I remember the very first time I heard bluegrass/punk rockers Old Man Markley. I was amazed and intrigued at the same time and could only think, “where has this band been all my life?” The band puts together a perfect mix of genres I never really fathomed would work so well together, and the result has been in my weekly playlist for years now.
Earlier this year, the band dropped their sophomore release on Fat Wreck Chords titled Down Side Up. Where I was a fan of their 2011 debut Guts ‘n Teeth, their second album has really grown on me. From the ode to Gary Busey to the fun track about a certain lovable companion, the album is catchy, fun, and begs for repeat spins.
Having seen them live before, they have no problem winning new fans over. This seven-piece act is going places and are not to be overlooked.
Recently, I caught up with John E. Carey Jr. (lead vocals and guitar) and John Rosen (banjo and vocals). They were able to take a quick break while in between shows and were more than happy to shoot the breeze with me. Check it out:
BHP: So, first things first, how did your latest tour treat you?
John E. Carey Jr.: Our US tour with Dropkick Murphys and Jim Lockey and the Solomon Suns was great. JLSS unfortunately had visa issues and couldn’t make the first half of the tour, so the Revillers from Boston filled in. Good Times!
BHP: You are getting ready to head to back to Europe to play some festivals and shows with the likes of Pennywise and even Larry and His Flask. How stoked is everyone in the band to return overseas?
JC: It’s a great accomplishment for us to be returning over seas! I’m Looking forward to the people, sites and falafel!!
BHP: Mmmmm falafel. So when you get back to the good ol’ US of A, you are all on board to tour with Dropkick Murphys some more. No rest for the wicked huh?
JC: No rest is right, but we are happy to again have the opportunity to go out with DM in support of our new album.
BHP: On Down Side Up, it sounds like you guys and gals toned it down a bit and focused more on the bluegrass appeal to your style. Was this on purpose, or did your recording just kind of lead you this way? Regardless, it is an incredible release.
JC: I don’t think we were intentionally toning it down, as much as toning it up and just letting our creativity flow.
BHP: I mean, y’all did have a #1 spot for a Bluegrass album. Did you ever think that would happen? I know your debut release got well-deserved attention.
JC: It was a wonderful surprise, but i guess hard work leads to great things. It’s awesome we made #1 and I’m extremely proud of the band.
BHP: So What was done differently on this album than on Guts ‘n Teeth?
JC: We built a home recording studio and tracked most of the album there. Most of the songs we really developed while we tracked them, which was a different approach to recording our first record, Gut’s ‘n Teeth, which was ready to go by the time we went into the studio to track it.
BHP: I love that in the album notes it was listed that a Converse shoe was used as an instrument on that track. Was that random or were there many shoes used in looking for the perfect beat?
John Rosen: When we were recording the song, Chris Hesse of Hoobastank, who played shaker on the song, had suggested the sneaker tapping to flesh out the instrumental section of the song. It was just an off-the-cuff suggestion thrown out at the spur of the moment and it just happened to work great.
JC: Like George Martin said “All you need is ears.”
BHP: How did “Beyond The Moon” come about?
JR: I’ve always been a huge fan of Gary Busey ever since I first saw The Buddy Holly Story as a kid. More recently, when reality TV breathed new life into his career, I discovered shows like Celebrity Rehab and I’m With Busey. I’ve always been fascinated with him and had toyed with the idea of writing a song about him for years but didn’t know how to approach it. My first pass at the song was a much sillier version than what we ended up recording. This first version felt a little too cheap, too Weird Al Yankovic, so I took out all the references to his movies, Dr. Drew and his teeth and shifted the song’s focus from him to me. In this version, Gary is just a passing reference in the chorus. The rest of the song focuses my struggle to write a song about him. So really, it’s not a song about celebrity or mental illness, but a song about writing a song.
BHP: Man, I loved I’m With Busey. So anyways, did the greatest villain ever out of all the Lethal Weapon franchise ever catch wind of the song, and if so, what did he have to say?
JC: As far as I know, Mr. Busey has not heard it, but I’m sure he will.
JR: I think someone may have brought the song to his attention via Twitter, but none of us have heard anything about his reaction or if he’s even heard it for that matter. I’d only hope that if he does hear it, he understands the song is not a swipe at him but just the opposite.
BHP: I loved the tracks “Up Side Down” and “Fastbreak”. You can hear the chemistry throughout those duets. Stuff like that does not happen accidentally. Was this something that had to be worked on, or did it just come naturally?
JC: Joey had all the music worked out for “Up Side Down” to a tee. Originally, I tried singing it and I had the hardest time following the up swing of the song! After a bunch of failed attempts, I realized it would better suit Annie, so she ended up taking the lead on it. Joey and Katie sang the harmonies trading back and forth and my vocal response just sounded cool so we went with it! Then it really came together. Great song, one of my favorites on the record!
BHP: Same here. Speaking of “Fastbreak”, the album sleeve lists the song as “Fastbreak” and the lyric insert lists it as “Run Away From Me”. Which is right? More importantly, as a dog lover, tell me all about Lucy.
