Where Marah is headed now

Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Marah: Dave Bielanko and Christine Smith perform an acoustic number mid-crowd at the Benefit for Lucinda's Kids at The Bowery Electric in Manhattan's East Village on Sunday, April 29. (Photo © 2012, Steven P. Marsh)

Dave Bielanko and Christine Smith talk about Mountain Minstrelsy, living (almost) off the grid and whether Serge Bielanko will rejoin Marah

How many lives has the rock band Marah had?

It’s hard to say, but it’s one of those bands that has survived surviving changing lineups, internal strife, and wildly fluctuating stylistic directions, all the while being encouraged and praised by celebrities.

Marah with flugelhorn at The Bowery Electric on April 29. (Photo © 2012, Steven P. Marsh)

Started in Philadelphia, Marah quickly became notable for the stage antics of its core duo, brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko from Philadelphia suburb Conshohocken. They had a loose but seemingly perfectly choreographed stage presence together. Their sound, early on, featured rootsy, Americana-flavored rock and roll with a particular treat for anyone who has an affinity for Philadelphia: jangling banjos played in the style of Philadelphia Mummers Parade string bands.

A band version of Marah at Bowery Electric in 2010. (Photo © 2010, Steven P. Marsh)

This is a band that novelist Stephen King in 2005 dubbed probably the best rock band in America that nobody knows.” They’ve also been the darlings of writers Nick Hornby (who did a tour with the band) and Sarah Vowell.

It’s a band that became pals with Bruce Springsteen and got him to sing and play on one of their albums. And Steve Earle liked them enough to add them to the roster of his now defunct record label.

It’s also a band whose list of former members on Wikipedia at this writing tops out at 20 — a lot for the 19-year-old a band, which generally has performed as a quartet or quintet.

In working there, they’ve discovered something magical, something that has returned the band to its roots in a way, and turned it in a new direction in another way.

Dave and Christine are working with a handful of local musicians in their Pennsylvania hideaway on a project they call Mountain Minstrelsy. (Check it out on Facebook, too.) They’re holed up in an old church that they’re using as a recording studio.

Basically, one of their musical pals in Pennsylvania showed them a book of collected lyrics, “Mountain Minstrelsy (as sung in the Backwoods Settlements, Hunting Cabins and Lumber Camps in the “Black Forest” of Pennsylvania, 1840 – 1923)” by Henry W. Shoemaker. It struck a chord, literally and figuratively, with Dave and Christine, so they set out to build an album around their new music for the found lyrics. They’ve been recording the new-old songs with some of their friends and neighbors for an album they hope to release late this year.

After the jump, read the full interview, plus a video of Dave, Christine and friends in a Mountain Minstrelsy rehearsal.

Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?:

I’ve watched Marah from pretty early in the band’s career. It’s evolved quite a lot in 19 years. To some fans, I guess, it seems like a long, strange road, from roots rock in Philadelphia to folk music in the woods of Pennsylvania. How would you describe the band’s evolution? I mean, Marah has always seemed like an urban band, and you spent much of your time in Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Tylersville, Pa., (that’s where your farmhouse is, right?) must be a very different world. What’s your connection to the area? It sounds like a very un-modern life out there — rustic farmhouse, a phone for incoming calls only, etc. Is this a deliberate move to change your lives or is it an economic necessity?

Dave Bielanko:

From early on in my teenage years I have traveled to a hunting cabin in central Pa. Our band would often set up temporary recording situations here to do overdubs for our albums here as well. This place always seemed like an escape for me, a place to flee to when life got too ridiculous…walk in the woods, build a fire, etc. We finished the “Life Is A Problem” record here too but that time we never left. As far as Marah is concerned, I tend to think we woulda made “sense of place” oriented music regardless of where we were plopped down on the planet, the urban stuff kinda correlating with our residence at the moment. But that said, from our first record “Lets Cut the Crap…” traditional American (country, folk,bluegrass, jazz) was a pretty obvious fascination….in fact a lotta people called that record “Alternative Country” which freaked us out pretty good at the time. We consequently embraced our “R&R” leanings a bit more after that. Rock & Roll seemed like a bit of a broader of an umbrella to try and get under…hey look, there’s Little Richard!

WYMM:

Do you and Christine have “day jobs” or are you scraping by with Marah music? I gather Christine is teaching piano, too. Anything else, if you want to talk about

DB:

Christine is independently wealthy, so money has never been an issue. I don’t ask questions. We throw a lotta dinner parties, I will say that.

