[posted 06.30.2004]


There’s a good chance you’ve heard of Marah, the Philly-bred band led by brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko.

After all, Springsteen has shared both stage (he invited them to join in an encore at Giants Stadium) and studio (he appeared on their third album) with the band, and just last month some Brit author with a jones for football – as in soccer – and music rhapsodized about them in the New York Times.

But have you heard Marah?

Because that’s all that matters.

Live, the Bielanko brothers deliver a raucous stampede and call to arms. The just-released 20,000 Streets Under the Sky ?- their fourth album, self-financed, self-produced, and recorded in their garage, among other places ?- captures that same energy while upping the ante with horns, handclaps, schoolyard refrains and the gorgeous noise of being alive.

We drafted Serge — who handles guitar and shares songwriting credit with Dave — for a freewheeling email conversation about the band’s origin, its future and a certain girl in Green Bay.


Subject: Serge Bielanko, 32, Sagittarius
Occupation: Songwriter/Fool
Interviewed by: Samantha Bornemann

1.) Why music?

Music makes people feel good, even when it’s sad or blue. Nearly everything else that does that is illegal or bad for you.

2.) You tell a story about hearing Dave’s new band Marah and finding inspiration in rock ‘n’ roll again — and wondering, “How the hell was I gonna weasel my ass into the band?” So…how did you manage it?

I first saw my brother playing in this band Marah when I was about 24. I was going to college part-time and working full-time delivering auto parts; I lived in my mom’s attic. On the night I went to see them at a small bar in Philly, I expected to be embarrassed, but I was fully aware that I’d have to tell them they were great, I loved it, blah blah blah. Somehow, from the first notes, I was moved unlike I’d been in some time. They were fantastically tight, Dave’s voice was this amazing thing I’d never heard before, and I ended up getting very drunk and jealous during the show.

Later, after a year or so, he asked me to join as a guitar player. I figured I’d better hop at the chance and went to a rehearsal where I found out very swiftly that I sucked at guitar more than I had thought possible. So afterwards we all went ‘round the corner to a taproom and had some beers and I announced that I was leaving the group. One rehearsal and I was quitting. They all laughed at me and told me to shake it off; we’d get better. Still, I quit. Driving home that night I realized that I had just made the stupidest mistake in my life. I called Dave from my Mom’s and begged him to let me come to another practice. Luckily, he did.

3.) Part of what makes bands so fascinating on a story level rather than a music level — which, I know, is hardly the point for you, but bear with me — is the interplay of ego and allegiance, support and annoyance that happens whenever any group is forced into a relationship over long, cramped, sweaty, hard-drinking, apart-growing, contempt-brewing days and years of their lives. In addition to all those possibilities, you’re brothers. Does your childhood history of “punching each other in the face and neck area” give you a leg up on the non-fraternal competition? Or do you still beat each other up when necessary?

Being brothers in a rock ‘n’ roll band, I just really cannot find the way to describe what it means. I guess to most people it wouldn’t even be interesting, but since you asked I’ll say this. We have been able to share our lives together, build something from nothin’, and enjoy whatever fruits our efforts might bear together. To have a partner who you trust with all of your heart when it comes down to the songs you’ve written or the frustrations mounting up inside you or just talking about your silly dreams…. That is priceless in life. Dave and I have had that since the day he was born. So, a lot of what our band hopefully reflects in our spirit and our lyrics and our music is driven by this undeniable friendship we have with one another. I think that when bands with brothers hit a wall its because they’ve reached a place where they have accomplished everything they ever dreamed of and more. With us, we keep dreaming up new things… so we keep going.

We don’t really hit each other anymore since this one night years ago when I slapped his face in a Denny’s parking lot in Vermont. He chased me around the lot for what seemed like hours. Then, the next three shows he had a fat lip. That had to be the end of all that.

4.) Tell us your top five influences of the past year. (Be it art, music, family, friends, drugs, memories, jobs, whatever….)

