Some musicians reach that "immortal" status by record sales, others by setting trends, and few by just being total professsionals and creating quality music that transcends time or genres. Frank Marino put together Mahogany Rush as a teenager back in the 70's, a band that fused jazz, hard rock, funk, blues, pop, and psychedelic styles into a powerful force that was driven by his incredible guitar playing, smoky vocals, and strong songwriting. After being in and out of the spotlight for a career that has spanned over 30 years, Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush still have a loyal fan base, and have released the ultimate live document, Real Live, a 2 CD set that perfectly depicts what this veteran band is all about. Sea of Tranquility Publisher Pete Pardo had the pleasure of speaking with one of his long-time favorite musicians, who shed a lot of light on his career, the music business, and the new live record.
Read on for the full interview!
Sea of Tranquility: Hi Frank! Thanks for agreeing to spend some time with us today. Are you familiar with Sea of Tranquility?
Frank Marino: Yes, I have heard of it from a few people, although I have yet to check the site out.
SoT: We've covered your last two releases, and, as a matter of fact your CD Eye of the Storm is currently our second most read review on the website.
Frank: Really? I didn't know that! That's great news!
SoT: So, where are you living these days?
Frank: Still living in Montreal…always have!
SoT: Back about 13 or 14 years ago, someone in a music store made a comment to me that the then newly release Allman Brothers Band CD An Evening With the Allman Brothers Band was the ultimate live "guitar jam from hell" album. After hearing your latest double live record Real Live, I think you might have eclipsed that, and I mean that in a good way! There's more guitar playing on this set than I think I have heard anywhere, ever.
Frank: Well thank you! (laughs) When you say eclipsed, I thank you very much for that!
SoT: Was the live CD intended to be a thank you to all the fans who stuck by you all these years?
Frank: You know Peter, it's always a thank you to the fans more than anything whenever I release something, because we've never been a radio act. I just do what I do to do it, and the only reason I continue is because people want to hear it, otherwise I would just do it at home. I get as much enjoyment playing at home or in my basement with the guys as I do playing it live in front of a crowd. So I really do it live and on record as a means of including people who like it, and that would be fans. The intention has never been, well I shouldn't say never, because when we were on Columbia of course, years ago, we always were told to get the record out so we could go on tour, there was always reasons. Really though my own personal intention is never about that, it's about just doing it. This album, probably more than any other, was just a total accident, I mean, we did a bunch of shows, and just happened to record everything. I take a multi-track recorder wherever I go. We record the soundchecks, we record the gigs…we record supper! (laughs) This was the last show of that year that was recorded, and we had planned to do more shows and keep on recording, but then September 11th happened…
Frank: …and everything just changed, and nobody could gig. Everything just stopped, so it was a good time to take a look at everything we had recorded up till then, and I had 27 hard drives worth of material. So I picked up the first one, and it was the last one we did, which was on the top of the pile, and it happened to be Montreal.
SoT: Was that an extra special show?
Frank:Well, it happened to be the last show, so yeah, coming home was nice.
SoT: And you obviously liked what you heard when you started listening to the show?
Frank: Well, when you bring up live music, generally the microphone's haven't been set right, not like in a studio when the sound is perfect and pristine because it's set up in advance. So I said, let's just tweak it a little and mix it down a little so it sounds listenable, and it was starting to sound pretty good. The funny thing is that we had never heard any of the other shows, so it just seemed like the recorder was working well, and we wondered if all the shows on the other drives sounded as good! It just kept working with the one I had, until I found this big whole in it, where there was this piece missing at the end because it had turned itself off, so I edited it. One thing just sort of grew into another, and it wasn't intended to be this "let's release a live album" thing, but it turned into this extravaganza of mixing and editing. Well the mixing only took like two hours! The rest of the time was just editing, and it really is the show. In the end, we took a look at it, and knew that we had a really good night with a lot of magic.
SoT: It's an incredible amount of music.
Frank: And Peter, my bass player, who had been with me for 20 years now, said "Frank, on those 27 other drives, we probably have a lot of other nights where we might have done some nicer stuff." I said that I'm not going to go into 27 other hard drives right now, we will some day, but let's just edit this and look at it. One thing led to another and it became this live record. When I got in touch with Jimmy West from the label that we are now with, who I have been friends with for 35 years, and he had been at the show that night, he said that he really wanted it to be on his label. So by accident, it became a record.
SoT: Are you happy with being on Just a Minute Records?
Frank: Couldn't be happier!
