Have An Okay Time With Claire and the PotatoesSome bands make it big while others fizzle and fail. What makes a successful band work?

Why do some bands seem to share a spirit and a groove that makes the whole much more than the sum of its parts?

And how can you go from playing music by yourself to playing in a band like that?

This is the second part of a 4-part interview with Marc Sirdoreus about the forthcoming album Have An Okay Time With Claire and the Potatoes. In part one we discussed the song-writing behind the album. Now let’s find out more about how Marc went from solo singer-songwriter to collaborating effectively in a band.

Q: You’re best known as a solo artist, “Marc with a C”. Had you played with bands much before Claire and the Potatoes?

Marc: Before I was Marc with a C I was in a pretty awful group that shall remain nameless. I learned a lot in that period of time but also learned that my song writing wasn’t really demanding that I play with a group. It could be done on my own and you didn’t have to deal with people being late to rehearsals, a band member being rude to the audience, the general things that come up in groups.

That first group disbanded naturally. I think we all just came to terms with the fact that we weren’t very good. When Marc with a C actually started I played solo for about three years and when it came time to do my first album Human Slushy the producer, whose name is Joe Panton, we butted heads a lot.

He was determined that the album have a band on it – and by band, he meant him. He was going to play the drums, he was going to play the bass, he was going to overdub a lot of guitar parts and basically he was going to make an album out of my songs and then we needed to have a band to perform it live. So a lot of the idiosyncrasies of those those songs, which truly aren’t my best work anyways, were really lost and there was this personality crisis of people having seen me live and expecting the first album to represent what they had seen. Meanwhile I would sell them Human Slushy, which was a power pop band and it didn’t quite add up.

After being scared off playing with a band, I didn’t want to do it for a very long time. Sometimes I would perform bare bones with a drummer, just a drummer and nothing else.

But in the last few years I’ve really softened up and now I’m really comfortable playing with Marc with a C and the Expansion Pack.

Watch Marc with a C and the Expansion Pack play “Nerdy Girls” live

I really love doing those shows and with Claire and the Potatoes it’s just so much fun and I find it so much easier to rehearse when I can do it with other people. I don’t want to stand in my living room and rehearse Nerdy Girls for the billionth time all by myself… That’s getting a little old, you know.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about how the band came together, where the project originated?
Leslie Rising

Leslie Rising
(photo: Jeff Douglas Photography)

For [Leslie], singing is singing. It doesn’t matter if it’s Lynyrd Skynyrd or Iron Maiden or if it’s cool or not. “Cool” doesn’t really seem to pass through her mind when she’s deciding what to sing.

Sure. It’s kind of a long story but I’ll try to make it as succinct as I can. For about the last 10 or so years I’ve opened for a shadow cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show here named The Rich Weirdos and the first year or second year that I did I met someone called Leslie Rising.

But we didn’t really keep in contact and we were reintroduced to each after the passing of a mutual friend and we became Facebook friends afterwards and she would always post videos of herself playing ukelele and singing songs and I had sorted of nudged her in the ribs a lot going “Hey, you really have to think about singing more.”. Then she posted a Facebook status that said “Hey, I would really love to sing more.”

I guess it was pointed right at me, that she was looking for work. I didn’t know that at the time but apparently her scheme worked and I was going to do a cover of a song called So Hard To Be True by The Little Girls and I had intended to release it as Marc with a C because I’d played all the instruments on it and really all I wanted her to do was harmonise. And she came in and knocked it out of the park on the first take. What you hear on the Claire and the Potatoes recording, that’s her on the first take. There was no doctoring, just a little EQ to make it blend.

I was really inspired by her voice and also her lack of pretence when it came to music. For her, singing is singing. It doesn’t matter if it’s Lynyrd Skynyrd or Iron Maiden or if it’s cool or not. “Cool” doesn’t really seem to pass through her mind when she’s deciding what to sing or if she’s propositioned to sing something.

I wanted to work with her and the initial plan for Claire and the Potatoes was that I was more or less going to write the songs and play all the instruments and she would come in and sing them and we would hire out a rhythm section to play live with. And that’s where it started.

