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Sea Change: In Conversation with Kal Marks’ Carl Shane

With a new line-up, we talk Kal Marks’ leader about their fantastic new LP.

Hang your hopes on a nail,” laments Carl Shane during the bluntly titled Shit Town – one of the many terse observations the Kal Marks leader dispenses during the glorious beast that is My Name Is Hell.

Cult bands like Kal Marks are why we love music. Bands that don’t necessarily reach the widest audience but mean everything to those they do.

With the longstanding three-piece line-up dissolving after the departure of Michael Geacone and Alex Audette, Shane was left to ponder in the aftermath. There was plenty of time to do this, of course, with the COVID pandemic an unwelcomed period where months of rumination and the looming threat of an uncertain future enveloped most people like a barbed net.

And while the future may still remain uncertain, in the story of Kal Marks, flickers of light began to peer through the cracks, with Shane cobbling together a new incarnation of the band, which now includes guitarist, Christina Puerto (Bethlehem Steel), bassist, John Russell and drummer, Dylan Teggart (A Deer A Horse).

With a searing new vigour as a four-piece concern, Kal Marks lives. This isn’t an example of a band merely limping on, either. They kick and kick hard, My Name Is Hell the shining beacon of what is a new dawn for the band.  

Kal Marks are a band who have never shirked from the truth. With album titles such as Life Is Alright, Everybody Dies and Life Is Murder already under their belt, how could they? My Name Is Hell continues in this vein with themes that remain vitality real, brutally honest, and steadfastly poignant. Shane continues to illuminate the realities of the everyday struggle (“It gets worse/ Never gets easy”Everybody Hertz). However, sonically, Kal Marks not only take their biggest U-turn. In the sphere of new music, this is the biggest creative leap from any band in 2022.

My Name Is Hell  is a wonderful tectonic shift, harnessed by the maestro behind the studio glass, Seth Manchester (BIG|BRAVE, The Body, Lingua Ignota et al). His assistance in adding the flourishes and immeasurable bass weight (the gale-force atmospheres whipped up during New Neighbour and Ovation) sees Kal Marks deliver in new dynamic ways.

Then there’s Shane’s voice. Like a primal roar from the void, somehow Shane still manages to produce something anthemic. There have already been comparisons to Springsteen. It’s not as outlandish as it seems, although think The Boss in a drunken tussle with Harvey Milk and you might just be a little closer to the core.

From the howling blast of My Life Is A Freak Show to the rip and tear of Shit Town and the sludge-laden dirge of Debt and the title track, these are all vital components of the new look Kal Marks. Songs that possess the immediacy and ability to remain coursing through your bloodstream for months on end. While there may have been lull in the quality of new music over the past three months, Kal Marks remind us that something definitive is never far away.

Last month we caught up with Shane via Zoom. A deep thinker and unafraid to go to great lengths to get his salient points across, we talk about My Name Is Hell and what the future holds.

Kal Marks (photo credit: Stephanie Andreana)

Sun 13: Given the breakup of the long standing line-up, was there any moment where you thought that these songs wouldn’t ever be released, or whether the band would actually dissolve?

Carl Shane: “Oh, yeah, absolutely. It was falling apart months leading into the pandemic. Our drummer quit. (pause) I don’t think he would mind me saying this; his health problems were just too much to manage while being in a band. So when he quit, it was heart-breaking, because he’s one of my favourite people. He moved away and we still talk, but he was a great person to have around and a great drummer. So thinking we could try to find somebody to replace him seemed like it was going to be impossible, but I was willing to try. Then the pandemic hit, and I was like, ‘Yeah, fuck it, who am I going to meet right now?’

“In Boston, the pandemic hit pretty hard. It really hit everywhere hard, but New York and Boston were like the first two cities really hit hard. New York got hit so hard, and a lot of our community, the people that we work with a lot, are between those two places. You couldn’t see any end in sight, so for those first three months of the pandemic, I was certain that Kal Marks wasn’t going to be a thing anymore. I knew in the back of my mind I would still do music in some way or another, but I was really thinking like, ‘Ooh, I might never play a show again. I might not ever play with people again’. I know that it seems really extreme in retrospect, but at that time it seemed very likely that you may never play with a group in front of people ever again.”

