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Kal Marks Discuss New Album "Universal Care," Recording, and Getting Older | Feature Interview

by Ryan Dembinsky (@itsathinkpiece)

Most fans of Kal Marks - the dynamic, puissant rock band from Boston - have probably noticed their tendency for tongue-in-cheek, almost sarcastic lengthy song and album titles. Whereas songs like  “All I Want in Life is a Solid Porch” and “Hey Hannah, You Forgot Your Gloves” quite obviously derive from off-the-cuff comments and conversations, others stem from clever and obscure references. “Eat Rotten Fruit From a Shitty Tree” pays homage to sketch comedy cult classic Mr. Show. “Grass Is Green, but Sometimes It’s Brown” gives a head nod to labelmates and band friends Grass is Green. Most recently on “Today I Walked Down to the Tree, Read a Book, and When I Was Done, I Went Back Inside,” - which you’ll hear more about over the course of our conversation with frontman, Carl Shane - comes from a Jack Nicholson interview quote about growing old and spending time with loved ones.


This dichotomy of dicking around with flippant naming conventions juxtaposed with deeper meanings and references serves as a decent metaphor for Kal Marks’ new full-length, Universal Care. The album pairs throw-caution-to-the-wind screamers with almost tear-jerking love songs and beautifully sung vocals. Some lyrics might be light and funny, while others tackle serious issues like climate change, growing old, and making the most of your time on Earth.

This dynamism finds the band in fine feather on Universal Care as they strike the perfect balance: they embrace their whimsical personalities, while also proving to the world that they are capable of creating higher art. 
Post Trash: So, let’s start with the key item at hand. You have a new album coming out this month and a huge national tour to support it starting in April, but you need a new van ASAP. What happened to old van; I assume it croaked?
Carl Shane: Yeah, it’s pretty much on its last leg and we keep pouring money into it. Just recently we had some work done that cost us so much money and that was just enough to keep it running for a little bit longer. It’s probably not safe to take it on tour, especially for a long tour and we’re doing the full U.S. It would suck to break down somewhere in the middle of nowhere. We’re still able to use it around here and it tends to make it to New York and back, but outside of that it’s about done.

On top of that, on the last tour we did, the west coast just ended so poorly. We lost so much money. I mean, we were hoping that we would have enough of our own money saved up to put money down on a new van. We just got hit twice by two dreadful things. It’s really hard for us to get ahead. Being a band like us, it’s not like we get big payouts, at all.
Post Trash: On Universal Care, are there any lyrics that you particularly like or that sum up your feeling about the album as whole?
Carl Shane: The last song on the record; I’m pretty proud of the lyrics on that one. I really like how they flow and and came together. That is the one, “Today I Walked Down to the Tree, Red a Book, and When I Was Done I Went Back Inside.”
Post Trash: Did you really do that one day, walk down to a tree, read, and then go inside?

Carl Shane: [laughs] No, I didn’t even really come up with that title. It actually came from Jack Nicholson. He was asked to play a role in something and he is an older guy who hardly works anymore, so he was like, “Eh, I’m not gonna do it.” Then the casting director was saying, “Is there any way I can convince you to do it?” He said, “Look. Today, this is what I did,” and then he said that song title. He walked down to a tree, read a book, and then went inside.

I just thought, “Wow, what a great statement.” He’s like, I’m old and I don’t give a shit [laughs]. It started making me think about what I want to be doing when I get to that age. I hope I’m really not bogged down by superficial bullshit. We all get bogged down by shit we wish we didn’t have to care about. I just hope I get to spend time with people I like. I hope I’ll be thinking a lot about spending time with people I consider my loved ones.

That is what that song is about. It’s the most genuine love song I’ve written. I’ve never really been good at writing love songs, and that is the closest I’ve gotten to one.

Post Trash: Yeah, I noticed with that song specifically as well as a couple of the others, which vocally have some really nice singing. You almost find your inner Layne Staley, as opposed to the more screaming vocal style. It’s a nice contrast to the screaming, loud guttural style on some of the other tunes. Although, the screaming is impressive too.

Carl Shane: I’ve gotten better at the screaming and yelling. Even three years ago, I couldn’t reach the same guttural things I can do now. I don’t even really know how to describe it. The sound doesn’t come from my throat at all. It comes from my whole entire body.

