Interview: Andy Fenwick
Photo: William Flayhart
Nostalgia is best evoked via subtle details forgotten by those who even knew those details in their time. Imagine, say, in a key moment of the Stranger Things’ finale (stop reading if this is a spoiler) you replace Cyndi Lauper’s blockbuster 80s hit “True Colors” with Ryuichi Sakamoto & David Sylvian’s vastly superior 1983 love song “Forbidden Colours.” A similar, sublime whiplash results from hearing “lost” music like Mark Renner’s Few Traces. How lost? Ravelin asked RVNG Intl.’s Matt Werth:
In a classic story of digger’s delight, I found a copy of Mark’s first album, All Walks of This Life, at a flea market in Philadelphia about five years ago. I became quietly obsessed with the album and casually checked in with Mark a couple years later to see if there was additional material from the era. Sure enough, there was. Fortunately, Mark was not only interested in reexamining it, but was also an incredibly kind soul.
So even if you’re old enough to recall the musically rich side of the 80s, chances are you didn’t hear many of the tracks collected on Few Traces, most self-released, some little more than demos, all of them pure. At the same time, Few Traces has accumulated timelessness, no doubt due to the sonic investigations by current artists over the intervening years. Some tracks on Few Traces would fit on an Ariel Pink or John Maus record.
Few Traces opens with the benediction-like church organ of “Riverside,” a fragile, wistful tonal exercise in need of a Hal Hartley movie. The similar, keyboard-led, stately melody “James Cowie (The Portrait Group),” premiered here by Ravelin, lofts itself on a bed of what sounds like a field recording of rainstorm. The lovely, almost surf-like electric guitar of “Autumn Calls You By Your Name” wouldn’t have been out of place amid instrumental tracks by the Plugz for the movie Repo Man. The intertwining guitar figures of “Princes Street” shoot a straight line from Felt’s Maurice Deebank to Real Estate. On “A Fountain in the Cloister,” an electronic rhythm struts beneath a muted trumpet in a forward thinking (even for now) mashup of Mark Isham and the Blue Nile.
All of which brings us to the e-bow led, multi-layered guitar instrumental “It Might Have Been,” which might pierce an 80s survivor right in their ossifying heart. It stands like a lost Feelies track – you know one when you hear one – and yet, it’s so good, any youngblood would be forgiven mistaking it for something new.
Or begin thinking what might have been. As Renner explains to Ravelin, there were recording locations and label flirting that succumbed to the tug and tumble of years. Part of that, a correspondence and friendship with the late Stuart Adamson (Skids/Big Country), provided inspiration. Watch your sneering: Big Country sometimes doubled as Pete Townshend’s backing band, and their soundtrack work for Restless Natives needs to be reissued like yesterday. As silly as it seems, even Motorhead named a song after themselves, and “In a Big Country” is the type of Big Pop Statement no one outside of hip hop nails – or even attempts – anymore.
Do you see the collection Few Traces as the closing of a chapter – or like an excavation? What inspired you to look back and collect? Or did RVNG have to twist your arm?
The way the assembling of the collection unfolded would be more akin to an excavation. I have been much more focused on my painting during the last eight years, which left few hours for thinking about exhuming the remnants of past work. When RVNG first approached me, I had to delay any serious discussion, as I had been contacted by someone in Europe looking to re- release All Walks of This Life and my second album Painter’s Joy. When their interest seemed to evaporate, RVNG followed up and we began to seriously discuss the possibility the unique package they wanted to assemble.
What track(s) on Few Traces had you forgotten, if any? And re-discovered happily? Which tracks on Few Traces were used only to accompany your art? After this, I’d love to hear what wasn’t collected from All Walks of This Life and/or Painter’s Joy?
There were quite a few things I had not listened to for many years. In doing so, it stirred a great deal of reflection and thinking of the days of trying to alchemize gold from the meager equipment affordable to me at the time. Little else from that period has likely survived; however, I do have a mountain of cassettes that may eventually give up some secrets. A re-mastered Painter’s Joy is one of the final archival things before me in 2018.
