Dom Mariani: An Appreciation
Trying to get your head around Dom Marianiâ€™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 heâ€™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 â€˜60â€™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 â€œSheâ€™s Fineâ€ was included on Rhinoâ€™s The Children of Nuggets, a box set of songs by â€˜80â€™s bands influenced by â€˜60â€™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.
â€œI was always into â€˜60â€™s music, but originally maybe just the more well known bands, like the Beatles, Stones, and Kinks,â€ Mariani told me over the phone recently, by way of describing his personal musical evolution leading up to the formation of the Stems. â€œBut 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 â€˜60â€™s, which was more like garage rock, and I got totally into that.â€
Mariani cites pressure from the bandâ€™s management and the label to relentlessly promote At First Sight, and the resultant exhaustion, as causes of the Stemsâ€™ untimely implosion. Also, he soon had another project cooking. While in the Stems Mariani met Darryl Mather, then with Sydneyâ€™s the Lime Spiders (another Children of Nuggets band) and later with the Orange Humble Band. The two discovered a mutual affinity for â€˜60â€™s and â€˜70â€™s radio pop and decided to get together and make music that would sound more like the Raspberries than the Stooges. The resulting LP, 1990â€™s Donâ€™t Talk About Us, is now widely considered to be a power pop masterpiece.
â€œMy musical background is very much steeped in Top 40 radio from the â€˜60â€™s, things like the Monkees and girl groups and all,â€ Dom says when I ask him about the poppy departure the Someolves were from the Stems. â€œAnd 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.â€
Donâ€™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, Marianiâ€™s recordings throughout Domâ€™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 â€“ a studio animal not interested in playing live â€“ 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 listenerâ€™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 doesnâ€™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.
â€œWe were trying to make records with a rock & roll edge to them, but also with great melodies,â€ is how Dom sees DM3, a project he clearly put a lot of himself into and feels passionate about.
Some of DM3s best songs werenâ€™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, â€œHold On,â€ is something I have listened to at dangerous volume levels no less than eight times in a row on more than one occasion recently â€“ an absolute dream of a power pop song. Another Garage Sale track, â€œJust Like Nancy,â€ 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 â€œgirl in bootsâ€ with â€œthe power to overthrow yaâ€), 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 â€“ a Spaghetti Western on the beach in Hawaii.
Dom: â€œWhat 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. Itâ€™s quite an interesting group and weâ€™re exploring a lot of different things you can do with instrumental music.â€
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:
â€œIt 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, â€˜So when is he going to start singing?â€™ Some have said, â€˜I think Domâ€™s gone off the planet with this one.â€™ But other people will just dig it for what it is. â€œ
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.
â€œI 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 didnâ€™t seem right, because there really wasnâ€™t a band there to drive it. So I thought, instead of coming up with another band name to add to the list, Iâ€™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.â€
If all the great music wasnâ€™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 Domâ€™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, youâ€™d think The Stems had never gone away. The 10 tracks further the bandâ€™s legacy as psych garage masters, especially the riff-heavy â€œLiarâ€ and the assured rocker â€œHellbound Train.â€ 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?
â€œWe are talking about doing another recording, although Iâ€™m not sure when that will be. Weâ€™re thinking about doing something like the Flaminâ€™ Groovies Jumpinâ€™ in the Night record, where itâ€™d be some favorite covers alongside some originals.â€
And what might some of those covers be?
â€œWell, weâ€™re talking about doing all Australian songs. â€˜Friday on My Mindâ€™ by the Easybeats is one weâ€™re thinking of. â€˜Come On,â€™ by the Atlantics. Weâ€™re also looking at some of the very early Bee Gees stuff, looking for something there that might be appropriate.â€
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.