolescence and my first experiences with the world. As for how they shaped it, I think I just had this idea that the experience is universal, but I’m coming to learn that it totally isn’t. I have a set of priorities that’s totally at odds with the world sometimes. It really just shaped my expectations of what a music scene is and what it’s capable of accomplishing.
AD: You have a Minutemen “We Jam Econo” tattoo, and have always been someone who seems to be able to subsist on less than most people. Does that philosophy still resonate with you today?
Markus Floats: I think so. It’s a potentially outmoded Adbusters kind of vibe, but you really just don’t need that much stuff!
AD: Since moving to Montreal, you’ve continued to be involved with the DIY music community surrounding spaces like Drones Club. What has that been like, and how would you say it’s been different from your experiences growing up in the Calgary punk scene?
Markus Floats: It’s hard for me to tell because I feel like I’ve aged out in certain ways. I’m turning 34, so I don’t know if there are still all-ages scenes or if I fit into them. I know I technically do because it is a de facto open scene, but it’s also youth oriented. Montreal definitely has a different party scene. There was the after-hours scene going on in the early 2000s, and I can’t even tell if it’s died down because I just kind of stopped going out. Even if you don’t really realize while you’re participating in it, a scene forms your own views about the rest of the world. Every city has its own scene shaped by the city itself and its participants.
AD: You’ve played with so many different kinds of bands but the ones I specially wanted to ask about is the Egyptian Cotton Arkestra. Can you tell me a bit about that project and how it’s influenced what you do now?
Markus Floats: That was kind of an accident. The band is me, James Goddard, Ari Swan, and Lucas Huang. Originally it was supposed to include Julie Richard, who plays sousaphone. She couldn’t make it so I got called in for this one show. It was supposed to be a one-time project but kind of kept rolling. We ended up playing with Julie too, and that was really fun. It’s completely free and improvised. We practice once or twice before a show, but never know what’s going to happen at the show. After years of playing in rock bands, it’s just been a really nice change.
AD: You’ve also played with James Goddard in Elle Barbara’s Black Space. What has it been like to play pop music with other people who more typically work in the experimental world?
Markus Floats: It’s still super fun! James isn’t participating as much in the live shows, but he’s on some of our recordings. Black Space has a really special place in my heart. It’s as much about the music as it supporting this wonderful human being doing great things in the world.
AD: Elle is super inspiring in the way they’re willing to share perspectives on a lot of important topics. Is that music going to come out any time soon? It feels like it’s been lingering in the background for a few years.
Markus Floats: We’ve been hammering away at this album for about a year now, and it’s still in the mixing phase. If we’re able to meet at some point this year, I’m guessing it will be out by the end of 2020. There are a bunch of overdubs to be done and decisions to be made, but the songs are recorded.
AD: You also sing in the punk band Neighbour’s Guitar. How has that felt to return to the kind of music you made as a teenager?
Markus Floats: It was wildly fun. I loved being in a scrappy punk band just yelling. I’m very confident in the band and the songs, but not so confident in my own vocal abilities. I guess that’s the game you play.
AD: What are the songs about?
Markus Floats: I have a weird relationship to lyrics where I don’t really listen to them. I don’t know the words to some of my favorite songs. The experience of writing them for the first time was a little bizarre. I would write them and then figure out later what they were about. It was the same kind of Adbusters-y, anti-capitalist vibe. Shit’s fucked up, and we should do something about it. We talked about getting a little couple song demo out, but only time will tell.
AD: Throughout this whole time, you’ve also made solo experimental music as Markus Floats. How did you first become interested in that?
Markus Floats: At first I just started fiddling around with GarageBand and Audacity, getting interested in sounds and seeing what I could record. I’ve kind of been doing Markus Floats since I started learning bass, in one form or another, but it’s only been formalized in the last 5-6 years. It’s definitely just one of those bedroom projects that at a certain point, I was like, “oh, this is kind of good!”
AD: What were your influences when you first started?
Markus Floats: At that point, I think I was just listening to a lot of Christian Fennesz and going full noise-ish. The way I’ve been trying to describe it is that my favorite genre is “I’ve never heard anything like this before.” So I’ve just been trying to capture that in my own music.
AD: Has your process of making music changed since studying in the electroacoustic program at Concordia?