All of the instrumental and wordless pieces on Few Traces were used in some manner as sound installations to accompany exhibitions of paintings and lino-cuts in Baltimore galleries in the 1980’s.
When Few Traces songs were made – Where were you, as a musician? What were you most skilled with, and what equipment were you first discovering?
They were hopeful times for artists looking to express themselves in non-traditional ways. There was a convergence of new and somewhat affordable technology (synthesizers, rhythm machines), and weariness with the formulaic music sounds and structures that had dominated the airwaves and music venues for decades. One no longer had to be a Peabody or Berklee graduate to adequately express themselves musically. I am an autodidact in guitar and piano (and painting) which has its benefits in developing unique approaches to traditional ways, but, at some point, will reveal limitations. This in turn can spark a real creative flame in trying to find a way around those limits.
At the time I had a TEAC four track recorder, which used standard cassette tapes. I had the Casio CZ101 Keyboard, with a workable arsenal of presets in its sound bank. I eventually got a Casio sequencer which could be programmed in real or step time, and the lovely Roland Boss Dr. Rhythm, which had limited time signatures, and sounds, but it was a dependable unit for simple patterns and live use. For the early recordings, I borrowed a Yamaha DX7 from a friend and I used a Yamaha SBG 1000 guitar. My only external effect was an analog delay pedal.
RVNG press materials for Few Traces name influences like the Yellow Magic Orchestra, Ultravox, the Associates, and Bill Nelson [ed’s note to readers: hear his 1983 Chimera right now, if you haven’t. Renner’s note to readers: Chimera: sublime. Features Takahashi from YMO and Mick Karn … I was fortunate enough to see him when he toured the Chimera material, agreed- likely his best work]. What, exactly, where you hearing in their music that meant the most to you?
I think a common element in the recordings of the names mentioned, was an innovative use of the electronic technology of the time and a unique ability to extract more than just the sounds themselves. I didn’t follow Ultravox after John Foxx’s departure, but I would say, along with YMO, the Associates and Bill Nelson, the dawning of midi-technology birthed some adventurous approaches to bass and rhythm tracks and these new tools in the hands of musicians unafraid of experimentation was nothing short of revolutionary.
Talk about your paintings. What influences them? Have they changed over time, and how? On Few Traces, there’s an instrumental piece about James Cowie ...
My work is figurative, largely concerned with the journey of the individual, the sojourner, the meek and lowly and can often portray agrarian, bucolic life and the sorrows and hardships, gladsome and simple moments at times forgotten in living. My work has been described more than once as Dickensian which may not be wholly intended, however I can understand the likening for some.
At this point in time, I am extremely fortunate that painting, printmaking and writing music is something I have the freedom to do “full time,” and given this freedom for the past eight years, I have had the time to explore and expand, refine and improve, and I sense this has made the greatest impact or change to all of my work. I would hope that my work will continue to explore and expand on what have been lifelong themes for me, and that I can, in some deeper way, convey to those viewing what is distilled on the canvas.
My recordings have frequently contained elegies to people I have known, loved, and lost.
Who’s that reciting “Hush Hush Time Tae be Sleepin”” on the “The Sun in His Hand, A Storm in His Hand?
That is the voice of Richard Jobson. I was visiting in London in 1981 and recorded him reading poetry in a noisy student union of London University.
Years later, I was in a studio recording a piece for a sound installation for my gallery exhibition “Creatures that Die in a Season” and was running out of time ideas, so I started to sort through a box of old cassette tapes and in a serendipitous moment came across something that seemed to counterbalance the more abstract moments of the recording.
Richard was kind enough to grant permission to use it here, and to my knowledge, it is a poem he has never recorded.
Talk about those demo sessions in London. What year? Where were they? Who was working with you?
