Dave and Serge; photo from Marah website
What they've learned
Interviews and illustration by Diane Roka
1998 – Serge and Dave Bielanko and their band record their debut album: Let's Cut the Crap and Hook up Later on Tonight on broken equipment in a converted auto garage in South Philly. It's a junk drawer dream of different sounds, featuring Mummers-style banjo.
Marah plays SXSW. Steve Earle's assistant tells him, "You've got to hear this band."
2000 – Marah puts out their second album, Kids in Philly, on Steve Earle's E-Squared/Artemis label. Critics love it. Stephen King is photographed wearing a Marah T-shirt. Nick Hornby becomes a huge fan. The album isn't played on the radio, but the single "Far Away You" makes it into the movie You Can Count on Me. The future seems bright.
2001 – Marah signs on with Owen Morris, Oasis' producer. They move out of Philly to record in Wales. They want a completely different sound.
2002 - The album, Float Away with the Friday Night Gods is released. The reviews are lukewarm. The fans are outraged. They think the band has sold out.
2002-2003 – Marah splits from Earle's label and seem to have burned their bridges back home. Dave moves to Brooklyn with his girlfriend while Serge stays in London. Dave later says in an interview about this time, "We've been so low I could never tell you, and I would never talk about it… And we've been low in more ways than just no success."
2004 – The band rallies. They form their own imprint, PHIdelity Records, and line up with Yep Roc records. 20,000 Streets Under the Sky is released. The reviews are good, and the fans are encouraged by a return to form.
2005 – Marah releases If You Didn't Laugh, You'd Cry. It's recorded quickly, on a wing and a prayer. It has the spontaneity and exuberance of Let's Cut, the melodic strength of Kids in Philly, the pop hooks of Friday Night Gods, and the poignancy of 20,000 Streets. But it's shot through with hope, humor and a new maturity. It's their most personal album yet – romantic, sexy and yearning. As a goof, they also release a Christmas album.
2006 - Dave and Serge agree to be interviewed for Perfect Sound Forever. There are questions they haven't been asked before. About being brothers. About what success means for them. And what being from Philadelphia really means. Not just what the streets look like, smell like, sound like – or the pigeons and the donut shops. But what it means to have Philly in your heart. How it can trip you up, but lift you up again.
The interviewer happens to live in Bella Vista, a few blocks from the Golden Donut on Christian Street. She has wanted to talk to the Bielankos for a long time.
The New Album
We scaled back the scope of what we were writing about. And we tried to write just songs about us sitting on our stoop, drinking coffee. You know, just simple themes. Like, this is our life and for better or worse, and usually for worse, it's not the most exciting thing, but it is real personal.
So, I think we tried to approach the record, like, 'let's just play these songs one time and record them and see what happens and see if we can make that spontaneous, very rock and roll thing happen.' And then just walk away and say it's done.
And it's nothing that we've ever done before. Because we've been known to slave over records for months and months. And basically destroy things because it becomes obsessive. I'm not alone in that. But a lot of people are like that when you work on your music too much. You can get rid of the essence of what it really was supposed to be.
So, I think we tried to say, 'OK, well, we're really good at playing together live. Let's just record that without making demos, without any pre-production.' No one knew the songs when we came in, we were just flipping through notebooks. And, in the end, we just chose the ones we felt, felt nice together, and stepped off it. And were like, there it is, it's a record.
And we hadn't even planned to make a record. We had come home from Europe, and Kirk and I were the only people in New York. And we were offered a free day in the studio from a fan, an engineer at a really posh Manhattan studio. It was just something that we really didn't know anything about. (laughs) We never worked in that situation.
And we took the subway over with some borrowed guitars and we recorded the songs "City of Dreams" and "Walt Whitman Bridge" in one day. And we listened to them back, and we were like, it's more folky than anything we had done up 'til then, but it felt right. They were kind of dark songs, but they were hopeful and sort of pretty in their way, and that started it rollin'. And then it went really fast. We were doing four a day -- that sort of thing.
I like the fact that I think too, lyrically, the record reveals itself very slowly the first time even I listen to it. It's just a lot of things at once, (laughs) you know what I mean? And as you listen to it, it becomes a little bit more evident. Like, even our politics are thinly veiled within it. As writers, it feels like you're moving forward because you're saying more in the simplest possible way.
