Dom Mariani: An Appreciation

Dom Mariani: An Appreciation

Trying to get your head around Dom Mariani’s long and wide-ranging musical career can be both a confusing and an exhilarating adventure. Every time you get a handle on one of the great bands he’s been in, you find that there is another one to learn about. As you sort though all of this, two things become very clear: (1) Mariani has a deft touch and keen musical instincts, allowing him to approach each of his projects with command (2) You should never expect one Mariani band or project to sound like the one that came before it.

Mariani formed ‘60’s garage revivalists the Stems in Perth, Australia in the early 80s. The band released a smattering of singles and an album, At First Sight Violets are Blue (1987), that stand up to the best of all the fuzz psych releases circulating the indie markets at that time (think Fleshtones/Telltale Hearts/ Lyres/Chesterfield Kings/Vipers, et al). Their sublime track “She’s Fine” was included on Rhino’s The Children of Nuggets, a box set of songs by ‘80’s bands influenced by ‘60’s psychedelia and garage. But just as the Stems were promoting their first long player, and as they were enjoying both critical acclaim and success on the Independent charts in Australia and other parts of the world, they broke up.

“I was always into ‘60’s music, but originally maybe just the more well known bands, like the Beatles, Stones, and Kinks,” Mariani told me over the phone recently, by way of describing his personal musical evolution leading up to the formation of the Stems. “But then I discovered the Nuggets double album, and the Electric Prunes Underground record, so I saw there was this other kind of thing from the ‘60’s, which was more like garage rock, and I got totally into that.”

Mariani cites pressure from the band’s management and the label to relentlessly promote At First Sight, and the resultant exhaustion, as causes of the Stems’ untimely implosion. Also, he soon had another project cooking. While in the Stems Mariani met Darryl Mather, then with Sydney’s the Lime Spiders (another Children of Nuggets band) and later with the Orange Humble Band. The two discovered a mutual affinity for ‘60’s and ‘70’s radio pop and decided to get together and make music that would sound more like the Raspberries than the Stooges. The resulting LP, 1990’s Don’t Talk About Us, is now widely considered to be a power pop masterpiece.

“My musical background is very much steeped in Top 40 radio from the ‘60’s, things like the Monkees and girl groups and all,” Dom says when I ask him about the poppy departure the Someolves were from the Stems. “And even during the Stems, although we had kind of a hard rock sound, we were listening to things like the dBs and the Plimsouls, which were more pop.”

Don’t Talk About Us was recorded with Mitch Easter at his famed Drive-In studio in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (Easter has continued to mix, and sometimes play on, Mariani’s recordings throughout Dom’s career). A great meeting of musical minds, an album made at one of the coolest studios in the world at the time, two songwriters with no apparent lack of inspiration . . . the future held no barriers for The Someloves, right? Wrong. Their label, Mushroom, would only agree to a second album if the band committed to tour to promote the first, something Mather – a studio animal not interested in playing live – refused to do.

Someone with less fortitude or creative drive might have given up after seeing his first two bands split up just when they seemed to be going on the rise. But Mariani was only getting started. After an enforced recording hiatus which was part of the contractual baggage from The Someloves/Mushroom situation, he exploded back onto the scene in glorious fashion a few years later with his new band, DM3.

To this listener’s ears, DM3 is where Mariani fully hit his stride, combining the adrenaline rush of the Stems with the pop craftsmanship of the Someloves. DM3s albums One Times Two Times Red Light (1993), Road to Rome (96) and Rippled Soul (98) are power pop gems (the first two are, anyway; Rippled Soul has some stellar songs but doesn’t quite match up in overall quality level with the others) with a little garage energy to them, and are where Mariani pulled off tracks that stand comfortably alongside records made by the likes of Dwight Twilley, Big Star, Badfinger, et al.

“We were trying to make records with a rock & roll edge to them, but also with great melodies,” is how Dom sees DM3, a project he clearly put a lot of himself into and feels passionate about.

