june 2012

paul mark
Paul Mark:My parents were circus acrobats. I ran away from home at the age of ten to become an accountant. After that the history’s a little hard to reconstruct.’w

‘Hoist New Canvas!’

Being about Paul Mark’s new album, Smartest Man in the Room

Intense, gravel-voiced, and completely possessed, blues-rocker Paul Mark has often been compared to a firebrand preacher.  On his ninth album, Smartest Man in the Room, he earns that comparison, in spades.

paul mark smartest man in the roomEducated, insightful, engaged and enraged, Mark turns up the heat on smug corporate malfeasance in the album opening title track: stomping and growling with impunity, he executes a mercilessly ironic takedown of the one percenters who got us into this mess, as his blistering backing trio the Van Dorens seconds his fury with a bluesy, relentless, organ-drenched blitzkrieg. Keeping the pressure on, he then glides into “Time Will Tell,” a grungy, punishing shuffle that can be read both as a kissoff to a former significant other and a blunt-force commentary on our polarized political environment. In one of several tunes in which he evokes Biblical imagery or references, the swirling “Tomorrow Never Knows”-style maelstrom of human cries and crunching rhythm sets up the apocalyptic nightmare of “The Creature Walks Among Us.” Even more disturbing is the dyspeptic view of the Almighty he advances with a fierce, unhinged growl and industrial-strength crunch in “When God Finds the Time,” in which he has the audacity to suggest God is at best indifferent to all the woes afflicting his flock (“the universe is so last year,” spits Mark)--in fact, he sounds like no one so much as the wild-eyed (and slightly unhinged) Arthur Brown of “Fire” fame. It would be nice to report that Mark tempers his rage with a smidgen of tenderness, but, well, no, not really. He gets close in the Tom Waits-influenced “Can’t Remember Nothing,” which has a boozy, loosey-goosey, barroom feel enhanced by an old-timey piano, but the problem is, our man only suspects he had some good times with a gal who’s insisting he did, but he can’t recall any of those assignations, or, for that matter, even her name.

Weighty stuff this, indeed. The best way to make sense of it all is to consider what Paul Mark himself has to say about Smartest Man in the Room. He may well be the smartest man in any room he occupies, but he’s also got a winning sense of humor about himself. He was recently interviewed by a coin-operated clown (see video below), and supplied us with a transcript (which is also posted on the Bio section of website). Attention must be paid, my friends. — David McGee


Smartest Man in the Room is your ninth CD. Does making music remain urgent for you after so many years?

It came down to either renovating the bathroom in my apartment or cutting a new CD. After some soul-searching I decided the CD was a more pressing concern.

The mundane vs. the spiritual.

Actually you’d be surprised how spiritual the renovation of a New York City bathroom can be.

Paul Mark and the Van Dorens, ‘Smartest Man in the Room’

You’ve got several degrees from universities…sometimes maybe you actually are the smartest man in the room.

I doubt any of the people who know me would actually say such a thing. In fact most would probably say the exact opposite. But I do like putting on airs. It’s all part of being in show bidness.

In fact, what is your education level?

Interviewers seem fascinated by that question. Usually it’s because they have a bit of formal education themselves. And there’s that desire to bond with a kindred, underpaid outcast from the academe.

Hmm. How would you describe your music?

I guess I wouldn’t. I’d let the audience and the writers come up with those interpretations themselves. Sometimes they come up with some pretty funny stuff. One guy said we sounded like the Doors. I thought that was pretty good.

There’s a lot of raw, rootsy Americana in your music. Your new CD embraces a very gritty, sometimes almost apocalyptic sound. Where do your influences come from?

Influences are hard to pin down. It’s hard to say what made you change, go in one direction or another. I always liked Gregory Peck’s performance in Moby Dick. You know, “Take down those rags, Mr. Starbuck. Hoist new canvas....” That sorta thing.

A more or less straight interview with Paul Mark about Smartest Man in the Room, conducted by Carolyn Fox, host of the syndicated radio show Carolyn Fox’s Hollywood Spotlight.

What about music? Where do you find inspiration.

I’ve always liked anything that sounded sincere, that radiated a real inspiration. Soul-based music. A couple weeks ago I turned on an LP I hadn’t heard in, like, 20 years--B.B. King’s Live at Cook County Jail. I was really amazed at how I was completely taken by the performance again. It was as if I was hearing it all new--yet it wasn’t all new. I had memorized all that stuff when I was a kid; it really knocked me out, rip-roaring stuff--scary, weird, strange and odd. I’m not sure most people would get it, I’m not sure I would recommend it. But wow.

Weird is important. Smartest Man has religious, philosophical references. Part of the same thing?

Yeah, weird is good. And in America, religion is way weird. I wouldn’t want to argue with people about their beliefs. You know James Joyce once said something like “the Bible is a book that, like Ulysses, no good Catholic should ever read.” So maybe Paul Mark’s lyrics should fall into that category too. Anyway, you’re the journalist, you hunt down the quote.

Any types of music you don’t like?

I wouldn’t want to reject any particular genre of music out of hand [pause] But then there’s this thing they call “electronic dance music.” Big at the Grammys this year. And big sales. When I hear that music the idea of buying a chainsaw creeps into my mind. It’s as if they took 80s disco music and somehow made it worse. It’s a kind of miracle, really.