We recorded in London in 1983, at a small studio, Alvic. I was recording with Jim Matis, who played keyboards, and Ed Meyers, a bass player, who later played on Painter’s Joy. I recall Ed and Jim, the night before we recorded, going over to try to program the Linn drum machine that we had never before worked with, and that effort produced the gated snare sound hammering away throughout “Half a Heart.” Stuart Adamson had highly recommended – and we were originally scheduled to record at – Castle Sound in Edinburgh, with the engineer Calum Malcolm, (who contributed to the sound of many of the Blue Nile recordings), but were bumped out at the last minute.
Please tell the story of your friendship with Stuart Adamson of Skids/Big Country? Did you remain in touch with Adamson in the years following the Few Traces music, up until his death?
I had initially corresponded with Stuart around the time of the Skids second album: Days in Europa and we continued a frequent exchange and met up when the Skids played Hurrahs in New York (1980?). He invited me to stay with him in Dunfermline when I was visiting Edinburgh, just after he had left the Skids. (he was assembling and rehearsing a new band, he was thinking of calling the Dicemen – Big Country’s earliest lineup- a five-piece with keyboards). He gave some good advice about publishing and record labels, was always helpful and encouraging. I am guessing those who knew him remember him as man unimpressed by fame, who held a deep affection for his family, his hometown, and its people, and the benevolent charity of its most famous son, Andrew Carnegie. The next time I visited, he was beginning to feel the deep rumblings of “success.” People were knocking on his door seeking autographs. We slipped out to a music store in town and while we were there we could hear some young musicians trying out guitars in the next room and they were learning the intro from “The Storm” (from The Crossing). As BC became more renowned, it was more (in the pre- internet days) difficult to remain in touch. He had to change his phone number several times, and he was being pulled in many different directions. In the times I saw him in Philadelphia and New York, on the subsequent tours, you could see the strain of his having to divide himself so thinly to mollify the interest of so many.
Like many others I was absolutely gutted when I heard of his suicide. After not speaking to him for many years it is beyond my ken how he could have crumbled to that point. The cusp and the wane of the record industry has taken many who were unable to adjust after breathing rarefied air and then falling from favor.
I hear a definite Adamson echo or influence on “As Big as Trees” and of course “Half a Heart.” Did he have any kind of input on those?
“As Big as Trees” as it appears on Few Traces was just the very first time we were putting it together, Ed Meyers had a bass line, I fiddled with the Dr. Rhythm drum patterns and we just began interacting. We were both zealous Celtic music lovers. There was, at the time a radio program on local radio that (I think) was called “
The Thistle and Shamrock Hour,” and we were aflame with the possibilities of blending some of the Celtic melodic elements with what we were doing. I don’t remember it as a Skids or BC tribute. The only musical input I can remember Stuart giving was on an early demo I recorded, he told me it reminded him of Tom Verlaine playing the Doobie Brothers, so the song was shelved!
It would be unusual to encounter someone who appreciates Adamson’s work both in the Skids *and* Big Country; BC made some debatable ‘80s-era choices, but to dismiss them despite achievements like the Restless Natives soundtrack, or “Porrohman,” is unfair. What was your view of Big Country, following the Skids?
In their first incarnation I went with Stuart to where they were rehearsing in an abandoned church or community hall. They had a different, striding drummer (I think he was the drummer from Spizz Oil?) who played with two bass drums and really propelled the music in a thunderous way. At the time they also had a keyboard player and a different bass player who added a different shade to a lot of their songs. They were polishing “Angle Park “and “The Crossing“ with Stuart and Bruce weaving in and out of melody and rhythm, and it kind of reminded me of the interplay between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. I left there wondering how or what producer was going to be able to reign in this massive anthemic sound.
I think they maintained some of that original tension over a little more than half of the second album. By then they were in great demand around the world and I am guessing the demands of making music palpable for the masses may have diluted creativity. I don’t doubt that they were still making music that was deeply personal for them, but I am sure there were bigger pennies at stake. A lot was invested in them, although Polygram couldn’t seem to do much for them on this side of the Atlantic.
Talk about the video for “Half a Heart;” is that you? Where was it filmed?
