Photo by Adrian Acosta
It’s become this rather unfunny running joke that The Melvins run through bassists like Kleenex—but, apart from cheap yuks, it’s worthwhile to actually take some time to look at the artistry of deposed but certainly not disposable players like Joe Preston, Lori Black, and Kevin Rutmanis. It would be absurd to diminish the fruitful, decades-long partnership between Buzz Osborne and Dale Crover, but at least to some extent it feels similarly disingenuous to discount the work of their former bandmates in the rhythm section.
If his work both before and after the Melvins is any indication, Mark Deutrom deserves a lot more credit than relegated to being some discographical footnote in the career of arguably the greatest hard rock band of all time. Though he considers himself first and foremost a guitarist, he played bass in the group during a pivotal period in the 1990s. Chances are if you’ve heard any Melvins song at all, you likely heard “Revolve” off 1994’s Stoner Witch, the second of three albums released via Atlantic Records.
“There were more people in my life at bigger shows when I played bass,” Deutrom explains to me over the phone. “I admire many bass players, but it was kind of like going through that experience with an army blanket thrown over you.”
Following his tenure in the band—which included co-writing material for records like Stag and Honky—Deutrom pressed on, recording often genre-fluid solo albums for labels like Southern Lord and Tee Pee. He also continued working as a producer, something he'd been invoilved in as far back as the 1980s. His credits on that front include recording Neurosis in their early hardcore days, as well as cult thrashers Sacrilege B.C. Despite his pedigree, these days Deutrom admits to financing the release of his own records as well as the promotion of those records. Apart from a distribution deal and a somewhat regrettably rotating cast of collaborators, he comes across very much alone, a humble and polite independent musician operating in a time where brash braggarts reign.
What Deutrom really wants to do right now, more than anything else in the world it seems, is to perform his work live. “If you don’t have a booking agent, it’s pretty damn near impossible to get a decent gig,” he laments. “I can’t even get people to return emails or phone calls.”
His latest project, the pseudonymous Bellringer, exists primarily for the purpose of playing live shows—although it didn’t start out that way. About a year ago, he was working with two other guys under that moniker, but as he mustered up the confidence and capital to take the project further into the performance arena, his bandmates up and quit. “I was using the older model,” he says. “You meet a couple of really neat people, and you get together and are all best friends for life and then you go off and do that.”
As do-overs go, Bellringer’s Jettison sounds top notch. Grounded in a sort of psychedelic American hard rock vein, the record comes from a collective mindset that explores avenues like Deutrom’s predilections towards jazz, as well as the varied interests and styles of his cabinet of collaborators, including Monique Ortiz. “She made a few things that went in an unpredicted direction and that was a really great result. It’s nice to be influenced by people and, at the same time, guiding a ship as it were.”
Check out an exclusive Jettison stream below and read more about Deutrom’s process as a soloist as well as his time in the studio with The Melvins.
Noisey: You’ve never been particularly shy about releasing albums under your own name before. What makes Bellringer different? Is it that Jettison feels more like a band recording?
Mark Deutrom: I really just wanted to get out and play some of my solo material. I’ve tried to put projects together in the past, and usually because of personnel issues they haven’t worked out. I wanted to have a vehicle to play all this music that I started to accrue over the last decade or so. I was like, I’m just going to look at it like a collective. I drew inspiration from Nine Inch Nails and St. Vincent, in the way that’s it’s one person behind the thing and a shifting collective of whomever they work with. I thought it’d be fun to make an album as band, but it didn’t really turn out that way this time. But that’s okay… There will still be more Mark Deutrom albums. There’s a solo album coming out in November.
So what was the process behind writing and recording Jettison?
I tend to write to the strengths of the people that I’m playing with. That allows for an expansive viewpoint on my own music and makes me think about things in a different way. I guess the difference would be, between my solo stuff and Bellringer, is that I’m being more inclusive of other people’s musical personalities. It’s interesting to follow that direction, which a lot of times is unforeseen.
Probably to my detriment, I’ve never been the biggest flag-waver of my own material. There’s kind of a distancing thing you can do with a band too. I sort of understand that now, I guess.
Part of what I enjoy about Jettison are these unexpected twists that happen along the way in the tracks. On “Inner Freak” it has that psych rock blues thing going, and then it veers off into this jazzy flute tropicalia vibe.
There’s a lot of hidden stuff in my stuff, which is just about me being able to realize some little thing that’s been bouncing around in the back of my head. About five or six years ago, I was listening to a lot of [jazz flautist] Herbie Mann. I bought this record called Push Push, which basically has a velour cover; he straight-up has no shirt on and flute on his shoulder, adopting a rakish attitude. And the record is called Push Push! I love jazz. I love a lot of jazz. I can’t consider myself a jazz player. I know eight really cool jazz chords and I know a drummer who can play jazz for real. So things like [“Inner Freak”] are me just trying to see if I can pull off a certain element of music. That goes all the way through to the production, a cymbal sound I want to get after, a bass sound I want to get after. I’m trying to faithfully reproduce a certain milieu.
