Monday, June 12, 2017

Interview -- Frank Marino (Mahogany Rush)

"From a land where dragons stood,
a young boy dared what no man could."
~ Mahogany Rush ~

At a time when classic rock fans practically pull their hair out waiting to hear something/anything apart from the same overplayed radio songs...I give you Mahogany Rush.  During the '70s, Mahogany Rush, led by Frank Marino... recorded a surprising number of wonderful amp-blowing albums.  Each one filled with jams and burners and crankers begging for a radio spin. Yet his music has been almost virtually ignored.  It is what it is, I guess, but I don't get it.

Frank Marino was only 16 when he recorded his first Mahogany Rush album..."Maxoom" 1972.  He was a hard-blues, psych-rock guitarist with a young man's heart and an old man's soul.  His music immediately awakened similarities to the better parts of Hendrix, while unleashing his own blistering guitar style.  He wailed and burned and cranked and thrashed his way through the '70s and '80s with a boundless speaker-exploding, car-starting energy.  If you missed out on any of these albums the first time around...Go out and get you some.

Frank Marino Interview  --  June 2017
Frank Marino (vocals, guitars) 

Casey Chambers:  I'd like to start off by asking about the song..."Strange Dreams"...the classic opener from your 2nd solo album "Juggernaut." (1982)  It's a little different from most of your earlier stuff.  How did that song emerge?

Frank Marino:  Well, believe it or not, in a dream. (laughs)  I mean it's just one of those things.  But pretty much all the songs come together the same way.  I get an idea...sometimes in my sleep.  And I'll think, 'Hey, that's a pretty cool number,' and get up...put it together and do it.

Most of the tunes are done pretty quickly.  What ends up taking most of the time is getting the lyrics together.  Because I usually complete the songs as instrumentals first.  Then I'll sit there and look at it and say, 'Okay, this is what the melody will be doing.  What exactly do I want it to say and how do I make the words fit?'  It's really not a tricky process.  But that's how it's always worked for almost 50 years.

Casey Chambers:  The song "Strange Dreams" is a great "only-car-on-the-road" night driving song.  It's road crankage, and it also throws a hypnotic zen in the air. Would you take me through a little bit of your studio process?

Frank Marino:  I'm pretty much a stickler when I record tunes, in that, I control much of how they're going to go down.  A lot of guys don't like to do that.  They may say, 'Gee, I've got these chords.  What do you think you should play to it?'  But I will pretty much already have an idea.  I was a drummer, as well as a guitar player, so I always hear songs in their total.

I'll get into the studio and lay down the main structure for it with the guys.  And then I'll sit around and look at what techniques I can use to get the song to go in the direction I want it to go.  I build electronic gear, too, so I'm either going to use a certain type of gear that I've built or maybe a certain type of distortion or pedal.

In the case of "Strange Dreams," quite honestly, it's one of the few tracks that I did where I used keyboards.  Ya know, I thought...Moog synthesizer would sound really cool playing the bassline.  And because I had the Moog out, I thought, 'Well, why don't I develop a spacey kind of keyboard line that goes with it?'  I did that by overdubbing a couple of notes with the Moog.  It's really a process of listening to the song as you're recording and letting the song suggest what you need to do next.

Musicians will understand this, because many times they'll be in the studio recording and they'll turn around and go, 'Hey, why don't we put a tambourine or a cowbell on this?'  And that's sort of how a song speaks to musicians.  While they're recording them.  That's the symbiosis that happens between the artist and their work.  I think you have to let the song speak to you and tell you what you should be doing.

Casey Chambers:  And it was great hearing the song get some radio love.

"Strange Dreams"  - Frank Marino / "Juggernaut" (1982)

Frank Marino:  Actually, it was a #1! (laughs)  It was a #1 hit for awhile.  Yeah, it was the only time I ever had that kind of success with a song.

