TUNED UP Special: Old Man Markley exclusive interview
By Sean Huncherick
Old Man Markley are rad. That’s really all that needs to be said. Last Sunday Annie and John were kind enough to allow I Am Tuned Up to do an interview after their set opening for Dropkick Murphy’s in Columbus, OH. Read on for a lot of words.
(IATU) Sean: For starters can you guys introduce yourselves?
Annie: I’m Annie and I play autoharp and I sing.
John: I’m John and I play banjo.
Annie: …and he has a mohawk!
Katie: I’m Katie and I’m going to stay out of the way.
Sean: How long have you guys been playing music, both together and individually?
John: As far as individually, I’ve been playing banjo for a long, long time.
Annie: Tell him how many years.
John: I started playing banjo in 1978, so gosh…that’s how many years? 35! Actually, 35 years this summer. I started playing when I was in a stroller.
Annie: He’s turning 36 years. And he has a twin brother who also looks like he’s 36.
John: My brother is also an amazing bluegrass flat-pick guitar player. But I’ve been playing banjo since I was 13. I played primarily in traditional bluegrass bands, but living in LA, you play with a lot of bands that are kind of on the fringe of bluegrass because LA is such a musical mix of genres. I’ve played with other bands that are kind of more alt-country or a little rock & roll. I played in a blues band before. This is the first punk bluegrass band I’ve played with, but I feel great playing with a band like this [Old Man Markley]. Playing traditional bluegrass for as long as I have, you look for new things because traditional bluegrass has such rigid parameters. It’s really just the same chords and songs just juxtaposed in different ways. I love playing it, but it’s nice to have other genres you can play in too.
Annie: As far as the band goes, almost six years now. We’re not too old, not too young. In “band years” it’s probably…I don’t know. Do band years have a denomination like dog years?
John: Maybe, but some bands go on forever.
Annie: Yeah. The Mahones have been a band for 23 or 25 years. And they look like they’re 25.
Sean: Definitely. Man, you guys are young.
Annie: We’ve had some facelifts. Wait. Just kidding!
Sean: Out of curiosity, what’s the bluegrass scene like in LA?
Annie: It’s bigger than people give it credit for. A lot of times when people see us, they ask where we’re from and then are always surprised to hear we’re from LA. They think we should be from Tennessee or somewhere in the South, but really there’s quite a nice bluegrass community in the Malibu and Topanga Canyon area. They have lots of little contests that go on up there. There are also a lot of little venues that have always catered to Americana, folk and bluegrass.
John: McCabe’s Guitar Shop is one example. It’s a store/concert hall that has been in Los Angles since 1958. It’s amazing; it’s a really cool place. It’s known mostly for its concerts, but it’s also a really cool shop. I actually teach banjo there.
Annie: He’s the MOST important banjo teacher there. You’ve also Skyped a few lessons. Welcome to the new age lesson-shipping.
Sean: So is that your full-time job?
John: It’s what I do when I’m not touring, yeah.
Sean: You guys have been on tour with Dropkick Murphy’s for a little bit now, so what has the tour been like so far? Any good stories?
Annie: We have been! We toured with them starting in February and through St. Patrick’s Day which was awesome since that’s their big event. We got to play TD Garden, which was their biggest venue to date. That was nice to have under their belt and our belt now. We played the TD Garden, you know? It’s very prestigious. But it’s been really nice to know their crew. It’s nice to know the workings of a band, especially one as big as Dropkick Murphy’s. They’re awesome to be on tour with and we’re lucky they took us out twice in a row! Two tours they did, and two tours they took us on. We’re really fortunate.
Sean: How have the crowds received your music?
Annie: Oh gosh, it’s been great. Especially now that John has a mohawk. It really sealed the deal.
John: I usually focus so much on my playing that it’s like I have blinders on. But I believe the shows have been really energetic as far as the audience participation, the audience reaction [goes]. They’ve been great. There’s a lot of moshing going on.
Annie: And a lot of people pick up our CDs afterwards, which I think is a nice indication that they liked our music. We were able to sell so many CDs on the first tour that we did with Dropkick Murphy’s that our album that came out in March debuted at #1 on the Bluegrass Billboard Charts. We sold some online, but I definitely know that a part of it had to do with us playing with them every night at these big venues. It’s been a great reaction. Their fans want to party and we have party music, so it works well.
Sean: I was over towards the front [during the show] and got to film “For Better, For Worse.” It was the biggest challenge to not drop my camera. I started off in the front, but was about in the middle by the end of the song.
