Unhinged - Winter 1989
American Music Club
Publication: Unhinged (#5)
Date: Winter 1989
This interview is the first part of two and has just literally fallen on the page with plans of how to present it vanquished. It is in fact the first part of two interviews, the second bringing the first up to date, but unable to bring itself up to date on it's own. The time and place was Birmingham at the cold end of last winter.
Unhinged: "Can you start with the basic history lesson to give an idea where you're coming from?"
Mark: "We started about 7 years ago and it was an acoustic trio, just me and some friends (Brad Johnson and Scott Alexander). They were room-mates. It was stand up bass and two acoustic guitars. Then it moved on to a 7-piece. Can I remember all the names? There was Mona Fisher, her husband and a lot of people. That was huge. A guy played trumpet, two backup vocalists. That I stopped. It was like Iggy Pop crossed with Live in Japan. Then I didn't play for about six months. I was sick of it. Then I heard that Vudi said he was destined to play with me and he knew Matt Norelli and Danny Pearson, who plays the acoustic guitar. So then we played for 4 years. No. 3 years. 2 years. Or something. Then the drummer wanted to go to Germany and we said 'Ok,lets go to Germany and we'll make it big' and we followed him out there. We played 2 shows, one of which was opening for Sonic Youth, who blew us away. This was 1985. Then the drummer came back and quit and we didn't have a drummer for a year and it was just me and Danny and Vudi playing acoustic with Brad Johnson playing standup bass again. Tom Mallon was my friend and we couldn't find a drummer. Tom's our producer too. He knows recording studios. We had a drummer called Tim Mooney and he used to be into drugs and now he's on AA, he's totally straight now and everything's fine and he's our friend and he probably goes out with Lisa now but we're not sure and then 'Ok' Tom said,'Ok, I'll play drums'. He's only been playing for about six months, so he joined and we made another album and I think he's alright. He's not brilliant or anything, but he's my friend and to me that's what matters most. Technical brilliance. That means I'll never get anywhere. I like him as a friend and I can hang out with him more or less. Then the group has been in its present form for about a year pretty much."
Unhinged: "So, how did Lisa come into the band?"
Mark: "Lisa came in because I used to play acoustic guitar. I used to do Danny's part and I used to drop the guitar & break it or break strings, so we'd have stop and fix the guitar. And Danny used to play the bass."
Unhinged: "Was tonight's show a typical show?"
Mark: "It was typically chaotic. We didn't know what we were doing. It was kinda rough. I thought it was sounding too professional, so I wanted to fuck it up and then I come backstage and everybody says 'That was shit!' and the guy from the booking agency says one word, 'Rough' so we go 'Oh yes ,a rough show', but I don't know: a couple of the songs went really well".
Unhinged: "I was wondering if you look on playing as 'to get it across, it's got to be difficult?"
Mark: "No, to get it across it's got to be really easy. You've got to find the place where it's easy to get it across."
Unhinged: "The venue?"
Mark: "No, the point in the song, the moment it happens. That's the difficult part. A lot of what I did tonight was really cold, almost calculated. I'm not drinking any more before shows, so I'm sober and I'm always cold and calculating when I'm sober."
Unhinged: "So do you think, 'Right, now; I'm going to kick something to kick some life into it'?"
Mark: "No. Yeah, I'm trying to find the song and it's usually pretty hard."
Unhinged: "It's not the same place in the song each time?"
Mark: "Never. Never. How can it be? Every moment is different. Every time you get up on stage in front of a new crowd it's different. I don't know, maybe I'm naive and I don't know how long this will last because it's pretty hard to do. Actually the less I drink, the more I can cope with it. It HAS to be different because otherwise you're not really doing anything to the audience. I see so many bands and they're just playing through their music and I know my songs are good enough to sell themselves and I try to lay back from the songs, if I can; if the song's going well, I just close my eyes and sing the fucker. But, if it's not going well and I try and I'm losing the song, then I have to do something like hurt myself or something. Sometimes. That sounds childish though."
Unhinged: "What about the others? Do they find the same point in the song?"
Mark: "No. Never. That's why it's usually so chaotic with us."
Unhinged: "But when you played the last song, it sounded much more just like a straightforward rock band".
Mark: "Yeah. It was. I had nothing left in me. I couldn't do it anymore. But it's like, 'Another encore? Ok, I'll do it'. I shouldn't have done it."
Unhinged: "So you weren't happy with that sound, beacause it came across a lot more powerfully to the audience".
Mark: "Did it. Well I'm sorry. Maybe I should just lay back. The idea for me actually is not to be on stage, I should be in the wings. That's what they tell me I should do, just to sing. Seriously, it's the songs that matter, not the fucking performance, or the singer. I was in a punk band ten years, twelve years ago. That got me into being a front man. I used to go through all the front man stuff, I was a punk monkey. But I'm slowly curing my self of that whole...."
