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A STORY. . .
ON THE MARKS
A chain of five signs runs parallel to the front door, each one hanging from the bottom of the previous, like the ones that would hang in front of doctors' offices or boarding houses. They proclaim:
Mark B. Watson
Available for Performance
The Dr. is IN
Watson's camelback shotgun house is in the Highlands, mere yards away from the Bardstown/Baxter Culture Strip: the slender eclectic sprawl of bars, shops, and restaurants that snakes north to south, from downtown Louisville to the Trevillian-Belknap neighborhoods, a five-mile border between the central and eastern areas of the city. By day you can, in one trip, do your laundry, shop for antiques, buy a stepladder, visit the dentist, get your bike fixed, eat lunch at a bistro, dodge skateboarders, or pick up some new music. Most nights, especially during the weekend, the cars are aligned headlight to taillight up and down the whole strip. The nightspots - from The Brewery north, down to Phoenix Hill Tavern, Wick's Pizzeria, O'Shea's, then farther down to The Hideaway Saloon and the clubs farther south - are thought of as the places to be heard and seen for performers and their patrons. It's Louisville's Cultural Conduit.
How handy that it's all within walking distance for Mark Watson, saxophonist and fifty percent of the duo known as The Marks. With so many opportunities just blocks from his home, snagging a gig can be as easy as boiling a pot of water.
Watson calls himself a sax-AHH-fun-ist instead of a sax-oh-FONE-ist. The difference is not only in inflecting a different syllable with a short vowel sound, but also in increasing the level of semantic prestige when he tells someone what he does for a living.
He explains. "No real pianist (PEE-un-ist) would want to be called a piano player. Doesn't that sound terrible?" He switches to a bellicose angry-dad voice. "I wouldn't have my daughter marry any piano player."
So does that make his cohort David Marcum a GIT-er-ist?
"If you go with the vowel the same way it would have to be gih-taaaahhh-rist," Watson said, with lots of breath behind the tahhhhhh, as if exhaling in a yoga position.
"I don't think that's anything you can get glamorous with," Marcum added in a shy voice. Of the pair, he is taller, in his early 20s with longer hair combed back from his youthful face, calmer during a performance as he stands straight behind the microphone, but bent slightly at the knees and bobbing gently to the beat. His voice is drowsy-soft in conversation but covers the room with a bourbon-and-smoke sound when he sings, "Need someone to treat me right / For more than just one night. . . ."
The other half of The Marks is almost diametrically opposite: nearing 40, thick dirty blonde hair in tight unruly waves, twitching knocked-kneed behind a pair of microphones - one for voice, the other for one of three saxophones he plays - and yawping, "I'm gonna buy a jukebox / Gonna fill it with my favorite records" with enough force to raise a head on flat beer. On other songs he backs Marcum on vocals and unleashes tight sax solos.
This balance of performance styles and personalities is Louisville's most visible music duo. Ubiquitous, known for shameless self-promotion and willingness to play weeknight gigs in clubs with hit-or-miss attendance, The Marks crackle with clean pop energy on their recordings and in live performance. Their self-titled debut CD released earlier this year is a concise (less than a half-hour long) representation of their personality as a band. And whether they're backed with a full band or playing as a duo, the sound is consistently lively and tight. To swipe a phrase by Courier-Journal music critic Jeffrey Lee Puckett, The Marks don't play rock-and-roll - they play pop-and-roll. Their songs have a fingersnappy bounce that they have brought to such diverse venues as the sometime biker-haven Air Devil's Inn, to Harper's Restaurant, the family eatery on Hurstbourne Lane.
"It's what we do a lot of the time," Watson said, "just the two of us doing a lot of happy tunes that can be done that way."
The three of us were in the vast living room of Watson's home. Bookcases and wooden racks filled with a riot of CDs and videocassettes covered most of the three interior walls. The racks ended at an upright piano, over which hung a dry-mounted picture of Elvis Costello, the one from Trust with a close up of his face, sunglasses perched low on his nose, his eyes gazing up and to the right.
Watson continued. "A buddy of mine in Chicago says he likes our version of `Jump, Jive and Wail,' with just the two of us, better than any version he's heard before. A couple girls want to see the two of us all the time because they prefer something different than what [a] band plays. The older crowed likes us when we're a bit mellower."
