For fans of power pop, few labels had quite as solid a track record as Not Lame. Almost everything the always-enthusiastic Bruce Brodeen put out through his label ended up hitting the spot for a small but dedicated legion of pop aficionados. Still, once in awhile, a release would emerge which would leave some of the purists within his bunch of buyers scratching their heads, wondering why their beloved Bruce would step outside the straightforward power pop that helped build his label’s reputation.
For my part, I was always a little surprised that he put out Reddy Teddy’s Teddy Boy CD. I mean, I bought it because I was intrigued by the description and I ended up enjoying it well enough, but it’s definitely not something I’d hold up as sounding like something you’d expect to find released by Not Lame.
Funnily enough, Mark Helm had convinced himself that the songs on his album, Everything’s OK, weren’t power-poppy enough to warrant a release on Not Lame. Even now, a decade after the release of the record on the label, I think he still thinks they weren’t. In the long run, though, I’ve found that the power doesn’t matter nearly as much as the pop, and based on these pull quotes from these various reviews of his album, it seems pretty clear to me that the pop was decidedly up to par:
* “Elegant…more hooks than a fly fisherman’s vest…” – The Washington Post
* “Everything’s OK: a brilliantly diverse collection of harmonies, humor, horror and hope.” – Fufkin.com
* “Mark Helm…writes the kind of ballads that put a smile on the face of blind ambition.” – The Los Angeles Times
* “The complete package: the vocal harmonies, the soothing melodies, the shining hooks, and bouncy, jangly mindset….and Mark Helm reassures you that there are great songwriters out there that still care about giving the listener the complete package…” – In Music We Trust
* “Often recalling Neil Young and even (dare I suggest it) Brian Wilson at their most sublime, Mark Helm offers a series of songs which reveal themselves to be near crystalline in their unashamedly fragile beauty, (and) pure, simple majesty. In other words? This is an album that deserves to be heard far, wide, and as often as possible.” – Dead Flowers
See what I mean? Mr. Helm may remain uncertain about whether or not Everything’s OK was an appropriate release for Not Lame Records, but when I read reviews like those, I have no doubt that it came out on the right label.
Mark and I struck up an E-mail friendship thanks to the wonderful world of Facebook, and I can offer no end of apologies for how long it’s taken me to get this column finished, but I’ve been a fan of his record since the first time I spun it, so once he and I began to chat online, I knew there’d be a “Hooks ‘N’ You” dedicated to Everything’s OK eventually…and, at last, that time has finally come.
What’s your musical background? Do you come from a musical family, or is music something that you stumbled upon as a kid and just found that you loved?
I can’t ever remember a time when there wasn’t music playing. I grew up in South Jersey near Philly, so the radio stations were amazing. As for family, well, my maternal grandmother, my mom and my aunt Charlotte all played ukulele in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. I remember them singing old standards and hamming it up in the kitchen when I was a little kid. (They were hip to the uke long before George Harrison made it cool again post-Anthology.) Later, my aunt, who was something of a hippie and hugely artistically talented, picked up guitar and was always walking around the house singing Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young songs…and playing them well. Her younger brother, my uncle Barry, had the deepest and most lasting impact. He’s ten years older than I and he had a great collection of 45s and LPs. I lived at their house for a good bit of my childhood and my uncle Barry was always having attic room dance parties. The soundtrack to that time was a lot of Stones, Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, Box Tops, and Hollies, and lesser known bands like The Foundation, The Cowsills, Spanky and Our Gang, The Rascals, American Breed, The Buckinghams…I could go on forever. (Despite losing several thousand LPs in the recent flood, I managed to save about 1,000 45s!) Also, listening to my stuff you might not imagine this, but when Barry came home from college for the first time around 1970, he sat me down and played me the first two Chicago records. Those records STILL blow me away. I’m also a massive Yes fan, but that came later.
Do you recall if there was a particular album or song which first made you decide that you wanted to pursue music as a career?
Deja Vu by CSNY, After the Goldrush by Neil Young, and, of course, anything by the Beatles.
I know you were in a band once upon a time, but how did you go from being in a band to taking on a solo career?