I still play some solo shows from time to time and that allows me to sing - like actually sing - and I don’t have to yell over anything. So, I can work on trying to stretch out and do some trial and error. I’m getting more comfortable with my voice. I think the next step is probably to learn some techniques to actually improve. I’ve never done that, but if it was affordable I would do that. I’m pretty broke right now, but it would be cool to see a vocal coach and learn warm ups and things I could do to sing better.

I try not to drink before shows and avoid cigarettes. I’ve been on and off with cigarettes for a while, but I’m trying to just stay away.

Post Trash: I imagine the loud stuff wears on your vocal chords after a while on tour.

Carl Shane: Surprisingly enough, as long as I don’t be a jackass, my voice will get better over a tour. It’s almost like I’m breaking it in. If I’m getting drunk and smoking cigarettes, it’ll wear on me, but I try to stay hydrated and after the show I’ll have a beer or two to wind down, but I’m trying to be light with the drinking.

Music is the only reason I’m there. I’m not really there for the hang anymore. I used to be. Now, not so much. It is great to go on tour and see some old friends, but I’m getting older and they are getting older. They’ll probably come to the show and then say, “See ya later. Great to see you.” It’s not going to be the mid-twenties friend that said, “Oh man, it’s so great you’re in town. Now let’s go down to Bourbon Street.” [laughs] I can’t do the same things to the same amplitude. As long as I’m pretty tempered with the extra recreational things, my voice gets better and I can scream and shout even harder. It’s like stretching out a muscle really.

If I yell as scream and try to go zero to 100, I’ll blow out my voice. I did that once in Philly. They wanted to do a soundcheck and I was goofing off and I immediately went to the loudest I could go. I could still do the show, but the next day I was like, “Fuck, why did I do that?”

Post Trash: Let’s talk about the studio process. Are there any particularly cool points on the album that you would point people to that you are particularly proud of in terms of productions or perhaps stories of happy accidents or anything like that?
Carl Shane: Everything song structure-wise is figured out long before we go into the studio, but there can be happy accidents like with overdubs and things like that. Maybe there is a weird dissonant ring that I let out and we’re like, “Oh crap, that was kind of out of tune, but it’s kind of cool too.” That totally happens, but structure-wise we have the songs written. Maybe melody I might not quite have the vocal melody or if I’m doing a double I’ll try to come up with a harmony that I haven’t figured out until the day of recording. 

There is some extra stuff on the record like keyboards and a lot of mellotron. There is a little bit of organ and a little bit of piano. There is also a lot of extra percussion. I think we kind of vaguely had ideas for those, but we mostly figured things like that out in the studio. There are congas on the first song and we always knew we wanted hand drums on that song, but we didn’t really have a plan until we got in there.

Post Trash: When you write your music from the guitar or instrumental perspective, is that from a theory point of view or more just chord progressions, licks, and things you’ve stumbled upon while playing and developed them into songs?

Carl Shane: Every song tends to be different. On some songs, I might write it almost like it’s a folk song and then we’ll work on it from there. Some songs are a little bit more - I hate to say jammed [laughs] - but we’ll be screwing around with a riff or a rhythm or changing the rhythm and we keep going at it and going at until we get somewhere. 

“Loosed” is one of those where we kept on working on it and working on it. I don’t think we ever thought about it what it was going to end up sounding like, but it took weeks and weeks to ever get somewhere with it. That songs is probably mostly based around the drum part, and everything else is on top of the drums. 

I know some theory, but I don't really think about it at all. I just kind of play on feel more than anything. What feels right. I can hear melody in my head. I’m not good at just ripping a solo. I can’t do it. I have to figure out the notes, play them, find where they are on the guitar, and work on it. I’ve definitely never done a solo that was even half-thought out. I have to plan it all out. That probably sounds ridiculous, because none of my guitar solos are hard at all [laughs].

I just have to hear it. I really have to hear it. I wish I was better and I could work like a composer, but I have to either hear them in my head or hear them played aloud.

Post Trash: I can’t but notice but a lot of your other press seems to always talk about darkness and not necessarily mental illness, but being in a dark place. Seems like in talking with you, that you’re a happy guy. Are you maybe in a better place and happy with life and the direction of the band. 

