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Photo by Ian Enger
Photo by Ian Enger
Photo by Ian Enger
Photo by Ian Enger
Photo by Lahnny Star
Photo by Lahnny Star
Photo by Ian Enger
Photo by Ian Enger
Cover Art designed by Sam Fulwiler
Cover Art designed by Sam Fulwiler

Cutting Deep with The Macks: On Ambition, Experimentation, Love, and Musical Psychic Powers

By TOBIAS WISNER // Portland underground rock legends, The Macks, sit down to discuss their recently announced new album, The Macks Are A Knife, their biggest tour yet, and their dogged pursuit of being the sharpest band from the PNW to date.

It was a quiet, cold Sunday night in North Portland when I spoke with The Macks earlier this month, local rockers with a gigantic sound and, as I would find out later, even bigger aspirations to take the music world by storm.

I had arrived at our meeting spot, The Florida Room on N Killingsworth Street, about a half an hour before the band was set to get there, eager to grab a Miller High Life and review my questions to make sure they were ironclad yet malleable enough to expand upon. To be quite honest, I felt a bit nervous. 

In my years of going out of my way to see local shows and educate myself on bands in the scene, The Macks were always everywhere - whether it be a poster on a telephone pole, a post on Instagram, or a topic of conversation at venues like Lollipop Shoppe in inner Southeast or Mississippi Studios in North. Up until this point we had always been two ships in the night it seemed, but regardless of my anxieties I was still excited to interview an outfit with such a dedicated following.

When the band arrived at the bar and we settled down under a heat lamp, moving benches around to fit all of us at one table, they regretfully told me that their lead guitarist wouldn’t be able to make it. I was still grateful, honestly, because I figured four for five members averaged out to a winning percentage for a good conversation. And in this rare instance for me regarding math, the answer worked out in an E = MC squared kind of way. 

For those not hip, The Macks are brothers Ben (guitar) and Josef Windheim (drums), Sam Fulwiler (vocals), Jacob “Jake” Michael Perris (keys) and Aidan “Harry” Harrison (bass). Formed in 2015 while Ben, Joe, and Sam were still in high school, the band has gone through a few different iterations and minor personnel changes over the course of their career, but none of that has made their sound inconsistent, and they’ve only gotten better now that their core group feels more solid and their musicianship is more locked in than ever before.

In terms of their catalog, The Macks deftly walk the line between classic and modern. Their vibe can only be described as if The White Stripes, The Growlers, and The Doors all had a baby, with Led Zeppelin as a close uncle or godparent. Fusing vintage Rock and Thrash with Krautrock and a pinch of an Indie take on the Blues, the band’s sonic exploration feels distinct, yet rooted in influences that go beyond what I just described.

After food orders and intros, we dove in. I immediately asked them about musical inspirations to find out more. Their faces lit up and Josef was quick to provide an answer: “We rely pretty heavily on our jam sessions nowadays to guide what we’re doing sonically, but at the same time those jams are rooted in ideas like what bands like Can bring to the table, but it can be as far reaching as Miles Davis or more contemporary artists like Deerhoof.”

Jake chimed in: “Yeah, we all just love music so much that we try to cast as wide of a net as possible and bring those influences from all over the place to every practice session.” He gestured to the above-head speakers that were playing a song by The Turtles and said with a laugh, “Like, this Turtles song is exactly my music taste, and it’s so not what we’re doing at all,”

Harry built on that between puffs of a cigarette: “It’s interesting, at least for me, because the music I listen to is never what we end up making, like ever.” The band laughed and he continued: “Like, I listen to a lot of classical piano pieces, and recently it’s been Dave Brubeck’s Time Out on repeat.” 

Jake added: “And Sam is like a massive Hip-hop head, tons and tons of ‘90s Hip-hop,” to which the singer nodded in agreement. 

Underneath all these ideas, however, is a deep dedication from the band to stay true to their own sound, and inspire each other through the time-honored act of jamming together, which was essential to creating their new album on the way. Josef explains: “We never had like a specific idea going into making The Macks Are A Knife. Nothing like ‘Oh, I want to sound like X, Y, or Z band.’  It was recording process oriented first, and ideas and influences came up from there organically. But it all started with us playing together and focusing on that. That’s why this album is so much just a logical progression of what we’ve been doing.”

It’s true that The Macks have been doing a lot, with what feels like rocket-powered momentum going for them right now. Between being voted Portland’s best new band of 2022 by the Willamette Week, four full-length albums under their belt, another one now on the way, their most expansive tour yet coming up in a matter of days, and the recent announcement that they’ll be supporting the explosive band Wine Lips for three different shows (including a local one in Portland) as part of said tour, the band has been nothing if not busy to a frenetic degree. 

One might think they’d be at least anxious or even tired as a result of all they’ve done and all they still have left to do, but in sitting down with the band that’s not the sense I got at all. 

