Truman Capote said: “To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the music the words make.”
Capote’s quote would happen to ring true for Marah founder and front man Dave Bielanko and multi-instrumentalist Christine Smith, the sole remaining members of the critically acclaimed Philadelphia band. The words however, would come from an unexpected source once they found themselves hidden away in a rural Pennsylvania farm-town.
The transformation through the years for Marah is startling. Once on the verge of alt-country stardom Marah has continually shifted gears and band members for that matter, which may have hindered any momentum but not the quality of music. Marah has always been highly touted and often mentioned by the likes of Bruce Springsteen (who even sang background vocals on an early track), Stephen King (who called them the best band America’s never heard and the American U2), Nick Hornby, and of course Steve Earle, who signed them to his now-defunct E-Squared label.
In 2008-09, after a particularly acrimonious split with several band members including Dave’s brother Serge, Dave and Christine split for rural Pennsylvania and rented a spooky old farmhouse in Amish country. There they wrote and eventually released an album called Life Is a Problem, a quieter (but noisy) collection of Americana tinged rock and roll. Dave’s brother Serge, even came back in the fold for a spell, but ultimately left the band again to spend time with family.
Marah – in one incarnation or another – has put out 8 solid and enduring studio albums, a live record, a couple of EPs and a Christmas collection over the course of their 16 years. The 9th and latest – Marah Presents Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania just hammers home the fact that the magic hasn’t gone anywhere.
Mountain Minstrelsy is a collection of long lost 20th century Pennsylvania folk songs, waltzes, rafting chants and mountain ballads based on a book of lyrics by folklorist Harry Shoemaker that was published in 1931. The book, a flea market find by bassist and friend Jimmy Baughman inspired Dave and Christine to “breath musical life” into the old lyrics. It’s another feather in the cap of this ever-changing band.
The liner notes on the back of Mountain Minstrelsy reference the writing and recording of the record as a kind of “conjuring”; a summoning of a “ghost world” of what came before. It paints the record as a séance using the words that once traveled the rivers and valleys in the region around their farmhouse and it all seemed to happen organically. But when an local 8-year-old fiddle player named Gus joined in and the production moved into an old church, the Mountain Minstrelsy moved into another zone. After all Dave and Christine had been through, I can’t help but think there must have been a little bit of exorcism in the process.
Dave took some time to answer some questions about the new record, the band and just music in general.
50third: The new record is really stunning, and an easy comparison would be the Wilco/Billy Bragg/Woody Guthrie project, but it also reminds me of Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992. How did the idea for the Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania come about?
DB: Stunning…Cool, thank you very much. I buy a lot of old records at thrift stores and every once and a while I stumble upon something like “Funeral Songs of the Hungarian Gypsy” or “Ferko String Band plays George Gershwin” or whatever…a “Curiosity.” Something that didn’t “need” to happen, but did. From day one I think we imagined our record like that, sitting in a yard sale box next to “Sing Along With Mitch Miller” or the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack. It’s 50 cents and 30 years from now somebody buys it and takes it home and bang there’s Gus’s fiddle, eternally 8 years old and fearless, you start reading the story on the back, then Christine and I start to sing…that idea, that made us happy. Also, at the same time we were imagining that kind of a record, we were growing very discouraged with certain aspects of modern digital recording (the way it wasn’t very conducive to everyone playing together, at the same time) and the even more disturbing idea of being forced to slave to endless software upgrades by money driven, 1%’r Chinese Tech companies who couldn’t care less if your music sounds like plastic crap or not so long as you keep buying their disposable, expensive junk…that wasn’t sitting good with us anymore…chasing the illusion of “perfection” for god knows what reason?? At the expense of feel or soul or heart (i.e. correcting your own mistakes) dragging around tambourine hits with a mouse…lastly was the idea of all the self promotion we’d have to do, photo shoots, buying likes on Facebook, all of it. We turned away from relevance in a lot of ways, it wasn’t worth it to us at the time so we just invented a fake, old fashioned reality and drug our neighbors there…we used tape recorders and asked no outsiders for help, we tried to make a record that would be hard to judge on the day of its release, something more akin to burying a coffee can full of old stories…what it would mean would depended on who would eventually dig it up…it was great, liberating fun…sometimes we balanced plastic Star Wars men on the spinning reel to reel flanges, whatever, it felt great to just “go the other way.” It was either that or nothing at the time so I’m really glad it all happened the way it did. It’s a very reactionary record.
