The world of popular music, or what's commonly played on the radio, has drastically shifted since Marcy Playground first made their presence know with the hit single "Sex and Candy" back in 1997. Rock isn't really the popular music any more & while hip hop and more mainstream pop stars have arguably taken it's place on the throne, you could also argue that there are so many listening platforms available that there really isn't a singular stage that the majority of society crowds around any longer. Who was the last to to stand on that all-eyes-watching stage? Maybe Nirvana or Michael Jackson... but either way it would be hard to argue against the fact that most of us live in our own musical bubbles these days. What is at the top of our personal lists may be vaguely recognized or completely unknown to the person sitting next to us at our local bar or bus stop. Someone who lives completely within the realm of our physical world, the paths we cross on a daily basis, often lives entirely outside the universe of what we're listening to and watching. It's a brave and somewhat lonely, isolated new world.
But for those of us still happily stuck in the 90s, when rock was a raw king that had broken through the glamorous fetters of the 80s so that it could plainly vomit truth on our tattered Vans Sneakers and Dr. Martens boots, it is a comfort to see bands that keep fighting that good fight. Even in a world crowded with so many different sounds that its becoming increasingly difficult to make out a solitary song, there are bands that take the stage and rock. Marcy Playground is one of those bands.
I reviewed Marcy Playground when they played at B.B. Kings in NYC back in 2009 and I hold to my overall position in that piece, which is that this is a band that is very worthy of exploration far beyond the hit single everybody knows. They are only a one-hit wonder for those too lazy to wander their solid and inspiring catalogue, so bring a shovel and Marcy will provide the depths for you to dig. This time they were playing in Seattle at the Showbox and I was able to sit down with John Wozniak (Woz for short), the band's frontman and song writer, and chat before the show. My wife, Lori, joined me for the interview below.
C.J. (Culture Catch): So, coming to Washington, is this like a homecoming for you?
Woz: Every time. Yeah, man.
C.J.: Well welcome back!
Woz: It's a little shocking how expensive hotels have gotten.
C.J.: That's actually something I wanted to ask you about. So you went to Evergreen, years ago now. So what are the changes? What's this landscape looking like to you now?
Woz: It's like exploded. Seattle was kind of more of a small town.
C.J.: It used to be a company town with Boeing...
Woz: That was it. And Microsoft... and Starbucks was just getting going...
C.J.: Are there places that have vanished that you miss that make it feel less like the Seattle you knew?
Woz: There used to be a house boat on Lake Union that I stayed at that my friend Sean, his family owned. I don't know if that's still there. I need to check that out. That was the coolest -- by far the most chill thing I've ever experienced. I spent a summer on that thing in probably '92 and I hope that's still there.
C.J.: Where do you live these days?
Woz: I live in Hamilton, Ontario. It's about 45 minutes outside of Toronto. Steel town.
C.J.: So you're a Canadian now.
Woz: I've been in Canada for 16 years now. Something like that. So what happened was I bought a recording studio in Vancouver. A place called Mushroom and it was like this really old studio from the '60s that did Zeppelin, BTO, & Heart--
C.J.: Another Seattle band.
Woz: Yeah. Exactly. That's where they did Dream Boat Annie and Magazine. Yeah they were signed to Mushroom records initially before they sued the crap out of Mushroom Records into non-existence.
C.J.: And then you went and picked up the toad stool--
Woz: I was not the guy who did that. That would have been Charlie Richmond, he did that in like the early '80s. He picked up the remnants of that situation. I bought it in like '98 or something like that...
C.J.: So like right after the self-titled album. [Marcy Playground]
Woz: Exactly. I had a bit of money and I was like, what do you want do with this? So I bought a recording studio.
C.J.: Because that's what rock stars do.
Woz: It is apparently. So I did that and we did a lot of great records when I was there. We did the first Hot Hot Heat record and we did some MudHoney stuff. A lot of Canadian artists. Matthew Good... just a lot of Canadian artists.
C.J.: It is Canada.