They were relaxed, chill even, eager to crack jokes together and expound upon the glory of The Florida Room’s frito pie - just $6 during happy hour - but most importantly, they carried an unbridled enthusiasm for developing the band and honing their creative edge. All of this coupled with the ambition, dynamic, and work-ethic to make it happen has yielded an LP that’s gilt-edged in its sound and air-tight in its delivery.

Josef provided some context: “This record is especially interesting for us coming off our last one, Dajiban, just because with that one we kind of opened the floodgates on our jams and let it all flow. With The Macks Are A Knife it’s the opposite. It’s way tighter and way more structured.”

The band nodded collectively and Jake was quick to pick up from there: “Yeah, we dedicated like a week and a half to writing this whole thing, which shows in how concise it is. Dajiban was developed over the better part of a year in contrast. We left so much on the cutting room floor with this one too.”

I mentioned the proverbial old adage, “kill your darlings,” and asked if anything about that was difficult during the writing process. Harry went with the morbidity of the metaphor and said, “It was heart-breaking in some cases. We cut about half of what we produced during recording to make this record what it is, but the result is something that’s razor sharp and pointed, like a knife,” ending with a laugh.

Sam nodded and said, “It took a lot of group discussion for sure, but none of us wanted to die on any hills. We trust each other too much to not come together in support of any idea we have. And with this album we were pretty obsessive about agreeing on details, even down to mixing and mastering.”

Jake gestured to the air next to him: “Of course he’s not here, but Ben’s our head engineer and he’s meticulous with everything he does. He worked really painstakingly on each detail while we were producing the whole thing so that it really sounds like us.”

Harry affirmed the sentiment: “Yeah, like we were so serious about being so intentional with everything, not just taking ideas and throwing them at the wall and seeing what sticks. That’s why in a way this feels like the most experimental project we’ve ever done too, just from a recording practices standpoint alone. The music is pretty accessible and mostly four on the floor, but it all felt way crazier to produce.”

He pondered a moment, puffing another cigarette, and continued: “We just leaned into what felt risky and a little scary to do compared to what we’ve done in the past. Like, I almost didn’t want to do anything with this one that didn’t feel a little scary, in the best way possible. But the end result is why I love this direction we’re going in right now.”

I can echo Harry’s sentiment here and say The Macks Are A Knife is indeed a step in the right direction, almost an entirely new direction, while still feeling familiar if you already love the band and interesting if you’ve never heard of them before. They were kind enough to share an early stream of the record with me after we spoke (where it lives, I’ll never tell) and it goes decidedly hard. 

Without divulging too much, it takes existing formulas where the band has seen success and builds on them for a wild, almost unhinged ride - and the experimentation and risk-taking Harry talked about are certainly apparent. The album teeters on the edge of a rhythmic and melodic cliff, does a couple backflips at the precipice, and lands safely on two feet, ready for applause. It’s brimming with confidence without pretense, and if their first single they dropped yesterday, “Nice,” is any indication, I think those hungry for some Rock that pushes boundaries in just the right way will be satisfied.

Jake threw his head back after Harry had made his earlier point: “Oh dude, yeah, like we did some wild stuff to Joe’s kick drum, I brought in some new synths, Harry used like three different guitar amps for his bass, and Sam really experimented with a lot of lyrics.”

It was here that our conversation hit a critical juncture, because I wanted so badly to know how The Macks approach songwriting on top of crafting their sound. Vocal quality means a great deal to me and can make or break whether or not I like something in some cases, but in this department they’re completely covered. 

Sam’s voice was an immediate draw for me in my early research while spinning the band’s discography. His energy is electric, he can howl, he can scream, he can croon, he can carry a complete melodic idea on his own, and can even modulate his delivery at times to meld Elvis Presley with Kurt Cobain and Jack White, creating something unique to The Macks that is essential to their overall musical identity. When it comes to lyrics, the band has unshakeable trust in his abilities.

“Yeah, lyrics, vocals, anything word-related with the band is all Sam.” said Harry when I asked. A figurative spotlight seemed to turn to the singer, who up until this point had been providing laughs and support for the rest of the band’s talking points, but I could tell he was thinking about each question I posed in a thoughtful and cerebral way. 

Harry continued and confirmed my inkling: “Like, anyone who spends even 20 minutes talking to us will realize Sam is the lyricist. We all trust him unquestionably to come up with genius lyrics after just, like, handing him a completed musical idea. It’s goddam overnight in some cases.”

Sam heard this and said after a laugh, “I just love writing, man, I’m always writing. I love words. I have a notes page on my phone that goes back ages and ages, and my process is mostly just to take walks through town for miles and write what comes. I take that time pretty seriously.”

However, despite the attempts at vocal comparison I made earlier, Sam’s inspiration comes from a unique place when it comes to what The Macks sound like. He explained: “Like Jake mentioned earlier, I get tons of ideas from Hip-hop. I’m a huge [MF] Doom-head, and the way every word is essential to a bar in a Rap verse is very inspirational.”