50third: I had a quick look through Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and didn’t see anything from Pennsylvania. What have you learned about the folk music from the area?
DB: Media (radio, television, recording) was just coming up at precisely the same time that roads were being built into the hollows of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia exposing real live hillbillies with large cannons of old, hard traveled, “hand me down” songs, alas, it makes perfect sense that we celebrate “that” as our American folk roots music. It was untouched upon at the time of its discovery so America took a big flashbulb picture of it and…viola! History. Pennsylvania was de-forested much earlier and any songs being kicked around our evening campfires went largely uncelebrated until they migrated elsewhere and became something else altogether.
50third: Is there a strong folk music community in Pennsylvania?
DB: Yeah, maybe, I dunno? I think that in every “sub-genre” of art or music or wok cooking or whatever you will encounter people who are fiercely protective and controlling of it. It’s human nature perhaps? It’s “their thing”… “Dub” people do it, “Fly Fisherman” certainly “Folk” people can do this too, they can stonewall outsiders, try to shut you out…it can be a pretty stringent scene, status quo…tons of rules. Here in Central Pennsylvania we have a weekend “Folk Show” on the radio, but as far as I know they have not touched our record, never acknowledged it (then again knowing us we probably forgot to send it to them?) it doesn’t even matter…maybe I’m over thinking it, but I could imagine our music might be seen as some kind of cultural virus in their eyes, our principles and standards must seem really high or alien or perhaps just insane…I guess the spirit is just too ramshackle or too “rock n roll” or something, they must think we aren’t playing by the rules…it’s a shame really, but then again, maybe that’s exactly how it should be? I’ve always loved the dark horses anyway, besides, they play a lot of music on that program that just makes me feel?… embarrassed? Confused? Stuff that we’d probably do well to not rub up against anyway…not our thing. Lawyers with $12,000 banjos, dentists singing in auto-tuned harmony “Honey let me be your Salty Dog,” some of them speak with fake Celtic accents, you name it, some people will stop at nothing to do my head in. That’s why I bought a record player and took to listening to Duke Ellington at night. Self defense.
50third: Tell us about the musicians you recorded the album with, particularly Gus Tritsch.
DB: Our concept was to mine a band out of a very small community. Gus was simply the best fiddle player in town, he also just happened to be 8 years old at the time we began….he then proceeded to embody our idea far better then we ever could have imagined or done without him. Gus reads books about vintage tube electronics in bed at night with a flashlight. His soldering iron is always plugged in. He builds cigar box banjos and wooden amplifiers. He is super smart and polite and cool and a great friend. He has wicked rhythm. He likes hot wings and root beer. Great wiffleball player. On stage I am proud to stand next to him, when he is having a good night, forget about it, anything can happen.
50third: How has the record been received by the rural Pennsylvania community?
DB: The cool thing is that 3/4’s of the folks out here are just regular people, farmers and stuff, older guys in foamy trucker hats that advertise feed companies. Music is far more important to us then it is to them. Gotta pay the bills. The core artistic community knows exactly who we are and what we are doing/trying to do. We’ve made tons of great intelligent friends.
50third: What do you know about Henry Shoemaker?
DB: Prolly a lot more then I should…I know that he is often criticized by academics for “embellishing” stories and over dramatizing the past….cool with me.
50third: Have you ever heard other versions of these lyrics musically?