S13: Because it was just before the lockdown, how did you get Dylan, Christina and John to come into the band? Were you having discussions over phone or Zoom during lockdown?

CS: “Well, Dylan did offer the moment Alex quit. He lives in New York, so I knew that would be a good option. I thought he was saying his offer was just to be a fill in, not be a permanent member. So I was still thinking, ‘Well, I got to find a permanent member’. And then pandemic hit and I thought I didn’t have to find anybody because there was no point. I want to say, May, I got a message from him saying, ‘Hey, do you still want to play?’. I was like, ‘I got no tours planned’ and he replied, ‘No, no, like, do you want to play… either a new version of Kal Marks or just something else?’

“Immediately, something awoke in me where I was like, ‘Oh, he actually wants to play play’. You can only believe in yourself so much. If somebody else believes in you it can light a fire underneath you. So it was pretty much on in my mind once he said ‘No, I want to do this. We’ll figure it out’. New York is three-and-a-half hours away, which isn’t particularly easy, but also I drive for a living. I drive long hours, so driving isn’t that hard for me, and I got plenty of places to stay in New York. So we would get tested, drive down, and we’d be all masked and whatnot. We were practising and working on stuff by August or September of 2020.

“It took a while to find a new bass player, Christina joined pretty much at the same time Dylan did. Those two were on onboard, and then finding a bass player took a while. We played with my friend, Phil for a bit, but he wasn’t really into it. And then, strangely enough, I didn’t know John at all. Dylan barely knew him; he played in a Dead Kennedys covers band with John maybe four or five years ago, and he was like, ’You know that guy? I don’t even remember his name, but he was a good bass player. I bet he would be interested’. (laughs)

“And then I found out that John knew a lot of similar people from Massachusetts and people from New York that I’m friends with. He knew people from Louisville, all these different old souls and whatnot. It actually made perfect sense, and our music tastes align in a lot of ways. I sent him an email and was said, ‘You want to talk on the phone? Because I’d rather get an idea of who you are over the phone than through email’. And we talked on the phone for almost two hours or something ridiculous about music that we like, and I just kind of knew that if he’s down, this is going be perfect.”

S13: How was the dynamic in shaping these songs? Was the process any different given that there were such big personnel changes?

CS: “There is a good amount of the songs that were already written before the three-piece line-up broke up. Me and Christina both live in Boston, and then Dylan and John live in New York. I shared all the demos with Dylan, and I basically just told him, ‘You can do whatever you like, just fire it back at me and I’ll dissect it’. So we did have the bulk of the record already there.

“It really varies from song to song. There are some songs that, if you heard the three-piece demo and then heard the recorded version, it’s almost like you can’t even tell that they’re the same song. And then there are some songs still pretty true to the three-piece version of the band just with more guitars and stuff. There were three songs on the record that I demoed with Christina playing drums. We played it live together and then I added bass and guitar, then I sent it to John and Dylan to add their own touches. It was also just getting together, we’d have to get together for long practices.

“Honestly, sometimes with practice, what takes up the most time is just talking about what we like and what we don’t like and what should we do? If we’re just playing it over and over again, nothing is going to change until somebody says, ‘I don’t like this, I feel like this needs something else.” (laughs).

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S13: A lot of your themes still remain, though. Shit Town and Everybody Hertz grapple with loss. Songs like Debt and My Life Is A Freak Show zone in on working class concerns. Through this new sound, however, there feels like an odd juxtaposition. Like there’s some hope. Do you see it that way at all?

CS: “I don’t know. I don’t want to sound super pessimistic, but I don’t know if there’s any hope. I’m just trying to be neutral, and try to be realistic. I just don’t think things are going to go well if all I’m putting out there is pessimistic thought. I think if I act crummy, if I act grumpy, nothing is going to get better for me. I think right now, it’s totally been on everybody’s minds like…

(Pause)  

“Some days, it really feels like the end of the world could be right around the corner. It’s just bad news after bad news. Greedy idiot politicians every day putting off the inevitable, which is that we can’t fuck the earth like we’ve been doing for so long, and it seems pretty grim. And we can’t be so awful to each other. We really need to…

(Pause)  

“Global warming is such a huge, huge threat. To all of us living on this earth. I don’t think we can terraform Mars, or any other fucking place in time to save us. I think we should figure out how to save this place. I feel like it’s very easy to get consumed by bad news, and I know people – all they talk about is the bad news. It’s so easy to be consumed by it. The thing is, I’ve almost stopped completely listening to the news. It’s not that I don’t want to be informed, but it’s almost too much. Nobody is reporting on, ‘Hey, this person saved somebody’s life’.  [The] only things that are getting reported are either super grim or super stupid, like ‘Can you believe this celebrity?’ Get a fucking life!

