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Bio & Interview  (2011 Archive)

Paul Mark’s latest collection, Mirage Cartography (RDTN 5909) on New York City-based Radiation Records, was recorded in 2009-2010 in New York City and also at Ardent Studios in Memphis TN. It’s the eighth CD release by multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Paul Mark. He’s also principal owner of Radiation Records Inc. and Last Warning Music, his publishing company, both of which were founded in 1995. Over the past 18-plus years his band, Paul Mark & the Van Dorens have performed thousands of sets of live music along the North American bar and festival circuit. Mark grew up in Connecticut and has lived in Manhattan for more than 20 years.

The Society of Illustrators awarded it's annual gold medal in advertising artwork to the creators of the CD packaging for Mirage Cartography.


Q: Your new solo release, Mirage Cartography, is instrumental acoustic guitar music, a real departure from Blood & Treasure, your most recent Paul Mark & the Van Dorens record.

Paul Mark: I guess you’re asking why would I cut an entire CD of acoustic guitar instrumentals without my band. The answer is I don’t know. If I was so sure about whys and whens I suppose I’d be working as an insurance adjuster. Truth is, finger-picked acoustic guitar was really my first instrument, my first voice. There was an itch to return to it with these new compositions. And I think it’s pretty good. I mean, I like it a lot.

Q: There’s a strong roots element to the sound – blues, country, folk and old timey sounds. Your performances all sound live with no studio gimmicks.

PM: Lots of fret noises and finger movements in there. The listener can taste the warmth and spontaneity, I hope. Good music rarely sounds like it was made with machines. And even when good music is made with machines it doesn’t sound like it was. The human ear prefers music that breathes with oddness and imperfection, not with mechanism and precision. Humanity is the soul of it, it recalls who we are and opens windows out onto new possibilities. That’s what I was going for. Click tracks and pitch-perfect solos would be wrong, they detract from the depth of the thing.

Q: It’s interesting that someone who’s been critically praised for their lyric writing would cut a CD of instrumentals. Almost an act of rebellion.

PM: Mirage Cartography is not my first instrumental record. I cut Roadside Americana – an all instrumental country blues record – a few years back. And the same rootsy instincts are involved with this new one. I’m not rebelling against anything. Except maybe everything, because so much of the cultural noise out there today is so remarkably bad.

Q: This is your eighth commercial CD release. But you’re still locked into the indie mindset. Is that good?

PM: Well, I’m still making records, moving forward and all that. That’s some sort of a success when you consider the transient element of the popular music world today. The way acts come and go, I mean. Am I selling a whole lot of music? That’s a different question. But modest sales aren't really that troubling when you consider the quality of the music that is selling well today. It’s almost like three-quarters of the music-buying public doesn’t know crap from Christmas. I mean some of the stuff that’s selling isn’t even music, it’s merely a marketing provocation. Our idea is to try to create sounds that appeal to listeners who fly solo. People who’ve moved past the taste-maker promotional machinery that churns in the background of TV, web and radio. Listeners who’ve ditched the corporate mass media cues.

Q: When you’re writing and rehearsing Mirage Cartography – as opposed to the music for your band – who are the influences you’re sorting through?

PM: Hard to say really. I’ve come to suspect that creative people can’t truly say whose work they’re feeding off of, who their influences are. Either they recite a bunch of names selected to impress the questioner, or they simply don’t know where the hell they got the ideas in the first place.

Q: Subconscious influences at work.

PM: Yeah right. When you’re constantly listening to a haphazard waterfall of music day in and day out you simply lose track of where your own ideas are coming from. Along those lines I sometimes spontaneously come up with concrete song ideas just as the sun is rising and I’m waking up in bed. Like residual dreams. And some are strong ideas, structured melodies and lyrics, too. Now where all that shit comes from is anybody’s guess. But I use that sort of material all the time on my records.

Q: Having said that, who’ve you been listening to lately?

PM: Lately, a lot of Blue Note releases from the 50s and early 60s. Italian movie soundtracks, Portuguese Fado, lots of classical music, particularly virtuoso performances. I also went back over the past year and listened to a good bunch of the blues LPs from my collection, records I’d fallen in love with when I was a teenager. Funny how time and experience changes the way you hear music, particularly tracks you were intimately aware of years before. B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, James Carr, early Fabulous Thunderbirds, John Fahey, Scott Joplin. The best music doesn’t age much. It still sounds fresh 25 years later. But you hear new things.

