MSPAINT is the Hattiesburg, Mississippi quartet composed of vocalist Deedee, bassist Randy Riley, synth player Nick Panella, and drummer Quinn Mackey. Having met each other through the local punk and hardcore scenes, they decided to form a band based on a simple premise: making music with no guitars. The irony was that most of them had previously occupied the role of the guitar player; the challenge was not having it sound like any rock band ditching guitars on their post-apocalyptic eighth album. After making waves with their self-titled EP in March 2020, they’ve now come through with their remarkable debut full-length, Post-American, co-produced by Militarie Gun‘s Ian Shelton, which does away with preconceptions around hardcore by blending elements of synth-punk, hip-hop, metal, and straight-up pop. Though brimming with grim, dystopian imagery that’s meant to hold a mirror up to society, it’s an infectious, invigorating album that maintains hope for a future that feels just as possible – not looming on the horizon so much as hovering at the edges of the reality we live in. MSPAINT don’t shy away from critiquing the power structures that bind us, but when they look ahead at what’s next, the question is met with way more than anger.
We caught up with MSPAINT’s Deedee and Quinn Mackey for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about being from Hattiesburg, the band’s collaborative process, working with Ian Shelton, and more.
How important do you think being from Mississippi and Hattiesburg specifically is to understanding your identity as a band, both from a musical and a political standpoint? How would you begin to talk about that background with someone who’s not ingrained in it?
Deedee: I don’t think we surround ourselves with politics in general. It’s definitely a part of our lives, because it’s impossible for it not to be. But I think that living in Mississippi is something that you’re always just aware of, in the sense of, all the history books point back to Mississippi as the genesis of slavery and the most heinous form of it. Αnd I think that perspective is important – what’s important about it is, when you can conceptualize America being just the emulation of the other cultures that have been either brought here by immigrants or people that came here all against their will, music is the same way. You drive into Mississippi and on the sign, it says, “Birthplace of America’s music.” And there’s a lot that comes with that. It’s not quite as simple as, we just have some good musicians here and everybody copied us. Most people escaped slavery and went on to perpetuate music in other places. The education system in Mississippi is very bad, it’s one of the worst in the country, but the education behind the music is pretty available. I was always interested in the history of it more than the music early on, and it always points you back to people that were slaves that played music that either people thought were good enough to where they didn’t have to work and performed or people that escaped and then perpetuated that Mississippi style of blues in other places. That was always integrated into it, and it’s something that, as white musicians that are in a space to be subversive or in a space that pays homage to progress as a genre in whatever way, I think is important to recognize.
It’s cool living in Hattiesburg, because it is seemingly a blue dot in the middle of a red state, looking at it politically. We’re fortunate to be in a city that validates the arts and has always had a DIY scene. There’s potential for other shit to happen here, you just have to manifest it yourself. As far as it relating to the band, I don’t think it was until people started comparing it to elements of hip-pop that it was something that people around us were like, “What do you all think about that?” I feel like I’ve incorporated that into every band I’ve been in, maybe in different ways. People’s perceptions of it is important and valid, but it’s also like, there was no intent behind MSPAINT, and that is just a fact. We did all of this just for fun on a whim, and people supported it and backed it. We took those opportunities and took those people into account, and we just moved how we move. The bottom line is to try to be the best person you can be, because then you’re gonna be the best band you can be. You can’t be a good artist and not work on yourself, that’s not how that works. And maybe that’s a quality of Mississippi, and maybe that’s just the quality of our environment in general.
But being from Mississippi, the reality of it is that we get to see a lot of really good musicians play all the time. I love every band in Hattiesburg because people take the music part of it seriously. And that’s a quality that exists in other places and communities, but it’s built into the culture here. If you’re gonna do art, if you’re gonna do music, try to be the best person doing it.
Quinn Mackey: For me, there’s a church on like every corner in Mississippi, so that’s always really forced on you. I actually learned to play music in church, and as I grew older I was finding more flaws in theologies and moving away from the church, and then music became a way for me to get perspectives on other cultures and interact with different subcultures. I was really into hardcore and metal when I was young, and then I kind of moved away from it and got into blues and jazz and even jam bands. Those are really popular down here, and electronic music. I’ve always really liked the music more than the culture, but it’s cool to see how everybody interacts with it very culturally.
You said there was no intent behind MSPAINT – apart from that shared background, what was it that drew you together as a group, as collaborators or just friends?
QM: I feel like we were really just all friends, like you said. Playing music in Hattiesburg is very close-knit, so we just all knew each other’s bands and played with each other at shows. I was in a band with Nick, I filled in on drums with Deedee’s band sometimes and played with Randy in that band. We just all like knew each other and were like, “Let’s start a band without guitar.”
Take me back to the moment where you made that decision.
D: I just came up to Nick and Quinn and was like, “We should start a band.” And in my mind I’m thinking, no guitars. And then Quinn’s like, “Yeah, but we should do it with no guitars.” It was one of those moments where it’s like, we should have had this conversation years ago. It was that the kind of interaction where it’s just so simple and pure. None of that was real thought, it was like: maybe this is what we’ll do, we’ll go on tour, it’ll be fun for everybody. It wasn’t: drop our demo, quarantine hit, and this band be the most popular band that any of us have been in. Going back to the moment when we actually formed and when we realized that this was going to be something that we had to effectively shape our lives around, those were two separate occurrences.
