Cowboy Mark interviewed by Michael Rys for Punk Globe Magazine
I seem to be a bit into music lately that you just can’t quite put a label on. Well, at least I can’t, anyway.
Sour Jazz is another band I have a hard time describing. Oh, they are all some rock n roll punks for sure. But Sour Jazz goes beyond even those limitations, with songs that cover subjects like over-used one liners by crinkled up cock rock stars, what happened to my friends from the corner, and one’s unmitigated love of the city, dirt and all. Not too common subjects for most punks these days. Any one of the four records currently out – No Values, Lost For Life, Dressed To The Left and Rock & Roll Ligger – is one of those discs you put in when it’s a long night of pool playing and dark beer.
My friend and bandmate Rev Paul describes them best when he said, “These guys make the records Iggy should have been making the last ten years.”
The following is an interview with bassist Mark, or Cowboy, as he's called. ( I should have asked the origin of the nickname but I'll leave that to you.) He and bandmates Ratboy, Splat Action and Mr Popular (Lou) deserve a listen. Just turn the light down low, slip those headphones on, light a smoke... Sour Jazz is going to take you on a trip through the rough side of town. The good news is, they have a limo and there are some Russian babes in the back seat wearing fishnets and pistols.
Hey, it’s my trip I'll take it anyway I want.
How long has Sour Jazz been around?
About ten years, actually... we started out sometime in 1998. Lou, our singer, and Ratboy collided first, hauled me in, and then Lou brought Splat in to drum.
Everyone has pretty extensive experience before coming together as Sour Jazz. Whos' been in what?
Lou played with Cheetah Chrome after The Dead Boys split, and served his time in heaps of bands that I couldn't even start to mention. I think that the last thing he did before Sour Jazz was a band called Dirt Search Headlight. Splat was their drummer, which is a bit of history, I guess, that they share. Splat drummed for too many bands to mention, as drummers do. Right before Sour Jazz, he was in Suicide King, and also Martin's Folly -- they were a great band. Their keyboard player, Jim Duffy, has played on all of our albums. The final Martin's Folly album featured a duet with Ian Hunter, which is well worth searching out. And then there's the World Famous Mr. Ratboy -- he's played with Motorcycle Boy [produced by Syl Sylvain], Pillbox [managed by Joan Jett], Bebe Buell, Jeff Dahl, Marky Ramone's Intruders... fuck, it's endless, really. Just before Sour Jazz, he did a solo album which is genius. What else... myself and Splat played with Kevin K for a few years, and Splat, Rat and myself played on two or three tracks off the last Freddy Lynxx album. And I've been in stacks of loser bands that nobody ever noticed. Just prior to Sour Jazz, I was kicking round with Fur, who'd just quit The Cramps, and a few years ago I played guitar on a mini-album by a band called Triple Hex.
Sami Yaffa (Hanoi Rocks) was in the band originally ,correct?
Yeah, that's right. Briefly. So I played rhythm guitar for a few weeks.
With four albums under the bands belt already can you speak of the character of each one, and is there a favorite of yours personally?
I'm not really sure about any of them having much character, although I suppose they must. I'm too close to them, really. I have a difficult time standing outside of them, and I have absolutely no fucking clue what any of them must sound like to somebody hearing them for the first time. I can't really say that I'm able to pick a favorite, either. It's too cliche to say that my favourite ones are the ones we're recording at the moment, for our new album... but, yeah, that might be the truth.
I understand you’re working on the next record now. How is that coming along and when can we expect to hear it?
It's fucking great, so far. Although, at the moment, we still have plenty of chances left to ruin it completely. The whole band met up here in NYC during summer 2007, and we managed to write, arrange and record eleven songs in two days' time. Then we took another day for some guitar and percussion overdubs. Then we crawled back to our caves and licked our wounds for a few months before tracking the vocals, which we recorded over the weekend that fell between Christmas and New Year's Eve. So, yeah, now it's just a matter of tarting it up with the horn section which, as always, features Steven Moses out of Alice Donut, and we've just brought in Duffy again to record keyboards and organ. This time round, we've also been able to solicit some generous donations from sympathetic friends... Jim Jones [Jim Jones Revue, ex- Thee Hypnotics and Black Moses], Kim Salmon [The Beasts of Bourbon, The Scientists, The Surrealists, etcet], Max Decharne [The Flaming Stars, ex- Gallon Drunk, Nikki Sudden], Ginger [The Wildhearts, Silver Ginger 5, etcet], and Tracie Hunter's recorded some fantastic backing vocals.
Sour Jazz operates a little differently than many bands. You don’t all live near each other, so the band is not out several nights a week, or even once a month performing together. How does that effect the writing and recording process?