Casey Chambers:  You had already built up a fine catalog of wall-shaking Mahogany Rush albums by that point.  With plenty of good songs to taste.  Any idea that "Strange Dreams" was going to be the one?

Frank Marino:  Absolutely not.  And I'll tell you why.  Because if you notice...anyone who really knows all the work I've done, will say, 'Isn't it funny that he's known as being a guitar player, and yet there's really no guitar solo in that song?'  It's the only song I've ever recorded that does not have a guitar solo in it. (laughs)  But it's the one song that really, really reached radio...and they played it a lot!  'Cause radio ordinarily wouldn't play my stuff.

Casey Chambers:  I know!  It's a guitar-shred conspiracy! (laughs)

Frank Marino:  It's unbelievable!  There's not a single other tune anywhere where there's not a guitar solo.  A long solo or even a short solo.  And "Strange Dreams" just has none.  I mean zero solo.  So, I thought...'That's amazing.  I leave out the one thing that I've always done and that's how I get the hit record.' (laughs)  But yeah, it was totally a surprise.  Totally a surprise.

Casey Chambers:  And that song was the lead-off track.  How difficult is it deciding what the opening track is going to be on an album?

Frank Marino:  Well, I have a method that I've always used.  Now, remember CDs are different because they're not two sided.  But with albums, you have two beginnings and two endings.  So I needed to find two opening tracks and two ending tracks.  And that's basically the system that I would use.

I would first take a look at all the tunes.  And just by feel...I would get the number down to two or three.  And then I'd think about which ones would make you want to play the record over again.  And those will be the ending tracks.  So, out of the 9, 10, twelve tracks I've done for an album, I've pretty much grouped certain ones to be possible candidates to open and to close the album.  And by the way, some of those candidates could be both.

"Juggernaut" / Frank Marino (1982)

Once I've done that, they're like bookends and I can eliminate those from the pile.  Then the next thing I would do is look at the songs as a musician.  I would think, 'Well...if that song is in the key of G, or the key of let's say E, I don't want that second song to be in the key of E.'  So that limits me as to what I can use to follow that tune.  And I work through the songs that way.

I work backwards from the end making sure the keys don't match up.  And I work forwards from the beginning making sure they don't match up.  And I basically juggle things around until I get something that flows really nice.  That's sort of the method that I've used as a producer of the albums that I did.  Whether I was producing my own albums or others.

Casey Chambers:  I'd never thought about the energy involved in getting the sequencing just right, but I absolutely get it.  And appreciate it when it's done right.

Frank Marino:  Yeah, because you've got to understand that when you're listening to a record, you want every song to make you want to hear the next one, right?  And one thing you don't want to do is have too many songs in a row that are either the same rhythm...or the same key.  And because you have that limitation, it actually helps you structure the album in a way that works out well.  It's the very limitations you have that helps you.

And what I would do, and a lot of guys can try this, I'd literally take a bunch of business cards.  You know, typical business cards.  And I'd turn the cards over to the blank side and write the name of a track in the middle of each card.  On the left side, I'd write the key it starts in.  And on the right side, I'd write the key that it ends in...'cause sometimes songs change key in the middle.   And then at the bottom, I'd write a little comment.  A little two-word, is it a slow ballad?  Is it hard rock?

Now, all these cards can be laid out on the table and you can put asterisks on the ones that could be openers.  You put double asterisks on the ones that could be closers.  You can flip the cards around on the table and start putting this in the middle of that.  Move this over to here.  'Uh-oh, I have two Gs in a row.  I'm gonna have to move this one over to here.'  Sort of like a puzzle.  And you start to see the layout and can do it pretty fast that way.  For producers who are out there doing records for people, that's a very helpful procedure.

"Child of the Novelty" / Mahogany Rush (1974)

Casey Chambers:  What a great share. Thank you.  In 1974, your band...Mahogany Rush...released their second album...."Child Of The Novelty."  This was my introduction to your music and the album will always hold a special place.  And the title track is an especially moving piece.  It follows your classic stormbringer "Talkin' 'Bout A Feelin" and knocks me out every time.