Woz: It is Canada and then I moved to Toronto several years ago and that was a big change. That was a bit of a shock. Toronto's a big city.
C.J.: It's one of the biggest cities in North America.
Woz: Yeah. They're big. But I love it up there and I made my way up to Hamilton because of a girl.
C.J.: So now do you still own the Mushroom studio in Vancouver, so you still maintain that?
Woz: We actually moved the entire business out, so now that's in Hamilton. We're about to to reopen up there.
C.J.: Smart. So, I've been listening to your music since '97. I'm a big fan and you have an amazing catalogue with a bunch of music and I very often run into the annoying thing that I mention you--
Woz: Yeah. Oh, "Sex & Candy."
C.J.: Exactly. So what's your relationship with "Sex & Candy" today?
Woz: Better than it's ever been. I used to -- I mean, way back when it was over played on the radio and it was just... everything was...
C.J.: It's a great song. There's nothing to be ashamed of there.
Woz: Not at all, especially since the record company never promoted the song. It had an organic spreading. Started on a radio station in San Diego and got huge requests then other stations started hearing about that and started playing it and getting their own huge requests and so it sort of speard organically. So in that sense it was a fan driven hit and then it stayed on the top of the charts for a very long time.
C.J.: It was like fifteen weeks or something like that. I remember reading about it.
Woz: Yeah. It was.
C.J.: It was a pretty long period of time.
Woz: Yeah. It was absurd, actually, and at that point I was a little sick and tired of it. I won't lie.
C.J.: That's why I ask. Shapeshifter is an amazing follow-up album and it's still like when I ask people -- even friends who are big fans of your music and they love the first album but they didn't know the second album and I think, how could you not follow this up?
Woz: You know that's funny, I found there're two classes I've found with fans of our band and that's the ones that you're talking about that that's their favorite one and there's ones that are like Shapeshifter's it, like forget it, that was the beginning and end of you guys, like it's the greatest thing, they love it so much and... I find that I hate both of those guys because I want them to hear the rest of the music. (Laughter)
C.J.: Well then we can still be friends because I'm a huge fan of Wonderland. [Leaving Wonderland... In a Fit of Rage] Wonderland is a huge transition. Now I know you were going to do that as a solo album and then you brought in the band. You have a rich fantasy life, there are a lot of fantastical lyrics and I can detect an element of personal quality in all of your songs but Leaving Wonderland is much less veiled. It seems a lot more raw. Is it just because it was supposed to be a solo album or is it just where you were at that moment in your life?
Woz: Totally where I was at that moment in my life. It's much more personal. I just figured -- there's a lot of vulnerability in that record because I sort of said that's what I want. To show a little more, you know, take a bit more of a risk. It's still music, right, so I think you can show that side of yourself and people still enjoy it just because it's a good song or whatever but then there's another bunch of people that will really relate to the songs and the lyrics. Some people don't listen to lyrics, some people do.
C.J.: Lyrics are one of the things I gravitate to pretty quickly and it's interesting to me how that album is the first one that seems to deal with some darker issues more face on. Whereas that darkness has always been there... like with "Wave Motion Gun." Here's this really upbeat, happy-sounding song but if you listen to the lyrics you're talking about shooting heroin and basically committing suicide.
Woz: It's a warning.
C.J.: Yeah. It's a pretty heavy subject matter. So I'm just wondering if that's something that's always been steeping underneath the surface for you?
Woz: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It has. It took me -- I had to be separated from drugs and alcohol physically four-and-a-half years ago in order to finally start down the road to my own personal recovery. (Laughs)
C.J.: Where was Leaving Wonderland in that process?
Woz: That was like -- I was in it. I was like deep, deep in the alcoholism and drugs.
C.J: So the gin and cocaine in the back of you car--?
Woz: It wasn't a lie. It was dead true. I was pretty brutally honest with that record.
C.J.: Well, it was probably a natural progression though. It must have felt very natural for you guys.
Woz: So is alcoholism. (Laughs)
C.J.: Yeah. It's so easy!