Well, yeah, that might be why we're still a band, ten years later. It's probably also the reason why, when we're together, touring or recording, we all enjoy each other's company. How does it affect the writing and recording? It forces us to act on instinct, to honour our guts... it's not like we have a year in the studios writing, arranging and recording. There's never the luxury of going to the rack and back over songs. We literally just do it, bash it out. Maybe we're walking uphill backwards, I don't know, but it seems to suit us. Then again, nobody's expecting 'Bohemian Rhapsody' from us.
Your producer for Rock & Roll Ligger, Daniel Rey, is on board for another go round. Is he basically another member of Sour Jazz? Whats his role in the finished songs?
Yeah, and we're honored that Daniel Rey agreed to work with us again. I wouldn't like to speak for the other guys in the band but, yeah, to my mind, Daniel's a member of Sour Jazz, even if he is the only one getting paid. He's got great ideas in the studio, he's always been great to bounce ideas off of, and he's a fucking great musician himself. I can listen to 'Ligger' and pick out this and that and the other, and say "That's Daniel here" or "That's Daniel there" without ever thinking "Erm, maybe we shouldn't've left that bit on." He's got a big say in the records because we respect his talent. That said, I think his role in the finished songs on the new album is different from 'Ligger,' just because we went into his studio, really, with nothing, and he played an equal part in... you know, he was there while we sat round and wrote the whole album, basically, song by song, very much an involved part of everything. So, yeah, I don't think his role in Sour Jazz can be overstated. I'm proud of his involvement and grateful for his enthusiasm, and I value his friendship.
Sour Jazz toured Japan in support of the last record and recorded a DVD to document it. Describe that tour and how it went.
I haven't got the words. The tour... what a great memory. We did something like seven gigs in ten days... fly to Tokyo, rehearse for four hours in a studio playing songs that we hadn't played for five years, then bang into headlining the tour. Obviously, I went into it having no idea how -- or if -- we'd be received, but the crowds were great. People turned up in homemade Sour Jazz shirts, sang along and shouted out requests, had to have their photos taken with us and get us to sign things... and seemed to be genuinely enthusiastic about music or going to see bands, which isn't always the case here in NYC.
And Japan --as a country, as a culture and as a visual aesthetic-- was beautiful, from the little bit that I managed to actually see. We were kept on too tight a schedule, really, in terms of having time available to us to really plant out boots into the streets. But it's a fair trade-off, really, because when you visit another country as part of a touring band, people are kind of eager to take you aside and show you what life is like for them...for me, at least, that's the sort of education you don't get by just being a tourist or visiting a museum. I was stood talking with some people at our Kobe-City gig, and they were telling me all about what their families went through in 1995, when Kobe was leveled by a massive earthquake...telling me about their losses and the re-building of not only the city, but of their lives as well. It's a privileged window to be allowed to look in, you know?
As I understand it, Japan’s music fans are diehard and show way more excitement for acts from the US than kids here do. Is that true? Are we Americans jaded when it comes to Rock n Roll these days?
Yeah, I don't know. Maybe. I don't know whether or not "jaded" is the correct word... it seems like passion is a bit of a rarity these days in America, there's no room for devotion in a pop-culture that's got a built-in best-before date, you know? Kids have so much information available to them, literally at their fingertips, people's allegiance just flits from this to that to some other. Everything seems disposable by design. I suspect that we're the last generation to carry one or two bands close to our hearts for life. One generation carries Sinatra through life, one carries Elvis through life, another The Beatles, another The Clash -- I can't imagine many elderly people seventy years from now still responding to their old Fall Out Boy albums, or whatever. Records by stage-school kids with dance routines and calculated attitudes probably don't endure.
Is there going to be a tour of North America to promote the new record?
If someone offers us one that will pay for itself, yeah, sure, I don't really see why not. It's just that touring overseas is a whole lot more logical for us, mainly because America is so big, and so time-consuming... we're too old to quit our jobs and spend eight months with each other in a crap transit-van, sleeping on people's floors and eating McDonald's every day. We've all passed the point in life where that's even a possibility. We're old, practicality and pragmatism entered the picture years ago.
I hear so many influences in a Sour Jazz song. You’ve got the punk honesty, the driving rock n roll, and yet there is a certain sophistication in the music, like a nice cold stout and a hand rolled Honduran cigar. Is it that New York tap water or is it by design?
