Marc with a C (picture: Cap Blackard)This month sees the release of an exciting new record, Have an Okay Time with Claire and the Potatoes and we’ve been getting the inside scoop on the making of the album from band leader Marc Sirdoreus, a.k.a. Marc with a C.

In the interview so far we’ve covered:

In the final part of the interview we’ll be talking about how Marc learned to play and sing, and how this natural-sounding performer actually taught himself the listening skills he needed.

Q: From our discussion so far it sounds like you would consider yourself a “play by ear” musician. As in you’re not reading from sheet music, you would instinctively try to figure out something by ear if you wanted to play it. Is that right?

Marc: Yeah, on my new live record, The Real Live Sound of Marc with A C, I tell a joke that’s actually very true, which is:

“How do you make Marc with A C stop playing an instrument?

Put sheet music in front of me!”

Show me sheet music and I will just look at it and say “What are all those dots?” Now some people are all the better for really sticking to those dots. Frank Zappa comes to mind. Later in his life he really wanted to stop working with other musicians because they wouldn’t put emotion on it. The machines would play the dots as programmed and when someone didn’t like one of his songs, he looked at it as “We hate your dots!”

I pretty much pick up everything by ear. […] I’d rather let the songs seep into myself and play it naturally, the way it comes out of me.

So that is not me, I pretty much pick up everything by ear. I can read tablature – very, very slowly. I can read a chord chart though. I can do that, but I choose not to. I’d rather let the songs seep into myself and play it naturally, the way it comes out of me. And that’s not say that the other side of that is wrong, it’s just I’m not capable.

I’m sure that if I were to try I could learn, but I think that would be at the expense of very much changing what I do as Marc with A C. A lot of what I do is to come up with it in the moment, and that’s down to stage banter and if I were really locked into sight reading things I am a little afraid that I might lose that spontaneity.

Listen to Marc with a C performing live

Most of my favourite groups were never using sheet music and all those great jams that Jefferson Airplane had in the 60s, they couldn’t have existed with those dots. They had to hear it and learn it and feel it that way. Then there were groups where I know that there was no sheet music involved where I’m thinking “How on earth did you teach that to them?”

For example The Soft Boys, who have been a massive influence on me in the last few years. Without the influence of The Soft Boys, Claire and The Potatoes never would have happened. I never would have thought to work with other musicians. But if you listen to some of the stuff on Underwater Moonlight like “I’m an Old Pervert”, musically there are so many bizarre things going on there that I can’t imagine how Robyn Hitchcock dictated that to the rest of the group without being able to write dots on paper.

Marc with a C Performing

Q: So let me ask you the key question from the Easy Ear Training point of view. Were you able to play music by ear when you were 5 or 10 years old, were you someone who could just pick up a guitar and just do it? Or did you teach yourself to figure stuff out by ear and teach yourself to play instinctively?

Vocally, it was all by ear. I had a pretty good knack for pitch. I wasn’t as refined as I am now, and hopefully not as refined as I’m going to be now that I’ve quit smoking! I could do it vocally but I couldn’t do that with a guitar or a piano.

My first foray into learning that was actually around 11 or 12 when I was sent to keyboard lessons and they put sheet music in front of me and I had to learn it. They had me try and learn time signatures and rests and what not and I really had no knack for it… Plus it turns out that I just didn’t have a knack for playing piano in the least. I can kind of pick some chords out but around 14 or 15 I started taking guitar lessons after my mum had shown me some basic chords.

I suppose that it was unintended ear training. It’s possible to do it without thinking about it.

Then I sat down with Classic Rock Songbooks, which are the best tool for learning, because they would have songs that you didn’t really like but everybody knew. So say you were opening the book and you saw Take It Easy by The Eagles. You could play that G chord and know when you were supposed to change that chord because you’d heard the song so many times.

You could also learn to sing that way, learn to sing and play. One didn’t come without the other for me. They were very hand-in-hand. But I ended up going to some guitar teachers and mostly they were trying to teach me to play like them and a lot of them were frustrated metal musicians – so a lot of power chords found their way into my vocabulary and I’ve been trying to unlearn that ever since…

I thought that barre chords were impossible to play and then it just turned out that my guitar had very high action – so they were. Once I had the action lowered, a whole world opened up where I’m like “Oh, you can play right up here on the meedley strings.”

Beyond following along with chord books and trying to sing along with them and make it sound like the song that I’d already heard, that was it. From there I learned what a G chord sounds like and now I can pick it up and I suppose that it was unintended ear training. It’s possible to do it without thinking about it.

Q: Definitely. What we try to do at Easy Ear Training, our mission, is to show people that they can pick up this stuff and then we try and help them do it as fast as possible. It’s really inspiring to hear that in your case actually you weren’t born with a guitar in your hand, able to play whatever you heard on the radio. It was a matter of sitting down with songbooks and building up those skills over time.

Sure, and I think it’s a good time to mention that a musician who claims to be completely tone deaf is Roger Waters. Roger Waters claims to be completely tone deaf. If that doesn’t underline that anyone can do this, I don’t know what does! You’ve heard Dark Side of the Moon. That wouldn’t have worked if the bass player, who was writing the genesis of all those songs, couldn’t hear a note. He somehow pulled it off, while to this day claiming to be tone deaf…

Thanks again to Marc for joining us here on to share such a range of insights into the musicianship behind his new album and how exactly it came to be.

Marc’s new album with Claire and the Potatoes was released this week!

You can also hear his live performance and spontaneity on The Real Live Sound of Marc With a C: