I met up with Mark Geary the day before the release of his fifth studio record Songs about Love, Songs about Leaving. We escaped from the rain into the lovely environs of Fallon and Byrne for a coffee and a chat about the new album, the art of the New York hustle and the current music scene in Dublin.
So Mark, what have you been up to over the last few months?
I’ve been back in Ireland doing lots of radio, promo and touring. I’ve been lucky that there’s always seemed to have been a ground swell of interest and good will with journalists as well as in radio and TV. I’m still figuring out the new songs, so you go and you kinda beat the shit out of them on stage. The record itself was recorded very quickly. All I want to do is play, travel and figure these songs out for my own enjoyment.
I read that after spending hours and hours working on string arrangements for Opium you wanted to pare it down a bit for this record. You said you wanted to “grab musicians and have microphones all around the room and trust them to sing along” Did that goal for Songs About Love, Songs About Leaving work out that way?
Yeah, absolutely. That was the manifesto. I wanted to grab the musicians and play eyeball to eyeball with them in one room. When I was thinking about the music I listen to, the stuff that really really excites me and the thing that I’m immediately convinced and captivated by it’s harmony. As a solo guy when you go into the studio you are bombarded with choice, toys and gadgets. I kind of had the idea that I would be really dictatorial with this record. I didn’t want to have loads of gimmicks, I wanted to be really unapologetic. I didn’t want to do a record that suited everyone.
After recording Opium in Abbey Road, where did you record this one?
I recorded it in the lower east side of New York. A friend of mine had converted his studio, an old tenement studio. He’s a musician and made a deal with the landlord that he could run wires up and down into the basement and convert the little apartment into a studio. You could make music from 2-6.
And then everyone came home from work and you had to be quiet?
Yeah exactly. I did it in about two weeks. I’d get on the Subway from Brooklyn, arrive twenty minutes later and have scribbles of ideas of songs and we’d work until six in the evening.
You’ve got some great musicians on this one like Glen Hansard and Jimi Zhivago. Were they all over in New York at the same time?
Yeah, they were. Glen was there because ‘Once’ the musical was just opening. There’s something wonderful about New York that you can just go ‘look give me twenty minutes and we’ll grab a coffee’. Glen and I have been singing each others songs for a long time now so I just had a belief that he’d nail the phrasing and understand the song. He knew some of the songs because he’d taken me on tour for Swell Season and literally 45 minutes later we were done, off doing a gig. There’s also this girl Jenna Nichols. I was struggling with this song and I kind of wrote her part with her in mind. She’s such a vocalist, she can just own a song. We had the harmony and duet thing going on and I loved it.
Did you prefer this new two week block style approach to recording? Had you done it before?
No, I hadn’t done it before. Gun to the head stuff. It wasn’t a cheap studio but it was just amazing to go in at 11 in the morning and by three O’Clock basically have the workings of the song. Elves and the show maker type of thing.
How was the selection process for the final record then?
It was pretty easy. I guess intuitively you know what works. I still listen to music from start to finish. I enjoy full albums. I mean, why would you only watch twenty minutes of a great film? So I still write like that, I write songs about love, songs about leaving, being in relationships and out of them.
Do you have a favourite track on the album ?
The one I do with Glen, Fireflies. It’s a diary that someone has uncovered. Take Me Home happened very quickly. I wrote and recorded it as quickly as it is. There’s a line in it “You’re a fire, sparks fly off your bones.“ and I loved that. Because I’ve been doing this for long enough I guess I’m delighting in what I do which is a great space to be in.
What kind of music were you listening to while you were making the record?
Bon Iver’s For Emma Forever Ago was a huge influence, not that I sound like him but I love that it’s complete. No other thing that happens on that record. A lot of reviews of my records are about what I don’t do. As if I’d forgotten as if the songs were put there haphazardly without much thought to it. With this one here would be no doubt with it that it follows a particular trajectory and it is what it is. After the whole songwriter thing happened in Ireland that I was either part of or guilty by association, whatever your stance is on that. As soon as that happened everyone got busy. Damien, Glen etc everyone got very busy and they weren’t just hanging around Whelans anymore. When I came back to Dublin to promote Opium I was told by some journalist that ‘bands are back’. I wanted to print off some T-Shirts saying ‘Bands are Back’
As if it’s one or the other?
Yeah, yeah and then you look at whats happening and see people such as James Vincent McMorrow or Ryan Sheridan. I never subscribed to the hipness of the whole singer songwriter thing. I was just working. A working musician. I was also listening to early Van Morrison. Albums like St. Dominics Preview and Hard Nose the Highway. As a musician, because the antennas are up all the time it’s actually very difficult to get immersed in anything and you end up becoming a litte self centered and and don’t listen to anything but just hear what you’re trying to do.
The last time I saw you play was for one of the First Fornight gigs in Workmans. You were headlining an evening with artists such as Verse Chours Verse, Tieranniesaur and the Delorentos and then you pulled up Colm O’Loughlin [We Were Giants] onto the stage. What are your opinions of the newer bands in Dublin. Do you listen to them in Brooklyn?
Well it’s a two pronged answer. People like Colm keep in touch. I couldn’t tell you what I would have given to have a conversation with someone who was a little older than me and a working musician. We live in a weird time, with shows like The Voice and America’s Got Talent. We’re led to believe that the be all and end all is all this vocal gymnastics and you need to look a certain way. I thought you were supposed to play everywhere, in sports bars and shit holes and get devastated in the sea of indifference. So for kids coming out of Ballyfermot or the Rock School who ask me what they should do, I suggest they pick their battles and trying to find a venue that’ll actually work, somewhere that they’ll have a possibility of winning.
I guess the other part of that answer is, sometimes people and bands contact me about playing and doing supports. If I can try and squeeze you in I will. I often tell people to come to the gigs and bring their guitar. That’s how you learn stagecraft. I mean that’s how I got to know Colm. It isn’t this elitist thing. It’s supposed to be a shared experience.
Yeah I mean, I’m definitely of the opinion that the artists, such as yourself or bands on the rise like We Were Giants that put in the hard slog are certainly more prepared for the industry as opposed to some artists who shoot to fame through the internet and then run into serious trouble and nerves when they go to play live, like what happened to Lana Del Rey on SNL.
All the experience is just like money in the bank. That’s not to say that I don’t get nervous before gigs. There have been some really big gigs that I’ve played. Glen and I performed in MOMA in the Egyptian Tomb and there was a moment where I definitely get nervous but then you see the microphone and go ‘Ah OK, I recognise this.’ While Twitter is a great tool and fantastic for so many reasons I guess the trouble with a lot of stuff on the Internet is that there is no quality control, there is no shit radar.
So is it harder for the good ones to shine?
Yeah yeah, I remember getting on a bus to liberate this guys record collection and it was really important that I did, this collection was like, years and years of informed, intense listening. Now we can have thousands of songs on our iPods. I’m not sure that things are as precious as they used to be due to the vast amount of material out there.
Do you feel as an artist that it’s pushing the focus and pressure on your live gigs?
Yeah, absolutely. Back to the cold face of having an audience and being almost like a boutique. I’d say 80% of the records I’ll sell for this new record will be at gigs, the old school way, after the show.
You were saying you wish when you had started there was someone you could have asked for guidance..
Absolutely. I got a one way ticket to New York. That’s where I learned if I’d be allowed to bring my ideas to a stage. It took a while to learn how to breath the same air as artists who shared a stage. It was terrifying landing in New York. I spent a lot of time pretending that I could keep up with the others. When I arrived my brother was running Sin É and at that point I wasn’t good enough to play in my brothers café with the likes of U2, Sinead O’Connor or Jeff Buckley. I played in little open mic places such as Sidewalk around the corner and then eventually started playing in Sin É and built up a following. I was obsessed with Woody Allen, I was bombarded by culture. I was bar tending as well to pay the rent.
One of my friends was around New York at the time and said it was a surreal period, seeing all these incredible people like Jeff Buckley running around and then being a kid from Dublin not exactly knowing what the hell was going on or how to fit in.
Yeah an example of that is two weeks ago I was in New York and I was invited to Bonos birthday party, in some ways it was exactly like 15 years ago but this time I was in a room with Jay Z, Sean Penn, Robert Deniro, Mayor Bloomberg and Bono’s singing and I’m playing guitar. It’s just.. and then came a moment of clarity as mad as it is we’re all musicians and as truly bonkers as this is we’re all in the same time and human and then I turn around again and everyone is loosing their shit and Bono’s playing and singing. But yeah, Sin É was a little bit like an Irish Embassy. We all gravitated towards it.
Why do you think Sin É was so special?
The people. Karl and Shane were very careful. They were hustlers as well. They created this place, necessity was the mother of invention and they had no money, this was a really cheap place, the East Village at the time was actually quite scary and no one wanted to stay or open a business there. All these people weren’t really doing the 9-5 corporate gig. They were trying to hustle screenplays or whatever. You meet these musicians and everyone’s gunning for something. Well it certainly wasn’t the coffee. That was diabolical.
