Bognor photo by Matt Sanders
In this series I interview the musicians who lent their talents to the Picket Line soundtrack, many of them comics enthusiasts and storytellers in their own right. Portland Oregon’s Luke Mahan splits his time: making music with his solo project Bognor, and making comics under his umbrella Selfish Steam. Bognor wrote the song “Don’t Go There” for the Picket Line soundtrack. He joined me on G-chat to talk about self-publishing, forming bands, and the aquatic craze that is flooding the nation.
B: First question. Who is Bognor?
Luke: Well, Bognor consists of everyone within its township, currently a population of 22,555 which is a nice round number.
B: Haha! Bognor England, right? Your native land.
Luke: Yes. But it is also me. My solo project, which I do eventually want to turn into a band, but as of right now, it’s just me making music in my bedroom. I like to describe it as a mix of, like, Grandaddy, Built To Spill, and Sparklehorse. Or at least, that’s the goal. I’m sure people hear more sort of Bon Iver and Sufjan things. I don’t know. It’s folky with a lot of electronic elements and synthesizers. Though the next record will probably be R&B.
B: That seems like a natural progression for you.
Luke: Right, maybe I’ll father the folk-rap movement.
B: So, I started out asking about Bognor, but I feel like this interview could go lots of directions. Between your music, and your comics, primarily, because you’re involved with multiple projects with both.
Luke: It’s true, but it all ties in at the end, so go where your heart leads.
B: Okay, well let’s keep going with music for now. Since this is all tied into the soundtrack project initially.
Luke: That’s appropriate.
B: You wrote “Don’t Go There” specifically for the soundtrack. What was that experience like? First of all, writing for a book, but also one you hadn’t read yet?
Luke: Haha, yes. Well, most of my songs have some sort of nature/technology theme anyway, so it was quite natural. I knew I wanted to write a song about water again, and I had written this line years and years ago (seriously, like 6 or 7 years) that said “Nothing grows there anymore, so we don’t go there anymore.” I knew your book was about environmental causes and trees, and so that seemed like a perfect fit. We were considering using the track “I Am Not Water” from my album for the soundtrack, and this song is somewhat ironically a response to that song. Everyone knows we’re all made of a huge amount of water, but what that song presupposes is, maybe we aren’t? But the song that went on the soundtrack kind of says “Okay, maybe I am.”
B: Water and whiskey, anyway.
Luke: Exactly. Whiskey is awesome. There’s this scene in Brian Cox’s ‘Wonder of the solar system’ where he talks about arctic ice and says how brilliant it tastes in whiskey. “Death or whiskey; that’s my kind of pond.” I am convinced that lead to that line (“Whiskey rivers in my system sterilize them and the sun’s afraid to show / to show what I should know.”)
B: Yeah, the song has some darkness to it. Maybe death crept in also?
Luke: Yeah, most of my songs are pretty sentimentally introspective. I think despite my shiny exterior, there’s some dark stuff. I guess that’s where it comes out. It’s more positive than it appears, it’s more like “Hey, there’s some dark stuff in my head and it’s not very productive or helpful, so let’s not even go there.”
B: Well, music has always seemed like a healthy outlet for that stuff.
B: You mentioned this is a solo project, but when you played your songs at the Picket Line release party you had a band.
Luke: Yeah, I hate playing music by myself, especially since my songs are really boring with just a guitar and a voice. On the record, even though the songs at the party didn’t sound anything like it, there are tons of layers of keyboards and percussion and guitars. It’s meant to be texture-based, and not so focused on “technical ability” or “talent.” This record I’ve been referring to, for those who don’t know, is a full length I released in 2008.
B: That’s Breatharian right?
Luke: Breatharian! That’s right. You can download it for free at bognor.bandcamp.com. I played all the instruments and all, because I’m AMAZING. Just kidding. I want to have a permanent band eventually, I just leave everything to the last second, so I bribed some friends the week before the show to be a power trio with me.
B: So, your song-making process right now is very personal, as in you can do it all yourself on your own timeline and make all the creative decisions. How would having a band change that process for you?
Luke: I wouldn’t have to do all the work. And I’d play more than one show a year… the problem is that, yeah, when it’s on my timeline, I take forever to record because for some reason I refuse to overdub. Everything you hear was done in one take.
B: Doesn’t it scare you to give up some of that creative control, though?