Christine Smith:

Yeah, we basically live off the royalties from this big hit single I had back in the 80’s. I also invented the “Post-It.”

Mountain Minstrelsy Project

WYMM:

I’m fascinated with your Mountain Minstrelsy project. When and how did you come across the Shoemaker book that you’re basing this project on?

DB:

Jimmy James, who is playing the stand-up bass on this stuff, had the book. He gave it to me one snowy night last winter and I think I was just genuinely blown away by the fact it even existed ….I borrowed it, I still have it….I’ll have to remember to give it back to him when the album is finished….it’s the 3rd edition.

WYMM:

Why are you doing it? (I’d love to hear more about your rediscovery of recorded music via your purchase of a record player.)

DB:

Why, that’s a great question. I’m not sure I am able to be completely honest but I’ll try:

1) because it’s there to be done

2) because it’s nice to put a little distance between yourself and your own past sometimes

3) because I really want to be around smart, kind, egoless, talented people right now and hang out in a church

4) because I really, really love the songs that have revealed themselves….they also say that on your deathbed you’re more likely to regret the things you didn’t do a whole lot more than the things you did

I can also add that “Mountain Minstrelsy” was originally designed to be only a short, small, fun project to get the church studio sussed out before beginning our next original record, but we got all caught up in it. Now we’re on a mission to make a great record out of it…I think we can, I think we are.

More on the record player at the end….

CS:

I feel like this project has put us more in touch with the people and history of Pennsylvania, past and present. It has given us a tremendous sense of place and community – friends, neighbors, families…people of all ages around here have been so enthusiastic and supportive of our project, and we are definitely feeling that positive energy.

WYMM:

Who came up with the idea of taking a leap from the book to a recording? And why? It seems a little bit like the ongoing Woody Guthrie projects crossed with “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” How do you guys see it?

DB:

Me and Christine came up with the idea of making this record. I see it as a relevant way to do something in music with a bit more purpose beyond “self promotion.” I’m not saying that this will be a history lesson, but I think it may kickstart peoples imagination a little, get you thinking about the role music played in people’s lives before it became a “career opportunity”….I also think that our “rule-less” approach to recording these songs will lead to a very unique, very honest record that may surprise a lot of people who might be expecting something more akin to a Civil War reenactment…I think this may feel more like a cool, spooky, pretty, slightly more traditional R&R record that falls perfectly in line with our existing albums.

WYMM:

What appeals to you about this music?

DB:

Simply the fact that it’s a “ghost world” – an admittedly “inaccurate” collection of song lyrics/fragments recollected (to the best of their ability) by the failing memories of old folks a hundred years ago. Henry Shoemaker, the collector, felt like he was the last person who even cared about any of this stuff, and here we are a hundred years past that and I’m suddenly intimately involved in it…I like the parallels. I’ve always been interested in history.

BTW, Shoemaker gets criticized a lot for being an overly romantic, nostalgic, fabricator. They say he filled in a lot of blanks and took liberties in his writing…we all liked that aspect as well.

Last thing, I gotta say that this process has been at least as challenging for us as that of making original albums. We are trying to capture an “atmosphere” that we feel the book contains…salvage whatever we can of the existing words, then rewrite, then make them sound like us, then create music that feels appropriate, then record versions that feel unique to the way we play music etc….it’s been a lotta work, but different, ya know, exciting.

WYMM:

What do you think you’re bringing to the table, what contributions do you hope to make?

DB:

Well certainly nothing that we could possibly judge in our lifetimes, but that is the path of folk music, keep the ball rolling, whisper down the lane…time will sort it out. It’s our only wish that the music becomes “music” again…today it’s just old words in a dusty library book. We wanna make it available to at least be considered (and then possibly be played really loud in cars.)

CS:

The process of adapting lyrics and writing new music for these ‘lost songs’ has been a lot of fun. They’re great story songs that speak through all the archetypes of humankind, embodying all the emotions and circumstances of the human condition. Because of that, I feel the songs will always be relevant…timeless.

WYMM:

How did you find the players for this project? Are they locals? I particularly want to know who your fiddler is. You identify him only as Gus on the website. Is he really 8? He’s pretty amazing.