Unhinged: "If the songs are going better then how would you have dealt with it?"
Mark: "I would have been really happy, but then I would think I was trying to hard and think I overdid it. But whatever. I'm sorry. Perhaps tomorrow night will be better. Tom and Lisa couldn't hear each other tonight. Vudi was playing very well. It's just that band thing."
Unhinged: "Do you rehearse a lot?"
Mark: "We rehearse a lot. We arrange the songs pretty well. They're great musicians."
Unhinged: "And then you de-arrange them on stage."
Mark: "Yeah. Sometimes. I was trying to tell people like Demon. They're all really weird about our live show, because that's whats going to sell our records and Asgard's (booking agency) really worried because they are doing this thing for us and they they know we're unknown and they're just trying to help us out, but saying it all hangs on the Mean Fiddler show because all the critics will be there is bizarre. You can't just see us once, it's like a whole bunch of times. We have a weird reputation in San Francisco. Sometimes we're transcendently great, sometimes we're the most boring band you've ever seen live and you'll never know before a show which it's going to be."
Unhinged: "Were you bored tonight?"
Mark: "No, I was having a good time. Strangely. I got some stuff out. I was really enjoying myself. Believe it or not."
Unhinged: "So why have you got a weird reputation?"
Mark: "Sometimes we're really good. Sometimes we'll go out and play one song the whole set. We're haunted by that stupid movie Spinal Tap. 'This is our space-jazz-space-jam.' Yeah, we've done that before."
Unhinged: "If you had played the set tonight at the Mean Fiddler, half the critics would have loved it and the other half would've walked away."
Mark: "That's how it always is. What can I do? It doesn't matter what we do. It's like I gave up a long time ago. I should be a Vegas star. If this was a Vegas act, I'd have no trouble because I'd know exactly where I stood.The kind of music we play is so.....we play these hard rock songs and we play these really quiet songs and we play country songs, we play psychedelic things because those are the kinds of music we like to listen to and that's the kind of music I write. So I don't rely on the crowd anymore. But maybe at the Mean Fiddler we'll do a real professional show. There'll be big monitors. I'll have this big wall between me and the crowd."
Unhinged: "It seems like all the reviews you get say that you're really morbid."
Mark: "We're not really morbid..."
Unhinged: "But when I listen to the songs they don't seem morbid at all......"
Mark: "They're not. Every time I have an interview, somebody asks me if I'm a manic depressive. You know, I write these songs and they're not happy go lucky rock numbers and I'm not trying to do anymore than what I do. If I tried to put words to it, I'd only sound more of a pretentious fool than I already am."
Unhinged: "Do you consciously say,'I'm going to put a happy ending, because it needs a happy ending..."
Mark: "No! No!..."
Unhinged: "...Not the song needs a happy ending, but 'I need a happy ending.'"
Mark: "Oh yeah. Absolutely.I'm definitely into that. Like the song 'Last Harbor'. I spent a long time writing that song believe it or not. 'Last Harbor' is - I like Eugene O'Neill a lot and there's two references to 'last harbor' in Long Days Journey Into Night and also in The Iceman Cometh. He was obsessed with the last harbor because he used to take ships and in The Iceman Comet which is about alcoholism and living a lie, the last harbor is like a place of disaster, a place to end up in. In Long Days Journey Into Night the last harbor is a place of transcendence. At first the song was 'Snug Harbor' or 'Safe Harbor', but I was reading Eugene O'Neill so it became 'Last Harbor'. But I left it open to sound like the last harbor too, because this person I'm confronting with myself is like - are you going to be it? It's like using the words to 3 different levels if I can but it's not morbid. It's a sad song because it's from a sad place, but most of my stuff is sad. I mean did they ask Turner if he was a sad person?"
Unhinged: "Could you go through some of the tracks? Last night I spent ages with an atlas trying to find Highway 5."
Mark: "It's right there in California. It's the backbone of California. It runs all the way from San Diego up to Eureka. So it's the main road. It's the Big Road."
Unhinged: "But I was looking for it in the deserts."
Mark: "Oh, it is. The drive from San Francisco to L.A is weird: it's an irrigated desert. The left side is all irrigated, the right side is the real thing: barren dry mountains. So it's this phony Californian situation, which California is wonderful for. I love California for disgusting, wasteful conflicts like that. And then I sang the song around a romance I once had. First time I drove down it, I knew I had to write about it because I'm really into '5', not that I'm a silly numerologist, but five is the martyr's number. I love the number. Ah, shut me up!"
Unhinged: "When I cut out the rubbish when I transcribe this."
