A friend was looking through my record collection one day and asked, “is everything you like angry white guys with guitars?” I responded, “Not all of it. Sometimes I listen to delusional romantic white guys with guitars. On occasion, I listen to clinically depressed white guys with guitars too.” Despite evidence to the contrary, my musical appreciation runs deeper than some dude with a Telecaster and a dream. Lately, however, I have been embracing my love of the delusional romantic dudes with guitars. Sometimes, people call that genre power pop.
You know a song is power pop by the melody being up front, clear vocals, vocal harmonies and guitars, guitars and more guitars. Heavy guitars. Bands ranging from Cheap Trick to the Bay City Rollers fight for elbow room with the Records, the Knack, the Plimsouls and the Flamin’ Groovies in the world of power pop. There are plenty of other great bands that fit the description sometimes, all the time or once in awhile.
One artist I’ve been playing on repeat lately is Queens, New York-based singer, producer, multi-instrumentalist Mark Bacino. While his music ranges further than the above description, his style fits it often enough to make me a fan of his earlier work as well as his current single, the catchy-as-Hell “Not That Guy.” It’s an up tempo, piano driven three minute ride through a relationship that we have all had, “stuck at the starting line, holding your purse,” as the lyrics put it, rather succinctly. “Not That Guy” mines the same terrain as Nick Lowe’s “Halfway To Paradise” did decades ago, and does it with equal laughs and heart-aches. We’ve all been there and hope we never see that territory again.
Bacino wears his influences on his sleeve: Raised on AM radio staples of the seventies and the heavier, harder stuff on the FM side of the dial. Yes, years ago, AM radio was much, much more than a wasteland for sports talk shows, screaming conservatives and late night conspiracy theorists. Listening on your transistor, you could pick up one hit wonders and staples of the era too. Bands like PIlot, ABBA, the Beach Boys, Redbone and too many others to list made for an eclectic mix. According to Bacino, he heard plenty of that growing up, right along-side his dad’s Herb Alpert albums and plenty of Monkees re-runs on T.V.
As he grew up, Bacino ended up getting his hands a Fostex 4 track cassette recorder, spurring him to record with his band. “Many bad songs,” as pointed out in his bio. It lead to better things, a three page record contract from independent label Parasol and the 1998 release of “Pop Job,” a full-length album of power pop gems. “People seem to like it, press is kind. Live band is assembled, gigs are played. A Japanese company licenses the album and releases on vinyl – life is complete.”
Five years later, “The Million Dollar Milkshake” is released stateside on Parasol and the Nippon Crown label in Japan. The power pop is still there, but there are horns too, and growth as a musician and songwriter. In the years after the release, Bacino branched out into collaborating and composing music for T.V. and film. Taking almost as much time between releases as Boston, Bacino was back in 2010 with “Queens English,” released on the DreamCrush label. There are New Wave flourishes working their way into the mix. The title is a witty play on Bacino’s borough of choice, Queens.
Which brings us, more or less, up to date. Bacino was kind enough to answer some of my inane questions in between spending time with his wife and kid, producing music and working late into the evening. His responses are below.
Barry Benintende: Is your new single, “Not That Guy” a prelude to a full-length album?
Mark Bacino: I hope so (laughs). I think the short-term plan, for now, is to release a few singles as I work my way toward finishing a new album, proper. I’m sort of notorious for taking my time in the studio when working on my own projects, plus I’m fairly busy producing for television, other artists, etc and moonlighting as a music journalist, so it got me thinking – Why should I wait to amass an album’s worth of material before I release anything? The distribution technology is such today that I can pretty much release songs and gets them out into the world as I finish them. So I think I’m going to give that a try. Maybe release half the album as singles and then save the other half for the album release?
What is the song-writing process like for you?
When I’m writing songs for myself, as an artist, as opposed to writing something, say, for TV or advertising, my process is fairly consistent. I don’t really sit down to write per say. I kind of prefer the mood to strike. When it does, I usually find myself at the piano or with a guitar in hand. At that point, I’m just usually playing some chord changes that I’ve stumbled upon that strike my fancy. After I have a few chord patterns that I like in place, I generally start humming melodies over the top until, again, I hit upon something I think is cool. Once chords and melodies are set and I have a semblance of a structure – verse, chorus, etc. – I start to work on lyrics. The melodies I’ve been humming or the nonsense words I’ve been singing generally imply a kind of rhyme scheme, so I tend to start to form lyrics that fit that implied template. As for subject matter, I might let the mood of the chords and melody suggest the direction of the song – sad tune, sad lyric, etc – or the lyrics might just come from something that’s been on my mind. I also, these days, try to inject a little humor into the lyrics when possible. Ultimately, I think humor, even if it’s dark or snarky, makes the happy tunes happier and the sad tunes more digestible.