I followed up by asking him what non-musical things might inspire him also, expecting to hear something from a book, poem, or something of that nature. But after a pause he looked up at me with a wild look in his eye and scanned the rest of the band member’s faces, exclaiming, “Dude, actually took a Masterclass by Nas last year!.” to which his bandmates laughed loudly as if to say “Classic Sam” without saying it, because to them this probably wasn’t at all very surprising.

There’s another thing here, in that vein, that needs to be said about what draws one into the world of The Macks. Their dynamic with each other, whether it be on stage, in the studio, or at The Florida Room, is immediately obvious. These guys are actually friends, if not best friends, first and foremost. They credit the pandemic quarantine period, a time where they were all living under one roof together thanks to a well-timed lease signing in Eugene, for confirmation that they’re meant to do this together after their lockdown album Rabbit came out of it.

When I asked to hear more, Sam distilled it into a single point: “Ultimately, the pandemic was just a confirmation that we actually like to be around each other, and we almost have that to thank for still being a band.”

That brotherly love showed even more as we got to talking about their upcoming tour, for which they embark on in a matter of days. I had asked the obvious, “Are you guys excited?” question when it came up, and Harry was immediate in his response: “I literally lie awake at night thinking about how stoked I am to be stuck in a van with these guys.” to which they all nodded in approval.

Jake added: “It’s the freakin’ grand adventure every musician should want, man. Spreading the word and playing for people who’ve never heard you before is a huge opportunity. We all adore it. This is going to be the biggest tour we’ve ever done as well, so we’re more excited for this than most ones we’ve done in the past.”

Harry chimed back in: “I think the reason we do love touring so much is because we love each other so much. You hear so many horror stories about relationships causing bands to fall apart, but our bond is our biggest asset I feel like. We only ever get short or frustrated with each other if we, like, need a sandwich or a burrito or something.” which got a big laugh. He continued: “We’re just very in sync, you know? Which I think translates to performing and recording.”

Sam was quick to add to this: “Yeah dude. We’ve just practiced and heard each other play so much that even those jams we talked about earlier feel structured and almost, like, telepathic. We just know where things are going to go. That’s why we’ve put a huge emphasis on crafting our set list and getting super dialed in for this tour. We’re also going to mix it up, sure, but getting rock solid is what this thing is about.”

Harry looked at me and brought his hand to his forehead: “It’s just crazy, dude. I’ve never experienced this type of like, clairvoyance with a project before, especially live. Josef and I as a rhythm section are at a point where I know a massive ‘shigga-digga-digga-digga do’ is going to come and he does it. It’s truly wild.” making air-drumming motions as part of the description.

Jake chided: “That’s the technical term, right?” to which Josef responded, “Couldn’t have said it better myself.” We all laughed collectively at that.

For all this work, for all this refinement, for all this love the band clearly has for each other, it's natural that they’re determined to make a splash on the national stage. This came up when I brought up their Oregonian roots and what they think of the Portland scene generally. 

“Portland is our home, obviously. And we’re so grateful to this city and the people who have lifted us up, but at the same time we don’t want to be just a local band anymore. I think it's slightly limiting. But we’re very much of the mind that we wouldn’t be where we are without Portland and the people in it who gave us a chance.” said Harry. 

Sam added his thoughts: “Yeah, getting to where we are now has always been the goal. If you had told me, Ben, and Joe where we’d be now while we were still in high school, I almost wouldn’t be surprised. We’ve always been super ambitious while being mindful that we get to make great art with our best friends.” 

I asked how that relates to the band’s goals for 2024, as they already have a lot going on. “One thing at a time, for sure,” said Sam with a chuckle. “But 2024 is a year of exploration for us. Crushing live performances is priority number one, getting super tight, and then we’re on to the next thing because we want to do another record this year for sure.”

“Where we blow everything up and do something completely different.” Jake added with a grin.

My final question to the band was asking them to give me one message they wanted the world to know about them, in their own words. Sam thought for a moment while the rest of the band considered the prompt, and came back with a tenacious look on his face: “I want people to know that we are never going to stop working. We love doing this more than anything, and we always will.”

If you ask me, The Macks are deserving of the notoriety I hope this tour and album bring them. It’s rare to see a group so locked in, so dedicated, and so willing to put it all out there in the name of making great music, and I think you all are in for a treat when this new album drops on May 17th, which sees the band in their sharpest form to date. 

In a fitting end to the conversation, and in my mind a fitting end to this article, I let the band know I had no more questions and thanked them dearly for their time. They were nothing but nice and said thank you in return, and immediately stood up to close out their bar tabs and put their cigarettes out as I stopped my voice recording.

I waved goodbye as I finished my beer. They did too, except Harry turned back to me as they piled into the Mini Cooper they had arrived in with a wild look in his eye and a big smile: “We gotta go practice!”

The Macks are my band to watch for this year, undoubtedly. Give them a listen if you like any of the big names I’ve thrown around to describe their sound, because in reality none of those descriptions do much justice. The Macks are a band all their own, and I’m excited to see what they accomplish next.

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