Achin' to Be
Most musicians like to shroud themselves in mystery. Cast themselves as enigmas, riddles never meant to be solved. It's an accepted part of the marketing process these days. That somehow a bit of carefully calculated inscrutability will enhance the lure of the product.
For journalists, deconstructing those fiercely guarded walls, gaining entry to the creative inner sanctum has long been the challenge.
Not so in the case of singer/songwriter/guitarist Marc Solomon. In fact, Solomon reveals himself so easily it hardly takes any effort to pin down his most profound and personal motivations.
Forget his ragamuffin appearance, bubbly demeanor and "kick ass" exhortations. Forget the fact that he rode shotgun with Tommy Stinson in Perfect -- the most promising combo to emerge from the Replacements break-up. Forget, even, that Solomon's new group, Clumsy, has made the most loving and genuine-sounding fascimile of that band since Paul Westerberg was riding high on booze and vitriol. Forget all that. Because to understand Marc Solomon you only have hear him say one word: "rock."
It's a term that, naturally, comes up several times during the course of our hourlong conversation. Yet each time Solomon utters the word, it's delivered with a growing sense of fetishistic, orgasmic delight. It's not so much the way his voice sounds when he says it -- a harsh whisper meant to convey the echo of a sold-out sports arena -- but rather the inherent meaning in his delivery.
For Solomon, the word is loaded with images, memories and portent. For him -- like most people of a certain age -- it represents the thrill of wild-eyed innocents discovering the power of rebellion. Of late nights spent with copies of vinyl favorites grown scratchy from wear and tear. Of cigarettes and beer and the comfort of three chords and a catchy chorus. "Rock" in its monosyllabic glory means all that and much more.
But mostly what you get from Marc Solomon when he talks about "rock" -- how much it matters to him and how much he loves it -- is that he's determined to try and save it.
The Dallas, Texas-born and bred Solomon first began making music in the early '90s on the Austin college scene with a trio called the Clowns.
The Clowns' sound drew heavily on the influence of loud fast rules proponents like Minneapolis' Soul Asylum. But it was fellow Twin Cities denizens the Replacements (or the Mats as they were affectionately dubbed by their besotted fans) who were the seminal inspiration for the Clowns. "Yeah, they were the ones. Right after I graduated high school I was really into Tom Petty, the Stones and the Who," says Solomon. "But it wasn't until I heard the Replacements that I was like, 'Wow, this is it.'"
By 1992, Solomon was ready to leave Austin, a climate he deemed inhospitable to the Clowns' unkempt skronk. "The blues thing was just so big at the time, it didn't seem like we had a place out there," he recalls.
Moving to Los Angeles, Solomon kicked around with a revamped version of the Clowns for a couple of years. The band eventually fell apart and Solomon joined another L.A. combo called Careless. "It was the minor leagues of rock," he says with a chuckle. "One guy in the band wound up working as a sideman for R.E.M. Another guy joined the Goo Goo Dolls, another guy turned down a spot in Slash's Snakepit. I played with them for about six months, then everybody got all these gig offers and we went our own separate ways."
Solomon's next gig would bring him in direct contact with the band that had inspired his muse in the first place.
After the Replacements' 1991 break-up, bassist Tommy Stinson had given up music, even briefly working a day job as a telemarketer. But by 1993, he decided to get back in the game and start his own group, Bash & Pop. The band's debut, Friday Night Is Killing Me -- a collection of subdued songs Stinson penned in his parents' attic -- predictably went nowhere. Just as Bash & Pop began readying a follow-up, a revolving door of guitarists opened up. It was at that point that Solomon and Stinson first crossed paths.
"In Careless I was always practicing next door to Tommy. When a spot opened up, Tommy was kind of baiting me to join Bash & Pop. So I auditioned for the band, but I didn't get the gig."
When the guitarist Stinson picked in favor of Solomon bailed shortly after joining, Stinson came calling again.
"He was like, 'Marc, I made the wrong decision. I should've picked you.' But he was saying, 'I don't want to do Bash & Pop anymore. I want to form a new band. Are you interested?'"