Sean: Your guy’s music is a fairly unique. It’s kind of a mix of bluegrass and a little bit of punk. How would you guys personally describe it?
John: Interesting…I think about it all the time. There are so many ways I could describe it, but I find myself calling it non-traditional bluegrass. At the same time you could say it’s non-traditional punk. Who knows? I guess it’s all your perspective.
Annie: A lot of people that are from the punk scene want to call us country, because they don’t know bluegrass. So we’re introducing a nice, new genre of playing to these punk-rockers and vice versa to the bluegrass community, to the country community, to the Americana community, and to all those little pockets that we can be put in.
Sean: I was actually going to ask, have you guys played with any bluegrass crowds at all? I know you guys had a show in what, was it Nashville yesterday?
Annie: Yeah! Yesterday we played for the Country Music Television stage at the CMA (Country Music Awards Festival). We were right in the middle of the scene at the Hard Rock Café down in Nashville. It was an outdoor stage and according to the CMT rep, we really packed the house for their stage. So that was great! I think we probably sold more CDs than any other band that played that stage and it was a really warm and welcoming thing to be in Nashville, the home of country. You know, it is music that our label doesn’t typically take part in. We were welcomed with open arms.
Sean: Now you guys are on the same label as Screeching Weasels, Teenage Bottlerockets, and the Descendants. So how have the interaction and reception been with the label and label mates?
Annie: Oh, we’ve played with all three of those bands you mentioned.
Katie: We’ve played with so many Fat [Wreck Chords] bands. We’ve been really lucky.
Annie: There are only a handful Fat [Wreck Chords] bands that are still active that we haven’t played with. Every time we do [play a show with them], it’s amazing. The bands themselves really enjoy playing with us and it’s nice because they also see how we relate to the punk-rock scene and don’t find it weird at all that we’re on Fat. It’s been great.
Sean: You put out your first album, what, three years ago or so?
Annie: It was in January of 2011.
Sean: OK, so you put out that one. Now what’s it like recording your first album and then facing the challenge of a sophomore album?
Annie: Well, for the first album we didn’t have any expectations for. We just did the best we could, we didn’t know if anyone would pick it up. The second album, I know all of our musicians were much more invested in the recording process, the songwriting and everything.
John: The first album…I had actually just joined the band probably less than a month prior to me going into the studio to record.
Annie: Did you even play a show or two with us before you recorded?
John: *shrugs* Maybe? I don’t know. Possibly not? So I really felt like the new kid on the block.
Sean: *laughs* I was waiting for a reference to that.
John: So I was still kind of unsure at that stage in the game of my role in the band, what they wanted from me and what I could contribute too. So I was kind of feeling my way through it, as opposed to the second album where me, as well as everybody else, felt a lot more sure of what we were doing and certain of our roles.
Sean: Moving on to some influences a bit, you guys have two pretty distinct genres mixed in there. Who are some of your bluegrass influences?
John: Oh my, bluegrass influences. Flatt & Scruggs [The Foggy Mountain Boys], the Stanley Brothers, J.D. Crowe…
Annie: …who we played with at Stagecoach.
John: Yeah, he actually caught the tail-end of our set! That was actually the last tour he was going to be on.
Sean: Where was that at again?
John: That was Stagecoach Festival in San Bernardino, California.
Annie: Have you heard of Coachella?
Sean: *laughs* Yeah, I’ve wanted to go there for a long time.
Annie: So Stagecoach is the weekend after Coachella and it’s the country version of Coachella. Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryant and these big country names headline. Like BIG honky-tonk country…
John: Pop bands.
Annie: Yeah, they headline, but they also have side-stages that do have music like J.D. Crowe and a lot of bluegrass stuff.
John: So my influences…Dangit, this is what happens when you get old. *laughs* Oh! I love a group, probably my favorite group, called the Kentucky Colonels. They were an LA bluegrass band that started in the early 60s and then the guys who were in that band went on to do things with bands like the Flying Burrito Brothers who were sort of an LA alt-country band that went on to spawn the country-rock sound. So, Kentucky Colonels are probably my favorite.
Annie: My dad used to play with the Flying Burrito Brothers
Sean: Really? They’re terrific.
Annie: Yeah, you should look them up! They have some good music. The great thing about having punk and bluegrass is that bluegrass is really fast. There’s no drummer, so they almost play faster than we do. I mean, we have to slow down a lot of the time because we have a drummer and for a drummer to play as fast as some of these bluegrass pickers, it would be GOOD LUCK, PUNK DRUMMERS. You can’t do it! It’s too fast.
