Carolyn Mark The Mostest Hostess
"She's the finest hostess ever," says Neko Case, disputing the title of the latest album by her friend Carolyn Mark, Terrible Hostess. "Nobody hosts harder than Carolyn Mark. She's Canada's Iron Hostess!"
Mark—– who shares her Victoria, BC home with her two roommates and bandmates Tolan McNeil and Garth Johnson — says the title of her second solo album was inspired by her otherwise extremely supportive mother. "She's appalled that when guests come over that I don't show them where the towels are within the first five seconds of them entering the threshold. She's afraid of our house. She thinks it's filthy."
But the elder Ms. Mark aside, anyone who's encountered Carolyn Mark and her Room-mates either on tour or at home in Victoria will tell you that their off-stage duties are entertaining in the more formal sense. "We have dinner parties and loads of friends over all the time, it never really stops," says Tolan McNeil. "We have adult bunk-beds in our fucking living room! There are always bands staying here, which maintains the illusion of being on the road even when we're at home."
Mark has called Victoria her home ever since she and her mother moved there when Mark was in Grade 12, away from the quiet interior valley hamlet of Sicamous ("the houseboat capital of Canada") where she was raised. Her mother later moved to Vancouver, and Mark lived briefly both there and London, England before returning to Victoria. "There's a pull that Victoria has," says Mark. "I keep thinking that I just got there and I can leave anytime I want."
Mark is clear that "Chumpville," one of the strongest tracks on Terrible Hostess, is not about Victoria, despite a thinly veiled reference to that other international superstar from Victoria, Nelly Furtado. "It could be about anywhere you feel like a chump," she says. "It's a state of mind, really, like when you're shrouded in ickiness and you can't get out. Or the shame spiral, as they call it in the movie Clueless."
It was in Victoria that she studied drama at university for four years, which should come as no surprise to anyone who's ever watched her engaging, occasionally ridiculous and frequently hilarious shows. "I was always the dead bodies, the corpses," she says, in her typical self-deprecating manner. "I didn't get many breaks. I thought it would be a lot more exciting, but it was rather boring. Every night I was going to Harpo's, which was a great club in Victoria that had different music every night of the week. I'd go no matter what, and it was awesome. I kept seeing bands and being blown away, and I thought I wanted to do that. The Screaming Sirens from L.A. came and wore these square dance dresses and drank shots of bourbon and rolled around on the stage. I was like, ‘Hey! That looks like a good time!'"
Aside from one Bryan Adams song performed at high school in Sicamous, Mark had never taken the stage or thought she wanted to be in a band. After enough nights at Harpo's, including more than a few watching her Edmonton heroes Jr. Gone Wild, she corralled several friends "through sheer tectonic force" to form the Vinaigrettes, who would go on to record four cassettes and two CDs and embark on three Canadian tours. After rhythm guitarist Kim Stewart left in 1995, Mark took up the instrument, which she first started playing in a country band with Tom Holliston called Hathead. She soon started hosting a weekly Sunday matinee at Thursdays, a post she holds to this day.
The Vinaigrettes broke up in 1998, after facing massive indifference outside of Victoria and Edmonton, despite their colourful muumuus and catchy beach party beat songs. Perhaps record buyers were terrified by the album cover for their excellently titled 1996 album Gross Negligée, featuring bassist Scott Henderson in just such a get-up. "We practised every Monday for seven years, and one Monday Brigette [Wilkins, guitarist] and I went to the basement and just thought, ‘No,'" Mark recalls. "We got some wine instead and had a ten-hour chat and that was it."
By that point she had already been moonlighting with the Fixins, which included Tolan McNeil. The Fixins played "rambunctious country standards" and a few wedding gigs, and were part of what Mark calls a "two-year bender" between the Vinaigrettes' dissolution and the beginning of her current solo career. Another part of the gap was the Metronome Cowboys, also with McNeil.
"The Metronome Cowboys were about six or seven of us, including two drummers, and it was a rock band," he says. "We played behind a cage with costumes and did four or five shows that were way over the top. It was like putting on Ziggy Stardust, only with cowboys. We did a space show, and we had a truck rock show. There was always lots of papier mache and tin foil and lights and dancers. It was original material with heavily bastardised versions of other songs."
Carolyn Mark and the Room-mates debuted when CBC's David Wisdom, a long-time Vinaigrettes supporter, invited Mark to play on a live Radio Sonic broadcast in 1998. Drummer Garth Johnson joined her; the Winnipeg native had just moved to Victoria from Montreal, where he had played with Sons of the Desert. "He was looking for a band and he didn't want to play with my band, but I thought he was really good," says Mark. "He was going to art school too, but we got rid of that. Art school and babies: the two things that will kill a band."
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