Liner notes - click here
THE STORY OF “LIFE IS A PROBLEM”
By David Bielanko
It would be awesome if everyone who hears this album would recognize and appreciate it as a raw and beautiful Rock n Roll Record.
I couldn’t possibly convey accurately the process we went through to make it happen. But fuck it, imma try…
Our beautiful band got hit by a roadside bomb on the eve of its last full-length release, “Angels of Destruction!” I was told by a certain band member that in order for the subsequent touring for that record to proceed I would need to fire my best friend/piano player Christine Smith, throw her under the bus. I would not do it. My brother Serge would not do it.
Me, Serge and Christine made “AOD!” (we wrote it, recorded it, mixed it and designed the whole thing to help push our live band to a rare an amazing place). We changed our lives to make it. Christine left another great band to come be a part of ours; she struggled hard with that decision. I got sober after years of being a fuck up. Serge wrote “Wilderness.”
We Wouldn’t Budge.
Things broke down.
The manager vanished with power of attorney.
People told me “I” owed them thousands and thousands of dollars.
There would be no tour.
Ex-members stole Marah’s recording equipment.
Dark motherfuckin’ days.
Forced to leave a NYC we loved but could no longer afford, we took what little was left: a box of songs, some broken duct-taped mic stands, a bass guitar we trash-picked off a Brooklyn street (its strings were made of rust, and many notes had to be avoided entirely), my brother’s collection of travel-worn wheezy harmonicas and a bunch of yellowing old Marah press clippings.
Now, I had swung low to keep my band alive in the past, but this was going to be different.
We rented a spooky farmhouse in a rural Pennsylvania Amish farming valley. My father gave me an old set of flea market drums. We set them up in the living room.
We purchased an old “funeral organ” from an Amish second-hand store for twenty dollars. We found a church that was giving away an old piano; we pushed it down a country road and tuned it the best we could ourselves.
In the end the old farm house became a huge part of “Life is a Problem”: stomping on its wooden floors, rehearsing with the spiders in its root cellar basement, letting the music take over every room and find its way into each and every song. We played old broke down things, whatever was left; we chased whatever songs floated in beneath the haunted eaves.
Me and Christine made “Life is a Problem.” I’m putting her picture on the back of it ‘cause she deserves it. Fuck, she played drums on much of it. Aside from me and my brother, Christine holds the longest tenure of any band member we’ve ever had, and to be completely honest I was quite happy sitting around feeling sorry for myself, so this album and whatever comes next is pretty much a direct result of her fearless dedication. Thank You.
This is the first record I ever made without my brother Serge around, and it must be said my bro is a rare and exceptional rock n roller and we all miss him very much, but he’s got important work to do raising a beautiful little angel called Violet, and we are fiercely proud of him and his decision to not rock (right now anyway).
OK, finally we pushed record…
1. “MUSKIE MOON”
I am sentimental. This is one of the first Marah songs ever. I wrote it at nineteen in the parking lot of the Andorra Movie Theatre in Roxboro (Philadelphia). We cut this once to end our 2001 record “Kids in Philly,” but it got the boot for a little acoustic song called “This Town.” I guess I never got over that and pushed hard to record and include it here. Perhaps the main reason it opens this album is ‘cause I wanna open up some gigs with it this year. Sentimental.
This is arguably the quintessential Marah Song, our “Satellite of Love.” “We all been through it…and we’re all still around.”
2. “VALLEY FARM SONG”
This kinda got the ball rolling for us here. Equal parts Grandpa Jones, Led Zeppelin and Biggie Smalls. It’s hard to imagine what we were “going for,” but it certainly wasn’t going to be boring. Cora (“…follow Cora’s ghost towards a rainy day”) was an old woman who died in the living room of this farmhouse. She should get a co-write. The title “Valley Farm Song” comes from an old cassette tape my brother Serge and I made in high school when we first bought a banjo and began “exploring” traditional American music. One of Marah’s oldest musical cohorts, Jeff “Coolerman” Clarke, joins us on the bagpipes. Cop funeral in a corn field.
3. “WITHIN THE SPIRIT SAGGING”
The original idea for this new record was a brutal, bare bones folk record, and although that’s most definitely in the pipeline for us, this “Life is a Problem” record took a turn for a more rockin place pretty quickly after the sessions began (therapy I guess). “Within the Spirit Sagging” represents where we were going and will be going again soon.
