Madaila front man Mark Daly doesn't come from a musical family. Aside from his grandfather, who played big-band clarinet and saxophone, Daly is a lone troubadour in a large immediate family that leans more toward athletics. Keyboardist Eric B. Maier does not come from an especially musical family, either.
Daly and Maier, who grew up together in Middlebury, both turned 30 this year and feel they've officially entered adulthood. They're pondering life's big questions, particularly how they've gotten to where they are as individuals and as a band. It's one of the philosophical themes of Madaila's new album, Traces, which was digitally released on Friday, November 4.
Seven Days sat down with Daly and Maier at a Burlington coffee shop, the former sipping java and the latter awkwardly eating a bowl of granola with an iced-tea spoon. They discussed several ideas and nascent plans for the band.
The first is "Madaila TV." That's a potential web series with episodes tailored to each member's proclivities outside of the band — though they've been far too busy to take any steps toward doing this. The flagship segment is called "Mark Learns Things," which playfully jabs at Daly's admitted lapses in general knowledge. Each installment would quickly teach Daly about concepts of which he remains charmingly ignorant.
They have New Year's Eve plans, too. Madaila have inherited the coveted end-of-year slots at Higher Ground in South Burlington, a two-night run they're calling "The Secret." For now, the blowout is way too secret to talk about. However, they mention they've been working with local design firm Solidarity of Unbridled Labour.
Maier and Daly are fighting fatigue. They just returned from a gig in Brooklyn opening for Twiddle, who formerly held the NYE slot at Higher Ground.
On the surface, Madaila and Twiddle may not seem complementary. Madaila are known for tight, R&B-influenced synth-pop, while Twiddle are unabashedly jam. But the two bands have been in each other's orbits for more than a decade. They met 10 years ago at a local artists showcase at Higher Ground when Daly and Maier had their own jam band, Pale Moon.
In September, Madaila and Twiddle joined forces for a special "Twidaila" performance at the Burlington street festival Madaila on Main. Daly and Maier have been surprised that Twiddle's audience, and jam fans in general, has been very accepting of Madaila. It's one of the ways the band has learned to go with the flow.
"[Now] we're trying to straddle that line, having tight, catchy arrangements but also stretch and jam out," says Daly.
"Satisfy the hippies, satisfy the hipsters," Maier adds.
"Anything that starts with 'hip'," quips Daly.
We leave the coffee shop and head to the office of Future Fields. That's the artist management, record label and recording studio that Maier founded with Madaila bassist and fellow Middlebury native Jer Coons. After a brief discussion of the year's hottest R&B (Solange!) and riffing on fun words to say with a Vermont accent (remnant!), Maier and Daly discuss the new album and its themes.
First, it's worth mentioning that Traces serves as the band's debut recording as a unit. Daly alone tracked nearly everything on Madaila's first album, The Dance. All five members play on Traces — Daly, Maier, Coons, drummer Dan Ryan and guitarist Willoughby Morse.
Stylistically, Madaila haven't reinvented the wheel between their first and second records. They just got, as it were, bigger rims and deeper treads. All of the Madaila calling cards introduced on The Dance are present on Traces: Daly's Justin Timberlake-esque falsetto; the glamour of disco and early '80s R&B; warm synth punctuated by prickly, picked guitars and harmonic, stadium-ready choruses. But everything is bigger, richer and fuller. Madaila have brought their sound into the next dimension.
Don't confuse this description with a rosy take on the sophomore slump, in which a band simply regurgitates what fans have come to love and expect. It's more of a sophomore slant as Madaila's signature characteristics are pushed to new heights. Perhaps that's a result of operating more collaboratively — though Daly is still the primary songwriter. As he has done since the band was known as DALY — their moniker before settling on Madaila in 2014 — he independently creates demos, which he then presents to the band for reinterpretation.
"Sculptors don't do group projects. That would be a shitshow," says Maier as he affectionately cradles his dog, Sky. "[We all] have different strengths and potentials, but the name of the game is letting Mark bring this image to life and, as a group, help to finish it."
Another reason Traces sounds so much bigger is because it's largely a concept album. Intentionally bleeding into one another, songs flow continuously within two distinct parts. These are loosely defined by the tracks "Nature" and "Nurture" — likely the tracks marking sides A and B of the eventual vinyl release. It seems that Daly and company are pondering the age-old question of why people are the way they are. Is it something innate, or are we shaped by our surroundings? Side A, "Nature," explores internal forces; Side B, "Nurture," explores the external.
"When I thought of the concept, I was expecting to be swayded — swayded?" Daly asks, turning to Maier.
"Swayed," says Maier.
"Swayed. Mark learns!" Daly sings, referring back to "Mark Learns Things."
"I expected to go to either side, like, '[It's] definitely nature, or [it's] definitely nurture,'" Daly says. "What I realized is that there's no right answer. I expected to choose a side, but I realized that you can't."
The lyrics reflect this contradiction. On "Nature," Daly croons, "You see / it's my personality / tightly wound around my soul / born into it / can't undo this nature of mine." However, on "Nurture," he suggests, "What you learn to be externally / will form to be the way you are / this you can't ignore." Their stance on the nature-versus-nurture debate remains intentionally ambiguous. It's the awareness and the ability to recognize both factors that seem important to them.
The album's title conjures up the idea of what's still visible after something all but vanishes, but Daly explains that it's more about the idea of paths and outlines.
"Traces can be a path," he says. "What path are you going down? It's kind of like tracing the outline of the soul, not to sound too heady," he continues. Then, a rhetorical question: "Are we just specks of dust or gas in this weird universe, or are we leaving a mark?"
Madaila have unequivocally left a mark in Burlington. They've nurtured the right relationships — not just in the music world but in the community at large. And that has allowed them many opportunities to fully realize their grand vision.
"You can't just push something through with force," says Maier. "You really need to take it slow. We're trying to do this for a long time. [We'd rather] take a year to do something in a way that lasts instead of [taking] a month to do something in a way that doesn't last. It all blends into wanting to collaborate with the community."