This is a Great Interview/Conversation with Serge Bielanko of the Band Marah. We Talk Conshy, Harry Kalas, Bruce Springsteen…
by Brian Coll
I have been writing about a couple of guys I grew up with on Forrest Street who went on to form the band Marah. Year after year, I go see them, and then the next day I share pictures or highlights of the night. I wanted to do something in advance of the show, so I reached out to Serge Bielanko of the band Marah and we got to chat a little (or a lot). I could talk to him all day, but a little thing called work occasionally gets in the way. So anyway, here’s the deal. I’m going to their show at the Underground Arts on December 13th, it is located at 1200 Callowhill St in Philly. Official show time is 9:00 – 11:59 and they will probably use every glorious minute of that time frame, doors open at 8:00 and if you are already a fan, there is a VIP early entry. You can check out the details at the Underground Arts website. If you are thinking about going… read this interview and then go buy your tickets. If you live in Conshy, read this, go and for some reason, you aren’t a fan, or you don’t have a good time, I’ll personally pay you back. These guys are great, the live shows are amazing and in particular this Christmas Show is always special.
Okay… I’m talking with Serge Bielanko from the band Marah. Serge and his brother Dave grew up two doors away from me and my family on Forrest Street. Some of my earliest memories have these guys in them. I think I knew in high school that Conshohocken couldn’t contain the two of you…. when did you know, like really know this is what you were meant to do?
I have distinct memories of just falling so deeply in love with music as a young kid growing up in Conshy. Back then WMMR and WYSP played Springsteen and The Stones and rock-n-roll. I listened closely, was swept away by all of it. And my friends during some very impressionable years in my life….guys like John DePietro and Kevin Duda and you, we all had older brothers or dads or someone who was feeding us the good stuff. For me it was my uncle, Mike McClure. We all lived in the same house together after my mom and dad divorced. at 806 Fayette Street- him, me, my brother, my mom, and my grandparents. And he lived in the back bedroom and it smelled like old gym socks and final buzzer basketball back there and he had a cool old 8-track player with these loud speakers where he would play Genesis 8-tracks for me and Dave. He had good tapes, good taste, and he, he let us have total free reign over that stereo, man. And that was everything. A ticket to ride, if you will. And we did. We listened to his tapes night and day if he was at work. Haha. Poor dude had no privacy back in that room!
But the truth is: I never thought of Conshohocken as a place I needed to escape like the narrator of ‘Born to Run’ or anything like that. Somehow I always felt connected to who I was there. I still do even though I hardly ever get back anymore. It sounds so lame and cliche, but growing up in that town in the 70s/80s…that was something that became a part of your DNA. Honestly, I don’t my brother or me would have ever had our band or written our songs or had any of this if we hadn’t been born and raised in the heart of Conshohocken. I really mean that and I suspect he would agree with me. The only reason I can ever recall wishing I didn’t live in Conshy was when I got into fishing. There are no fish in that crick at Sutcliffe Park. Believe me: I tried.
I always remember music in my life, to this day when my sister Jackie hears Fleetwood Mac she feels the need to start cleaning her house based on my mom always blasting it while working around the house, I can vividly remember my dad getting the Bruce box set that covered his concerts on records.. and one of the coolest musical moments in my life came when Dave plugged in an electric guitar and went into a Guns and Roses riff on your front porch…. That must have been middle school. When did you start writing your own music?
Well, it was your dad, Jack Coll, who was the first person to show my brother a few chords on the guitar on the front porches of our homes on Forrest Street. So in a way he’s to blame for a lot of this, I guess. I can remember writing my first songs around the time I was playing in the majors in Little League, so age 12, maybe? But they sucked, obviously. Songs require some living under your belt to come across to people. Unless it’s a kid singing one he or she wrote to his mom or dad…then it’s the best song ever written. My brother wrote this song called ‘Faraway You’ when he was about 18, working at Bob Wilson’s Gulf. I remember him playing it for me as he was sitting on the freezer in my mom’s basement on Forrest. That was the first time I had ever heard anyone I actually knew write a song that just blew me away.