The sound and range of their pop-and-roll sound gets a boost when the duo adds guest musicians at some gigs. The alumni of these full-band performances include Screamin' John Hawkins, Kathleen Hoye, Paul Culligan, Dennis Talley, Dominick Cipolla (drummer for Engine and Cooler), bassist Alan Manias, formerly of Mary Mary, Marcum's cousin Matt Jones - a guitarist from Nashville - and two members of the Shannon Lawson Band - Paul Bennett and John Hayes. These guests are often temporarily assimilated into The Marks for a single night's performance and take a Mark-ish nickname when playing. Hayes, for instance, is named "Question Mark" when he performs with the duo and affixes an appropriate head - green with a question mark drawn onto it - to his kick-drum. The color matches the rest of his set, making it appear as if it had once been used in a band fronted by The Riddler. The night Jones performed with them at Wick's Pizzeria, he took the ignominious name "Skid Mark" with an almost papal grace.
Even with the considerable talent backing them, Watson has an itch of ambivalence toward a full-band version of The Marks. "For Dave and me both, the band's a big hassle because we've got to deal with somebody else besides ourselves. Then you're waiting around for somebody to tell you whether they can rehearse or be there on time. It's just sort of automatic between the two of us."
Watson cleared his throat. "But there's just something about being up there with that band. We were both born to rock. With that sound behind us, it's not something easy to describe. I hope that my last instance in life is being on stage in front of a band just rockin' the house."
Watson looked at his partner. "I know Dave likes being out in front of that band."
"Definitely," Marcum said quietly with a small nod. "There's that much more energy, too. Two more people can build up the energy-"
"And two more people can drag it down," Watson said with a laugh.
"-but that's the risk you take."
"If you're working with real musicians, it all falls together so simply," Watson said. "It's only rock. If it were brain surgery, we would've killed somebody a long, long time ago.
"But we consider ourselves a duo. Even with the band."
Making The Marks
With almost 17 years difference in their ages, both Watson and Marcum are anchored to a common place in their respective pasts: both are graduates of Eastern High School in Jefferson County. They performed together for the first time in the mid-1990s in the late version of a band called The Uglies, where Marcum was drummer. Marcum's previous experience was with a handful of high-school garage bands. Watson, meanwhile, had played in the Mellow Tones Orchestra big band throughout high school, graduating into one of the original versions of Caribou, which morphed into Crushed Velvet and two other versions under different names. He returned to his native Chicago, played in a variety of bands there, then came back to Louisville after a few years to be near his son, Michael McEntire (whose voice and giggle open The Marks). Once back, he joined his brother Patrick Watson in what he described as "a band that was fairly popular here," but one he does not wish to be named in print. He also worked four years as the sales coordinator for a building company. "They were really lousy," he said, "but they gave me a nice office."
A voice on the radio became the catalyst that formed The Marks. "I heard Laura Shine one morning on WFPK," Watson said, "playing a string of tunes that I thought was just so unbelievable. I was so impressed. I just had to be a musician again."
Watson began working on a project called The Marks Brothers when he reconnected with Marcum. "Dave and I had tried a number of times, on and off, to get some other musicians to piece something together. Dave kind of worked his way into [The Marks Brothers]. He's easy to get along with. He's constantly learning something new. He's pretty open-minded. He's pretty cool to have around."
So they dropped "Brothers" from the name and began to officially play and record one year ago this month.
Watson credits his partner with providing consistent, positive support for anything the duo tries, in studio or on stage. Psychotherapy might classify Marcum as the superego to Watson's id. The balance between them forms the ego, which is what their audiences sees at every show.
"Dave's driven more, I think, by music," Watson said, "and I'm driven more by . . . chicks. I've got to be out in front of people. I want to drink beer, I want my name all over the place. I fancy my saxophone playing to be like a wrecking ball. It's an intensity that I can't explain. It doesn't have as much to do with talent as it does with pure, simple emotion."
Marcum quietly disagreed. "There's plenty of talent to back up the emotion. It has the energy, and not the carelessness, of a wrecking ball. He knows exactly what he's doing."
The differences between the two, even the disagreement of one about how the other views himself, is one interpretation behind the title of their forthcoming release, Beer and Chocolate.
