Marcellus Hall

Artist Info
Marcellus Hall is a great unsung New York hero since the late eighties. His band Railroad Jerk was one of Matador Records' first signings, and he continued on that label with White Hassle. Now solo, or with the Headliners, he's still going strong, writing witty, literate, and classic sounding pop, blues, and folk songs. He's also known for his distinctive illustration work.

INTERVIEW

July 2007
Exclusive tracks for The Secret Stereo recorded in april 2007 with Malachi Delorenzo, drummer for Langhorne Slim and son of the drummer for the Violent Femmes, at the controls.

 

Has there been, or do you foresee a stylistic shift between the music of White Hassle and your current solo music or with Marcellus Hall and the Headliners?
Well, for one, I have gone acoustic. Two, I have a bass player. And three, my drummer plays brushes. I think White Hassle was moving in this direction though on our last CD, Your Language (on songs such as 'Star Position' and 'Neon, Not the Night'), which came out on Fargo Records (www.fargorecords.com) in Europe. But the two bands are different. I am more interested now in direct communication with voice and words than in orchestration or song structure.
Who is in the Headliners? Is this your band now?
The headliners are Damon "Lightning" Smith on bass and Jimmy "The Hat" Ansourian on drums
How did you come to be playing together?
I met Damon via my friend Chris Maxwell formerly of Skeleton Key. And I met Jimmy via Judah Bauer of 20 Miles and the Blues Explosion. Jimmy used to play in 20 Miles.
What is your band dynamic like?
The dynamic of a trio is better than that of a quartet. In a quartet divisive alliances are sometimes formed. In a trio the three "legs" need each other for the whole to stand.
How have your musical goals changed over the years? What are you working towards now?
I don't know if my musical goals have changed aesthetically. I still value words and simplicity. I still eschew cliché. I think that now, however, after so many years, I'm less inclined to think in terms of "making it." That term is no longer so black & white to me. My goals are to continue to have people appreciate my music and to improve as a musician and songwriter.
What makes you write songs? Are they typically "true", or are they fictitious? Are they usually specifically for or about someone?
A lot of people think that songwriting is about self expression. For me it is about affecting people. So if a line like "She broke my heart" affects people, one way or another, then it is a good line, whether or not my heart was broken. In other words, I will choose words that I think will affect people regardless of whether they are "true" or not - keeping in mind that people generally believe lyrics to be true (especially those sung by acoustic musicians).The fact that I'm not always writing "from the heart" perhaps allows me to be more prolific. That being said, however, I can point to certain songs I've written and tell you who or what inspired them.
n your song 'A Fine Line', you sing "I don't write down half the things that I should / And the things that I do are never any good". Do you generally keep a notebook with you to work on songs or drawings when the inspiration strikes? What is your songwriting process like?
I carry a pocket notebook (Muji from Japan) in which I jot down fragmentary words that might or might not be good in a song. Later I compile the words on my computer and print them out. Then I sing them while strumming my guitar. The order in which they appear in my notebooks occurs by chance so the songs sometimes have a collage effect. I sing the line about not writing down "things that I should," however, because so many people say that about themselves. That condition, I think, is universal and everyone can relate to it.
You have covered quite a few songs, and you're always able to make a song your own, no matter the style or era it's from. What makes you want to cover a particular song- is it simply that you like the song, or do you want to hear it a certain way? Who are songwriters that you admire?
Songs I have covered include 'Song #2' (Blur), 'Darling Nikki' (Prince), 'Superstition' (Stevie Wonder), 'Summer is Ready' (the Breeders), 'Dry' (PJ Harvey), 'Fixin' to Die' (Bukka White), 'Burn On' (Randy Newman), 'To Sir with Love' (Lulu), 'MMM-Bop' (Hanson), and 'Rock Me Gently' (Andy Kim). The songwriters I admire are the ones who have a literary bent and a sense of humor. For example: Syd Barrett, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Chuck Berry, Randy Newman, Jonathan Richman, Hank Williams, Janet Jackson, and Woody Guthrie. I have been intrigued, however, with the idea of covering songs that people would not expect me to cover (see Devo's version of 'Satisfaction'). Many people will suggest I cover such-and-such a song and it will inevitably be a country-tinged slice of Americana. But I ask why would I want to be in that ghetto? So many people see genres as hard and fast definitions. It gets boring. Some people even think it's genre bending to NOT say "motherfucker" in a rap song. In fact, it's actually possible to write a rap song and not use that word. PS: Neil Young doesn't have a sense of humor.
Is there a "Marcellus Hall aesthetic"? Is there something particular that you feel defines your creative output?
A sense of humor is important to me. Also a balance between pathos and absurdity is important, as is a balance between the physical and the metaphysical.
How does living in Brooklyn shape your music and art? What does it feel like to live in New York in 2007? What's happening culturally, musically, or artistically that you would like people to know about?
Actually I live in Manhattan now. I lived in Brooklyn when I first moved to NYC. I love New York. There is always something happening and I don't need a car.
Do you currently feel like you are a part of any "scene"? Has this changed for you since the days of Railroad Jerk or White Hassle? What communities do you feel like you belong to?
There are probably a number of "scenes" in NYC, but I am not aware of them. I don't feel that I am part of a scene at the moment, but I am aware of how being a part of a scene can help a person's career. I am lucky because I have another passion and that is drawing. I see my drawing and my interest in music as the same thing though. They both stem from the same ground. Drawing pays the bills right now. I have noticed a general trend these days of more bands being acoustic and/or quiet and bearded. More so than fifteen years ago anyway. I don't have a beard, but I can envision being allied with these groups.
In addition to your own bands, you've played on records by Boss Hog, Foetus, and others. Who have been your favorite collaborators?
I am not a good collaborator, so to speak. I get along with everyone, but I find it hard to be a sideman. I enjoy playing on other people's recordings though. It is not well known that I once played harmonica on a single by that 90s one-hit-wonder band EMF.
Growing up in Minneapolis in the early eighties, did you ever see Prince? Were you into him?
I never saw Prince. (My friend Chris, saw him though, hanging out this month in the Hamptons.) I was definitely a fan. Because I left Minneapolis at a young age I didn't see or participate very much in the Minneapolis scenes of the eighties, much less the Prince phenomenon.
You covered 'Darling Nikki' once, right?
'Darling Nikki' has always been one of my favorite Prince songs. When White Hassle covered it, we discovered that it has a really interesting chord progression.
What inspires you?
New York City, George Grosz, languages, Marc Chagal, Walt Whitman, Moby Dick, Bob Dylan, Don Quixote, Marcel Proust, Paris Hilton, linguistics, Mike Leigh's Naked, Marlon Brando, the Devil, public libraries, Franz Masereel, Stephin Merritt, Hiroshige, John Lennon, Rockwell Kent, Saul Steinberg, Conor Oberst, Al Hirschfeld, Ronald Searle, Rufus Wainwright, Thomas Wolfe (not Tom Wolfe), Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
How do you spend your days? Do you work a job? Do you draw or play music each day?
I wake up whenever I want to, check my email, jump rope, eat granola and drink tea, and work on freelance illustrations. Then I strum the guitar so my callouses don't disappear, I hit the streets or the library, and eat lunch with a sketchbook and notebook in my pocket. Later I will maybe draw some more, go to the bank and check on my savings account, read the stock reports, and peruse the tabloids (to see what the lower classes are on about).Then I'll go to some opening, a date, a reading, a concert, a party, the beach, or whatever (on my bike, of course).
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