Marah in Ghost World
TORONTO — Mountain climbers refer to an ascent made in the worst possible circumstances by the euphemistic phrase “full conditions” – as if the most dire, ill-advised combination of ice, wind, falling rocks and such was not considered adversity to be avoided, but a challenge to be relished.
And so it could be said that Marah’s visit to Toronto was made under what might be considered, in rock ‘n’ roll terms, full conditions. The show was decidedly under promoted, but then given that the city was in the thrall of its annual Caribana cultural festival, it’s likely that Marah’s gutsy brand of passionately delivered rock would have been drowned out by the joyous sound of steel drums. To compound things, the venue for the Toronto gig booked Marah alongside a neo-burlesque show, so much of the crowd on hand lined up to witness po-mo strippers, not a touring rock band.
Marah is, to be fair, finding its legs after staggering from the wreckage of last year, when – on the eve of a lengthy tour booked to promote their sixth album Angels of Destruction! – the band as it then existed flew apart in a swirl of mystery and acrimony. Then guitarist, songwriter and sometime singer Serge Bielanko left the group to care for his newborn daughter (he maintains a blog about fatherhood), leaving behind his brother Dave and keyboardist Christine Smith to carry the torch. With the very able support of bassist Johnny Pisano and drummer Martin Lynds, it’s a stripped back version of Marah from the most recent six-piece configuration, and the space in their sound presents great sonic possibilities, especially evident in Pisano’s assertive style and the richness of Smith’s contribution on keyboards and harmony vocals.
“I feel like I’m in that movie Ghost World,” singer-guitarist Dave Bielanko told the small crowd as he surveyed the scene from the stage. A lesser band would have been forgiven for giving up and mailing it in. But this is not the Marah way. Despite these unfavorable conditions and with few partisans in the sparse crowd, the new lineup of the band gave it their all, playing through a set that included sound snafus and broken strings and, miraculously, some sublime performances from across Marah’s catalog.
“Catfisherman,” from Marah’s epochal 2000 album Kids In Philly, blew up into a monster funk jam, with elements of Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” Lipps Inc’s “Funky Town,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and “Tom Sawyer” by Toronto’s own Rush tossed into the bouillabaisse. “Formula, Cola, Dollar Draft,” from their 1998 debut Let’s Cut The Crap And Hook Up Later On Tonight, began with Bielanko on his knees playing an extended introduction, the rest of the band falling in sympathetically, opening up new emotional territory within the song.
It would be an understatement to suggest that Marah’s ride to date has been tumultuous. There has been a Spinal Tappian succession of lineup changes over the years. Even relations with their cult of fans can be problematic. When we settled down to speak, Dave had yet to read the reaction a recent interview he’d given had sent through the group’s message board. The guitarist had said that he liked his fans one-on-one, but as a group online they made him vomit. Opinions among the fans were divided between those who thought Dave had a point and those who believe he has lost the plot.
Immediately after the Toronto show, Marah was scheduled to fly off to play alongside Jayhawks and Lucinda Williams at the Luna Lunera festival in Spain, where they have found an unlikely rabid following. Upon return, they were to bear down on a long-gestating new record, which has been recorded in Nashville and at a farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. Against that backdrop and amid a succession of beers and cigarettes, the following edited conversation with Christine and Dave took place at an outdoor patio, prior to the Toronto show. At the end of the night, I handed them one of the posters used to advertise the show. Dave signed it “Ghost World Tour.”
ND: So after the trip to Spain, what next?
Dave Bielanko: We are trying very hard to finish a record in a very unconventional way. I think if I have ever afforded myself the moment not to rush something out, now is the time. I am not putting shit out until I am completely happy with it. And I have completely fucked up standards now, because – you know – I have been through a lot.
We knew we wanted to make a lot of music and we knew we were not taking money from anyone (at a label), because they end up taking all the money you earn. We also wanted to do it, or much of it, on our own, the way we have done much of our best shit.
We want to record in a house, or use a studio to capture the band and then use the house to capture things that don’t get out so easy in the studio. Producers are completely out of the question — teams of Brian Enos working through the night while you are in a hotel room. This shit is close to the bone, the way it has always been.
We rented a big old farmhouse in Pennsylvania. I have been going there hanging out in this rural Amish place. But certain things go wrong. It is hard to record properly. It takes a mad amount of cables. Shit we know nothing about. It has been frustrating off and on. But everyone in the band really loves this place and it is definitely the next step in finishing what we’re doing. Shit happens. We end up in the weirdest situations. People have been very, very giving in a lot of ways. Maybe you earn that or whatever. Stranger things have happened. Who knows? Maybe we will end up in a studio in London recording.