“Nobody should care about this, and we’re just being consumed by it. So all I can say is that I’m trying to not be consumed by the poison of the world. I’m just trying to be good and be good to other people, because I think that’s the only way things can change. Maybe that could have a rippling effect. So that’s all. My outlook on life is still not great, but I’m trying to be a nice person, despite that. I don’t know if that any of that made sense?”

S13: It makes sense, and I agree with what you’re saying. I don’t know how to unravel it all…

CS: “Every day there’s something just horrendous. I can’t change anything by talking about it. I do get wanting to vent like everybody needs to vent a little bit. Especially after all this stuff going on in our country with abortion. I know people that if they couldn’t get a safe abortion, they would be dead right now. And the baby would be dead, too. So outlawing this isn’t going to fix anything. I could talk endlessly about it, but at some point we have to just go, ‘Look, all we can do is donate some money to these organisations and just be nice and kind’. Because I just think that a lot of the people that do this awful shit have been treated like shit too, or… they are just psychos. So it’s just… I feel like I have to change what I’m projecting into the rest of the world.”

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S13: I couldn’t think of a better person than Seth Manchester to harness your sound. Tracks like New Neighbour and Debt feel like they have his magic touch. How vital was he to the recordings?

CS: “I’ve always wanted to work with him. His price is actually very affordable. When you’re up an coming band, you really can’t afford anything, so you just have to do it yourself. You have to do it with friends that will do it for really cheap, and I’m super grateful for that. None of us come from poor families, but none of us come from super wealthy families, so it’s not I have this wad of money that we can use to go to big studio. I’ve always wanted to work there, but it was a matter of gathering the cash to do it. With the pandemic hitting, I did get paid for three months of being furloughed. I was not working, and got paid more than I’ve ever been paid for through unemployment. There’s part of me that feels guilty about that because a lot of people suffered. But also, I’ve been making dog shit money for years. I also did donate a good amount of money to many worthy causes. But anyway, I used that money to record with Seth Manchester.

“People always told me he’s very fast and efficient. So if you want to do a record in five days, it’s totally realistic. And he is. He is the fastest, most efficient engineer I’ve ever worked with. Not putting down any other engineers that we’ve worked with, but it was kind of marvelling how before I would finish a sentence he would know what I needed. He’s kind of no bullshit. You hear stories about some engineers and producers and how they’re very dramatic and want to alter your music. Seth doesn’t want to alter our music at all. But if I tell him, ‘I think I want to choir samples on this song’. He’s not going to say, ‘That’s stupid’, he’s going to say, ‘Alright, let’s give it a whirl’. Then he is going to figure out what’s the best way mixing wise to make it work.

“With this record, there is a lot of extra little touches, but you still want it to feel like a band. We’re not Radiohead. We’re a group of four people that play music together. It’s nice to have some nuances that are not there in the live setting, so there was a lot of Mellotron on almost every song. There’s some other sonic touches there as well. He was great at blending those in, and I feel like there’s all these other sounds, but he helped it make sense. Especially a song like New Neighbour – that song is super lush. The guitars are double-tracked and they’re very vibrant. Then there’s these Mellotron string sample keys playing and I’m pitching them up and down. And there’s mandolin on that, and there’s piano on that song. He just helped it make sense.”

S13: There feels like a Dripping-era Pile vibe that runs through The Future. You’re on the same label and surely you would have crossed paths with them both being in Boston?

CS: “Oh, yeah. In the more recent years we haven’t kept in touch too much, because who really has? But yeah, absolutely. We used to share a practice space with them. But Rick [Maguire] did move to Nashville, so not as much contact. Are we influenced by them? I don’t know. It’s weird. It’s just something that you’re around a lot. Could it filter in? Yeah, but it’s weird because they’re my friends.