Some of DM3s best songs weren’t on the three main albums, but can be found on the odds-and-ends collections Garage Sale Vols 1 & 2 (as well as a Mariani retrospective covered below). One of these oddities, “Hold On,” is something I have listened to at dangerous volume levels no less than eight times in a row on more than one occasion recently – an absolute dream of a power pop song. Another Garage Sale track, “Just Like Nancy,” is both one of the finest moments in DM3s recorded history and their swan song. This single, with its splendidly catchy chorus, chugging guitar riff, and sly, vaguely naughty lyrics (a “girl in boots” with “the power to overthrow ya”), was the last record made by DM3.

Always looking to explore new terrain, after the demise of DM3 Mariani showed yet another side of his wide musical range. In 2003 he and his new act The Majestic Kelp released an album of instrumental tracks, Underwater Casino. The sound here is something like a meeting between Dick Dale, Ennio Morricone, and Martin Denny – a Spaghetti Western on the beach in Hawaii.

Dom: “What started out as just kind of a quick surf guitar record became something more than that. The songs started to take on some additional character, kind of a soundtrack feel. It’s quite an interesting group and we’re exploring a lot of different things you can do with instrumental music.”

I ask Dom if he feels any difficulty in connecting to the audience when the Majestic Kelp perform live, without the benefit of vocal parts like catchy choruses people can latch onto:

“It has been a learning curve for me. It kind of divides the audience. Some of the people who have been listening to my bands over the years get into it, just like they would the Stems or DM3. But other people are kind of standing there saying, ‘So when is he going to start singing?’ Some have said, ‘I think Dom’s gone off the planet with this one.’ But other people will just dig it for what it is. “

The Majestic Kelp released a second collection of instrumentals, Music to Chase Cars By, in 2006. Here they continued to explore some of the same musical themes approached on the first record, but also added some horns, one track filled with Byrdsian jangle, and a bit of a tougher guitar sound on the surf tracks.

In 2004 Mariani put out his first solo album, Homespun Blues and Greens. A much more personal collection of songs than any of his other projects offered, the 11 tracks here sound like they could be open letters to a close friend or lover, saying things that are difficult but necessary to communicate. The gentle psychedelia on some of the backing tracks cements the sense of contemplative emotion.

“I toyed around with the idea of making a solo album for quite some time, but initially was uncomfortable putting something out with just my name on it. For a while I thought of calling it a DM3 record, but that didn’t seem right, because there really wasn’t a band there to drive it. So I thought, instead of coming up with another band name to add to the list, I’ll just put my name to it. And the songs are kind of reflective, anyway, so it makes sense for it be labeled as a solo record.”

If all the great music wasn’t reward enough in itself to Mariani for sticking with things through all the band breakups, he was honored with a career-affirming retrospective put out by Citadel Records in 2005. Popsided Guitar (Anthology 1984-2004), a 2-CD, 38-track collection compiles highlights of Dom’s varied career, including songs by all of the aforementioned acts as well as a few from his solo album, and it also throws in one song each from one-offs Mariani did with bands The Stonefish and The Stoneage Hearts. There could have been a few more Stems tracks, but really there is little to complain about on the comp. The selections are well chosen and bring to magnificent life a career that has not received its due attention and appreciation.

One Mariani project not covered in the Popsided Guitar comp. is the reformed Stems. After having excellent compilations of their stuff put out by both Citadel (Mushroom Soup, 2003) and Get Hip (Terminal Cool, 2005), as well as seeing a 2-CD reissue of the At First Sight record (2003, Warners Australia), the band released a set of newly recorded material in 2007. Listening to Headsup, you’d think The Stems had never gone away. The 10 tracks further the band’s legacy as psych garage masters, especially the riff-heavy “Liar” and the assured rocker “Hellbound Train.” Listening to this record, you can easily see why Little Steven once invited the Stems to perform at his Underground Garage festival in New York.

So are the Stems fully reformed now, can we expect another release from them sometime sooner than the 20 years which separated their first two LPs?