After nearly two years, Stinson was eager to leave Bash & Pop behind. Longing to lead a decidedly more rocking outfit, Stinson also wanted a genuine band, one imbued with the same ramshackle sense of camaraderie that had guided the 'Mats -- and he needed Solomon to be a part of it.
"At that point I was like, 'I don't know man. I'm demoing my own stuff.' I was just trying to play it cool," says Solomon. "And then I got off the phone with him and I was like 'Yes! This is kick ass!'"
Solomon quickly quit playing coy and joined up. By early '95, Stinson's second post-Replacements project, Perfect, was born. The group quickly signed with Medium Cool, an imprint of Restless Records. The deal reunited Stinson with former Twin/Tone records founder and Replacements manager Peter Jesperson -- a man who had once been the 14-year-old Stinson's legal guardian on the road -- now Medium Cool's label head.
Within a year, Perfect had completed work on a debut EP When Squirrels Play Chicken, a torrid, riff-heavy affair produced by Don Smith (Cracker, Keith Richards) highlighted by a ragged-but-right cover of Elton John's "Crocodile Rock."
Solomon's creative partnership with Stinson -- an element that brought a decidedly harder edge to Perfect's catalogue -- blossomed early on. "My role became to kind of help him arrange the songs. He called me Nelson -- as in [famed arranger] Nelson Riddle. That was the deal. It was cool, because I never felt like those weren't my tunes, 'cause I had a lot of input -- even though Tommy was doing most of the writing."
The band eventually wound up at Ardent Studios in Memphis to record its full-length debut, Seven Days A Week, with legendary producer Jim Dickinson (Rolling Stones, Big Star) -- the man who had helmed the Replacements' 1987 watershed Pleased to Meet Me.
"I'm sure it was real trippy for Tommy, going back to the scene of the crime, so to speak," says Solomon. "But it was a great experience. Especially working with Dickinson. He's like this old curmudgeon. I mean I'd work with him again, but it was not easy."
The sessions in Memphis grew long and arduous -- and more costly than Solomon felt was necessary.
"I was the guy going, 'Why are we spending so much money? We can make a great record fast and cheap.' But Tommy thought that if we didn't take a lot of time and spend a lot of money that the label wouldn't take the record as seriously. I was like, 'Man, this is a bad call. But, if you're going to spend the cash, um, I'll take a new Marshall and Les Paul.'" jokes Solomon.
Once the recording was complete, the band flew to Boston to have noted mixers Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie put the finishing touches on the album; Solomon received writing credit on all the tracks and sings lead on the little-heard but stellar number "This Thing I Call My Life ."
About then, Perfect's profile got a profound boost, thanks to an unlikely collaboration with rapper Puff Daddy. At the time, The Artist Currently Known As P-Diddy, was looking to for someone to help him create a rock remix of his hit "It's All About The Benjamins." The hip-hop mogul enlisted the services of Perfect, Fuzzbubble (a group signed to Puffy's Bad Boy label) and Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl to work on the track. With the massive success of "Benajmins," Solomon and Stinson became an in-demand remix duo for a short spell.
"We also did a remix for Mase that was never released," says Solomon. "Then we did a remix for this rap band that was on Restless. It was funny 'cause Tommy and I started doing all these rap-rock remixes. Basically, what we'd do was give the songs choruses. That was our shtick.
"So when you go to a basketball game and somebody hits a three pointer and you hear them play that little snippet (sings) 'It's all about the Benjamins' -- that's me and Tommy. I'll be sitting there at a game hearing that and think, 'Dammit. [Puff Daddy] just got paid again.'"
Though a pleasant and relatively lucrative diversion, for Solomon the experience was more than a bit disconcerting.
"Yeah, it was weird, turning on MTV and seeing Weird Al doing 'It's All About the Pentiums' and using our melody. But for one month we got paid really well."
Stinson and Solomon were even set to turn up in the Spike Jonze directed video for "Benjamins" -- before the latter got bumped from the shoot at the last minute.
"Spike was very nice when he was firing me," laughs Solomon. "It was kind of a political thing. There was a friend of his manager -- a guy who had nothing to do with the song, mind you -- who he gave my part to. He was like, 'There is another part for you if you want.' But I was, 'I really don't need to see my mug on MTV that badly. I played guitar. If you want me to be the guitar player, cool. If not, it's okay too.'"