Was education encouraged in your house when you were growing up?

My parents were circus acrobats. I ran away from home at the age of ten to become an accountant. After that the history’s a little hard to reconstruct.

But you eventually did go to school. Several universities...

Yeah. Electrical engineering, computer science, English. Then grad school in English. A few years of that. But you have to go to college these days--you go to college to learn all the stuff you should’ve learned in high school, right? A buddy of mine said well, you know they really should teach classes in “critical thinking” these days. And I’m thinking, yeah they do teach that. It’s called History, it’s English Lit. But young people don’t want to study that, or when they do they don’t take it seriously. Instead they want to work on business administration classes or human resources classes, and that’s all well and good. But really, if you’re in an outdoor marketplace at 10:30 at night in Budapest and three burly guys in military jackets walk up and say we want to see your passport. Just how far do you think your keg party organizational skills are going to get you in that situation?

You recently won a gold medal for art direction, from the Society of Illustrators, for the packaging of Mirage Cartography. You take particular interest in the graphics for your releases, don’t you?

Chris Buzelli, a New York-based artist, he did the cover illustration for my record Mirage Cartography. Visuals can have a such a great impact on the experience of listening to the music. Ever since I was a kid buying music the LP covers, the 45 covers, they were very important to me. I remember them vividly and they really informed the music. It’s hard for me to imagine making music that doesn’t have that element to it. The effect of the artwork on the music is greater than the sum of the parts.

Yet these days many listeners don’t even see the artwork, what with so much music being downloaded.

Yeah, that’s true. But there’s already a whole truckload of information going right over the heads of most listeners. Most don’t even listen to the lyrics, most listeners don’t know who the producer was, they don’t know the difference between a real drummer and a RhythmMaster 9000, they couldn’t tell you the difference between hip-hop and Stax. That’s fine, but I never really thought of myself as that kind of listener. You know, not seeing the artwork, that’s the least of their ignorance. Dumbing down the music or ditching the artwork to meet the slim interests of that kind of listener, that’s something that never really interested me.

‘When I hear (electronic dance music), the idea of buying a chain saw creeps into my mind’

The artwork and the music on Smartest Man is provocative to say the least. And political, yes?

We’re living in provocative times. The political dialogue that goes on in the papers these days is remarkably childish and base. And analogously, the pop culture genres are filled to the brim with crazy commercialism and manipulation. It’s as if overt pandering has become a virtue now. And our crappy music is mimicking our crappy politics. And vice versa. And everybody’s sitting around the table applauding, saying, ‘Nice job, that really sucked.”

For years you were on the road, playing in clubs and a festivals. Your live dates these days are fewer and farther between. How come?

Anybody in the music industry will tell you that the live business in the last ten years has taken an enormous hit. It’s just very hard to make clubs, venues, performance spaces pay economically. I have great sympathy for club manager and club owners to make these things work. And it’s very hard for us to find places to play. But at the same time there’s also this diminution in the passion of the audience; they’re not quite into going out to hear live music as they used to be. And why is that? Well, there are probably a lot of reasons. One of which is probably, I think, this talent show TV phenomenon that’s so popular now. You see these kids who are 23 years old and they talk to the camera as if they’ve been on the road for 15 years, woodshedding for 10 years, really paying their dues. Then you hear them sing and you realize, no, none of that’s true. And as much as the audience seems to enjoy watching those people succeed or fail in a half-hour TV show--kind of a cheap thrill--the downside is that the audience gets in the back of their mind this idea that hey, all these entertainment people, they’re just hucksters, man, they’re P.T. Barnum’s kids, they’re just hungry for fame, money, celebrity. It’s not about the performance, it’s not about the music, it’s not about songwriting. It’s really just about becoming famous. So when Friday night rolls around, the idea of going out to hear live music in the back of their mind they’re saying, “Why should I buy into that stupid world, why should I go out and spend money and watch those people?”

Do you get out to hear live music much these days?

PI’m lucky, I live in Manhattan. I’ve got a two jazz clubs within walking distance. On any night of the week I can walk out and hear stuff. Old pros as well as young guns from Julliard and Manhattan School of Music. Never know what you’re gonna hear. Sometimes fantastic, sometimes formative. Always interesting.

Music not just for pleasure, but because it’s interesting…?

When music becomes utilitarian, when it’s merely a diversion or status marker for the listener--or worse, primarily a profit center for the musician--it just plain stinks. Without strong-willed artists, the corporate interests just sweep in and take over. And if you listen to what’s out there today, listen to the Internet, listen to the radio, listen to television. We’re there, we’re there now, like we’ve never been before. And I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody tossed a stink bomb into that world real soon.

Stink bombs. Is that your message?

I haven’t figured out the aroma equivalent of our music. But I’m working on that. I do remember the aroma of the fresh earth being dug up in front of our house by the workmen who were laying in new sewers when I was a kid. Strong, pungent stuff. Ancient soil being tossed in the air. Right there in the suburbs, the very old and the very weird mixing right there in front of you. Sticks with you.

A totally twisted interview, conducted by a coin-operated clown that sounds a bit like Stephen Hawking’s voice machine, with Paul Mark re: Smartest Man in the Room

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024