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Mark Lee Wilkins / Blog

Where Can We Take It

Now, I'm an admitted music snob. I'm also 42 years old, so I know that there are very few people out there who are making music for me. But, this Hyphen thing is getting out of hand. It was bad enough when there was just Post-Punk. I still have no idea what that means. However, now we have things like Black-Death-Emo-Core-Metal or Neo-Traditional-Power-Pop-Punk.

It all seems so absurd, but it got meto thinking: what else can we really do with music. Where else can we take it?

Can we get any more melodic, any more Harmonic? Can we get any Heavier, any more rhythmic? Can we get any more synthetic, any more disjointed from actual music? Can we get any more experimental, any noisier? Can we get and more acoustic and traditional?

No matter what we do it all comes down to the same 12 notes. How many different ways can we combine and reconfigure them and still have it all make sense, have some sort of emotional relatability, or just a pure escape?

I guess that I shouldn't judge today's youth or the pop market too harshly. It's all been done already. It's hard to see how any one can be truly original, fresh and new. I was a little young for Never mind the Bollocks, but I did live to see Nevermind. And, I can only hope that there will be another band, another album that will turn the music industry and the world inside out for a little while. It'll be interesting to see what that looks like. Possibly another Revolver or Sergeant Peppers if we're lucky.

Insecurities, Vicarious Living, and Being a Fan

I got a message the other day from my old room mate in San Francisco informing me that John Doe from X was rehearsing with a new band for his upcoming tour. The latest version of the John Doe Thing was about to hit the road. I've been lucky enough to see X, The John Doe Thing and John Doe solo a few times. I even met him once at Thee Park Side in San Francisco when Jack Pine Records did a tribute compilation to Kris Kristofferson. This comp featured a number of my favorite San Francisco artists most of whom were on Jack Pine at one point or another. But the fact that John Doe was rehearsing at my old house made me a bit envious and I missed the city where I had spent most of my adult life all the more.

Now John Doe isn't the coolest person who ever rehearsed and recorded at our old place (I mean we had the Resident's for a few weeks, Al Jardine listening to mixes, Papa Mali working out demos, and Chuck Prophet and the new Mission Express nearly every time there was an upcoming tour, Hell, even Paul Pena (who wrote Big Ole Jet Airliner) did a solo acoustic show shortly after Ghengis Blues came out, but he was one of my favorites and I would have loved to have been there for it.

It seems that I have spent most of my life being near music and musicians in some form or another, living vicariously through them in a manner of speaking. Partially because I am first and foremost a music fan.( I've wasted so much time and money buying records and going to shows.) But, there is also a second reason and that is a matter of insecurity, I just never felt good enough to be up there on that stage.

I learned a lot about how the music biz works from these cats. Chuck Prophet was in Green on Red and has been a solo artist since the late 80's. He's been a professional musician for decades and yet very few people in the US even know who he is.

Then there are guys like Kelley Stoltz, signed to SubPop and has put out a number of records and off on tour. Upon his return one year my room mate asked him how they did. Kelley reaches into his pocket and pulls out $18. He waves that in our faces and states that it looks like he broke even.

There are many such stories I could share and other local celebrity sightings (like waiting in line with Mike Patton for the men's room at a local cafe) but I won't bore you all. Instead I'll state that I've got to have some cool experiences since I moved away from SF. Now that I am out of the shadow of many of my heroes I am back on stage and sharing my songs. I foster no illusions here, I am still and most likely will always be a nobody. People don't really show up to any of my shows because I am on the bill. But, I have gotten to open for some cool people and meet some of my alt/punk rock heroes from my youth and mid 20's (Chad Price and Kevin Seconds to name two.)

So, though I don't buy as many records as I once did, nor do I go to as many shows as I would like I still am having some cool experiences and staying as close to musicians as I can.We don't all get to be rich, famous or successful. But we can all do what we love and give our lives a little bit of meaning.

Working Alone

Finally, after close to 5 years, I've managed to get some new demos recorded and posted. I invested in the gear some time ago but for a number of reasons for why the equipment sat idle for year in the room next door.

This is the most personal set of demos that I have ever recorded, though I have written a number of other songs over the last few years. These ones had the same muse and the impetus to start them was to collect them all and give them as a birthday gift. No they aren't perfect. Hell, I sat down one day with a couple of mics and a guitar and I would have been happy if that was all I had to give. But, I soon got the idea and was challenged at the thought of dressing them up some. So, that's just what I did.