You look for a reason to keep interested. I need to completely believe in something before I am going to go out and play five shows of it. In a way, that sounds weak. But in a way, I think music has gotten pretty weak. I am not inspired by a lot of bands. I put on their records and I don’t feel like I want to be in that person’s position.
I don’t know where we’re going. We’re just going to do what we feel. Fuck it, something cool will happen. What we have recorded is really great.
Christine Smith: It will be a huge relief when (the new record) comes out, it has been a long time coming, because of what happened in 2008 and with the last record. Of course it is for the fans, but first and foremost we have got to be happy with it, he (Dave) has got to be happy with it.
DB: When we get back from Spain, our mission is to try and finish it. We wanted to put it out in the fall, but at that point, that could be ambitious to the point where we would have to borrow money. We recorded 12 proper songs in Nashville. Eight of them, I really, really love. Some of them need to be completed, some near completed, some need to be mixed up.
CS: The new year feels more likely. We were hoping for the fall. We are trying to do it ourselves, so we have a lot of financial, technical setbacks. We are overcoming that, booking tours and trying to coordinate the release. It is so hands on, we are doing everything ourselves. It is a lot of work, but it is nice to have that control.
ND: You told me once that you wanted to make a “brutal folk record.” How would you characterize where this new record is going?
DB: We have tried to do that. Almost immediately, I welcomed that because of the tumultuous 2008 we had. I personally sound a lot like the band, whatever someone’s vision of the band is. Me and a banjo sounds a lot like Marah. It was exciting to see it all of the sudden be a big loud rock thing again, or at least partially. But we have this other part, which I am very fond of — so was my brother — which was like the acoustic guitar and piano. The more “Walt Whitman Bridge” thing. That was a big part of what it has been about – cool songs and a haphazard way of doing it. That is the essential item.
Every night I look at the merch stand and I think we are missing that quintessential thing. When I see our albums lined up, it seems that the one everyone would go to is missing. I find great fault and great beauty in all of them. Maybe that is what’s great about them. When I look at other people’s stuff, I embrace the faults much more than the perfection.
ND: When the band as it then existed flew apart just as you were releasing Angels of Destruction! … is that just another obstacle or a more fundamental thing to undergo?
DB: It was bigger than an obstacle. We’ve had plenty of obstacles. Shit like that happens. But in a lot of ways it was the end of it, if I had let that happen. How old am I? The same age as Leonardo DiCaprio. Should he retire? Should I keep playing music? Maybe I should. If anyone finds fault with that, they are a fucking idiot. Life is short, so you do what you do.
In 2008 when all those dates got canceled and there was some kind of fucking exodus, I was left with the Marah spot in South Philly (the band’s clubhouse/recording studio located above an auto body shop, known as The Marahge). People just walked away from it. I was the only one to do anything about it. I was living in New York, everything I owned was there. The guy downstairs wanted a couple of thousand dollars just so I could buy back our past and shit. I went through a dark period with that. That’s why we said let’s get another place a million miles from anywhere. But everything happens for a reason.
I am very moody right now. I am very depressed at times. But I have always been that way. It is a tumultuous fucking thing. So you surround your stuff with people you love. I love Johnny. I love Christine. Marty we found in Nashville. The four of us together, we feel like we want to play music. Not all the bands felt like that.
ND: The old cliché, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger comes to mind.
DB: Personally, spiritually, yeah. It is still hard, but I don’t think many people make music that is personal and spiritual. They do their thing and they are big for a minute. I am not saying that we have been the greatest band in the world, but I do think our reasons have always been righteous. We were friends before we were a band. We had purpose before we had material. I am still chasing that.
ND: You had put out a couple of albums with YepRoc. Have you given much thought to how you’d like to put this one out?
DB: I loved the label we were with, they were awesome people. Good intentions. But I don’t think we can afford to do another indie record. When you put out a record with an indie label in America, you make 45 recoupable cents on an album. You could add up 45 cents up until it is 5 million and you will never get another dollar. If we were to give away another album for 15 or 20 grand, it is really stupid. No one ever says it is stupid to do that because it is the way it has always been done.
CS: In this stage and life in the career of Marah, the way technology has changed the way people listen and buy music, it is the perfect time to try to do it (on our own).
DB: I don’t even think I own the name of our band anymore. That’s how fucked up our business is and that’s how mismanaged and messed up it is. I have come to embrace it. All we ever did was play a couple of songs right down the middle of that shit. And we put on some very inspired gigs occasionally. I don’t hear a lot of records where I go I wish I had made that record. So that’s why I think I am in a position to say I want to make my own record. That is cool. I think I am in the band I want to be in.