The Rock n' Roll Lifestyle
We are very fortunate in what we get to do -- the travelling and stuff. We pay a high price for it but when we go out at night and we're sittin' in the bars, my friends are insanely jealous that we get to do this. And we get insanely jealous that they get to have a Thanksgiving dinner, you know what I mean? Everybody wants that other thing it seems.
And there is so much in life, as you're growing up and as you're getting older, that does turn out to be a dead end. And things that you thought were going to happen maybe don't happen. And it's the oldest theme in life – in literature and poetry, whatever. And it's true, and it's a cool thing to look at.
And this time I think we chose to maybe look at ourselves in that situation- well, ourselves and our immediate friends and people that we associate with. It's a pretty small circle of people, because, as you can imagine, a band is a weird way to exist. It's a very little ecosystem of lunatics. (laughs)
We certainly battled some really dark things. And my brother especially has had a really tough go of making this life work for him. It's different for everybody.
And then we're put into this situation where it's kind of like…do you have any siblings? Could you imagine maybe you and one of your sisters put into a submarine for like ten years? Of course you're gonna fight.
And we fight brutally with each other. But we obviously love each other very much. And he's like my favorite… it's weird. It's like, he's my favorite writer of songs. And I'm lucky to be in a band with him. But there's a huge amount of… crazy tension that builds up and stuff.
And then, if you add the finances – the handicaps that you're dealt as an American, indie, cult-ish kind of rock n' roll band, it's a lot of shit that weighs on your mind. "What's going to happen to me in three months?" Let alone, in five years! That kind of stuff.
When you throw in a lot of that, it leads to really – romantically it leads to a strange life as well. Serge has had a hell of a time with girls.
It's weird, it's almost like you develop – I have a personality that I maybe wouldn't have had, but I just had to fill in the gaps of what he was missing, to make the whole thing sort of move forward.
So, I'm like very much the sole music director. There is no gig if I have the flu – that kind of thing. And Serge can come and go and he can bob in and out of what's going on with the band. Which is really cool, and we try to cut him as much slack… For example, he's not at this rehearsal right now. We bring him in later to do his thing to it, which is a really cool way to work.
And that way, when we walk off-stage, it's like, here they are. But there's definitely two camps within it that function together and somehow make it work.
The Demon of White Sadness
I think that that was a good one. Serge wrote that song, maybe with the exception of that line at the end, where I can't remember where that came from.
Serge brought the song pretty much finished. And he doesn't really write in that sort of way. Sort of much more of "The Dishwasher's Dream" than he is the "Demon of White Sadness".
Whereas, in the past, the "Demon" reminds me more of something like "Phantom Eyes", from the first record which is much more of the way I was writing. So I thought it was cool. I think he tried to get into the other court and make imagery a little bit more as opposed to very literal kind of narrative, which is what he's really good at. So yeah, that's the way it sort of started.
The Beauty of Imperfection
I thought that when we were done (with this record), I thought it was a really hard record to critique. You know what I mean? And that's a great thing. If you can make an album that just says, "Hey, you know what? Here it is."
Right down to the artwork and everything, we wanted it to be like we did this really fast. We could have not put out a record, but we're giving you this one, and it's got it's own beauty because of that, I think.
The hardest lesson I've learned in… life, really, is that what you just said. Because, if you grow up, I think, and we very much grew up like rowhouse, single mom, used car – you feel – and this is rock n' roll people in general, this is Bruce Springsteen, or, whoever. I think you feel insignificant. And you fight to be cool. And you fight that your whole life. And you think that you need to be… it needs to be perfect somehow. Perfection has to be reached through your art. And it isn't really what people want, I don't think. I think people want Neil Diamond sitting in a chair playing acoustic guitar. They don't want the New York Symphony Orchestra behind him. Do you know what I mean? Because you want to get to the essence of what's happening, especially a little bit longer, or further along, into their career. You want to look at someone and the imperfections become the charm, really.
