Chances are, you know who Mark Stoermer is, even if you think you don’t. Since he’s the bassist for The Killers, one of the most well-known rock bands of the 2000s, you’ve surely heard his atmospheric riffs through your stereo. That’s not his only musical endeavor, though—he’s also produced some intriguing solo work, including his latest album, Filthy Apes and Lions. The record is a wild psychedelic journey full of unique instruments, interesting allusions, and poetic lyrics. (There are also a few animal sounds mixed in there, as the title would suggest.)
We at The Young Folks recently had the chance to chat about Filthy Apes and Lions with Stoermer himself. The conversation was full of insight into his songwriting inspirations and creative process. Read on to hear his thoughts about everything from covers to Claymation to the current state of America.
TYF: First of all, let’s talk about your interest in the psych rock genre. How did you first get into this style of music?
Mark Stoermer: I started off with The Beatles… and then eventually [started listening to] Pink Floyd. I’ve always been attracted to a lot of the music of the ‘60s. When I was growing up as a teenager, I was listening to new music, but at the same time, more [music] from the ‘60s or ‘70s. Some of that included psych rock.
TYF: Now let’s talk about your album, Filthy Apes and Lions. The title track is based on the concept of a “surrealistic apocalyptic fantasy based in a zoo.” Can you tell me a little bit more about that concept?
Stoermer: It was something that kind of came after the fact with the lyrics. I was doing a stream-of-consciousness, surrealistic exercise where you just write out whatever’s on the top of your head, and then I started creating rhymes, not really knowing where I was going, and then that’s where I got the lyrics for the song, and after that… Let me back up, actually. I started with the title, “Filthy Apes and Lions.” And the title came from another song on the record, “Beautiful Deformities.” There’s one line that says “filthy apes and lions,” and that’s a whole other story. But to make a long story short, the title came from a line in that song. Then I randomly started writing lyrics, and eventually fine-tuned it and started creating some rhymes. And the picture that I was left with was what you just described, the apocalyptic scene in a zoo or a jungle. And then from there, we expanded upon that concept with the video. We approached Lee Hardcastle, the director, and we went back and forth about what the video should be about, and kinda expanded upon the concept. But originally, there wasn’t really a specific concept in mind.
TYF: So it just came from stream-of-consciousness, pretty much?
Stoermer: Yeah. And it developed further once we did the video. Then I also did a journal that goes along with it… I have a box set, and there’s a short story within the journal. And that’s a prequel to the video. But that all came after the song.
TYF: What happens in the prequel? Can you give the listeners a little preview of that?
Stoermer: Well, it’s kind of a fantasy behind-the-scenes look at the making of the album. And the journal/short story’s about the making of the album, but within a zoo that’s shut down. We say it’s the L.A. Zoo that doesn’t exist anymore. It’s closed down. And it’s as if we were recording in the zoo, and there’s some people there, and animals are brought back to the zoo, but experiments are being done on them, and that kind of leads to what you see in the video.
TYF: That’s really cool. So when you were coming up with the concept for the video, did you have the intention to send a message about animal rights?
Stoermer: Yes, vaguely. That was even in my mind when I was writing the lyrics—these ideas like animals having revenge on the world. It was really vague and ambiguous. But it was definitely originally in my head. And I told Lee Hardcastle, the director, that that’s what I’m thinking with the lyrics—some kind of concept where the animals fight back. And then he came up with the idea of the scientist and the magic potion and all that stuff.
TYF: How did you end up working with Lee Hardcastle on the video?
Stoermer: Just using the Internet, doing some research. I’ve always been a fan of Claymation, and I came across some of his videos and we approached him ‘cause it looked like he could do something cinematic or TV-show quality, and he was willing to take risks, and some of his Claymation is pretty outlandish, but it’s really well-done, too.
TYF: What was it like seeing yourself in Claymation?
Stoermer: It’s cool. It’s kind of a dream come true. ‘Cause as a kid, I really loved Claymation, like, from the ‘70s, and other videos… and so it was nice to see myself like that. It’s kind of funny.
TYF: One of the other songs on the album is “Dwarfish Trumpet Blues.” That one has very fantastical lyrics. What’s the story behind those?
Stoermer: Well, that’s a cover of Tyrannosaurus Rex, which is the band before T. Rex, which is Marc Bolan. And there’s two covers on the album, really. I’m not opposed to doing that sort of thing because they used to have that all the time in the ‘60s. Like, bands would include a cover. And I think it’s much different than the original, which is an acoustic, and it’s a really rough recording. And it kind of fits in thematically with the fantastical lyrics. So that’s why it’s included. There’s another Claymation video for that coming, too.
TYF: Oh, that’s exciting. How much can you tell us about that, at this point?