“We are talking about doing another recording, although I’m not sure when that will be. We’re thinking about doing something like the Flamin’ Groovies Jumpin’ in the Night record, where it’d be some favorite covers alongside some originals.”

And what might some of those covers be?

“Well, we’re talking about doing all Australian songs. ‘Friday on My Mind’ by the Easybeats is one we’re thinking of. ‘Come On,’ by the Atlantics. We’re also looking at some of the very early Bee Gees stuff, looking for something there that might be appropriate.”

Dom is also at work on a third Majestic Kelp record, one with vocals, including some Beach Boys-style harmonies. He looks to finish the album by the end of this year and hopes for an early 2009 release. And while he is taking some down-time now after a recent Stems tour, he seems never too far away from the next gig, whether it be in Australia, Europe, or at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, where the Stems performed this year and where Mariani expects to be again next Spring, either with the Stems or on his own. Prolific and diverse as he is with his music, no one should be surprised if by that time he has a totally new band trying for a sound and feel different from all his other projects.

Reconsider, Baby

From the introduction to Lost in the Grooves: Scram’s Capricious Guide to the Music You Missed, by Kim Cooper and David Smay

Reconsider, baby.

Scram is a magazine that for a dozen years has been tweaking the critical consensus with sly reappraisals of artists deemed insignificant, unimportant or just residing far outside the hipster ghetto. We’re the ones who shouted there was more to bubblegum than the obvious epithet. We raved about Radio Birdman when few north of Sydney cared, unearthed a great folk-rock disc tucked between Dion’s heroin and homegrown eras, and celebrated the earthy brilliance of Jackie DeShannon’s forgotten recording career.

Now we’ve called upon scores of Scram writers and folks who share our iconoclastic passions to bring you Lost in the Grooves, a collection of miniature love letters to albums (and a few singles and EPs) that at least one person considers iconic.

We see ourselves as part of a long tradition of buttonholers, evangelizers spreading the good word about our faves with an unshakeable faith that your physical and spiritual well-being depends on it. (See "Mimeos and Cut-Out Bins" for more on the early zine history, and the vintage reprints spread throughout the book.) Thing is, we’re worried about you. You’re listless, your skin is sallow, you’re sprouting unsightly blemishes and developing a funk in your trunk–and we think this probably has something to do with the absence of the Potatomen in your record collection. You’re teetering on the edge of an abyss, and the only thing that might possibly save you is John Cale’s Paris 1919. We’re sure of it. Perhaps you somehow missed Michael Mantler’s Edward Gorey tribute. Or maybe you don’t have any Swamp Dogg. It’s almost unimaginable, but some people don’t own any Swamp Dogg at all.

Dozens of factors have conspired to prevent you from finding your favorite record. You’re an inadvertent victim of narrowly focused marketing strategies. History, geography, even the limits of your own taste have thwarted you. What you need is an enthusiastic record geek friend to lead you through the bins. You need somebody to pull you away from your beloved indie rock 45s, drag you grudgingly into the country section and thrust a David Allen Coe record into your mitts. What you have in your mitts right now is your own portable geek.

We want crate-diggers to read about Tony Joe White, Schoolly-D fans to hear about Pentangle, Mekons fans to check out Kylie Minogue. No, really, we insist. Because somewhere in the cut-out bin of a record store in Tulsa is your favorite record and you’ve never even heard of it. Or it’s hiding in plain sight, overshadowed by that same musician’s acknowledged masterpieces. Maybe it’s the one great record in an otherwise mediocre career. Or it’s in this very book, in an essay you’re going to skip. So many random events conspiring to prevent the two of you from finding each other.

At the same time, we want Lost in the Grooves to be a record guide, subject to dog-ears and Post-It noting. David spent years tracking down Hackamore Brick and Savage Rose after Greil Marcus wrote about them in Stranded, Breakfast Without Meat magazine’s intelligent adoration of Jimmy Webb made Kim re-think her aversion to that artist, and we were both bubblegumized by exposure to Lester Bangs.