Serge, I seem to remember you being a jack of all trades if you will, and I always seem to remember Dave always had one of those Meade black and white notebooks with cool doodles on it. I’m looking at a photo of me, Dave and Bobby Pfanders, I’m wearing something athletic looking, Bobby is checking out the car we’re sitting on and Dave, he has a boombox on the trunk of the car. We’re going back into the 80’s with limited radio stations, what bands or artists do you think inspired you guys?
For me it was that first wave of discovery that happened to any kid into music and listening to AOR radio in the 80’s. Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ came out when I was 13. It was a game changer for me and it changed my life. Literally. I still look at the world and participate in the world in ways that have been heavily influenced by Bruce and the songs that he wrote, the things he was trying to say. And that record coming out at that moment in my life simply sealed the deal for me as a lifelong fan and then some.
But WMMR and WYSP and WIOQ and later, WXPN, that was radio mattered to a kid in the suburbs walking blindly across the American cultural landscape. By today’s standards they were much more than radio stations. They allowed for a loose tread to run through people’s daily lives. Construction workers, house painters, warehouse workers, landscapers, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers…it didn’t matter who you were or what you did for a living, chances were high that you were listening to one of those stations at work, or on your commutes. And that music, Tom Petty/The Stones/Bob Seger/Bruce/Heart/Janis/Fleetwood Mac/all of it…it became a kind of soundtrack to our lives. And a lot of those artists, if you were curious enough, you could dig into their past via magazine interviews and stuff and they would lead you, quite easily, to Hank Williams and James Brown and Frank Sinatra and Robert Johnson. So by the time I was 17 and driving a big behemoth ’78 Impala around, I was enamored with Steve Earle and The Cure and Muddy Waters and The Replacements. The list is endless. I’ve been influenced by everybody, I figure. That’s really probably the truth.
But it all began with the radio. With Loverboy. ‘Workin’ for the Weekend’ on the Tilt-a-Whirl at the St Cosmos Feast. That was as rocknroll as anything ever.
Music is funny when you find it. I missed the Replacements when they were the Replacements if you will but have been wearing out some Paul Westerberg solo stuff over the years. So… I’ve went through memory lane a little if you will and now I have to fast forward to now and then we can backtrack a little to the history of this band. For a few years now, I have went to the Christmas Show that Marah has put on at the Underground Arts, and I walk away feeling like I was at a tent revival or something. I come back the next day and sit here telling anyone who would listen that next year.. you gotta go to this concert, you have to check out Marah. So, now that I’m talking to you before the show, maybe some people will join me. What can people expect at the show this year? December 13th right?
These Christmas shows are something special mostly I think because our band has a small but mighty contingent of hardcore fans who not only love our music, but they kind of love each other too. Which is probably the best legacy we will leave behind once it’s all said and done. So if you come along to our holiday gig, you will inevitably be swept up in a festival sort of thing where there is true joy being felt for a few hours. Our fans and an open and welcoming lot and they are always super eager to welcome new people into our world.
There will also be loud guitars and a snow machine and maybe Santa if you behave yourself.
And, right now Dave is packing and shipping some of the rerelease of our first album Let’s Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later on Tonight, we should have a few copies at the show, I think there might be a couple new shirts as well.
Did you just say you’ll have the Let’s Cut the Crap and Hook Up Later on Tonight album on vinyl? I remember my dad taking a lot of pictures for that album cover, both the original and the rerelease one. I’d love to get a copy of that. You guys have always bucked the trend haven’t you… wasn’t there a cassette tape you released an album on before it came out as a CD? And for years now you have rereleased your catalog on vinyl, which I have been loving. In fact my wife bought me a better record player to help the quality of sound at our house… I had a real crappy one for a long time! So… this vinyl… anything new with it? Any tidbits worth sharing?
We will have them for sale, yes!
Vinyl continues to make a comeback and thank your lucky stars for that. It is the original and best way to hear recorded music, hands down. We’ve released like three of our albums on record so far. It’s exciting to just be included in the vinyl pantheon, to be in people’s record collections amongst other records means we might live on for hundreds of years even long after we’re all just dust and bones.
