This is a reprint from an article in The Review magazine. Interview by Bo White.
American Mars is another great Detroit band that dodges fame effortlessly like Robert Bradley or the Forbes Brothers. It seems as if these great musicians struggle between hope and despair while looking for the space between spontaneity and discipline. The answers are elusive but the truth is they need to stop and take a breath and smell the air in the house they were born into. American Mars is to roots music as Pink Floyd is to pensive atmospheric rock & roll.
American Mars consists of Thomas Trimble (vocals, guitar), David Feeny (pedal steel, guitar, backing vocals, keyboards), Garth Girard (upright bass, electric bass, backing vocals) and Alex Trajano (drums). They are all superb musicians who know how to play economically and appreciate the spaces between the notes. Trimble’s lyrics are reflective and convey a sense that the divine can be experienced. This is modern spiritual music that you won’t hear on the radio. It’s just that good. David Feeny is an incredible pedal steel player and his well-placed grooves create an atmospheric soundscape that is irresistible.
Their 2008 release Western Sides may be one of the best albums released in the new millennium.
Review: American Mars has so much going for it. Great songs, great playing and a distinct vision. What are your roots?
Trimble: I think the foundation of the band comes from a love of two distinct bodies of music, the first being the rich body of American roots music, from Hank Williams and T-Bone Walker to Elvis, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, Charlie Rich, and Bob Dylan. The second stream comes from some of the great post-punk groups that had such a big impact on us growing up, groups like The Clash, Joy Division, the Chameleons, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Did you have a mentor? an inspiration?
I can’t say that I have a mentor, but I guess that Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Cave, and PJ Harvey have the most impact on my sense of what I’d like to be in terms of a songwriter and an artist. They all represent unobtainable ideals of course, but that’s the point, isn’t it?
Did your musical vision coalesce around Western sides?
I’ve always liked the idea of groups periodically reinventing themselves so while I would agree that Western Sides is the most cohesive collection of music we’ve made, I’d like to think that we’ll continue to experiment with other things as we continue to make music together.
Did it feel like you found your unique voice?
I do feel like we found a voice on that record, both in terms of the kinds of sounds we were trying to make and in the different kinds of stories we were trying to tell. The song “Western Sides,” which ended up giving us the title of the record and the cover art that our bassist Garth developed for the record really helped focus our thinking about the record as an album rather than a collection of singles. It felt good to see that vision come together.
Personal experiences become universal themes when laid down in a song structure. Did writing about everyday life touch you in a personal way?
Personal experiences are usually at the heart of how songs begin but it’s interesting how the meanings of songs change over time. A good example is the song on Western Sides called “Long Walk Home.” That was written about a very specific time in my life but when we play that now, three or four years after it was written, it seems to have taken on a different context, at least in my mind. On the other hand, there are other songs that I’ve written about specific experiences that I tend to forget about and it’s only when we play those songs that those memories come back. When those memories happen to be painful or intense, the experience of singing those songs can be jarring.
Do you find that you enjoy writing more when you can tell a story that you are personally or emotionally connected to?
Yes, but the challenge for me as an adult with adult responsibilities is that the bounds of my everyday experience tend to narrow around a set of routines, getting kids to soccer practice for example, that make coming up with new ideas difficult. I struggle to find things to say that I think other people will find interesting. I guess that’s why I’m so impressed by songwriters who can write about adulthood in new and interesting ways. For the last few days, I’ve been listening to David Bazan’s new record and I’m just blown away by what he sees in everyday life. My friend and fellow songwriter Karla Richardson is also amazing in that regard.
How would you describe your music on Western sides?
On Western Sides, we focused on presenting well-crafted songs featuring sounds and textures that would resonate with roots-oriented audiences while also incorporating some of the more textured, experimental sounds that had characterized some of our earlier work.
What is your strength musically?
I’m a very limited guitar player but I can usually carry a tune. I think my biggest strength is the ability to get out of the way, out of the way of the songs, the ideas, and what the other guys in the band are doing.
What is your Achilles heal? Are they different sides of the same coin…the paradox of opposites?
I have two nearly ruptured Achilles heels. The first is an innate lack of natural talent. The second is a lack of time to practice and improve. My goal now is for people to see that there is something rewarding about doing the best with what you have at hand. Thankfully, the rest of the band is really, really good so a lot of my shortcomings are obscured.
What do you think about the Detroit music scene?
I’m inexcusably uninformed about the Detroit music scene. I’ve never been much of a scene person so it’s hard to say. I do know that there is very good music being made here. I really like the Blueflowers, Legendary Creatures, and I’m a big fan of everything that Ryan Allen does. I hate the fact that he’s so prolific but that’s all about to change so I’m very happy in a twisted kind of way.
Do you think Detroit can ever recover its former glory?
I don’t know but I am very proud of the fact that as a people, Detroiters just seem to have an incredible capacity to keep going. In spite of the poverty, violence, and segregation, Detroit also continues to be a place of exceptional creative potential. I think the same can be said of the whole state of Michigan.
American Mars has been at it a long time. How do you keep going?
We’re not worried about anything other than making music we feel good about so the fact that we’ve never attained the level of recognition or success as other bands we’ve played with doesn’t smart anymore. We don’t tour so there’s rarely time to figure out we don’t like each other.
Any last questions or comments?
These are great questions. I really like the idea of adults finding ways to continue to be creative despite all the things in our lives that work against that. There’s a heroism in that that I really admire. The exuberance of youth and the ability to be relevant has its place but there’s something about the doing that endures.