Mark Kuykendall is an Oklahoman artist who is involved more or less in everything that has to do with audio-visual arts: recording and producing music, mastering and engineering, sound for films and commercials, cover design, drawing, painting, directing videos and he can even use his own voice as an instrument if needed. We talked about his musical roots, constant inspiration and the virtue of running one’s own label, and we reveal that Tulsa might not be such a grim place as you would think. Mark also shares some exclusive material with us: his latest video made by Sean Lai for The New Honey Shade project called ‘Magic Does Little Things’ and a superb selection of tracks released on his own label, Unknown Tone Records.
When and how did you get involved into the sweet world of sounds?
I began my journey in to the world of sound probably in the womb, but I have very cloudy visions of that period of my life…(haha!) I would most certainly have to give the credit to my grandmother who started me on the accordion at age 6. She taught my mother to play as well and was a very devout player, spending hours a day teaching and playing local German pubs in town and surrounding areas. I feel that because of learning to play the accordion helped me greatly develop more ambidextrous skills on other instruments as well.
When I entered high school, I didn’t want anyone to know that I could play polka music so I begged my family for a guitar. I began taking guitar lessons and enjoyed them immensely. Something inside wanted to experiment more and so I got my first drum kit. I taught myself the drums and I was able to start putting rhythm tracks to home records. Later I began collecting analog synthesizers and recording devices. All of this was highly encouraged by my grandmother and my own parents. They helped support me in any new musical direction I began to drift in.
Later, after high school I had decided to attend sound school in Florida at the media collage Full Sail Real World Education. I enrolled in the Recording Arts Program and graduated with my Associate of Science in Audio Engineering on December 19th, 2003.
After school I returned to Tulsa for a brief stay, as I had plans to look for internships other places including LA and Nashville. But, my mother became ill with a rare form of cancer and passed away within a 3-month period. This, needless to say, put a halt on any plans to move away from family at that time. Unable to leave, I began the first phases of setting up what would later become Unknown Tone as I developed my studio. Once I met my Lindsey we decided to put out music by other artists and open the production studio side of Unknown Tone up to others around the globe.
Now we are able to record, mix, master and release these works to be shared with the world.
You have built your own studio called Unknown Tone Studio, which also functions as the home of your label – managed together with your wife, Lindsey – Unknown Tone Records. When did you start to feel the need to setup your own little production site? What is the concept of Unknown Tone?
I first felt the need to setup a production studio once I met Lindsey. She had so many things as far as vintage guitars and classical instruments like violins and violas that I did not own. I also had things she did not so it really felt like a good mesh of gear and ideas. We knew we could use our overlapping skills to work as a team to produce music as well as video for others. And so Unknown Tone was born.
You are lucky enough to be able to live with both loves of your life: music and Lindsey. You both have your own individual and common projects, constantly working on something. How should we imagine a regular day at the Kuykendall’s?
A regular day would consist of waking early to work on music for a few hours together. Then we usually work on other respective projects. Either, Lindsey will work at her other job or in her own studio space. She is also a writer for several publications in town and works at the local art museum as the Guest Operations Coordinator. I will work most of the afternoon on various projects in the studio, but also have had great work experiences at the Philbrook Museum of Art doing audiovisual work, installing media components for large international artist exhibitions. I also teach kids at schools and camps through several local art programs in the late spring and early summer months. In the evenings we try to relax and might work on finances and bookkeeping for the label.
Unknown Tone is literally quite unknown in Europe and outside of the narrow experimental-ambient-drone world. Have you ever thought about going on a tour to make yourself even more visible?
Yes. We would love to go on a tour to promote more of the artists and their music. Some of the dilemmas that arise are based on the fact that many of these artists on the label are from all parts of the world including the UK, Australia, Japan, South Korea and even Iran. This makes it difficult to organize a world tour with so many artists spread out around the globe. Plans to visit parts of the UK and Europe are in the works and promoting the label would be on the forefront of that trip.
Unknown Tone Records mostly focuses on digital releases, although that does not mean that you don’t pay enormous attention to the details. If we look at the discography, the album artworks are especially alluring. Do you think that in the case of digital releases the artwork is awfully overlooked and neglected?
I do think that digital artwork can be overlooked but for most of our releases we do try to have some type of physical format to accompany the music, weather it’s a cassette tape or CD. In this way we are able to introduce other visual elements that might be lost with just a digital release only. Other artwork and printed matter is created and included as bonus material for many of the releases. I also spend a good amount of time on pairing the artwork to seamlessly match the music. That is a big deal for me. I must find a perfect marriage of the two elements. It also, must be eye catching at a small size but maintain an element of mystery.
Is there any release on UTR that you are distinctly proud of? If yes, why that one?
Each artist is doing their own unique style and technique with their own works so it becomes very difficult to choose favorites. If I were to choose a few I’d have to say: Ruhe – Organs EP, Alex Kozobolis & Lee Chapman – From November To March, Dylan Golden Aycock – The Blind Fold, Hedia – Wool.
