On beasts, sandwiches, and rocking out: A conversation with MAITA
On I Just Want to Be Wild For You, the sophomore album of Portland-based indie-rocker MAITA (Maria Maita-Keppler), there’s a buzzy energy that lends itself to both introspection as well as liberating rock-out jams.
Songs like the cold album opener “Loneliness,” the observant “Blue Has Gone Gray,” and the witty “Light Of My Life (Cell Phone Song),” showcase how Maita-Keppler’s lyrics read like secret diary entries, reminiscent of the other fellow Pacific Northwest singer-songwriters that have influenced her work. And on others, like “Pastel Concrete” and “You Sure Can Kill A Sunday Pt. I & II,” MAITA’s indie rock sensibilities lead to upbeat rock-out moments on the dancefloor. That duality, which first caught our attention on her fantastic debut album Best Wishes, continues to work its magic throughout her second project.
At this year’s SXSW festival, we managed to catch Maria Maita-Keppler at the festival — where we asked her about the new album, how the idea of the music video “beast” came to be, and of course, what her sandwich of choice is.
How are you enjoying your SXSW experience so far?
Well, I’ve never been to South By before. This is the first time. And I have to say, it’s a lot nicer than I was expecting. Like, I was expecting it to be fun, but really wild. Just people everywhere, kind of an assault on all the senses. I’m actually finding that it’s really manageable. I heard it was mellow this year, and everyone’s really nice. All of our shows have been really fun, well-attended, with sweet, good crowds. So I’m happy!
What is it like performing these songs in front of an audience again?
It’s really fun. We actually performed a lot of the songs on the pandemic record before we released them, so this really felt like a brand new start to have all these songs that we had never touched before live. Learning a whole new album along with being on tour for the first time was a little disorienting, but you know, I think the challenge was welcomed by everyone. Might as well, like, dive in.
Do you have a favorite that you like to play while you’re on tour?
I mean, our favorites kind of rotate. We like to close on our big single from our last record, “A Beast.” That one always just feels so good. And then, I just really like playing all the new songs, you know? They’re all really fun to play.
I’ve listened to the record through a few times, and it can get pretty energetic! I can already imagine what the crowd is like when you pull some of those songs out.
Oh, yeah! Part I and II of “You Sure Can Kill A Sunday” are so fun to play. We have a lot of fun with that one.
So you actually have a song on the record called “Road Song,” and it kind of talks about the experiences that you have on the road… kind of like the Groundhog Day for being on tour. What is it like experiencing that again, and does it still hold true?
Well, I definitely haven’t reached that point of boredom at all, with touring. Because it has been so long, and I kind of fell right into the rhythm of it. And it doesn’t feel… I never got tired of that! At this point, it’s so fresh still, and getting to meet new people and getting to play the show is such a novelty that I don’t feel too weary.
What was it like putting I Just Want To Be Wild For You together? What were the influences behind it and what kind of media were you consuming throughout its conception?
I’m trying to think if I was consuming any certain kind of media — I think for me, the record was really influenced by relationships around me. Kind of like digging in from a therapeutic standpoint of like, why is something not working between two people. Or between yourself and your inner-self. And trying to figure out the reason for that, and then making a song out of it, or exploring that disconnect. I think that’s a really interesting place to start, because it’s filled with passion and tension, and unresolved emotion.
Throughout the album, there are so many places that your lyrics explore — Kyoto, the seaside, the road, other peoples’ homes. Was this intentional, especially since the record was released during a period of lockdown for most people?
Yeah, well, actually these songs… I wrote all of them before the pandemic, and we had just recorded it right before the pandemic. So we worked on the final overdub during it, but the songs were already all written. I’m very nostalgic of places with a lot of meaning to me, and I remember emotions that are attached to places really well. So I feel like a good place to start is going back to your memory and thinking of a time when you felt a certain intense feeling, and then kind of unfolding the world around you a bit — thinking about where you were at the time. And by exploring those memories through that space in your mind, like the city that I used to live in, you can unlock more and more feelings that you had forgotten.
Will we be expecting like, an Austin, Texas song in the near future?
I don’t know! I mean, honestly this has been such a whirlwind. I haven’t had a chance to get a sense of the city when it’s not South By, and I think South By is a lot. And I actually find that I’m less inspired to write when I’m around a lot of music. Because your brain gets filled with other people’s music so you don’t have as much of a chance to think of your own poetry and your own ideas of how objects around you can be in songs.
Maybe years down the line…
I want to come back! I want to come back and experience Austin at a different time and have a little bit of a more introspective time here. This is definitely like a wild ride.
I also wanted to talk about your music videos — what was it like creating beasts in the MAITA universe, and where did the idea come from?
What happened was we worked, the last video that was released, “Where Do You Go?” was directed by a good friend Luke Borsten, and then he came up with the concept of this video. He hired his friend, Clifton Chandler, to design the puppets of a dream beast, which is one of the main puppets in it. And then what ended up happening was, I wanted to make a video for “Loneliness,” which needed a physical personification of the concept of loneliness. I was like, I could make it, but I know exactly could make it and do a great job. So we just ended up hiring Clifton again. That just kind of ended up happening out of convenience, I guess, and it was awesome.