Luke: No, I need someone or someones to filter the bad ideas and probably motivate me. And provide more creative input and come up with cool stuff. My ideas get old to me. My bass player at that show is a veteran, and he really kept rehearsals on track. I’m terrible at time management.
B: So, any interested musicians who are reading this, take note!
Luke: Srsly! I think I have most of my band picked out already though.
B: So what’s the holdup?
Luke: Uhhhhm, well I guess, as you noted, I do a lot of creative type things, and right now I’m more occupied with the visual stuff. And I’m tired of all my old songs, so I’m gonna do some writing and recording before I start trying to book shows (another headache) and find practice space.
B: Let’s talk more about those visual projects! Because you, too, draw comics.
Luke: Trewth. I’m mostly making my favorite, longest-running and strangest one: Orcaskine. Because it’s very easy to make, and I enjoy it. I also plan to resume my journal comic and my comic about being a barista (Baristocracy). And I’m excited about a one-panel venture I’m making called Everything In Moderation, which is also the name of my first comic and another one I tried. But it’s more about science, the cosmos and archaeology.
B: That’s quite a diverse lot of projects you’ve got going on there. You mentioned Orcaskine takes priority, in a way. How did that comic get its start?
Luke: It’s funny, like seven years ago I bought a Moleskine “comic and storyboarding” notebook on a whim. Half of it has four tiny panels per page, and I was like “What should I draw a comic of?” The Orca was the first thing I drew, and it remains exactly the same to this day, except with more accurate Orca biology.
B: What’s the benefit of working within such firm parameters like that? Because each comic is the same format, and really, the drawings in most panels don’t change.
Luke: I’ve always been a firm believer in the idea that limitations force creativity, and I’ve had a lot of fun with that. It also is a nice enduring gimmick that I like, one, because it’s small, and two, because I don’t have to make it look really nice. It’s always drawn pen-first, so there’s no do-overs. I think it helps with consistency too. It’s not quite so limiting as a Dinosaur Comics, which is literally the same picture in every panel, for years and years. But it’s not totally open format either, and I’m terrible with decisions.
B: Haha, but you make decisions about the pacing of the the jokes. Do you think it’s refined your comedic timing?
Luke: It’s funny you say that, because in a way, it’s screwed that up for me. With Orcaskine, if there is a punchline, it’s almost never at the end of the strip. The funniest bit is usually in the second or third panels. It’s incredibly self-serving, but it’s also resonated most with other people whose sense of humour is similarly twisted as mine. That, and people just love a good killer-whale.
B: Yeah, you’ve really tapped into a current love of all things aquatic.
Luke: “Selfish Stream.” You’ve always known that about me, even before you did. (Luke is referencing a mistake I commonly make where I refer to his name Selfish Steam as Selfish Stream.)
B: Haha, yes, and even your SONGS are about water! So do you foresee any crossover between your own comics and music projects? Now that you’ve been a part of a crossover between your music and my comics?
Luke: Only in the most literal sense, like drawing journal comics where I’m playing or recording. The worlds definitely overlap though, as far as self-publishing comics and self-publishing music. Putting together album art is really informed by the same aesthetics and physical tools. My friend Kait drew a one panel comic of me which I used in the album art for Breatharian. But I don’t know if I see myself creating content that overlaps much. Although I’ll almost certainly steal your comic/soundtrack idea.
B: Ha, go ahead, I stole it from others, I’m sure!
Luke: I’ll have my Orcaskine collection to release soon. I’ll do it then. I’m working on publishing all my creative efforts on my website. That’s like the hub. The site’s not done yet, but it’s where all my comics urls go to.
B: Yeah, talk a little about self publishing. Like you said, you put your own comics and music out, and of course you put them online.
Luke: It’s just the easiest way to get your output to a lot of people at one time. The internet, I mean. I think people will always value having physical objects such as books, especially in the comics world. The entire economic model for releasing music has changed, so getting on a label isn’t that important unless you’re touring and need a lot of money. This way, it’s virtually cost-free.
B: So for internet publishing it makes sense, but what about when it comes time to making those physical objects? That gets to be an expensive endeavor.
Luke: I really enjoy making objects like my Orcaskine books. I think the fact that they get bought means people value that as well. I guess that’s what I mean as far as self-publishing: making your stuff as you normally would, put it online for free so people can see it, and they will support you and make it fiscally viable if what you do resonates with them.