These all apply the use of magnetic tape, which I feel is what gives the recordings so much vibe and warmth. A softer presence is felt on these records. Saturating sounds blur ones experience. The tones fold into one another like transparent curtains, looping over themselves like sagging wet drapes. They form a definite picture or color in the listener’s mind. I would refer to these works as, ‘audible paintings’.
Of course, for me personally, some of the deepest meaning of all comes from creating music with my wife, Lindsey. She contributed synths and violins throughout my record, ‘Weaving Spiders Come Not Here‘, which I released as The New Honey Shade. Some of those songs were melodic theme ideas I had for over 10 years and she helped me create versions of them that I really enjoy.
You are particularly passionate about field recordings. In your videos you combine them with 16mm film material, which results in a nostalgic atmosphere, typically ‘Kuykendallian’ ambience, if I might say so. In your visual world, sound and moving images never suppress but supplement each other. When you are asked to prepare a video for a certain song, how do you prepare the visual material?
When preparing visual material for other artists music the method becomes a process of watching or transferring reels of old 8mm films that I collect from estate sales specifically for this reason. One of my favorite things to do is to just play the music from a second source while starting the footage randomly in various moments to see what might sync up naturally without any editing to begin with. Usually whole passages will be unedited clips that seem to fall into place with little effort. I try to achieve this as often as possible, but there are times when edits are often needed too. I will usually spend time alone with the music first before view any film; to see if any initial visual ideas jump out at me. I’ll also look for titles and lyrical cues to play off of as well. All in all I try to keep the process as organic and fluid as possible, so that the idea of the two (both audio & video) were never really separate to begin with. The recreation of feelings of atmosphere and space is what I am after, to reconstruct a lost memory.
Your latest beautiful and haunting video was made for the first song off the full length album of Tulsan singer-songwriter, Annie Ellicott, which was also recorded and produced by you. The album is expected out next year, which means that you are still working on it. What other projects are you working on at the same time?
While I am currently busy producing and engineering the Annie Ellicott record, I’ve taken on 3 other local songwriters in town as well as a few other side projects of music I am making with close friends. I’ll be working with a tabla player’s solo project, and another female artists whose main instrument is the hammer dulcimer and violin. I certainly have a ton of fun working on multiple projects and dealing with new problems as they arise. The complexities of each situation usually end up helping me approach new production styles and methods from a more creative angle. Aside from production work, I also master audio for full-length albums out of the studio as well. We’ve probably mastered around 7-8 records a year by other Non-Unknown Tone related artists.
You were born and still living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Personally, when I think about Tulsa (which is not so often though, haha), I cannot help but think of the filmmaker Larry Clark. He seems to portray quite a grim and hopeless picture of the city and its youth. How do you personally see Tulsa? What does on do in Tulsa – besides making music?
Tulsa surely has some dark stains from it’s past including the race riots at the turn of the century. In the last few years the city has begun a rebirth in the downtown area and more and more people are coming out to support local art and music. There are a number of great dive bars and beer halls to frequent and the legendary Cain’s Ballroom and Brady Theater is always showcasing international acts. There are a lot of great ghost towns to visit just outside of the city limits. Camping and swimming in local creeks are another favorite pastime here. I grew up on a large plot of wilderness just on the edge of town where I was home schooled for 12 years of my life. I still spend a lot of time out there in the woods. To get ideas or work on various projects or to just get away from everything. Larry Clark has portrayed a very harsh and true reality of what Tulsa was like in that era, yet I do see new things on the horizon including more venues and galleries opening and people participating in the experience collectively.
You’re obviously not influenced by Clark, but then who are the most defining film auteurs or films in your life that you could name?
Two of my biggest influences as far as filmmakers would have to be both Andrei Tarkovsky the Russian filmmaker and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Those films have impacted me in a major way. These filmmakers tell stories often through some form of visual metaphor, which I feel can often be the most powerful subconscious form of communication with an audience. Much of their works seek to disclose subtle truths about our human nature and the world around us, leaving the viewer with the option to search out and find beauty amongst the mundane and often overlooked aspects of our lives. These methods of their filmmaking have inspired me to do the same and have become inspirational fuel for my creative fires.
What is your favourite album cover ever?
My favorite album cover of all time would have to be:
…and it just so happens to be recorded in my home town of Tulsa, at Leon Russell’s Church Studio. It was released in 1974. This is The Gap Band’s debut record.
You are in touch with lots of inspired new musicians, and since you have a label, it is kind of your responsibility to keep an eye on quality music. Who do you think we should keep in mind as an upcoming talent?
Recently I’ve been very impressed with the diligence and work of Porya Hatami (Iran). We have released two collaborations on the label featuring the works of Hatami. Other artists on the production calendar that I am very much looking forward to releasing include Bengalfuel, Francesco Giannico, Darren McClure & Miguel Isaza, Monolyth & Cobalt, Shea McGilvary, Post Global Trio, Kevin Verwijmeren, Anotolya, Danny Clay and Tegh.
Who you would like to read an interview with on Sounds Of A Tired City?
I would love to hear an interview with Tim Diagram (Maps And Diagrams) or M. Sage (Patient Sounds Label Owner/Musician).