Carl Shane: I’m pretty happy with what we’re doing and as a band and what we are creating. I’m really excited about where we are going to go. We are approaching a year now since we finished this record. I’m not over it, I’m proud of it, but we’re already on to writing the next songs. It’s moving pretty slow though, which I like because I think that means we’re thinking things through a little harder. I think we are really thinking about the production of these songs and wanting to go in and focus on that more on the next recording. We’re thinking hard about how we want things to sound.

Post Trash: Do you have a dream producer that you’d like to work with someday?

Carl Shane: No, I actually don’t. I think I’m more interested in making good with whatever I’ve got. I’m almost kind of fearful of working with a dream producer or an idol of mine where we go to the best studio with all the best gear. When you have limitless options, it almost limits you. Once you have that, you’ll never finish anything. We have limits to what we can do now, but it has made us rethink things and that is liberating in a way. I just want to work with people I trust. I’m almost 100% certain that we’re going to use the same studio and work with the same person.

Post Trash: Not that it matters, but that was a woman you worked with on Universal Care, right?

Carl Shane: Yeah, Miranda [Serra G], she is a good friend of mine. She's a good friend, but she is also good about not being in friend mode. An engineer has to have a certain mindset where they can just zone into things. I could never be an engineer. I dick around a lot. She really settles into that engineer role. When she needs a break, I’ll crack a couple jokes, but the friendship kind of takes a backseat. This is the only thing we have done together, but she was really easy to work with on this one. She has been recording since she was a teenager and this is what she has always wanted to do.

She came to us wanting to potentially do something together immediately after Life is Alright came out and we told her that it sounded cool, but we didn’t have any material right then, but so we said we would let her once we had material ready. She told us what we could do and what we couldn’t do as well as what the studio had in terms of gear. It was definitely an excellent collaboration. The last two people we worked with were absolutely great, but the last engineer we haven’t worked with again. Because he was in New Jersey. This studio was right by where I live. I like working closer I took a little over a week off work and just got up in the morning, made myself breakfast, and walked over. I was able to walk there, that’s how close it was. That felt great.  

Post Trash: One last question for you. I was curious, what did you listen to during your formative years like maybe fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen years old? 

Carl Shane: Yeah, I think when I was that age - anywhere from like 13 to maybe 18 -  that was when I was really gobbling up the most music possible. I still feel like I’m seeking out music, but now it’s more seeking out music I’ve already listened to, but maybe didn’t quite get or didn’t quite appreciate as much before when I was younger. 

There is the obvious stuff that everyone listens to like the Beatles, Nirvana, and Sabbath. In high school I remember really liking Modest Mouse. I remember getting into punk stuff, but I had a hard time with punk at first, because it was what my brother really liked, but I didn’t want to copy my brother. So, I got really into current hip hop and I also got into classic rock and psychedelic music like 50s and 60s psychedelic rock and pop. I remember I got really into Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and Creedence Clearwater Revival like really hard after my hip hop phase. 

And then that kind of transitioned to indie rock. I remember really liking Modest Mouse and Built to Spill. Built to Spill serves as an understandable transition from really liking Neil Young - I still love Neil Young to this day - to transitioning to Built to Spill isn’t that crazy. Then my brother took me to see Sonic Youth and that blew my mind. From Sonic Youth, I started listening to Unwound, Fugazi - that band still blows me away, Jesus Lizard, and the Melvins. Then from there I got really into weirder stuff. I started getting into Jazz and Krautrock. I really liked Can and some other stuff. Then I kind of went full circle and got really into hip hop again. I got back into hip hop when the Madvillainy album came out. 

That is one of my favorite records of all time. I remember when that came out, I was in high school, and I was just like, “Wow.” That was the first time I listened to a hip hop record for its sonic qualities and not just for the groove. I listened to the textures and how wild he got with his lyrics. From there, I got into Wu Tang and Tribe Called Quest. When I was into hip hop before it was more pop hip hop like Ja Rule and Nelly. The second time I got into Mobb Deep, Tribe, Wu Tang and the more sophisticated hip hop. My senior year of high school is when I got into folk music. I really liked singer songwriters like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Nick Drake.

Kal Marks’ Universal Care comes out February 23rd, 2018. Preorder here. They have release parties on March 3rd at Brooklyn Bazaar and March 10th at Elk’s Lodge in Cambridge followed by a massive U.S. tour  beginning in April.