Q: Along with writing all the music on Mirage Cartography you were the sole performer on 12 of the 13 tracks. You’re playing solo guitar on 6 or 7 tracks, but you’re multi-tracking several guitars and bass on others.

PM: The solo guitar stuff is essentially cut live using either 6 or 12 string acoustic guitar with fingerpicks. On a few of the tracks I’ve layered in several instruments, subtly I hope, trying to achieve a particular effect or ambience. There’s one track with a full band, Mirage Avenue #2, and that was cut down at Ardent Studios in Memphis. That’s James Strain [bass], Harry Peel [drums] and Al Gamble [Hammond organ] on there with me. Great people, all of ‘em.

Q: How do you think your associates would describe working with you in the studio?

PM: Making records can be a drawn out process that taxes your patience. But I’ve been lucky to work with Jeff Powell and the very professional crew at Ardent, who are great friends of mine. So working in the studio is always a pleasure for me. I like to believe they even enjoy my company a little bit. Privately maybe they think I’m a cantankerous madman foaming with bitch-righteous opinions. The truth’s probably somewhere in the middle. But we all laugh a lot, so something must be working right.

Q: You don’t play out live as much these days. Why not?

PM: I don’t think anyone to date has expressed in writing the pleasure versus disgust debate that thinking musicians go through when gigging today. Good topic for a novel, I think. It’s difficult to convey in a few words. The pleasure of playing live is so pure, the real vibrant thrill of performing in front of an audience, of expressing something rich and unconventional in music. It’s inexpressibly exuberant and complex and interactive and satisfying. But the other side is that the sound system sucks, the venue manager is a card-carrying jackass, the agent who booked you barely remembers your name and, most troubling, a good chunk of the audience has no clue what you’re doing musically. Many of them can barely tap their foot to the beat. Too many are contented merely with being there, happy with the notion that they’ve completed the equation formulated by the local entertainment magazine. Glad they can email and blog their friends that they’ve made the scene. There’s an absurd element to the milieu, the kind of thing Shaw or Oscar Wilde would’ve made hay with. You’ve got these creative folks on stage doing something for a good reason, and a world of opportunists swarming in, trying to gain some pithy tidbit from it. For those on stage there’s an unresolved tension, a disconnect, that engenders ambivalence. The question for the musician is, hey, is this worth it?

Q: Technology, the Internet, has changed the game quite a bit.

PM: The web has certainly brought some clarity and opportunity to the music game. But it’s also compounded some cultural imbalances. Yeah it’s great that artists have more say in the marketing and distribution of their music. I’m living testament to that. And listeners have more choices, which is great.  But now for discriminating listeners there’s more work involved in hunting down the good stuff. You’ve got to sort through a lot more crap. Worse, there’s an anything-goes hype machine that greases the skids for that crap. Just because some song or video goes “viral” doesn’t mean it’s good. It more often means that millions of rubberneckers are gapping at the mediocrity of the moment, buying in because a wave of loudmouthed philistines with web voices told them to. One result of all this is a new generation of listeners who equate merit with popularity. An old dumb equation, I know. But the free-wheeling nature of the web, while it opens lots of doors, particularly exacerbates this type of thing, the promotion of garbage. Sometimes today's convoluted promotional schemes for music are more inventive than the music they're designed to push.

Q: It’s a little odd that you don’t blog or tweet. Why not?

PM: Blog or tweet...Sounds like some kind of speech impediment [laughing]. Or a dance. In part it’s because becoming pretend friends with thousands of online people in order to sell them something seems a little too P.T. Barnum for me. Too much hidden pretext, like the guy who neglects to tell his fiance that he’s marrying her for her money. I’m not comfortable with that. And then there’s the issue of privacy. Do you know that for decades Flaubert wouldn’t permit his portrait to be painted or to have his photo taken? He’d refuse all requests saying, “My face is my own.” I’m no Flaubert, but that remark sounds about right to me. Distance...that can be an asset in the long run.

Q: Literature, right. You have degrees in Engineering and a grad degree in English, correct?

PM: Books, yes. I’m among that dwindling minority of Americans who actually read books. It’s what I do when I’m not playing or writing. Hope that doesn’t scare any listeners away. You asked before about influences. For me the written word impacts the music you’re making as much or more than the CDs you’re listening to. Especially when you're recording guitar instrumentals, I’ve found.

Q: Sounds like you could write some good liner notes for a CD.

PM: Nah. I got nothing to say.


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