"Even though we've been dipped in shame, maybe it's this time we've been praying for." ~ hidden track at the end of the new Marah record.
Last time Marah was in Seattle it was some four or five band bill at the Tractor Tavern, singer-songwriter and guitarist and "bla bla bla" player Dave Bielanko tells me from their touring van somewhere in the dark Nildesperandum of urban Texas. His brother and co-founder, co-vocalist, and guitar and "etc." player Serge answered and handed off the cell phone to Dave to take a few minutes to talk to me about their tight, delightful new roots-rock album If You Didn't Laugh You'd Cry. It's a sweet little CD, from the jiving Stones street rock of "The Hustle" to the scuttering, awesome honesty of "Fatboy" to the 60s brit-garage bop of prole blues "Poor People." Bielanko sounds more hopeful about their headlining show coming up at the Crocodile, and very happy about their debut on Yeproc.
"We're driving to the Continental Club in Houston, it's just around the corner, and we're going to unload gear to play a show here tonight, our first show off the east coast," the resonant-voiced troubadour says. "It's fucking hot and it's kind of ridiculous. I miss the snow." When we talked, it was getting really winter-weathery in their hometown of Philadelphia and their new home of Brooklyn. "We've been happy to come to play to Texas though, play a few shows, blast in and blast out."
The real story here is that the Faces meets Reed meets Westerberg If You Didn't Laugh You'd Cry is as authentic as a coffee-ringed, dog-eared issue of Cometbus zine, a short story by Harry Crews, an essay by Sarah Vowell. The last one mentioned is a quirky, prolifically scribing gal who is buds with Marah the way she is with They Might be Giants and Death Cab for Cutie. Another close pal to the band is Nick Hornby, who does some crazy stuff with the band on-stage when they're in the Englishman's's homeland and near-abouts, a sort of spoken word based on Hornby's rock writing from the glorious rock write-cum-autobio Songbook wrapped up in Marah's poignant covers-lovin' playing.
It's this ability to assume your audience aren't a bunch of morons, that literature and music are not only compatible for the effete but the everyman as well and already have been in rock history for a long time, that jokes are okay and confessions are part of the game and rough edges are character and not flaws, that making music on every level is more about the love for raw expression and awkward insight and not pristine plays for publicity by people who don't even know how to schmooze properly.
If You Didn't Laugh You'd Cry is Marah's fifth record, in about as many labels, a graceful strong cup of Sunday morning triple espresso rock from a band that has been dear to the hearts of their Philadelphia home base and for fans of bands like the Replacements and guys like Dylan or Springsteen. They have a couple of new players for the release, and the tour, Adam Garbinski and Dave Peterson from Squad Five-O.
"They would come to our shows and be in the front and they knew all of our songs and when we got finished in Europe at the end of (previous originals record) 20,000 Streets, when we came back to New York … we got the feeling that the band was in sort of an unrest," Bielanko reveals. "We were in a place where we needed a change, and we can be very exhausting my brother and I, with our lifestyle."
"Why would people find you and Serge exhausting?" I laugh and say.
"I guess when you're very passionate or driven about anything it can be very exhausting to be around at times," he responds, maybe with the rustle of shrugged shoulders behind his weary voice. "I guess with the history of this band we end up running people ragged and then they usually end up begging us to let them go. We always try to maintain something of a friendship or whatever.
New York is all over the band's new music — it sounds like a smoked-out sound-journal crafted in a cramped apartment sometimes, or a walk around the neighborhood to the nearest pub with an acoustic and your girlfriend. "It's exciting, inspiring, and expensive," Bielanko says, laughing. "I've been there for a full four years now, and it feels like a great home base and that's the reason we chose it."
"Anyways, so we came back to New York City and (producer) Kirk (Henderson) and I were there and we got a call from a fan who's an engineer at a place called the Magic Shop and he invited us over to record for a day," he says. "So me and Kirk borrowed some equipment because all of ours was in Philadelphia, borrowed cheap guitars from our friends, and rode the subway over, and ended up cutting a song called 'City of Dreams' and "Walt Whitman Bridge' that day, and unbeknownst to us we came home and played 'em for everybody and it was kind of like more folky and sad, but also kind of hopeful. We didn't really figure we were starting a record but we were like that's a pretty cool place to start let's chase it down and see if we can get an album in a really quick amount of time. It was something that we'd never tried before.