I was shocked at just how fast I could work and get it all done. I am proud with how they turned out though I know they could have been better. But, this lead me to think about just why it has been so hard for me to get anything recorded in the last five years?

And the main reason is that I hate working alone. When ever one works alone one is confronted by all of their own limitations. Yes, part of this is just insecurities. I know that I am better than I give myself credit for. But there are real mistakes and glaring short comings in there too. And I wish that wasn't so.

I had hoped by now that I would have a group of people who would be willing and available to help. Hell, I had even hoped that they would volunteer. Though, I hear all of the time how good my songs are (and I try not to let this go to my head) I can't seem to find anyone who is willing to help me fuck shit up. Even if someone was there to press record and watch levels as I sing or play that would be something. Alas, this isn't happening.

I'm going to have to just get back to work and get some of these tunes recorded. I've taught myself everything else and I'm only gonna get more comfortable and better just by doing it.

So, here's to the next batch of silly demos.

Promotion

I had a show a few months back and I started to have this conversation with a random woman at the bar. I can't remember how this conversation started but being a single male it was nice to talk to an age appropriate woman. We got around to the perfunctory "what do you do" question. And I told her what I did and that I also happened to be a singer-song writer. OMG, she said "I love music. Where do you play" she asked?

Well, I just played in that room back there, I said. She was astounded that there was live music going on at all and was kicking herself for not going back there. Blah, Blah, Blah.

She then proceeded to offer her advice. Something to the tune of if I'm a musician I need to promote more. I mentioned the posters and all of the Facebook invites and posts. But she was insistent.

I then proceeded to tell her about the Woody Guthrie tribute show that I was part of over the summer. Between all of us involved we had invited over 5000 people. We had nice large posters printed up. We past out a lot of hand bills and had a mention in the local free paper. One of us even managed to get on the local college radio station. So, we did our promotion and with that we got about 80 people to attend. So, what can you do? Promotion isn't always the key.

I had hoped that this would be the end of it and moved on. But a short time later she had to bring it up again. At this stage I threw away any chance of possibly hooking up with this and my inner cynic came out in full force. Look, I said, there are posters in the window for tonight's show, I already played and they turn off the juke box when people are on stage. Hell, there's someone playing back there right now and we can't even get you to get off of your stool and go back there. What else are we supposed to do?

I then headed back to check out who ever was on next. But it all ran through my head how every one seems to know your business better than you. Talk is cheap and there's no shortage of people who want to give advice. Sometimes, it's even useful. But What the Hell?

In my experience, you can't really get people to go any where or do anything that they weren't already planning to do. And that's only if all their friends are going and feel good while doing it.

We can go on putting up posters that people choose not to read, Send out Facebook invites that people choose to ignore, and try to get on radio stations that no one listens to. But what else is there? Until a group of people decides that you are cool enough it isn't gonna matter.

Ya, I avoided writing this for 2 months in hopes that it wouldn't end up sounding like a rant. But, it still does. Sorry about that

No. 10 on the charts

Now I won't pretend to know how this here chart system works (any more than I'll pretend to understand how this site actually works) but I did find it odd that they asked me if I wanted to share my position on Facebook recently. My original chart position when I first joined this site was number 6 or 7 on these here local American charts. And I gladly took it.

Since then I've been as far down as 13 and have been bopping around since. I don't really pay attention too much, but I do remember checking out who was on the charts with me when I fell to the bottom. There seemed to be a lot of bands on there at the time that I certainly would not call Americana, but what do I know?

I often get the Country pigeon hole. And while I won't deny that this is in there, I also won't pretend that country is all that there is too it. There's Bluegrass (you're splitting hairs here) and the Blues. And though I play mostly acoustic these days, a rock thing there too. None of which I was hearing on a lot of the Americana chart here at the time.

It seems that most of the questionable bands have placed themselves on more appropriate charts. And I hope, both for themselves as well as their audience, that this is a good thing.

This would explain my climb back to number 10. Now I just have to contend with people who haven't had a gig in a while. lol.