Stoermer: Well, that’s a different director. And it’s a different style than Lee Hardcastle. Less conceptual, more psychedelic than the “Filthy Apes and Lions” one.
TYF: Another one of the songs on the album is “Mica Rae.” Who is Mica Rae? Is that a character you created, or a literary reference?
Stoermer: It’s a character I created. The name is an anagram. You can spell America out of it. The whole concept is… it’s a little bit about the American dream and a character who embodies that, but the dark side of the American dream. And a little bit of the current state of things is in there, but in a cryptic, surrealistic way.
TYF: Another one of the more story-like songs on the album is “Nosferatu Blues.” What’s the inspiration behind that one?
Stoermer: That is basically about growing up and loving Halloween. It has a lot of references in the lyrics to real things that I was attached to as a kid. And the concept of being fascinated with vampires and those kinds of things. And even the objects that were around during Halloweentime for me as a kid. So it’s kinda a song about innocence, nostalgia, that whole thing.
TYF: The perfect song for October.
Stoermer: Yeah. I recorded it last year around this time, and I wanted to release it as a one-off, but then I ended up doing a full record, so I held off and didn’t release it till later.
TYF: There’s also a nine-minute instrumental on the album, “Muju’s Revenge.” What inspired you to make that?
Stoermer: Well, that song was recorded as a live jam last year. We had to do tons of editing. I grew up listening to a lot of jazz, Miles Davis and the album Bitches Brew, and… I don’t claim to be a jazz-level musician or anything, but that kind of early jazz fusion and prog rock was something I even listened to as a kid. And [“Muju’s Revenge”] is kind of influenced by that, but it’s probably the very dumbed-down version of that. Either way, we went for it, and I had a melody in mind, and we improvised over a theme, and we did a few takes at one in the morning in the studio, and we didn’t know what was gonna come of it, but through editing the three takes together, we were able to make what we have. For the most part, it was done mostly live with a few overdubs. I overdubbed bass and a couple solos. But other than that, the nuts and bolts of the track was live… and I don’t know if it fits on the album. I thought about doing [just instrumentals] for an entire record, but that’s where this ended up. And there’s also another Claymation video for that. There’s a nine-minute video by the same director who’s doing “Dwarfish Trumpet Blues.” I can’t think of his name right now because my manager helped me find another Claymation producer. But he’s a great artist. He did two videos for me. And not all the videos are Claymation. I have five coming, and two I’m in, but three are Claymation. There’s an epic Claymation video to the song “Muju’s Revenge,” and I will also add that… The animal sounds [in the song] came in later, but it made sense as a way to add to the concept of “Filthy Apes and Lions.” And so I went searching for tons of animal samples and scattered them throughout the song, and each solo kind of has a spirit animal, if you will. Like, if you listen closely, each time there’s a solo, there’s a different animal noise.
TYF: So what are the different animals you can hear in the song?
Stoermer: There’s a gorilla… hyena… jaguar… There’s birds. I don’t know what kinds of birds. There’s different kinds of monkeys, for sure.
TYF: And what’s the story behind the title—“Muju’s Revenge”?
Stoermer: Well, Muju is an imaginary monkey. And it’s again what we were talking about with the loose theme behind “Filthy Apes and Lions”—of animals having their revenge. And Muju’s an imaginary monkey having his revenge—or a gorilla. Either.
TYF: You said you had three Claymation videos. Are the other ones animated or are they live-action?
Stoermer: Live-action. We have two more: one for “Beautiful Deformities,” and one for “The Perennial Legend of Dr. Mabuse.” The one for Beautiful Deformities will actually be a longform video. The longform version of the song is not on the record. It’s a seven-and-a-half minute video. And that should be coming out soon.
TYF: Do you have any advice for songwriters?
Stoermer: I don’t know. It’s still a new thing to me myself. I’m not that experienced. I know some people have written hundreds of songs. I’ve written the songs that I’ve put out on my records. But everybody has a different technique. I’ll say there’s no one way to do things, for sure. Some people start with the music; some people start with the lyrics. I like to have a story in mind because it hones it in and I can finish something. Some people prefer to do the lyrics last, and that can work out too, and sometimes you have stronger melodies if you aren’t stuck on a concept first. When I work on music… I like so many different kinds of music I’ll just make a bunch of demos that are instrumental forever if I don’t have a concept to go with it. So if I start with a concept… I find I can finish the song better. But that’s just me.
TYF: Finally, you’ve written some great basslines for the Killers over the years. Which one is your favorite?
Stoermer: Oh, I don’t know… maybe the one for “Midnight Show.” I remember the day… That was in the early days when we’d just be jamming in a garage, and I had that riff. We made that song in literally a few hours. That was fun, making that.