"Then we called Adam and Dave and said, 'You guys want to come up to New York?'" Bielanko continues, "and what's cool about the record is that 'Fatboy' is literally the first notes of music we ever played together and we didn't rehearse it and just set it up in the studio and 'This is how it goes' and clicked it in, and took it on the first take. So it was that moment that we took it on the first time. Which is cool to me and if it felt very natural, taking it from one song to another, just flipping through our notebooks kind of thing, and that spontaneity, which seems lost in rock and roll, or what is called 'rock and roll' anymore and have this emotional connection with the listeners. And fuck he polish of the whole thing, let's do it really fast and make it hold water and I feel that we did.
"We all felt really and proud to have a record so quickly, and it gave us the ability to get on the road almost immediately with Adam and Dave and Serge and Kirk. We went to Europe and played in Spain and those places, and it feels really good to play the American cities that we want to."
During all the recording with Henderson, Marah laid down some tracks for their previous record, a Christmas album, including a collaboration with Sarah Vowell. How'd that happen?
"She's just a friend, a New York kind of people, she'd come over to my house one night and we talked about doing something, and then she had this crazy idea for a Christmas song, and then that show This American Life wanted to use our Christmas music for a Christmas special, and she said 'Could you guys come up with music for this song based around this idea of 'Christmas at Valley Forge' thing, and we were like, 'Yeah, as long as NPR throws us a couple bucks so we did it.' … Sarah's way odd, but in a good way."
As for the gigs with Hornby, "we did some shows with him and they're based on his writing about rock and roll, in a different way than he had written about music I think before, very much from the audience perspective, like 'Here I am ten years old watching the Faces,' and trying to make sense of it, and drinking, and everything that just goes with music. So he'd written these things and we read them, and to me they were the best things he'd written about music, they
were really, really super honest and funny and very much like the honest perspective. We were drinking with him after some shows in London, and he said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we could do a show together? And take me out of a Border's environment and put me into a night club, where I could stand on stage with a band and compliment what I'm saying, you play a Clash song or a Faces song or Prince song or whatever and turn it into a big rock show.' It was a great success in Germany and the H ague and Sweden and really well received in New York and now we're playing a couple of shows in Switzerland and maybe Berlin, things like that. We're all on stage together drinking wine and it makes perfect sense once he starts talking."
Bielanko doesn't like how Hornby is regarded by a lot of rock critics and rock writers. "He's a great fucking writer and a great dude, and he gets backlash from these guys because everything he touches turns to Julia Roberts, you know what I mean? And people get jealous of him or whatever, but he's fucking great at what he does and he's great at writing about music and having some schlub at the local rock club relate straight down to his shoes, they're like, 'That's me, that's the way I feel about music.' Therefore I'm a huge fan."
Bielanko reads a lot on tour, right now reading 'The Known World, "that won the Pulitzer Prize, and Southern slavery stories. I read fucking everything. Sadly, because we have to travel so much I get to read more than I probably should. My favorite stuff is Larry Brown and Southern stuff."
Bielanko says they will continue to push the line a little with literature and music, maybe doing a book with Hornby and including a CD reflecting their shows together, but their main focus is still on their music. "I think that's where Nick and us became really good friends, as he's almost completely inspired by music, music is his muse to write fiction. And in a lot of ways that's been ours in the opposite direction, reading books has inspired us to write songs more than songs have, especially contemporary (music) artists have."
Bielanko really took advantage of his experiences of the past few years, the ups and downs of a music career and city living, and channeled it into rock music approximating the feel of good literature. Before moving to Brooklyn and recording the stripped down but in no way spare If You Didn't Laugh You'd Cry the brothers and their bandmates at the time had been through the record label ringer. An anticipated high point should have been their third album Float Away in which Marah actually flew to Dublin a few weeks after Nine-Eleven to record with the producer for Oasis, which kicked-off track with a title track collaboration with Bruuuuce himself. But that album can now be purchased used for a penny at Amazon.
"The cool thing about writing and falling off and getting better at it is like, 'Let's shift the scope from grand and cinematic stories to like, us sitting on our stoop drinking coffee' which basically what our life is," Bielanko says. "Our world is pretty small, and people can relate to it a lot more because these are honest songs, these aren't the most exciting songs in what they're about, but they're exciting because they're about that, I thought. Your tendency and I think our tendency is to underestimate what people get out of music. But people are smarter than what you give them credit for, and they can feel that connection. It was important to us to make a record that was small in scope and scheme but had a big heart. And I think that's what we kind of did."