This book exists to nudge the canon so lost records tumble out. We want to highlight sub-genres that produced great music but have fallen out of critical favor, assuming they were ever in it. One thing we didn’t want was a record collector smackdown, vying for pack status with the obscurity of their treasures. Nor did we want to focus on works solely for their freakish novelty. So bad it’s good? Nah, just so good it’s gotta be heard. Not every record here is a masterpiece, but each is distinctive, original and fascinating.

But the standards for which records are unsung, forgotten or undervalued are incredibly slippery. There are plenty of records famous for being obscure, a counter-canon of influential cult classics. So now we don’t really need to write about Gilded Palace of Sin or Radio City or One Nation Under A Groove. They have graduated beyond the scope of this book. Now they’re a part of the canon.

We analyzed the small geographies between cult and canon, charting the ever-shifting border and reviewing case histories to get a feel for the terrain. Inevitably, our criteria for inclusion was both subjective–we asked the contributors to pitch their favorites, filtering the list for cohesion and breadth–and a snapshot of how we see the canon right now. It was impossible to ignore how often reputations rise or fall on completely extra-musical terms. Consider, for example, the unexpected impact of one car commercial.

Nick Drake’s star rose precipitously in 2000 when Volkswagen appropriated “Pink Moon.” Pink Moon sold a reported 74,000 copies that year (up from 6,000), as Drake’s doomed romanticism found a crop of receptive ears dwarfing his longtime cult. His winsome looks and tragic fate rendered Drake the perfect Shelleyan poster boy for the Belle & Sebastian generation, though many new fans made uncomfortable noises about coming to his music through the “dirty” scrim of commerce. But with the artist long dead and unable to approve such marketing plans, Drake retained his creative dignity, and his music still seems primally, perfectly pure.  

Others nurture a cult in the shadows of mainstream success. Scott Walker began as one of the Walker Brothers, British girlhood’s very own golden California fantasy. In 1967, Scott commenced a series of outré louche pop albums steeped in Brelian archetype and an ever-rising pool of sap. Late sixties Walkersong could be exquisitely heartfelt, or schlock city; hits came even as he veered into easy listening territory. But by his masterpiece Scott 4 (1969), the fans had tuned out. It remained for Julian Cope to restore his reputation with a 1981 compilation subtitled Godlike Genius. Scott returned with Climate of Hunter, an extension of the powerful electronic material he’d slotted into the Walker Brothers’ reunion disc Nite Flights, to little notice by critics then plotzing over Bowie’s similar experiments with Eno. Recently honored with a five-disc box set, Scott canonical status is assured.

With an eerie ability to ride the zeitgeist, the Beach Boys have kept their summer on life support for nearly forty years. Regular revivals remarket the Boys as good time music for successive generations. Meanwhile, a passionate cult clung tight to their private version of the sub-chart Beach Boys: the Beach Boys of Manson covers, Sunflower, that terrifying board tape of Murray Wilson haranguing his sons. Underground scholars like Domenic Priore compiled essential field guides as bootleggers continued assembling endless jigsaw puzzle of Smiles that might have been. Eventually Capitol recognized the market for such effluvia and issued a Pet Sounds Sessions box. Brian returned to the stage backed by a band of pop freaks who encouraged the master to replicate Pet Sounds and Smile live. Ironically, as their more arcane music finally finds an audience, the classic early kar kulture tracks are being neglected. But we think there’s room on any discriminating shelf for both “Chug-a-lug” and "Cabinessence."

Some get lost despite continued strong work. The aviaphobic Byrd, Gene Clark left the band as their touring commitments intensified, slipping off to forge a distinctive brand of mournful, harmony-drenched country-rock through collaborations with the Gosdin Brothers and Doug Dillard. While respected, these recordings sold sparingly. The eighties Paisley Revival scene was the creative boost Clark needed. Bands like the Bangles and Three O’Clock worshipped at his jangled boots, and pulled Clark back into the spotlight. In the last years of his life, he recorded duets with Carla Olsen, their So Rebellious A Lover selling better than any previous Clark release. As the Byrds’ career has been subject to box sets and expanded reissues, the strength of Clark’s early contribution is undeniable. But his very accessible and pretty solo material has failed to find any real posthumous life. While Gram and the Burritos loft up into the firmament, Gene Clark remains incomprehensibly earthbound.