I had always been in bands, ever since I was 15 and my 27 year-old guitar teacher’s group lost their rhythm guitarist to a heroin over-dose a week before they were booked to go out on a summer-long tour. This was a hard-working Jersey Shore cover band that did everything from CSNY to the Beatles to the Eagles to Steely Dan. I joined up and ran away from home for a summer in 1977. I started out as “the kid” in that band, playing rhythm guitar and singing back-ups. By the time I was 18 or 19, though, I was co-front man. There were three of us who traded off lead vocals and sang 3 part harmony; I was the showman and by far the least accomplished vocalist. At the time I didn’t have any great desire to write my own tunes. The stuff we played was so musically and vocally challenging, and the tunes were so good. We were doing stuff like “Wooden Ships” and “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” “My Old School,” and “Bodhisattva.” Killer tunes. It seemed unfathomable I could ever write anything myself that I’d find more satisfying to play; back then, I couldn’t write because I was so in awe of my heroes that my own creativity was stifled.
I stayed in that band all through college. Eventually, I got a full scholarship for graduate school and, semi-reluctantly, I split the band and concentrated on my studies for a few years. I resigned myself to becoming a college English professor/writer…which, to me, was a close second to rock star…but I couldn’t shake music, and by the time I hit my mid-20’s, I was itching to be in a band again. At the time, I had moved away from Jersey and was in Washington, DC, teaching part-time at The American University and working on a creative writing degree. D.C. had a truly magical music scene back then. The bands were all great, the songwriters were brilliant, and the players were world-class. I mean, I could walk five minutes up my street on a week night and see Danny Gatton for $3 in a little dive bar, or go see bands like the Pixies or Jane’s Addiction at the old 9:30 club, which only held 300 people. It was heaven.
One day, I saw an ad in the local City Paper. You know, the usual: “All original alternative band seeks lead guitarist…influences: U2, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Beatles, and the Buzzcocks.” I auditioned and got the gig…and a wardrobe change. I had showed up to the audition in ripped hippie jeans, a white t-shirt and a ‘50s thrift store cardigan. My white Strat had surfing stickers all over it. Within a month, I was wearing all black, playing a big, black Gibson ES-335 and opening for Let’s Active at the 9:30 club, sharing the famously rat-infested dressing room with Mitch Easter and company. In no time, we were regulars at the 9:30 and getting rave reviews in The Washington Post. The band, radioblue, became really popular in DC really fast. It was a little surreal at first, suddenly becoming a “somebody” in a big city music scene, but it was a lot of fun, too…for a few years, anyway.
See, I wasn’t the lead singer…or even “a” lead singer. I think I secretly hoped that, as with my first band, I would graduate and eventually co-front the group. Although lead singer James Lee (a really wonderful writer and musician, by the way) and I wrote many of the band’s songs together, the guys in the band wanted to keep the format the way it was. And, frankly, that made a lot of sense: James was a very unusual, striking-looking front man, 6’ tall, rail thin, shoulder-length jet black hair, Asian. Having me sing some leads would have been confusing, I think. And we were trying to land a record deal. It wouldn’t have been smart to mess with the formula. Even so, things didn’t pan out and it ended up being the same old story: we never landed the major label deal and the band folded.
Towards the end of radioblue, I started writing a set of songs for a solo project, songs that were less Britpop and more Americana/alternative. Less Mighty Lemon Drops and more Lemonheads. I felt a strong kinship with bands like Dinosaur Jr., The Lemonheads, and Uncle Tupelo, bands that were into Neil Young and Big Star and Gram Parsons. So I grabbed the drummer from radioblue and a couple other top-notch local musicians and formed Super 8. Songs on Everything’s OK like “Galaxy of Cars” and “Week of Days” were written for that band. Somewhere in the middle of that, though, my good friend and sometime songwriting partner, Jamie Blake, got signed to A&M. In a whirl, she took me off to L.A. to do pre-production with her and Josh Freese. Super 8 dissolved, and I was suddenly a solo artist.
So it just kinda happened very gradually…and not at all by design!
