Lost Instruments,
Found Voice


Mark Growden


by Mark Beers

The prison work song rhythm of two hands clapping announces the beginning of a Mark Growden solo performance. Dressed in green cargo pants dangling patch cords, and a tank top revealing a snaky tattoo crawling up the nape of his neck, he’s got the build of someone who might knock down retaining walls for a living. And the walls do come down as Growden commands a space among the tables, at the edge of the dance floor, or along the bar—not on stage—his palms slapping together in prayer-like invitation to the audience, so that by the time he calls out the first lines, "Takin’ my time/ Gonna take my time/ … Doin’ it slow/ Gonna take my time/ … Ain’t no hurry/ No push, no rush …" ("Takin’ my Time," Downstairs Karaoke), the crowd has joined him, returning line for line, clap for clap. "That connection—that’s what it is for me. If I’m not connecting with an audience, it’s work, and I don’t want music to be work," says Growden, who, nonetheless, works the crowd and depending on his reading of the audience, picks up a banjo or straps on his accordion for the next song.

Reviewers find Mark Growden’s eclectic music difficult to describe without alluding to more familiar names from the pop consciousness, and so his music has been described by some critics as a transmuted pastiche of Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Frank Zappa, the Beatles, Beck, Kurt Weil, and David Byrne, to name a few. Growden gives these comparisons mixed reviews.

Mark Growden’s Top Ten
particularly influential musical moments
—listed chronologically:

  1. Dancing to Sly and the Family Stone out in my dad's workshop when I was 6 or so.

  2. Watching the High School Seniors walk out of graduation to "Freebird" when I was 8 or so. They were all crying. And the guitar solo rocked.

  3. Picking up the saxophone at age 9.

  4. When I was 10 my best friend had a sticker that said "Disco Sucks" on his bmx bike. He and I both kind of liked disco, but we liked the sticker because it had the word "sucks" on it. One day we were down at the bike track and a big kid came up to us and said, "That's a cool sticker. You must listen to Iron Maiden." We lied and said yes. The next time we had money we got a cassette copy of Maiden Japan.

  5. Sneaking Crass onto the turntable while my parents were at bible study when I was 14, 15 and 16. "Jesus died on the cross for his own sins … not mine" over and over and over again.

  6. Hearing Dolphy and Coltrane for the first time when I was 17.

  7. Taking acid and listening to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring when I was 18.

  8. Taking acid and seeing the Art Ensemble of Chicago live when I was 19.

  9. Having all my instruments stolen when I was 24.

  10. Finding an accordion and my singing voice in a basement a week later.

MG: "Okay, being compared. Tom Waits. Even though Tom Waits uses very little accordion, people hear accordion—they hear waltz—they think Tom Waits. And sometimes it just drives me crazy. God, he did not invent the waltz. But he’s definitely an influence on me. I mean he’s one of the people who is not doing straight rock, and I really respect him, and I think he’s a great song-writer. Sometimes it feels like a compliment, and sometimes it feels like it’s coming from people who don’t know music well, not seeing the bigger picture. If they would really look into it: if they were to say Howlin’ Wolf, I’d say, yes. Tom Waits and I both are obviously very influenced by Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, the Allen Lomax recordings, the prison work songs, and Stravinsky. Those are my biggest influences. Bernstein had a great comment: something about "beastly but transcendent"—utterly beastly but also divine. I really like that music [prison work songs] and I often strive to draw from the depths: If I’m writing something and I’m sobbing while I’m writing it, and getting chills all over my body—"ahhhhh, ahhhhh"—that’s when I know it’s really good."

What about Kurt Weil?
Besides hearing the obvious, like "Alabama Song" and "Mac the Knife," I had never owned a Kurt Weil album, but he was never a direct influence on me. I couldn’t figure out the direct comparison, but then I listened to him, and oh yeah, well, of course. I can honestly tell you I didn’t listen to Kurt Weil, and I actually purposely avoided him for a while because people had compared me to him. But anyone who’s doing a waltz on accordion is going to be compared to Kurt Weil.

It’s not necessarily the waltz, but the dark, cabaret style, the lyrics and sensibility, creating an atmosphere where it might be possible to get stabbed in the back.

And I love that. It’s probably from being a little death rocker in high school. The other person who I get compared to is Nick Cave, not because of our voices certainly, but because of the aesthetic, and we’re both influenced by the prison work songs.

Like "The Mercy Seat"?
That song is amazing. I’m not crazy about his arrangement on that song, but the words are great. I wouldn’t say he’s much of an influence. I really respect him, but I’m not bowled over by him.