Mark: "Yeah, and leave the crap. Sure. It's like the Melody Maker article. I don't believe some of the stupid shit I said. I'm not blaming the guy for putting it in at all. The guy was really nice. I liked him. I don't believe what I said comparing 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' with 'Stand By Your Man'. I tried to demystify Joy Division and I tried to demystify John Lennon because I think they were people and I think that 'Stand By Your Man' in that context is in all sense a joke. You can't compare it 'cos Tammy Wynette never bought the big one. She married the guy. That's something she did; It's like self-destruction knows no bounds."
Unhinged: "The way you throw yourself around the stage.."
Mark: "I don't do that too much anymore. I don't believe I was doing that tonight."
Unhinged: "But people say 'It's self-destruction because he throws himself around the stage.'"
Mark: "I'll deny it to the hilt."
Unhinged: "Deny it...."
Mark: "Okay. IT'S NOT TRUE!"
Unhinged: "You were saying 'Last Harbor' took you a long time to write, so do you find it hard to write songs?"
Mark: "It's not hard. I write a bad song quickly. It takes me a long time to write a - even the song's on California are not what I think are great. I'm still in the process of learning how to write songs. I've exhausted all the sources and now it's like I'm really - I'm not going to brag these days. I'm bragging all the time because I like the stuff I'm writing. I like the band right now a lot."
Unhinged: "How long do you like the numbers you write for?"
Mark: "Usually about a month."
Unhinged: "That's pretty good."
Mark: "Yeah. I sing them to myself all the time. No. I like them for a long time. The first song that started out tonight, 'Kathleen'; I like that song an awful lot. I like all the songs we did tonight, except for 'Bad Liquor'. We shouldn't have done that. It doesn't fit in with the rest of the set. It's the song that chases away the devil. We try to fuck that song up as much as we can on stage to make us feel real loose. But we didn't fuck it up tonight as much as we usually do."
Unhinged: "So why do you leave it so late in the set?"
Mark: "We weren't even going to do it this time, but I just said 'Let's do Bad Liquor and get off this stage,' and then we didn't."
Unhinged: "When you're putting a song together, what comes first?"
Mark: "I hear this is a bad way to write songs. Sometimes it's the words. Sometimes I'm fooling around with the chords and the first words that come in my mind with a melody. I'm a plodding person. Not like an innovator."
Unhinged: "Do you take words you've written from lots of places and fit them together in a song?"
Mark: "Uh uh, I usually have particular ideas for each song and I write pages and pages for the one song and then edit it or just see what works or doesn't work in the context of the song. Then I'll takes those verses and rewrite those again. Then every time I play it I'll sing new words."
Unhinged: "You don't feel like the words that come out first are the only way you're going to get what you're trying to say out?"
Mark: "Usually. Sometimes it's the first words. Yeah. I remember about 'Room Above The Club'. Every time I sing the song, I think of the moment I thought of writing the song and that was outside a place called the Sound of Music and this whore walked by and this guy goes, 'Hey baby, I need myself a good woman,' and she says, 'If you wanna abuse me you gotta pay me money, fucker!' And that's why I wrote the song."
At this point we moved out of the club and restarted the interview with Mark and Danny. But the microphone decided this was the time when it wanted to play up, in effect abrogating the powers of editing to itself.
In transcribing the next section, I have tried to override that editing, but the conversation fades in and out and the sense of what was said may have been turned completely around by the inability to hear the occasional crucial word.
Unhinged: "Take the songs in your notebook here, where are they coming from?"
Mark: "Sometimes it's just the first two lines. Here - 'We'll waste a thousand years sitting round the kitchen table/Watching the brandy turn into beer/And we can't get out even though we're able'. Stupid line, but there really was a night out when we started drinking brandy and then we got the beer out and drank all that up....It's just about....The other song here - these are all new songs - is watching someone sleeping and saying 'When we're asleep/They're going to bury us in peace'. It's about watching someone comatose after a week."
Unhinged: "Do you always write from what has happened?"
Mark: "Oh yeah, they're all true stories"
Danny: "The names have been changed to protect the innocent."
Mark: "And sometimes not."
Unhinged: "So what are the stories in the songs on California?"
Mark: "Some of the group won't see it like that, but it's about Columbus, Ohio. There's a good story about that. I used to live there for three years and once I was a hitcher and I got a lift in this car with two coastguards and they were from New Orleans, driver and chick drinking....(fades)....and I was getting real scared, so I got out and I was waiting for a bus and ....(fades)....head fucked up....(fades)....no names....(fades)....so that's about emotion because you know they're all true stories, because the moment is the truth, the song is rubbish so it's all from memory."
Unhinged: "'Somewhere' made sense to me coming from a small town, it's not depressing, just another Friday night with nothing happening."