It’s kind of like what Todd Rundgren did with his Faithful album, except in miniature. One side of that record is all originals, and the other side of the record is him reproducing, sonically and actually, songs that really influenced him. It’s not him going, "I’m gonna cover “Joy To The World” by Three Dog Night," it’s him covering [The Beatles’] “Strawberry Fields Forever” and [The Beach Boys’] “Good Vibrations.” He’s duplicating the studio techniques. It’s just astounding. It’s a tribute to the craftsmen who made those great original versions and [to] the songwriting.
Does living in Austin have any influence on your process?
I’ve been influenced by Texas music as a whole. I spent some years of my late childhood and mid-adolescence growing up in West Texas. Those were pretty musically formative years. Texas has a great music tradition, all the way from Blind Lemon Jefferson to Annie Clark. That’s always been hanging around in the air for me. As far as what’s going on in Austin, I hear a lot of aping of older stuff. They just sound like they’re copying riffs from the 70s. There’s a big Americana thing that goes on here. I have a critical ear as a producer, so I’m pretty sensitive to hearing stuff.
Given the length of your discography, are you ever concerned or otherwise mindful of the expectations from people familiar with your earlier work when you’re putting out new material?
I’m so out in left field—and this might sound weird—that I don’t even think of myself as even having an audience. I’m thoroughly independent. I finance my own recordings. I effectively have a licensing deal with somebody cool enough to put out physical releases for me. I have to hire a PR company to get people like yourself interested. For me, my audience is such an abstract thing that writing for my audience has never been an issue. I’m always delighted when I get feedback from people, but I tend to exist in a vacuum. If I can get it right for me, my sixteen rabid fans, who I can pretty much name, will be delighted also.
You seem to have embraced the Bandcamp model. I’ve seen you drop Bellringer tracks there, and you've reissued solo records like 2001’s The Silent Treatment through your site there. What is it about that model that appeals to you?
It’s not really a choice. It’s borne of necessity. When The Silent Treatment first came out, there wasn’t anything like that. It was on Tee Pee Records, but Tee Pee had a lot of issues at the time. So that record fell down the hole, unfortunately. Bandcamp is a direct marketing thing ideal for someone like me in-between the cracks. Regardless of my pretty long history in music at this point, I haven’t been able to get with a sort of label that I would like to be with, like 4AD or something like that. I can go directly to my public this way. It’s reasonable. I’m not against them taking their fair share. People can download on their phones or stream it in their car, listen to it wherever they want. It’s great for me to be able to get my music to literally anyone on the planet.
The album release system is kind of breaking down. Things are getting more single song driven. It’s interesting that it’s going back to the way it was at the beginning with 78s. Basically, that’s what was releasable. Maybe it’s about attention spans also.
By and large, you’re an album artist, though. You come from an era of albums. Nowadays, it’s an ask to convince people to sit down and listen to a record start-to-finish. A lot of people don’t listen that way anymore.
The digitization of culture in society has produced people that have a very low attention span. It’s a highly distracted situation. You have to think outside of the box. Third Man has an interesting approach, the way it’s multi-platform. There are some other labels like that where people are happy to be more artisanal, and think the physical versus the streaming. There really has to be a change in culture where people decide that music has value, that it’s not necessarily everybody’s right to have access to all the music in the world for free at the touch of a button. It’s an unrealistic expectation. Supporting music doesn’t mean buying a track for fifty cents and sending thirty-five of your friends the file. The so-called sharing economy is a fallacy at best.
You mention Third Man as a model of a label doing interesting things. Jack White has that studio where people come through and record, and he's also doing vinyl reissues for Melvins albums like Stoner Witch and Stag. Amphetamine Reptile did the same for a reissue of Prick. Do you have any involvement in this stuff, or is it pretty hands-off at this point?
In a word, no. I have nothing to do with that. But the work stands for itself. Without getting into personal details, I still have some sadness about losing them as friends. I worked with them for twelve years on and off. It’s nice for [these albums] to come back. The longest it goes, the better its stature. The stuff we did was really cool, and it continues to influence people. I’m still amazed by people I work with as a producer who are like, wow this record blew my mind when I was twelve years old. That’s cool that it stands the test of time.
For me, I was 15. Stoner Witch was my entry point to you, which I’m sure you hear all the time. I still listen to it, still go back to it. A lot of music from that time period, especially major label music, sounds really dated, as opposed to something like Stoner Witch that really holds up.
In the band, we would talk about these kinds of things, especially at that point with the expectations that people had. We were managing a lot more expectations on that level, expectations from Atlantic Records going, "Are you Nirvana or not?" The band had already been in existence for nine years, ten years. The fans are going, "You guys are sellouts!" Really, any musician would love to sell out.
Like I was saying about my own stuff, if you just focus on what you’re doing in the moment and try and make it as good as it could be to please yourself, then other people will be pleased too. But there’s no pleasing everybody. As long as you keep that in the back of your head, you’ll have a much more relaxed time in life.
Gary Suarez is staying jazzy on Twitter.