“The first time Dave sent me a disc [of demos], I was really scared,” Serge recalls. “I was like, I hope he is getting this. We had never been this far apart and I can’t just show him on a guitar and hand it to him. I went to a coffee shop where I go in Notting Hill and I sat by myself. Got my coffee, got a pack of smokes and pushed play. I was just blown away.”
The four tracks, “East” (which began life during the Float Away sessions) “Feather Boa”, “Rough Streets Below” and Dave’s “Goin’ Thru The Motions”, so energized Serge that he immediately wanted to share the results with the world. “I was so excited, I wanted people to hear these now! Let’s do something we never dreamed of doing: Put the fucking demos on the site.” MP3s of the tracks were posted at marah-usa.com, and the feedback was encouraging. You could practically hear both band and fan base in cyberspace sighing with relief.
“It felt good. It felt like this reconnection was happening while we were creating this record. That really spurred me on,” Serge says. He was also inspired to begin posting messages at the website, reopening the dialogue with fans. “I think people’s reactions at the time were really important to us. They all played a critical role in, if nothing else, boosting our confidence.”
“PHILADELPHIA…she is throwing herself at us again. Dancin’ into our music; whispering to us ‘it’s gonna be alright!’”
– Serge Bielanko, posting to Marah’s website, September 19, 2003
It would be romantic to say that, after their misadventures with Float Away, the Bielankos saw the wisdom in returning to the wellspring of their music, Philadelphia, for the making of their fourth album. It would be romantic, but it would also be wrong. Where else could they go?
“We didn’t have any other choice,” Serge jokes. Necessity would prove to be the mother of creativity. With a little bit of publishing money and a maxed-out credit card, Dave and Serge purchased a vintage studio setup and hauled it over to their original tiny studio. “We had good equipment for, like, making a Creedence record,” says Dave. “We didn’t really know what we were doing, but our work ethic will always beat our learning curve.”
“We were working every day, twelve hours a day. Going to the bar at night, having a couple of beers and then going to bed,” Serge says of the sessions. “Just straight work, coffee and cigarettes.”
Joining them was Kirk Henderson, a recording engineer and musician Dave had recruited in a Brooklyn bar. Sessions typically ran from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., with Henderson spending his downtime sleeping in the wretchedly humid studio. “I realized this guy was sleeping there and it’s hot in that fucking place, and I don’t think he had money for coffee in the morning,” Serge says. “But he doesn’t complain about anything, he just loves the songs.”
One of the most daunting issues Marah faced as they chipped away at their fourth album was this: How do they compete in the studio with their own reputation as a touring band? Anyone who has experienced a firing-on-all-cylinders version of Marah onstage knows that they can be a peerless live act, slamming down a sound and presence and intensity that is at once joyous and frightening.
One minute, they might be improvising a few lines from the Pogues or the Temptations or Badly Drawn Boy over the shave-and-a-haircut thunder of “Catfisherman”. The next, Serge is out in the crowd and on his back wheezing the harmonica coda to a calamitous “History Of Where Someone Has Been Killed”. Always, the needle is buried deep in the red.
So how do they capture that in the hothouse environment of a studio? Simple, they don’t even try. “The live show is a like a one-night stand with somebody, where hopefully you never forget it, but you do move on,” Serge explains. “That is entertainment. A record goes a bit beyond entertainment and hopefully becomes a part of your life.”
Despite the rudimentary recording technology, the Bielankos and Henderson crafted a winningly diverse collection of songs. The deeply pessimistic “Goin’ Thru The Motions” and a portrait of a struggling single mother titled “Tame The Tiger” were done up as Sly Stone funk jams, counterintuitive to their downbeat subjects. “Pizzeria”, Serge’s affectionate memoir of his childhood hangout, was given doo-wop treatment. He wrote the plaintive “Sure Thing” with Johnny Cash in mind, but Dave wisely interpreted it in a manner that lovingly echoes Goffin/King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”.
Just as many interesting ideas were abandoned. The schoolyard chanting that energizes “Freedom Park” was part of a mooted six-song suite that incorporated inner-city rhymes. “Playground songs are the roots to a lot of urban music. I am fascinated by it,” says Dave. At one point, the album was to begin with what Serge calls a “little theatrical show tune” — “It was all about waking up in the morning and come and join me for my day. I don’t know if it even had a name.” A brace of other new songs (including “Rough Streets Below”) and new recordings of Marah live favorites “Reservation Girl” and “After The Implosion” were worked on and ultimately kicked to the curb.
Gradually, the eleven songs that made the cut for 20,000 Streets Under The Sky (which ultimately required additional work at studios in Phoenix and Brooklyn) revealed a connective tissue. The album has a body count only slightly lower than a Dirty Harry movie: “Freedom Park”, “Feather Boa”, the cross-cultural love story “Soda” and the album’s penultimate epic “Body” all deal with violent death.