I think Nick Cave’s father is also a preacher.

It wouldn’t surprise me. They [preachers, preachers’ sons] tend to go in the opposite direction—"son of the preacher man."

Actually, my biggest influences are my instruments. The reason I play waltzes and stuff like that is because the accordion works extremely well: I didn’t write waltzes before I had an accordion. And the banjo really influences me.

You’re a charismatic performer. Is it because of what you’ve developed as a performer or has it always been there? I’m not asking you to brag.
It’s both. It’s partly my Irish thing. I get really—aahhh!—passionate and animated about things. That’s always been there, but it’s really developed. Before, I would rely on inspiration, but then it’s like tossing a coin: you don’t know when that magic’s going to be there. I’m a much better performer now because I have learned skills like reading the room and being very sensitive to things.

And the audience really responds.
Music is passion and love, and I want to share that. It’s like sex. You know, if you’re with someone and they’re like a fish, you can still try to make it into something; but if it’s not there, it’s not there. I’d rather create the situation and wake up the fish.

The Sex Trilogy
Which leads, conveniently, to a discussion of what to do with an unresponsive audience. You know the crowd at a bar: a soloist is performing, and the chatter lays over the music like static on the car radio, but you stubbornly stay tuned because you’ve played all your road trip cassettes and you’re trying desperately to hear the first really good song for miles. Then, as if you’ve just arrived in range of the transmitter, the static dissolves—the chatter abates, mute wide-eyed looks are exchanged—and the audience attends, gaped-mouthed, to Mark Growden playing accordion and singing,

"I miss spreading your cheeks and licking your bum/
I miss kissing your lips when they’re soaked in my cum/
I miss grinding and grinding and grinding til dawn/
I miss doing the nasty with you,"

while a frame by frame slide show provides the visual accompaniment showcasing Mark’s sexual imagination with a blow-up doll girlfriend.

So how do you feel about an inattentive crowd that suddenly starts paying attention when you do the Sex Trilogy ["Doing the Nasty" (excerpted above), "Mother," and "Fuck Boy"]?
I don’t like being in that situation. I am playing acoustically, and some people up front are really listening, but then there are all these people in the back swigging and yelling to each other. It’s always harder performing solo, but performing solo without amplification makes you a better performer. It’s like lifting weights—it kicks your ass. You have to go up there and take over the room with your presence—your voice, your sound, your material. If I can perform without a sound system, I do it because it’s more raw and direct. The fewer layers between me and the music and the audience, the better. So when I do the Sex Trilogy and they start listening, it’s better—I’d rather have them there. I don’t feel insulted. Playing the Sex Trilogy is a blast, and it really reflects a side of me. I’m a very sexual person. That’s my nature, and I’ve always been that way. So it doesn’t bother me to pull it out in that situation; in fact, it’s kind of a relief. Although sometimes it’s hard to sing "Fuck Boy" [inspired by a second grade teacher, to whom the song’s narrator volunteers himself as a sex slave, and then the roles reverse]. I don’t want to be Fuck Boy. It’s not about ME. It’s about unh, gettin’ it on, and it’s fun to sing. But sometimes I won’t even play the Sex Trilogy. People will be yelling for it, but I want to play other stuff.

Otherwise you’ll become known as that guy who plays the sex songs?

Yeah, and that’s why I’m worried about recording it. I’ve already got a couple of albums out [Downstairs Karaoke and Inside Beneath Behind], besides the Sex Trilogy, and I’ve got at least two more albums of material that I haven’t recorded yet.

So what does your mother think about "Mother"? ["Mother," titillates and/or embarrasses some because its lyrics probe lovingly at taboo: "Did you come when I came?" asks the song’s narrator of his mother in one verse about his conception.]
She’s never heard it.

Some day she might.
It’s coming out, though, on a CD. It’s not about her; it’s about an archetype. It’s very raw and real. It’s so honest—a love song. It worries me some. I don’t want her to feel hurt, but at the same time, I’ve curbed myself so much for my parents already, and I have to be myself.

I once heard an apparently disappointed woman comment after hearing "Mother," "I think Mark Growden’s gay," because you sometimes sing a verse …
"I’ve also had the pleasures of loving a man." It is a first person song, and I am bi. I had one relationship with a man years ago. I’m actually not singing that verse now, not because I don’t want people to know it, but because it makes the song less universal, unlike the rest of the song.