Does inspiration tend to strike anywhere in particular?
For me, not really. I never know when the muse is going to strike so I’ve learned to keep myself open and prepared. It’s good to have a guitar or piano on hand but if not, my voice and my phone’s voice memo app are just as effective. Sometimes more so, since neither are subject to the restrictions of a traditional instrument.
Last time we spoke, you and I noted we do most of our writing/creating late at night; is it just easier to get the creativity flowing when you’re tired and not as guarded?
I’m not totally sure why that is but I do find it to be generally true. I think it might just come down to a person doing their best work when they feel most relaxed or themselves. I’m definitely a night person so, for me, the gears seem to run a little smoother after dark, creatively speaking and otherwise.
On your previous albums, “Queens English” and “Million Dollar Milkshake” There are quite a few nods to power pop and new wave. Who did you listen to growing up and who are your biggest influences?
That’s such a tough question. I listened to so much music growing up and really feel influenced by everything that’s found its way to my ears. I guess the one thread that consistently weaves throughout all the music I’ve ever loved is the thread of the ultra-melodic. The hook. Obviously melodic pop/power pop comes into play there, but the hook can also be found in jazz, classical, etc. As a teenager, I listened to classic bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys, as well contemporary bands at the time like The Police, The Cars, Hall & Oates and Crowded House. While at the same time I was also listening to Miles Davis and Segovia. All stylistically different but all, one could argue, very melodic.
You’re a producer as well as a musician, are you working with anyone currently?
As a producer, I tend to mostly split my time between working with different local artists here in New York and composing music for television and advertising.
You recently built a new studio, how is the finished product?
I’m pretty happy with the results. It was a fairly intense undertaking and a lot of work, but luckily I had a good team of folks behind the project, builders and consultants. I call the studio “The Queens English” since it’s situated in the NYC borough of Queens. It’s also a goofy nod to my somewhat Anglophile leanings. For lack of a better term, I call it a “studio” but it’s really more of a sonic workshop for my personal musical projects as well as the projects I produce. It’s not a room for hire in the traditional sense of the commercial studio. Folks generally hire me, and in turn they also get the resources of my laboratory (laughs).
How has the music industry changed since you released “Pop Job” in 1998?
Probably the biggest, most radical change is the way music is distributed and purchased. Namely the move away from CD to digital file downloads and now streaming. All, of course, facilitated by the rapid expansion of the internet. When my first album, “Pop Job,” was released on the indie pop label Parasol in ’98, you needed a label to get your record in the stores and out into the world. Period. You also needed a company’s marketing strength behind you as well. Without a label’s distribution and marketing muscle, there was no way for anyone to learn of your album or buy it. Now with the internet, technology and social media being what it all is, the playing field has been leveled. An independent musician can now record, release and market his/her own music pretty much all by their lonesome, for better or worse. Great in some ways, not so great in others. Now that music has become so accessible and there’s so much of it, sadly, it’s been devalued to a certain extent. Making it harder for a recording musician to make a living and get noticed.
What’s happening in the live music scene in Queens, specifically, and New York in general these days?
I’m probably not the best person to answer that [laughs] as, honestly, I’m not that keyed into the scene as I used to be. If I’m not working on my own music, then I’m working on someone else’s or writing about it. When I’m not doing that, I tend to spend time with my family, as my wife and I have a young son. That said, from my limited perspective, there doesn’t seem to be much of a music scene in Queens, sadly. Not sure why that is. The music happenings in NYC these days tend to center around Brooklyn – the Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods, specifically – as well as, of course, Manhattan. Stylistically speaking, it seems the NYC music scene continues to be extremely diverse. Whatever your taste, you can find it. It also seems, to me, that a lot of the 20-something bands are gravitating toward a sort of ’80s, new-wavy, influenced vibe. I guess every generation needs their “retro” [laughs].
You launched intro.verse.chorus as a site dedicated to songwriting. Give us the rundown and let us know how has the reception been?
Reception to the site has been pretty cool. I launched “IVC” as basically a resource for up and coming songwriters. A place where writers could talk about the nuts and bolts of their process and pass that information along to others interested in the craft. It’s basically a website by songwriters for songwriters, with me and various guest contributors offering their knowledge and experience. I’ve been pretty busy of late, so I’ve had to put “IVC” on a bit of a hiatus – sometimes actually making music has to take precedence over writing about it (laughs) – but there’s a pretty sizable archive built up over there if anyone wants to check that out. I also pen a songwriting column for “Guitar World” called “Songcraft” that mines similar territory, so that might interest some aspiring songwriters as well.
Do you have a favorite band from San Diego?
I’d have to go with The Beat Farmers. I love me some cowpunk from time to time!