Markus Floats: It’s definitely become more streamlined and less precious. At this point I’ll just sit down at a keyboard and hammer out three or four different ideas, even if it’s just 10 seconds of the sound. I’ll save that, close it, and come back to it in a couple of months to see if it’s anything worthwhile. That kind of runs parallel with my painting, or at least I can see the parallels. Now that I know the materials a bit better I can work on it in a different way. It’s no longer a struggle to get the paint on the thing.
AD: What kinds of field samples did you look for to integrate into your music?
Markus Floats: I honestly try to avoid them because I feel like they can be distracting. I work mostly with synthesizers, so throwing in natural sounds can take you out of it a bit. The samples I’m using on Third Album are old, old sounds I recorded on my cellphone when I was still in school. They’re a collection of things that had a certain quality to them. Nothing in particular.
AD: When you come back to things like that after a few months, does it feel like a process of reworking them in a new context?
Markus Floats: The way I think about it is setting the groundwork and then filling in the details later. I never really know if the groundwork is worth working on. Through experience I’ve realized that a lot of the things you think are terrible are good, and a lot of the things you think are good are terrible. You just muse over it with time and distance in between. Like, should I spend 50 hours working on this track or just forget about it forever?
AD: The song titles on your new album all describe a feeling of forward movement, and I can hear that reflected in the synth arpeggios. Did you go into creating the collection of songs with that concept in mind, or did that come together after?
Markus Floats: The process I’m describing happened with these tracks as well. Some of them are from two years ago, and some of them I decided halfway through the idea that this would be an album. I guess I was in an arpeggio mood for about a year and a half, and I’m not sure if I still am. Looking back, it was like “oh, these all fit together in a certain way.”
AD: So far your full-length releases have been called First Album, Second Album, and Third Album. I like that because it kind of demystifies the idea of each one being a grand statement and more of just a documentation of where you are at each time. Is that how you think about it too?
Markus Floats: For sure. There’s this expression, “you have your whole life to write your first album, and a year to write your second.” I’ve always felt miffed by that sentiment because you have your whole life to write all of your albums. So just number them! The way I like to think about it is that each individual album isn’t that important. Prince has, what, 30 albums? Most of them are terrible, but you just keep pumping it out because that’s what you do. You’re a musician, so you make music.
AD: Do you think about paintings the same way? Like, continually just painting based on where your head is at that day?
Markus Floats: Yeah, basically. The painting itself is less important than… painting. The music itself is less important than making music.
AD: You’ve talked about being surprised that pop is still the dominant style of music that we as a society listen to, and hope that one day your own music can express the zeitgeist. Do you think it could be possible for all of us to move towards a more abstracted sound as a primary form of entertainment?
Markus Floats: I struggled about that idea that I’m putting out into the world in the press release for this album. Obviously I do love pop music. I love a fuckin’ boppin’ song. I think what I really meant is this. Do you remember listening to Rebecca Black’s “Friday”? This is what songs sound like. How are we still OK with listening to “It’s Friday” in different iterations for the rest of time? Maybe it’s just a shortsighted thing, and sometimes I feel like I’m missing the point about what a lot of people find appealing about music. I just don’t get it.
AD: What would the ideal futuristic pop song sound like to you?
Markus Floats: I was really excited about PC Music when it started, but it turned out to be kind of a one-trick pony. It just seems like you can make anything you want and it’s music. You just have to find the audience or create the audience.
AD: Is there anyone you’re listening to now who you think is pushing music forward in a unique way?
Markus Floats: Body Meat synthesizes a lot of different kinds of music into one. It’s sort of a deconstruction, reconstruction project of taking different parts of genres and putting them together in this really clever way, I think. The thing I really want is attention in songs. I want people to think about all of the different sounds they’re using.
AD: You mentioned that you don’t like field samples because they can distract from what you’re doing, but I also understand your live performances integrate spoken word recordings from the Black literary canon. Why is that important for you, and what do you think it does to enhance the experience?
Markus Floats: I think part of it is just giving audience something to hold onto, because a live performance for me is just sitting behind a laptop on a stage. It’s not the most engaging thing. I wanted there to be a message that conveys something dear to me. I guess that’s what lyrics are, so is this is my version of lyrics, but not quite. I started doing it and just kept doing it.
AD: What kinds of spoken word recordings have you used?
Markus Floats: I started off with the Langston Hughes poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers, just because I really loved it. I’ve used some of Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. I’ve also been trying to tweak these recordings of Huey Newton. It’s just whatever seems topical. If you’re going to be on a stage, you should try to say something important.