During the time it took to hone in the songs, did it become clearer to you when something feels finished or you shouldn’t mess with it any longer?
D: My perspective of when a song is done and everyone else’s perspective of the song was done is pretty different. It’s a constant balance of being uncompromising and collaborative – you want to get all the ideas in there, but you also got to know when to be like, “The emotional pull from this part for me is really doing something.”
QM: We’ll edit a song into the ground, and Ian [Shelton] actually kind of made fun of us for that. We just like so many different things that we were like, “I just want to keep changing the song and see if I can get it exactly how I want.” And you gotta have a moment where you’re like, “This is how it’s gonna be.” That’s always been really hard for me and Nick especially – every band we’ve been in has been like that, so it’s nice to have be working with Ian and Deedee being like, “This is really good, let’s move on to the next thing.”
D: It’s such a cool interaction, especially with Nick because he studied jazz and he went to school for music. He sees these limitless possibilities, but he also knows what works. It’s like, we know the rules so we know how to break them, but we also have to know when to adhere to them. I feel like a lot of things that we talk about musically, and just as people, is knowing when to use your ego, knowing when to feel invincible about a decision and feel like you’re really doing something with the right intent, and then having moments to sit back and trust everybody else. That’s hard – navigating that will be hard forever.
Can you talk more about how Ian came in and shaped that dynamic?
Deedee: I introduced myself to him at the Convulse Fest and we stayed in touch. I just loved Militarie Gun – I was like, “This is like hardcore Modest Mouse to me.” He was gonna do a song with us, and I sent him the album. He sort of kind of saw that we could do better if we had maybe some other tools and somebody to help us do it. Because we were totally ready and satisfied with what we had done on our own. It was a definite guerrilla warfare-type recording where we’ve been tracking shit kind of not in order, just kind of editing on the fly. But Ian just came to me and was straight-up, and I really appreciated that. From that point on, it was like, “We’re down to do this, but you gotta come to Hattiesburg.” Complicate it just a little bit, do a little bit extra. And he was willing to do that. He came down, and he really met us where we needed him to meet us. Flying out to Los Angeles to record just sounds fake for people here. That’s not an opportunity that seems real. We needed a sense of camaraderie there, of like, “You’re someone who just really wants to help us out.” And that’s what it was.
Like Quinn was saying, me and him think similarly about trimming the fat, it doesn’t have to be all the way pretty. It’s just got to get the ideas across. So that element helped establish maybe some more confidence in the parts we already had. Like, “You can change it if you want, but that is good. That is a good song.” Ian captured that moment, and the songs that we wrote with him were him and Nick kind of getting into the meat of some ideas. ‘Delete It’ and another song called ‘Free from the Sun’ were the two that are on the album that we did with him, and those just came straight out. He challenged the band in a way where he got the best out of us for that moment.
We talk about bands wearing their influences on their sleeves, but what’s more interesting is how you wear your hearts on your sleeves – and you sing about it, too. Are you intentional about vulnerability being at the forefront of your music?
For me, everything surrounding the band was very emotionally charged. Everybody had individual life things going on, but in combination with lockdown – some people have been on lockdown their entire lives, they don’t leave the house already. I was not one of those people though. I had to realign myself with my surroundings and shit, and that came with starting this band, because the love we were being shown on the internet and people calling me and being stoked for us throughout the entire pandemic – I’m so grateful to have been present for that and been in a place where I’m really digesting this, in a place that I can fully feel it.
In this band, we’ve never shied away from – if somebody’s like, “Hey, man, you’ve been kind of quiet, you alright?” and they’re like “Nothing,” you’re like, “Oh, buddy…” That feeling of, we’re about to talk about everything. It’s something that we get up for, in a sense of, it’s not fun to do all the time, but we always step up as a band. The music element of it is something that’s fun and easy – it’s everything else that we got to get better at. It’s, like, all the intangibles that come with traveling. I’m just very realistic – you know, people have needs, and you’re in a relationship with them in a band. You gotta really tap into what people need. That is an element that is seemingly just lost, in some ways. One of my favorite things about this band is that we started it with the intent of being like, “Let’s tap in as people. If we got something we want to talk about, let’s talk about it.” Whether it’s something that’s bothering you or you’re really proud of everybody about – we try to do it both ways, where we try to gas each other up as much as we critique and try to have a dialogue about shit.
For me, lyrically, most of my inspiration came from, like, motivational speeches. When an athlete is accepting an award, I always thought it was interesting how they’re so emotional, and they’re maybe not used to being vulnerable in those moments. But they always are talking about everybody else – in that moment, it’s like they can perceive how grateful they are for all these people when this whole moment has kind of been about them and their accomplishments. As a kid, I grew up playing sports, but that was something I always kept with me: the knowledge that as much work and as much talent a single person has, it takes a whole community of people to really impact some shit. To me, Hattiesburg bands have always had an emotional component to them, but I feel like we just brought it into our band inner band lives as well. Around the pandemic, having the band carried us through it, in a sense of giving us some hope. I was feeling so charged and so much positive energy during such a gloomy time. Maybe it’s the Catholic guilt ingrained in me, but I just want to pay it back.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.