DB: Only once…once my friend the professor Kirk French played me an Alan Lomax recording of “Falling of the Pine” that was just a mad, Irish lumberjack from Michigan sing/rapping it in the mid-fifties, no musical accompaniment, he was definitely drunk. Sounded great to me though….we checked that LP out of the library at Penn State University, amazing collection of Pennsylvania history there. I think it’s called Songs of the Michigan lumberjacks or something like that…I’d say all the other songs are undocumented, except on our record…we looked hard for any existing renditions or info and it’s a pretty cold trail.
50third: The music almost has a zydeco feel to it at times – what influenced the songwriting?
DB: Cool observation, it’s all very connected, someone else just said the same thing to me recently, likened it to Louisiana coonass music (that’s not derogatory btw, Cajuns use that term with great pride in that it separates them, sets them apart.) They play a great danceable music down there that definitely connects to the old string band tradition, which connects to the Mummers in Philadelphia, which connects to me. A big frantic sound, make as much noise as possible, a joyous strumming celebration, shake the walls. Accordions help too.
50third: I read somewhere that you were even debating including electric guitars at all on MM?
DB: Until one just got plugged in and sounded cool, then it was F it…we were not trying to make an “authentic” re-enactment of anything anyway. We were not aiming this music at anyone in particular.
50third: I also read that you gave 10-year-old Gus a copy of Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells A Story for Christmas. Why that record, and what did he think of it?
DB: Months later at a barbecue I asked him about it, he knows. The fiddle as a tool for breaking your heart and not just a vehicle for virtuosity. The fiddle just comes in and then it kills you, it blows you to bits, sounds like Ronnie Wood is playing it standing on the recording console. Gus knows tons of stuff now, I love talking to him about music, you can watch him process and file everything away wicked fast.
50third: When I purchased a digital copy of the new record I noticed it listed records that listeners of Marah have bought included, the Velvet Underground, Social Distortion, Springsteen, Warren Zevon, Little Feat, Wilco, and TV On The Radio – Marah always had a loose, Mummer’s Parade feel to its sound – what were your earlier influences when you were starting the band?
DB: If you like Dunkin Donuts then you’ll love the Walking Dead…
In high-school I listened to Kiss and Johnny Cash, Townes, Little Richard, Sinatra, The Angry Samoans, Social Distortion, Hank Williams Jr., Grandpa Jones, Rob Base, Christmas music, Motörhead, David Allen Coe, The Temptations, the Ramones, The Ronettes and that song “How Bizarre” …I sat at a lunch table with fat metal heads, punks and hearing impaired Asian girls, I wore a cassette Walkman, I graduated in summer school with a D-, they let me go up on the stage to collect a diploma but it was just a blank, rolled up piece of paper, I should have framed that.
50third: The story of Marah is often prefaced by considering what could have been, but I get a sense that with Marah, it is really, honestly only about the music. Have things ended up the way you would have liked?
DB: It seems like many of the best stories are prefaced with what could have been…. I think maybe the biggest uniqueness of Marah through the years was that if you liked our band you tended to love it, we were good at “getting to you” if you let us. Our shows were never very casual, our fans were always pretty seriously engaged, people bought us presents and handed us folded up hundred dollar bills backstage, many a grown man has grabbed me by my sweaty shoulders and shook me, looked me straight in the eye and said “promise me you’ll NEVER stop doing what you’re doing” what do you even say to that? Our fans invited us on trips, booked us into swanky hotels and brought their mothers out to nightclubs to meet us. There was always an intense intimacy to what we were doing and if you were in the room you most likely felt it. Over the years we’ve received mountains of amazing press, press no publicist could ever buy for you. We got to travel around the world and earned the respect and support of some really amazing people, people we really looked up to. I am proud as hell of all that, but in retrospect we were only ever doing “exactly what we wanted to, on our own terms,” and if that ain’t the recipe for disaster in modern business, I dunno what is? I think “Music as a business” is a notion I’ve always fought unconsciously against. Our first record came out in 1998, which is very arguably the exact moment that everything about any former music business began to collapse and change forever. Sometimes it feels like our band shoulder rolled into Indiana Jones’s Tomb of Rock just as the big stone door was slamming shut, never to be opened again. And there we were in the dark smoking cigarettes with a big set of useless, “old fashioned” ideals, ideals like it being “about the music” etc…the only people who could really flourish in there now were the “old guard”, (Grandfathered-in icons from decades before that could soar forever on “legend” status) and this whole new even more terrifying generation that could fly even faster and shoot lasers and navigate in and out easily with mouse clicks. Go home at night and sleep in their own beds, we were stuck in there sleeping on the floor. It’s actually pretty hilarious, but fuck it, whatever, bad timing.
