Stephen King calls Marah America’s best unknown rock band



By Steve Newton

Not only is Stephen King among the world’s most popular writers, he also has good taste in music. He’s long been known as a devotee of AC/DC and the Ramones, and when it came time to choose a pseudonym to put on the covers of some unpublished early novels that he was dusting off for release, he looked to his BTO collection and decided that “Richard Bachman” had a nice ring to it.

More recently, King proved a keen-eyed aficionado of modern rawk when he chose Marah’s If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry as his number-one album of 2005. “Marah is probably the best rock band in America that nobody knows,” raved the prolific fearmonger in his December column for Entertainment Weekly.

Not surprisingly, that compliment went over well with Marah’s David Bielanko. When the Georgia Straight catches up with the 31-year-old singer-guitarist at an Arizona tour stop, he admits that he was thrilled by King’s glowing words. “I’m a huge fan,” says Bielanko, citing The Dead Zone and The Stand as his faves among the author’s books. “It’s just fun to be championed by someone like that, ’cause he’s arguably the biggest writer of all time. So when people like that give you the nod, it’s always very cool.”

The kudos for If You Didn’t Laugh didn’t stop with the Maine-man of horror. Mojo gave it a four-star review, and on the lesser end of the hipster scale, Classic Rock scored it an eight out of 10

“We made a good effort to be very nonexclusive,” says Bielanko of the album’s crossover appeal. “There’s a lotta bands that are after a certain audience or whatever, and I think that we’ve invited anyone to our party that wanted to come to it. It doesn’t matter how old you are or what you wear or that kinda thing. We’re a rock ‘n’ roll band, and it’s our duty to be that way. That’s the way we feel, anyway.”

The Philly-spawned quintet relocated to its current Big Apple base to record the self-produced CD in a Manhattan studio and a Brooklyn kitchen, with most of the tracks captured in one or two takes.

“It’s definitely the most spontaneous and the quickest record we ever made,” says Bielanko. “The biggest thing that sets it apart [from the previous four Marah albums] is that it’s the most personal songs about us and our friends, and what we do on a day-to-day basis. Playing in a band, you’re kind of in a self-contained little bubble sometimes, and we thought it’d be cool to inspect that a little bit more.”

The everyday tales told in slice-of-life ditties like “The Apartment” and “The Dishwasher’s Dream” are relayed through a raggedy ’70s-rock sound tinged with folk-punk and blues. In Marah’s bio from their label, Yep Roc Records, Bielanko’s older brother Serge-who cowrites all the tunes with him, and also sings and plays guitar-defines what the band is about.

“Marah has always wanted to be Townes Van Zandt fronting the Faces,” he writes, “Bob Dylan leading AC/DC, Sly Stone fronting the Ramones, or Nick Drake fronting the Dead Milkmen.”

The Bielankos were somewhat inspired to follow their career path by their father, who David describes as “a fantastic drummer”, but growing up in the City of Brotherly Love didn’t provide the siblings with a lot of chart-topping groups to emulate.

“Philadelphia’s a very eclectic, soulful kind of town,” notes David. “Some of the greatest horn players come out of Philly. But it hasn’t yielded too many great rock bands. We just sort of found rock ‘n’ roll through each other. We got guitars at an early age, around eight or nine, and it just always seemed very plausible that we could be in a band together. I’m glad it worked out that way.”

So, now that Marah has signed to the prestigious Yep Roc-home to such stellar artists as Dave Alvin, John Doe, Billy Bragg, Bob Mould, and Nick Lowe-and is winning raves from both influential music mags and old-school horror icons, does Bielanko think his quintet is due to break through to a mass audience?

“No,” he casually replies. “We exist in a crazy musical time in America anyway. It’s very hype-driven, and the bottom line is, if you can’t infiltrate things like USA Today, you’re just not gonna reach people the way that you need to to really catch fire. But we’re very happy to be in a cult band that we’ve made successful completely on our own, you know, without a machine behind it. We did this ourselves. And you can’t be more proud of something than something like that.”

David Bielanko sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.

On If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry‘s CD-booklet illustrations: “I did all those. It was sort of doodles while we were mixing the record, and it ended up making it feel very personal. We wanted the record to feel more like something we made, as opposed to something that was manufactured.”

On signing to Yep-Roc Records: “They were very enthusiastic, and they pursued us and seemed really dedicated to what we wanted to do. A large reason that we went with them is because they had Paul Weller [on the roster], and we’re big Jam fans.”

On Marah’s numerous lineup changes: “The member changes are largely due to the fact that we live an exhausting lifestyle. I never blamed anybody for walkin’ away, but I never had much to do with them after they did-you know what I mean.”

On re-creating songs from the new CD in concert:“They’ve been translating incredibly well. There’s a live element to the record, sort of the one-take approach, so you learn what the songs are really about as you start to play them in front of people. The shows have been really amazing, so this is a great time to see us, I think.”

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