I like poetry, I like metaphor, much more than I like the confessional stuff. I have other songs like "Inside Every Bird" [Inside every bird/ There’s a smaller bird flying faster/ And inside that bird there flies another] (Inside Beneath Beyond, Mark Growden’s Electric Piñata), and people say, "What is that about?" I can’t tell you. I could, but I’m not here to tell you what the song’s about. With most of my stuff, I’m really trying to "paint" and trying to create images and little mind-bombs—little things that don’t say everything but let the listeners imagine instead of me spelling it out. I love descriptive language, but not going too far with it.

It forces participation from the audience.

Yeah, and for me, that’s being respectful [to the audience]. It’s about me giving them something. It’s service. That’s what music is to me. The audience are giving you their time. That’s their most valuable resource, not to mention that they paid the door, which is usually not that much, but still they’re giving you their time.

Mark the Monk:
Mark Growden grew up in the California mountain towns of Westwood and Pinetown (or Oldtown, depending on who you ask) near Nevada. His house was next to the woods with BLM land practically in his back yard. A trip to Stockton for band camp turned the twelve year old Growden into "the first skate punk" in his hometown. Alternative political thought and death rock alienated him from his "dominantly redneck" community and freaked out his parents whose Christian fundamentalism (his dad was assistant pastor of a local church) came under attack through Mark’s challenge to their belief in the bible. He was forced to go to church on Sundays, but when Mark was in the eleventh grade, the conflict came to a head in a huge cussing fight after which he ran away in his 125 dollar Oldsmobile, leaving a red-lipsticked "fuck you" goodbye on the bathroom mirror. In the end he got what he wanted: If he returned home, he would never have to go to church again. "And still my parents know not to even mention it to me, but they’re fine with me now. They’re into what I’m doing, and if they’re in the audience, I don’t play certain songs, although they have heard "Fuck Boy." "They haven’t mentioned anything: it’s just kind of hush hush."

Perhaps because, or in spite, of the family’s religious influence on him, Growden set off on his own spiritual journey. At the age of nineteen, inspired by study of Eastern spirituality, he decided to give up all of his belongings and wander. His Fresno State music teacher, Loren Pickford, also lent a hand in pushing him out on the road: He put his hand on Mark’s chest and said, "This is your instrument. Don’t stay here. I can only teach you to play like me. Go do your thing. Quit school, go travel."
For a couple years—19 or 20 till 22—he traveled all over the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, but mainly the western states. "I did this walk across Washington, no money, no sleeping bag, no food, nothing. What’d I have? I had some juggling balls, carving tools for carving wood, bone, or antler because if I stayed with someone, I liked to carve something while I was there and then when I left, I’d give it to them. That was one of my little practices."

How’d you survive without money?
I ate wild foods—wild berries, horse tail, watercress. I met people who took me in and they gave me whatever there was. I remember the night before my walk across Washington, we slaughtered a baby goat, and that was the first time I had eaten meat in a couple years—at that time I was vegetarian—and it was so good: fresh killed goat, barbecued on an open fire at this farm where I was staying. In Mexico, up in the mountains at this rancho, they told me they were eating wild burro, and we were having burro asada. I never really knew if they were just messing with me. I could have been eating burro, I don’t know. Another time in Mexico, I was so hungry a woman gave me some hot salsa, and I ate it.

So I survived and it was great for me, but at the same time I learned it’s easy to be all the things you want to be, loving and such, when you’re on the road and you don’t have any attachments and don’t have a job, just wandering.

So you could be an altruistic, loving person because you were unattached.

Oh yeah, you’re just wandering and everything is nice and easy, but that became very unsatisfying and I knew that I had to come back to the world and start serving, to start using my gifts. I was really glad I did the walk, but I thought I would never stop. I was just a kid walking around, nothing special.

Nothing transcendent to report?
There were moments that were transcendent, utterly mind-blowing, and my faith is a lot stronger from it, although lately it’s been a little shaky.

Faith in what?

Just faith, just believing that it’s all one and going with it and knowing that I’m just a little tiny bit of carbon that’s part of this larger organism, and not to worry about it so much, but I still worry about it. For a while there I had some pretty good faith, and then through various experiences I’ve gotten a little jaded, like we all do.

Lost instruments, found voice:
Tell us the story of having your instruments stolen.
I was doing the Edge Festival, I think, at Footwork dance studio. Somehow, someone moved my stuff out of the lockup into another room and all of my instruments got stolen: my saxophone, which was my main instrument, a medieval flute from Norway, flutes from Africa—a bunch of wind instruments. And it was all gone and I didn’t have anything to play, so that night I started singing.

