Interview: Mark Cutler On His 6/29 CD Release Bash
In the past, local legend Mark Cutler has fronted bands like The Raindogs and The Schemers; toured with the likes of Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, and Don Henley; and starred in MTV videos. Lately, he’s stayed closer to home, playing circuits of RI and New England shows both solo and with a variety of talented friends. This Friday, head to the CD release party for his latest album, Sweet Pain, where Mark, special guest musicians, and supporting act Jay Berndt and the Orphans will play a rockin’ free show outdoors under the stars from 9 to midnight-ish.
Mark (or MC, as I like to call him) had kindly and quickly responded to my ridiculously last-minute interview a couple years ago of local musicians participating in a Johnny Cash tribute show, and I’ve since hoped to make it up to him with a proper interview. Last night I got my opportunity at the cozy Riverside home of Mark, his girlfriend, and their cats. We sat in MC’s home studio, surrounded by an array of guitars, mandolins, amps, bags of cables, cases and drum kit pieces; shelves of classic books (including a few thrift-store first editions) and music biographies; and photos and memorabilia from shows and fans. A well-rounded artist, Mark likes to paint, and some of his funky portraits – he pointed out Robert Johnson, Johnny Cash, and Mark’s son Danny – adorned the room, along with some Christmas lights that MC admitted he turns on “every now and then, for atmosphere.” Interview and more photos after the jump.
9pm, Friday, 6/29, Nick-a-Nee’s, 75 South Street, Providence (map here)
I love the progression of Sweet Pain, which opens with the upbeat “Salvation Cruise” and ends with the stark, haunting “She’ll be Killing You, Too” with a mix of sweet and sour melodies in between. What was your thought process in arranging the order of the songs?
I wanted to start the record off with a bang and a statement. So “Salvation Cruise” came into play there. Then I also wanted to showcase the different studios that were used in order to blend the environments. Tempos and keys also came into play as well as moods. I wanted light and dark to work together.
I wanted to end with a stark song, so “She’ll Be Killing You Too” made sense there.
Sweet Pain, like your 2010 release, Red, includes contributions by musicians you’ve played with in a number of configurations, including The Men of Great Courage, The Tiny String Band, Forever Young (a tribute to Neil Young), The Schemers, and The Raindogs. What was it like to work with old friends on this new project? Did you try anything new and different?
I love playing music with my old friends. I couldn’t have recorded this without the Men of Great Courage [bassist Jimmy Berger, drummer Rick Couto, banjo player Bob Kirkman and keyboardist Richard Reed] and everyone else. We have conversations via music and sometimes you say things that are deeper when you communicate in a nonverbal way. We do joke around and we have conversational shorthand that happens when you’ve known someone all your life.
One thing that we did do at Jack Gauthier’s studio: we played live in the studio and kept either the first or second take of each song. I sang live and didn’t redo my vocal. I was trying to capture that “ahh” moment in the studio that you don’t get when you record tracks separately.
When we recorded at Emerson [Torrey]’s studio, the new experience there was that Em was not playing an instrument! He manned the console and co-produced.
At my home studio, we recorded a few songs and I was really proud to get those songs on the record.
The song “She’ll Be Killing You Too” was recorded with me and my guitar in front of one mic. I think it has a real personal stark quality. We overdubbed Jonathan Gregg’s pedal steel later and he upped the haunting ratio with that quite a bit.
Eric Ambel (Steve Earle, Del Lords, Joan Jett) also played guitar on “Waste Some Time.” I emailed the tracks to him and he emailed his performance back. It was nice to use technology to be able to collaborate that way.
Although your music tends to flow a bit toward the blues, there seems to be a country tinge to some of these new songs, from the gritty “Dirty Town” to the catchy “Shame on You” (which I confess I was just humming). Were you exploring that genre?
Those songs were written a while ago and never really saw the light of day. I’ve always been a fan of Hank Williams (thanks to a movie I saw when I was 10 years old called Your Cheating Heart starring George Hamilton!), Johny Cash, and George Jones (thanks to Rudy Cheeks) as well as the Appalachian droning stuff. I’ve always loved Let It Bleed and Beggars Banquet by the Stones. Those songs echo that love.
Speaking of favorite artists, did any of yours influence this album?
Yes. “Nothing Left to Do” was wickedly inspired by early Rod Stewart records like Gasoline Alley as well as The Faces.
“She’ll Be Killing You Too” was inspired by Hank Williams and Johnny Paycheck.
You’ll hear echoes of Willie Deville, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Television if you listen hard enough.
You’re originally from Cranston. What are your fondest memories of growing up there? What are your favorite places or things to do in Rhode Island now?
