Friday, May 30, 2014

Part II of my Interview with Speed the Plough's Cindi Merklee

When I first approached Cindi about doing an interview for the blog. It wasn't to promote an album or a tour. It wasn't to talk about an anniversary of a landmark release or a tell all book detailing ones sorted past. My agenda, if you want to call it that, was to get to know one of the more intriguing people I've met since the blogs inception. Through co creating this blog I've been given the opportunity to reach out to many of the people who inspire me with their music, stories and overall spirit. Something an introvert like myself would never be able to do otherwise.

Part II of our interview revolves around a conversation we had while Cindi paid a visit to my makeshift photo studio to participate in a ongoing project I had started with local musicians. 
Though that short session produced a few memorable images. It was the laid back bull session that served as the foundation for this interview. Thanks to Cindi for opening the door for me. James Damion

James: I attended my first Record Store Day event this year and say I overdid it would be a monumental understatement. One thing I came across made me think of you. It was the Folk Music Box set. Being that Folk is perhaps the one genre that continues to evade my taste in music. I'm curious to know what it is that draws you to it. Was there a particular artist or person that influenced your appreciation for the genre?

Cindi: There’s a great quote credited to Woodie Guthrie: “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to keep it simple.” That’s a broad statement but there is a good amount of truth in it, and it isn’t exclusive to folk music - look at The Ramones.
In that sense I feel that folk & punk are not-so-distant cousins. With that said, I still laugh my ass off at "A Mighty Wind". Every genre has their stereotypes as well as their gems. What draws me to music of any genre is the honesty in songwriting. If a song or artist comes across as trite or contrived, trying to fit in a marketable genre - that’s when I lose interest. That whole Monsters of Folk nonsense? No thanks. Connor Oberst could turn his back on music and become an insurance salesman tomorrow and it wouldn’t phase me.
Then you look at someone like Vashti Bunyan who released a hauntingly beautiful yet poorly received album back in 1970 (Just Another Diamond Day) only to slip in to obscurity for thirty years before more or less being “re-discovered”. This is a recent discovery & current fixation of mine. She somehow effortlessly blends worldly sophistication and childlike innocence in her writing and vocal style. That’s where I’m at right now. Tomorrow’s fixation may be the latest Throwing Muses release. It’s whatever hits me at the moment.

Photo Credit: Don Sternecker
As for my introduction to folk - that would be Woody & Arlo Guthrie. I don’t know about these days but back when I was in grade school we began each day with the Pledge of Allegiance followed by an edited round of “This Land Is Your Land” which politely omitted the verse that speaks out against private property.  As musical as my family was, folk music was not heard much primarily due to the communist witch hunt perpetrated by Senator Joseph McCarthy beginning back in the1940s. My father was a WWII Navy Veteran and despite his musical leanings and other admirable qualities, he didn’t appreciate criticism of the American government which is prevalent in folk music. Democracy is predicated on dissenting views yet the wave of McCarthyism managed to equate dissent with sedition - something this country is still struggling to understand and correct.

Despite this, my oldest brother was very much a product of his generation and gave me a copy of One Night by Arlo Guthrie when I was still in the single digits.
“The Story of Reuben Clamso” used to crack me up, and it still does. It’s story telling at its best. There’s a great cover of The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen A Face” on there as well and the album closes with a beautiful take on Ed McCurdy’s “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” which I’ve covered when performing solo acoustic.

James: We had a great conversation about our mutual appreciation for the Replacements. What was your introduction to the band. Anything particular that helped earn your love for the band?

Cindi: It was 1989 and Tom Petty was touring in support of Full Moon Fever. I was in my sophomore year in high school and listening to a lot of what was popular at the time
(Motley Crue, Def Leppard, Dokken, etc). I wanted to see Petty though and
The Replacements happened to be the opening act on that tour. My brothers were overjoyed by this coincidence and promptly gave me a stack of their Replacements records, a blank tape and a list of song suggestions. I went back to my room and put on Hootenanny first because I liked the cover art. At first listen though I just didn’t get it. Clearly these guys didn’t take themselves too seriously, if at all. It hit me like a joke I wasn’t “in” on. Next I went to Tim and skipped to “Bastards of Young” because I was intrigued by the title. I was blown away buy the gut-wrenching honesty of it.
There was no posturing, no gimmick, no schtick. Westerberg’s vocals drip simultaneously with defiance and despair. You can’t fake that. I was hooked, and I’ve been ever since.

James: Have you heard about the reunion shows and are you planning on hopping a plane, train or rickshaw?

Cindi: I have! And I’m glad they’re having fun with it as well as helping out Slim. I’m funny when it comes to reunions though. While I was late to the party with them - only discovering them with Don’t Tell A Soul - I did have the chance to see them at The Ritz and at Rutgers back to back nights on that last tour in the early 90s. I love those memories and I’m happy to hold those as my remembrance of that band. I encourage anyone who doesn’t share this sentiment with me to check them out though.

James: You mentioned you had the chance to see Tommy Stinson when he played Maxwells? Was there any hero worship going on? Any embarrassing encounters you'd like to share?

Cindi: Yeah.....that was a great show and my first encounter with one of my idols.
Tommy had just released Friday Night is Killing me with Bash & Pop. My oldest brother was getting married the next day and he gave his blessing to me & my boyfriend at the time to leave the rehearsal dinner early to catch the show at Maxwell’s. I was a total spaz over Tommy. HUGE rock star crush. The band played a killer set - hard not to with an album that good. I think it’s the best post-Mats material any of them have released. At the end of it Tommy was walking through the crowd when he tripped and stumbled right at my feet.
I can’t imagine the look I had on my face but when he got up he looked at me & asked if I was OK - I think that says it all. The whole way out to the car I was giddy as a school girl over it - so much so that my boyfriend suggested I dump him so I could marry Tommy. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

James: Have you checked out the book "One Man Mutiny" ?