SoT: It's probably a big change from what you were used to in the 70's and 80's.
Frank: You can't imagine! You just don't find this in the music industry, this kind of thing, people who run a label like this, which is all about music. When we go over there to see Jim all they are all doing is listening to music, and having a great time!
SoT: That's the way it should be!
Frank: Right! Jim and I were talking recently, and we were discussing how long the songs are on Real Live, and I was talking about editing a song down so maybe it could be played on radio. I was saying it was a shame that none of these songs will ever be played on the radio, as they just don't play long tunes on the radio these days, and especially would never get into any sort of rotation. Jim thought the edit idea was a good idea, and asked what I could do. I said I could take a part of this song, take out the guitar solo, maybe edit this other tune, and Jim looked at me and said "Now, why would you do that?" Remember, this is a record company president telling me this! I said, well to get it short enough, and he said "Don't take out the guitar and music, take out the vocals!" (laughs) I said "What do you mean?" and he said "Why would you take out the very thing that makes the record good?" That's not something you ever hear from a record company executive! That's just a little anecdote of the way that Jimmy and the label thinks.
SoT: It's funny that he said that, because you could see taking a tune like "Poppy", maybe condensing it a little, and trying to get some jazz stations to play it.
Frank: The problem was this-I did do five tunes. This is a lark, I sat down and said "OK, I'm a pretty good editor, I'm going to edit these five songs down", and I got them down pretty good, but after hacking and slashing them, like really, no one ever has to hear this, I'll just do it to see what happens, but after all that I never got anything shorter than 7 minutes a song! (laughs) Except for "Crossroads", which was down to 4 minutes and change, and so I gave a copy of that to Jim, and said "Hey, it's not one of my songs, it's "Crossroads", but here it is if your guys want to play it", and he did, and it's starting to play, so I guess it's working!
SoT: Do you play covers live because you want to, or do certain fans expect you to play them, specifically Hendrix pieces?
Frank: It's totally because we want to. I'm sure over the years many fans have come to expect it, but there have been gigs where we don't do any. No two gigs are the same, and I bet you if I listen to all the 27 hard drives of live music I'll bet you there's 27 different set lists. It's all very much like jazz, although there are certain parameters that you do follow, like for instance, we do "Stories of a Hero"-it does have a verse, it does have a chorus, here's when they happen, but everything in between could go anywhere. "Voodoo Chile" started off and then became "Something's Coming Our Way", I mean like, how did that happen. We just saw that the ¾ time fit into the other time and it sort of went that way. So this is sort of the way it's done, it's a listening, jamming thing. It's not abnormal for us to jam-we are kind of like an original "jam band" I guess, so it's the most normal thing for us to do. I see a lot of these younger bands with players in their early 20's, doing the jam band thing, and I think that they are really digging jamming again, and this is something we've been doing for 35 years!
SoT: Just out of curiosity, how many people did the venue hold that night you recorded the new live album?
Frank: About 750-1000 or so. It was pretty jammed.
SoT: The reason I ask is, one of my all time favorite albums is your Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush Live album from way backing the late 70's, and that was obviously recorded in front of thousands of fans.
Frank: Probably around 15,000 or so…
SoT: Right, and the cool thing is, the 1000 or so that you hear in the background of the new live release sound just as pumped, just as into the music, as the huge mass of people from the early live set.
Frank: Well, the thing about Club Soda, it's not actually a club, it's more like a small arena, it's all made out of cement of metal, so when you hit or play anything it really sounds like an arena. I call it the smallest arena in the world, and the crowd really came through on the recording as if we recorded in a huge arena. When I mixed this record, I used a lot of the PA in my mix rather than the direct sounds of the instruments, quite a bit of the PA sound and the room mikes. I found that really helpful for me to get the reverberance that I like to have in a live setting. I'm not crazy about dry sounding live records.
SoT: I think you did a great job on this one.
Frank: It only took me a few hours to actually mix it.
SoT: You have a great mix of songs from throughout your career on the live CD, and while it's great to hear older songs from the 70's like "World Anthem" and "Strange Universe", but I really liked to hearing the 80's material like "Poppy" and "Stories of a Hero". When you are planning a tour, how do you choose which songs will eventually be played?
