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Interviews : The Mark of Cain; “I always call it the dirty word ‘art'”

By on September 20, 2013

What Adelaide folk lack in numbers they make up for in enthusiasm and participation – when I lived there three quarters of the state’s population would turn up to the John Martins Christmas Pageant that weaved it’s way through the city streets once each year as babies and octogenarians alike took up every vantage point.

Adelaide also enjoyed, and still does, a strong arts scene with an annual festival known world wide, and in more recent years, world music event Womadelaide. There have been some significant people in the arts too, like Kim Bonython who had one of the most extensive and valuable collections of jazz records in the world (lost in a fire) and had brought the likes of Dizzy Gillespe and Chuck Berry to Adelaide.

If you weren’t living in Adelaide in the ’80s and ’90s, or if you were but not much into live music, it’s probably a bit hard to grasp just how thriving the local underground rock scene was in this city of less than million people at the time. With bands like July 14th, The Dagoes, The Spikes, The Clowns of Decadence, Lizard Train, Iron Shieks, Mad Turks, Del Web Explosion, The Bellies, The Mice – on any Wednesday to Sunday night you could go to the Tiv, or Le Rox, or The Royal Oak and see good sized crowds enjoying great music. Down South from Reynella to Noarlunga was the hardcore and punk, and North you had blues-based rock like the Angels in big beer barns like the Bridgeway.

There were some key people who drove much of the scene – like Doug Thomas of import record store Umbrella Records and his Greasy Pop record label, and Harry Butler of DNA mag and various bands. Apart from bands like Cold Chisel and The Angels who became huge in Australia, there were underground bands getting recognition far and wide, like The Exploding White Mice, and the subject of this interview, The Mark of Cain.

The Mark of Cain were different from both the psych bands and those with the Detroit-influenced Radio Birdman sound. Their first single had strong influences from Joy Division and Black Flag, but it was their first album, Battlesick, that really pioneered a new sound. It’s a sound that even many big supporters of local music didn’t get and this combined with an undeserved early reputation as being some sort of skinhead band to close the door to some opportunities. John Scott and brother Kim formed the band that had an early lineup and size change to become a three-piece with a revolving door of drummers that makes Spinal Tap look as stable as the lineup of U2. Despite these obstacles they forged ahead, earning a huge reputation and fan base that saw regular gigging and high praise from some big international names. Their most recent album, Songs Of The Third And Fifth was released last year and has just come out on limited vinyl.

“There was a scene and everyone was just trying to help one another out” says John. “There was no real rivalry – well I never saw it. There were always venues, places to play or people discovering. Harry Butler would go into places and say: ’Hey I could put a punk rock band on and get people here.’ Venues were a lot more amenable to that. We used to play Friday, Saturday, Sunday- Friday, Saturday, Sunday every weekend we could. It was always the same crowd but there was a scene and you knew everyone so it was fun. It was a real community. There was always something to do, someone to see – we had our own way of doing things (in Adelaide) and that’s why it was a special time for music”

Although Greasy Pop was the label most bands tried to get onto and it supported many small bands, break-even was something like 1200 for 7′ singles (yes people bought physical music back then) so not everyone got picked up, but the real reason was “Doug never really got us – we did try”.

“We did a big press kit up, well Harry helped us with that. We had a list of all the main people and we sent out about 15 cassette demos with a brief thing that Harry had written about the band and we sent them out to everyone, and we got back a lot of ‘No, not at this time’, ‘No, not interested at this time’. In fact the only person who got back and said he was interested was Jules B Normington from Phantom, so we went and recorded the (Lords of Summer) single for them.”

From there the band moved to Adelaide label Dominator Records formed by Aaron and Kelly Hewson (Aaron was in TMOC for a short time): “They asked if we wanted to be on and we thought ‘Fuck yeah! We would prefer to be on an Adelaide label’”. After releases on Insipid and RooArt, the current album was self-produced on another small label with 600 clear vinyl copies made. And so it’s come full circle.

“Self producing – I think it’s good. I think the time for having big labels behind you for bands like us, or maybe any band, you just don’t need it. You can DIY these days, you can put it out, you can make sure you get the visibility on the web, and if it’s any good and strikes a chord with people then you’ll probably do OK.”