Woz: Right? Yeah it is. No, it was a natural progression and you end up being more open to ah... sharing a bit. I think on some level I might have been reaching out, you know, to say like, hey! I'm not saying this is my musical call for help but I was definitely trying to reach out for contact without realizing it. You know reaching out to feel part of instead of separate from. I was in a state that was very separated from everybody else at that point.
C.J: Like a depression?
Woz: Oh yeah! And it's amazing to me to look back and think I pulled off a record in that.
C.J: A pretty amazing record, too. I'm a big fan. That's my favorite album actually.
Woz: Well it's a Pacific Northwest written and recorded album. I did that at Mushroom before I moved to Toronto.
C.J.: Alright. Nice. So locally grown. Well it's an amazing album. Like I was saying to Lori, I'm blanking on the title of the song... [singing] "kicking down the back streets people trying to break my stride."
Woz: Oh. Good times.
C.J.: Good times, of course.
Lori: How did you write that song when you were that depressed? Where did that come from?
Woz: Because that's what it's about. It's about me trying to call to myself -- it's a self soothing. That's what that song is. Hey, man. It's going to be alright. You know what I mean? Just believe that. Fake it 'til you make it. (Laughs)
C.J.: It's an upbeat song that would very often annoy the fuck out of me. That it's just like, oh, hey, everything's great! But there's such a sincerity to it because of all the shit that the happiness is growing out of.
Woz: The really weird thing is, too, like... I didn't even realize the phrase this too shall pass was an AA phrase. It's right out of Alcoholics Anonymous, this too shall pass. It's even on some of the medallions. And I wrote that long before I even realized I was an alcoholic and needed help. So, I think that's kind of interesting.
C.J.: Yeah! You were in your own AA.
Woz: Yeah, it was like -- I don't know. Thinking sort of in the future or something. My future self was maybe trying to talk to myself at the time.
C.J.: Was sponsoring you?
Woz: (Laughs) Yeah. Was sponsoring me back then. Like, it's gonna be alright, this too shall pass, it's kind of like -- you know looking back on it, 'cause I can reflect on it a little better than at the time. You know, like with the Beatles song "Help!" It's a very vulnerable song. "Help! I need somebody." It's like almost doing the same thing, trying to self-soothe.
C.J.: Like your lyrics, if you read just the lyrics, if you didn't have this happy, poppy song going along with it... yeah. It almost hides the darkness underneath.
Woz: It does. Yes.
C.J.: I'm a big fan of bitter pills being better to swallow with a sweet coating. I mean it helps a lot.
Woz: Yeah and also it's a musical irony that is appealing esthetically.
C.J.: I agree and that's one that I think you do very well. Now I was talking to a couple of my friends and asking them things they might like to ask you and a friend of mine named Vern who's in a band in New York that's great called Woodhead and he was wondering -- you've been around and doing this thing since 1997, how has the music industry changed? Has it gotten harder? Do you find more freedom in this era of the internet and downloading music? 'Cause you've really seen a huge transition from the label era to whatever the hell it is we're doing now.
Woz: It's much easier to get your music to the people, obviously. Before there were gate keepers. The record companies acted as the gate keeper and that made it so that you had to follow -- sort of try and follow this singular path that they were creating for you if you wanted to reach a large audience. Now days it's not the case at all, it's just you have to figure out -- you have to be creative and clever and figure out ways to be the marketing team. What is it that's going to get your music to people so they're going to want to watch it on YouTube or whatever and, consequently, maybe go to your Facebook page and then finally find you on iTunes or something like that and buy the record or the song or whatever you've got. So, in that sense, it's -- you can create what we used to call back in those days street teams, right? Just fans that would try and get the word out, but they would do it by like putting stickers in taxi cabs and that sort of thing and now days it's a little quicker. If you want people to know what you're about and hear your music, if you ask a bunch fans to tweet about it... social media is an incredible marketing tool. That being said, however, there's no tour support in there so... unless, of course, you do GoFundMe or something like that. There's no album budgets, it's a lot of -- you have to do it yourself and I've watched a lot of people successfully do that. However, it is awesome -- it was great when you could just throw your record at the record company and then get on a tour bus and go out and tour and not really focus on...
