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Bio & Interview (2009 Archive)

Paul Mark & the Van Dorens
latest collection, Blood & Treasure (RDTN 5901), on NYC-based indie Radiation Records was recorded in 2008 at Ardent Studios in Memphis TN. It’s the seventh CD release by multi-instrumentalist and singer Paul Mark. He’s also principal owner of Radiation Records Inc. and Last Warning Music, his publishing company, both of which he founded in 1995. Over the past 15-plus years he and his band have performed thousands of sets of live music along the North American bar and festival circuit. Mark grew up in Connecticut and now lives in New York City.

Q: How would you describe the music on Blood & Treasure?

Paul Mark: We cut the tracks in Memphis with real live musicians, if that helps. There’s a lot of roots and blues and soul and R’nB flying around in there, but I’m not sure if that quite captures it. It’s the kind of music that requires you to lean in a bit. And yeah I think you can dance to it.

Q: Are Paul Mark & the Van Dorens a blues band? A soul band? Rockabilly?

PM: These are industrial secrets that I’m not at liberty to divulge. Actually some of our biggest fans are blues freaks. Then again I’m told by my musical friends that Blood & Treasure captures a Stax vibe, which maybe puts us in the deep soul camp. Our last CD, Trick Fiction (RDTN 5899), was pegged by some as a singer/songwriter collection. I think our plan for Blood & Treasure was to grow a high-octane roots rock sound that draws on a variety of complementary southern styles all of which would be lyrically unified by my lunatic ruminations on the state of the body public. And my own body. Pretty straightforward, eh?

Q: You supposedly have a large music collection and an extensive knowledge of roots/Americana music.

PM: I’m definitely not a record collector. I’m not anally rententive enough. But yeah, roots, jazz, old-timey, Brill Building, classical, Tin Pan Alley, soundtracks, I listen to tons of stuff. But that’s just ‘cuz I really like to listen. Why buy a ’48 Mercury if you’re just going to park it in a museum? I’m not sure I really know all that much about music. The more you listen and play the more you realize you don’t know anything about it.

Q: Bad question but we have to ask: who were your musical influences growing up?

PM: I always liked Lightnin’ Hopkins. Something about his sunglasses. And Joseph Conrad.  

Q: Who else?

PM:  I liked any artist whose work frightened me. Howlin’ Wolf, Edith Piaf, Doc Boggs, James Joyce. O.V. Wright. People hear different things. One reviewer of Trick Fiction was convinced that my songs were heavily influenced by Frank Zappa. Kinda weird because I never spent much time with Zappa’s music. So I circled back and re-listened to a bit of it and hey, I like it.

Q: You started your own label years before the Internet-driven indie revolution began. What drove you to do so?

PM: Back then, if you were a musician and you didn’t have a record contract well, you could either throw in the towel or you could go into do-it-yourself mode. But DIY was much harder back then. I always had trouble sleeping at night if I wasn’t playing and writing. So come hell or low water I started my own label and publishing company. And it’s been an interesting experience, though I don’t really care that much for the business aspects of music. I’d avoid it entirely except for the fact that I’m a musician and, well, that’s the lot I’ve been cast in with.

Q: The music industry is changing so fast now. Are these changes for the better?

PM: For an indie artist it’s been hard not to snicker over the past 10 years as technology has turned the corporate music business model on its head. Previously there was such a gross imbalance – and a crude disrespect bred by that imbalance – between the entertainment corporations and the creative folks they hired. Now that recording, distribution and storage methods have been redefined by digital technology the corporations are panicked. But they still dwarf the indies in one important respect: they have access to capital and thus the ability to promote. This hasn’t changed. Indies remain humbled because of their inability to promote their own often superior music.

Q: Indies make better music?

PM: Not necessarily. Corporations generate truckloads of bad music, but the resulting profits often are used to fund worthwhile projects on their own labels, even those that don’t necessarily sell very well. Indies can’t afford to do that. The real problem with corporate-sponsored music – as well as with industry organizations – is that they make value judgments – what’s good and what’s bad – by committee. Teams of lawyers, accountants, A&R roundtables. Cultural democracy is a fool’s errand. You end up with compromise and blandness. A camel is a horse built by committee. Same with music...ask a work group to come up with a hit record and too often they’ll green light some pretty bad shit. It’s been proven.