50third: There was a low point just before the release of Angels of Destruction! (one of my fav records) with the band breaking up and the loss of a tour – was this reflected in your songwriting on Life is a Problem?
DB: Saddest thing I’ve ever gone through. Like I said, this band has always been my life’s work, I’ve put nothing else before it…and then it was over literally overnight and for the first time I couldn’t do anything to save it (and be able to live with myself) So canceling that American tour hurt me deeply. Knowing many promoters would never be able to touch us again, they couldn’t, and you couldn’t even blame ‘em…at that moment we were a great band about to make a big leap forward in what we were capable of doing with a live show, so that shit hurt. Mostly I just miss playing music with my brother and what we were able to do together from night to night, its hard for me to think about where we could have taken it. But whatever, this summer Christine and I have spent a lot of time hanging out with my bro in his backyard, if he has 3 or 4 wines he might start talking about getting his guitar out again, booking a London show, driving out to Chicago….he’ll never do it, but he’s still a very funny, creative person, he can make us laugh till it hurts.
50third: Was it different for you to not be responsible for writing lyrics in the creation of a record?
DB: I was responsible for making the lyrics jive for us so I changed a lot of them, wrote verses to incomplete songs, invented a chorus here and there if none existed. It was cool to keep whatever possible but change whatever I felt necessary.
50third: You just played the Azkena Rock Festival in Spain, how did that booking come about?
DB: Marah also did Azkena in 2006 so we’ve remained on their radar, our Spanish fans are really amazing people, Azkena is a brilliant music festival. Taking 9 people from a one traffic light Pennsylvania town to Spain was a great joy, we ate paella on top of a Pyrenees mountain as Kai played hillbilly banjo songs. Gus and his younger brother Huck stood on top of the bus and picked cherries on the first day of Summer. Amazing memories.
50third: What was it like opening for The Scorpions and The Stranglers?
DB: Here’s what I remember…The Scorpions played, then we came on and then we played…soooo…I’m saying the Scorpions opened for us. USA-1, Germany-0.
50third: What are you listening to these days?
DB: A 1968 Rowe AMI MM-2 Vinyl 45 rpm Jukebox in the kitchen…it’s a hell of a machine….Oh Donna, Walk Don’t Run, Fats Waller, Patsy Cline, the Louvin Brothers, Louis Armstrong, Rock Lobster…around and around they go deep into the night, I stand there with the lights out in awe. Unbelievable what we as Americans have accomplished musically, it’s the best thing we ever did. I’ve also been watching Ken Burns Jazz so I’m all kindsa messed up right now, my head is spinning on just how inevitable Jazz music was. How it had to happen …where it happened, when, everything. It’s perfect art.
50third: What’s next for Marah?
DB: We’ll see, something good should happen around here soon….first we’re taking the Mountain Minstrelsy band down to Nashville in September to destroy a small club for the AMA Festival , and I also wanna see if we can manage to cut a song or two while we’re there. I wanna show Gus around, all the famous studios and stuff. Nashville has always been a creative get away for this band.
Ft. Wayne, IN
The Brass Rail
Brass Rail – Ft Wayne
Sept 19th at 9pm
1604 8th Ave. South
Americana Music Festival at The Basement
Americana Music Festival
October 4th at 8pm
special guest Caleb Stine
The Metro Gallery
Nov 1st at 8pm
100 W. Main Street
Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks
Elk Creek Cafe