John: Their arms would fall off.
Annie: Yeah. They’d catch on fire!
Sean: …which is pretty punk-rock though.
John: It would be.
Annie: We often don’t have a fire extinguisher on stage.
Sean: It’s worth looking into. How about on the punk side?
Annie: Oh gosh, well Johnny and Joey introduced me to punk-rock when I was 14. I’ve been friends with them since I was in early high school or late junior high. They got me hooked on NOFX and the Descendants. Oh my gosh, Johnny used to make me mixtapes for my car. It was awesome when we got signed to Fat because we were all of a sudden playing with these bands that we’d been inspired by for so long. *walls start to shake as Dropkick Murphy’s get on stage.* I know a lot of the influence NOFX have from talking with Fat Mike is that he loves the Beatles, which is another thing that Johnny, Joey and I grew up with: loving the Beatles.
John: I’m a huge Beatles fan.
Annie: For NOFX, Fat Mike has said a lot of their stuff comes from him loving the Beatles too. It’s nice to know that there’s something here, during this time frame that influenced this that then influenced us. You know? Everybody is influenced by somebody.
Sean: Definitely. I love music history and music theory and seeing that the Ramones were basically made to be a faster version of the Beatles and how the Beatles got Chuck Berry. It’s crazy.
John: Everything just builds on each other.
Annie: I also love a girl-band called the Muffs. Oh, and the Beards. Both of those bands are really, really good and I had their CDs in my car all the time when I first got my license when I was like 16, 17. I always had the Beards. Great vocals and really good songwriting. I also listened to a lot of ska…
Sean: Is this 70s ska, or like the second or third-wave?
Annie: Both, I mean all sorts of ska. I don’t listen to it nearly enough anymore.
John: I was into ska in the early 80s.
Sean: OK, I just have two more questions. First of all, you have a pretty large band with seven members, so when you guys write a song, what’s the process like?
Annie: Ok, gosh, well John has written songs and just brings them to the table on his own. Same with Joey sometimes. Sometimes they’re collaborative.
John: It depends on how people like to work. Joey will collaborate, but he’ll come up with his own songs as well. Does Johnny usually work with somebody or does he write his own songs?
Annie: Johnny writes his own songs a lot of the time and then at the tail-end, he’ll involve somebody. Katie works out songs until they’re almost done too.
John: I try to work out songs until they’re almost done before presenting them to the band because I would feel as if I was only going halfway if I just went ‘Oh, I have an idea but I don’t know. Here, do something with it.” So I kind of feel as if I owe it to them to have something that’s finished or at least close to being finished and then they can add some touches on it as far as arranging goes.
Annie: Have you listened to our new album at all? John wrote Beyond the Moon, the Gary Busey song, and the very last song.
Sean: Yeah, I specifically mentioned that song in the review.
Annie: Oh, you did? I know what review it was.
John: I have to check it out. But I wrote the slower songs.
Sean: One last question: if you guys could go anywhere in the world, any country and play with any artist past or present, where would you go?
Annie: Oh gosh, I would have said Japan but we played there recently. I’m really excited to go to Australia. Our merch girl that’s on tour with us right now is Australian and I hope that we go there next year. I wish that we could play with Johnny Cash and June Carter. That’d be great.
John: Johnny Cash would be hard.
Annie: Well, both of them would be hard. They’re both dead.”
Sean: I’ll see what I can do.
Annie: But yeah, I really admire the Carter Family. I’ve done my research on them and have listened to all their stuff. That’d be awesome.
John: I always want to travel to the places that are either inaccessible or completely illegal for Americans to go to. So I would love to go to…
John: No, even more. I would love to go to North Korea, which you can go to. However it is illegal for Americans to go to Cuba. I would LOVE to do a show there. Have any American rock bands gone to Cuba? That’d be so much fun if we could get some sort of invitation, because they would love it. It’s the Americans that don’t want us traveling. But get someone to sponsor us, you know? “Concert for the people!”
Annie: I’ll work on some Visas. Maybe we could get shipped over there in crates.
John: So I’ve always thought about North Korea, Cuba and Alaska. Not that Alaska is inaccessible or illegal, but I’ve never been to Alaska and I’d love to go. It is a little inaccessible.
Annie: Yeah, it’s not one of the states you can drive to easily. Dropkick Murphy’s are going to be going to Alaska, but not with us. For a lot of them it’s their 50th state.
Sean: Any last comments?
Sean: Thank you guys so much for the interview!