The Bielanko brothers believe in what they are doing, and what they are doing is searching.
“We don’t do anything else except play music and write songs, and we take it as seriously as I think you can possibly take your job. It’s my brother and I so there’s a huge bond between us and our attention is always on it. My brother and I can be very exhausting as people, and our work ethic is very high.”
In that, Dave Bielanko touches on Marah’s seemingly constant transformation. From a revolving-door rhythm section to their relationships with labels, little—save the brothers—has remained constant. That’s because Serge and Dave Bielanko seem to have a hard time with constants.
“I think we’re very reactionary kind of people, and all along we controlled everything, and then at times we give up everything, and you just sort of learn as you go. This time it was so much so that we broke all of our bonds…everything that we could to make ourselves independent and make this particular record completely on our own. In a lot of ways, we’re best under that pressure.”
The Bielanko brothers believe in what they are doing, and what they are doing is searching. There is a restlessness of experimentation and discovery that runs throughout their music. It is a restlessness that is a central tenet of what rock ’n’ roll is supposed to be. It also puts them ever out of place and time. If there are moments when they draw comparisons to the Rolling Stones, it may well be because they are rolling stones.
“I think that we fear being pigeonholed as anything very much so and we’ll panic. Early on, we had a banjo, and in my head it was a Mummer’s parade thing to me, and it would be confused as country music on some level, so then we would panic and backpedal and run away from that. It was half nuts.”
Bielanko says this with a laugh, but it is also clear that he knows he’d probably do the same thing again. Marah’s journey is toward a dirty perfection.
Their songs hearken to Motown, Phil Spector, Springsteen, the Clash, Lou Reed, various more or less obscure literary works, and just about anything else that has left an imprint on them. There are so many influences that the end result is urban mosaic rather than derivative. At moments when it feels like you’re listening to the Bielankos’ music collection, it is clear that you are listening to it through the Bielankos.
“I think it’s a lot more about your personality. It comes out the way it comes out. As we are hopefully getting a little bit better at this, it becomes more and more unified, [such] that it is actually what we sound like.”
Part of what holds it all together is a remarkably vivid sense of place, in which universal metaphor comes to rest in the tiny stories of an instant in the life of an individual character. In the past, this has been oversimplified as part of the brothers’ deep connection to their native Philadelphia, in part because those specific locales have been so concretely rendered in their music. Such oversimplification tends to misrepresent them as a regional phenomenon, rather than recognizing that Philadelphia is their grounding point that allows them to live and explore elsewhere.
“I think on a base level we write folk songs about our lives or the people that happen to be spinning around our lives, and therefore sense of place is very important. All of my favorite music has an amazing sense of place to it.”
Thus far, Marah have remained primarily an underground band in an age in which a diverse and vibrant underground seems little more than a ghost of a pre–alternative rock landscape. Their restlessness has left them uneasy to continue to trust anyone else to deliver them to more ears.
“There have been people [in the music business] who have passionately, truly loved our band and critiqued it closely, and loved what we were doing and loved what we were saying and had amazing times at our shows, but they couldn’t help us. Their hands were completely tied. There’s very little you can do. I understand that and I understand the bigger picture. I don’t like it, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.
“The only thing that has eluded us to this point has been a certain amount of reaching people. All we really want to do is to have the music find people that the music would speak to. We’ll play gigs out in the West and there will be 15 people there that really like us but it’s like, ‘God I know there’s more people in this town.’ People are people. They’re the same people that live in New York. They just happen to be somewhere else.”
In the end, all Dave Bielanko wants is for you to give his baby a chance, because he knows that you might just fall in love with it.