By the way, I was involved in Jamie’s record for well over a year, and from the very beginning. If memory serves, our first pre-production sessions were done in an A&M parking lot: Jamie, Josh Freeze (the amazing drummer who has been behind the kit for everyone from Devo to Paul Westerberg to Perfect Circle to Sting) and I just sitting on the asphalt, working stuff out. Then sessions with various producers, wonderful times in the Charlie Chaplin lot in A&M’s studio A (or was it B?), Jamie and A&M putting me up at the infamous rock n’ roll Roosevelt Hotel for weeks–in the mornings, Jamie and I would roll up to the imposing A&M studios security gate. The guard would ask for our names and I would say, “Eddie Van Halen and Valerie Bertinelli,” or, “Eric and Patti Clapton,” while the guard searched in vain for our names before I fessed up and told him who we really were; it was funny the first dozen or so times. Months later, Jamie was generous enough to fly me up to Boston for more work on the record at my old acquaintance Gary Smith’s Ft. Apache Studios. I was fortunate enough to be alone in the studio with Jamie, Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie, producers of artists like Warren Zevon, Radiohead, Goo Goo Dolls, and tons more. Working on and contributing to this record fulfilled a life-long dream: I got to have a genuine, top level, major label recording experience, and I owe it all to Jamie…who actually earned both a speaking part and musical performance on “Beverly Hills 90210” because of her work on this record. But for a drift in the winds of luck, Jamie would be a superstar today. She certainly has the talent.
Time for a short segue into a story from Mark’s post-radioblue / pre-Everything’s OK years. As it turns out, our man Mark has a small connection to a big name, albeit one who would’ve been bigger had he not died far too early. Rather than relating the story to me himself, however, he steered me toward a website featuring a very interesting tale from the aforementioned Ms. Blake. Granted, it’s more about her than it is about Mark, but I have a feeling it may make some of you swoon more than a little bit.
“I was a college student at the time at American University in D.C.. I was also the music editor of a paper there called The University Reporter that went to 60,000 school kids in the area. I had an especially good relationship with a local rep from Sony. They were really pushing me to do an article on Jeff Buckley. They sent me live at sine, and at first I didn’t get it, but agreed to meet him at a dinner before the Black Cat show at Dante’s. As it turned out, one of my college professors at school was his opening act, a solo artist named Mark Helm. He was mentoring my songwriting. The two of them met at sound check that night, and Mark must have told Jeff about me. The dinner at Dante’s was for local press, all women. The label was working his beauty factor. He really was beautiful. I was sitting at the opposite end of the table from Jeff. The table was long with about 15 women around it. I hadn’t said a word, everyone was rifling questions at him. I was drifting into space when he calls out, ‘Who here is the musician?’ I said nothing, thinking, of course, ‘He doesn’t mean me.’ He then said again, holding a glass of red wine, ‘Who here is the musician?’ I think I raised my hand and managed a squeaky ‘me.’
With that, he made the women next to him move out of the way and called me to sit next to him. Everyone was still there, but for the rest of the night we only spoke with each other. He had an amazing ability to make you feel special, like the only one in the room. At some point, I realized Mark was going on the stage soon, so I got up to leave, and Jeff said he wanted to come, too. We left everyone behind and walked to the venue together. It was probably only a two block walk, and I remember every word of the conversation. He was telling me about how he got signed, talking about his skull and bones necklace, and about great music in general, continuing our conversation from the restaurant. He asked me if I would come on stage later and sing with him. I had a very limited musical education at the time, and we couldn’t find a song we knew in common, so he said, ‘You’re going to sing ‘Sweet Thing’ with me and just wing it. Repeat after me or something.’ So I sat to watch Mark perform, Jeff thought he was brilliant, and I remember him paying close attention to the lyrics, and commenting on them. Mark is an amazing lyricist. They actually ran into each other later, overseas, and Jeff was wonderful to him.”
Raise your hand if you swooned. Hell, *I* almost swooned. But as great as Clare’s story is, I still felt like I needed to get Mark’s own recollections of the evening, not to mention the story of that later meet-up between him and Jeff.
I’m including Clare’s story, but I figured I should also ask you for a firsthand recollection about the experience of playing with him in DC. Also, she mentioned that you and he crossed paths again later when you were overseas. How did that happen? And did you guys actually keep in touch at all?
Jeff was very nice to me when we met. Of course, he wasn’t famous then, although I’d been a fan of his dad. Only a few people really knew him. The crowd that night was maybe 100-150 people and half were my fans/friends; the other half were folks who knew Jeff’s Live at Sine EP or, like me, were Tim Buckley fans who were curious. It would be a gross understatement to say Jeff exceeded my expectations that evening. It took about two minutes into sound-check before I realized I was in the presence of a VERY rare talent. And he was a sweet guy. After the show, we discussed each others songs. I was flattered that he remembered phrases and lyrics from mine. And he was gracious as I fawned over him. Even then, he was used to it.