DB:

Gus is just Gus…like Slash is Slash, like Sting is Sting. The players all live in central Pennsylvania but were chosen for their unique individual talents. For example, Kai Shaft who plays wicked banjo is a professor of folk studies and had wisdom and ideas and input that me and Christine needed to hear before we could even start getting our heads around making this into an album. Jimmy seems to us like he just stepped out of the damn book so he was in right off the bat. Chris Rattie played drums on tour with Marah and has become a very close and trusted musical friend… and Gus simply represents the future of music to all of us right now. He is a very badass, young fiddle player without fear or expectations or ego or any other weird stuff that life shoots you full of as you proceed. He also agreed to be paid in Snickers bars and Star Wars men, so, ya know, ka-ching.

Technology and recording

WYMM:

What’s the role of technology in this recording? I gather you’re shying away from Pro Tools and other computer magic. Talk about the importance of that and the difficulty of avoiding it. Talk a little about the process of recording in a church.

DB:

I can only speak for myself but I (at least temporarily) have lost the ability to really “perform” in front of a computer. I know that it’s only a side effect of my personal musical beginnings (making records on tape recorders) but it is what it is…the computer makes anything seem possible, which in turn makes me feel lost and bored.

Tape recording songs is very exciting…there are scary moments, crazy tension, then big rewarding moments that make it all seem worth while. Once something is on tape it kind of dictates what needs to follow…it points towards the end of the song. The computer points aimlessly into an infinite abyss of possibility, which inevitably leads to the pub, for people like me anyway.

CS:

Without computers, the music just absolutely sounds so much better….alive and real and true. And with limited tracks, you are forced to choose only what really needs to be recorded, and to track as many instruments at once…which means playing together live more often. And isn’t that a good thing!?

WYMM:

Do you have a target release date for this album? Are you going to self-release?

DB:

Dunno, October? Everyone wants it to be released on our humble little Valley Farm Songs label but ya never know, maybe we’ll need someone else’s help? We’ll see…We already have 372 Facebook fans so it’s obviously blowing the fuck up ; )

CS:

October seems right. Hopefully two records. I’m all for Valley Farm Songs, all the way.

The end of rock and roll for Marah?

WYMM:

Does the Mountain Minstrelsy project mark the end of the rock and roll era for Marah? Or is it a detour? Or do you think it’s just being absorbed into your musical world to become a part of your overall sound?

DB:

End of R&R era? I hope not. It’s all just more music that has moved through our world as we continue along. I imagine that when this is over we’ll prolly wanna play more electric band music for a while…we’ll see.

CS:

I agree with Dave, who’s still debating whether or not to include any electric guitars on the Mountain Minstrelsy record. Rock n Roll will never die!

WYMM:

What’s next for Marah? Is there another rock record coming? Where do you see the band going?

DB:

Yeah, seems like there is 2 records happening together, so when Mountain Minstrelsy is finished we’ll probably just keep working and finish our new songs as well, maybe even release ‘em together?

Where’s Serge?

WYMM:

What about your brother, Serge? I know he rejoined the band for the Spanish tour last year. Will he be playing with you again? He’s living nearby, right?

DB:

Nah, we played some beautiful shows together over there in Spain but he has walked away from all that again. It’s a terrible shame (to me.) I don’t think we’ll see him playing music anymore. I really don’t know why.

WYMM:

Does the celebrity of having Bruce Springsteen sing on one of your records and having Nick Hornby and Stephen King praise your band and your music in writing have any effect on you? Is that a meaningful thing for Marah?

DB:

Bruce and Nick are really cool people that we got to know personally so that was awesome…great people. Stephen King I never met, so he still seems like a hologram to me, but I have read so much of his writing and like it so much I kinda feel like I know him…. he is definitely in my top 3 “would love to meet” list. Maybe someday…

WYMM:

Anything else on your mind? Share it, please!

DB:

Oh, the record player thing…. I found an old record player at a yard sale 2 years ago, I also bought “The In Crowd” by The Ramsey Lewis Trio there for $.25. Suddenly I realized that I hadn’t really listened to music for many years…one thing led to another and now our record player is the hardest working machine in America. Polkas, Waltzes, Milt Jackson, Mambos, Bo Diddley, the Mummers, Coltrane, Mingus, Marlene Dietrich, Country Blues, Russian Gypsy guitar, whatever…all night, every night…no TV, no Facebook. It’s a real joy and I’d seriously recommend it to anyone who has grown tired of watching “Storage Wars.”

CS:

Hunting for records in thrift stores and yard sales is great fun, and we’ve turned quite a lot of our friends into vinyl junkies too. Now we swap records and even hang out listening together too. I think the best musical experiences are shared – whether it’s listening or making music together.

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One response to “Where Marah is headed now

  1. Pingback: Marah takes a trip into the past to find something fresh and new | Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?

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