That's like one of the coolest neighborhoods in the world and I've traveled everywhere, but there's nothing like that area, yeah. That's where – I lived at a little street called Salter at 10th and Christian? It's just one of those secret places. Especially around Christmas it's incredible. But, people don't know it exists. I don't even want to tell them…
I had a problem releasing ["Christian Street"] because when we made Kids in Philly, it was one of those things where I thought, "God, this record is going to come out in England? How will people understand what we're talking about!" But it's interesting. People – I gave them less credit than they deserve. Because you can actually see – it's like people actually did get it. They don't know this place, but it does kind of translate in a weird way and you feel like you know the place.
It's funny, we just got back [from a European tour] and we were meeting Italians and English kids and Scottish kids that have come to Philadelphia to try to find that ["Bella Vista"]. And it's interesting – they never find it. They're in, like, North Philly or by the Art Museum. (laughs)
I think that we would have never left Philadelphia, only if there wasn't a city of New York. It was the only place that we could go to and kind of get away with it without being crucified by Philadelphia. (laughs)
'Cause New York is it's own sort of thing, and I always wanted to live in it. I think it's inspiring in that it's really expensive and it's really fast and it makes us work hard – which you do need at some point.
And I think that we got there just in the nick of time, because I know if we would have stayed in Philadelphia, you tend to fall into a routine and it gets a bit lazy and it's a bit easier to afford life.
So, I found Brooklyn to be very, very similar when I came the first time. It was like – well, it looks like Philly and it kind of feels like a neighborhood. And it was just a little bit removed from Manhattan but it's really quick to get there. It's expensive and it's inspiring, so that was basically the idea.
Let's Cut the Crap and Hook up Later on Tonight
That remains – the new record and the first record remain my favorite things we've ever done. That record, Cut the Crap, is the one moment in your life when you don't have any idea how to make a record or what the music business is. Or… we didn't even have tuners! I can remember, we couldn't record electric guitars 'cause we didn't have amps!
It was so naïve and innocent that… to me it's just incredible. And I'm just happy to have been a part of the record. And it was coming from, the words and the songs were coming from, the idea that "yeah, we could do this." We were thrilled to hear our voices come back on tape. We would giggle. You know what I mean? You can never go back there again. But I think on new this record we said, "Let's get as close to that as we could at this point in time." Which is just, "don't worry about it." And I wouldn't let anyone over-think anything or change things, or autotune things, or anything like that. Like, just let it be, kind of.
It's interesting, it's like, can the Rolling Stones go back and make Beggars Banquet again? Probably not. Because you're not that person anymore. You can't be that loose. Because you've come so far. You know what I mean?
Two Kinds of Artists
Yeah, I think there's really like two kinds of artists- (that) is the way we were looking at it. One is like Neil Young and Bob Dylan, who will make really bad records. They'll just throw things at the canvas from time to time. But you need to go through that to actually come up with something that's brilliant and masterfully done.
And then there's the plodding, very slow artist, which is like Bruce Springsteen. Which, six years go by, and he's incredibly careful about what he releases. I didn't want to ever be that one. Because I felt that without the added bonus of mega-success and other-worldly wealth and things like that, you will die as an artist, I find.
And then, as I'm gonna look back on what we've done, the things that we've done that have made grown men want to fight each other makes perfect sense to me. Because it's getting us to this place, and to that place. We're like chapters in a book, you know? And every chapter's not the last one.
Float Away with the Friday Night Gods
But you know what? We were so proud that people took it personally. Because with an emotional connection that big, and you're so militantly betrayed by what we do, it's flattering. It really is.
drawing of Dave in concert at the North Star Bar on December 3, 2004; rendered by the author
It's very close to our hearts. Whereabouts do you live? It's going up, isn't it? I mean, it's such a great urban neighborhood, you know? Of all the places I've been, and I've lived in a few now at this point, but I think about Bella Vista every day. And I could see myself ending up there before long. (laughs)
The New Album
I think earlier on we latched onto "sense of place," almost to a point where at times, it went to replace the emotional aspect of our lives. We were so into where we lived, but I think when I look back, it's not that I neglected to write about my personal life as much. But, my wife is standing here and she's saying "Yes you did." (laughs)
But, it just seemed as if, I don't know, not that it was easier to write about. We were so overwhelmed with where we lived there --you know, Bella Vista in Philadelphia – that, it was almost like, when we went to write songs, that's what came out.
