In 2004, Toronto music was on fire. Whether it was the benefit of the Internet Age or simply something in the water of Lake Ontario, local bands were suddenly enjoying acclaim for their indie rock aptitudes. But while the stables of talent at Arts&Crafts, Last Gang, and Paper Bag Records were grabbing all the headlines, something equally important for metalheads was happening out in the suburbs.
Mare, formed by Mississauga’s Tyler Semrick-Palmateer and Caleb Collins, was a band doing everything possible to break new sonic ground in the early-to-mid aughts. Founded on the principles of sludge and doom metal, they fused extreme genres with everything from jazz to post rock to choral and Gregorian chant to concoct their cacophonic witches’ brew. Semrick-Palmateer jokingly describes their sound as “the Coldplay of doom.”
They produced one self-titled EP in 2004, and then, as quickly as they were signed to Hydra Head Records and booked on tours with the likes of Isis and Converge, Mare was gone. The abrupt end came via their MySpace page in 2007, with a short post simply entitled “Mare is Toast.”
“There was no point in mincing words, or convincing people that it would be an ongoing thing when it wasn’t,” says Semrick-Palmateer when I meet him for coffee on a humid Saturday afternoon in the Annex. We’re there to discuss Mare’s musical history – and why they’re about to get back together for a tour next month.
The seeds of Mare were sown while Semrick-Palmateer was lead vocalist for The End, a metalcore act built in the atonal, frenetic image of early Dillinger Escape Plan and Discordance Axis. “In The End, I was just a vocalist. I didn’t really have much of a creative input,” he claims. Not long after the first EP dropped, he was out, eager to explore his own musical ideas more fully. The End’s first video features only his vocals – new lead Aaron Wolfe played the part instead.
Semrick-Palmateer started the quest for a drummer. “I had ads out at practice spaces with strange interests on it. Just all these different musical influences that made no sense, like, ‘Bulgarian women’s choir,’” he laughs. His search caught the attention of Caleb Collins, and the two started jamming in their suburban homes.
“All our music was written when we both had oodles of free time. We’d put movies on, and if we got bored with jamming, we’d just collectively turn to the TV. That’s a pretty suburban experience, I think. I had that luxury of time and resources that I just don’t have anymore. I think that has a lot to do with [why] people of a specific age like it. Maybe I just got something through about what it was like to be alive at that age, in the ‘burbs.”
The resulting EP was lauded in avant-garde metal circles, and the growing fanbase clamoured for a follow-up LP, but by that point, their goals had basically been achieved. “I guess the challenging elements had just been removed. For me, the joy of doing it is in discovering things that I didn’t know I could do, or making music that I didn’t know could be made. Like, I could just do a longer version of that EP, but why?”
In retrospect, there were signs that the guys in Mare had other itches in need of scratching. They took part in a 2005 tribute album for sludge icons The Melvins with a cover of “Night Goat” – their version sounded almost nothing like its original, and really, barely even sounded like Mare (though some say that’s really the only kind of cover The Melvins would feel honoured by). “We’re probably very similar bands, [in that] we’re very self destructive,” Semrick-Palmateer jokes.
If anything, people’s requests for more material worked as a deterrent to the project, at least for Semrick-Palmateer. “Mare, at least at the time, was all about defying expectations, and revelling in the otherness of it. It was anti-everything else that was going on [in music] at the time. There’s an angst to it and a defiance that was sort of lost once we were asked to do it.”
Afterwards, he moved on to the even more experimental Barbara, an oddball anti-pop project founded with his brother Raynor. He saw it as more of a linear progression than a complete 180: “[It’s different] to people, but not to me, not in a musical sense. It’s a similar premise.” Collins initially contributed to that as well, but took up main residency in Savannah screamo outfit Circle Takes the Square.
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Normally, a band that only released maybe five or six songs before breaking up would disappear easily from memory, but in Toronto’s metal scene, Mare’s impact continues to endure more than a decade later. Just visit any underground metal show at Hard Luck Bar, Soybomb, The Shop at Parts + Labour or Sneaky Dee’s, and you’ll see their influence in at least one of the bands playing. “The fact that people still listen to it is absolutely mind-blowing,” Semrick-Palmateer says.
Even outside of the city, their name is still revered in the heavy music echelons; Aaron Turner, former Isis frontman and Hydra Head founder, is not only a fan, but the catalyst for Mare’s second reunion (there was another one back in 2012, but that was primarily to introduce old fans to Barbara). He successfully got the pair to reform and support his band Old Man Gloom for a string of dates this September.
“Whenever we get together, I think, ‘I was hoping this wouldn’t be fun,’ because then I could save myself the trouble of doing it again, and just move on,” Semrick-Palmateer says of the decision to reunite with Collins. “But it’s a tremendous amount of fun to play that material. It’s like a time capsule to me. And it still resonates, because we were all achieving above our means.”
His feelings about that EP weren’t always so positive. “I didn’t like it for a very long time. You know when you’re out of a relationship and you just don’t want to hear from that person anymore? It was sort of like that. It’s tied to a lot of things that were happening at that time; life in your early 20s is kind of tumultuous. But now, it’s removed enough, I’ve moved on enough, that I can appreciate it for what it is.”
Although Mare has historically performed as a three- or four-piece, there’s a good chance that their upcoming dates won’t feature any other auxiliary members on stage. “We sound kind of better as a two-piece,” says Semrick-Palmateer, “just because we’re so comfortable with each other. It was kind of always us anyway.”
The band’s Facebook page teased the potential for more tour dates after their Old Man Gloom stint, but Semrick-Palmateer remains non-committal to future plans of any kind – which isn’t surprising, given his musical track record. “Pretty much all the bands I’ve ever been in have only released one record with me,” he admits. “I’m wondering if the eternal troll in me needs to die, or at least be reigned in. I’m really trying.”