The Glory, The Dream and The Damned Drift

I had the honor of taking part in a fairly large (for me at least) tribute show a few weeks ago. At first, I naturally assumed that I would get up and do a few songs solo. But somehow I got suckered into being the band director for the group portion of the show and I'm not really sure how that happened? Nor why they assumed that I would take this on. It certainly wasn't a role that I ever saw myself stepping into, partially out of insecurity I suppose? But also, when I was in bands, though I was generally the main writer and singer, I intentionally surrounded myself with people who were better than me to assist in the arranging. Now I haven't been in a band for years. There are reasons. Many in fact. And they were back in full effect from day 1. People with ambitious plans but no realistic way to accomplish them. What the Chinese call "head in the clouds, feet stuck on the ground." Folks who believe that running through the song once is rehearsing. Forgotten melodies (without that you've got nothing.) The drift (how can you be in bands in years and have no sense of time?) Lost cues and blaming the chord charts someone else made for your own lack of discipline. Own your mistakes damn it! (And if you don't like my charts, make your fuckin own.) I can only do so much to help. But where I impressed the hell out of myself was just how far my own arranging skills have come. Granted, I wasn't re-inventing the wheel or anything and I wasn't being radical. For the most part, these songs were all a bit Old Timey. But two plus hours of that can get tedious, boring and end up all sounding the same. So, I added some headers, changed out the bumpers, added tags and threw in some diminished chords for color. And in one case re-wrote the song. While I saw no reason that I had to be married to any original or even cover version of a certain song I tried to stay true to the spirit of the songs and get the set list to flow. And this was a thing that I never saw myself doing. But I suppose that my growth as a writer has filtered and permeated other aspects of my playing. In the end the show was sloppy fun as people missed cues, lost their place and forgot the words. Hell, I even lost a whole intro, but recovered. It's been awhile since I've had to back anyone up but I tried to keep them locked and away from the infernal drift. I'm glad that I had the opportunity to discover, be challenged and see how much I've grown. But I still hate being in a band as I am forced to become the asshole! Lol

Where's The Bass?

There's a strange phenomenon that I've noticed among touring bands recently. One that I find really odd. Is it really that hard to find a bass player? Most have been playing only as a two piece: a singing guitar player and a drummer (some of these sing but most don't.) I can't help but to feel that there is huge part of the sonic spectrum missing when ever I experiences this. As as solo performer I can understand that touring with a band costs money, often more than you stand to make unless there's a chance of actually selling the shit out of your record, bringing those delicious checks in pink envelopes. But, if you're already dragging a drummer around with you why not a bass player?

Yes, it is difficult to find good Bass players. As most of them would rather be playing guitar to begin with. But I have to believe that there are people, willing to invest the time, that are truly devoted to their instrument. One who truly loves the low tones.

How can you have a metal band with out a bass player? What's a Punky-Rock band without those delicious 16th notes? What's a blues band without the shuffling walks? It's hard to see it all and not get the feeling that it is just another Gimmick. And not a very good one. Suits and uniformity work better.

The truth be told, I did see one very fun and interesting band recently who didn't have a bass player. It was a local band called Audible. They're one of those truly modern and contemporary white boy soul psuedo Hip-Hop influenced bands lead by my friend Jeb Burgess. It needs to be said here that I have never been into this whole Hip-Hop thing. It has it's Moments (NWA, Public Enemy, Dr. Dre,etc.) Over all, it leaves me wanting. But these guys impressed me, even without a bass player. And here's why? Their drummer, who was rocking the skins with his right hand, was adding the low tones via Keyboard with his right. It was really tight.

I have been impressed by many of the two person Bass less bands that I have seen lately (Hooten Hollers and Antique Scream being at the top of the list) I was still left wondering: where the fuck is the Bass player?

Who do we have to blame for this? The White Stripes? The Black Keys? Even the latter has achieved enough success at this stage to, at the very least, bring a Bassist on tour with them. Though, it always seemed to me it was never missing from their records as it did on the White Stripe records.

Not sure where I am going with this? Probably just another rant that no one will actually read, but it is my rant for the night. Dear rock bands, hire a fucking bass player.