There’s been a long time between albums for a whole lot of reasons, which always seems to become such a big talking point and I asked John if this showed that people just don’t understand what it means to be in a band where the members have lives and day jobs – where life just gets in the way. Surely a band releases music when it’s ready to release music?

“The fans have always been loyal and just waited because they read about it all and understood what’s going on…(but) from a sales and industry side it’s almost like if you’re a band and you’ve been picked up and you’ve got a company behind you on a label you finish one record and they want you to start thinking about the next because it’s a business. Or you might just be so prolific you’re always putting shit out all the time but it probably becomes shit.

“I always call it the dirty word ‘art’ … it’s not (OK) just to put stuff out there that to me is just pollution of the airwaves or pollution of media just to get your name out there. You’re trying to do something that has meaning and that’s the old style thing to put together something that’s linked thematically, and that’s pretty old fashioned but that’s where we come from.”

TMOC have used military imagery over the years that many have misunderstood to be literal or glorifying war. John feels things are not as bad as they used to be and that people generally get that it’s simply a “metaphor for life”, not that life in general is as bad as it is for soldiers on the front line. But it’s not just military stories and books that influence these lyrics and a story about a plane crash landing in the Amazon where survivors have to make their way through cannibals is likely to also inspire. It’s not just in the lyrics either, with the sharp barked vocals and very deliberate and structured nature of the songs.

“My personality is fairly loose, I’m not completely anal about things (but) I think we are a bit different. Like even Eli (John Stanier is the official drummer but local Eli Green stands in frequently for practice and gigs due to Stanier’s Battles and Tomahawk obligations) gets asked what’s it like playing with non-musicians, because we’re self-taught and we have this weird stop-start in the sound and sometime Eli asks ‘Well why the fuck would you do that, I have to count to thirteen there!’ Well it felt right and so I think part of it came from (our) science/engineering background so we were misfits in the scene. We just like the music so we have this sort of constructionist mentality of synthesising it together. We’ve always worn our influences on our sleeve like Joy Division and Big Black and like with engineering you take things that are already there and you put them together to make something else. I could always say TMOC has its own sound but it’s a synthesis of other influences that meld together over time.”

TMOC are usually compared to Helmet and Rollins Band, even though they were making that style of music first. We don’t always recognise our own talent in Australia and I wondered why people will ask John what it’s like working with Steve Albini and Henry Rollins, but don’t ask Rollins and Albini what it was like working with TMOC.

“That’s a good way to look at it, a more interesting way to look at it. You’ve only gotta look at how many bands there are now touring and on top of the charts that sound like Tool and…people will say the band’s one of a kind when it’s not, so yeah that’s a real double standard there. I don’t know why it happens, it’s just a strange one. I think Triple J are a bit responsible for that. I remember when Helmet first broke through and I remember being in a pub and someone saying ‘Oh my god have you heard that band Helmet? Are you fucking pissed off or what!?’ There you go.”

Touring and gigging has slowed right down for the band due to the fact Kim has a day job and Stanier has his other band obligations. Getting ready for a show now means plenty of rehearsing to get up to speed again and that too isn’t as easy as the early days when they rehearsed three times a week. John would “prefer to rehearse often and play infrequently”, and would be happy to do more shows if they could but he realises that they would “get zero people” if they just played in Adelaide every week.

Apart from TMOC John has been playing in a band called Pro Tools (they are hoping to get sued for some free publicity) along with Pete the Stud from Bloodsucking Freaks, Justin McDonald of The Convulsions, and Andy McQueen of The Exploding White Mice. I have no idea how many of them are musicians and how many are non-musicians but they recently supported The Cosmic Psychos and I reckon they would be worth checking out.

To finish up I asked John, if he were an animal, what would he be? He was torn between being a cat, because a) cats have a good life and more importantly b) his daughter loves cats, and being a monkey, because he and his daughter always thought they would grow up to be monkeys. In the end he went for either a big fucking cat, or a monkey.

About

A relatively recent convert to more extreme metal (not exclusively), I've always preferred non-commercial and progressive music to mainstream. I grew up in Adelaide, South Australia, where in my youth I lived for every new Greasy Pop Records release. I also write for ech(((o)))es & dust and ThisIsNotAScene but it's good to start contributing to an Australian metal site.