MY DAD IS DEAD
Interview by Michael McClelland
My dad is dead - a voice down a telephone wire delivering crushing proof of this brutally inhospitable life. Four simple words of unbearable finality in the most intimate realm, where pain could not be a more personal experience. Despite our respect for the dead, life seems to have none whatsoever for the living and being alive. It's a blunt statement, but over twenty-five years of recording under this name, Cleveland, Ohio's Mark Edwards proved that it doesn't have to be tactless.
Since 1985, Edwards found a way to vocalize the poignancy of exposing such vulnerable feelings, enhancing their inevitable, cathartic reward. Getting to that point of resolution, as necessary as it is, is what really fucking sucks. If nothing else, words of tragedy like "my dad is dead" can be thought until they fade or said until they lose meaning. Breaking down these walls is what Edwards slowly comes to realize is so important:
"The strength of the family can be an illusion when built on control and based on collusion."
Without such control, all that's left is a free-falling mess of tangled insecurities without a safety net to catch them. Upon picking your messy self up from the floor, you can find bearings you weren't aware of and finally reach your own conclusions - which, through My Dad Is Dead, Edwards expresses as a very positive thing.
The many parts of 'The Big Picture' - buzzsaw guitars and bouncing rhythms -- describe the ultimate benefit of painful self-analysis: "I could spend my whole life thinking about just what it is my life means... sometimes what matters doesn't really matter at all -- sometimes it doesn't fit inside the big picture." As weirdly specific the concept of My Dad Is Dead is, universal chords are struck.
Hearing The Big Picture marked the end of my own period of crippling depression -- Edwards' therapy of tackling issues of absolute despair without a need for delusional poetics taught me to confront issues of my own in a constructive way. As tragically undiscovered Edwards' music is to modern ears, it resounds deeply within those who have found it. There's something for everyone in My Dad Is Dead, even as Edwards has retired the moniker/band, now concentrating on a new band called Secular Joy.
PSF: What happened when your dad passed away?
Mark Edwards: I can't even remember when I got the call. After my mother died when I was 18, I lived with him for a few years. Moved out at 21 and three years later, he passed on. I don't know the full story but there was some crazy shit going on there after I left, from numerous 'housekeepers' and other sketchy folks hanging around spending his SS (Social Security) and retirement money. He was a stubborn man, refusing several siblings' offers to move in with them. I can understand the desire to remain independent. He always had that in him. It was pretty tough for him when the arthritis took away his ability to do everything for himself.
PSF: What kind of music were you making before it happened?
ME: The only thing I was doing at the time was playing drums. After my mom died, I bought an old Hamilton Jazz kit from a neighborhood guy whose father had also died (it was his) and banged around on that for a couple of years, self teaching myself some drumming basics before buying a "proper" rock kit. I was playing drums in this band Thermos of Happiness (you can find some old stuff on bandcamp) for a couple of years in the early '80's, then a band called Riot Architecture around '83/'84 when that broke up.
PSF: Was this the kind of place you saw yourself going back then?
ME: Not sure what you mean... if you mean making music for 25+ years, no I never really thought it would last that long. Being the typical youngster I didn't think about old people's needs and desires much. Now that I am one, it's of course easier to object to the age-based dismissal of anyone making music past 40. It's been kind of a tough road the last decade or so, with fewer and fewer folks caring much about what I do musically. I find it's easy to spout all the "I'm in this for me" ideals but deep down I miss the reinforcement of an enthusiastic fanbase.
PSF: Was it hard exposing something so personal to the world in such a blunt way?
ME: I didn't think of it in terms of hard or easy... it just was. Writing songs was something I wanted to do and I wrote about the things I thought about and experienced... it only seems blunt and raw in hindsight. But more because I realize how sheltered a life I had growing up and how little I had experienced of the world. I never even left Ohio until I was 21, visiting an old school friend in San Francisco. So when I embarked upon the first month long tour with MDID, it was quite an eye opening shocker.
PSF: Do you think it helped you?
ME: It helped me to feel like I had a purpose… a thing to do in life. I didn't want to work at the grocery store forever, and at the time, college was a drag. Music was my passion, and I dove in on multiple fronts, from DJ-ing at the local college station to playing in bands to going out to shows several nights a week.
PSF: Would you say that you're a blunt person?
ME: In some ways, yes. But I'm not a fan of confrontation. I will find many ways around an argument with a loved one or a friend.
PSF: Do you still think about your dad's death much these days?
ME: I still have the occasional dream that my dad is alive... and I think more lately about the loneliness of his final years, because I definitely see myself headed in that direction. He was good enough to pass that rheumatic gene along to me, and I can see I'm in for a similar fate with the arthritis that he struggled with. He at least had kids, neglected though they were. He could have had the opportunity to be closer to his family but chose not to. And I see some of the same tendencies to "go it alone" in myself.
PSF: Were you much into music as a kid?
ME: Totally. I had a transistor radio pretty much glued to my ear from the time I was 4 or 5, and since I got a job at 14, I had some cash to buy records. I think I followed a pretty typical teenage arc from top 40 to heavy metal to prog rock and jazz fusion to punk rock. I had built a pretty large collection of probably close to 5,000 records which I mostly ended up selling off during a long period of unemployment in my 20's.