Frank Marino:  Well, look, I don't know if you know much about my history, but when I started doing music early, early on, I was very much associated with Jimi Hendrix.  He had just recently died and I was doing that kind of music.  I was pretty much one of the only people doing that kind of music.  And from a fan's point of view it worked out great.  But I was like anathema to the press.  They really hated me.  People in the industry...all they did was say, 'What a clone. What a copy.  What a this or what a that.'  It was very, very hard on me.

"Talkin' 'Bout A Feelin'" / Mahogany Rush (1974)

I was only 16 when I did my first album ("Maxoom" - 1972) and this stuff was constantly following me around.  So when I did my second album, I was becoming a little tongue in cheek about it all.  There's songs on "Child Of The Novelty" and even on "Strange Universe" (1975) that refers to this ridiculous media thing that was going on around me at the time and "Child Of The Novelty" is kind of that.  It's kind of talking about myself.

And how the press were all talking...not the public, mind you...about what a real "novelty" this kid was.  That this kid was doing this, ya know?  And "He took them by surprise."  That's what the line is.  That's really what it's about.  And there are other songs too, like..."Makin' My Wave" and "Talkin' 'Bout A Feelin."  Those are all really tongue in cheek "digs" if you want to put it that the writers at the time who were saying all these things like, 'He's the reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix.  He saw spirits.'  And all kinds of nonsense that I had nothing to do with...and that they invented to sell papers.

If you listen to some of the lyrics on those very, very early tunes I did, what you heard is a 16 or 17-year-old kid just basically trying to find a way to tell these people to leave him alone.  When I was 19 or 20, it didn't bother me anymore.  But just imagine when you were 16.  If you tried to do something that you were having fun with and everyone was calling you names. (laughs)  It would just kind of make you mad.  So those songs were my only way to sort of talk back at what they were doing at the time.  That's what you have there.

"Child of the Novelty" / Mahogany Rush (1974)

Casey Chambers:  With the number of music sources today, it would've been much harder to gang up. I mean, what did you have back then...Rolling Stone and Creem...and that's about it, right?

Frank Marino:  Well, when I did my very, very first album, I wrote a song called, "Buddy" which was about Hendrix 'cause he had just died.  And I literally said, 'Dedicated to Jimi Hendrix' on the album.  That was, in hindsight, a terrible mistake because that gave them fodder to use. And they piled on.

I remember one article in Creem or Circus magazine and the headline was..."The Band The Critics Love To Hate."  That was actually the headline. (laughs)  And that followed me for all of the '70s.  When I did "Roadhouse Blues"...a cover of a Doors tune in the late '70s, the headline was, "Frank Marino Robs Fresh Graves."

Casey Chambers:  That's just brutal!

Frank Marino:  Plus, I was a religious kid which didn't help.  I didn't do drugs anymore.  And I didn't drink.  And I didn't go to parties.  I didn't do all that stuff that was expected of rock and roll stars in the '70s.  So, here was this sort of John-Boy Walton playing psychedelic guitar and talking about Jesus.  That didn't endear me to some of the media. (laughs)  I've made my career mostly by going directly to fans and playing live.  We played a lot of schools, a lot of colleges and whatever we could.  A lot of outdoor shows.  And that's how we developed our following.

Casey Chambers:  I'm glad you continue to embrace your influences. Your name often comes up when discussing rock's underrated guitarists.  Who were a few guitarists you got in to growing up and who were some you felt were underrated?

"Strange Universe" / Mahogany Rush (1975)

Frank Marino:  When I was growing up, I liked a lot of guitar players.  But I didn't like them just because they were guitar players, I liked their music.  I liked Quicksilver (Messenger Service) which had John Cipollina.  I liked the music of Santana.  I liked Hendrix.  I liked Johnny Winter.  I liked Duane Allman.  But it's not like I liked them and went, 'Wow!  They're great guitar players!'  I just liked that music.  Later on though, when I became a guitar player myself, it was, in fact, their music I first tried playing.