(Pause)

“I don’t know. I don’t really feel like we have a Pile influence. It’s like drinking water. That song is the oldest on the record, and was written before even Universal Care came out. It’s not my favourite song on the record, it’s actually probably my least favourite talk. That being said, I’m willing to talk about it. (laughs) It feels the most like old Kal Marks. I feel like it would totally fit in with Life is Murder.”

S13: Ovation feels like a song that underpins the album for me. Can you tell us about that one?

CS: “Ovation started out purely as a jam thing. It was just us fucking around. Then I recorded us fucking around, and then I went home and I cut it up then wrote extra parts for it. But the catalyst was, strangely enough, the echo pedal on the bass, which is not something people usually use. With most bands, the bass player doesn’t even have any pedals. It was just hitting two notes with an echo on and the echo setting the rhythm of the song. That really struck me. It kind of made me think of Portishead for some reason.”

S13: Wow.

CS: “Yeah, that’s one of my favourite bands ever. It might not be evident, but Portishead’s Third is probably the biggest influence on this band, and specifically this record, and probably the next record too. (laughs) Ovation and then even Who Waits has that influence. And I would say New Neighbour and …Freak Show. I don’t remember how the lyrics got written. I was watching so much TV during the early pandemic: YouTube videos, going down wormholes of watching really bizarre shit. I was watching a lot of televanglist stuff. I don’t know why, it just fascinates me. It freaks me out. I just started picturing the song being with that voice.”

Kal Marks - My Name Is Hell

S13: Then there’s Bored Again which is such a great closing track. Do you remember when this one was written?

CS: “Now that I think about it, that’s the oldest song actually!”

S13: (Laughs)

CS: “That song is from 2010, but it was called Born Again. It was a song I wrote initially about how friends, especially friends in music, or their friends in any art field; their tastes change. And it sometimes changes the person. So if you’re involved with people in the indie-rock scene, and then one friend is like, ‘You know what, I’m more into this’. It becomes this shift where you just don’t see that person anymore, and that’s what I was writing about. But I didn’t love the lyrics.

“We tried recording on Life is Murder and I really didn’t like the way it came out. I hated the way my voice and guitar sounded, so it never got released officially. But it was a song that people kind of knew, because sometimes we would play it live. It’s a catchy song, so people would react to it. But it was when we were collecting songs for this record that I kind of threw it out there. I was like, ‘I think I want to re-record that song, drop it a full step down’. Because my voice has dropped, too, and it would be easier for me to sing it in a lower key, and I wanted to rewrite all the lyrics. Everybody was down for it. There’s also some additions to it, there’s that dual guitar solo at the end that didn’t exist, so it just became a completely different song. Different lyrics, [but] the theme of the song is in the title.

“I kind of realised that boredom is a thing that only privileged people actually sometimes experience. That might be ignorant to say; it feels like boredom is secretly privileged. When I was working 80 hours a week trying to get myself out of debt, I was never bored. I was just working a ton. I was overworked, but I wasn’t bored. Boredom comes when you literally don’t have to do anything, but you want to do something and just don’t know what you want to do: you feel lonely and you feel exhausted just by the concept of getting off your ass. So if I had to say any message, if there was any nice message to that song, it would just be when next time you’re bored, just think how lucky you are.”

S13: I read the other day that you are leaving Boston?

CS: “Yeah, me and Christina are moving to Providence. We just can’t afford living here. The only way to live in Boston, affordably, is to have like eight roommates crammed in there. It’s happening in a lot of cities in the US. [There are] a lot of like tech and biotech companies coming in developing, a lot of businesses are being run out. A lot of artists are being run out. Boston’s a really small city, so there’s not as many places to go. Allston and Brighton is like the mecca for music and art in Boston; for the punk scene, the indie scene. But it’s also where a ton of development is happening because Harvard is right nearby, too. So they buy out a lot of stuff and they’re building a ton of stuff and there’s a bunch of condos being built for all these new people that are moving in that don’t really… I mean, it would be ignorant for me to say that every person that’s moving into these fancy, expensive condos doesn’t give a shit about music: it’s not true. But they probably don’t give a shit about the kind of music that we do.

