The Mark Heard Tribute Project banner 300x64
BIO
DISCOGRAPHY
LYRICS
ARCHIVE




VOL History PART 3 - by Bill Mallonee [8-09-2000]



..That phone call I mentioned...? I called a fella named Chuck Long...Chuck was a long time friend who, after life took us in different turns, wound up in Charlotte, N.C. practicing medicine. He and his lovely wife Sandi had helped troubadour songwriter Mark Heard start Fingerprint records sometime around 1990 I suppose...along with Dan Russell, these three formed the label for the primary function of getting Mark's music "out there" and lining up production projects...

Some folks think that Mark and I knew each other well and for a long time...this was not true...Mark had been a fairly high profile songwriter in the '70's-early 80's Christian Rock market...and that's all I knew of him...I didn't like Christian pop music and still don't...Mark's reputation was mostly word of mouth....I had actually met him once long before I'd ever picked up a guitar...it was here in Athens through Sandi and Chuck...it was hit and run and I remember him as sullen and moody...I had a record of his called "Appalachian Spring" or something like that because I was told Christians were supposed to listen to Christian music so I bought it on a recommendation...I thought it was quite good...but I never bought any more of the stuff...

The Vigilantes were scrambling to get into the studio and write another chapter...(my typical response after separating from a label)...Billy and I spent the summer of 1991 playing a lot of shows with various stand-in players to augment the songs...we discovered a great drummer in Travis McNabb...he was playing in a heavy rock act called 7 Simons but was also playing a lot in the Atlanta folk-pop scene... I told Chuck that the band was formally off Core Records and that we were ready to make a record...and did he have any leads or openings at Fingerprint?... Initially we came up with a plan where Chuck was to act solely in the role of an investor...at least that was our understanding of the relationship...they, Fingerprint, would record, manufacture, sell and shop 1,000 records and see what would happen...any deals, any interest...Chuck was a true patron and it was all just to see what would happen with a bit of nurture and money to make a nice record...

What happened was KILLING FLOOR....I had talked with Peter Buck, who still resided in Athens at the time, and asked him if he was up for producing a few tracks at John Keane's studio...John had worked with so many great bands it would be impossible to recount them all here...Peter was just finishing the Out of Time tour with REM and he and John were available in Dec of 1991...Chuck eventually (and tactfully) asked us if Mark Heard could be part of the project...as a producer...initially I was not into it at all...I just had not really cared for the James-Taylory Christian folk blues pop that Mark had recorded for his market over the years...then Chuck sent me Mark's most recent record which was the to-be-released-Satellite Sky"....it certainly showed mature production, organic songs and great passion...so I guardedly said "sure.."

Mark showed up in Athens during the chilly-rainy Jan. '92...still grieving over the recent death of his father (Mark was from Macon, Ga.) He had worked on a few recent recording projects...Chuck told me that, at this point, it was good for Mark to stay busy...Mark later told me that he had no idea what to expect from myself or Billy Holmes...it was more "marchin' orders" to him at the time. He was trying to regain his health. He had been suffering from various anxiety related disorders at the time and they were taking a toll on his ability to sleep.) Most of the time Mark was reserved, quiet...though it was evident that he was depressed, he was completely professional with us. I think just him knowing that we were up to speed on what he was dealing with enabled us to work and not talk about it...it became a quiet understanding...Mark (I think) wasn't one to let others carry his burdens...and perhaps all that would have been too much strain on the embryonic relationship anyway...Mark wanted to preserve the first-take feel, the energy and the passion of the stuff he was hearing from us...I think he did an incredible job...to this day the record stands up well...it's low-budget indie recording at it's best I think...(ROOF of the SKY was a return to that approach because we didn't have any money and the songs seemed to "go to that same place" as did the tracks on KF.)

What Killing Floor did for me personally was many things...but two things that the process of making the record did for me was to confirm my hunch that it was...

the tunes that mattered, and that bare bones production that leaves in tact the spirit of the thing is sometimes the best way to capture stuff on tape...a "live-in-the-room-feel" seems to serve my songs well... Mark, for his part, was generous, even humorous at times, self-sacrificing and approachable...but one could tell he was struggling with a host of grief and sadness...sometimes I felt we shouldn't be doing the record at all until he had had some time to himself...

Mark never shared much in the way of details of what he was wrestling with at the time...and why should a stranger go and bare his soul to us anyway?...he'd never heard of us ...and we were somewhat cautious about his background...even woefully ignorant as to the impact he'd had on Christian pop music...so there we sat in the studio...somewhat awkwardly at times...he on one side of the glass, dialing tones in, moving mics, making suggestions, rolling tape...me on the other with a beat up guitar...banging out these batch of tunes...then jumping over to drums...then Billy laying down a melodic bass line or a rockin' mandolin solo or some sensitive keyboard overdub...later on Mark told us how in love and impressed he was with the tunes...He liked it a lot.....the frenetic-in-your-face-derailed-train aspects of tunes like "Undertow" and "Deep End"...the more tender subject matter of "I Can't Remember," "Andersonville" and "Port of Entry"...the country-tinged side of things in "Sick of it All" and the whacked-out-Flannery-on-dope offerings of "Keep Out the Chill" and "Strike While the Iron is Hot" ..the darker "Motel Room "was an honest detour from the more hymn-like (but perhaps equally as ugly) "River of Love" and "Earth has No Sorrow Heaven can't Heal")...Mark later told me that it had all made a good impression on him when, initially anyway, he wasn't looking for anything at all...later, as we compared notes about why this kind of music moved us, it was a bit like (Mark and myself) had been traveling along musically in a similar direction parallel to each other but separated by a tall wall and not aware that someone else was on the other side...with the making of KILLING FLOOR, maybe we had simply seemed to reach the end of the wall, turned toward each other and blurted out something like, "Oh!, you too?!?!" Anyway, I found myself listening to Dry Bones Dance and Second Hand, his two previous releases on Fingerprint, with new ears...Mark had the experience and something to say...and he said it for himself first...I think that is what makes for good music.

