Bringing in the String Section with Mars' Mark Cunningham

Mars never made a bad album. In fact, during its fleeting, 36-month lifespan, the NYC no wave combo never made any kind of album.

Jan 22 2013, 3:45pm

Mars never made a bad album. In fact, during its fleeting, 36-month lifespan, the NYC no wave combo never made any kind of album. Having left behind a debut single and four expressionistic contributions to the scene-christening, Brian Eno-curated No New York compilation, its members parted ways in December 1978. A self-titled EP of steel-wool abstractions squeaked out shortly thereafter and consummated the group's high-concept demolition of downtown, post-Velvets cool.

More recently, a couple of unimpeachable if bootleg-like performance snapshots, 2011's Live at Artists Space and the freshly minted Live At Irving Plaza, both coordinated by Thurston Moore and supercritic Byron Coley for the prolific Feeding Tube label, further ennobled Mars' primal yet forward-looking mania. The two sets' alien psychobabble, aboriginal rhythms, and rattling, detuned guitars thoroughly rupture what were once fixed notions about the tonality, structure, and attitude that define rock music. These pivotal gigs laid the messy groundwork for nonconformist heavies ranging from Sonic Youth to the Boredoms to the Dead C to Sightings.

So why, exactly, is Mars appearing in a column concerned with aesthetic failure? The answer: a rather questionable production decision. In the mid-80s, no wave goddess-turned-spoken word siren Lydia Lunch amassed the band's catalog into a retrospective called 78. To remix the material, she commissioned industrial imp Jim “Foetus” Thirlwell, who drowned the goods in hopelessly dated reverb, delay, and audio effects. As ghostly ambiance surpassed clarity, the most forceful tracks became smeared, debilitated echoes of their former selves.

In 2004, bassist Mark Cunningham wisely oversaw an ameliorated anthology, the excellent Mars LP: The Complete Studio Recordings NYC 1977-1978, which essentially restores the songs to their original luster. A longtime Barcelona resident and trumpet player for the electronic duo Convolution and the improv trio Bèstia Ferida, he graciously reexamined his Lower Manhattan past from his present-day Mediterranean perch.

VICE: Whose plan was it to remix the Mars stuff in the '80s?

Mark Cunningham: The idea for the project and Jim's involvement came from Lydia, for her label, Widowspeak. [Former Mars guitarist/vocalist] Connie Burg and I were involved with it; [guitarist/vocalist] Sumner [Crane] was in one of his hermit phases, and [drummer] Nancy [Arlen] was immersed in her art world and not too interested. The need actually came about precisely because we had no access to any master tapes, we still don't. Maybe we just weren't aggressive enough in pursuing them or didn't have a legal fund. Back in the 80s and 90s, anyone who went asking for licensing rights encountered a brick wall of ignorance. At that time, mastering off vinyl and cassette sources was not easy, so Jim and Lydia felt that we could compensate by using effects and creating something with its own validity due to Jim's studio abilities and his love of the material.

All that reverb seemed unnecessary.

Yes, but remember, in 85 those effects weren't so played-out, and Jim was fascinated with the possibilities. It was a bit hard to rein him in, but I did so when I felt he was going too far. I still believe he was primarily interested in bringing out the richness buried in the original tapes. It was a sincere attempt to do something in accordance with the Mars sound. The slower songs worked well but in general, there was a loss of impact that we didn't appreciate until much later. It wasn't until we revisited the material 10 years ago that we realized we could make it better. I agree that our original sound was more interesting in that the only effects were created by the interplay of the instruments and amps.

How did you react to the finished product?

I don't think we were listening too closely to the music. We were more excited about it getting released. There was very little interest in no wave, especially in Mars, in the 80s. So we went along with the idea. But then comes the real mistake: the cover art, which was printed without us being consulted and which nobody really liked, except Lydia. We had given some pics to [art director] Patrick Roques, but it seems he didn't get inspired or he found this other one. It's actually a little girl wearing a Mexican Day of the Dead mask. He got the ok either from [label manager] Paul Smith or Lydia. Personally, I like the pic, but you don't get that it's a little girl wearing a mask. So it just seems like another goth skull variation, which doesn't make any sense for Mars and certainly didn't help identify us to our potential fans. Quite a shock.

In hindsight, was the project a mistake?

I don't know. It probably helped raise awareness a bit but it was soon forgotten. Perhaps also it was wrong to rerelease it on CD in the 90s. In any case, all the versions are available now, so fans can decide for themselves. In that sense, I think that Jim's contribution has its own validity and place.

Why did you resuscitate the pre-Thirlwell mixes for the Mars LP retrospective in 2004?

I discovered a cassette of the EP that had fantastic sound. Also remastering from vinyl was much cheaper and easier at that point. Interest in Mars was way stronger than in the 80s or 90s and continues to be so, what with all the books about no wave. It just seemed like a great time to do a definitive edition.

Anything else happening besides those two live albums on Feeding Tube?

Yes! Out now is my final archival project of Mars: a three-cassette box of rehearsal tapes, covering all our eras, including our formative months in 76 with Sumner on upright piano, Velvets covers included. The first edition is a limited run of 100, released here in Barcelona on Anòmia [Records]. It's sold out, but more are on the way. The sound is totally lo-fi but musically, it will be a revelation for our fans.

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