1— Charles Dickens: I love how he wrote for EVERYONE, not just the literati or the upper classes. That, to me, is very rock ‘n’ roll.
2— Travel: To see as much of the world as you can only ever serves to enhance your appreciation for wherever it is you call home.
3— City Webcams: Addiction is a hard thing to face, but I have finally come to terms with the fact that I am so junk’d out on webcams in different cities. Philly has a few; they’re all easy to find. For me: I spend way too much time drinking coffee to five- to ten-minute-old scenes of street corners in London, cafes in Paris and traffic backing up beneath the setting sun in Hollywood. Damn….
4— Nigel Slater: He’s a food writer for The London Observer who is actually one of the best writers in any medium that I’ve come across. Plus, his recipe for Thai Chicken Stir-Fry from his one cookbook has kept me alive for the better part of the last year. I have made it at least 250 times… often eight or nine nights in a row.

5.) Where do you find your motivation and energy? Who inspires you? Who are you most thankful for having in your life?

Friends and Family: Being in a rock ‘n’ roll band, sometimes people think that you’re not even a real person. You just appear when they pay their 8 bucks, then disintegrate when they walk away after the show. But the truth is most of the musicians I know need a LOT of support to continue to believe in themselves after a while. Everyone close to me has done that 1000s of times without thinking twice. I hope someday I can be as good to them when they need it.

My biggest inspiration in this world is probably my brother. He’s my best friend and my bullshit detector and my best critic and my therapist and my drinking buddy. I am also sort of a loner, so I watch a tremendous amount of movies… which I draw from as a writer. Books, too, I suppose. But… I’d have to say that the thing that inspires me to get outta bed each morning is coffee. Without it, I am dead.


6.) Nick Hornby — whom you list as A&R Spiritual Advisor in the liner notes of the new album — is a long-time fan of yours and he raved about your live shows in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. At the same time, he was bemoaning the overall lack of fun and youth in today’s music — and that old-man rambling got him spanked by more than a few rock critics. What’s your take on the backlash? And what’s the story behind the title you bestowed on him?

Nick Hornby is a novelist my brother and I have always admired. Someone gave him a tape of our first record and he liked it. I guess his writing is not for everybody, but whose is, really? Since Dickens passed… not many. People are going to perceive art and music and literature and politics in so many varied lights in this world. For some, the only soapbox is a barstool down at the corner bar. A select few have a much wider audience… books, magazines, television, the Turner Prize. In the corner bar, if you unleash your opinions, you end up in lively debate. Not everyone will always agree with you, but some might. Same thing goes for those on the world stages. It’s just that there are always gonna be more people wishing to debate you… because the world is an awfully big taproom, you know? Thing is, it’s all just opinion. One mind vs. another. You can have fun… but don’t pretend you won or lost… ‘cause you didn’t.

7.) Your live shows are workouts. And while you clearly feed off the audience, there’s little doubt you could have just as much fun jamming on your own. In other words, you’re not presenting songs for nodding show-goers’ listening judgment; you’re inviting them to the party. What constitutes a good show, in your opinion? What performers blow you away?

Live music should be entertaining. That doesn’t mean it should involve dancers or spitting blood necessarily. Again, many people like different things. So, somehow musicians who play live have to figure out HOW they wish to present themselves, and then how to do that with some fashion of entertainment. Ozzy and Moby are hugely different in concert… their respective crowds know that. Still, they each try and find a way. In Marah, we want you to feel as if you’ve just had joyous but rough relations with a complete stranger. We want you to sweat it out with us, come up for air here and there, then finally climax like maybe you never have before… in a public place… with others watching you. I don’t really go see much live music these days because I get what I want when we play. But, I’ve seen ‘em all and Springsteen is by far… BY FAR the best I’ve ever seen. AC/DC were excellent, too. And Blue Mountain.

8.) Explain to me something about encores at rock shows. Are they just part of the act of being a rock ‘n’ roller? Or just a chance to catch your breath and have a(nother) drink? Because it seems they’re largely about ceremony and setlist pacing rather than spontaneity. The crowd knows it wants you back, but it also knows it’s likely to get you back (and thanks to the Internet, educated fans can know what you’ll play). Do you ever say, “Good night, [city name here],” and mean it the first time?