They tried to open it again didn’t they?
Yeah Shane did.
But it didn’t really kick off did it?
No not really, after the 10 years lease the market increases to such a degree that you can’t afford to pay the rent so you end up with a nostalgic New York. I remember this guy bringing me around pointing at these buildings saying ‘that building has been there since the 1950s’ ‘the nineteen fifties?’ I asked him. ‘Man I’m from Ireland. People still live in castles’ It’s a transient city.
Sin É had all of those magical elements.The music was free. It was hip but very understated and people really gravitated to that. Before anyone started playing there would be a crew of 50-60 people who would spend hours there and that was their spot. I spent months and days and hours there. People were literally loosing their shit cos Jeff had become this fallen angel but he as a guy was none of those things. He was very witty. He had seen some of that stuff with his dad. He didn’t want to be that guy.
Have you heard much about the film about Jeff that’s coming out? Will there be some sort of mini Sin É popping up on a stage set in California?
From what I understand, I think there are three in the works. There’s one being made for the last 10 years or so. Glen and myself were asked to be in it, with loads of great footage and performances. It’s been taken over by a different company. I’ll probably be 65 by the time it’s released. Mary, Jeff’s mother is championing one particular film. I’ve also heard rumours that actors such as James Franco and Robert Patterson are gunning to play Jeff.
When you think back to those days in Sin É do you like getting asked about it or are you sick of talking about it in interviews?
No, no, I do, I genuinely do like talking about it. I marvel at it and at my own resolve, how things turned out and there was an understanding that Jeff was on a path but so were about 100 other people that I knew.
It wasn’t just Jeff at that time though was it? Loads of artists such as U2, The Frames, Sinead O’Connor, PJ Harvey all played there, I mean, you wouldn’t have necessarily known at the time who of that core crew would have risen to the levels they’re at today.
Yeah, I knew a lot of amazing comedians as well. If anything it isn’t the obvious one, it’s the underdog that you don’t expect.
Do you ever have that nostalgic feeling when you come back to Dublin?
Yeah it’s weird. During the Celtic Tiger I had that feeling of not being able to relate much when I came back. I had this experience of travelling as an Irishman and receiving amazing welcomes no matter where I went. Then at home we had this nonsense of the rise of racism and indulged, ostentatious wealth and what did we get? Australian BBQs, decking, we lost the sandwich and got the panini. There’s no romance in poverty, I know that. Like half the reason I left was that there were no jobs but to come back and see kind of vulgar, the loud mouthed culture that we use to make fun of wasn’t great. I thought we had lost something in our dash to get the flat screened TV.
Now when I come back, I mean, there’s no glamour in the poverty or in that people are struggling but now I do have conversations again and recognise the change.
At the moment a certain group of musicians and promoters seem to be responding to the changes. Some artists are offering cheaper tickets, or free entertainment, valuing the experience over the potential income. Nights and festivals such as the MGM or First Fortnight are thriving.
There are people who love to listen to live music and certainly feed their heads a little. I learned a long time ago that it’s not what I do, we all have to eat, that’s a given but the idea of being creative together and then have an audience that will support you and have an incredible night, I mean I just don’t see a problem with that.
Do you have a favourite place to play?
In Dublin, I really liked Workmans, they don’t make you feel like you’re on a conveyor belt and don’t try to push you out as soon as possible. Carl who books the gigs there is great, Workmans is amazing. The staff in Vicar Street really make you feel cared about. The Spirit Store in Dundalk is a little haven as is Roisin Dubh in Galway. There are some families like the Aikens who have been through several recessions and they’ll be OK. They know how to stay alive but still make it entertaining and treat us really well.
So you’re touring in the next while? I saw that you’ve got four dates In Berlin?
Listen, they could have given me six weeks in Berlin and I wouldn’t have been complaining. I went there for the first time two or three years ago with Glen and played an unbelievable gig. We made some fantastic musical connections and they offered to put four or five dates together for me and so I’m going back. I’ve got some other dates coming up in the Czech Republic, the UK, Norway and some other festivals lined up for Ireland that I’m just waiting to announce.
Fantastic, I’m looking forward to catching one of the gigs either in Dublin or Berlin. Best of luck with the tour and with Songs about Love, Songs about Leaving. Thanks for coming out to chat to us!
Mark’s album Songs About Love, Songs About Leaving is available now. See more information on the album here.