“For the first time, I see myself plainly in my music. For the first time, I see myself at all.”
It’s right there in the name: We Are Temporary. By adopting that identifier for his darkpop/futurepop project, Brooklyn-based musician Mark Roberts concedes a lack of permanence in this world.
His debut album, Crossing Over, to be released on Feb. 19 on his Stars & Letters label, is the product of the concept — he created and destroyed, and celebrated and suffered his way for years before finalizing something he wanted to release.
“… I would consider the fact of impermanence the most central ‘fact of life,’ second perhaps only to life existing in the first place.” Roberts told Vehlinggo recently. “It’s why I chose the name We Are Temporary.”
Roberts has been recording and performing as We Are Temporary for years, but Crossing Over will be his first LP. Given what he went through to get this thing finished, perhaps the idea of an expiration date isn’t so bad.
“The inspiration for the lyrics was purely autobiographical,” Roberts said. He endured a near-death experience, years of anxiety attacks, a near-divorce, general sadness, fear, and guilt over “not being great or important,” a pervasive restlessness, and sexual frustration, among other things, he said.
The bulk of that struggle is reflected on the LP’s killer single, “Who’s Going To Love Me Now?,” and it shines through on the record’s nine other tracks, too.
A New Start in Brooklyn
The master of the dark arts first dabbled with the basic essence of We Are Temporary in 2009, after he decided to relocate to Brooklyn from New Zealand, his home of five years.
Roberts, then known for post-rock project The Enright House, had just completed a successful three-month tour that included a show at SXSW. Nevertheless, he had fallen in love with Brooklyn and out of love with that project.
“When my musical interests started to shift towards a darker electronic aesthetic, I felt a strong urge to make a clean start,” Roberts said.
Roberts took about three years to write Crossing Over, a good chunk of which he spent on working out issues with musical identity and a general sound.
“In reality, it probably took me two years to get out of my own head and only a year to write and record the music,” he said.
Along the way, Roberts wrote hundreds of songs, many of which were fully recorded.
“… Although I often felt strongly about them, I just didn’t feel the music was fully my voice,” he said.
In 2013 he released debut EP Afterthoughts, which was a fine collection of dark and often cinematic work. It seems like a solid representation of what We Are Temporary is about, but Roberts disagrees.
“Even [Afterthoughts] was more a collection of my final experiments, than it was a fully formed statement of my new music,” he said. In fact, Roberts said, it is Crossing Over that really is “the first fully-articulated vision as We Are Temporary.”
Roberts says he’s immensely proud of his forthcoming LP, not just because he thinks it’s objectively a great record.
“I’m proud of having created this record, because it communicates clearly the skin and bones and dust of my inner self and my lived experience,” he said. “For the first time I see myself plainly in my music; for the first time I see myself at all.”
All of that comes out in the music in one distinct way: Its earnestness. Roberts’ songs often have a grand, cinematic expanse about them, but they are also intimate and sincere.
He says he wears that sincerity as a badge for all to see on purpose. Modern culture, he says, isn’t sincere enough — or at least people try hard not to seem sincere.
“Large parts of contemporary culture [are] drunk on ‘disaffection,’ and this sense of life just doesn’t appeal to me,” Roberts says. “This cult of disaffection is a philosophy of image and meaningless externalities — of self-doubt, of timid youth, of strong women convinced by culture that their value lies in beauty and not assertive intelligence, and so on and so forth.”
“In short,” he continued, “disaffection is the new ‘opium of the people’ — those people who are still afraid to be themselves; who still think they have something to lose; who think that if one doesn’t care about anything one can’t be judged for anything.”
In his live performances, Roberts pairs his earnestness with a sense of high drama. The music is, of course, great to hear live, but the theatrics he’s able to perform with a minimal stage setup make for compelling shows. At the center of this is the fact that he performs wearing a mask.
“… I believe in drama and theater as key components of live performance,” he said. “I’ve seen so many technically sophisticated and talented musicians stand behind a table and perform virtuosic feats, while leaving audiences emotionally uninvested. The harsh reality is that most artists might as well be fixing a sandwich, for all the audience cares.”
“This inability to translate electronic live performance into an act of communication that an audience can decipher is one of the main reasons performers fail,” Roberts continued. “Great bands aren’t just great musicians, but great communicators. And theatricality is one of the most powerful tools artists have at their disposal to communicate on stage.”
Stars & Letters
Roberts will release Crossing Over on his Stars & Letters label, which is the means by which I first heard We Are Temporary.
The first Stars & Letters release I came upon was British retrosynth band Empathy Test’s Throwing Stones EP, a delightfully Hughesian record. That eventually led me to We Are Temporary’s remix of “Peaked” by British experimental hip-hop group Ruane Maurice, another Stars & Letters act.
The acts don’t all make music in the same genre, but there is a cohesive sound and aesthetic about them that ensures they all come off as part of the same family. In many ways, how this manifests is similar to the likes of disco/synthpop label Italians Do It Better and French retro collective Valerie, even if those outfits have a more singular genre focus.
Roberts initially created the label so he could release 2013’s Islands & Islands, a beautifully minimalist electronic album by his friend Misfit Mod.
“I had already spent years self-releasing and promoting my own music, so it didn’t seem like that big a stretch to help someone else do it,” he said.
Once that got underway, the label took on a life of its own, according to Roberts. Next came records from everyone else at a fairly rapid clip — perhaps too rapid.
“It all started to get a bit too much, too soon, honestly,” Roberts says. “I run the label by myself with limited funds, and all of a sudden I was getting pitched major releases by agents and managers, and receiving substantial investment offers for percentages of future earnings and partial ownership of my ‘company’.”
So last year Roberts decided to pause Stars & Letters for a while, with the exception of his Crossing Over release.
“… And while I might return to S&L in the years ahead, I think I’ll be a lot less ambitious about it,” he said.
Even with his dial-down, Crossing Over is no bunt. Roberts shows a great deal of ambition on his complex, complicated, and comprehensively satisfying record. And although there is an emphasis on the futility of things, We Are Temporary’s work also has a healthy injection of hope here and there.
Through baritone pipes that sing about the tough stuff atop ethereal synths and driving backbeats, Roberts has created a particularly important, almost sacred brand of catharsis.
“I think everyone has to search for meaning and fail in their own way. That said, I’d love it if my music could offer others some degree of support and comfort along their journeys,” Roberts said. “It’s probably why I share my own suffering so openly — I know I’m not alone and that suffering is universal and common to us all, and that some form of inner peace is never impossible.”
“As the existentialists pointed out, we are born without essence and purpose, but it is precisely this fact that also creates the possibility for freedom,” he says. “If existence precedes essence, then essence is not pre-determined, and we are free to choose and create our own essence. It’s precisely this possibility of freedom, I think, which gives rise to whatever hope there is in my music and in the lives of others.”
Crossing Over comes out on Friday, Feb. 19. However, you can pre-order it today and get two songs up front.