Q: Your first recording contract didn’t work out well?

PM: I was originally signed to a label called Continuum out of New Jersey. Started out great but it went bad fast. Critics loved our first record, Go Big or Go Home (reissued as RDTN 5801) but there was no follow-through. So we parted ways.

Q: An old bio of yours says you have some college degrees. Were you a good student?

PM: The diplomas are stashed somewhere in my mini-storage locker on 58th Street. I went to NYU and University of Connecticut. English Lit and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Fun stuff, ruined my eyes. The endless guitar playing insured that I‘d never be more than an average student... music just cut into my concentration too much. 

Q: And you live in New York City. You drove a cab there for a while?

PM: I’ve lived in Manhattan for a while now, enough to see some real changes (sings) Driving down Broadway/Counting the Duane Reades/Cussing out each bank front /And all that Starbucks green. And I’ve done a couple stints as a taxi driver. Nasty business. Remember to tip your cabbie well...their world is a harsh one, nothing of romance in it at all. Funny how people always ask me about it. It’s like there’s this mystical fascination with the idea of the cab driver. Maybe that’s why I hacked – that strange desire to crush another mystery. Actually I think I just needed money for rent. It was hack or wait on tables.

Q: You live in New York but you record mainly in Memphis. Why?

PM: Consider this: in Memphis many if not most of the music clubs have a Hammond organ permanently installed on stage. In all of New York you can count on one hand the number of club managers who even know what a Hammond B3 is. Very telling. In New York blues and soul and country music are considered “genres”— in Memphis they’re positively elemental. Every Memphis musician, from punkers to power poppers to jazz pros, has this roots music under their belts. Many very good New York musicians, conversely, can only feign expertise in these styles. I guess because it sorta kinda sounds simple to them. In truth it takes enormous dedication and involvement to play it right.

Q:  Your songwriting is quirky and eclectic. But firmly based in traditional forms. Where do the ideas come from?

PM: Reading the papers, maybe. Actually I think I pick up quite a few ideas in diners. Very fertile ground, urban diners.

Q:  Do current events and politics play a part in your songs?

PM: I find that politics rarely crosses into songwriting without adding a stilted, cerebral quality to the music. It’s very tough to make it work. I’m not good enough to try that game. I stick to what I read in the papers and what I hear in the diners.

Q: The tracks on Blood & Treasure sound like a real band performing. You’re playing guitar and piano?

PM: Yes...And there’s Mr. James Strain (bass), Harry Peel (drums), Rick Steff (organ, piano) along with Susan Marshall and Jackie Johnson on backing vocals. Very lucky to be playing with all of them, such talented people.  If there’s not a spontaneous, ensemble sound jumping out on every track then we did something wrong. You won’t hear any click tracks, drum programming or pitch-correction going on. One day maybe I’ll make a record with all those kinds of toys just to see how they impact the sound. Might be something to learn there. Frightening to think of, really.

Q: You co-produced Blood & Treasure with Memphis engineer/producer Jeff Powell. What does he bring to the table?

PM: He’s worked on four of my CDs with me now, I think. You could fit in a thimble what Mr. Powell doesn’t know about sound engineering and recording. You know he worked for several years with Tom Dowd [legendary engineer at Atlantic Records]. What happens is I show up at the studio with finished songs and a bag of tonal ideas for the tracks. Then Jeff makes sure that it all gets committed to disk without us breaking any of that expensive vintage gear. He and I are great old pals. Actually, maybe you should ask Jeff what the hell it is that Paul brings to the table. I’d be very interested in his answer.

Q: Need to ask: Where did you come up with the “Van Dorens”?

PM: One night years ago when I’d first moved to New York I was gorging on Chinese food in front of the TV watching that late-night B flick “Teenage Confidential.” The next morning I awoke with an idea: “I will form a band. It will be called the Van Dorens.” One more mystery to be explored. Or crushed.

Q: Besides Chinese food and B movies, how do you spend your down time?

PM: These days, walking my dog and playing piano, pretty much. And reading. It’s like that music listening thing: the more you read the more you realize you don’t know a damn thing. So you keep reading to overcome your own ignorance. But it just makes you even more ignorant. At this point I’m fabulously ignorant.


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