"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."
McNeil soon joined the band and moved in as well. "I hung out there 24/7 and was always the last drunk to leave," he says. "Then I figured I should just leave the empties in the corner, cash em in and that would be half my rent anyway."
McNeil had come from art-punk bands Pigment Vehicle and Gus, who toured Canada and the West Coast, although he says, "I think I sold a grand total of 13 pieces of plastic in any of those bands." When he became a Room-mate, he not only found a niche for his skilled country pickin', but he found comrades with a much more refreshing take on the rock'n'roll life. "The travelling conditions aren't any better, but the attitude is," he says. "Plus, I just don't expect anything anymore. Any time I was in another band, I had these crazy thoughts that it could be something. But those are all gone, and now I've totally surrendered to the almighty road with Carolyn. Every day is hilarious. What could happen?' That phrase comes up quite a bit."
"She does everything for the right reasons," says Neko Case. "Sometimes I get really bummed out about playing music for business reasons, or I'm dealing with some legal nastiness or immigration thing. Then I can hang out with Carolyn and she's like, Who fucking cares?' She's definitely a role model to me in that way. She's totally taught me about having a sense of humour about stuff and not sweating it."
Case and Mark started performing together as the Corn Sisters in 1997, doing Mark originals and favourite covers by the likes of Loretta Lynn, Lucinda Williams, and Mark's former roommate Dave Lang. While their two voices together is nothing short of spellbinding, the live show is often split between music and stand-up comedy, as the two witty women trade barbs. "I think that we're both acutely aware of what will make the other one crack up," says Case. "Nine times out of ten we'll have a really good time. No joke is ever repeated twice.
"I think our best live show although I don't know how the music was we played in Seattle one night at the Tractor Tavern," Case continues. "Carolyn has this huge obsession with corn, she's quite known for it. I found a corn vibrator at this vibrator store and I bought it for her and gave it to her on stage. I've never seen her so speechless. She immediately dropped the vibrator and broke part of it, but we fixed it later. She said that she couldn't physically make a fist to handle the vibrator. She said, Oh, I'm going to call him the Colonel!'
"She also has a large sense of adventure. She will want to do the most fucked-up shit just because it will make a good story, and she's the kind of person who totally invites things to happen to her. People just sense that she's the lady that wants to go on adventures. The other thing about her is that if someone's being a fucking asshole, no matter who they are, she has no qualms about making fun of them to their face, which I really enjoy. I'm the one who gets in fights, and she just makes fun of people."
Mark's sense of adventure and sheer charisma fuelled her last two records, both based in ambitious concepts that most artists would never attempt. Her 2000 Mint debut Party Girl found her on a cross-country trek, recording her strongest set of songs with the cream of the CanRock underground in different locales. Guests of honour included Jr. Gone Wild's Mike McDonald, Greg Keelor, Sarah Harmer, Oh Susanna, Shadowy Men's Brian Connelly, Ian Blurton, Don Kerr, Elevator, and, uh, the waitstaff of Dave's Bar and Grill in Regina.
"I got the idea from talking to [Elevator's] Tara White," says Mark. "She invited me to go to Moncton to record with her and Rick, and I thought it would be great to go to a bunch of places and record. The funny thing is that we never made it to Moncton."
During the making of Party Girl and the subsequent tour, Mark set up shop in Toronto for several months, which finally alerted the country's media centre and musical elite to her charms and talents. It helped, too, that the Corn Sisters' debut The Other Women was also released that year, at the same time that Neko Case's star was beginning to rise considerably.
But unlike most Western Canadian artists, Mark doesn't harbour any antagonism towards Toronto's notoriously inward-looking scene. "I think Toronto is the easiest place to play and I love playing there," she says. "It's almost like the audiences have attended a mini-seminar on how to be a good audience. It's so easy compared to the rest of the country. They know about things like buying CDs and clapping."
Mark's next act of ambition was to stage a live tribute to Robert Altman's 1975 movie Nashville, which had become quite the object of obsession in the Mark household. Hardly a conventional subject. Yet in February, 1999, Mark and her fellow Nashville enthusiast Dave Lang enlisted a bunch of locals to stage the entire three-hour movie as an elaborate stage show at Thursdays in Victoria, which was decorated with 250 red, white and blue balloons for the occasion.
The show was such a success that Mark and her Room-mates thought it would be a grand idea to make a tribute album, and much to their surprise, Mint Records agreed. Mark and McNeil began directing sessions at their home studio. "It was the first time we had a whole thousand dollars to work with: Holy fuck, man, that's a lot of fucking money! Don't blow it all!'" laughs McNeil. "Before we were like, How can we do this for a case of beer and $75?'"
