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Jason Mackenroth - vocals, drums, percussion, guitar
Michael "MK" Kelly - bass, vocals
Billy O'Malley – guitars
Blas Elias – drums
“Everything has a price, whether it’s monetary or otherwise, and whatever we get out of life depends on how much we give,” says Jason Mackenroth, lead vocalist and drummer for Mack, expounding on the central truth of the band’s second album, Pay To Play. “There are no shortcuts. If you fuck up, there’s a price to be paid. It’s a really heavy record and definitely takes some dark turns, but I think it emerges with a sense of true optimism.”
The album’s cover image – a massive crack in a window that looks out to an expansive blue sky with scattered white clouds – echoes that duality, contrasting destruction and creation, excess and balance, despair and hope. Of course, the term is also a passing nod to his rock heritage. In his pre-Rollins Band days, Mackenroth certainly paid his dues on the Sunset Strip’s pay-to-play club circuit.
“Whoever came up with the pay-to-play process kind of had it right. It placed all the responsibility directly into the bands’ hands – and that’s not unfair, in retrospect,” he notes. Born in Sacramento, California, Mackenroth moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990’s and co-founded the power trio Mother Superior. Eventually Mother Superior hooked up with punk rock icon Henry Rollins, who drafted them into Rollins Band. After seven Rollins Band albums and four world tours, six Mother Superior CDs, recording sessions with George Clinton and a run as drummer on Daniel Lanois’ U.S. and European tours for Shine, Mackenroth stepped out in front with his own project.
Mack’s eponymous debut was released in 2005 and tracks such as “Welcome Wasted Again” and “Going for the Thrill” garnered play on radio specialty shows from coast to coast. Released on his own Wrecked Records, the collection marked Mackenroth’s debut as a lead vocalist. Friends Jacques Wait and John Kuker played on the album and the first leg of the subsequent tour, but each had their own commitments at home in Minneapolis.
So it wasn’t until Jason moved from Los Angeles to Las Vegas that Mack’s official line-up came together. In 2006, a friend introduced him to Michael “MK” Kelly. Like Mackenroth, Kelly hailed from Northern California, where he co-founded the band Magnified, serving as bassist/songwriter. When Magnified disbanded in 2000 – shortly after the release of their well-received debut album, Stand in Traffic on TVT Records – Kelly moved to Las Vegas and joined Blue Man Group, performing as a musician in the Luxor and Venetian shows and on the “Megastar World Tour.” (You can see him in Blue Man Group’s How to Be a Megastar Live!, which entered Billboard’s DVD chart at No. 2.) Intrigued by Mackenroth’s material, he began playing gigs as Mack’s bassist in 2007.
Jason soon landed a band musician gig with Blue Man Group also and, in 2010, Billy O’Malley – another BMG musician – joined Mack as lead guitarist. Born in Boston, Billy had played with such bands as Seka, Stripmind, Jocobono, Thirsty and MEZZ, and done a stint as David Gray’s guitar tech. He began his career with Blue Man in New York City as assistant engineer on the GRAMMY®-nominated Audio in 1998 and later made the move to Vegas.
The trio began recording in late 2010, working in Kelly’s studio. While Mackenroth penned most of the album’s songs, Pay To Play is a genuinely collaborative effort. In addition to playing bass, Kelly produced, engineered and arranged the 10-song collection, giving it the dips and dives of a thrill ride while O’Malley’s captivating guitar work fuels this swaggering, staggering sonic adventure. Once again, Jacques Wait mixed and Erick Labson mastered. With the album complete, Mack was almost ready to hit the road. But this time round, Jason wanted to fully step into the role of frontman. So another Blue Man Group buddy was brought on board to play drums live – Blas Elias, a founding member of the multi-platinum rock band Slaughter.
It’s the drugs talking – literally – in the harrowing yet exhilarating lead-off track “Ride The Sky,” written to a user from the point-of-view of cocaine. “She Likes It All,” which Mackenroth co-wrote with Kelly, paints a provocative portrait of a Sin City sexpot, then peels away the glitter to reveal a woman “shaking loose at the seams.” “Enough To Know” begins gently enough with tambourine and acoustic guitar – but just as one begins to suspect the wounds the narrator has inflicted on his missing lover may not have been strictly emotional, it erupts into a blistering aural assault. When the dust settles, the facts are still obscured.
Dark corners like these certainly intensify the flashes of light emanating from such unabashedly optimistic songs as “Gonna Make It” and “Turn Around,” which close out Side 1 and Side 2 respectively. (Conceived as an LP, Pay To Play will be released in vinyl, digital and CD configurations.) Just when you’re digging the Humble Pie meets KISS groove of “Gonna Make It,” Mack throws you another curve, erupting into blissed-out, Beach Boys-style harmonies to proclaim: “All we need is NOW.”
The hope conveyed is not a naïve one, rather it’s a faith borne of battle, as the blazing “Battle Axe” suggests. Whether the demons you face are your own or not, you’ve got to stand and fight. This is no time to go AWOL.
“It’s really about doing the right thing and having the balls to turn around if you’ve gone down the wrong road,” says Mackenroth, reflecting on the closing track, “Turn Around,” which sums up the album’s overall theme. “If you’ve gone too far away from love, it’s time to get back to it. It’s time to heal, time to give.”