Some celebrated artists still need reconsideration because their narrative doesn’t scan neatly. Because Sly Stone remains inconveniently alive, the history of funk and rap has been grossly distorted. James Brown is a gigantor dust magnet accruing credit for every flicker in black music for the last four decades. While his rhythmic innovations brought a stinky new whipcrack funkiness to American music, James Brown did not invent funk. He’s sui generis–nobody sounds like him except by pastiche. Neither did George Clinton invent funk. Funk starts on the thumb-callous of Larry Graham on "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)"–and all things funky roll outward from that low, seismic tremor. But Sly crawled up a hole in his nostril thirty years ago, and George Clinton’s a cuddlier interview for VH-1. Also, the Family Stone’s epochal Woodstock performance date-stamps them as Hippie Rock in a way that muddles the clear line from There’s a Riot Goin On through every Dr. Dre production.

The late nineties saw a flurry of interest in the DIY Elephant 6 collective. While the Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control got more attention at the time, it’s the marching band psychedelia of Neutral Milk Hotel that’s proved the movement’s legacy. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea received warm notices on release, but no one could have predicted the record’s inexorable rise to the top of the postpunk indie canon. Although bandleader Jeff Mangum broke up the band after their 1998 tour, his weirdly beautiful love letter to Anne Frank went out and did its own promotion, passing from hand to hand in a truly underground, ever-expanding cult. When Magnet magazine listed the best releases of the last ten years, Aeroplane soared comfortably above the rest.

Deep catalogs that resist easy summary create their own problems. The book on Jonathan Richman says: proto-punk innovator with the Modern Lovers and faux-naïf kiddie songster thereafter. But that book’s wrong. The kid songs were only a brief transitional period to stake out a new sound and songwriting territory that had a huge influence on the nineties indie lo-fi scene. We review Modern Lovers 88 in this book, but could have just as easily highlighted Rock ‘N’ Roll With The Modern Lovers or Rockin’ and Romance or I, Jonathan, each stellar, distinct and scattered across his career. Curtis Mayfield’s seventies work similarly suffers from his very consistency. It doesn’t provide an easy hook for critics, and so the story stops after Superfly.

Box sets present key opportunities for revaluation: the Byrds, Zombies and Beach Boys all got significant boosts with their career summaries. But it doesn’t always work. Even as we go to press, the Talking Heads’ box set seems to be actively souring their reputation simply because the packaging is so pretentious. How else to account for Robert Christgau all but anointing them as the best rock band in the world in 1982, then dismissing the whole of their work with a dyspeptic C? The Jefferson Airplane’s box set couldn’t pry them loose from their era to be heard as music, and that’s an entirely different issue. Music at the core of specific scenes struggles to be heard for its merits, instead of as a lifestyle soundtrack. Goth is one obvious example, where Bauhaus drew from the same peculiar mix of dub, Krautrock, prog, punk and processed guitars as Joy Division and PiL, but can’t shake its subcultural associations long enough to be heard by anyone inexpert in liquid eyeliner.

So many factors play into a band’s rediscovery: the advocacy of a superstar fan (Kurt Cobain’s penchant for Pastels t-shirts and Verlaines covers), an emergent scene with obvious forebears (the White Stripes and the longstanding garage rock underground), fads in sonic recycling (analog synthesizers coming back into vogue causing an outbreak of Moog farts and blurps everywhere). Rap’s insatiable beat craving created a permanent market in yesterday’s sounds that slopped over into every sample-happy sub-genre.

It’s such a crapshoot, you need a tool to help even the odds. The subject’s far too large to be covered comprehensively, so we designed this book as more than a record guide. It’s a provocation, an outline, a dialogue, a shortcut, a rabbit hole. If you follow just a few of its paths, you’ll find whole unexplored continents of music. We’ve set you on shore; here’s a map into the interior.