Ryan Markley, Aaron Higgins, Katie WeedFat Wreck Chords
By Dustin Blumhagen on June 29th, 2011 at Edmonton Event Centre - Edmonton, Alberta
Old Man Markley have the distinction of being arguably the most experimental punk group on Fat Wreck Chords. Their blend of punk and bluegrass music has earned them attention in all sorts of musical circles. We caught up with Ryan Markley (washboard) and Aaron Higgins (drums), with a little input from the shy Katie Weed (fiddle) on their tour bus during a recent stop in Edmonton, AB. It must be noted that not only were they very welcoming hosts, but they have what may be the most amazing DIY modified tour bus I have ever witnessed.
Katie: If anyone wants to take a nap after… (While folding up bunks)
Aaron: Sorry the house is such a mess right now, the maid hasn’t been here in a while.
Katie: I’d lie and say it’s usually cleaner, but…
How’s it going so far?
Ryan: It’s great! It’s like week 3 for us, but week 2 with NOFX.
How’s the fan reception for you guys?
Ryan: It’s been great. We weren’t sure what to expect, it’s our first time in Canada. We haven’t had too much of a problem with playing with NOFX. They’ve said that a lot of times that their opening bands get booed, rushed and have stuff thrown at them, then call for NOFX. We haven’t had any of that yet, knock on wood. So far so good.
That must mean that you guys are doing something right. Your sound is pretty unique, how do you feel playing punk with traditional influences?
Ryan: It’s great to do, it’s fun and exciting. A lot of us have been playing in punk bands for years and years. Me and our mandolin player (Alex Zablotsky) played in a band called Angel City Outcasts for 10 years and Johnny (Carey) and Joey (Garibaldi) were in a band called Blue Collar Special for 10 years. All of us worked and toured for a long time, but nothing ever came of it. Towards the end of both of our stays in those bands, we decided to try something new. When we started trying to play bluegrass, it was a little rough around the edges, but when we found Katie Weed (fiddle) and John Rosen (banjo) who are both classically trained/ folk trained musicians, the sound really came together and we found what we were looking for.
Do you think that bands like Gogol Bordello and Flogging Molly opened some doors for you guys?
Ryan: Most definitely. When we originally conceived the band we just wanted to play bluegrass and this is kind of what came out of our feeble attempt. It got much more authentic after Katie and John joined the band.
Aaron: I think bands like Mumford & Sons and other folky type music is helping people to realize that it’s good music, it’s not overproduced, its natural roots music. It helps our fanbase, we are traditional bluegrass and punk rock, they get the energy and they get the tradition. It works out well.
So, how is it for all of you and all of your gear in this little bus?
Ryan: I’ve done a lot of touring in 15 passenger vans and I’ll never go back.
Aaron: Yeah that sucks.
Ryan: We’ve had nine people in here before, it gets a little crowded, but everyone tries to be respectful of each other. We have 2 ladies on board. I used to pee in bottles, not allowed to do that anymore unless everyone is asleep. We try to give each other a little respect and we have a lot of fun.
Aaron: We respect everyone’s space and try to shift it around. People sleep in different bunks everytime, people drive and sleep in shifts.
How about getting a ladies perspective? How is it travelling with all of these guys?
Katie: Six guys on the road? It’s a dream come true. There’s a no farting rule.
Ryan: We break it all the time. I try to aim for one of the side windows.
Katie: It’s odd, the guys in the band are the ones who insisted the other day that we go to Home Depot and buy this vacuum cleaner to keep the bus clean.
Aaron: We installed the flat screen on our own. Johnny helped build all of the bunks. This is the DIY mobile, we’ve done a lot of work and it’s all hand done.
Ryan: A friend of ours did all of the metal frame welding, Johnny had the wood cut, we installed the bunks, then spent 3 days nonstop sewing the mattresses and making curtains. The whole spiel.
So when you go overseas do you miss it?
Ryan: The last time we went to Europe we shared a nightliner with Teenage Bottlerocket because both bands were gonna get Sprinters. For the same price we could get a 16 sleeper night liner and nobody has to get hotels that way. We did that for the NOFX length of it, then we got a Sprinter for our solo length. The nightliner was greatly missed then and we missed our bus.
Aaron: The nightliner was fantastic, but the sprinter was a little rough, with all seven of us and all of our gear in one van.
How’s the reaction with the new album?
Ryan: It’s been great, we’ve sold out almost every time we go out. We usually have to reorder twice. We can’t keep it in stock.
That’s great. So, what’s up after Canada?