PSF: How did Cleveland affect your music?
ME: Cleveland is a city of sometimes desperately hopeful people in often miserable circumstances. It was a national joke in the '70's when I was growing up there, so there was kind of an over-reactive pride thing going on in the midst of all the industrial urban decay. So it contributed to the bleakness of what was probably an already bleak outlook. But still, that was tempered with innocence and hope that something better was "just around the corner." I happened to be coming up during a time when there was excitement around 'post-punk' and lots of opportunities to play and make friends with other people with the same interest.
PSF: What inspired the title for The Taller You Are, The Shorter You Get?
ME: It's the notion that as you grow from childhood to adulthood, the world isn't as magical, doesn't seem as full of unlimited opportunity, as everyone settles into their "grooves" of life... I think of the guy in the grocery store I didn't want to become, who'd been there for 25+ years and inched up in the ranks, ever so slowly, to become a shift supervisor, and get paid maybe twice what I was. What's the percentage of folks who really get to live their dreams to the fullest? I'd wager it's a pretty small percentage.
PSF: And the art?
ME: Funny story that. There's widely varying versions of the artwork, from the full color stripes on the LP version for Homestead, to the simple black lines against a white background the cheap bastards used for the eventual CD. If you've seen the full color version (it's on the MDID website along with the free downloads of those Homestead era records), you'll see that there is a series of photographs of a car on fire which just so happened to be my father's car, a 1974 AMC Matador. I had a friend who needed a car and after my father passed on we went over his house to get it. We drove it back to my friend's house and went inside and a few minutes later his mom looked out the window and yelled that the car was on fire! We rushed outside and pushed it out into the street, called the fire department, and there you go... rock & roll history.
PSF: It's your only double album, right? Do you think it stands out from your other albums in any particular way?
ME: It's one of those things where things just happened to go right. From the sounds we got in the studio to the timing of the release, good promotion from the label, the readiness of the indie rock scene to hear that kind of album, it all fit together well. It's definitely the 'most talked' about MDID record, though I wouldn't consider it necessarily the best. It does have some of my favorite songs on it, like "So Much to Lose," the original version of "Nothing Special, "Planes Crashing," "Whirlpool" and "Boundaries," but looking back there's a fair amount of filler too. It could have been a 'desert island' kind of record had it been trimmed back a bit. In some bizarro world, where MDID became as famous as, say, Sonic Youth, the track listing might have excluded "Can't Get Started," "The Only One," "What Can I Do," "A Man Possessed," and "Too Far Gone"... funny thing is throughout the years, there's always someone that absolutely loves a song I consider a throwaway… so what do I know?
PSF: What was the biggest challenge you had to face in making music as MDID?
ME: Well, for the first four albums, I pretty much played all the instruments, so the biggest challenge was being precise enough in the studio to make it sound like a whole band was in there playing together. Plus, when I started out, I literally didn't have $100 dollars in the bank. Never knew where the next rent check was gonna come from and had a refrigerator that often contained a bagel and a jar of mustard. I worked a lot of odd jobs in those days, from a copy shop to restaurant kitchen work to delivery truck driving to the career I eventually ended up sticking in, medical billing.
PSF: What happened that made you want to end the band?
ME: It just seemed like the right time. A 25 year anniversary, turning 50, declining interest in the last two records and I just wanted to put all the baggage that comes with a band named 'My Dad is Dead' behind me once and for all.
PSF: I've read about your interest in politics - did you ever touch upon such subjects in your early music?
ME: Not much. I was pretty apolitical in my 20's and 30's... didn't pay much attention as I was too focused on basically making it day to day. I think that's where a lot of people are today, especially with the economic doldrums the country is in. That's why I think so many of us are so easily led astray by political propaganda... we don't really have the time to do the research to figure out what has merit and what doesn't. It's usually the loudest and most repetitive voice that breaks through, no matter what dumb shit is coming out of it. What really turned my attention back to it was the Supreme Court decision to install Bush as president, despite the popular vote being against him. And of course we all know how well that turned out for everyone, especially the non-white, non-rich folks of the world. Let's just say it burst a lot of 'belief balloons' I had about the status of the U.S. as a functioning democracy.
PSF: How have the themes of your songs developed over time?
ME: They've become less idealized and I'd like to think a bit more complex. So many of my early songs were built around a phrase or two, or variations on typical themes of what leads to mass murder, bad relationships, or struggling to find understanding in an incomprehensible world. There's still some of that, but I'd like to think it's tempered with a bit of wisdom from spending half a century on the planet. I've learned how to be a marginally happier person, although there's still a lot in this world to be unhappy about.
PSF: How do you look back on it all now?
ME: I had a lot of fun... but I did an awful lot of going it alone, coming back to the traits I absorbed from my dad. If I had a wayback machine, I would have paid more attention to the people I met and tried to be a better friend and acquaintance. Still, there's not too many bands that can point to thirteen records over 25 years, so at least I feel like I left something of myself that will still be there when I'm gone... for those few folks who manage to stumble across it.
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