“Walking around town, I don’t even feel like I see any punks anymore. I’m seeing jocks and wealthy young people. A lot of venues are getting shut down. They just can’t afford it anymore. The only venues that have opened are three to five thousand capacity rooms, and we are never going to play something like that.  It’s really hard to be a musician around here. And then the other thing is also practice spaces. A lot of practice spaces have closed down or reopened and are crappier buildings, so it’s really becoming impossible.

“Providence is really not that far. If there’s no traffic, it’d be like 45 minutes. There is some music going down around there, but now more than ever it doesn’t really matter if we live in a music centric city, because we tour and we play with people that live in New York, anyway. Honestly, it feels like that’s home base for us now, even though me and Christina don’t live there.”

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S13: With the new line-up and moving to another place, do you see that as a new influence that could creep into the consciousness of the band?

CS: “I don’t know if our location really influences us too much. Initially, Boston was a very vibrant scene. There was constantly touring bands reaching out to me asking, ‘Can you help us with the show? I’ve heard really good things about Boston’s DIY music scene’. There was a litany of amazing bands from this town, but a lot of them have either broken up or moved away. I think it’s really hard for young people to live here to afford it, so I think a lot of young people are going elsewhere. And that’s the only thing that’s going to make your music community actually be crucial; young people that have the time and energy. I’m not really that young anymore. I work a lot, and then I focus on being a musician and just being a person, so I don’t have a lot of time to give back to Boston, anyway. I used to book a decent amount of shows and help bands out, but I really just can’t do it anymore. I feel like there’s a lot of people that feel the same way, and a lot of people feel the same way because there’s no easy venues to put a hold on.

“Maybe Providence could be [an influence], because there are some other likeminded bands from there that have been an influence on us. Also, Machines With Magnets is just a town over from where we’re moving. I still want to work there for on the next records and whatnot.

“There’s a band that we recently started becoming chummy from Providence called Psychic Graveyard. Two of those guys were from a band called Doomsday Student. The singer was also in Doomsday Student as a student and Arab on Radar, which is a legendary band from Providence. We’ve been talking a lot, and I really like what they’re doing. They’re making punk rock with electronics. I think that’s super exciting to see somebody still having a band dynamic, but using different materials to make a band dynamic.

“That’s the one thing I have to say; I don’t care about rock music surviving, necessarily, I care about bands surviving. Seeing a person just get on stage with a backing track is really not interesting to me at all. Seeing a group of people play together that have chemistry is so exciting to me. It’s so crucial to me. It really elevates a song when a group of people are vibing together. So that band really excites me. I think we might plays with them in the future.”

Kal Marks (photo credit: Stephanie Andreana)

S13: You’ve touched on it a couple of times during our conversation, but with this new incarnation of Kal Marks, do you see yourselves making more records together?

CS: “Yeah, I think so. I think everybody is on board. [After] recording the new record, we were kind of surprised by ourselves and by how good it came out. So I think everybody’s feeling that same feeling of being like, ‘I want to see where this goes’. I’ve had a bit of writer’s block lately, but that always happens. We’ve worked on three new ideas. We have to plan for our practices when right now we’ve only been practising what we’re going to do for the tour. But I think maybe next month, I’d start writing again and when we get back from tour, we might start writing again.

“I don’t feel like I have the ammo quite yet for another record, but I’m excited by the prospect of working with these people. Usually, when I’m on stage, my mind is blank, and then every so often, when a moment in the song is really getting elevated, I have this thought that pops into my head that is just like, ‘I am so lucky to be playing with these three other people that are killer players. Why didn’t I add a second guitar before?’ It makes perfect sense.

“There are some bands that only have one guitar and they sound great. I wouldn’t want to picture The Jesus Lizard with two guitars. But with us, it’s like ‘Duh!’ We needed this so bad for years. I’m so glad we finally pulled the trigger on that. I’m so glad Christina offered. I kind of threw it out as a joke, initially. I didn’t expect her to be down with it. Dylan is a killer drummer, and I think me and John really gel well on pure taste and whatnot.”

My Name is Hell is out this Friday via Exploding In Sound. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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