Q: When are we talking now? Is this one or two years back?

This is around October or November of 2012. It was right before Popular Music came out.

But the rhythm section that we hired in (and by “hired” I mean that very loosely. It was like, “If we get gigs, you get paid. If not, you’re doing it for the glory. You’re doing it for the love.”) was Jim Myers, who plays the drums and Guy Larmay, who plays bass and soon we found that we were actually working with a band dynamic and I felt that it was a band that was firing on all four cylinders.

So the decision was made really just a few months after the EP had come out, after a few gigs. The first few gigs were really shaky because we hadn’t really found that dynamic and what we needed to find was that we were a band – and it wasn’t Leslie and me in the front with them in the back.

Q: When you say you were operating with a “band dynamic” what does that mean to you? What distinguishes that from just having a couple of session musicians sitting in with you?

Well, their input, first of all. The input was really good on songs that I’d brought in.

And secondly (and of course this would be the place where I would go to describe it) it was eerily similar to The Who. Not in sound and certainly not really in the personality range, but more that Jim, the drummer, became the heartbeat of the group. He was really deciding the feel. And Guy Larmay was a sort of space cadet, a wildcard bass player and you couldn’t really zero in on where he was coming from all the time… but if you took the time to listen he was really moving along, locking in with that heartbeat in a way that only those two individuals can. Whereas I was writing the bulk of the material and giving it to Leslie to interpret to the audience.

So it was a band dynamic: everyone has a function and that job can’t be done by another soul because then we would lose all of the feel, we would lose all of our sound.

Claire and the Potatoes Left-to-right: Leslie Rising, Marc Sirdoreus, Guy Larmay and Jim Myers.

Claire and the Potatoes
Left-to-right: Leslie Rising, Marc Sirdoreus, Guy Larmay and Jim Myers.

Q: Guy and Jim are also both members of Milk Carton Superstars, so those guys had already played together a lot, is that right?

Yeah, but the difference is that Guy is the guitarist in Milk Carton Superstars and not the bass player. And Jim of course is the lead vocalist. Which is off-putting when people see Milk Carton Superstars get on the stage and they’re expecting the guitarist to sing because that’s just the way things are done – and instead the voice, this wonderful voice, is coming from behind a drum kit! And they can’t really make eye contact with the singer and it’s sort of like “I’m up here and you’re down there,” but it’s unspoken.

They’re pretty much my favourite rock group in Orlando and they were before Claire and the Potatoes. That’s actually why I reached out to them.

Q: So when the EP had come out you had already done a few live gigs.

Right. We’d done a couple of gigs as a duo, just me and Leslie. I’d play acoustic guitar and she’d sing. But I felt like it just wasn’t getting across and it was a little typical.

Watch one of those early Marc/Leslie performances.

We made the decision right after the EP came out, I think, that we wanted to play with a band. And it was as simple as I had vaguely met Jim Myers through him dropping off a Milk Carton Superstars CD at the radio station that I used to work at, WPRK, and I was really enamoured with it. It was called Into the Future Backwards and we sort of had an email relationship.

But until the Claire and the Potatoes audition we’d never, to my knowledge ever actually been in the same room or had much of a conversation. I don’t even remember how I got his number. I sort of called him just out of the blue and said “Hey, do you want some extra work? I like your drumming.”

Q: Not knowing Guy and Jim so well, how did you find those first few rehearsals when they came in and you and Leslie had already been playing together for a while?

The first audition was with just Jim, we didn’t know what we were going to do for a bass player. I think halfway through the first song we played we could tell he’d really absorbed the EP. Me and Leslie made eye contact and just unspokenly said “Yeah, he’s the one.” When the bass player that we had our eyes set on didn’t pan out I told Jim and he said “Guy is actually more of a bass player by trade…”

Guy had already really studied the EP as well, when we came in to do the audition with him. And it was pretty much decided right then but that second audition with Guy wasn’t really an audition, it was more “we’re going to go and play with this guy and he’ll probably be the bass player because we already like what he does musically.” It wasn’t an audition, but he looked at it as one. He kept mentioning all through it “Am I in the band? Did I pass?” and we’re like “It’s not like that, man!” Much in a Keith Moon sort of way, he may look at it as if he’s just been sitting in – because I don’t think we’ve actually the talk with him that he’s in the band yet.

