Marah overcomes adversity and gets another chance
August 1, 2004
BY MARY HOULIHAN Staff Reporter
Four years ago, everything looked rosy for the Philadelphia band Marah and
its frontmen and founders Dave and Serge Bielanko. Recruited by Steve Earle
for his label, Artemis Records, they were riding high on the success of the
album "Kids in Philly." Great reviews rolled in, leading to extensive tours
in the States as well as Europe. Along the way, its distinctive brand of
East-Coast rock attracted high profile fans ranging from Bruce Springsteen
to British writer Nick Hornby.
It was a lot for the young musicians to digest.
"We were really sort of innocent and didn't understand the business back
then," said Dave Bielanko. "We got great reviews, but weren't selling
records; we weren't going anywhere."
Fast forward to the present; the brothers are older and wiser. They tell of
a journey through personal and professional challenges that had them
convinced the band would not survive.
Now in their early 30s, they are seasoned performers back doing what they
do best -- creating original music that takes soulful rock into what can
best be described as a unique Philadelphia groove with equal inspiration
from many sources, including Phil Spector, the traditional Philly Mummers
parades and Jersey neighbor Springsteen.
After a foray into overproduced pop on a second album, 2002's ill-fated and
ill-received "Float Away with the Friday Night Gods," the brothers are
touring behind their new album, "20,000 Streets Under the Sky," released on
a new label, Yep Roc. Marah makes an appearance Friday at Schubas, where
the band's appearances over the years have become legendary. The
sweat-soaked events take listeners to a place where thoughtful, ragged rock
In recent years, the brothers have recovered from problems including a
rotating lineup, label problems, writer's block, too much partying and the
usual rock 'n' roll overload.
"We definitely felt hung out to dry," said Serge, of the two years after
"Float Away." "Whether we had done that to ourselves or not, we felt pretty
alone and very afraid. But I think you have to go through things like that
to come to the next place, which might be the best place yet."
Both brothers admit that "Float Away" was an attempt to avoid getting
pigeonholed. The disc was helmed in Wales by Oasis producer Owen Morris,
who said he loved their lyrics but hated their music. Hardcore fans, as
well as critics, were aghast at the final product, which ignored the band's
rootsy rock style.
"Owen really wanted to do something different" said Dave, 30. "But toward
the end, it was apparent that militant Marah fans were going to be a little
skeptical of this record, or flat out not like it. But we wrote it from a
very real place, and the songs all made sense to us. It remains a chapter
in an unfinished book. It needs to be there."
Like a young Springsteen (Asbury Park, N.J.) and the Bottle Rockets
(Festus, Mo.), the Bielankos had always been tied heart and soul to their
hometown. But being young and restless, Serge, now 32, feels they were
trying to break away from the "urban folk thing" with "Float Away." "I
think we wanted to challenge our fans," Serge said. "It was almost like we
could do no wrong. We certainly didn't want to drive them away, but maybe
see how far we could stretch it with them."
After the "Float Away" disaster, the band split from Earle's label; Serge
followed a girlfriend to London, and Dave moved to New York. By all
accounts, the band was on hiatus. But one day Serge called his brother and
over a cell phone, sang his newest song, "Feather Boa," one of the best on
the new album. The song about a transvestite hooker, a character remembered
from their old Philadelphia neighborhood, was the inspiration that the
brothers needed to begin work on what would become "20,000 Streets Under
The new album, recorded in their old stamping grounds above a South Philly
auto body shop, is a return to what they know best; life in the streets and
rowhouses of Philadelphia is what inspires the Bielankos.
"What it boiled down to was that we realized you can go somewhere else, but
where you're from is always going to be part of you," Serge said. "We fell
in love with the soul and grit of Philly. It's a city with an underdog
mentality that likes to fight back. It's very similar to our band."
Marah -- the name comes from a biblical term for "bitter" -- was formed
when the brothers were in their early 20s. They grew up in Conshohocken, a
working-class suburb, and moved into the city after high school. While the
Philly sound has been defined by soul, R&B and Spector's "Wall of Sound,"
it has never had a rock component.
The Bielankos set out to change that. Oddly enough, Dave also plays the
banjo, but not in any bluegrass sense. His inspiration to pick up the banjo
came from the New Year's Day Mummers Parade, a sort of northern Mardi Gras,
which, among other things, features wildly dressed banjo players.
While Marah remains "the best rock band you've never heard of," Marah and
the Bielankos' star seems on the rise once again. Last year, Springsteen
brought them onstage to join in on Eddie Floyd's "Raise Your Hand"; in May,
longtime fan Hornby wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times about the
power of rock, which sang the praises of Marah's "ferocious, chaotic and
Dave Bielanko laughs at whether they're getting wiser as they get older.
"It's a big trick to even have a career in music today. But if you're
lucky, you can trick the system into letting you mature gracefully and grow
up playing music. There's great joy in that and you do get wiser and more
careful about things. You learn from absolutely everything you do and you
carry it all with you."
Added Serge: "We've fought our worst battles. We've survived as a rock 'n'
roll band that is still playing music for the same reasons that we played
it on our first record. You just have to hunt for ways to make it all work."
MARAH, FORT ANCIENT
# When: 9 p.m. Friday
# Where: Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
# Tickets: Admission, $12
# Phone: (773) 525-2508