Seattle quartet Mal de Mer is still in its infancy, and the band’s enthusiastic sound reflects that novelty. But don’t be fooled. None of these musicians are wet behind the ears. All four come armed with impressive credentials: Bassist Jimmy Curran cut his teeth in the Divorce, drummer Eric Wennberg keeps time for Slender Means, and keyboard player Lesli Wood is much beloved for leading the bands Ms. Led and the Redwood Plan. The four friends’ chemistry is undeniable. Within months of forming, Trent Moorman observed in The Stranger that Mal de Mer already sounded “like they’ve been a band for years.”
At the front is singer-guitarist Michael Lee. A fixture on the Emerald City music scene since the mid-90′s, Lee got his start in Subminute: Radio, a quintet of adolescents that garnered extensive media and industry attention for playing polished modern rock that belied their young ages. In the interim since that act’s dissolution, Lee has remained an active member of the local scene—for seven years, he could be found tending bar at the old Crocodile Café—but only recently resumed making music for public consumption. When he decided to return to the fray, Lee didn’t need to search too hard to find other musicians that were excited to play with him.
“Often when I hear a song that I really love, I wish that I had written it, because I want to be the one that gets to play that song,” observes Wood. ”With Mal de Mer, I wanted the opportunity to perform, and contribute to, some of the catchiest pop songs I had heard in a while.” Even though she had her hands full with the Redwood Plan, she couldn’t say no to participating in Mal de Mer, too. “This isn’t just some little local band. This is going to be the new favorite that everyone’s talking about, while wondering why they never noticed before that Michael Lee, that sweet bartender, is Seattle’s next big thing.”
Likewise, to describe the band’s modest front man as “excited” about this informal super group would be an understatement. “This is a collaboration between people who have all known each other for a long time, some better than others, that finally came together in a way that is very special for all of us.” Although Lee composes the bulk of the foursome’s music, and comes to practice armed with demos of rough arrangements for new material, he acknowledges that Mal de Mer is greater than the sum of its individual parts. “Most of the songs are mine, but they become a whole other thing once I bring them to the group.”
Hailed as “pure, unabashed pop with a dark side” by influential radio vet Marco Collins (KNDD, KEXP), Mal de Mer’s sound reflects Lee’s distinctive aesthetic, one where Michael Jackson and Elliott Smith stand shoulder-to-shoulder in his estimation. “I was obsessed with Michael Jackson as a child and I just can’t shake that,” he admits. When the late King of Pop cancelled all three Tacoma dates of his 1988 Bad World Tour, eight year-old Lee was so devastated he boycotted Halloween that year. “I was too distraught to go trick-or-treating. That and Jim Henson’s death are my first two memories of disappointment.”
Happily, his relationship with Elliott Smith wasn’t quite as fraught with sorrow. Subminute: Radio supported Smith’s old band, Heatmiser, on their last Seattle date, and their 1996 album Mic City Sons was an important touchstone in Lee’s teenage record collection, as were Smith’s solo albums like Either/Or and XO. “His songs were speaking to experiences that perhaps I couldn’t relate to, but I knew the music was coming from a very real place. Scarily so, sometimes.”
Like both those icons, Lee is blessed with an inimitable singing voice. More importantly, he aspires to make pop music that is honest, refined, and unpredictable, as evidenced by Mal de Mer’s debut single “Bubble Bobble”/”All That I Want.” With its chugging three-quarter time verses and stripped-down, invigorating chorus, the former spotlights Lee’s fondness for unconventional song structure, while the latter is a sun-dappled ditty propelled by crisp drumming and a sense of adventure. Like much of Mal de Mer’s catalog, these songs took shape during a period of optimistic reflection in 2010 that re-energized Lee’s attitude towards making music overall. The band’s name, a nod to Lee’s childhood in the maritime community of Gig Harbor, also harks back to an earlier time in his life.
Having already been through the entertainment industry wringer once, and at a tender age, Lee is pursuing a much more organic approach as he plots the course of Mal de Mer. “A lot of things happened very quickly in Subminute: Radio, exposure and meeting people and discovering the world of rock and roll,” he recalls. “For better or worse, that experience showed me how to prioritize my goals this time around.” Which is good. Because if the initial reaction to Mal de Mer is any indication of what lies ahead, the adventure is just beginning.