Q: Guy’s bass playing definitely adds a lot to the album. There are certain tracks where you hear him go off on one – and it really brings energy and excitement, I think. He definitely has his part in the band.

Guy is a really imaginative bass player and it’s his tendency to sort of overplay and my natural inclination is simplification at all times: “Don’t use any more than you need”. So there has been a lot of discussion between Guy and myself on how exactly to approach these songs but we happened to capture this recording of the album right in that sweet spot of him figuring out how to serve these songs best, rather than just playing the bass while we’re playing the songs.

Plus Guy is a very different learner than myself or Leslie or Jim. Jim can hear something and figure out how he’s going to approach it with feel. I can pick up something by ear. Leslie is a vocalist, picks it up completely by ear. To my knowledge she doesn’t sight read or anything, whereas Guy really needs the song tabbed out within an inch of their life and he plays best following along with a chord chart. And once he’s played with that chord chart enough then he’s comfortable enough to go in a million directions. But I hand him the most bare basics, like the chords are E, A, D. Then he will find a way to put every note in the scale in between those notes…

It’s important that I point out that while we rehearse at least once a week, we spend 80% of that time laughing and all of our good ideas come from jokes with each other. If there’s a tense moment one of us will tell a bad joke and then all of a sudden we stumble upon what we need. And the laughter and the friendship present between the four of us is really what dictates the sound, I think.

Laughter and friendship in the band

Q: You said before that what you had to do in moving from being a solo act to playing with Claire and The Potatoes was to let go and remember that you trust these players as musicians.

So it sounds like it’s really a combination of having the right people in the group, musicians you respect and relate to – and having the humility to be able to step back.

Yes, and we all relate to each other in different ways. Stepping back is key. A good example of that on the new Claire and the Potatoes record is You’ll Do because all of us want to shine on our given instruments and in our given roles. But You’ll Do is and was written as a showcase for Leslie and it took a while before we as the other three members learned how to totally step back and say “You are the centre, Leslie.”

It was especially tough for Guy because he heard this “Big Brother and the Holding Company”-inspired song and he wanted to go nuts playing tons of blues runs. But it was very distracting from the overall experience so that ended up being the most simplified song we play.

And it’s possibly the most effective song that we play live because really I’d like to think from a crowd perspective you feel like it’s only you and Leslie in the room when she sings that.

So stepping back is huge and I think that goes for everybody in the group, if I may speak on their behalf.

Claire and the Potatoes

Q: So having gone through your original experience of playing with a band that just didn’t work, and then collaborating with a producer who tried to bolt a band onto your solo act, and now finally finding a group where it really works – if you could speak to yourself 5 or 10 years ago, or perhaps a musician now that’s in the position of having a successful solo act and thinking they now want to collaborate with a band, is there anything that you could suggest that would help them make a success of it?

If I were talking to myself five years ago I would say “Keep doing exactly what you’re doing.” You need all of these experiences to get where you’re going.

To other musicians, absolutely not. I cannot give them suggestions. They are following their own inner beat and they should continue to do that and if I sit down and start giving them advice on how best to do things, they should absolutely tune me out and do what they see fit. Because nobody is going to understand their art and the way that it should be produced more than them.

Anyone who starts telling you “Here’s the secret to success” is someone you should never listen to again.

But really, if there was one thing, it would be: Keep showing up, and be punctual. Be polite and punctual. It’ll get you everywhere.

Have An Okay Time With Claire and the PotatoesIn parts three and four of this interview I’ll be asking Marc about how exactly he recorded and mixed his way to the album’s distinctive sound and how he learned to play guitar by ear. Missed part one? Discover the songs of the new album Have An Okay Time With Claire and the Potatoes.

The new album will be released on July 15th 2014 but you can pre-order it now.

UPDATE: The album is now available!

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