Mark Pickerel – Even if and especially when
Two days before his show in Austin at this year’s South By Southwest Festival, Mark Pickerel is sitting in the cozy, wood-lined confines of the Hunt Club at Seattle’s Sorrento Hotel, where artists from Julian Lennon to John Lydon have also accommodated journalists, confessing to a few pre-performance nerves. “It’s only our second show, and it’ll only have been the fifth time we’ve been in the same room together,” he says of his fellow musicians. “So I’m a little bit nervous about it.”
He probably would have been even more nervous had he known his drummer would miss his flight, though a last-minute replacement was found in R.E.M.’s Bill Rieflin, who fit in like a hand in a glove. Thus, Pickerel’s new Bloodshot Records disc Snake In The Radio (credited to Mark Pickerel & His Praying Hands) had a good launch after all.
The former Screaming Trees/Truly drummer had previously released solo albums under the name the Dark Fantastic, but says those records had him “sort of disguising my country songs, with too much instrumentation, too many sound effects. This solo record is me finally accepting myself for who I am and letting my country roots come to life. I can’t help but write country-flavored songs for some reason, and I just need to embrace that.”
That Pickerel even speaks of “country roots” is ironic (though he did name his post-Trees retail venture Rodeo Records), as he admits having “despised” the genre as a child. Pickerel grew up in Ellensburg, Washington, on the dry side of the state, where it was his misfortune to live “about 50 yards from a gigantic country music radio station tower. I literally couldn’t pick up the phone without hearing ‘Take This Job And Shove It’ on the line. Not to mention that as I got older, country music was what I heard when a big truck would pull up next to me and somebody would yell, ‘Hey faggot, get a haircut!’ just as a beer bottle would crash at my feet.”
Two years ago, at another SXSW, producer Steve Fisk (who’d worked with Pickerel during his Screaming Trees days) offered his services, and Snake was recorded at Fisk’s home studio in Seattle. Pickerel worked to achieve “a more relaxed performance,” he says. “I didn’t go out of my way to cover up any insecurities about my singing or guitar playing. That was always my crutch; I would bring in great musicians to add incredible performances, so that nobody could hear my stinky guitar playing.”
The result is a haunting, atmospheric work laced with darkness and the occasional glimmer of hope. “Graffiti Girl”, with its loping drumbeat and dreamy backing vocal by Heather Duby, captures both the feel of the desolate small town and the promise offered by beautiful graffiti seen on an abandoned boxcar. The gentle swing of the opening track, “Forest Fire”, underscores the theme of finding strange beauty in the midst of destruction. The title track decries the corporate influence of radio’s airwaves with an insinuating Kraftwerk-style beat, “to help convey the feel of music being taken over by a corporate machine by removing the human element, the human emotion you normally hear from a guitar part,” he explains, “and replacing that with something a little more sinister. So it’s an Orwellian sort of thing.”
It’s music as perfectly suited for those late-night hours as a classic cult film. “I don’t want to make records that are just full of ear candy,” Pickerel says. “I want to feel like people are connecting with something, to relate to either the lyrical content or the emotional content, even if just makes them want to drive their car really fast over a cliff! Just so that people know I’m writing my songs from the heart. And the mind.”