When Things Look the Same They Sound The Same

I've made no secret of the fact that I can't and have no use for contemporary commercial radio. (This always shocks people as my tunes do seem to have a tremendous pop sensibility, in spite of my Metallic and Punk Rock roots.) I know that I'm getting older and I don't mean to be a snob, but this, it seems, is what I have become. In the post play list world that I grew up in, and those God awful 80's, I failed to see the point of having every station playing the same shit and deciding, for me, just what I was supposed to like. And I still resent this. Even as a songwriter and knowing how much change would come in a Pink envelope every 3 or 6 months should one of my songs actually make it onto one of those damned playlists. But, I got stuck at work today and was forced to listen to the local, so called, Heavy Rock station: KILO. There were some tunes and bands from the not too distant past that I recognized (Tool, Pantera, STP, and even, I think, a new Rage Against the Machine song) but most of the newer stuff just left me cold. Most of the newer bands seem to have an overwhelming sameness to them. Though I have found that this is not unique phenomenon, when listening to other pop formats: Country, the four on the floor Pop-Disco Princesses and even Hip-Hop, I was more than a little discouraged to find it happening with the heavier shit. Ya, one could argue if there are any actual "Rock" songs being recorded at this stage (I have fairly specific criteria for what is and isn't a true rock song.) But, damn it, the heavy stuff is supposed to be about rebellion, daring to be different, challenging norms, fucking revolution! I feel sorry for the people who have to grow up listening to this shit. They are being spoonfed the same crap in a not so new package. As great and as technical as some of these bands are, I'm not really hearing anything different.The drummers are all pulling Vinnie Paul's kick fill tricks. The guitar players all seem to have similar tones, pulling Zakk Wylde's (though one could argue that he copt them from Jake E. Lee) harmonic swoops, Dimebag's angular coldness, and Metalicca's Chunky riffs. And don't get me started on all of these growly, chest heavy or nasally whiny singers sometimes even in the same tune. WTF. Does anyone actually try to sing these days or is it all just this stylized shit? What happened? Why is pop music of all types (yes, if there's a radio format it's popular, hence pop) feeding upon itself at this point? Nothing comes out of nowhere I know, even if it seems like it does. I have a great respect and appreciation for music history, and, perhaps, this is my problem. These kids seem to be cannibalizing the recent past and even themselves. It's very strange. Then I realize that there is an overwhelming sameness across the American landscape. A sameness that was beginning to appear when I was a teen (but I got the fuck out.) The suburbs look the same where ever go in America, with their track homes, Wal-Marts, corporate strip malls and franchised Chain restaurants. Could this be part of the problem? Do kids still jump trains, hitch hike, you know, hit the road with Jack Kerouac anymore? Do they go out and try to see the world, and try to find what place, if any, they have it? Is any of it real? For all of their manufactured rage, are they really doing anything beyond pandering and giving their audiences what they want? Even their sensitivity seems self-conscious and not very genuine. Maybe, I'm just old, bitter and fat, and I'm not supposed to get it? However, there has to come a time when we outgrow our heroes, as much as we may still love them, and find our own voice and path. And I really want to see some of these guys do something that, at the very least, seems new and makes some old fat bastard go "hey, what's going on here?" Maybe, it's too late for another Nevermind the Bollucks, Appetite For Destruction, or Nevermind but I can always hope.

Asses In Hats and Song Writing Deals

I had another discouraging show the other night. It was a bummer to begin with as life has been weighing down upon me fairly heavily of late. Therefor, I had already filled my set list with some of the darker songs that I have written over the last few years. If I couldn't win over the crowd, I figured that at the very least I could have a bit of a catharsis, exorcizing a few demons along the way. The only thing was that there was no crowd. Lol. Once again, facebook invites were sent out and having the effect of a tree falling in a forest with no one around. Hell, the guy who I played with, a self admitted nobody, had more people there and he drove in from Virginia. But that still isn't saying much. Even for a Saturday night in this town it was really quiet.

Believe it or not, I'm not really here to mope about the size of the crowd, though it does bug me that I can't find a consistent audience. People, generally seem appreciative of what I do, most even seem sincere. But, I will never get past the fact that the headliners keep asking me "what the fuck are you doing here?" when the locals just don't seem to care.

True, they are the ones out there doing it. They know that it's hard to impress your hometown as much as anybody. But they genuinely seem amazed. At my voice. With my songs. (They're actually listening, I know that.) And sometimes even at my playing, which astounds me as I've never considered myself above adequate as a guitar player, though I do realize that I do have a style now.