Didn’t you believe you could sing before?
No. well, I would sing along with something maybe. I was not a practicing singer. Later that week [after my instruments were stolen], I found some old funky accordion in the basement of the school where I used to teach. I started writing songs and "Mother" was probably the second or third song I wrote with accordion. I was 24 or 25.



Most people associate you with accordion now.
I play accordion, but I play other stuff. I’m a singer and composer, and I identify more as a composer than as an instrumentalist.

So losing your equipment totally changed everything.

Oh, it changed everything and it made it so I could be a one man band: I can just show up with acoustic instruments. I’m really focusing on the solo thing because it’s more logistically feasible and lucrative too. I love playing with my band—all brilliant musicians—it’s just that touring with a band is really expensive. Plus now I’m becoming a singer. Before that, if I had done a solo saxophone show, and even though I play djijeridoo, clarinets, and flutes and all these different instruments, a solo show of someone playing a wind instrument—no harmony, no interaction, just single line melody—gets tiresome pretty quick. But when you throw in voice—the human voice is so stirring—lyrics, story-telling, poetry, then you’ve got a show if you can pull it off.

And your other setback, the tour bus break down?
Recently I had an album come out and I bought a bus, the first tour in a year, and even before the first show, the bus broke down on the Grapevine on the way to LA and I lost over 7 thousand dollars. I got crushed. It was terrible: I have kids, and with the whole dotcom thing, I really got smushed by that. I was broke—I’ve never been in debt like this before. I closed my record label, I shut down my screen-printing shop, pulled the record back from the distributor—I wanted to be selling the record on another label and really do it right because I can’t run a label anymore. I mean there are some really cool things about running a label, but I don’t want to be a businessman. I just want to play music and have someone else do that.

So the legacy of that breakdown is a 7 thousand dollar loss?

We did a benefit and made four hundred dollars, which helped, but it’s not nearly enough. So I went back to teaching kindergarten through sixth grade music—full-time, just started in September. The bus was a serious blow in the stomach, but you know, it made me rethink everything.

How so?

I’m actually in the process of relearning accordion—another style of accordion. I am pulling back and planning to go on hiatus from performing and really focusing on writing a bunch of new material, and finishing this song cycle of the "Crooked Rose" stuff. I want to take voice lessons for the first time.

It sounds like you have a great voice. It’s not untrained is it?

It is untrained. I have picked things up. I feel really good about my voice now; I know I can go in and sing—my pitch is good, but I don’t want to rest on my laurels. I could just keep going along, but I really want to develop my skills.

So do you have to depend on disasters to develop musically? First, there was losing your instruments and then the bus broke down. Each case seems like a major turning point.
Ha ha. Not always. Having my instruments stolen was huge, musically, but the bus break-down was more of a financial turning point. My lifestyle changed because of that: I haven’t had a full-time job in years, only once, and it wasn’t really full-time.

Is there anyone you would like to give credit to—collaborators, mentors, etc?
In terms of thanking people, I always thank my mentors, Warren Pickford, my teacher in Fresno who told me to leave college. Doug Goodkin, who was a brilliant, masterful music educator, who I studied with. Renny Charlip. Ruben Boaz who owns Boaz Accordions: he’s paid for lessons for me, and I have a sponsorship from his company. They’re building me a custom accordion right now. And my family—despite all of our trouble in the past—have really supported me, and they believe in me. For a while when I was a child, they thought, whoa, this kid is out to lunch—they couldn’t understand it at all. I think now they do, though, and they see how it’s going good for me. I call them every week now. And there are my children. I mean they kick my ass.

How so?
I can’t fuck around any more. I was much more diffuse before; now I’m much more like a laser—they make me focus. And then there’s Alcina, their mother, who’s been a very good friend and really supported me a lot. Also Mika and Tom Sepe. It’s not so much that I’m looking for support for my music. I know I’m a musician, and I know that’s what I’m supposed to do—I practice hours every day, but I love doing it. But my work is not in being a musician; my work is in becoming a better person.

Mark Growden’s music may not be work for him—an oft-heard pronouncement from the best in any profession—and if in addition to his composing, full-time teaching, and fathering duties, giving us several shows a week (often including unpaid benefit performances) is not work, but part of becoming a better person, then raise your glasses and drink to Mark Growden becoming a better person. Cheers! But cut the chatter, pay attention, and have your way with this hard working, exceptional artist.

Writer and teacher Mark Beers still lives in the mission.
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