Stavesacre's Amendments

by Daniel Johnston

Some people say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. That depends on the dog. These days there is a surprising amount of newness to {{Stavesacre}}, a band that by so many counts is old. "We've changed quite a bit," starts Mark Salomon. It's not that they are out of date; these guys have just been around a while. Although the collective age of the 5 members is pushing a century and a half, and individually the members have long histories and large discographies behind them, Stavesacre is just hitting its prime. And with a new guitarist, a new album and a new sound, Stavesacre is adapting and growing as they mature.

The band has been on six tours since Absolutes came out, so the live sound is very important to the band. Playing live, a lot of the songs didn't achieve the intended effect, "they have power, but not what they really could have if there were two guitars," explains Mark. Playing the songs at a reduced level wasn't satisfying for the band in terms of musical quality, and also "on a business level we just couldn't duplicate what we were putting on the records." Which made it pretty clear something had to be done to remedy the situation, and there was little debate over how to do that. The addition of a second guitarist in Ryan Denny was a long time coming. "Ryan is a long time friend of Dirk," Mark explains. "We've all kind of known him for a while and have toyed around with the idea of having him in our band for quite a long time. He's always kind of wanted to play with us just because we all fit musically; even up to the point where Dirk and Ryan had a little side band going for a little while called Swingline.... Because Dirk and Ryan like playing together so much and Ryan's style of playing was so similar to ours, I guess to me it was like 'why don't you just do this? Why don't you just join? Come play with us.' And everybody wanted him to play. Dirk had started suggesting it a while back, and Jeff started talking about it... and the next thing you know me and Sam are like 'what do you think?'"

Stavesacre isn't the kind of outfit you can jump into just because you have a guitar though; "you gotta know how to play music to be able to do the stuff we're playing. And Ryan's done a pretty good job," commends Mark. Ryan has strengthened the band in more ways than just providing a bigger guitar sound. He adds a valuable element to the band's chemistry through his friendship with the guys in the band, "I don't think we would have gotten through our summer tours last year if he wouldn't have been with us, because it was too difficult, and too frustrating, and it was too disheartening. . . It was fun to have him lighten the mood. It was great to have him just tell us to quit being a such bunch of whiners."

Frustration seems to be one of the new things Stavesacre is doing these days. The band went into the studio at the end of February to record their third album, and for the first month were not able to do much. "There's nothing we could do about it. I don't know if we should be used to it or what. But it's just really frustrating" sighs Mark, as he approaches the issue carefully. Producer Bryan Carlstrom is battling fibromyalgia syndrome, a condition which causes widespread pain and profound fatigue, along with many other symptoms. Mark explains Bryan's condition as "everyday while we're in the studio he's just trying to get through each day.... He has described it as you get up to go to the refrigerator and you feel like you ran a marathon, your body is just aching for air." The cause of the disease is unknown, but experts have linked it to overwork and extreme stress. Agreeing with the doctors, Mark sympathizes, "a couple bands you'll never hear of just took it out of the guy, so I hope that we can be an encouragement to him. I'm just glad he has a loving wife that can be an encouragement to him." With their producer and friend limited and in so much pain, the band is in an awkward position "because Bryan also has a really gnarly work ethic and he tries to do too much. And we have the frustration of not quite finishing it yet. How do you try to get it done without pushing him too hard?" On top of all that, "a person that Bryan has worked for, and that the studio has employed, has just kind of gummed up the works for everybody else. "The recording process was very slow, laments Mark, but "the thing that's even more frustrating is that it sounds better than it's ever sounded before."

Despite its frustration, the situation typifies the band's style. Mark explains, "I believe Christians are ministers on an individual basis. God calls each of us individually, and in each of our lives individually he provides us opportunities to serve him by loving other people..." And of course, getting involved personally isn't always pleasant; "with that sometimes comes some heartaches, man. Some pretty horrible things have happened in this last year, or last two years." Pain is a part of life, and when we follow God's call to minister to people, sometimes we end up getting hurt. It may not be pleasant, but sometimes it is necessary.

One thing that has caused Mark some pain has been the judgment of people who expect the band should be a ministry, not the individuals. "I am going through a hard time in my life right now and quite frankly, I have no business being a leader over kids that I have never met. Because in my own life, I am not right with the Lord in certain areas that need to be right, in order for me to be a capable leader to the people God has given me. . . I just don't want that to ever be misunderstood. This is not a ministry; Stavesacre is a rock and roll band." But it is a rock and roll band made up of Christians who have been called individually to love people. "It's been cool to be around Bryan because he's not around Christians that much," Mark explicates. "I just hope that our own individual inconsistencies and failures and faults and defects and whatever aren't going to hurt him. I hope that we could be a blessing to him and an encouragement to him. There are definitely people that we've spent time with that have blessed us and encouraged us, and I would sure hope that we would be like that." It is these experiences of serving God by loving people like Bryan, that serve as the basis for a lot of Mark's lyrics. "There are a couple things on the new album that are very personal, man," Mark confides. "They are really just something that, despite my weaknesses and my failures (and man, I'm reminded of them daily), God still chooses to use me and I don't know why. And He's used me in people's lives, you know, people's lives! Not on the internet, not in letters, but in their lives! I'm involved in people's lives! That blows my mind, a lot." While Mark is one of God's tools, he is still a humble guy, "Just before this interview, I just talked to the Lord and just asked him to help me not to seek my own." He admits that in the eternal scheme, neither he nor Stavesacre is very big, and he knows his place as a servant of God, "I sure wish I was a little more active in the whole deal as opposed to 'oh yeah, here goes God again.' I'm just kind of the tool used for it. I'd like to be an active tool: conscious, willing, passionate about serving Him and blessing other people in serving them."