Mark: "Yeah, right. All you can do is wait around. 'Jenny' is a true story about somebody. She was at a party and everyone was wearing black and all these guys were picking up on her and necking, so she said 'Ok' and they were drunk and she was confused and by the end of the party.....I knew where she was coming from, but I wasn't anything to do with her. I was just going to write her song. 'Highway 5', that's a really crass song. It's pretty obscure what that's about. 'Pale Skinny Girl' is hard to work out. It's about stopping for gas in South Carolina next to this Marine army base and then this little girl came out of a triangle of furniture to buy some coke and she looked like Ophelia at the bottom of the water, drowned, pale and dead."
Unhinged: "How does a triangle come into it?"
Mark: "That was where she worked as a secretary. She has long blonde hair and there were flags flapping. It was October and there was this haze. It was romantic and I wrote this thing. She was at the bottom of the lake in a mermaid cave and swam around. She was like an albino fish, never ate daylight. Of course, I didn't say that in the song because the song was flawed. I should have said 'albino fish'. If we'd been Thin White Rope, I could have written a song about albino fish. She is an albino mermaid, clever and cool, but I'm not clever and cool."
Unhinged: "Is the song about trying to be cool?"
Mark: "I'm not accusing anybody of trying to be cool. Hey! Look ay my new Doctor Marten's - desperately trying to be cool. Check out my black jeans, are they cool or what?"
Unhinged: "While we're talking about clothes, what about 'Blue And Grey Shirt'?"
Mark: "That was written about the colours of the dawn when I was sitting around waiting for Bill to show up, about the grass and the trees and no drugs, NO DRUGS - the ground was shaking and then when the sun was up..."
Unhinged: "Where was that?"
Mark: "Columbus, Ohio. A lot of these songs were written when I was living there. I mean it takes long time for me to get to topics sometimes.....(fades)....also I had this big, long hallucination. Remember the time I got really mad at Tom, Tom asked me if I had a pen - the one time we did this hideous record store on our first tour..."
Unhinged: "You played record stores?"
Mark: "The first tour was all record stores because we didn't get enough shows. Then I got mad at Tom for absolutely no reason. I had a nervous breakdown in the back of the van curled up in the fetal position and having hallucinations. One of them, all of them were about sin, one of them was like smashing at 1,000 miles an hour through planes of glass, BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! The other one - actually I'm reading this book Dark Is The Dream by Malcom Lowry and in the beginning he talks about - actually he calls his character Sidgebord Wilderness: cool - because Malcom Lowry was never really a writer; I like his stuff, it would be a cliche to say he wrote thinly veiled autobiography AND he wrote cliches a lot and his imagery is corny. This is a corny story. I'm trying to justify what I'm going to say - and the whole thing is about standing on a lip above a pit and being drawn inexorably down: not that it was Satanist or anything. All my life I've had these Satanist hesitations, these temptations and it's like being pulled down and down. I tried to resist, but it was too attractive, too inevitable. It was going to happen. It HAD to happen and watching the forest pass by the van on the side of the freeway and I had this feeling that I was about to go down, so I was going down. I went down and I was coming back up and almost getting there and finally after resisting that for about 45 minutes, I don't know, it probably wasn't that long, finally I said 'Let's do it. Fuck!' At that point, I realised there's certain things you can do to protect yourself.....like smiling. But finally after this long time I fell down into this pit and EVERYTHING WAS EXACTLY THE SAME....the world was new..."
Danny: "And then we got to Columbus, Ohio."
Mark: "Yeah. Then we got to Columbus, but the world was, the world was, the world was covered in...It was weird. Like having an overdose. I've had many experiences like that. I don't even believe in them, not rationally...."
Unhinged: "I have a friend who once broke the neck of his Gibson SG because spirits came out of the guitar and attacked him."
Mark: "I've done that. Smashed guitars 2 or 3 times."
Unhinged: "I used to be able to shut down my thoughts completely and blank out those kinds of thoughts. But I can't do it anymore."
Mark: "It's harder, the older you get, you learn to distrust strange things....(fades)....Brad Johnson....(fades)....his philosophy is....(fades)...."
Unhinged: ".....(fades)....a right and a wrong way to do it."
Danny: "Maybe the songs just come out the way they are. Mark will write a song on acoustic guitar that can be interpreted forty thousand different ways by a guitar player in a rock band. Pretty much everyone injects their own personality. Everyone plays what they are gonna play no matter what. Everyone tries to tells everyone else what they should play to make the song good. Mark is the exception. Mark wants it sung like this and it never is, everyone goes their own way and that's what happens to him,"
Unhinged: "How much do you think about it?"
Danny: "Everyone thinks about it. I mean I think about a song all of the time."
Unhinged: "In terms of how you're going to play it."
Danny: "You're inclined to trip on a lot. I'm always inclined to do it the way Mark wants it in the first place and do the song really quietly. Later on it gets more gruesome as it goes on."