And, I'm glad that I've reached a point now where, as much as I love wherever I end up sort of hanging my hat, I've decided to sort of look at my life and look at myself in the mirror more, rather than just look outside the window, if that makes any sense.
I love it. You know, I love it. I think it was sort of a natural progression. I mean, having lived in Philadelphia or the area all of my life, pretty much, it just... New York is always on the horizon, isn't it, if you live there? Especially if you're in any kind of arts. You know, music, art, whatever, theater.
And…I don't know. It was just sort of one of those things. I remember Steve Earle saying to me one time, "Man, I never moved to New York. And I thought about it so many times. And now it's too late and I'm not gonna do it."
He wrote this song called "New York City" on one of his records. And I remember thinking, 'you know what? That would kind of suck, in a life well-lived, if I really had wanted to live in a certain place and never went.' And this was the only one that I've ever really, really strongly desired to come to for a while.
So, I love it, yeah.
I think Philadelphia -- it's an underdog city. It always was. And, I mean, that's one of the reasons that Rocky Balboa was such a figure that the city can still identify with 25 years after no one even remembers the movie. To Philly people, Rocky is the guy.
The Eagles (football team). You identify with this fact that. OK, in my lifetime they've never won a Superbowl. But they're great and you live and die by them. And I think, in a way, Philadelphia's come to expect to get to the edge of something great and never quite achieve it.
So I think it's a strange mystery, music-wise or whatever, for writers and people that live there, to sort of say, "Well, we're very close with this band. They could do it. Do we want them to do it? Do we really in the bottom of our hearts want them to?"
And, I don't know. I came to terms with it. It was hard for a while. I remember certain things being written about us or whatever in Philadelphia, and it seemed like some people turned their backs on us.
But, my whole thing is, you know, I think our band always was more about Philadelphians rather than like writers, and people that spend their life on fucking barstools at The Khyber. You know?.
And I'm proud of that. I feel like, you go back through the annals of Philadelphia music, you know, Kids in Philly is a fucking Philadelphia record. Ya know? And there are very few of those. And I'm proud of that.
We just got this thing, out of the blue, where Stephen King said that he liked our record the best this year in Entertainment Weekly magazine. And, he has this great line in it, where he's like "This is a great band you've probably never heard of. And if you think I'm trying to sort of one-up you with the fact that I know about them, you're wrong. It's just that I love this music and I don't know why people haven't heard of it, or whatever, but it's not me trying to be to where the cools hang."
The Irony Curtain
And, I don't know, it's strange – we live in the center now of Irony. You know? In Williamsburg. (laughs) And, quite frankly, I don't get it, you know? I don't even see it. Like things that are supposed to be ironic that people paint on the sidewalk. I see it for what it is.
And it's like, I'll look at it and I'll be like, "I don't think that's funny. That's cool." And I think that's how any kind of music or art is – it's the way you perceive it. It's the paradigm, rather than, you know, it has to be this or that or the other thing.
Rock n' roll music was never to me supposed to be ironic. It wasn't supposed to be, you know, 'wink wink and we're saying this but we don't mean it.' To me, it was just salvation, you know? It was this way for kids from Conshohocken to see the world. To meet girls. (laughs) Nothing ironic about that!
When you're talking about writers and stuff like that – I don't know, I tend now to not pay as much attention to it as I once did. I still read reviews at times, you know? I'm still – I'm capable of being stung, you know? But I'm not capable of being knocked down anymore.
We'd finally decided, look, if we're gonna have a band and continue to do this… and we've already outlived so many other bands that I saw come up when they were the next big thing and now they're nothing, you know? They're gone.
And the fact that we decided, you know, two brothers, it was like, "You know what? We finally have to just do things like how exactly we want to do them. And, if the world's ever gonna discover us, they'll come to us."
We can't continue to try and say, "Hey, we've gotta do this, we've gotta do that, we've gotta do the other thing to try and get noticed." And I guess when you've reached that stage, which you can only reach after a long period of making records and playing shows, that you finally are comfortable in your own skin. And I'm finally, for the first time ever, I'm starting to realize what Marah kind of represents.
And, that coupled with, I think, being married and having a life now and having friends and stuff where, for so long, we were so hyper-focused on just the music and that's it.
And it still defines me. But at the same time, there's all these other things that define me too. And now they're creeping into my songwriting. And I think I'm a better person for it, and I think I'm a much better musician for it.