Cindi: I wasn’t aware of the book - love the album though. I saw Tommy at Maxwell’s when he was touring in support of it. Another great show and this time I wasn’t too much of a spaz to approach him. I was still afraid of putting my foot in my mouth so I didn’t say much but he did personally autograph a poster for me, thanking me for coming out. And yeah, I still got giddy.

James: While we're on the subject of Maxwell's. How did you take the news of the closing? Did you take place in the farewells and send offs? Were you at all shocked when bands began to play again under a different system?

Cindi: I was heartbroken - as so many were. I was too young to have gone there in its heyday and some argue that it was in decline by the time I was going there regularly but it’s all relative. Maxwell’s was my first exposure to the “indie” music scene. It was one of the few shared experiences I have with my much older siblings. It felt like home. When I first started playing in bands as a kid all I wanted to do was play there. I’m lucky to have had the chance on a number of occasions with musicians I have a tremendous amount of admiration & respect for.

I didn’t attend the big final farewell but I did go to a bunch of shows in those final months.
I was lucky enough to be a part of the Bar None night when Speed the Plough was invited to play along with Alice Genese, Freedy Johnston, Chris Stamey, The Health & Happiness show and a whole bunch of others. Other stand out shows from those final nights were Stuyvesant with True Love, Wild Carnation & Bambi Kino who was the last band I saw there.

I was a bit surprised to see bands playing there again after it had “closed” but business is business and for me the place as I knew it was already gone.

James: I don't think I would have ever had the chance to hear Balloon Squad if it were not for meeting you. I finally got my hands on one of the bands EP's and really enjoyed what I was hearing.
What was it like joining the band and getting to make music with your Brother Joe?

Cindi: Thanks so much! It was intimidating at first. I was 18 and had never been in an original band, let alone one that had been together for 10+ years already. Plus I was taking over bass duties from my brother who had switched to guitar. He wasn’t the strongest bass player rhythmically speaking but to make up for that, either consciously or subconsciously, he would come up with some crazy bass parts - almost lead bass bass parts. It was a challenge learning some of them and then keeping that momentum going on the new songs we were writing.

Looking back on those years and considering we were living in the same house at the time I’m a bit amazed that things went as smoothly as they did for so long.
It was great having our rehearsal space/studio right in our basement.
I just wish we were more ambitious at the time.

James: Have the two of you ever discussed the idea of collaborating again musically?

Cindi: We have but we’re both involved with other bands/projects right now. We are working on a Balloon Squad reunion show later this year though. I’m really looking forward to that because there are songs of ours which I love that never saw the light of day.

James: D. Smith (The 65's) is often credited for your working in music again. Was there anything in particular that kept you away from your passion. How was he instrumental in bringing you back in?

Cindi: This will sound cliché but I ditched music after going through one of those soul crushing break ups in my 20s. It just so happened that this coincided with Balloon Squad splitting up so everything was in limbo. At the time any musicians I knew were all playing in cover bands - something I refused to do. I lacked the confidence to pursue anything outside of my immediate circle of friends and acquaintances so I hung it up.
Photo Credit; JC Call
Unfortunately once I cleared my head over the break up
(or at least thought I did) I fell into a really toxic relationship that lasted far longer than it should have. I met Dan at the tail end of that. At first I didn’t realize that he had been in
Shirk Circus - I owned & LOVED both
Words to Say & March but came across them after the band had split up. Dan was recruiting me for a project he was putting together but once I made the connection panic set in and I turned him down. He’s a phenomenal bass player - so intuitive. At that time I had more than 6 years of rust to scrape off. There was no way I could be his bass player. He wouldn’t take no for an answer though & eventually talked me down from the proverbial cliff. The project was short lived but I’ve been playing ever since and was grateful to have the opportunity to work with him again in The 65’s.

James: Though music is a key part of our lives. It's just one aspect of that life.
What else inspires and drives you? What are your passions?

Cindi: Southern gothic literature (except Faulkner), when I have the time to read. My main favorites are Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor. I had this idea that I was going to write an albums worth of songs written from the perspective of characters from my favorite short stories or novels, thinking that this would help me get outside of my own head for a while. I quickly realized that the characters I was drawn to write about were ones which I identified with on some level, so it wasn’t the escape I was hoping for. I stopped after the first one, a song called “Miss Amelia” inspired by McCullers’ Ballad of the Sad Cafe.
I haven’t deserted the idea entirely though. I think I read that Lisa Hannigan has done something like this already so it’s not necessarily an original idea but it’s still an interesting practice.

I’m also a bit of a history buff. I’m fascinated by the cultural impact and complexity of the American Civil War. When I went back to school it was with the intention of becoming a teacher. I earned my BA in history with a minor in African American Studies in an effort to gain a more objective view of this country’s history. Unfortunately by the time I graduated the economy had tanked, the public education sector in NJ was decimated and there was no way I could pay back my student loans and support myself on a teacher’s salary.
It’s something I may return to though should the conditions ever be favorable.

James: Any closing words or wisdom you'd like to share with our readers?

Cindi: Do what you love.

For Part I of my interview with Cindi, click Here

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