We did keep in touch at first, mostly through Jamie Blake. If I’m not mistaken, she told him I was going to be in Oslo the same few nights when he and his band were playing there – this was after Grace hit – and, amazingly, he was playing in a club about 100 yards down the main harbor in Oslo, Norway. We met in the afternoon and hung out before and after the show. My gig ended before his, so I got to see most of the show and he played / dedicated “Kanga-roo” to me, earning me heaps of cred among my Norwegian friends. As I recall, we partied some after the show…or maybe it was before. But it was the last time I heard from or spoke to him. It was very sad when he died. It would not be fair to characterize him as a friend, only an acquaintance, but the meetings we had were at key times in our lives and, like I said, he was a very sweet, warm guy, the kind of guy who gives you a big smile and a hug. A couple of times, we just sang and jammed. We liked the same stuff. He was one of the few guys I knew who got excited about Crosby, Stills & Nash and stuff like that. He was amazed I knew “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” I feel lucky to have hung out with him.
How did you find your way to Not Lame Records?
To be honest, when I got signed to Not Lame, I was relatively new to the whole “power pop” thing, although I was, without knowing it, already a full-on power pop geek. My friend, the brilliant guitarist Pete Kennedy, introduced me to the whole scene. He, Eric Sorensen, and Alan Haber, who had a power pop radio show and was the first to play my demos, organized weekly listening sessions called “Pop Shoot-out” in the DC area. They invited me, discovered my music, and helped get it to Bruce. I couldn’t have done it on my own.
My memory is a bit fuzzy on exactly how it happened, but I do remember that I suddenly got this email from Bruce one day totally raving about my music. His comments were so over the top, I was sure it was a friend taking the piss. Also, I was a huge Not Lame fan, especially Myracle Brah, Doug Powell, and the Shazam. I wanted to be on that label so bad, but I was afraid my stuff wasn’t power-poppy enough…and, as it turns out, it wasn’t! But the people who got it were great.
Tell me a bit about the evolution of Everything’s OK. Had you actually begun the recording process of the album when Bruce pitched the idea of you coming onto Not Lame, or did it not begin in earnest until after that?
For the most part, the songs on OK had already been written, with the exception of “Sweet Dreams, Baby,” “Isolation Day,” and “Everything’s OK.” About half of the record had already been recorded a few years earlier in Denmark, with my friend Henrik Krog Christensen engineering, co-producing, and playing the truly tricky bass and keyboard parts. Bruce signed me on the strength of those Denmark recordings and about 20-30 demos I’d cobbled together into a mock double CD called Record Stores and Girls.
An obvious one: I know you’re legally allowed to fall back on the old “my songs are like my children” response, but I still have to ask you if you have any particular favorites on the album.
Nah, my children are my children…and I do have favorites! For me, it comes down to what holds up when all the strings and fancy harmonies and stuff is stripped away. “Nevermind,” and “Sweet Dreams” hold up pretty well, I think. Yeah, I can still live with them.
Which song evolved the most from when you began to write it to how it ended up on the record?
Probably the title track, “Everything’s OK.” That started off a lot more straightforward and neo-countrified. I recorded a full band version in L.A. with my friend Dave Newton, the Mighty Lemon Drops’ guitarist/songwriter, producing and engineering. That version sounded like it could have been an out-take from On the Beach. Months later, in the studio in D.C. (Mike Harvey’s Actiondale), the tune became a lot more psychedelic. I still thrill when I hear the synth solo from the NL version. It’s so groovy.
Okay, so what’s the story on “What Holds the World Together”? AllMusic.com says that you co-wrote it with Mark Eitzel, but that’s apparently not the case…?
Mark Eitzel did play a small personal part and had a big influence in my early solo career, but he didn’t co-write “World.” We just wrote different songs with the same title at the same time. His may have been released first, but I can’t remember. I know I played it live before his song was released when I opened for American Music Club at the Birchmere when they toured the Challenger album, so he may have noted that…or maybe not. He did watch the set, though, and was very encouraging. At the time, I was still with radioblue, and Eitzel encouraged me to “go solo.”
Another funny Eitzel story: I think it was Amsterdam, and AMC was headlining a gig my friends The Blue Aeroplanes were opening for. Eitzel and I had met, and I asked him to play something…maybe “Why Won’t You Stay”? Anyway, he dedicated it to “my friend Mark from the USA,” and I was promptly mobbed by a ton of people who thought I was Mark Kozalek from Red House Painters! I remember that I kept saying, “I’m not him,” but they kept winking and buying me drinks. All in all, it turned out okay.