There are certain benefits when you stop caring about who the AUDIENCE is...and write your messy heart...open a vein...and there are certain risks too...we sort of knew from the touring we'd done what that terrain looked like....simply to do what you do 'cause that's what ya' do...is the most circular...and satisfying reasoning I've ever lived out...

As far as the issue of audience goes, Mark, in many ways (being burned by the church and CON-temporary Christian Music) wanted to lose the one he had... Me? I never expected to find one... ....Of course it was the radio-friendly "Real Down Town" with it's infectious Byrdsy jangle that pulled folks into the record...and it did well in the college market...(although later we were told that the Seattle grunge-pop movement led by bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam was going to make it hard to garner any listen at radio)

On KILLING FLOOR...I think we had a good set of tunes...and we had, as they say in the south, the "piss and venom" to deliver them...the live shows had fine-honed the stuff and so it was pretty easy to get it to tape...and so our collective engineers sat behind the board as Billy Holmes and I laid down the tunes of what would eventually (at least to my mind) become the record that introduced Vigilantes of Love to the world for real and what has become (at least to a lot of folks) one of THE quintessential VOL records...so be it...it does have a certain charm...I remember feeling like I emotionally owned the tunes in a new way...and I wanted to make that ownership believable every time tape was rolling....in the playing dept., the performances in themselves were really good.....it was done in a quick two weeks...a flash. Mark and I never spent much time after the recording hours were logged for a day...he usually went back to his hotel preferring just to be alone...we were doing 14 hour days, which I love...but they will wear you out quickly...still the energy was like electricity, at least to me...because I was "finding my voice." It's what singers feel and know when it shows up I guess...at least it does for me......Killing Floor---here is where it happened and this is where it took place...sort of like a personal crime scene...there has been magic on all the records...but I can recall a lot of nice scenes on this one...I still get a bit of the lump in the throat when I call to mind mentally the scenes of Mark hanging over the board, talking with Peter Buck and John Keane as we salted and seasoned each song...I remember Peter, after listening to one of Mark's final mixes saying, "well, that's great...I guess we need to talk about being co-producers on this album..." Peter certainly never knew who Mark was prior to this project. I think it was a simple yet profound gesture of new-found respect. During the whole recording process, Mark had struck this strange balance between being fairly passive (particularly as we laid down tracks) to guarding it with great jealously...that is he allowed for me to "go with my gut" on these tunes and he made it possible for me to record in the sort of "knock it out quickly" fashion that I was used to. It was sometime later that I learned how to be a bit more meticulous about the recording process...but that still seems more like surgery and I've always hated knives and needles. He did some cool mixes...Billy (I think) thought they were too muddy...Me? I loved the grimness, dirtiness and directness of it all...that's what Mark liked...

Like everything I suppose he did, Mark sacrificed a lot of himself in the project...like I said, two weeks went by extremely fast...the mixes were done in a week after he returned home to L.A....another 20-30 phone calls about cover art and liner notes and that was it...I don't remember Mark's and mine calls being punctuated with a lot of chattiness...I still think Mark was overcome with grief at the loss of his father...that and the constant nagging feeling that he'd not achieved enough stability for his family (I think) plagued him deeply...a few months later Mark suffered a heart attack, while playing a passionate solo set at the Cornerstone festival in July of 1992...Amazingly, he finished his set...he came off stage complaining of "a weight on his chest." Medical techs helicoptered him to a hospital in Springfield, IL. stabilized him and made plans for him to receive the bypass surgery that would be required to save his life...I spoke with him once by phone at the hospital...although shaken he seemed optimistic about the future and upbeat...as I remember it, he wanted to get back to LA soon and have some specialists do the work...he was discharged, staying in a hotel nearby the hospital with his family and ready to fly home when he suffered yet another heart attack...by the time doctors had revived him his brain had been without oxygen too long. Mark Heard died shortly thereafter...

Killing Floor was released to a nice fanfare and started gaining some national recognition as a really good touring band consisting of Newt Carter, David Labruyere, Travis McNabb and myself began our road work together...we were off and running.

Me? I was glad to have a sense of purpose....

Of Mark's work I really like the last, more roots oriented records he did for his small label... Thematically God's healing Love illumines the background with elements of personal despair and struggle strewn in the foreground...honesty is the only tale worth telling and Mark told his side very well...but I always had the feeling that the best was still yet to come....I miss him....he was 40 years old.

Copyright © by Bill Mallonee

You can read the other chapters of History, as well as explore the works of Bill Mallonee and The Vigilantes of Love, at their excellent web-site Parting-Shot


INTERVIEWS & ARTICLES
ARCHIVE