Woz: Right, the business and marketing aspects of it. So, I mean, I'm a musician, first and foremost, I'm a creative person, so if you ask me to do that kind of job I'm going to fall short. I'm just not very good at it and I'm not necessarily unique in that I would rather have experts in that field working with me as a team to be able to make that happen. So in a business sense all I can say is it's different. Is it better or worse? No. There's no better or worse really. More opportunity now, but more work. Harder work.
C.J.: Do you find that it's harder to be a working musician?
Woz: No. Because of the fact that we have this legacy and the fact that we've been doing this for as long as we have, we don't any of those sorts of problems. We'll come out and we'll do these tours and it's totally doable. The thing with us, really, it's our time. 'Cause Dylan, our bass player, he actually works at WNYC in New York--
C.J.: And Dylan's been with you since New York from the very beginning.
Woz: ...since the beginning. Yeah. Do you know the show Radiolab on NPR?
C.J.: Yes! Of course!
Woz: Yeah, so Dylan... you'll hear his name at the end of every show because he's the technical director for the show. He does all the sound, all the music, all the editing... so he's got that job and I produce records for other bands, you know I've got the studio and, also, I have hobbies, like I build and repair guitars. There're other things that I'm interested in doing. However THIS is always going to be my first love. My band is always going to be my first love and I've tried to do the solo thing, as you know... I just went, nah! Let's just do it as a band again.
C.J.: Marcy just pulled you right back in...
Woz: Yeah! Yeah. Like I've never released anything as a solo record but I'd like to at some point, maybe.
C.J.: Is that the next step? 'Cause I know you've done some compilation stuff, but since Wonderland -- that was your last completely originally album, right?
C.J.: Is there something in the works right now?
Woz: Yeah. There is. In fact, I just mixed a song in the back of the bus. We recorded it in Hamilton. It's a new song.
C.J.: Will we be hearing any of that tonight? Will you be playing any new songs tonight?
Woz: Ahhh... possibly, I'll talk to Dylan. We'll see. I mean it's super brand new.
C.J.: I understand. You don't want to take it out before it's ready.
Woz: No. I don't mind doing that. I just don't want to sound like shit.
C.J.: That too!
Woz: I think we need to practice it a little more. I don't mind sounding like shit, just not in front of an audience.
C.J.: I think that's a reasonable stance to take. (To Lori) Did you have anything you wanted to ask?
Lori: Who should we listen to? Who are you excited about?
Woz: I mean... if you haven't been obsessed with The Shins yet that's a good way to go.
C.J.: OK. I know of The Shins but I have not been obsessed with them yet.
Woz: Oh, man. Yeah, I think James Mercer is a genius. He's got like, I mean a deep catalogue of material and his lyrics. I love them so much.
C.J.: Cool. I don't go to shows much any more. I have a bunch of friends in local bands and I see them and I go out to their shows, but I don't to big ticket events much any more.
Woz: I always feel like I should be working whenever I go to a concert now. You know what I mean, I'm looking around and I'm like, am I allowed to be in the audience?
Fortunately for us, Woz was not in the audience that night, but instead was on the stage working, engaged in playing music with his "first love." My immediate impression was how tight they were, perhaps even more so than when I saw them back in 2009. This is not a band going through the motions while looking to cash in on our nostalgia; they clearly love what they do and are dedicated to doing it right. They didn't end up playing any new material, but put out a solid set that spanned their four full-length albums. It was a slightly short set. No offense meant toward the other two bands on the tour (Everclear & Local H), but I could have done with at least an hour more of Marcy Playground.
So if you find yourself missing the music of the '90s or just craving some heart-felt rock with catchy hooks and galvanizing lyrics, you're in luck. If you haven't already explored Marcy Playground and their full arsenal, you have an invitation to one of a number of refreshing oases to help you survive this present Rock & Roll desert we've found ourselves traveling through.
For future tour dates and merchandise, check out the Marcy Playground's official website.