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Originally, the Bielanko brothers had been in a handful of high school garage bands together, playing material not entirely dissimilar to Marah's current stock-in-trade. Serge wasn't initially involved when Marah started up in 1997, although he ended up joining when he heard the combo playing a batch of songs he and his brother had written years before. "He wasn't doing anything then. Just smoking pot and dropping out of college," Dave Bielanko recalls. "But I never gave it up because I didn't want to get into drywalling. It was rock 'n' roll or nothing. I knew he'd come back, and eventually he did."
Because of the rootsy flavor of Let's Cut the Crap & Hook Up Later On Tonight and the recorded sound of fishing reels being cast on two consecutive albums, people tend to think of Marah as a No Depression/Americana act, a tag Bielanko hopes will fade with time. "People are thrown off by the banjo thing a little, that we appear to be a bluegrass candidate," he offers. "But when I hear a banjo, I think of mummers. It's a Philadelphia thing, an urban thing."
While not eager to be lumped in with the alt-country scene, the band did connect with one of the genre's figureheads, Steve Earle. Earle eventually brought the band to his E-Squared label, which released Kids in Philly this past March through Artemis, a New York-based indie founded by former Mercury honcho Danny Goldberg.
Earle was in the middle of his bluegrass experience touring behind The Mountain with the Del McCoury band when he happened upon a copy of Let's Cut the Crap, released on the Black Dog label (owned by Blue Mountain singer Cary Hudson) in 1998. In Marah, he probably heard something of himself, a guy who loves Bill Monroe's music, even when the Stones play it. "Steve didn't have the first record until it was out in stores, and we had never met each other," says Bielanko. "After the record came out, he flew up to Philly to see the band and we hit off a relationship, started playing songs together back and forth. During the process of making Kids in Philly, he came by once in a while to listen to what we were doing."
There have been some rumblings in Nashville circles that Earle's overly controlling involvement with the V-Roys -- a roots-rock band he signed and produced -- led to their breakup after two albums. His participation with Marah, however, mostly came in the form of sage advice, since it wasn't certain the band would even sign with his imprint.
"He didn't produce our record. He understands we're young and got hard heads and wanna do things our way," says Bielanko. "I wanna learn my own way because I'm planning to do this for a long time. Obviously, listening to our record, we can write well, but we're not looking for a big hit song. So in trying to do a different thing, we didn't produce it to be a radio record and now we've got a label trying to shop it to radio. That's saying something really good; it's inspiring to us that people are getting behind it. We can do 'em a little favor in the future and communicate a little better. Listening to the record in retrospective, it's a challenging record."
There are indeed some Excedrin moments where it seems the band doesn't know when to stop adding on the ambiance, like "From the Skyline of a Great Big Town," which sounds as if a radio is caught between two opposing frequencies. But the experiment works wonders elsewhere on a track like "Round Eye Blues," which tugs you in two emotional directions. The band cross-breeds the Ronettes' hopeful "Be My Baby" with the Police's brooding "Every Breath You Take" and grafts on top of that the most frightening lyrics about post-Vietnam stress syndrome since Springsteen's "Shut Out the Lights." When Dave finally sings "Be My Baby," it's an overdue cry for help: "Hold your breath, boys, hold your breath/Finger your trigger and welcome death/'Cause the chopper's filled with your gutshot friends and your hearts are filled with fear." And this, coming after a kick-ass song about catching catfish in the Delaware!
"It's definitely a storybook record," Bielanko says. "Serge and I both write very evenly. We don't write together, but we both write. It seems to have become a singular voice, and that's pretty cool."
"The other cool thing about the Kids in Philly record is, despite the way it appears in your record store, it was made completely outside of the 'business' -- in a garage in south Philly -- and then it was sold to the label. It was the focused vision that people got. Ultimately, we convinced Steve and he convinced Danny Goldberg at Artemis and the whole thing fell into place."
Currently, Marah is on the road with Earle, who released his latest, Transcendental Blues, this past June. Soon they will join the Musicmaker.com tour, playing side-stage support to the Who and Jimmy Page and the Black Crowes. "We've been out playing for quite a while; we're clinically insane now," says Dave, who finds himself having to write songs on tour for the first time ever. "We're thinking hard about it. This next record for us is gonna be a very important one. And because Kids is such a short and challenging record, I want to follow it up within a year. The best-case scenario is you keep up that pace because people appreciate it."