BY JONATHAN VALANIA All you youngin’s are probably too new here to remember all this, but there was a time back around the turn of the century when Marah — a scrappy little roots-y, beer-lovin’ band of street-urchins from South Philly-by-way-of-Conshohocken — was being groomed to be the second coming of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band circa The Young, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle. Marah was always essentially the brothers Bielanko — Dave, the rakish, boozy street poet with the soulful rasp and the uncanny capacity to channel the heart of the common man and Serge, the oft-bearded six-string straight-shooter with the Cheshire grin who came up with power chords that made his brother’s words ring true — backed by an ever-revolving cast of sidemen.
First came 1998’s Let’s Cut The Crap And Hook Up Later Tonight, a lo-fi home-made compendium of rock-ain’t-dead chants, beer-fueled breakdowns and alt-country waltzes that put the band in the buzz bin. Then Steve Earle came calling and his now-defunct E-Squared label underwrote 2000’s The Kids In Philly, wherein the band trolled the mean streets of South Philly in search of its inner-Mummer and the huzzahs only grew louder. There were live gig walk-ons with the Boss, and Nick Hornby raved, all of which attracted a small army of discerning rock snobs who demand nothing less than the real deal. Then disaster struck. In a bid for the brass ring, Marah went to England and recorded 2002’s Float Away With The Friday Night Gods with Oasis producer Owen Morris who airbrushed the songs to a slick, radio-friendly sheen. Despite a title track cameo from The Boss, the album failed to connect with a new audience and alienated Marah’s core constituency.
The band got back to where they once belonged with 2004’s 20,000 Streets Under The Sky and 2005’s If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry, touring extensively and slowly but surely rebuilding their good name. Stephen King took up the cause, telling anyone that would listen that Marah was “the best rock band in America that nobody knows.” Somewhere in there the Bielanko brothers abandoned Philly for Brooklyn. Then in 2008, disaster struck again. On the eve of an extensive tour for the just-about-to-be-released Angels Of Destruction there was a mutiny and the backing band up and quit, effectively scrapping the tour and killing the album. This was the final straw for Serge, who left the band to raise a family. Dave and keyboard player Christine Smith tried to pick up the pieces and moved to a farmhouse out in the middle of Pennsyltucky and set about recording the aptly-titled Life Is A Problem with yet another cast of sidemen. The results are fairly stunning, especially considering the hardships out of which it was created. Life Is A Problem is a lo-fi home-made compendium of we-ain’t-dead chants, beer-fueled breakdowns and alt-country waltzes and as such it completes the circle started with Let’s Cut The Crap And Hook Up Tonight a dozen years ago. Currently on the road to support Life, the reconstituted Marah plays Johnny Brendas tonight. Last week, we got Dave on the horn to discuss this latest Marah meltdown and his Rocky-esque bid to rise once again from the ashes.
PHAWKER: Okay we’re rolling; can you please identify yourself?
DAVE BIELANKO: This is David Bielanko from Marah and you are Jonathan Valania. This is an interview with Phawker. I checked it out last night and saw the Richard Thompson thing. That was cool.
PHAWKER: Thanks. So, first off man, I really like the new record. I like the vibe, I like the lo-fi-ness and it’s just a really fucking hot Marah record, I think. But backing up here, where are you right now? 615… are you in Tennessee?
DAVE BIELANKO: No, I borrowed Marty the drummer’s cell phone — he’s from Nashville. We’re at a Red Roof Inn in Jersey across the river from New York.
PHAWKER: Oh, ok. Where are you living these days, out in Amish country last I heard?
DAVE BIELANKO: When things exploded after Angels Of Destruction, I had to move out of that beautiful loft down in South Philly, which was painful, and I needed a place to go, you know, and I wound up out there. One thing led to another and that place sort of personified the music we started making.
PHAWKER: Not to stir up painful memories, but there was a split that happened after the last record, and your brother is no longer actively in the band, is that correct?