On another AllMusic.com note, for some reason, they have the members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers listed as co-writers on “Nevermind.” Another case of mistaken song identity, I presume.
“Nevermind” is all mine. Unlike Eitzel, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are not among my heroes. I have never even owned one of their records…though I admire their lead singer for becoming famous without being able to sing in tune to save his life.
Is there any track that you look back on and think, “Y’know, I really could’ve done that better”? And if so, are you prone to correcting it when you perform it live?
Probably “What Holds the World Together,” actually. In the studio in Denmark, I think we got a little bored and thought, “Hey, let’s pretend this one’s a lost bonus track from Magical Mystery Tour, thus the mellotron and piccolo trumpet. (Oh, my!) My absolute favorite version of the tune was recorded live by some Japanese fans in NYC at Arlene’s Grocery at a Not Lame showcase. It’s just me on acoustic guitar and my friend, Amy Cavanaugh, on cello. And, yeah, whenever I play the song, I omit the last line. It may seem like a small thing, but omitting 4 little words makes the song a lot stronger.
I think you and I have discussed this a little bit off the record, but are you agreeable to speaking to why we haven’t really seen much from you since Everything’s OK?
I did time in a Central American prison for running guns and drugs with Warren Zevon. Warren never got caught. (He sold me out, actually, the bastard!)
And then there was this: I had two beautiful kids with a wonderful woman and then she divorced me…not that I didn’t deserve it or anything. Still, it was a very painful divorce and I kinda lost myself. To be honest, I had a total meltdown / breakdown. I stopped caring about myself and folded like a lawnchair. Dark times. For a few years, I didn’t do anything but hide out in a shitty one-room garage apartment in Bend, Oregon and watch “Law and Order” on cable. For awhile I worked the cash register in a boutique record store. All in all, it was a miserable little stretch and I suffered a lot emotionally…as did everyone around me, to be sure. By the time I got my shit together, I was afraid to focus on anything but repairing relationships and being a good father.
Eventually, we moved to Nashville and everything changed. Within a couple of months, I landed a part-time gig teaching English at an amazing little college. Then, a couple years ago, I was hired full-time. Today, I’m probably the happiest and most well-adjusted I’ve ever been in my life. I have my kids several days/nights a week, I see friends (former NL label-mate Doug Powell has been an especially positive, healing presence in my life), and I get to teach the most amazing stuff to some of the most gifted students I’ve ever known. The big flood in Nashville set me back financially in a major way, but not spiritually. I even have plans to get back into the studio and begin recording again. So we’ll see…
How badly were you affected by the flood?
I took an enormous, wholly unexpected hit. I don’t know if folks realize just how bad it was, because it didn’t get a ton of attention from the media, but it was a full-on deluge. I lost my car (under 5 feet of water), the house I was renting was totaled, and we lost pretty much everything. Furniture, my guitars, amps and effects, all ruined. My bed, my clothes, the kids’ Wii and all their games, both my computers…the list goes on and on. And there was no insurance because we didn’t live in a high-risk area for flooding. We got a few bucks from FEMA – two months’ rental assistance – but that’s it.
I never imagined that one day I’d be standing in front of our house, chest deep in water, loading the kids into a National Guard rescue boat, but that’s exactly what happened. We were rescued, thank God, at dusk. We weren’t allowed back to inspect the damage until 3-4 days later. The mold and standing water was already so bad that I contracted a nasty case of pneumonia and was briefly hospitalized and put out of commission for several weeks in June.
The kids, thankfully, were great about it: the flood was quite the adventure for them, and they have never complained about their stuff that was lost, God bless ‘em. But I was a bit less resilient, watching the water covering the hood of my car, thinking about the insurance I didn’t have as we motored toward safety across the murky water. A lot of friends and family have helped us out and we’re getting back on our feet. I was able to find a small, one-bedroom apt. close to my ex’s house, I got a sofa bed cheap so the kids can sleep over on weekends, and…here’s the best thing…we’re way up on the second floor!
If anyone has the money and the inclination to make a donation to help Mark and his family with the still-ongoing regrouping and rebuilding process, you can use PayPal (MHelm@aii.edu) or, for physical donations, send to Mark Helm, 1011 Murfreesboro Rd., Unit L-8, Franklin, TN 37064.