Frank: We generally don't plan, and on that particular leg of the tour that the live album was recorded, we were doing songs from older albums like Child of the Novelty, as well as Maxoom. There's really no plan. I just tell the guys, "Sort of know everything" because anything may come up. Even I don't know all the material anymore, some of it goes back so far, so we have to continually re-learn it. We are kind of doing cover versions of our own material! (laughs) You mentioned stuff from Juggernaut before, and in the 80's we were touring and almost never played "Strange Dreams" and "Stories of a Hero" from that album, and yet those were the two songs that radio stations were playing, especially "Strange Dreams". We just almost never played them, until the late 80's. It just didn't come up, and it didn't matter to me that it was playing on the radio, but once in a while the songs would show up, then five gigs later would show up again. Kind of like, what do they call it, osmosis? (laughs)
SoT: I've noticed over the last ten or fifteen years that your playing has taken on a more jazzy feel. What is your favorite style of music to play, hard rock, blues, jazz, psychedelic?
Frank: Well, I do like everything, but I think it would be awful to just stick to just any one style. I've always been a jazz player who didn't play it. Because I started life as a jazz drummer at five years old, growing up listening to Buddy Rich and Elvin Jones as a young kid and into the 60's. So naturally, how did I hear either of them, especially Elvin Jones, was to listen to jazz records, because that's what they were playing on. So you don't know that you are actually listening to John Coltrane or any of these other guys, you don't really care who he is because you are just listening to the drummer. But that music is really going on in your head while you are playing sticks on a chair, and later on when I became a guitar player there was this explosion of rock and I really liked psychedelic music. So I became a guitar player who played this psychedelic rock music, but I still always had this love for that old jazz music in my head, so a lot of my stuff had a little blend of all the styles. When I would do an album I'd always include some kind of little jazz piece on it, and the record company would always tell me "don't put that stuff on the album" and it would be a big argument. We argued about so many tunes that had a jazz feel, and they used to tell me that fans aren't sophisticated enough, and I'd tell them that they were full of shit, of course they are sophisticated enough, what do you think I'm doing when I'm not playing that music? I'm just another guy in the crowd listening to the music. I'm a fan. What do you think, that we are all stupid? Record companies truly believe that fans are of a certain mindset; they do label people that way. So they tend to think they can sell them stuff by marketing it a certain way. I'm the anti-man, I'm totally against corporations. When I started living through that crap, that's what made me sort of hate this business. So, back to your questions, I like to play anything that is musical and memorable. Jazz is, and so is blues, and so is psychedelic, and so are certain forms of rock. I like to play music that maybe has guitar solos in it, but really, I'm trying to listen to melodies. I'm much more flattered when someone comes up to me and says "Man, I've listened to your album or went to your show and was hypnotized because it had some kind of magical quality that I just can't put my finger on", as opposed to someone who says "wow, you're an amazing guitar player!" I really don't care if I'm an amazing guitar player, I think of myself as a musician first. Saying I'm an amazing guitar player is like telling someone who wrote a really great poem o novel that he's a linguist. I don't think it should matter whether you can play the instrument, what should matter is what words you can put together in the phrasing.
SoT: It's funny, because a lot of progressive rock fans that are open minded to other music forms like jazz, blues, classic rock or hard rock, consider you to be a "progressive" musician, because you kind of encompass everything into this style that is almost impossible to label.
Frank: Maybe the problem though in my understanding is that when we were growing up the term "progressive" was hijacked by a certain genre of players, and in order to be considered "progressive" you had to be doing rock music with timing in 7/8 and 13/4 for two bars, which then switched back to 7/8 for one bar. That was what became progressive rock with bands like Yes, Rush, Genesis, and ELP, but in reality tagging me with that genre really excluded the other facets of stuff I did like "Hall of Fame" or "Voodoo Chile", so then I felt I really couldn't be called progressive because of all the other stuff I was doing. That's why I have always been afraid of the term progressive rock. I keep hearing about this band Dream Theater quite a bit, but I've never heard them. People say to me that Dream Theater is progressive.
SoT: They are very good.
Frank: When I hear people talk about them I ask "Do they also do rock and roll?" and they say "well no". So, does progressive mean that you can't also do rock 'n' roll? Where did it stop being progressive?
SoT: I've always been a little leery of the term progressive rock myself. Perhaps at the time in the early 70's it was taking normal rock structures and "progressing" them into uncharted territory, but as a genre prog never really "progressed", so it really doesn't live up to the definition. Personally, I always liked the term "art rock" much better, as it seems to explain the genre as what it is, a very artsy and sophisticated form of rock music.
Frank: Many of my friends and people who I was working with at the time used to call some of the music those bands like Genesis, Renaissance, Yes, and others played Robin Hood music! (laughs!)