B: So your online fan base pretty well funds your production line?
Luke: I don’t have any experience putting out anything that costs more than a pittance, so I can’t speak to that really. But as far as my production line goes, I would say it gets funded. I don’t have a cohesive shop online right now though, so it doesn’t happen as much as it should, or could. I guess it’s all just theoretical for me right now. I mean, putting out a book like yours, really high quality and physically, pretty big, something to be super proud of… it’s hard to get that sort of thing funded, and hopefully that’s something I will have to tackle at some point.
B: There’s always Kickstarter.
Luke: There’s always Kickstarter. I have my own issues with that, which maybe aren’t fully formed in my head. But I think that’s a phenomenal way to get people involved and also get some money. It annoys me when bands use it to fund their albums, but that’s it.
B: You do have aspirations to put out a bigger work, then? Like, a graphic novel? Or like you were saying, a collection of other comics?
Luke: Yeah, I’m going to make a really nice collection of my first 200 Orcaskine comics with bonuses and sketches and stuff. I’m terrible at writing stories, so probably not a proper book. I might kill Orcaskine at that point. I really like books. I like how they feel and look and smell. I want to have something like that that I’ve made out there in the world. And I think it’ll make people laugh.
B: What comics do you like?
Luke: Let’s see… I like Overcompensating a lot. Wigu was one of my first webcomics. I think, though, that Nedroid might be my favorite. It’s always so funny, and really cute and simple, but you can tell the dude has great drawing chops. But doesn’t go overboard. It’s really well designed. I’m way more into funny strips than serious things or soaps. Although I read the Comics Curmudgeon every day. It’s a blog that kind of lampoons a select bunch of newspaper dailies, which are all terrible. Your Mary Worth, Spider Man, etc. I mean, Calvin and Hobbes is the biggest, best comic out there for probably most creators. Gary Larson was massively formative for me. Family Circus, which was maybe or maybe not something I read a lot of when I was like six.
B: Family Circus is one of your favorite comics?
Luke: Haha yes, in a way. In that it truly is terrible and so old and incomprehensible most of the time. It’s an interesting study in the timeline of comics.
B: Yeah. And who didn’t love following Jeffy’s dotted path around the neighborhood?
Luke: Exactly! If you take a bike light that is flashing and run around in front of a camera with its shutter open at night, you can recreate that dotted line in real life.
B: I’ll try that.
Luke: I don’t know, comics as a medium has always been… just magnetic for me. I’ve never been able to avoid it, and when people started putting them on the internet, I was like “Yes, this is for me.”
B: That’s awesome… so I hate to ask you this, but if you HAD to choose between music and comics…
Luke: Oh boy, haha. Ummmmmm. Okay, I assume you mean making music or making comics, not listening to music or reading comics?
Luke: Actually, that’s a very hard question. My gut is just to say I’d take music, but thinking about it, I think comics could offer more recognition somehow? Or more economic viability? At least, I do comics more these days than music, and music stresses me out more I think. Gosh, it’s really hard. Any time previously in life, I’d say music no question. I’ll go with my gut. Music.
B: Haha, it’s really not a fair question anyway, so good job. I mean, you don’t have to choose, and you shouldn’t have to. And really, the two probably do influence each other, at the very least in that you’re flexing your creativity, no matter which one you’re using.
Luke: Exactly. Thank you for not making me choose for realsies. That would have been… upsetting.
B: Actually, it was for real. NO MORE COMICS FOR YOU!
B: On that note… any final words? Before your career, uh, I mean this interview, is over?
Luke: Hahaha. Well, I will note that I filmed myself this entire time. So we can post an incredibly boring hour long video of my typing responses to you. Which, like, three people will think is really funny.
B: Hahaha yessss, bonus footage!
Luke: Really though, I want to say thank you for letting me talk about myself for so long without feeling like a jerk. Cuz I do that anyway, just usually people don’t want me to, haha.
B: But of course! I find it interesting, and I am sure my readers will also. I insist that they do. I command it.
Luke: Awesome. I’m going to steal them. You know, that’s the rad thing about comics is that we can share readers, and encourage all our followers to get into our friends’ and colleagues’ creations without a feeling of competition. And there’s such an incredible variety, always something new. Keep doing what you’re doing!
B: Exactly! Go team!