Cowboy Mark interviewed by Ashlee Elfman for Swampland Magazine
When listening to Sour Jazz you can help but start moving. While their guitar driven songs are reminiscent of The Stooges and The Beasts of Bourbon, there are other elements lurking in the music of Sour Jazz. Loungey influences can be heard in the somewhat sardonic, crooning vocals and in the unexpected trombone that belts out in such songs as (I'm A) Prick and 14th and Beat Street. The quirky lyrics and uncompromising musicianship all lends to the rare rock and roll experience that is Sour Jazz.
I have the divine opportunity now to speak with Cowboy Mark of the New York based rock 'n' roll band...
Mark, what's it like to be a member of Sour Jazz?
It's a good arrangement, really, being in a band whose members don't all live on the same continent, let alone in the same city... no rehearsals, no monthly gigs at the venue on the corner, no band meetings, no looking pathetic while hauling your guitar cross town. We get together for touring and for recording, and it becomes like a really good event when we’re together. We don’t ever tire of each other or split into factions, and there’s never any time for pettiness. Overall, it’s been pretty rewarding for me... we’ve released three or four albums, depending on how you wanna count, and I’m proud of my involvement.
I know that you guys recently came back from a tour of Japan. How was that? Any crazy stories that you'd like to share? I saw a picture of a sweaty and naked fan jumping around on stage with you guys...I can't imagine that that was the only crazy thing that happened.
That’s it, yeah, the naked gentleman jumping onto the stage in Kobe-City... at one point he’d jumped up onto Splat’s kick drum, shaking his bare ass inches away from Splat’s face... I still have no idea how we kept it together enough to finish the song. What’s really twisted, though, is that while the naked guy was on the stage, so was a little boy of maybe four or five years of age. Don’t ask me. Unfortunately, while the naked guy was on stage, somebody stole his clothes...so the rest of the night, every time one of us looked out into the crowd, he was standing right up front, completely nude.
But the tour was great, I think. A lot of fun. Didn’t get to see very much of Japan, unfortunately, because we were kept on a tight schedule. But it’s a fair trade-off, really, because when you visit another country as part of a touring band, people are willing 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 teling 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?
Not too much craziness, though... we generally behaved like gracious guests in another country should behave, especially in times like these when it's even less advisable to come off like the regulation ugly American overseas...
Did you find that Japan welcomed your music with open arms?
Yeah, I think so. People were singing along with choruses, shouting for songs of ours that we’d forgotten about, turning up in homemade Sour Jazz shirts, they wanted autographs and to have photos taken with us... to me, at least, they seemed to have a lot more genuine enthusiasm than they do stateside, which is the best kind of crowd you could hope for.
Can you tell us about some other music ventures that you guys have been involved with?
Our pedigree? Yeah, Ratboy was a member of Motorcycle Boy [produced by Syl Sylvain of the Dolls], Pillbox [managed by Joan Jett], Marky Ramone’s Intruders, and he played and toured with Jeff Dahl and Bebe Buell and fuck knows who else. Lou and Splat were in a band together previously, a band out of Philadelphia called Dirt Search Headlight, and Lou had played guitar in a band with Cheetah Chrome out of The Dead Boys. Splat was the drummer for Martin’s Folly, who recorded a track with Ian Hunter on their last album, and he's always been up for the random sessions. Ummm...Splat and I play with Kevin K when he does NYC-area gigs, and all of us played on Freddy Lynxx’s Corner Gang album. I can’t even keep track of most of the things we’ve one on our own, really. Steven Moses, who's played trombone on all our records, is in Alice Donut. We’ve been rock losers for a very long time...it's sad, really...
You guys are based in New York, is there a decent music scene going on there right now? Are there any other current New York bands you'd like to mention?
Not really, no. In just the past few weeks we've lost two of the remaining neighborhood venues -- Continental and CBGB. So, yeah, I suppose that's pretty indicative of the present general state of things here. As for bands I'd like to mention, there's really nothing out there at all that I feel like shouting about, least not in NYC. I love what Chris Bailey and The Saints have been doing lately, I'm a huge fan of The Flaming Stars, it's great to have The Stooges back, and the last few Julian Cope albums have really lit up my life, but none of them are conveniently local for me. But yeah, even the fucking cost of breathing in NYC has gone to astronomical heights, so it's no longer the sort of city that's sympathetic to, or conducive for people like rock musicians or poets or painters or writers or sculptors or otherwise creative fuck-ups.
I know what a music aficionado you are Mark. Would you like to share some of the albums that really made an impact on you and your career in music?
It'll sound really fucking cliched, but... London Calling absolutely took my head off when it came out. It came out at a time when I was really receptive, really impressionable, and it was this thing that took you aside and said “If you like this, then try digging this and this and this and that.” It completely opened up vistas, it was a great signpost, pointing the listener to old rockabilly and bluebeat and jazz and reggae. More than any other work, it spelled-out that you can be discriminating without being myopic. Another would be the second album from The Saints, Eternally Yours. When it first came out, it completely alienated people who’d held dear to some sort of pre-conceived notion towards what is and what isn’t punk rock. I suppose that’s one of the things that ties Eternally Yours and London Calling together... the fact that both albums completely flew in the face of what was expected of them. I appreciate that. I love it. Also, each has held up over the years without loss of vitality. That's rare.
Then there’s The Stooges’ Fun House album, which still knocks me sideways every time I hear it.It’s music distilled to its most primal elements. Maybe even beyond.
There's an element of tongue and cheek humor to the band's lyrics...do you think that humor is important in the creative process?
Yeah, well, probably. As long as you avoid being jokey. What I do think is important to the creative process is checking your earnestness and self-importance at the door. Otherwise, you know, you're Bono. I mean, we take our music seriously, especially in the recording studio, but yeah, we approach everything we do with a healthy does of humor or sarcasm or dumbness. There was a song on our first album...Lou and Rat went to the Sunny Chinese takeaway on Third Ave, left with a heap of fortune cookies, cracked them and laid the fortunes all end-to-end, and there's the complete lyrics to "Fortune Cookie." It can't possibly get any dumber. It's all to do with the gap between taking your craft seriously, and taking yourself seriously.
What do the different members of Sour Jazz bring to the drawing board?
Dunno, really. Whatever anyone brings is kinda run through the machinery and becomes more than the sum of its parts, you know? Rat’s an extremely gifted guitar payer, and he’s got a fucking great ear, but I think each of us brings something unidentifiable, and then we collectively bash it into shape. Maybe the key has been the fact that each of us have different influences, often radically different. I never understood the sense in forming a band in which every member digs the same sort of music or sensibilities... who the fuck goes into a restaurant and orders a seven-course meal where each course is a potato dish? Rat digs a lot of old prog stuff like Magma and Van Der Graff Generator, as well as the blues guys. Splat’s gone on Mott The Hoople and Thin Lizzy, Lou’s into the Australian stuff and The Dead Boys... there’s some common ground that we all share, like Iggy and Dean Martin, but it’s what we don’t share that makes it interesting. Of course, Ratboy brings the sex appeal...
What can we expect in the future from Sour Jazz?
You can expect us to break up at some point, I guess. After that, you can expect a reunion album and a sort of comeback tour, but it’ll be a pretty pathetic affair. And the album won't be so good, either. Yeah, we're working towards a few things for 2007, but if I talk about them now, and they don’t end up coming to fruition, I’ll look like a self-delusional ass by early 2008.
If you could, please leave us with two words that you feel sum up Sour Jazz the best...