Saturday, September 3, 2016

Getting the Lowdown on Marc Gartman: An Interview

If you spend any time with Marc Gartman you will hear one recurring theme: the centrality of song writing. Over a period of ninety minutes the theme was referenced and underscored in a variety of ways. "As long as I'm writing and I'm able to get things done..." and "The more I do it, the more the tap is on..." and, "For me, it's all about song writing. Writing is what I do..." Even when we talked about Dylan, Gartman -- who had just finished reading Chronicles, Vol. 1 again -- found the parts about song writing to be what stood out for him. "Dylan's style of writing... interesting. To read about his indecisiveness, all the struggles he went through to get it right..."

IN 2004/2005 Marc Gartman became a Twin Ports transplant. His life now intersects with the Duluth music scene at multiple points. Like many here he's created or been part of a number of groups including Two Many Banjos, which had a five year run, and his Fever Dream project. He's found his work with Dave Caroll and Erik Berry of Trampled By Turtles to be stimulating, which includes performing with Dave Caroll as Glitterati, a creative and financially motivating undertaking. A Deadhead, Gartman will be putting on two upcoming shows titled Gartman Plays Dead later this year, one with TBT's Erik Berry and a December show with Caroll.

Currently free from the responsibilities of a day job, Gartman is able to focus on the writing that so motivates him. When we met for lunch this past week he'd been working on new material from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. "When creativity strikes, it trumps everything. I have to grab it when it happens."

All of us who write well understand.

EN: Where did you grow up and what other places have you lived?
MG: I grew up in Westchester County, New York. It's about 20 minutes North on the commuter train from Manhattan. My parents were born and raised in the Bronx and their parents are from Kolomyia which is (was?) in Poland. We're 100% Jew so they had to get out of there during WW2. They settled in NYC. I went to Boarding School in Northfield, Massachusetts and then got a Bachelor of Science in Film at Boston University. I moved back to NYC after college and made a documentary on my favorite band (at the time) Low. I had no idea I'd end up here but that was the first time I had heard of Duluth. I came and visited a few times when I was working on the Low doc and I also recorded some music on friends' records at Sacred Heart. I thought that studio was really cool so I wrote some music specifically to record at Sacred Heart as well. I ended up getting a job as a photojournalist at KBJR and then fell in love with the city. The main reason I stay is I have some very close friends and there's something in the water that makes me write a lot of music. As long as I'm writing songs I'm ok.

EN: How did you come to take an interest in music, and particularly in being a performer?
MG: I took an interest in performing music when Sean Flood picked up my dad's acoustic guitar when we were 14 and girls stopped and listened to him. I wanted to be in a band and write original music and tour the world and elsewhere. 25 years later it's still great to have girls dance to my music and I'm still writing original music so I'm content.

EN: How did you discover Low? What prompted you to make this documentary?
MG: A friend recommended I pick up their album The Curtain Hits the Cast. I didn't understand it at first and then I did in a big obsessive way. Their music was so spare yet it retained classic song structure which is important to me. I had a deep desire to know who was writing these songs. I reached out to them in '99 about making the doc and they were hesitant at first but eventually agreed. I followed them around for a couple of years and we became and have remained friends.

EN: What was the most interesting thing you learned about Low from doing this documentary? 
MG: The most interesting thing I learned about making the Low doc was that I was too in love with their music to be objective about telling a good story. I feel like It's mostly just a love letter to Alan. I put it on Vimeo last year because it showed at the DSFF but I'm not really sure where it is now. Richard Hansen might?

EN: Photojournalism must have some interesting elements. You get paid to develop your skills and also get to see your work shared with an immediate audience. How long were you doing this and what did you learn?
MG: I worked at KBJR for 2+ years and then briefly WDIO. I was a photojournalist (in video, not still) at both stations. It was in keeping with my college degree so I felt like it was the right thing for me to continue doing. When I was in school I learned to edit on real film though, using a Steenbeck, and I graduated right around the time digital editing was coming into play. That changed things dramatically and I never really recovered. I learned a couple of editing programs but I never got into it like some people do. I stayed in the game for a few more years because I couldn't figure out another way to make a living but eventually I quit and worked up at the Lakeview Castle. I was a server there for couple of years and that was when I decided it was time to take music seriously and see if I could make a living at it.

EN: If Watson were to sum up the themes of all your songs in one sentence, what would he say? 
MG: I think if Watson were to sum up the themes of my music it would be lyrically I sing about my romantic relationships and sonically I play in the pop song structure. I use different instruments to write with but the layout is usually pretty consistent; verse, chorus, bridge, under 4 minutes, etc.

EN: Can you share a few details about your Low documentary "Closer Than That"?
MG: The film was 66 minutes long. I followed them around when I could for a couple of years; touring (US and Europe), recording, home life. In the end Alan bought the movie from me and they included it in their boxset they put out in 2004. I don't think it's a bad film but it's amateurish and I don't think it tells a good story. It's an interesting snapshot of a particular time in their history and that has value but it lacked a real beginning, middle, end.

EN: And what was your own personal take-away? You sacrificed 2 years of your life for this project. What did you get in return?
MG: My personal take away was becoming friends with the Sparhawks. The documentary didn't lead me to make (or at least complete) any more films. Neither did it get me any closer to really understanding how they make the music they make but I enjoyed being accepted into their world. And since I live in Duluth now I can assume that's another take away, I fell in love with this town. I probably won't direct another film but I did produce this Fever Dream video.

Gartman On Dylan
EN: What has been your involvement with the series of Duluth Does Dylan CDs? When did you first take an interest in Dylan?
MG: A few bands I've played in have recorded tracks for the series but I don't really have any other involvement other than that. The Two Many Banjos version of 'If You See Her Say Hello' is interesting. I took an interest in Dylan in my early teens. My parents were fans so they had some early vinyl around. There was also a bootleg cassette store nearby that would sell some of his live shows. Formative stuff for me.

EN: On a scale of 1 to 10, with ten being the most intense, how do you rank yourself as a Dylan fan.
MG: I'd say up there, around a 7. I just re-read his Chronicles Vol. 1. Learning all the basement tapes tunes for a gig I did last year was incredibly fun.

EN: Being from out East, did it surprise you to end up living where Dylan was born?
MG: Not really. I think my dad searches for meaning in it more than I do.

EN: You're in the middle of the local music scene. In addition to the scenery and the scene, where do you see Dylan's biggest influence here?
MG: I don't see Dylan's influence that much on the musicians themselves but I do see that his connection to Duluth has affected certain people around here in a deep way.

* * * *
For now, Duluth is home for this driven songwriter performer. What's next? We'll have to wait and see, but my guess is that the creative well he's tapped into won't run dry any time soon.

Meantime, life goes on. Enjoy the music. 

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