In the rock and roll world, no one was really going crazy over guitarists until much, much later in the '70s when they started to have magazines like Guitar Player and Guitar World.  Then you started seeing what technical guitar players were doing.

But if you look at those magazines, you'll notice that they pretty much focus on the same six or eight guys.  And over and over again, they talk about these same people.  I think to answer your question, it's really everybody else they didn't focus on who were underrated. (laughs)

Casey Chambers:  Truth! (laughs) Lastly, I'd like to ask about playing California Jam II in '78.

Frank Marino:  I always tell people that it was one of the worst experiences of my life. (laughs)  Not because of the gig.  The gig was great...when I finally got to play at 1:00 in the morning.  It was really great.  But the time I spent from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m...look, I'm very much a holdover from the Woodstock generation.  I like music to be music.  Backstage at Cal Jam, the whole day was all about lights, camera, action!  It became more about what the lights look like.  Or what the personalities look like.  Or what wild clothes everyone was going to wear.  It was almost like a TV show or something, ya know?  And I thought we'd lost something.  It didn't feel like rock and roll.  So I didn't really like it.  But, once I got on stage... man, I was home.  Then it was okay.

I used to look at the crowds screaming and cheering for things and thinking sometimes they can't even hear the music...but they're screaming and cheering.  It's almost like a form of cheap psychiatry or something.  Pay your eight bucks and go stand on a chair and scream your head off.  Like going to the train yards and screaming at the trains.

Casey Chambers:  Concert psychiatry ain't cheap anymore! (laughs)

Cal Jam II  / "Purple Haze" - Mahogany Rush (1978)

Frank Marino:  (laughs)  Like, wow, man!  I waited a long, long time.  I thought Cal Jam would be like Woodstock and it was anything but Woodstock.  You know in "The Wizard Of Oz" when they say, "this isn't Kansas?"  Like, all of a sudden things have changed?  That's sort of the feeling I had.  And as the '70s slowly wore on, I was becoming less and less enamoured with being in the music business. And consequently, in 1982 or '83...I just walked away from major labels and said I'm never going to do this again.  And I never did. (laughs)

But man, I enjoyed watching most all of the acts. In fact, I've always watched the other acts at every show I've ever played.  And I loved seeing Santana.  And Dave Mason.  I liked a lot of the acts.  Don't get me wrong. They were fine.  I'm just saying, the way the whole thing was being promoted...the Entertainment Tonight there and stuff like that.  All of a sudden, the '70s were morphing into this thing that was almost anything, but the music.

One of the things that used to make my managers very mad...and I first saw it happening with the record company people and the management people.   When I wasn't headlining, I would finish my act and then go out into the crowd to watch the other bands.  And people inside the industry and even from other bands were telling me, ''You shouldn't do that.  Don't do that.  People will think you're just like them.  And they won't look up to you.'  And I'm like...'Okay.  So what?  I am just like them.'  It didn't make any sense to me.

"Maxoom" / Mahogany Rush (1972 - debut album)

Because look, let's face it.  Getting in a limousine and getting out of a're not curing cancer.  We're just musicians playing music and making people have fun.  No need to take ourselves too seriously.  And I don't.  And I never did.  I always did everything exactly the way I wanted. It's almost like a Grateful Dead thing with us.  We have these fans who have been with us since the beginning.  We've grown old together.  And their kids are liking us now.  So, it doesn't have to be big.  It just has to be real.

Casey Chambers:  Well Frank, thank you for taking the time to hang with me today.  I think I'll grab one of your CDs and go for a drive.

Frank Marino:  Well listen, it was my pleasure.

Go visit...
Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush Website

Good stuff.

Casey Chambers

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