Justin Mazer is a NEPA native currently residing in Philadelphia, PA with a laundry list of projects he’s contributed to throughout his musical career: American Babies, Gatos Blancos, Starbird, and Ryan Montblau Band, to name a few. He’s shared onstage collaborations with iconic artists such as Bob Weir, Jim Lauderdale, Oteil Burbridge, Erik Deutsch, and Steve Kimock.
Early this April, Mazer released a pair of albums to the world without any prior announcement or general “hype-build” we’re all used to seeing—a choice that may coincide with his lengthy break from social media throughout the course of the pandemic. This is the first of his own music to be recorded and released.
We get into what all of that felt like, dug deep into each of his releases, Controlled Burn and Discourse, talked NEPA and what lies ahead this summer on the phone one evening.
Since I know it’s been years in the making, we can start with Controlled Burn. Can you give me a bit of a timeline for the album?
Conception dates back to either 2017 or 2018 when I was still living in Burlington, Vermont. I had about a batch of about five or six songs that had similar musical qualities that I knew I wanted to, at some point, make into an EP or album. I ended up moving back to Philadelphia, PA in 2018, where I stumbled upon Writtenhouse Records, a studio in South Philly. It’s a small kind of hole-in-the-wall, one-or-two-man operation in the basement of an old high school. I went there to do an impromptu recording session with a couple of friends, and when I stepped foot inside of that studio, I knew I had to record this thing there.
I pleaded with the “gatekeeper” of the studio, and he was into the idea. Recording got underway later in the year, around July. We took our time. It was just me and one other person, who was the engineer, working on it. One song at a time. One track at a time. We would bring in some different drummers. Ultimately the whole recording process took about nine months or so.
I suppose one other thing worth mentioning about Controlled Burn is that it was originally poised for release right around this time one year ago. Naturally, when the pandemic struck, I decided to bookshelf that for a little bit. Also right around that time, I was really entertaining the thought of releasing multiple albums at once, but I didn’t necessarily think it was possible to do that to the quality that I wanted with the time restraints that I was putting on myself. So because of the pandemic, I was actually able to go through and do my original goal.
What more were you able to add to Controlled Burn during that time in lockdown?
I basically condensed it a bit. There were a couple of other recorded songs that we decided to ax, we added a few melodies, and just went back and fine-tuned everything. I think it was a blessing in disguise. I was putting this deadline on the album because I had two or three shows booked last April, and I was putting a lot of effort into getting those shows booked and confirmed ….so when shows started getting canceled, I knew I should spend that time working on the release.
Those axed songs, did they make it over to Discourse, or are they on the back burner for right now?
I recorded three or four albums worth of stuff over the pandemic summer of last year. Some of the songs that got cut from Controlled Burn, as well as Discourse, are in that batch of reserves, which I’m not quite sure if or when I’ll release. With Controlled Burn and Discourse, there’s a larger, broader concept in terms of how the songs are all arranged. Releasing those songs will be based on trying to see where I could fit them songs into a larger scope of an album arrangement.
So, Controlled Burn was created amidst all these different states, studios, and environments, and then Discourse was the polar opposite—being made almost solely in your room while in lockdown. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Discourse was largely derived from a couple of pieces that I had worked on early in the pandemic and workshopped a little bit with a few of the live streams. The songs are based around different layers, loops, and improvisations. [I was] really taking my time to play around with these couple of different ideas. A lot of the stuff started out with just me on guitar looping a couple of different things more in an ambient style.
I got really into arranging songs based on that. And a lot of the songs on Discourse were me starting with an ambient loop and then adding chords, a melody later, and then naturally adding drums—making it into more of a full-fledged song.
Discourse is a collection of a lot of those pieces as well as this larger progressive rock piece, if you want to call it that. The Darien Gap is divided into three tracks. I entertained the thought of just having one long track on the album, but there are so many movements throughout that I thought that I would shortchange it if I put it in as one piece.
You also totally unplugged from social media during this time. How did that your artistic process?
It was prior to the pandemic that I was thinking about taking a long social media break…or trying to. Obviously, it’s really challenging to do that, continue to play music, and expect people to know what you’re doing or where you’re playing. So what better time to do that than when everyone stuck in their houses? No one’s doing anything.
I deleted all social media from my phone, and within a couple of days, I forgot it even existed.
I am already a huge anti-social media person. I believe it preys on vulnerabilities and weaknesses. If you take all that out of the equation, it enabled me to get into a particular flow-state where I had no outside forces or distractions that affected what I was trying to do.
As a result, I think Discourse is very honest: I’m not trying to sound like anything other than myself because I had closed myself off from the rest of the world. That wasn’t calculated with recording the music, it just happened that way. I didn’t expect to go into that zone. I just did. It was like I had these ideas, and time didn’t really matter until I finished them.
That’s funny that you mention an authentic type of control with Discourse because one of the questions I have is that you’re in so many different projects where you’re contributing to more of a band dynamic. How did it feel to have total creative control over something that’s just all yours?
It’s very different when you’re in an original project with other people, to whatever extent, because unless it’s your name on it, you’re going to be dealing with some degree of multiple ideas, coming from multiple people—which is great. Quite frankly, I really enjoy the role of accompanying singer-songwriters, playing in bands, and things of that sort.