From what I understand, the filmmaker is an Edinburgh director and was commissioned by RVNG. Not sure who the guy is in the video, but as the Irish say: “Fair play to you” if he is walking the foothills of Caledonia.
How did the liner notes by Brandon Soderberg come about? And please talk about the short documentary you’re making?
I enjoyed meeting Brandon, he seemed to have an interest in Baltimore and its musical lineage. We are both former record shop employees, and that is a brotherhood few others can enter into. RVNG arranged the meeting, and Brandon and I have exchanged emails a few times since.
The documentary was an idea that Matt Werth at RVNG had raised, and afterwards my initial reluctance receded when considering the amount of work and patience, and investment that RVNG had put into seeing the project thru. While mining for documents and band photos in dusty file boxes, digging for old reels, DAT and cassettes and any vestiges of poorly archived material over the last year or so, I began to look at it differently, as a way to shed some light on the creative process, revisit some leaner years and forgotten moments or maybe as an encouragement to someone who could be searching for a reason to continue creating amid the demands of living and considering whether it is wise to persist when it seems that few are listening.
In the last decade you had a burst of output – three albums in two years? Each very different than the other. What inspired that burst? And I have to ask – is the title of the beautiful, instrumental Memoirs of a Distracted Church Organist album based on a real gig as a church organist?
I think most churches would chase me away from their organs, or at least make me play with the volume way down. I have always wondered about the solitary genius that goes unheard, the prophet without honor, the striking tenor that never sings in the concert hall. The profound, muted thoughts never known or uttered for lack of love or interest from others. I think it was the Philip Larkin poem “Faith Healing” that inspired the line of thought that birthed the title.
Most of ”A Desire for Forgetfulness ” had been written or completed for many years, it would have been the follow-up to “ Painter’s Joy “ had Dimension/ Restless renewed my option. “ Memoirs…” and “ Goldenacre” were both completed around the same time. When I finished “ Goldenacre “ I had hours of music remaining so they were sort of bookends to the fruits of that time period. Somewhere I have a hard drive with a large body of unmixed pieces left over from
this period, that I am hoping to revisit at some point.
2010’s Enduring the Going Hence is different from much of your work – almost no guitar, more space in the compositions, and your vocals are (more than usual) reminiscent of David Sylvian. It also has moments of joy, but seems somber and often concerned with issues of mortality. Did anything in real life inspire that?
My recordings have frequently contained elegies to people I have known, loved and lost. “ Goldenacre “ contains five. I remember reading years ago, that on the day that his mother died, C.S. Lewis’ father wrote the line (from Shakespeare) “Man must endure his going hence” on his calendar. There is a specter of loss that tempers some of the recording.
There are more than a few young artists currently making music quite akin to Few Traces (John Maus, Ariel Pink, even Real Estate via “Princes Street”). Has it crossed your mind to write & record new music, now, like the music on Few Traces ? Would it be difficult to do so?
My creative hours have been largely consumed by painting and printmaking for some time now. During this time, I have a worked on an electronic recording off and on seasoned with field recordings I sampled while traveling in Ethiopia, Switzerland, Italy, Turkey, Scotland and a few different cities in the US. This album “Salt and Firewood “ needs to be mixed and tweaked, but it is mostly complete.
It wasn’t until the end of last year that I felt I had something worthwhile to work on in the way of structured songs. I had a large collection of finished lyrics but it is not always easy for me to marry chords and structure without losing the meter or reducing the rhythm or efficacy of a written sentence.
I began recording the album “Seaworthy Vessels are in Short Supply” in Baltimore in the spring, continued in Texas in the summer thru October, and I was in Glasgow last month working on two songs with the ably gifted Malcolm Lindsay, a film and classical composer and producer who has worked in many different incarnations across the musical spectrum. At this stage in recording I would say the record could be one of the most preternatural of any recording I have worked on. The marriage of sound, lyrics and the gifted musicians that have been involved have given birth to more “catching lightning in a bottle“ moments than I could ever have expected. If I can complete the final 3 songs in the next month or so I would hope the recording would be released in 2018.