4. “LIFE IS A PROBLEM”
During those darker days in 2008 when we wanted to be out supporting “Angels of Destruction!” and were instead sitting on park benches in NYC trying to make sense of things, I bought an LP called “Life is a Problem” from Ear Wax records in Williamsburg. It’s a collection of obscure, religious country blues music put out by an amazing label called Mississippi Records. I played it constantly. Track 3 is a song called “Life is a Problem,” by Sister Ola Mae Terrell. At some point in 2001 she was tracked down in a Georgia nursing home and was delivered some long overdue royalties, and she was amazed that anyone remembered her music, much less cared enough to re-release it. I tried to imagine how cool that meeting must have been, a real live voice from the ghost world. I wrote my song then…“We die on the way home….” It made so much sense to me at that moment. Our song is a flawed masterpiece (my favorite kind of anything). It is an end-of-the-night rough mix from a session at 16 Ton in Nashville, Tennessee. We tried for months to remix it and make it more immediate or better in some way, but we could not. Print it.
5. “HIGH WATER”
Side A ends with this song. I played the church organ bass pedals with my feet live while recording this one on an amplified acoustic guitar…liltingly simple, sad but hopeful. After recording this, me and Christine played it back about 400 times while sitting around the kitchen table; it will never sound as good to me as it did that night, but hopefully some of that magic is preserved here. If I had to put my finger on the influences at work, I’d have to say The Muppets…. The Muppets band could have fucked this one up.
6. “PUT ‘EM IN THE GRAVEYARD”
We cut this live in Nashville on the last night of the first session for this record. Martin Lynds played the hell out of his drums. I envisioned something a bit more rag-tag folky/hippie, but in the absence of a $35,000 producer it ended up a bit more straight Rock n Roll (duh). The inclusion of “Put ‘em in the Graveyard” for me revolved solely around it containing one of my finest lyrical moments ever: “Cold metal follows me, down through the years in a D.R.I. tee” I’m Incredible.
7. “…KEEP GOING (unfinished)”
This is a demo of something I wanted to call “The Cold Open” (a title I fully intended to steal from a list of potential song titles my brother left behind). Recording into one microphone, I was playing the banjo and the pedals of the church organ together. Christine played the scratchy fiddle, and at the big climax she says “WTF…keep going!” I think this captures something and insisted on including it.
8. “TRAMP ART”
In high school black kids called me “Freedom Rock”…. It was painful.
When we hit the part that goes “Fizzy water, sad café…,” it felt like the roof of that little country house was gonna blow off…and I knew right then we had to chase this song down.
In “old days” America, a Tramp was a proud “have not.” Tramps looked down at hobos who traveled the countryside looking for work. Tramps would make things out of junk and talent, dodging work at all costs. If that ain’t an analogy for playing Rock n Roll these days, nothing is.
9. “TOGETHER NOT TOGETHER”
I guess it was in the late 60s early 70s that Frank Sinatra made some really strange, awesome experimental concept albums (love songs for lonely older bachelors living in NJ apartments or whatever). I used to own them all on 8 track and played them in the stockroom of the J. Crew in center city Philadelphia where I once held a shitty job for a short period (I think I was fired for stealing returned, pilly sweaters that I was supposed to be razor-blading into unwearable rags…. Innocent).
Anyway, there was nothing clever or ironic about my love for Frank’s music, and he was definitely on my mind when I first started writing this on my banjo. There’s a kind of woozy “bad dream” sequence halfway through this song where I’m playing/rewinding an old cassette tape of me and my brother Serge…. He is singing “blue bonnet, blue bonnet” over and over again. He was high on the pot. I’ve yet to clear this with him, but hopefully it makes the final version. It’s heartbreaking in a seasick kinda way.
10. “BRIGHT MORNING STARS” (Traditional)
Again I’m sentimental. Most songs are aimed at connecting with people, your people, fans, whatever. But this one is for me/for us.
I’ve cut about 8 unreleased versions of “Bright Morning Stars” in my life (fast, slow, really stupid slow) but never quite “nailed it”; didn’t really nail it here either but that’s not the point. This “field recording” has real joy on it, real live joy is often hard to put on albums…. So it’s goin on ours.
After losing our recording equipment in the aforementioned “break-up heist” on the eve of our last full-length release, the next year was a hard one…. I dreamed of all the different records I wanted to make but couldn’t. I sat around, I drank box wine, I gave up my cell-phone, I blamed various people for my misfortune, I upped the dosage of antidepressants, I joined Netflix, I watched 5-disc Ken Burns documentaries.
