A few years back, Chris Mars played drums in a band that prided itself on having one of the nastiest reputations in rock. Drunk, sloppy, crude, unprofessional, even impolite--the Replacements pretty much cornered the market on undesirable adjectives.
So what would you expect Chris Mars to be like? Obnoxious? Uncultured? Rude? And remember that he was a drummer; everybody knows how dumb drummers are. But wait--the man is just the opposite! Mars is an accomplished painter, a multi-instrumentalist, a gifted songwriter, and he's just released his third solo album, Tenterhooks.
Beyond even that impressive list of achievements, the Minneapolis native seems downright, Midwestern wholesome. When he answers the phone, he's got something in his mouth, but it isn't a beer or a cigarette or even a day-old slice of pizza. It's chocolate, for corn's sake. "I'm just swallowing it now," Mars says, apologizing. "It's actually just some cheap chocolate eggs I got from my aunt when she was here visiting."
Mars has had plenty of time for visiting aunts in the past few years. Since he was unceremoniously ejected from the Replacements in '91 (Paul Westerberg, class act all the way, fired Mars over the phone), the artist has worked exclusively at home. And why not? You don't need to travel to paint and record, and Super 8 motels don't offer the comforts of a wife, three dogs and a cat. All of which cozy up with Mars in his suburban Minneapolis house.
"It is pretty ideal, I guess," he admits. "This is the level of staying involved in music that I like. I've always liked the studio end, the creative part, more than performing. If I put my mind to it, I could probably put a band together and tour, but I don't want to do that, I don't feel that, I've done that. What happened to me with touring too much was that I got disillusioned with music, and it sort of made me not like it. Some people really live for it, they love performing live and they get a lot out of it, but I never really did. . . . I like music now, and I want to keep it that way."
Tenterhooks sounds like it was created by a man who likes music. The 12 tracks take a twisted route through a slew of pop styles and eras, stopping off for a little disco-synth violin, feel-good jazz, gut-bucket rock, luscious balladry, even rap, on "White Patty Rap," wherein Mars perfectly rips apart white boys who attempt to come off like Brothers in Hip-Hop. "Eclectic" just doesn't cover the songs and performances on 'hooks; the album is smart, never dull, and just plain weird.
The secret, apparently, is the do-it-yourself factor. Mars' self-written, three-page contract (the average is usually at least ten times that long) with Bar None Records stipulated that he receive a $20,000, 16-track home studio, enabling him to experiment with recording clock-free.
But before Mars could let the creativity flow, he had to learn how to actually use his new machine. "It took me about a month to get over that first technical hurdle of just speaking the language of what everything did," he says. "Then I had to figure out what the manuals were about."
Having done that, Mars began tossing track upon track of treated guitars, mutated keyboards, kettle drums, cuckoo clocks, a furnace switching on, and the bark of his 13-year-old dog, Worthy. The trick was playing self-editor in that nebulous world of When Textured Becomes Too Much. "I had to watch that," Mars says. "It was good that I just had 16 tracks; if I'd had 24, there would have been more of a danger. You know, when you have unlimited time and you're just sitting around, you can go crazy with it."
When the Replacements replaced Mars, his first move was toward painting. With influences from Dali, Francis Bacon and Hieronymous Bosch, Mars' dark, edgy works have graced shows in Los Angeles and Minneapolis, album sleeves of his last band and all of his solo releases. "My mindset when I got out of the band was that I would concentrate on visual art. I put a lot of time into that, but I had a four-track machine, so I was also recording with that, just kind of fucking around, but I didn't have any big plans," offers Mars. "Then a couple people heard it and said, 'You should send it around.' I thought, 'Nah . . .' Then when I got signed, it was a surprise to me; I was probably more frightened than anything."
Mars conquered fear and made it his slave, turning out the massively ear-catching Horseshoes and Handgrenades in 1991. Brilliant songwriter that Westerberg is, more than a couple of critics wondered at the time why a few bars by Mars hadn't made it onto Replacements albums.
Though he admits to only "dabbling with guitar" until the last couple of years he was with the band, basically "just content with playing the drums and maybe co-writing songs," Mars says things could have been otherwise. "In retrospect, sometimes I wish that we were a little more democratic, a little more well-rounded, contributionwise, with the members of the band. We used to write songs together a lot early on, and the songs were different then, but we stopped doing that. Maybe if we had continued to do that, it would have been a different thing. I gave one of the tapes I did to the band when we were recording the last record, and it was nixed. It was at the time Paul wanted to make his solo record, so it wasn't a very good time, I guess."
Things were a bit ugly when Mars, after ten years of loyal service, parted ways with Westerberg and company (it also signaled the downfall of the band he co-founded). Mars is not one to hold a grudge, which is a good thing. No matter what he accomplishes, being a Replacement is mandatory obituary fodder.
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"It's nice, because now that I've done things on my own, people are starting to consider me outside of the Replacements," he acknowledges. "But it's always going to be there, I always get questions about it and I'm used to it. It's part of my life; I spent a lot of time there. I guess we made some sort of a mark. It's interesting to hear people say we've influenced people. When you're inside of it, you don't really know--you just did what you did."
Out of different climes come different types of art, and the arduous Minnesota winters have had their effect on Mars. "The winters get just dreadfully long sometimes," he groans. "It is taxing, and it can be depressing--the overcastness, the deadness of everything, the cold. But it's good for creativity; when it's a nice day, you're always thinking, 'Geez, I should be out where everybody else is.' In the winter, you don't have that. Everybody else is doing the same damn thing. Staying inside."
And that's a good thing, especially for a man of Mars' talents. All he's ever wanted to do is exercise them.
"I've worked my share of factories and fast-food places growing up; that's about the only work experience I have," says Mars. "But my head has always been down the creative avenue--that's why I got into the Replacements--and I guess that's still where my head is. I don't know what else I could do.