martin bandyke: American Mars landing at The Ark
photo by Chris Scalise
Think Ryan Adams mixed with Echo & the Bunnymen, Americana mixed with post-punk, pedal steel guitar mixed with electric guitar, and you’re getting a feel for the moods and motives of this intriguing group.
Recently I had the chance to talk to Woodhaven native Thomas Trimble, the vocalist and guitarist of American Mars, about his band’s musical evolution, early influences, and how former Beatle Paul McCartney and the late actor Wally Cox both figure into "Chasing Vapor."
Q: Can you track the history of American Mars for those who may not be familiar with the group?
Thomas Trimble: I started the band in 1997 with a totally different lineup and that kind of fell apart in VH1 "Behind The Music" fashion. Basically people just wanted to do other things. But right around the year 2000 Dave Feeny and I started working together. I had some songs and was going into (Ferndale’s) Tempermill Studios, and he had just started playing pedal steel guitar in the band Blanche. We put a demo together and got invited to do some conferences, and it kind of went from there. David and I made an album together in 2000 called "No City Fun," using other players on that record, and it grew organically.
We put out the follow-up, "Western Sides," in 2008 with bassist Garth Girard, who’s from Ann Arbor. The lineup has stayed together since then, with the addition of drummer Alex Trajano, who’s been with us for the last three years. "Chasing Vapor" is the first American Mars album he’s been on. This is the most stable lineup we’ve ever had.
Q: Compare and contrast your new album, "Chasing Vapor," to "Western Sides." What are the differences between the two?
T.T.: On "Western Sides" we were planting our feet solidly within Americana territory. The pedal steel was in the foreground on a lot of songs, Garth played upright bass on most of it, and there’s a lot of acoustic guitar on it. We directed the songwriting and even the album art towards neo-folk territory.
But on this one we wanted to try and branch out a little bit more. Garth started playing more electric bass, and Alex has more of a jazz and blues background. So we tried to exploit that element a little bit. Some of these tracks have a different rhythmic feel than those on the last album. There are some songs that still have an acoustic feel, but others have more of a squirrely, stranger approach, including a post-punk influence. We’re trying to do some different things lyrically, things you might not expect from an Americana or roots-influenced band. People will hear a wider sound, almost like a collection of singles.
Q: Is there one song on "Chasing Vapor" that you feel closest to personally?
T.T.: I would say the second song on the album, ‘If I’m Gonna Get Old.’ I wrote that fairly late in the process; we recorded it last. We’ve been practicing and playing it live, and that one seems to be resonating with the audience and the people in the band. It has an emotional life to it that we feel strongly about.
Q: What’s the story behind the song ‘Manage Abandon,’ which focuses on the late actor and comedian Wally Cox?
T.T.: Along with doing lead vocals, I’ve always played rhythm guitar in American Mars, so on this one I asked permission to just sing a couple of songs and not have to worry about playing guitar. I tried to channel my inner Michael Stipe on a couple tracks. At times I think about my childhood a lot, and somehow that image of Wally Cox sitting up in the corner there (on the T.V. game show "Hollywood Squares") came to mind. He had this Detroit background, born and raised in the city, and was very good friends with (Marlon) Brando. I got totally wrapped up in that whole story, and I decided to juxtapose what I thought was happening in the city at that time with Wally Cox, a strange juxtaposition I admit, but I just went for it.
Q: Why did you make the decision to close the album with a cover of the Paul McCartney tune "Mull of Kintyre"?
T.T.: I’m obviously a huge fan, but I’m not that familiar with his post-Beatles career. David brought that one to the table, saying that he had always loved that song. I didn’t know until I started doing research that it was a huge hit in the U.K. David also wanted a waltz on the album, so we thought that one could work, especially with Dave’s pedal steel in place of the bagpipes that are on the original. We’ve never recorded a cover before, and it just seemed like the time to do it.
Q: Who did you listen to the most when you were growing up?
A: (Bob) Dylan was always there. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad playing Dylan in the house. He took me to see him at Olympia (Stadium in Detroit) when I was just a little kid. He’s always been there and has always been an influence. Then I’m really into other singer-songwriters, including David Bazan from Pedro the Lion, Damien Jurado, A.A. Bondy and Richard Buckner. And the band Joy Division I always go back to. Dylan and Joy Division are the two things that always guide me, plus I would throw Springsteen in there as well. He’s gotten me through many dark periods in my life as well, especially his quieter records, like "Nebraska," the Tom Joad record ("The Ghost of Tom Joad") and "Devils & Dust"; those are all real important to me.
American Mars, with special guests the Thornbills, perform this Saturday, Aug. 18 at the Ark. Door open at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information: www.theark.org or 734-763-TKTS.
Martin Bandyke is the 6-10am morning host at Ann Arbor's 107one, WQKL-FM. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and at www.martinbandyke.com