Currently in the works at DSL Studios in Jeffersontown, Mike Baker returns as The Marks' producer, joined by Alex Tench as engineer. Two tracks - dissimilar in sound and subject matter - have already been slipped out onto promo discs: "Here In Hell," penned by former Uglies bandmate Dan Killian (who also wrote "Jukebox" and "Chickens" on The Marks) and "Only One." On the former, Marcum sings a surprisingly easygoing, catchy piece about, well, Hell, where, "They really got pitchforks / They really got tails / But you can't make fun cause you're in jail / And there ain't no bail and there ain't no parole. . . ." On the latter, Watson sings, in a sound that mimics 1960s beach music, about true love let go too early. The sax solo break after Watson sings "Oh, darlin' I hope that you still love me the same / Cause, my love, I made out all my insurance in your name" rakes away the cobwebs from the memories of sharing a chocolate shake with your sweetheart at the soda fountain.
Actually, the two items mentioned in the new CD's title are a musician's breakfast. Watson explained: "If you're a road musician eventually you'll encounter a place - where you have to stay the night - that has no running water. And you'll get up the next day, waiting for the rest of the band to want to do something or go someplace. There might not be anything else open for miles, but the only thing left to eat or drink is the half-finished beers from last night and maybe a chocolate bar. That happened to me more than once."
The Marks do not make road trips to other cities in the region, so they will at least get nutritious breakfasts every morning while in town. "We were kidding one of the club owners where we work regularly," Watson said. "He was telling us we were eventually gonna go to Paris, Rome or London. And we said we'll be there for a day, then we'll come back here to play Air Devils Inn four nights a week."
Their focus on frequent, local performances - in fact, their play-anywhere boldness - makes The Marks one of Louisville's most visible acts. This visibility backed with heavy promotion, they feel, can only benefit other Louisville Music acts. Even Mark Watson's subtle act of taping his simple SUPPORT LOUISVILLE MUSIC signs in the windows of places where music is played and sold proves the personal investment The Marks have in the city's live music scene.
Watson outlined his rationale behind the promotion strategy. "There're lots of places to play. The more and better bands that go out and play those places, the more decent places will be open because more people will be going out to see them."
"We give a lot of people in town credit for their work," Marcum said. "They can say anything they want about us, but I don't think you'll catch us saying anything bad about a local group because we know exactly what they're going through."
Watson added, "I'm looking forward to there being more good bands. Already there are a lot of good bands and single musicians in this town. It certainly doesn't do us any good to pretend we're in some kind of competition. We're really not. Bands can say something about us, but if they're doing that they're just hurting themselves."
"If I go into some club and [tell the management] `these guys stink' and they don't hire them - and they may be a halfway decent band - they're just missing an opportunity to have somebody else good play in there that will draw people. That makes the place open for us to be there."
So along with spreading photocopied sheets of paper commanding SUPPORT LOUISVILLE MUSIC in overexpanded type, The Marks work at spreading a karmic network to make sure live music is present where people gather, which benefits the scene overall and benefits them as a band.
Plus it gives a boost to some plans The Marks have for themselves. "We do want to be big stars," Watson said. "But realistically, what we're trying to do is sell enough albums to make a living so we can keep recording and working as musicians, so we can keep building our fan base, so we can turn other bands on to other songs if they want to do them. We really just want to keep making records. Part of what we're trying to do is form our own record label. My ultimate goal," he added, "is to bring a 500-million dollar record processing plant here to Louisville. I think eventually Louisville will be known as a music city. We'll be able to do everything here. We already can do everything except press a record."
From the way The Marks view it, music in Louisville is a cobbled machine of exciting bands, small high-quality studios and mastering facilities, mere inches from becoming a music city on par with Nashville, New York, or Los Angeles.
"If everybody else involved in this business will do just exactly what we're trying to do," Watson said, "and just take one more step forward, then they'll have a lot less to be concerned about. They'll be playing, there will be more places to play, more bands will be getting radio time, more people will be buying local albums. It's just a matter of us all trying to move ahead and take it personally. And talk positively about everybody."
The opening track on The Marks is a David Marcum composition called "Positive." Overtly it is about a guy needing more than just single nights of ecstasy with female fans, fueled by alcohol and the forbidden desire of scoring with a musician. Yet taken in the context of the what The Marks are attempting to do for themselves and for the music industry in Louisville (such as it is), it describes a transaction: it's what they offer and what they expect back.
I'm not your darkness. . .I'm your light.
I need something positive.
The Marks invite you to a celebration of their positive vibes and their first year as a band on Friday, November 12 at Air Devils Inn. As many Marks alumni that can comfortably fit on the stage will join them in a full-band performance.
See The Marks at their two regular gigs: each Monday night at Air Devils and on Tuesday nights at R Place Pub on Whipps Mill Road.