DAVE BIELANKO: Yeah, it’s pretty correct. He’s having a baby, or babies to be more accurate. Things just hit the wall. Rock n’ roll bands are houses of cards and the drummer and the bass player tried to stir things up. I was told that I was supposed to fire Christine [Smith, keyboard player] and I wasn’t going to do it. It’s our band, our music and it was our life. I’m not going to have a drummer tell me what to do. You draw a line in the sand and things like pride and egos collided. They decided to pick a fight in the one moment when I couldn’t fight back: there were a thousand dates already booked, the record was about to come out. People tried to get their own way, I don’t know if it was money… whatever, I’ve been through it before, you fall away and go on to great things or whatever.
PHAWKER: So, just to clarify, on the verge of the tour, basically the guitarist the drummer and the bass player split, and kind of left you guys holding the bag?
DAVE BIELANKO: I lost everything that day, including my brother. He just couldn’t fucking deal with it. I lost my manager, my girlfriend, my apartment… everything. Christine put put it back together again. I was just happy to sit around and feel bad for myself slowly but surely she put the pieces back in place and said “hey, it’s therapy of wanna do it.” And I decided I do want to do it. And I’m very, very proud of the record we made. We couldn’t have afforded to do another indie Yep Roc record, just because you don’t see a return on it.
PHAWKER: So, you eventually wind up where exactly? Where’s this farm?
DAVE BIELANKO: It’s the middle of fucking nowhere, about 35 miles from Penn State University. It wound up being the perfect little homebase for us because a couple of the players we use are from Shamokin, you know real coal country. And Marty lives in Nashville and there’s a little airport nearby he can fly into. Penn State’s nearby so we can try out new material, and we are literally in the middle of nowhere so we can make noise until five in the morning. We’re raising to two goats.
PHAWKER: Nice. So tell me about making this record. When did you start? When did you finish?
DAVE BIELANKO: I sort of started in Nashville, and again we started a little too early for me personally, I was still very upset and hurt. But we started down there, we recorded about 11 songs; a few of them made it to the record. What we ultimately did was that I brought all of the equipment that was left, that the ex-band members hadn’t hijacked, and with the help of a couple of outsiders, we put together a little studio in the farmhouse, which is still a work in progress. And sort of let the lack of inspiration be the inspiration and what I arrived at was a very lonely but hopeful kind of record. It’s not being released on CD and that hurt. That hurt big time. But essentially the record meant “get back on the road where you guys belong,” get the live thing back and happening and that’s worked great.
PHAWKER: I’m sorry, did you say you’re not releasing it on CD?
DAVE BIELANKO: No, we did not release it on CD. We did vinyl and digital and we even released it on cassettes.
PHAWKER: Well, the cassette thing is a throwback, but I can totally see why you wouldn’t need to release a CD these days.
DAVE BIELANKO: Well, you’d be surprised. A lot of our fans are in their 40s or whatever and that’s how they listen to music. The computer has generated, in my opinion, I mean, I don’t really live on the computer like a lot of people do, but it’s made people incredibly impolite and just demanding. Our fans are mostly white people getting older and less adventurous about the music they like and they want what they fucking want. That actually hurts my feelings. “No CD of the new record” — this is an email — “you just lost this old fan”. Well you know what, dude? Fuck you, man. If you have the nerve to write me like that — fuck you. You’ll come back, you will, because we’re not going anywhere. It’s kind of a shame but I feel like we needed to go out on our own and fortify ourselves independently. I look at other bands and anyone that has any inclination to stick around for a while is making great steps towards being able to reach your fans directly. And I love vinyl, it’s a great physical product.
PHAWKER: And why did you decide to release it on cassette?
DAVE BIELANKO: Just because we have lots of fans in Philadelphia who would never dream of writing on a message board and a lot of them probably don’t have record players. But you could always buy a frickin’ boombox for hree bucks at a yard sale and hear our record. So it was kind of like a selfless thing like the lowest common denominator. If I was into a band and [all they had was cassettes] I’d find a way to hear it.
PHAWKER: I wish you luck. I think the new record is really fucking excellent, and it sounds like you’ve overcome quite a bit of adversity to make it happen. Is there anything you want to say to all the haters out there?
DAVE BIELANKO: Naw, I got nothing to say to them. They’ll be back.