Catch up with singer-songwriter Ilya Popenko of NYC-based Mad Meg and listen to "Scary People" off the group's upcoming album, Puberty Tales, to be released September 29th.
What brought you all together?
Ilya Popenko: Until the age of about 29 or 30, I wrote and rather poorly recorded my songs at home. I never played them publicly, not counting house parties where I would find an unattended guitar and play it for those who were stuck in the room with me. Then one day, a bass player approached me and said that he had heard my songs online and that he wanted to try playing them together. A friend who was standing nearby (and who is our drummer to this day) quickly joined in, and it snowballed from there. The band has gained new members and has shed some old ones several times and is still perpetually changing.
Where does your name, Mad Meg, come from?
I named this band after a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In Dutch, it is called Dulle Griet, and in English, it’s called either Dull Gret or, inexplicably, Mad Meg. Unlike most of Bruegel’s work, this one is very surreal and very reminiscent of paintings by Bosch. It’s based on a Flemish folk tale where a peasant woman, fed up with poverty and religion, raises an army of women to go and pillage hell. She wanted to see what was all the fuss about and check if it was worth looting. I really liked that very simple approach to big metaphysical concepts such as heaven and hell. That’s kind of what I’m trying to do, to tackle big issues in a simple matter, using simple language and everyday imagery.
Which musicians have you been influenced by, individually or as a band?
Personally, my heroes are Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Iggy Pop, John Lourie, Lou Reed and a couple of Russian names. As far as the band’s influences, they are very eclectic, just as our musicians whose tastes rarely intersect. The drummer, Ruslan, is a Radiohead fan, whereas the bassist on the record, Vero Medellin, would play mariachi and funk. The keyboardist, Jason Laney, is into pop and blues while the trombonist, James Hall, is an avant-garde jazz type of guy. Somehow we make it all work.
What words would you use to describe your sound?
That has been a big struggle to try to describe those songs using words. The best we could muster was punk chanson noir.
What were your inspirations behind your single "Scary People”?
It's about a guy who is too riddled with anxiety to leave his room. I get like that especially when hungover. I used to live in a tiny tenement apartment in the East Village. On weekends, the streets would crawl with precious drunk yuppies from god knows where and those girls who probably had spent a lot of time choosing that very special black dress and heels so just a few hours later, they could hold each other’s hair while throwing up. So, on weekends I would just stay put. Those scenes added to my anxiety which was there to begin with.
Could you tell us more about your upcoming album, Puberty Tales, and how it compares to your last EP?
Puberty Tales is 10 of what we thought were the best songs that I have written over the years. One of them dates back as far as 14 years ago. It’s definitely a milestone for Mad Meg. The sound is different, we deliberately tried to use as little guitar as possible so the horns and the piano take priority. When I thought of the sound, I tried imagining a jazz trio playing rock music. It’s definitely more mature, the musicians are much better, the delivery is much more confident and the production value is much bigger than my first record.
In one sentence, how would you sum up Puberty Tales?
It’s a bunch of catchy but dark songs recorded by people in their 30’s but not quite done with puberty.
What do you hope listeners are able to take away from your music?
I hope that they discover that all our inner problems, anxieties, unanswered questions and everyday struggles can be beautiful and that you shouldn’t "dance your troubles away” but dance to the beat of your troubles. If that makes sense to you.