I do have to say that that beast in “Loneliness” is terrifying, and I’m going to be seeing it in my dreams.
Yeah, it turned out to be a little sinister, but I like that. I like a little bit of sinister energy.
I want to know a little bit about the PNW. How has location and identity shaped the sound of your music?
Being in Oregon… so I grew up in Eugene, Springfield area. Which, there wasn’t a lot to do in Eugene, especially in terms of music. There’s not a big scene for all-ages venues, which is kind of the case in a lot of places. I think that when you get anyone who grows up in a small town, especially since I’m kind of an introvert, I just had a lot of time to work on songwriting. I was really inspired by a lot of the Pacific Northwest artists, like Elliott Smith, or the Decemberists, or all the artists in Oregon and Washington who were making a lot of amazing folk music in the early 2000s. So I think the shadow of that is kind of what helped inspire me, I would say. And the winters are really good for songwriting, because you feel very in-your-shell and you want to just kind of dig in.
And my Japanese part of my identity was very, very present growing up. Because I went to a Japanese immersion school, so I had a lot of Japanese friends. And then my parents got divorced when I was nine, so my mom’s house was a fully Japanese household and my dad’s house was a fully American household. So it was cool because one didn’t take over the other. You’re kind of both experiences. And so I felt like I ended up having a lot of very Japanese tendencies, culturally that I think do make it into my songs. I feel like it has helped make me into a more open-minded person, just because when you have two very different cultures that you already have a very deep understanding of and empathy with, it makes you more receptive to another set of culture, and adaptable. Another set of values, because you already know what it’s like to hold multiple worlds in one body.
I think with my songwriting, it makes me a storyteller for those reasons. Japanese culture can be a little restrained, and a little bit… very, very polite, and it takes a while to start talking about very intimate things with strangers. And I definitely have had that a lot growing up, and I ended up bottling up a lot of my emotions inside of me. Which was great, because when songwriting made itself available to me as a medium, I kind of like ran with it. And it was this amazing world, and I don’t think that I would’ve had that same reaction to it if I hadn’t already been experiencing this feeling of “I need somewhere to put thoughts and feelings.” Music became this amazing avenue for that, and so I fell in love with that. That contributed to my passion of music.
For your previous album cycle, you released a number of woodblock prints on your Bandcamp alongside the album release. Are we going to be seeing the same thing again for this album?
I wish they were actually woodblock prints! I drew them and I ended up getting them hand-printed by this amazing printing press, Icon Artistry, by Connie Wang in Portland. I worked there for a little while, she’s amazing.
But basically, we released this record and we weren’t gonna tour on [Best Wishes], obviously, because it was during the pandemic. It was just kind of sad to have all this work be put into an album and then it kind of dies because you’re not actually replaying these songs for new audiences. And I thought that one of the best ways to maybe honor the album was to make this illustrated album that I could release day by day, kind of almost like I’m on tour.
Every song basically has a print attached to it, where I capture some of the lyrics or some of the feeling of the song. I was not prepared for how many I would sell! I was really pleasantly surprised. And even on tour, we have some extras. The box-sets were sold out, but I’ve been selling them on tour and people are into them. It’s really cool.
Will we be seeing any for your current album cycle?
Definitely, yeah. I’m still working through it. I’m trying to figure out… I want it to feel similar, but I also want it to be slightly different stylistically. We’ll see if I can pull that off.
I know that on your Instagram, you and your bandmates are trying to see how many sandwiches you all can eat during this leg of your tour. What’s your favorite sandwich type, and how many have you had thus far on this trip?
So, we did sandwiches because for the earlier part of tour we did tacos, and then we all got sick of tacos so we had to change it. Sandwiches are fun because they’re very diverse. You can eat a lot of different kinds of sandwiches. And, you know, it’s very expensive being at South By, so we’ve been making a lot of sandwiches at our Airbnb and that’s really contributing to our count. So we’re at, like, 18 sandwiches right now in like three days.
We vastly underestimated, I think, how many sandwiches we would eat. But, you gotta love a Austin BBQ sandwich with coleslaw on it. So good.
Other than that, I love banh mi. I’ll eat a million banh mi in Portland all the time, because we live right by the historically Vietnamese neighborhood… so a lot of banh mi sandwiches.
What are you looking forward to for the rest of the festival?
Let me try to think about what I was most looking forward to before I came here. I guess it was just seeing it for the first time! You hear so much about it. It’s got this presence to it and it just feels like this very big thing that it’s an experience that you have to go through as a musician. I was just really looking forward to that and finally doing it. It’s a little bit surreal, but it’s been really lovely and it has exceeded our expectations for sure.
I played the “Women That Rock” Showcase today, and there were so many good bands there. I was very, very impressed with their lineup. Every band I’d never heard of, and every band was some of my favorite music I’ve heard. I think we heard Weakened Friends, Lunar Vacation… and it’s just great.
This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu, in-person at SXSW 2022 in Austin, Texas in March of 2022.
I Just Want To Be Wild For You is out now on major streaming platforms via Kill Rock Stars. Press photos by Tristan Paiige.
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!