Old Man Markley’s Down Side Up bristles with fiery chops and sharp lyrics. CMT Edge spoke with singer-songwriter John Carey about the buoyant new collection, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s bluegrass chart, as the band returned from its first Japanese tour.
“We played a punk festival and had a really, really great response,” Carey says. “The crowds there are really excited just to go out to see a show. I mean, they’ll show up at the beginning of the first set and stay until the end. Being an American band only adds to the excitement.”
CMT Edge: Explain how the new album took shape.
Carey: We wrote the album over the course of touring. We were on the road so much in 2011, and we’re still pretty much on the road now, so a lot of the ideas were just developing in our bus. We put aside a couple of months to dedicate to recording, and we came to the conclusion that it’d work out best to invest into our home studio to do this album. We recorded it in my home, and it was about two months from beginning to end.
Do you like writing on the road, or is it a necessity?
It’s a little of both. Everyone has ideas and everyone writes just to get away, to sit down and spend some time in your head, especially when you’re spending as much time as we are together. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s a nice time to think about ideas. To be honest, we’re so busy on the road that most of the songs were just that — just ideas [before the recording process].
How does living in Los Angeles shape you as musicians?
We originally started out playing punk rock. The punk rock scene in L.A. very much has to do with where we lay now as a band, the relationships we made in the punk scene. When we started this experiment early on with folk and bluegrass, we came to find that there’s just as strong a presence and scene with it here. The relationship between the two genres is so much the same.
Yeah, there’s definitely a direct connection.
Yeah, on a musical level, it’s all heavy on the downbeat. Punk rock is folk music, and so is bluegrass. They’re all music for the people. We definitely have a relationship with the punk scene, but it’s deeper than just what we play. It’s who we are. When it comes to the punk side of our band, I feel it’s heavy on what we’re saying, our lyrics. That’s the difference with Old Man Markley if you want to call us a bluegrass band. Our lyrical content is definitely more punk rock.
Tell the story behind writing “Up Side Down,” the track that inspired the album title.
“Up Side Down” was a song that [bassist] Joey [Garibaldi] co-wrote with Todd Fenton, one of the guys that writes with the band. It was one of the last songs that they wrote for the record. That song was about having a good, positive message. I think it’s about always looking on the upside of things even when you’re on the down. The track represented the whole record. We originally were going to name the album Up Side Down and [co-producer Fat] Mike threw out Down Side Up, which is a better play on the words. We all liked it.
How does this album represent your evolution as songwriters?
Well, it represents more songwriters. We have a band now that’s been playing with this lineup for four years, and our first record was a little different. We were building something at that point, and there weren’t as many people involved in writing on the first record [2011’s Guts ‘N’ Teeth]. I think this album in a lot of ways depicts what Old Man Markley is right now, the lineup we have and what we have come to as a band developing a sound somewhere along the lines between bluegrass and punk rock. I do a lot of producing from day one.
What’s most challenging about producing your own band?
It’s been a challenge because there are a lot of people and ideas, but when it comes down to it, we build a song one piece at a time. If something isn’t working, if an instrument is fighting something else, we take a step back and then either leave it out or figure out how it is going to work. A lot of it is just spending the time that we need to at our home studio. We’re not under this pressure of a daily expense and paying for a producer. We all have great relationships, and I think that helps when it comes to tracking and producing.
What lyricists do you draw from?
I’d definitely say Bad Religion, and I listen to a lot of the Devil Makes Three. I’m a huge Beatles fan. I think the Beatles wrote great songs with a lot of different styles. … Frank Turner, what a great lyricist. We like it when a song has something to say. That’s important to us.