Q&A With Marcellus Hall

Marcellus Hall first made a name for himself as the frontman of Railroad Jerk, which released four albums on Matador between 1990 and 1996 before breaking up. Hall and RJ drummer Dave Varenka went on to form White Hassle the next year, issuing a handful of records until disbanding in 2005. These days, Hall is pursuing a solo career, and he just released his debut album, The First Line, on Isaac Brock’s Glacial Pace label. Aside from the music, the 13-track LP also shows off Hall’s other big talent: illustration. Since moving to New York City in the late ’80s, Hall has seen his artwork appear in the likes of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and The First Line features a 44-page book showcasing his art. Not only is Hall guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week, he’s also drawing illustrations to accompany everything he writes about. We recently caught up with him via email.

“The First Line” (download):

MAGNET: After working in band situations with Railroad Jerk and White Hassle, what made you decide to make a record under your own name?
Hall: Bands seem to have a predetermined, limited life span. Both Railroad Jerk and White Hassle ran their courses. When White Hassle ended amicably in 2006, I decided to pare down further and perform under my own name. It was sort of a challenge to myself. I enjoy listening to the acoustic demos of my songs sometimes as much as to the final band versions. My goal is to capture those qualities that I enjoy in the demos.

I have been a fan of your work since the beginning, and The First Line really strikes me as the most “mature” thing you have done. Do you agree? If so, can some of it that purely be attributed to age?
I don’t understand the word “mature.” A person evolves, but I’m not sure you can put a value on any stage in the evolution. For me, the bombast of certain types of “alternative” and rock music became less interesting. Whether because of age or not, I found myself listening more and more to quieter music. In some industries (porn, for example), “mature” is shorthand for old. Sometimes people say “mature” to suggest wisdom. I may be wiser than I was in the past, but it slices both ways. With each gain there is a loss. A person might become wiser over time, but he might also lose idealism, innocence or ambition. The trick is to hold onto slivers of these things and move forward.

How do you describe what you do musically to people who haven’t heard your solo stuff?
For a while, I described my music as “indie rock with a harmonica,” and that seemed to satisfy people. But their satisfaction created in me a dissatisfaction. No one wants to be nailed down. Then I began using the term “garage folk.” It appealed to me as much for what it suggested as for its ambiguity.

How often do you play live shows? Any plans for a tour?
My band and I have been playing in and around New York once a month at different venues. Touring is a different ball of wax, though. In the past, a show was an advertisement for the CD. Now the CD is an advertisement for a show. Currently, my booking agents in the U.S. and in Europe are looking for touring opportunities for me as an opener. Because of costs, unfortunately, it’s unlikely that my band (Damon Smith on bass and Mike Shapiro on drums) will be able to join me outside of New York.

A very impressive book of your artwork accompanies the new album. How difficult was that financially and logistically to assemble?
Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse), the head of Glacial Pace Recordings, was generous in allowing me to include the book. Visual art is a passion of mine that rivals music-making, and the book is a way to add value to the CD—a product that fewer people pay for these days. Designers Nok Rumpharwan S. and Mark Ohe were of great help to me in putting together the book.

White Hassle is described on its website as being on hiatus. Do you think you guys will play music together in the future?
Without strong demand, neither drummer Dave Varenka nor I are chomping at the bit for a reunion. I wouldn’t hesitate to play again with Dave, however, should the opportunity arise. I was lucky to have had such a great drummer. In the meantime, we’ll need to find a webmaster to correct the website.

The period that Railroad Jerk was signed to Matador was a pretty amazing time for both the label and the indie-music scene overall. What are some of your memories from those days? In hindsight, is there anything you guys would have done differently?
We really didn’t know how good we had it until much later. There were a lot of great bands on Matador, and we benefited from this. People were hungry for music, and they bought CDs and vinyl. From the label, we got tour support, some publicity and advances with which to make albums. Major labels were salivating and signing bands left and right (for better or worse; usually for worse). We got a publishing deal. We crisscrossed America in battered vans, ate nutritionless food at diners and snuck four people into malodorous motel rooms after paying for two. We went to Japan once and to Europe several times. We enjoyed a brief and inexplicable stardom in Holland for a time. We were featured on Beavis And Butt-head. What I would do differently, if I had the chance, is to listen more to my gut. Especially in terms of songwriting and recording. Our first album is unlistenable because of negligent production.

You have recently illustrated a number of children’s books. What got you into that?
I illustrated for magazines and newspapers for a long time, and I was itching to try something new. Digital technology has been squeezing print media for some time, resulting in limited opportunities for illustrators. Books appealed to me as a venue for illustration because, unlike newspapers and magazines, which are thrown away, they are saved on shelves and reread. I asked a fellow illustrator about children’s books, and he introduced me to the people at Abrams. I haven’t yet written my own children’s story, but books I’ve illustrated include City I Love (by Lee Bennett Hopkins, Abrams 2009), Because You Are My Baby (by Sherry North, Abrams 2008), The Cow Loves Cookies (by Karma Wilson, Simon & Schuster 2009), Because I Am Your Daddy (by Sherry North, Abrams 2010). Full Moon And Star (by Lee Bennett Hopkins, Abrams) will be released later this summer.

What effect has the ever-emerging technology of the past 20 years had on your art career and/or your approach to art?
If anything, emerging technology has reinforced my interest in organic and handmade qualities in art. I use ink and watercolor in most of my work. With Photoshop, I welcomed the opportunity to make corrections and experiment with layers. But for my money, digital effects can’t beat the spontaneity and gesture of ink and watercolor. Ironically, because digital technology has given people freedom and control, the burden has shifted. Now the individual has more responsibility. Scanning and “cleaning up” an illustration, for example, was once the province of experts in the printing business. Now it is the illustrator’s job, and it takes a lot of time. Music recorded onto tape sounds great. But the ease and low cost of digital recording is a no brainer.

Did you move to NYC more to pursue music or art? Or both?

Does the desire to document what’s around you through lyrics and through art come from the same place?
I always carry a small notebook in which to jot down random thoughts. Over time, I’m able to trace certain themes in my thinking that help me articulate better in my drawings and lyrics.

You arrived NYC at a time when the city was really starting to change. What do you miss and not miss about the city circa your arrival there?
It’s difficult to be objective about the past; rather, it is impossible. My memories of a “different New York” are intertwined with a much younger and wide-eyed, less cynical version of myself. I’m certainly not one of those people who pine for the dangerous and filthy New York of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. I was mugged more than once when I first came to New York, and I hated the experience. Admittedly, when I was younger, I was fascinated by the rough side of New York. But now I have complete disdain for machismo and its effects. When Hollywood depicts New York cabdrivers as brusque, world-weary, cigar-chewing, white guys in newsboy caps, I roll my eyes. That stereotype is stale and so not worth perpetuating. Meanwhile, regarding the “new New York,” there is nothing exciting about Wall Street types living in newly built condominiums.

—Eric T. Miller