I grew up near the Cranston Stadium and we used to have access to the baseball and football fields where we played pickup games. We liked to climb up on dirt piles and have dirt bomb fights. My friends and I would catch frogs and snakes at Spec’s Pond. One time we saw a dead man floating a few feet off shore.
I loved playing my guitar all the time. My late great friend Mark Egan and I would walk down Park Ave. after supper and play our instruments during our senior year in high school. We thought of it as some kind of performance art.
Today, I love riding on the East Bay bike path. It’s so beautiful. It’s like a gift.
Sweet Pain was funded by a Kickstarter campaign whose success earned you a full-page spread in the Providence Journal. How did it feel to make your goal in the first 24 hours and nearly double your fundraising goal by the time the campaign ended? Do you have advice for other folks considering using Kickstarter to fund their own projects?
I was extremely lucky to have such good friends kick in the money.
The only advice I can think of is to set a realistic goal and don’t try to pressure too much.
“Come Out to the Woods” is an interesting song (seeing this performed live by the Men of Great Courage was also my first introduction to a melodica). The song starts off sweet but veers a bit toward creepy. Is there a story there?
It started off as just a notion. A couple of Thanksgivings ago, I was at my sister’s house. She lives in the woods. My grown-up nephew, Tom, has three beautiful daughters. We all went for a walk and I thought it would a nice subject, walking in the woods. I started thinking about different woods that I used to walk in when I was a kid and I had a strong memory about this old car hidden away among the trees. It was riddled with bullet holes. Then some scary, creepy thoughts came into play. I don’t like too much sentimentality so I veered away from that and headed the car toward dark, [toward] Creepyville.
In the song “Come Get Me Up,” there’s a line “Come and get me copper” as in a line from a gangster to a policeman.
Jimmy [Berger] thought that I meant something like copper piping and he asked me what that line meant.
We all had a good laugh about that and still do.
What else do you play besides guitar and mandolin? Do you plan on learning new instruments?
I play bad piano and bad harmonica. I would really love to learn to play the piano for real, though.
I hear you work in Boston and commute four hours a day for your full-time job (ouch!). Do you do a lot of songwriting on the train? If not, how do you get so much done?
I really don’t know. I try to use any spare time I have to be creative. The train ride does provide an opportunity to write things down and think of ideas.
You like to keep busy. Now that Sweet Pain is done, do you have other projects on the horizon?
Yes. I’m working on a mostly acoustic album at my little home studio. I’ve written some new songs that have special meaning to me. I’ve also dug up some old songs and retooled them. It’s funny, because I was a different person when I wrote those old songs, so it’s like someone handed me a song and asked me to fix it up.
You’ve had some collaborations in the past recording with local bands. Are there other collaborations on the horizon? Are there any bands or artists that you’re hoping to work with?
I’m hoping to do some recording with The ‘Mericans and I’ve been talking to the boys from Six Star General about doing some collaborations. I want to play in the studio and do some live stuff with them.
I’ve done some collaborations with Kraig Jordan from The Masons.
Hutch Hutchinson (bassist for Bonnie Raitt) and I have written some songs. Rupert Greenall (keyboardist for the Fixx) and I get together every now and then and lay down some ideas.
So do my old pal Scott Duhamel and I with the sole purpose of having a completed song by the time he leaves.
Also my pal in Chicago John Bernstein and I wrote a pretty cool song called “Blues Cafe.”
I’d like to try to do some collaborations with some choreographers and dancers and I’d like to explore some hip-hop collaborations.
You’ve worked on soundtracks from a PBS documentary to Richard Marr-Griffin’s horror film Exhumed to the play “Liquorland” at Leeds Theatre. Are there other films or plays that you’re planning, or hoping, to contribute to?
Nothing immediately but I’m always up for contributing music to a score.
(I was pointing out the window of MC’s studio at rays shining through the clouds over Narragansett Bay as the sun began to set): What inspires you to write songs? Besides, say, this amazing view?
(laughing) Yes, the view of the water is an inspiration, and the sun, and those towers you see across the bay. I get ideas all the time – here, on bike rides, on my walk to work. I see something and I try to make something out of it. Right now I’m laying down tracks for a song called “Something Else” about when my eyes were playing tricks on me on the bike path the other day.
(Mark proceeded to sit down on a funny wooden box – informing me with demonstration that it was in fact a cajon, a Latin percussion instrument – and pull up “Something Else” on his MacBook Pro. To my admittedly untrained ear, the song already sounds polished and ready to go!)
I snapped a couple of photos as MC strummed a ten-stringed instrument that he explained was a cuatro (who knew this interview would be such a learning experience?) and as he admired the sunset from his own backyard. Then he politely walked me out, making sure I knew how to get back to the main road. Seemingly unable to sit still, he had just recorded himself playing drums for a remake of “Dead Man’s Song” and was eager to check on the results. I left him to work his magic.