SoT: Robin Hood music? I guess that kind of makes sense!
Frank: Genesis had Selling England By the Pound and it sounded like Maid Marianne and Friar Tuck…
SoT: Plus you had bands like Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull who had that very medieval sound…
SoT: A lot of the newer bands who are coming out today are even taking it a step further, as a lot of the lyrics tend to be about fantasy, with dragons and elves, warlords…it can be like a Dungeons and Dragons game sometimes!
Frank: (laughs) That's exactly what I mean! Let me ask you a question. You probably hear way more music than I do seeing as you have this website…
SoT: Way too much music sometimes…
Frank: So in saying that, with all the bands you talk to and listen to, are there any out there who are doing anything resembling what we do, that is combining the jazz, the rock, the psychedelic, the pop and the blues? Is there even a term or definition that people are giving to the style of music that Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush play?
SoT: I think the only band that comes to mind, and I'm not saying that they even come close to doing what you do, is Govt. Mule.
Frank: Oh the Mule, sure. But what I've heard of Govt. Mule is more like the Allman Brothers, and a little less of the psychedelic style, right?
SoT: Well, you really need to go check them out live. Live they are a different beast, and Warren Haynes love of blues, jazz, funk, and hard rock really comes through. They may switch the psychedelic aspect for more funk as compared to you guys, but they go off into deep improvisations using many different styles kind of like what you do. Check them out live some day.
Frank: I'll have to do that!
SoT: Backing up a bit, I have one question I have always wanted to ask you, seeing as I have been following your career for quite a long time. How did you feel back in the late 70's and early 80's when the record companies, and the record buying public for that matter, wanted so hard to promote you as a hard rock or heavy metal guitar god? I always got the impression that maybe that wasn't what you really wanted, and that you had more to offer than that.
Frank: You hit the nail on the head! Absolutely!
SoT: Now fast forward ahead to 2002 and Eye of the Storm comes out, which is very far removed from "that sound" that the world tried to push you towards. That album is very spiritual, very melodic, very moving. Can you talk a little about Eye of the Storm and what was going on in your life at the time?
Frank: Another album that wasn't supposed to be. It was sitting in the can for a long time. I quit the music industry in 1993. It wasn't intended to be an album for release; it was just intended to be "let's do the music I like". It was basically the album I wanted to make when I was 16 but didn't know how. Then it was finding that Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush fan website and meeting those fans through the Internet and finding out that we still had such a following. I started streaming the music to them over the website to see what they thought, and they were the ones who convinced me to put the CD out and then go back on the road. I was pretty much done with the music industry in 1993, had some children, and had started this whole other new that I was very happy with, but the Internet came along and I found the website that Willy created. That really changed everything. Eventually Willy's fan site became the Official Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush site as well. I'm even a regular on the site too, and it's been nice to get close to the fans that way.
SoT: You know, I hear you are going to be playing some live shows here in the US this Spring and Summer. Are you looking forward to that?
Frank: Absolutely! I'm much more into getting out on the road than sitting in the studio. Playing live is kind of like tacking a vacation; I bring my kids, we stay in all sorts of hotels, and really get to do what we do best. It's funny, more so than any other album we have ever done, and that's including the Live album from the 70's, this new live album is aptly named and really is what we do. From beginning to end, you hear Real Live you're hearing the show we do, it's not polished, no screwing around, it's one show on any given night.
SoT: This is Mahogany Rush.
Frank: Right. This is it. If they listen to that record on a Wednesday and they go to one of our shows on a Friday, they will not be surprised. It will feel exactly as the experience they heard on the CD…different songs probably (laughs) but same feel.
SoT: I see you are still playing Gibson SG's…
Frank: Oh sure. I also cut my effects rig down considerably, and only use some fuzz on the solo, flanger maybe once, and very little wah-wah. My effects rack still looks big, but I'm really only using the pre-amp and power-amp, everything else is duplicates in case something breaks down. It's actually very simple compared to the 22 pedal rack I used to use back in the old days! That was totally unmanageable!
SoT: I also hear that your current record label will be re-releasing your back catalog as well?
Frank: Yes, they should start coming out sometime this year. They want me to give then some stuff to use as bonus tracks, so I am probably going to go back into the archives, or pull some stuff off of the 27 hard drives of live material that we can use. I've also talked to them about doing a full-blown all blues album, so that will hopefully be in the works as well.
SoT: Looking forward to all of it! See you on the road in a few months!
Frank: Thanks Peter!
Photos Courtesy of Jim Carson