One day Christine and our partner Al started screaming “Come up here! It’s working! It’s working!” from the kitchen…. I heard familiar voices saying “Check, Check, testing 1-2-3” really loud through cheap, boomy Mackie Speakers. Within 5 minutes we had cut “Bright Morning Stars.” I hadn’t planned on it, just started singing it, and in retrospect it’s hard to believe I even remembered the words. What exists here is that moment, ground zero for Valley Farm Songs (our new label imprint). This will always stand as a true audio document of some pretty sagging spirits beginning to turn it around.
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It would be nice if people immediately could see that “Life is a Problem” is not a record concerned with “career ambitions” or “focus tracks” or any of the other phony-ass bullshit that we could no longer fathom considering. We set out to make a revealing, ugly, honest, independent Marah record. One that would enable us to return to the road (where we belong) and begin a whole new chapter for what we think is one of America’s finest albeit dysfunctional Rock n Roll bands. It would be fantastic to imagine it being perceived as the sort of “Blair Witch Project” that it is…like an independent low-budget horror film.
We realize our music is a folked up mess of American Rock n Roll. And much like the people who made it, it wants very much to be embraced and loved, but that may be asking a lot these days. That’s cool too.
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Me, Marty, Mark III, Bruce W. and Christine are on the road now, We’re working hard at becoming an amazing Rock n Roll band again. It’s working, I can feel it. We all can. We are best friends having a fantastic time. Our goal is to simply roll straight from this album campaign full on into a follow-up. We have an amazing old Studer 8 track tape machine; we have an Amazing Country house for a home base. Songs are coming fast now, so is the old us-against-you spirit that creates the finest of art.
In the meantime we give you “Life is a Problem” and its accompanying live show. For us this record reeks of change; it screams into the future and represents in a roundabout way every single note of Marah music that came before. We are all proud of it…. So let’s meet up on the road, and we’ll promise you an amazing and memorable night. Thanks for reading.
David Bielanko & MARAH
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All songs written and produced by David Bielanko (Valley Farm Songs/ASCAP) & Christine Smith (Rabble Rouser Music/BMI) except: “Bright Morning Stars” (Traditional) arranged by D. Bielanko & C. Smith. © 2010. All rights reserved.
Recorded at Valley Farm in PA (Engineered by D. Bielanko & C. Smith). Additional recording: tracks 3, 4 & 6 recorded at 16 Ton in Nashville, TN (Engineer: Mike Esser & Asst. Patrick Miller).
Mixed by D. Bielanko & C. Smith except: Tracks 1, 3, 4 & 6 mixed by Michael Tudor with Bielanko & Smith at Defiant Productions in Woodstock, NY. Track 4 mix based on a late night rough mix by Mike Esser at 16 Ton. Preliminary mixes from 16 Ton recordings by Ray Kennedy in Nashville, TN. Thanks Ray!
Mastered by Scott Hull at Scott Hull Mastering in NYC
Illustration and collage by David Bielanko. Layout by Karen Justl.
DAVID BIELANKO – vocals, guitars, banjo, harmonica, percussion, bass, piano, organ pedals, ukulele
CHRISTINE SMITH – bv’s, pianos, organs, synth, drums, percussion, accordion, fiddle, xylophone
JOHNNY PISANO – electric & upright bass on tracks 2 through 6
MARTIN LYNDS – drums and percussion on tracks 3, 4 & 6
SERGE BIELANKO – “Blue Bonnet” & “Born Winner” via cassette on ‘Together Not Together’
JEFF “COOLERMAN” CLARKE - bagpipes on ‘Valley Farm Song’
DONNIE PIZZA SAUCE - acoustic guitar on ‘Put ‘em in the Graveyard’
MIKE ESSER - marching band drum on ‘Life is a Problem’
DR. GEORGE KOCH – sings “Luzerne County Jail” on (field recording)
FURY & MUD – goat impressions on (field recording)
SPECIAL THANKS TO
Alec Pappas, who alone made this record possible. Thank you Al for your wisdom, vision and undying commitment towards bringing music to the people. Marian and George Koch, an amazing display of patience and support, love you a lot. Also thanks to Daniel Auty, Bruce Derr, Tim Bowser and all at the Elk Creek, Shore Fire PR, Boche and all at Billions, and Heart of Gold Productions (ESPANA). Mostly thanks to the fans of our music all over the world that send us letters, encourage us and still believe in rock & roll.
Extra special thanks to the members of this tiny, rural community who buried their understandable suspicions of us and our strange occupation, made us feel welcome and tolerated the unending racket that now shakes this country house nightly.
(p) & © 2010 Valley Farm Songs. All rights reserved. Manufactured and distributed by Valley Farm Songs. Made in the USA.