Despite the video snub, things couldn't have been going better for Solomon or the band. "We had a lot momentum going as we were waiting for the record to come out," he recalls. "We played the BMG connection in New York on the deck of the U.S.S. Intrepid in full-on sailor regalia. You know, it seemed like things were going great."
In the interim, Perfect had finally signed on with a manager -- a task that proved to be more difficult than would seem. "For a while, I think people were afraid to work with us, because of the whole Replacements thing. Their reputation kind of preceded us," notes Solomon. But before the record came out, a dispute between Stinson and Restless Records honcho Joe Regis threatened to derail everything.
"Joe called him up to talk about something and Tommy was like, 'Maybe this is something you should talk to our manager about.' And I don't know if [Regis] just got really bent out of shape about it or what. That's just my speculation in trying to figure out what went wrong. It could've been that [Regis] just hated the record."
Regardless of the reason, Regis decided to delay the release of Seven Days. To those involved, it seemed clear that the delay was a thinly veiled attempt by the exec to kill the record, and, it appeared, Perfect's burgeoning career.
In the wake of Regis' decision, Perfect's A&R man, Peter Jesperson, along with several other Restless staffers, quit in disgust.
"Worse, [Restless] wanted every penny for the record. But it'd cost so much we couldn't get any other label to pick it up. "And," adds Solomon, "at that point, Tommy already working with Guns n' Roses."
In an even odder twist to the story, Stinson had actually accepted Axl Rose's offer to temporarily -- although the job soon enough became permanent -- replace Gn'R bassist Duff McKagan. With Perfect's record being held hostage, the Gn'R offer -- reportedly a three-year pact worth a million dollars -- was too sweet to pass up. (Stinson is still a member of the group, aiding Axl Rose in the completion of Chinese Democracy, the now comically delayed follow-up to 1991's Use You Illusion -- as well as helping Gn'R outspend Michael Jackson in the quest for the dubious tittle of Most Expensive Album Ever Made.)
Solomon, understandably, looks back on Perfect's demise with a sense of regret. "Overall it was a great experience. But the band only broke up because of the typical story of the record label fucking you around. But I'm really proud of [Seven Days A Week]. I think it's a fucking shame that record never came out."
When Perfect officially called it quits in November of '98 after a series of gigs in New York, Solomon stayed in the city and began demoing songs with an old Dallas acquaintance, Spin Doctors drummer Aaron Comess.
The batch of material that emerged from his brief NYC stay -- a sundry collection of rockers, ballads and anthems -- had convinced Solomon the time had finally come to try and lead his own band again.
Armed with a clutch of strong tunes and the germ for starting his own project, Solomon retreated to his native Dallas. Joining him was Kinley Wolfe, a fellow Texas ex-pat who'd taken a similar detour through the music industry working as a sideman for the Cult, plus local rhythm ace Nate Fowler.
Things moved quickly for Solomon's new band -- dubbed Clumsy after the guitarist spotted the word on the back of a Samiam tee shirt -- when Irv Karwelis, head of Dallas' Idol Records, got his hands on a copy of his demos and offered him a deal, sight unseen.
Another copy of those songs made its way to producer Tim Patalan (Sponge, Peter Searcy) who jumped at the chance to work with the band. "Tim said, 'I want to make this record.' But Irv was like, 'You're a little out of my league, price-wise,'" recounts Solomon. "But Tim was so adamant he took a discount in his fee to work with us."
Solomon and company then traveled to Saline, Michigan, where they recorded for two weeks at Patalan's studio -- located on his family's sprawling horse farm.
The result of those sessions is Clumsy's Center of Attention Deficit Disorder. Released in January, the 13-song disc is a long-awaited treasure, the album that Replacements fans have been hoping someone, anyone, would make for nearly a decade.
Kicking off with the frenetic "Keep in Mind" ("Light your candle paint your face/Hard to handle, hard to say") Solomon seems intent on stripping away the thin veneer of emotional politeness, casting a cynic's eye toward the charred remains of romance and youthful dreams. "Everything's peachy keen/Polished up, squeaky clean/So I don't feel a thing," he scoffs on "Prayer." Later, he sounds like a man fighting against himself not to turn on a former lover: "I want to/Not hate you."
