The best art is bled for. An artist takes their canvas or their instrument or their hammer and nail and pounds out something pure and real. It is a bearing of a soul, be it ugly or beautiful. It reveals something about life; something universal yet unarticulated. When Leigh Marble set out to make his latest album, Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows he knew that his blood would be all over it.
Like any pure artist, Leigh knows his craft. He has honed it over the course of a lifetime wrought with challenge and pain, loved it and nurtured it with art of all types, from The Catcher in the Rye to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. His methods and tastes have varied but he has always strived to make something real, something that exudes the pain and beauty of life. With Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows, he got more than he bargained for.
Shortly before production began, Leigh Marble's wife was diagnosed with cancer. Together they fought it into recession, but some scars never lighten and some wounds never heal. This is where the knives meet between the rows. The album that was his solace, the process that was his therapy became the art that one bleeds for. His pain is evident in every dripping chord of every staggering tune, but he is careful to never forget that an album should reflect and focus pain, not be painful in itself. He gathered old friends and creative partners for help and inspiration. Erin McKeown, Jesse Emerson (Amelia, The Decemberists), Matt Harmon and Kali Giaritta (The Ascetic Junkies), and Rachel Taylor Brown all helped Leigh fill out the sound and feel of the album.
While most of the tunes on Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows are very dark and are set on heavy tones and notes, Leigh somehow manages to mystify rather than depress. The first track, Walk is a perfect mood setter but he quickly follows it with the classic rock styled Jackrabbit, which lifts the entire album to the level of accessibility. Leigh manages to utilize crafts perfected by artists across a wide spectrum. A notable aspect of many of the songs on the album is the use of the organ to establish a base, "old world" feel. But then he rocks the guitar with nothing short of indie rock gold on the very next track. His lyrics, again, inspire a certain nostalgia laced melancholy rather than the bland and easy tones of simple depression. "When Mana doesn't fall from the sky anymore, but jet planes do. Flying home. Evil don't find me here."
Like Salinger, Leigh often calls up the image of the lone boy, walking through the rain, on an introspective journey to find self. Imagery is extremely important for the album. Sometimes it is funny, as is the case with the lighthearted Pony, and sometimes it is depressing, like the indictment of society that is his closing track, Cars, but what Leigh has created is a very real and visceral experience, full of sights and sounds.
In the end, Leigh's album is remarkable heartfelt and very personal. It is sometimes angry, "All you fucking fakers!... You horrid haters"; it is sometimes beautiful, "You sweet dumb creatures." But it is always real. Leigh bleeds for a solid hour and leaves use with a new knowledge of the depths of pain and the height of artistic intelligence. His references are smart and his guitar flawless. He melds old symphonic methods with knowledge gained from years of Rock 'n' Roll. Heavy on the Blues and soft on the jokes, Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows is a perfect combination of the sweet and the bitter. "The line of cars in the late afternoon glitters from here to the horizon. It's the sickest thing, all these pigs on the wing, that you've ever laid your eyes on."
For me personally, I love when an artist refuses to underestimate the intelligence of his or her audience. Leigh is a studied artist with deep roots and deeper human connections. There is an underlying humor in the album, exhibited by his experimentation with forgotten, underappreciated and unused instruments. Though this is another aspect of life: humor is as relentless as pain, it left me properly confused. The tumult of emotions and sounds in Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows is a lot to take in. Luckily, I got to have a chat with Leigh about Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows, his family's fight with cancer and the challenges of creating art as your world crumbles around you.
Interview with Leigh Marble
The Inside Mag (T.I.M.): You have made no secret of your wife's brave fight with cancer. According to your site bio, this album was written during that battle. The result is a decidedly intense and dark experience. How much of the album comes from before the diagnosis and how much was written from a place of relief after her victory?
Leigh Marble (L.M.): Almost all the songs were written after her initial diagnosis ("Greener Pastures" is the only one written before). Many songs were started while she was still in treatment, and the rest soon after that. But I wouldn't say any of them come from a place of relief, per se. Agitation, anger, grief - those were the emotions I was steeped in at the time. You might make it out of a fight with cancer with your life, but you don't emerge unscarred. For some time afterwards, we were mourning for what we lost in the fight.
T.I.M.: The album seems to draw on a lot of different forms of art and media, from J.D. Salinger to the early German Expressionism. Who are your major non-musical influences?
L.M.: I do like German Expressionism, and I think you're actually the first reviewer to pick up on that. I'm not widely studied in art history, but I did happen to see an exhibit years back of German Expressionist woodcuts, and the starkness and the force they projected stuck in my mind. Other non-musical influences, hmm - I did get an English lit degree, and was exposed to a lot of critical and feminist theory through that, which strongly shaped my worldview.
I'm also helplessly drawn to the spooky/gothic side of American folklore. Hauntings, the Salem witch trials, colonial-era graveyards, that sort of thing. It's been a lifelong obsession.
T.I.M.: Your orchestral roots seem very evident on this album. Who are your major musical influences?
L.M.: There have been so many over the years. Currently I'd say Brian Eno is a big influence - during the time I was making this album, I listened to the records he made with Harold Budd dozens and dozens of times. Those records are all instrumental, piano-based, very atmospheric. Over the last five years I've listened to a lot of Low and Daniel Lanois and Morphine and Velvet Underground. Tom Waits is a perennial influence, but I kind of don't like to bring that up any more because it usually gets taken the wrong way - I don't sing like him or write songs like him, but he's a huge influence in other ways.
T.I.M.: I know a lot of people work together to create an album, especially one as orchestral and tonally driven as Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows, but did you feel like the recording experience was a solitary one? What was the experience like?
L.M. It was actually very solitary. The exceptions were the initial band recording days - three days of tracking everybody all together in a studio. That was very social, very fun. And then the days when I'd bring in a player (either a band member or one of the guests) to my home studio for an overdub, or invite a friend over to listen to a track that I was struggling with and needed a fresh perspective on. But the rest of the time, it's just me, listening, overdubbing, tweaking, mixing… once that goes on long enough, it's maddening and you just start to lose perspective on the artistic merits (or lack thereof) of your songs. Next record, I need to do things differently! Either work under a real time constraint, like "I will track this whole thing in two weeks", or bring a producer on board so I have some anchor outside my own head.
T.I.M.: Who are you listening to now?
L.M.: Just recently I've gotten into The Kills, mostly their last album. I love the guitar tones and the drum programming and the way their vocals mix. Also I've been going back to some dub records which I haven't listened to in a while, some classic King Tubby and Dub Specialist stuff. And, again, Brian Eno - I've been revisiting "Another Green World".
T.I.M.: What is next for Leigh Marble?
L.M.: Currently I'm planning a video for "Pony", and working on a new one-man stage show. I like playing with a band, but they take so much care and feeding! For the economics of touring, if nothing else, I decided it makes a lot of sense to work out an engaging one-person show. More than just showing up with my guitar and playing a handful of songs. The shape of what that will be, exactly, is still taking shape. But one goal is to bring a wider palette of sounds to the stage, as well as a rhythmic element of some kind. Don't want to be more specific than that, don't want to jinx the process…
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