When we were younger, angrier men, we didn't have the wherewithal to sort of say, "Well, look at all this that we've accomplished. And look how much of a great life we're having." In ten years, we've fit in more than a lot of people are ever lucky to fit in, ya know? And, I like that. I'm very happy with that. And I think that's one of the reasons keepin' us goin'. (laughs)
That's basic values that I think at times can be lost. Especially when you're talking about music. And it's funny how oftentimes I'll talk to people that I just met through a friend or whatever, and say, "Yeah, I'm in a band." "What's the name of the band?" And they've never heard of it. And then you can see their eyes sort of glaze over in that, "Well, you're in a band, but you can't possibly be in a good band." Or, "You can't possibly be in a band that makes a living doing what you do, 'cause I've never heard of you."
And, it's been funny to see that through the years, where sometimes I'd just love to say, "Yeah, I'm in Green Day!" Some band that they'll recognize. And then they're like "OH, yeah!!" Just to get that reaction, sometimes.
But, for the most part, it's like, it's challenging and it's funny to sort of see people react to the fact that, "Hey, you know what? There are legions of people that are actors, actresses, musicians, whatever, that you've never heard of, but they're still out there doing their thing, you know?"
You could end up spending a lot of money and putting your heart and blood and sweat in. And there have been many, many mornings where I've wakened up and had a list of a thousand reasons why we shouldn't even be doing this anymore. And then there's this sort of unconscious thing that keeps pulling us along.
And again, it's sort of like, "OK, here we are five records in, and I think we just made a record as good as if not better in a way than a lot of things we've done." And that's reason enough for me to say," OK, well, give me five more then, you know?"
Yeah, it's difficult. I mean, I can understand why [people give up], because God, you know, I mean, we're lucky. We have girls in our lives and friends in our lives who understand what a challenge it is.
I mean, man, I don't make much money, you know (laughs). I'll say that straight up. But there's all these other things that I think that we're able to offer the people in our lives. And likewise.
So again, I can't really express how sort of lucky I feel at times. But also, I think my brother and I are certain kinds of people that... the more it seems unlikely, the more of a challenge it became, the more we sort of latch onto it. And that's a pretty cool way to live your life, you know?
You Can't Take the Philly Outta the Kid
People always ask me about Philly, and I say, "that's my city!" I take that with me, and I talk that way, and everything that I think about is reflected upon what I know, which is 33 years of Philadelphia. I've got seven months of Brooklyn now, and there's no comparison, you know? It's like, I'll always be Philadelphia.
Everywhere I go, I look at a building, I'm like, "Oh, I've seen something like that in Philly." Or, I haven't seen that in Philly, you know?
Any city worth knowing, or experiencing, it's got good and bad. And that's the bottom line. And Philadelphia has so much of both.
Some of the highest moments of my life were, like, walking on Christmas Eve down Christian Street by myself when it was snowing a couple of years back. And I just remember thinking, "God, this is like a movie set!" You know? Like, It's a Wonderful Life, updated! (laughs) And it really is. I really feel that strongly about that town.
And once again, that "sincere" thing. There's no irony in that, or anything. I just think it's a great, great American city. And, judgin' from the things bein' written about Philly lately, I think you may have to deal with somethin' like a boom!
Who knows? It might be the next -- if the music scene comes around, God, I could see something like that happening. It's bound to happen one of these days. It's bound to explode. And it'll probably suck, 'cause I'll probably be living in Colorado or somethin'! (laughs) Saying, "why didn't this happen then?"
Yeah, honestly, I think because Philadelphia's so close to New York, it could achieve so much, but in like the perfect way, you know what I mean?
Often times, when I talk to Dave about like, man, if we had been born and raised in New York, I don't think I would still be in a band. I think the fact that we were able to just do our own thing and, you know, no one was watching us, no one was caring. It was just Philadelphia. It was us and Go to Blazes and Gas Money and bands just trying to have a good time with their friends on a Thursday night.
Therefore, we were able to do our very own thing. Man, I think Philadelphia loans itself to that. So, it's always going to be it's own place. Philly people are always going to be like "Fuck New York." You know? (laughs) And that's a good attitude.
Also see our other Marah article
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