Just as Paul Westerberg's wordplay was influenced by a surprising range of writers -- the romantic fatalism of the Only Ones' Peter Perrett and sardonic lyrical twists of other punk songsmiths, to heart-on-their-sleeve sentimentalists like Jackson Browne and Carole King-- so too is Solomon's pen.
"The big thing is I love songs -- good songs. Any era, any style, if it's a good tune I'm a fan," he says.
Offering a breather in the midst of the album's breakneck pace are a nice mix of genre workouts: the country lament, "Wrote You a Letter"; the yearning balladry of "I've Gone Wrong" and the nifty grooves of "Don't Matter" and "Watertight" -- which sound like beefed-up outtakes from Westerberg's solo debut 14 Songs.
Still, Center's biggest selling point is the febrile wall of guitar and taut blasts of Solomon's pipes -- two elements that will grab listeners ears and then proceed to smack them upside the head.
"That's the secret: the energy of rock 'n' roll," says Solomon. "That's why that whole Replacements, Soul Asylum, Minneapolis thing was so special -- it was the energy of those bands."
The album takes a reflective turn midway with the arching, straining notes of "Sick of it All" a hard-living hellion's rumination on growing old, or at least growing older.
Solomon's opening salvo, "Where were you when we didn't need a Peter Pan or panacea . . . /Where were you when we thought freedom was cigarettes and shots of tequila" turns into a distant memory with the realization that "We've given up the drugs and alcohol/ For tissues and Tylenol."
"I am 33 years old," offers Solomon emphatically. "And 'Sick of it All' is a song about being in your thirties. You know, I'm all for people of the ages of 13 to 23 buying this record. But I don't write stuff that's geared toward anyone. I write about stuff that I know or that I feel. And a lot of time I do feel like I'm talking directly to people [my] age."
While many of the themes on Center have a sort of autumnal glow about them, the sound of the record is firmly rooted in the din and clatter of youth.
"Even though I've gotten to play on a lot of records and stuff like that, in some ways this is the record I've been waiting my whole life to make," says Solomon.
It's exactly that sense of fulfillment which colors every inch of the album's boozy, blustery and emotionally bruised landscape. A lifetime's worth of passions, perversions and pain captured in the space of 44 minutes. And like the Mats' best work, there is an underlying melodic foundation to every song. A steady stream of poppy, almost sugary melodies buried beneath cascade of Les Pauls and howled, soul searing vocals.
Aiding in Solomon's effort are Patalan's pronounced production touches, which reinforce both the power and nuance of the material while making all the right sonic connections to the band's touchstones.
"I wanted it to sound the way records used to be made," says Solomon. "One guitar in that speaker. Another guitar in that speaker. Drums, loud as shit. Huge vocals and let's really get those melodies out there. The whole idea of how the Faces made records, how Rod Stewart made his early records -- that's what I really wanted it be like."
True to Solomon's word, tracks like "Prayer" and "In Between" do sound like the Faces -- as interpreted by the Replacements and played by the Afghan Whigs. That sometimes jittery, sometimes bouncy sense of post-punk euphoria is a major appeal of Clumsy's live sets as well.
After a couple of early lineup shifts, the band's membership seems to have solidified. Currently keeping Solomon company is his old mate from the Clowns, Michael Brien on drums, Lasonic vet Corey Rozzoni on guitar and the group's newest addition, bassist Joseph Nedwed -- who was asked to join when Solomon saw him in a Laundromat wearing the same Samiam tee shirt that gave Clumsy its name.
For his part Solomon is eager to begin work with his cast on a sophomore album. "We've got the whole next record ready to go in and record. We're playing about half of it in our sets now." But for the time being, Solomon can rest comfortably in the knowledge that's he crafted a worthy heir to his favorite records. While not an earth-shattering landmark like Tim or Let It Be, Clumsy's debut carries on the sprit and tradition of those albums admirably.
"When we were making the record I was joking with Tim [Patalan] that I wanted to try and save rock," he says accenting the last word in his own inimitable fashion. "I don't know if we did it, but we'll keep trying."
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