As the project ballooned and guests like Dallas Good, Kelly Hogan, Neko Case, the Buttless Chaps' Dave Gowans, the New Pornographers' Carl Newman and others got involved, Mark admits that it got frustrating trying to co-ordinate the project. But no one in the band ever for a second thought it was ridiculous. "We were already past the ridiculous point once we staged it at Thursdays," says Garth Johnson, arguing that making the record was considerably easier, if not somewhat logical. "You've eaten the meal, and then it's time to take the poo."
Upon the album's release in February, 2002, much to her surprise, Mark discovered that she was hardly alone in her obsession. "A lot of geeks came out of the woodwork," she says. "There's some people who take their Nashville very seriously, it turns out. We got lots of email and mail, people wanting to know what my stance was, whether I was a fan or whether I was making fun of it. They wanted to be sure of my intentions."
There are still plans to take a touring version of the stage show on the road. "I'm talking to some film festivals where they would show the movie and we'd do a show," says Mark. "It'll be me and Dave and Tolan and Garth, but we need a really good Karen Black character. There are a lot of gay guys in L.A. who want to be Karen Black. They keep writing me: If you're in town, I want to sing "Memphis"!'"
The next big project on Carolyn Mark's agenda is a duets album of originals and covers so far she's snagged Luke Doucet and Corb Lund. But in the meantime, there's the matter of Terrible Hostess, which is the first time ever Mark has hauled herself into a "real" studio to commit her sardonic songs to tape. Her trademark humour is still in effect, but the new songs contain more melancholic musings on fleeting success ("Fuzzy Slippers," "Dirty Little Secret") and the blurry thoughts of the morning after the night before ("Port Moody," "Inevitable," title track).
"Her songs are so Canadian, in the most complimentary, positive way someone can mean that," says Neko Case. "I have a lot of homesickness for Canada, and if I had my way I'd live there, but I'm not a Canadian citizen so I can't. But her songs make me homesick and they make me miss her. I think she's great with visual imagery in her songwriting. And she has a sense of humour that never seems corny to me, it's the sense of humour that kind of makes you want to cry a bit, which is my favourite kind."
Still the party girl, Mark's new song "After Bar Party [At Our House]" contains some real-life scenes that her friends will no doubt recognise and perhaps even feel nostalgic for. "Yes, [keyboardist] Ford Pier really did suck whisky out of the carpet," Mark admits with glee. "For the next two years after he did it, every time someone spilled something, me and Kathy my old roommate would say, It's a shame Ford isn't here!'" Accompanying the CD at her merch table will be The Terrible Hostess's Recipes for Disaster, an accompanying cookbook. "All the recipes are road tested by me," Mark insists. "There's about 20 recipes in there, plus drinks like the Cabin Cosmopolitan and Bourbon Decay."
There's also a video in progress, but the fact that a single has yet to be chosen doesn't phase the band. "Because it's a non-narrative video, we might put it to any song," says Johnson. "We haven't decided yet. There's ice skating, running around in fields, and we just had the puppets of ourselves made for the puppet segment."
Her enthusiasm for the absurd and infectious humour consume every aspect of her life. It's hard to imagine her ever having an awful time on stage, although no doubt having a gig in New York City on September 11 last year wasn't exactly a barn-burner. Otherwise, she says, "usually the healing power of rock'n'roll will cure whatever ails me. But occasionally it hasn't worked. The stage is usually fine, it's driving there in the Honda that's the problem. Then I'll do something stupid like snap at the boys in a hormone-induced haze, and then we play together and they're mad at me and I'm like, C'mon!'"
MC Ms. Mark
This year Carolyn Mark was asked back to MC the Calgary Folk Festival. If she's not careful, it might become a secondary career.
"Last year I did it and people seemed to enjoy it, which was weird because I was so nervous, but I guess compared to the other MCs it might be amusing to watch. Last year the Cowboy Junkies played. It was kind of stressful because the stage manager was always yelling: Get out there! Stop! Come here! Get out there!' And I'm like, They're not ready!' Get out there and say something!' So I said, Well, uh, for a band that's most famous for making a record around one microphone, this set-up sure is taking a while!' They were all giving me dirty looks, and some of the audience was clapping and some were booing. Well, anyway, here's the Cowboy Junkies!'
"And then I was MCing the Regina Folk Festival when Janis Ian played, and I'd always wanted to do Liverdance. I'd have a 1940s bathing suit and a suitcase with tequila and some liver in it and some tap shoes. I'd throw down the liver and get the audience to sing didel-didel-dee' while I did some tap dancing on top of the meat. Then I said, And now, Janis Ian!' And she's standing on the stairs with her guitar: [stern voice] I'm not ready.' Ah, come on!' Nope.' So she made me go back out there click-click-click with the shoes and it's all slippery because of the meat and I had to say, Uh, Janis Ian isn't ready, so, uh, pick up your garbage after the show.'
"You see, I thought that would seal the deal that no one would ever ask me to do that again, but it backfired. All the folk festival people got together and said, Oh my gawd, you should have seen Liverdance!'"