But, you know, this is something I haven’t really had the time to invest in thus far in my musical journey. Part of it for me was exciting, but another part felt like I’m playing catch-up with some of these ideas I’ve had for the last couple of years. I felt like when you first started playing an instrument: it’s so exciting because you’re learning so many things so quickly.
What in particular did you pick up when you had this time to be by yourself and work on these things? And what hobbies outside of music did you start to fool around with too?
Thirteen years ago, when I graduated high school, I did study audio engineering for a couple of years, but I had to dust off the cobwebs of recording and engineering. I knew it was still in my brain somewhere, I had to take a little bit of time to reteach myself that. That was one big thing.
I recorded bass here and there, but to get back into it enough to play bass on my own stuff took a little bit of practice. It also took some confidence to be able to record bass and feel good about it. You’ll find on these albums there’s not a lot of guitar solos, which perhaps some people were not expecting, but I was also thinking about it in terms of arranging. That, to me, is something I haven’t really had the opportunity to do.
Outside of music, I have a history of long-distance running. I was fairly competitive in high school and college, and I was a coach for many years. Because of touring and traveling, it was challenging to adhere to more of a regimented training routine.
When the pandemic struck, [running] was the one thing that really kept my mental health at bay. It fueled the long-form concentration that was required to complete the larger undertaking of trying to record and release multiple albums at the same time. If you’re out running ten miles or longer, you really need to train your brain to go into a certain zone. It was this figure-eight where the concentration from the music was fueling that of running, and vice versa. It was really a saving grace for me.
We’ve talked a lot about you, but I know there have been some key contributors to more Controlled Burned, but both albums. Are there any people that you’d like to talk about a little bit more?
The first person that comes to mind would be the gentleman who helped me mix produce and produce both albums, Marc Friedman. He is the bassist who played on a couple of the tracks on Controlled Burn, a friend of mine, and also a bandmate of mine [Ryan Montbleau Band]. I am a fan of him as a musician and some of the bands he used to play in, such as The Slip.
I had a lot of music, and I had to get it mixed and mastered in one shot. I wasn’t sure how long it was going to take, but he was up for the challenge. It turned into three months total to get through everything. Marc would add subtle percussion, synth, help me with arrangement ideas, and add little things here and there to allow certain sections to pop in the way that they should. I don’t think it would have been possible for me to get these both done in a timely manner if we didn’t buckle down last winter.
The other would be Mike Vivas, who is the engineer of Writtenhouse Records. His engineering ability mixed with his musical sensibility, and that allowed me to get in there and feel comfortable. I have a tendency to go into a studio with more of a caffeinated frenzy. He brought my speed down to the point where we were chipping away at it slowly, and I didn’t put a deadline on it. I knew we would get it done, and I settled into that. It was a relaxed approach.
I think that’s the only way to get stuff of quality done. You know, you could hear it. And I’ve done sessions, even recently, with bands going into the studio where you have people traveling from all over to record ten songs in three days, or else you fail. And that’s cool, too: to put that pressure on yourself, but when you’re recording instrumental music, it requires time.
I could totally hear that reflected, especially in Discourse. It unravels naturally. I like to think of Discourse as almost like a dream sequence, particularly from track three on. It takes you on a journey drops you off gently at its end.
A lot of this stuff would be these happy accidents that I would land on late at night, and I don’t know what I did because I was improvising. I’d have to go back and try to teach myself something I played. I didn’t know what I was playing, which is like the hardest thing to do.
Do you have anything coming up?
A couple of shows are trickling in here and there. I’ll be out west in August playing a couple of festivals with my buddy Brad Parsons.
May 1st I’ll be at Turkey Hill Brewing in Bloomsburg, PA for their 10 Year Anniversary Celebration.
May 7th I’ll be performing with a band called the Philadelphia Tom Petty Appreciation Band. It’s at this wonderful venue in North Philly called Sunflower Philly, which is a hidden gem music venue in the city.
In July, I’ll be at Brigg’s Farm Blues Festival in Nescopeck, PA. I think that’s the best music festival in NEPA. I’ll be playing Thursday, July 8th with Mike Miz and Friday the 9th with Pappy (of Cabinet).
Other than that, I’m trying to finish a third album as we speak, and I’m hellbent on doing that as quickly as I can. And, you know, if all goes well, I would like to get four albums out this year.
I don’t think we’ll ever have this kind of time again to do whatever it is that we want to do, and I’m just happy I could look back on the pandemic here and say with full confidence that I did not I didn’t waste a single day.
Okay… last thing, top three favorite things about NEPA!
- Pizza (Sabatini’s)
- The outdoors. My family’s farm that I grew up on is 40 acres of just woods and fields. Part of the album artwork for Discourse is based on these beautiful summer days when I would go on a hike and end up in a field looking at the clouds with headphones on.
- My music friends. I still have so many great friends that I still connect with and play music with from NEPA. I just mentioned this to someone a couple of days ago, a lot of these people I’ve been playing with for a decade or longer now, so it really hit a new chapter of friendship. I’m really thankful that they’re still around and we can make music together.