This cat that I played with on Saturday went on and on about how I should go to Nashville. Me, go to Nashville? Like I want to be another ass in a hat? Even if I wanted to, at 41 I'm way out of their target demo-graphic. Besides the fact that I can't stand commercial radio, and the shit that passes for country today is just abhor-able and deplorable. Syrupy, sentimental bull shit or just awfully bad Rock songs with every twangy note passed through auto-tune.

Now, am I too proud to be a whore? Of course not. I've just never been much good at it. I played a new song for a so-called "Nashville" song writing buddy once to see what he thought? He told me the song needed a lift. Seriously? I felt like I was at a seminar. I looked at him and said, the song's in 6/8 to begin with. Do you think that I would of wrote it in 6/8 if I even thought for a minute that it had a shot on commercial radio? Outside of a maybe a Latin station when was the last time you heard a 6/8 pop or country song?

Nuts! But that would be one of the aspects of being a commercial song writer that would drive me right out of my mind, all of the re-writing and tailoring the tunes for specific artists. (Another would be recording demo's to have some ass in a hat put it on hold for a year just so no one else could have it and then pass on it anyway.)

Don't get me wrong some of my heroes were nothing more than songwriters. They are part of the reason I do what I do. Cole Porter, Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, and I could go on. Though I am certain that they wrote hundreds of songs that we may never hear, they were obviously made of better stuff than me. But would they survive in today's pop market place?

I will admit that it would be nice to be a big fish in a small pond for awhile. And if that were the case, and I was a bit younger, I might just pack my bags and go. But at this point I wouldn't even be a brine shrimp in the ocean that is Nashville. So, I'll just stay here for now. Though Portland, Oregon sounds like it could be fun.

Favorite Albums Pt. 3 2000 and Beyond

I have had a hard time getting back to this one as after 2000, though there were a number of albums that I liked, few floored me to the point of calling them my favorites. OK, there was Smile. And I'm so glad that it came out in my lifetime. Brian Wilson, Oh my fucking God!

Early 2000 was great, as we had some of the greatest Hellacopter records: By the Grace of God, High Fidelity and Rock-n-Roll is Dead. We had Queens of the Stone Ages "Songs for The Deaf." Some great debuts by what would have been called "Supergroups" in the 70's: AudioSlave and Velvet Revolver. But the album was dying. Digital recording was taking over, moving us into a new single's fueled pop music scene. And I was getting older.

Yes, you can also accuse me of being a bit jaded, if not cynical. But, I didn't have the money that I once had to spend on records, I didn't have the time and energy that I once had to invest in and seek out new music that I once did, but, it can also be said that people weren't making music for me.

I was now well into my 30's. My 5 year self-exile from performing music was about to begin. But there weren't a whole lot of records being made that I could relate to any longer. Yes, my tastes had certainly changed. I was also evolving. Punk Rock and Rock were fading, just as Metal once had, and all things Americana. mostly old, rose. (Nick Lowe's Convincer, Buddy Miller made some awesome records. He even Produced Audible Sigh by the Vigilantes of Love in here. Yes.)

It was somewhere in here that I also started to note that most of what I was listening to and being influenced by the most were people that I had actually met or knew personally. (Chuck Prophet made some great records in the 90's. Kelley Stoltz was always playing around SF. Papa Mali was making demos in my house that he was gonna go record for real across the street at Kevin Ink's Studio that Time forgot. And let's not forget Justin Dillon's rocking "Tremolo" before he gave up Rock to become a full time social advocate against white slavery.)

And this mentality has followed me back to Colorado where I get to play and hang with Micah Schnabel and Two Cow Garage, open for Chad Price and then go see Drag The River, Michael Dean Damron, Matt Woods, Lenny Lashley, Have Gun Will Travel, etc. I could go on and on.

Unlike Steve Earle, I did not have Guy and Suzanna Clark or Townes Van Zandt as mentors. But it was some time in the 2000's that I finally understood Steve when he said that he realized at some point that it was the people he was spending time with that were having a bigger influence on him than what he was listening to.

Or, another way to put it would be it has more to do with who I know than what I am being forced to listen to. We are all a product or by product of pop culture whether we admit it or not. Time for bed.

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