Better to Flame Out?

We look at some of St. Louis' almost-beens, chat with Marah and plan to scar our liver at Beat Fest

Sep 1, 2004 at 4:00 am
Fronted by brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko, Marah has been canonized by novelist Nick Hornby in the New York Times and ripped by jaded rock writers for its Springsteen jones. Marah's rep as one of the planet's best live bands may or may not owe to intro music courtesy of The Sopranos; room-roaming monologues courtesy of a cordless mic; and songs about playground murders, single moms, she-males and pigeons. Little brother Dave explains.

The Riverfront Times: Did you ever imagine you'd be spending so much of your life with Serge?

Dave Bielanko: The way we grew up, in a single-mom family, we were always together, playing tennis rackets in front of mirrors. It gets a little annoying, but if you want to do something vaguely important in life, you put all that aside and try not to punch each other in the face.

I first saw Marah at South by Southwest in 2002. The band was decked out in black and wore pentagram pendants. You were taking the "sell your soul for rock & roll" concept seriously.

I think we were pretty hungover. It was weird; we didn't tour much at that moment. We were trying to get money together, get our record on the radio, and our drummer had to have his arm operated on. There was a lot of music-business stupidity.

The new record, 20,000 Streets Under the Sky, has an early-'70s vibe, like a garage band's homage to Sly & the Family Stone.

You collect a lot of music as you go along, you learn a ton. We tried to take ourselves out of the record, to write characters we could see ourselves through.

How much do you identify with the transvestite in "Feather Boa"?

Probably more than I would care to say. All of us must get down on our knees at some point.

How much do you identify with the pigeons?

The pigeon is the great symbol of the city: the dark horse, the underdog.

Were you surprised to see the band on the New York Times' op-ed page?

Nick [Hornby] had warned us he would do that. I respect him as a writer. He's very opinionated. The things he writes about certain football players, you wonder if he'd be afraid to run into them. You just have to be honest, I guess.

I heard that Hornby apologized to you for that article.

He let us know that rock writers hate him for various reasons. One, he is able to write on the op-ed page. He also crosses that border between rock criticism and novels, which not that many people explore.

He was also pitting the band against most all contemporary music. That's not a fair fight.

More than anything, I think he was trying to make sense of our music for himself. I think he sees us as very vulnerable to the world at large.

Is this the first interview you've done that didn't mention Springsteen?

One of them. I appreciate it. I can't help young Bruce's career any more than I have.-- Roy Kasten


For most clubbers the Washington Avenue Beat Festival is more about drinking and dancing than it is about beats. God bless priorities.

Yes, DJs want and deserve recognition, but being a DJ is a pretty covert way of going about superstardom. Headphones and equipment obscure all but the most dedicated groupie's view, your face is at a constant angle downward, you scarcely get a chance to gab with fans lest you interrupt your flow, and don't even try telling me your real name is Charlie Chan.

Seeing your favorite DJ often turns into sneaking furtive glances at the top of his head or, if you luck out, a peek at the side of her face. Not that your favorite DJs are your favorite DJs because of their looks. But show me the clubber who actually knows who's spinning at any given Beat Fest venue, and I'll show you someone who hasn't had enough to drink.

So despite promoters' best intentions, and those intentions are "to showcase the sights, sounds and flavor of downtown's Washington Avenue Entertainment District," the best Beat Fests tend to deteriorate into something not quite as suitable for a press release. Namely, the flavor of a stiff cocktail sliding back, the sound of some righteous drum 'n' bass and the sight of couples in various stages of undress (also known as club clothes) vertically enacting coitus (also known as dancing).

Really, it's a great way to work out the kinks from sitting in a pew all morning.

Even for old-guard clubbers, Beat Fest is not your average Sunday night out on Wash Ave. Of course we will pause with them for a moment of silence mourning Lo and Tangerine, but -- moment's up -- haven't you heard? Less is more! Thin is in! And for its tenth anniversary, the Fest is out to prove the tenets true. We still have six venues showcasing local and national hip-hop and electronica talent, we still have all-venue wristbands that make cover charges last night's bad news.

Here's a heads up before you head out: Club Isis kicks it classic Lou style with DJs Charlie Chan, Smitty and Snow. Velvet hosts a national lineup of drum 'n' bass, tribal and hard house DJs from Florida, D.C. and Chicago. The Studio Café spins all hip-hop, all night. Farrago presents a visual-art display to complement the aural art of DJ Dirty Dan while Infierno packs in the synth pop and electro. Rue 13 rounds out the block with a full range of house music, from hardcore to every adjective that could possibly predicate "hardcore" in order to slightly modify what is essentially a related vein of techno.

No matter where you end up doing the sodomy dance or which DJ you love (even though all you can remember about her name is that is has "DJ" in it), Beat Fest is sure to be a time. It's one of St. Louis' best biannual sources of raucous stories to tell when you stagger into the office Monday morning.

Eh, make that Monday afternoon. -- Jess Minnen

Major-Label Flameouts

Black Skies in Broad Daylight, the Living Things' debut album on Geffen, is just hitting stores this week and, despite their rather unkind public comments about St. Louis, this bureau wishes the former Skoobies nothing but the best. Here's hoping that these onetime Hanson imitators storm the charts in their new guise as Stooges imitators. But as history shows, for every Nelly and Story of the Year there are a dozen acts who fail to "put St. Louis on the map," despite backing from the corporate beast. Here are four cautionary tales of major-label failure by local acts, presented in the hope that the Living Things won't blow that whole advance on leopard-skin Humvees. (They make you pay that money back, you know.) -- Jason Toon