For Mark, lyrics don't just reflect his life; they are an art of balancing personal experience and connecting with the experiences of others in order to enhance the mood or emotion the music dictates. He explains, "There are a lot of personal things that everybody can relate to, and there are personal things that only very few can relate to." Since the artist has control over what he creates, most of the time it is his experience that is related. "There are certain things that happen in your lifetime, I think, that you wish other people could know about, that you wish other people could experience," Mark expounds. "But I think that anyone else, even though they may never know the details of my experience... I think that the mood behind the circumstance can speak to a person." Even so, there is nothing so special about Mark's experience, "I think everybody's life is a story that's worthy of being told. So, as a result of that, I think everybody kind of holds on to their own little stories as a sacred thing." And as Mark shares his story with his listeners, if he touches their emotions, then, in a way, he is telling their story alongside his own. That can be a dangerous thing to do, but with lyrics, as well as with investing yourself in other people, there is always some inevitable risk. "If I am ever going to touch on somebody else's life, I want it to do them justice... You've got to be respectful. You've got to have love in your heart for the person." Despite the risk, it all comes down to serving God and loving the people you come across in your life.

For Mark and Stavesacre, some of the people in their lives are their tourmates. "Ghoti Hook became really good friends of ours on that tour. I like them quite a bit," says Mark enthusiastically. "And the Supertones are really nice people, good bros... I mean bros like, 'Bros, let's go and shoot some pool.'" And some of the other people who are involved in the band's life are in Europe. The band has been to Sweden 4 times since Absolutes, and Mark claims that "Stockholm is one of the most beautiful cities in the world," where they have a different way of living, and some awesome bands with a lot of integrity, like Royal and Selfmindead. Of course the band has many friends there, too. "A tiny little record company over there, called Dayglow Records, totally blessed us." While in Europe, there were several unique opportunities for the band, which influenced the new album. "Thomas and Bo from Nagle set us up with this room in the basement of their church, and we wrote three of our new songs in this room downstairs at the church in Stockholm," reminisces Mark. "That's a great way to remember a place... little markers in history, like a tattoo." The band played their first ever acoustic set at the Christmas Rock Fest in Germany. "It was hard to explain to these people that we don't usually play acoustic, so we just did it. And it sounded good. It sounded really good!" The new record will most likely contain the three songs from the church in Stockholm and a couple acoustic songs.

The latest album features not only songs from Europe, but also a new sound and image. Mark elaborates, "After the 2nd album we felt like we were getting pigeon holed." Because of time constraints, the band fell into a default mode of writing and "as much as we wanted it to be a little bit more of a balanced sound as opposed to Friction, [Absolutes] ended up leaning toward the heavier side of things too much, and that's not where we're going." This backfired on the band as many people began to label them as a Tool clone. "I just thought, man, if this many people say we sound like that, as much as I'd like to think that we don't, maybe we need to work at not sounding like that... Tool is an influence, there's no doubt about it, but we don't want to be described as a baby Tool by any means... I don't know how much of that has to do with the fact that we play a kind of music that doesn't really have a name yet, [so] the first thing [people] do is try to find a band that is kind of close to it. That's, quite frankly, getting lazy on the part of the writers."

Part of the conflict is that Stavesacre wants to have their own identity, but also being labeled so narrowly detracts from what the band is doing because "then people come expecting to hear that, and are either disappointed or have it already set in their minds. That is what they are going to hear, so no matter what, that's what they hear. It's kind of a disservice to the band, but at the same time a challenge. You can sit around and complain about this and say 'hey, we don't really sound like them' while they continue to say it, or you do something to get away from it." The band is indeed doing something about it. They wrote the whole album before going into the studio, so the new album is very deliberate, with a broader sound than just the heavy, hard, and aggressive sound of previous albums and "there's definitely a much heavier pop influence on the music, I think, than before."

If Stavesacre is not Tool, they are not Marilyn Manson, either. "As far as the image of the band, which unfortunately is something you do have to think about consciously, we're just trying to stay away from being scary.... You know, Marilyn Manson is a parody of himself. I think that so much of that stuff is just corny and kind of embarrassing." Mark is nearing 30 and as he goes through the changes of life and gains more maturity, he gains a better understanding of the things that are important to him, and that does not include standing on stage trying to be creepy. "I think, once again, for lack of a better description, people will say that we are kind of eerie or something," claims Mark. "And I don't think that does us justice, I think we reach for a lot of different emotions than just scary." While there is a place for being scary, being one-dimensionally scary doesn't accomplish what Mark, or the band, purpose their lives to accomplish, namely loving God and serving Him by loving other people.

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