JC: The song “Fast Break”, and yes that’s the official title. [I] pretty much wrote [it] one afternoon after I chased my pet chihuahua Lucy down the street during one of her glorious sprints for freedom! I like how light hearted the lyrics are and dark at the same time. The line “don’t run away from me, for your own safety” makes me think of some hopeless obsessed romantic warning his ex not to leave him or else, when really I’m referring to Lucy possibly getting hit by a car on her adventures escapes!
Lucy is a chichi-mutt that we adopted off the mean streets of Redondo Beach. She rules the OMM manor and used to tour with us, but these days she’s more comfortable staying with grandma and grandpa lounging in the sun. The road can be a ruff place for a little munchie.
BHP: Sounds like one rad dog. I need to pause for a moment and give kudos to the limited edition vinyl pressing of Down Side Up. Whose idea was that? I know I missed out on nabbing one, but still, that is one cool press. Who came up with the idea?
JC: Obvious choice for us. We wanted to go all out with the limited color release so three color red whit and blue seemed appropriate!
BHP: So, what’s it like to be a bluegrass band on a punk rock label? I know that you incorporate tons of punk rock into your music, but still, you are on CMT’s radar, and I would have to say that is probably the first for a Fat Wreck band.
JC: It’s rad! We are having fun and making music and that’s all the matters! We love Fat and I like to think they love us! I’m sure we are the first Fat Wreck band to be on CMTs radar and that’s great! The more support we can get the better. It only opens up more windows of opportunity for us and that’s what we need to stay on the road.
BHP: Looks like Fat Mike assisted in producing Down Side Up. How does it feel to work again with not only the guy in NOFX, but also in a sense, your boss?
JC: I don’t really consider Mike our boss, Fat works with us like record labels are supposed to. But it’s a total family vibe with Fat and that’s what i love so much about them. Producing with Mike is really a dream come true! I always send him demos of our songs and he tells me what he thinks, its great to have his input and we trust him as a producer but ultimately Mike let’s us do what we do, and that’s what is most important to us.
BHP: That’s awesome. I think what I love the most about your band is how humble you are to your fans and how much family feeling is contained in the band. Is it always a blast to play live with the band?
JC: Lot’s of love! And yeah, it’s always a blast!
BHP: As your band clearly is maturing, are you living into a rock star life, or are you more still into just crashing on a couch at a random house while on the road?
JC: Actually, turns out these days crashing at a random fans house on the side of the road every once in a while and sleeping in our beloved bus the rest of the time is the rock star life; at least for me. So yes; I mean no.
BHP: Haha. What’s the most messed up thing that you all have witnessed to date while on tour?
JC: The price of diesel gas!
BHP: I believe that! So does Mr. Markley himself have calluses like no other? I have seen that man shred the washboard a mere foot from my face and it is intense. Has he occurred any injuries from washboard thrashing?
JC: In the first year, Ryan would scrape up his knuckles regularly, almost every show. He went through a few different variations of spoon handles too and finally made the right set using his old drum sticks and kitchen silverware. He later hooked up with Columbus Washboard Company and now he gets his boards with stainless steel grills which hold up longer. Still he manages to tear them up after a few tours so he recently built a washboard that he can replace just the grill on once its torn up. It works great! Now Ry just orders back up steel grills and he’s good to go!
BHP: Awesome. While I am on the topic, your live shows are entertaining as hell. How fun is it to just jump on stage and do your thing to thousands of people?
JC: I’m having the time of my life!
BHP: What would you say was the best show you ever played?
JC: One of my favorite shows we ever played was in Paris at a punk squat to 300 people in a tiny sweaty concert room in an abandoned building! It was dirty in all the good ways! And the bad ways too. PunkSpring festival in Tokyo with Weezer and Nofx was pretty cool too.
BHP: So what influential punk act from the past do you thing y’all will cover next? I will not lie, I love your takes on classics
JC: We just finished tracking a No Use For a Name song “The Feel Good Song of the Year” for the benefit compilation Fat is releasing later this year for Tony Sly’s family.
BHP: I can not wait to hear that. So, folk and bluegrass seem to be really popular these days and I am sure you are all aware. I am just curious what your reaction would be if say, a band like the Avett Brothers or Old Crow Medicine Show were to ask you to join them on tour
JC: I love those bands and it would rule to tour with them!
JR: It’d be the thrill of a lifetime for me. I’ve got a ton of respect for both those bands and love their music. We’ve done our share of touring with high profile punk bands over the past 3 years and I think touring in the alt country world would be a great change of pace. It’d be a chance to expose ourselves to a broader audience and introduce our sound to people who might otherwise never have known about us unless they were punk fans.
BHP: I know you are still living off the energy of Down Side Up, but have you all started writing new material for your next release?
JC: We have some really great new songs that were demoing! Very excited to get back in the studio after these next few tours!
BHP: What do you think people like Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers have to say about what route you have taken bluegrass to?
JR: It’s hard to say. I’ve been playing bluegrass ever since I was a kid and one thing I’ve learned is that in this this genre anything that pushes the boundaries of what is considered “traditional” bluegrass is usually viewed with a little suspicion, even skepticism. This isn’t always the case, but among purists (and you’ll find a lot of them in bluegrass) you’ll encounter this attitude from time to time. I’m sure Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe would be fine with what we’re doing musically. Whether not they’d consider it bluegrass might is another story.
JC: I think they would like it, and probably say that’s not really bluegrass! And that’s cool with me.