No, I guess that encores may seem a bit artificial to someone who has seen a lot of live shows, but so what? It does give us a chance to grab a smoke, maybe a beer… and most importantly our collective breath after, if we’re doing our job right, we’ve just ended our show proper in a hail of sweat and music and energy. We try and vary what we do at the end of the night… but it’s usually from a list of four or five things on any tour. There are nights in places where it doesn’t seem like an encore is really needed. So, on those rare nights… we probably won’t do one.

9.) You’ve described 20,000 Streets Under the Sky as the record you and Dave have wanted to make for most of your lives. How did doing it yourself — recording in your garage in South Philly, putting up your own cash, etc. — change or enhance the process for you?

Well, it certainly made us poor — as in a dollar between three grown men on quite a few nights. Still, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Doing things on your own affords a certain satisfaction, especially later on when you’re looking back. Kirk Henderson, who produced the record with us, did a fucking amazing job. He learned tape machines and vocal mics and computer crap as he went. Plus, he slept on the floor of the studio for no less than six months straight. Back then, it sucked. But we all knew what we were chasing… the three of us KNEW we could make a record like we’d love to hear from someone else… all on our own. Now, looking back… we laugh and smile. Even if our record flopped we had a tremendous time making it; no one can ever take that away from us. We are stubborn people who believe in our music. So doing it on our own seems right.

10.) Three things you’re most proud of accomplishing:

1— Keeping Marah alive since 1996.
2— Maintaining a superb set of fans in a time of attention-deficit disorder.
3— Making 20,000 Streets Under the Sky on our own. It was our dream since kids.

11.) Three things you’ve yet to accomplish but strive to:

1— Play on Saturday Night Live. God, I know we would kill!
2— Tour to so many places we’ve yet to play: Japan, Australia, Italy, Spain, Seattle, and a 1000 others.
3— Make just enough money so that all the fellows in the band now could feel secure enough to stick around… including ME!!

12.) Three things you’d rather just forget ever happened.

1— Ginger in Green Bay
2— Emma in Los Angeles
3— Ginger and her friend, Tammy, in Green Bay… the second time around.

13.) What/who do you find exciting in music right now?

I am a huge fan of Jesse Malin, who has released two fantastic records. The Streets from England is this one guy, Mike Skinner, who does garage (English Garage) and writes probably the best lyrics I have heard in years. Badly Drawn Boy is my favorite artist of the last five years; his Hour of Bewilderbeast is in my top three all-time favorites. I love Kings of Convenience from Norway; they make the best acoustic music and their hushed voices simply astonish me. New record from them due soon. I really like Ryan Adams, too. I listen to him a lot. Squad Five-O just released their first record on Capitol and they rock ‘n’ roll like a new Clash. Also, I love Bruce Springsteen. I always have, I always will. I listen to The Strokes, because they are an honest to God great fucking band… that was the best debut record for a band in a long time. ADMIT IT!! The Thrills record is really good. Plus, I really dig Beth Orton a lot….she’s from England. And Caroline Lost, an English girl as well…. Shit, I could go on and on.

14.) Where will you be this time next year?

Probably in Green Bay with Ginger and whoever else she wants me to get to know.

15.) Tell us something fantastic about Philly that only a real native would know.

If you walk down on South Passyunk Avenue on Saturday mornings, you might see a pretty big Sopranos-lookin’ fellow wearing Italian leather shoes and smoking a cigar. Walk up to him — DO NOT BE SHY — and look him in the eye as you poke your finger right into his chest and say, IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, BUDDY, AIN’T IT?? ... He’ll smile at you and give you free cannoli. It’s a Philly secret.

16.) What do you dream about at night?

I dream about Keira Knightley. And sometimes I dream about catching 55-pound muskies on surface plugs in standing timber from a bass boat on a lake where a cottage stands in the evening twilight in front of which stands Keira Knightley, holding up a sensational bottle of red wine and hollering, above the cry of the lonesome loons, DAH-LING, PLEASE COME BACK AND LEAVE THOSE BLOODY COD ALONE, MY LOVE!!

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samantha bornemann is a chicago-based author and editor. you can read more of her tv and film criticism at popmatters.com and in the book neptune noir.