Neither, really. I think it's all down to our age. I mean, I don't think that any of us could've done this band, this way, when we were in our twenties. We're too old to care about sounding relevant, you know? Our sound, whatever that is, it's never been calculated... we've never tried to sound like us. And whenever we try to sound differently, we always end up sounding like the same old Sour Jazz shit. I guess we sound like we do because we all have sort of wildly different tastes and influences. There's bands throughout the past fifty or sixty years that all of us love, but not that many... not a huge amount of common ground. And the fact that none of us keep aware of current trends, or whatever, in contemporary music... our records are completely irrelevant. I'm really proud of that.
I’ve seen a picture of you playing a Gretsch White Falcon guitar before, that’s the holy grail of axes for me. How did you come by one of those?
I wish. It's actually a 1958 Gretsch Anniversary, which I bought off a friend in 1986 for two hundred and seventy five bucks. I've since agreed to legally reunite them in my will. So, yeah, not a White Falcon, but it's my favorite guitar, by miles.
You’re a bass player in Sour Jazz. Is that your primary instrument or are you a guitar player who plays bass?
I'm the sort of bass players that proper bass players hate -- I'm a guitar player with a bass. I'd played bass in a band back in the early 80s, but hadn't touched one until Sami Yaffa left Sour Jazz. I switched from guitar to bass because we didn't want to bring in a fifth member and fuck at all with whatever chemistry we'd had. I like the bass a lot, though, and it's taught me how to listen to music differently than I'd listened to music as a guitar player. Even albums that I've listened to regularly for thirty years -- 'London Calling' or 'Electric Warrior' or 'Desolation Boulevard' or whatever -- I approached them from a fresh angle after playing bass. I learnt to listen to music from the bottom up.
At what age did you start playing and what got you started?
I think I got my first guitar right around ten years of age... a nameless mid-60s solid-body electric thing, with inch-high action and a low-rent sunburst finish on. And the coolest bit... for an amp, my dad and I went to HeathKit and bought their version of a Fender Twin Reverb, and built it together. I have absolutely no idea why I wanted to learn guitar, really... it's not like I can point towards Keith Richards or Pete Townshend or whoever and say, yeah, I wanted to be HIM.
Who are the guys and gals you grew up admiring?
From the start, really, I guess I was pretty obsessive about the records that my parents had laying around the house. Things like Les Paul & Mary Ford, Louis Jordan, Tennessee Ernie Ford... all stuff that I really like quite a lot, now, in my adulthood. As far as the bands that I picked up on all on my own, I loved bands like The Sweet and Bay City Rollers, Alice Cooper, all the early seventies UK glam bands, alongside The Who and the Stones. I think the first album that I bought...that I actually saved up my allowance and bought... was 'Desolation Boulevard' by The Sweet. Still have it, still listen to it. Then, of course, come 1976 or 77, everything revolved round the Ramones, Pistols and Clash. I was at the right age, I guess, to be really impressionable when punk rock started happening. It really captured my imagination.
New York has been dealt some severe blows to live music the last couple of years with the closings of CBGB and several other venues. What’s the state of live underground music in the Big Apple these days?
The way I see it, you know, you don't need so many venues when there's so little talent around. If bands were good, and people were excited by them, then all of those venues would've flourished. I really couldn't tell you anything at all about the general state of things here these days, because I feel like I exist quite apart from it. Over the past ten years or so, NYC has become ridiculously expensive, through the roof. Into orbit. It's become Millionaires' Island. It's no longer the sort of city that's sympathetic to, or nurturing towards people like rock musicians or poets or painters or writers or sculptors or otherwise creative fuck-ups.
With the changes in the way people access music, all over the world, do you think music – specifically rock n roll – is headed back to the 50's where it’s the single that makes the band, or live shows that keep it going? Where do you see it headed in the next 5-10 years?
I wouldn't even like to take a fucking wild guess at where the industry will be in five months, let alone five years from now. I'm not even sure where it is at this moment. I mean, I know that the industry shot itself in the foot by their high profit greediness when compact discs killed vinyl, but... I don't know, it's weird for me to say, really. I seem to have one view as a consumer and a fan and a collector, but, yeah, I think I have a slightly different view as someone in a band, on a label, who would honestly love to see our label -- and labels like ours -- start reaping some easily identifiable rewards, not least of all financially. "Sad" isn't the right word, but it's kind of sad when the only exposure that an elder statesman can get these days is on a television commercial. But, on the other hand, it's really nice to see Iggy finally get the exposure that we've all known for years that he deserves. Yeah, it's the best of times and it's the worst of times, and the future'll probably be the same. Only different. I mean, the way we treasured our vinyl albums or 45s... I can't imagine anyone treasuring the ringtones that they downloaded last night.
Just out of curiosity, put your dream band together. You’re in it of course, but who do you want playing with you living or dead?
I pretty much have them all together on the new Sour Jazz album. I wouldn't kick Noddy Holder or Chris Spedding out of the studio.