Marah – After the gold rush
“Kids In Philly got a lot of great press, and it really built our world. It made us feel we had accomplished something we never thought of accomplishing,” says Serge, 32. “Then we came off the road and it was…OK, I’m kinda broke. I don’t have much to show for this. How can you hit more people?”
Adds Dave: “We were incredibly grateful to people about Kids In Philly. Even today, people say they really love it. It speaks to them, and that makes me very proud. But it also put us in this place where we weren’t reaping the benefits.”
Commercially and creatively, Marah hit a wall. And the group as it was then constituted flew apart; bassist Danny Metz and drummer Ronnie Vance departed, leaving only the Bielanko brothers to ponder their next move. “It was a dark time,” Dave says.
“Point blank, a Marah record — the way we made them — was never going to get on the radio,” Serge says. “I don’t shake a stick at anyone who says: ‘I am in a rock ‘n’ roll band, we have made two records, and what would it be like to get on the radio, and do it on our own terms?'”
So when Artemis boss Danny Goldberg asked the Bielankos to submit a list of potential producers for their third album, they made the decision to take a sharp left turn.
“It was a short list,” Serge recalls. “It had, like, Prince on it.”
As in the flamboyant, pint-sized, Purple Rain guy from Minneapolis?
“I swear to God. I said to Danny, if there is any way you can get us in with Prince, I would love to make a record with him. We would have done it, but obviously that was a longshot.”
Ultimately, they settled on Owen Morris, the Welsh sonic architect behind Oasis and the Verve. They also opted not to make another album at the hometown studio that had spawned both Kids In Philly and their 1998 debut Let’s Cut The Crap And Hook Up Later On Tonight.
In fact, they quit Philadelphia altogether. One month after the horror of September 11 and amid all the uncertainty of that time, the brothers left behind the city that had provided a home, an audience and inspiration for two albums’ worth of songs. They set out for Ireland and then London, where they wrote and recorded drum machine/guitar/vocal demos of songs that reflected both the terror and the exhilaration of the experience.
“I’d disappear just as I’m sitting here/And blame it on nothing to say,” Dave sang on “Float Away”, which seemed to allude to their search for direction. On “Crying On An Airplane”, the in-flight despair was palpable, while “What 2 Bring” was a packing list of intangibles they’d need for the quest. “Soul” was an unabashed celebration of life, and, judging by the lyrics to “People Of The Underground”, the brothers also acquainted themselves with London clubland. “For All We Know We’re Dreaming” captured the momentum and sense of wonder at their new environment, while “Out In Style” seemed to shrug off any doubts about their choices.
The Bielankos ended up with Morris in Wales at the legendary studio Rockfield, where they submitted to the producer’s state-of-the-art sonic ministrations and bonded with him during after-hours pub crawls. “People can say what they want about Owen Morris, I think he is a borderline genius,” says Dave. “He wouldn’t have it if we did the typical Marah thing with a broken accordion and a banjo. We were excited by that. And we loved each other. Every night at the pub, we would end up in tears hugging each other.”
Marah was hardly a 98-lb. weakling, but Morris still managed to perform a Charles Atlas makeover on their music, adding muscle and heft to their sound. “Float Away” was hooked onto a sample from “Love Is The Message” by ’70s Philly soul kingpins MFSB and featured a voice-and-guitar cameo from the Bielankos’ hero, Bruce Springsteen. The intro to the raging “For All We Know We’re Dreaming” was performed by a male choir. “Shame” featured the sultry coo of singer Caroline Lost (Serge’s significant other) and a drum track that could have been borrowed from New Order. Gone were the banjos and junk shop instrumentation and microcosmic portraits of street characters, replaced by big songs and a brash modern rock sound.
Dave says that when they turned in the album to Artemis, there was no hesitation. “They were like, holy shit! You guys are amazing. Choose your video director. It wasn’t like, ‘I don’t hear a single,’ like I hear most bands hear when they hand in their record. It was, you’ve done it. You have won the war.”
Marah, it seemed, was ready to take on the world.
Then the song died. No explanation was called for — certainly none was given. Songs die. This one did…For a few weeks, you heard the song, or you didn’t, while nerd connoisseurs were left to savor it later, to champion or slag it in their endless tinny dialogue. History, basically, wasn’t made.
— Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress Of Solitude
“Somewhere along the line you guys left us behind. It has nothing to do with the music. It has to do with attitude. You may still be a band for the people, but I no longer have any idea who those people are or why I feel so abandoned….I have no idea what that problem is, but it is a glaring one.”
— fan posting at Marah’s website, January 31, 2003