Ryan: After Canada we are home for two and a half months and we have numerous song ideas that have not been polished yet. We are going to try to demo the next album, then in October we go to the east coast with NOFX and Anti-Flah When we get back in November we are going to try to go into the studio and have the album done as soon as possible because we are going on tour again in January, on the west coast. Hopefully we will be the main support for that, if the new record is out in time.
So, I think it might be safe to say that someone in NOFX is a big Old Man Markley fan.
Ryan: Fat Mike believes in us.
Aaron: Mike backs us big time.
How did you guys meet?
Ryan: Johnny and Joey used to play in Youth Brigade and they did a couple tours with NOFX. After maybe a year of the band being together, Mark Stern (Youth Brigade, BYO Records) approached us and said, I like what you guys are doing. You don’t have any management yet and I want to start a management company so we joined forces. Fat Mike picked up some early demos that we did, but didn’t say anything about them, he didn’t express any interest. We recorded the album ourselves, mastered and mixed it ourselves. Then we gave it to him. He sat on it for a couple of months and we figured he had passed. One day our manager called us for a conference call and said let’s make a record and we are signed on to do a second one.
First time I heard you guys was on Let Them Know, so that was obviously through the Youth Brigade connection. It stood out to me on that album.
Ryan: Yeah, it all helped.
Aaron: It’s rad working with Mike. He’s working on a musical right now, so we went to the studio and recorded one of the songs for the musical. He wanted it to have banjo, kind of our sound. He produced via Skype in the studio. We had our laptop open and he’s listening to us play. He rewrote the song like four times. He like what we do and he’s helped us out a lot.
You tour a lot with punk bands, but when I listen to Old Man Markley, you remind me of Old Crow Medicine Show more than say NOFX.
Ryan: We would love to play with them. We will work up to it. Two years ago at Punk Rock Bowling, Johnny palyed acoustic guitar for Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tour. They did a night there and he got invited up and played with Steve Soto and Chuck Ragan.
Aaron: When we are in California, we have a good friend, Cooper McBean from the Devil Makes Three. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them. We’ve toured with them quite a bit. He does a side project called Cooper McBean and the Vested Interests and we’ve gone out with them too. We do the occasional bluegrass festival, we’ve done Topenga banjo festival, we are doing a tomato festival at the end of this tour.
Do you find that the punk rock crowd is more receptive? I know that back in the day OCMS said that the purists were initially skeptical of their sound.
Aaron: There are a lot of purists.
Ryan: They’ll see us setting up and be like that’s not a bluegrass band, what are they doing here? After the show, they’ll be like, ok it wasn’t that bad. But just so you know, you’re not bluegrass. Doesn’t mean you’re not good, but you are not bluegrass.
Aaron: It’s really awesome because we win over a lot of fans. We are playing with NOFX, we are playing with Cobra Skulls, Bad Religion. A lot of these kids have never seen a fiddle or a banjo or an upright tub base. They see that and at first they are like what the hell is this? Then they hear it and are like that was awesome, I’ve never heard anything like it.
Ryan: We see it sometimes at shows, where they are very standoffish at first, with their arms crossed, just staring at you. You get three songs in and you are like this is going to be the shittiest night ever. Then just as the fourth song begins a circle pit erupts. It’s pretty sweet.
I play bass and I was checking out that tub bass. It’s pretty sweet, pretty sexy.
Ryan: Our singer and I built that. Him, Annie and I all work in a custom guitar shop in Los Angeles. Annie’s dad owns it. When the band was kind of conceived he played a normal bass like he does in the punk bands, but after the first show he was like this doesn’t work. We need something for you. The upright bass you can buy for $500 are just crap and he figured he could build something better.
Aaron: Tubs is the name of the bass.
You kind of think of bluegrass as rooted in Kentucky and places like that. How does that come about in California?
Ryan: I attribute it to Old Crow Medicine Show. Johnny heard Wagon Wheel when it was the single and lost his mind over it and said we have to do this. We have to do something in this vein, we have to try. We had a party one night and were hammered and Johnny had a mandolin and I had drums. He had a washboard, a tin one and I ripped it open and just shredded my knuckles. We loved it. We used to have 200 or 300 people parties at his house.
Aaron: It was basically a nonstop jam fest; people would come over and play music and drink. It was awesome.
I guess with your name being in the band, does it go to your head? (much laughter)
Ryan: Not at all! (more laughter) My nickname from my old band was Old Man Markley because I have a bad back, I have bad knees, I only want to eat soup. I just want a nice soup and a glass of scotch and don’t want to do anything but sit and watch a movie. When we were thinking we had a list of band names that no one could agree on, someone was like oh Old Man Markley over here and Johnny was like that’s it! It stuck and its’ been there ever since.
How’s the Canadian beer? Stronger eh?
Guys: (drinking their Molson) mmm