Your dad, Jack Coll,I mean, he was absolutely integral to us being able to make the first record we made, this one we’re releasing on vinyl now. I know you know this because I know you’re made of the same stuff (and I want you to include that in this interview!). But your dad gave his time and effort in helping us with so many photos in so many different locations and he never wanted a dime from us. He did it because he really believed in us, I think. And that was worth its weight in gold. Then he introduced us to the legendary Max Patin ‘Clown Prince of Baseball’ and the ultra-legendary, to us, Harry Kalas. And we were able to incorporate them into our first album in ways we never ever thought possible. Jack Coll is as good as they come and anyone who thinks different can kiss my ***.
Is the current lineup of the band working on any new material? I know there was talk of a studio where you guys are living now….
We have been creating our own recording studio up here where Dave and I live now in Millheim Pa. It is unreal, a world class joint built on our own sweat and blood and labor. We got lucky and a really good friend wanted us to do this and made it possible. So the past few years, we put making new records on the back burner in order to throw ourselves at the construction of this place. We should probably make a new album, I suppose. One of these days I’m sure we will. Until then: we have like 100 mega songs we cycle through live. No two shows are ever much the same.
Tell us a little about the guys in the band, I know the Christmas Show pulls out all the stops with special appearances by Matt Cappy and Jeff Clarke, guys who go back to the early days of the band, but what about Dave and Adam, when did they come into the fold? I know Mike has had his own band over the years, but he seems to have been around forever…
There have been a lot of people that have passed through our band since 1994 or ’95, and I’ve honesty enjoyed playing music and touring around with damn near all of them. A few were weird, but I’m pretty sure they thought the same of me too, so it evens out, you see. This line-up now is indisputably Marah, whatever that means. It’s something stronger than I can describe to you. We are as good a band most nights as any band anywhere has ever been or ever will be. That may sound seriously conceited but I can explain.
Years and years of so many nights playing so many stages after so many miles and countless hopes rising up in your chest and endless dreams getting bashed in the head: all of it, in the end, if you can survive it and find yourself still standing as an older man or woman on a stage people you have shared so much with, it all serves to congeal into something quite intangible. It’s an essence or a magic. You could sit in your room and practice scales on the guitar forever and you would never even come close to being able to make something happen like we can make it happen 99.9% of the time. And I say this only because I have struggled a lot in my life with a lot of things. But the one thing I know that I pulled off and can tell myself just before my lights go out and I fade to black is this.
Me and these people I played with, we knew what we were doing. We took people higher when they needed us to do that. We brought happiness and joy into many, many lives who really were hoping for a dose of that. And we never took a buck we didn’t earn, never took a dollar we didn’t break our asses for. Looking back on my life, that’s becoming more and more important to me each and every passing day.
All the people who played in Marah are legends as far as I’m concerned. They live on in my memories and in other people’s memories as well. That’s all we get in the end. So, yeah. Well done.
Now, I’m thinking about that first album from Marah…. sorry, my mind goes all over the place. I have always had a theory about bands, tell me if I’m wrong here… or at least tell me your thoughts… sometimes that first album or record or whatever the hell is next with the way things are going… that first album, it captures a moment in time for a band. A time when musicians got together, kicked around ideas they have had for years and they all get to flow out of them. It might be a songbook that someone has been adding to for years and now they finally get to come out. Maybe a riff that has sat unused and all of a sudden the right mix of instruments comes into play and boom… it’s out there and great and in a song. Well, that first Marah album…. I think I even heard an ice cream truck in there somewhere. I wasn’t ready for the amount of sound that came out of that first album. What do you guys remember about recording it.. that time in your life?
God, in retrospect, it was glorious. We were young, ambitious as hell, and in love with being alive, with playing rock-n-roll. In reality we were pretty poor and no one cared about our music much, but there was this hope that wouldn’t fade with us. And that’s important to note. “Hope is the thing with feathers” Emily Dickinson once wrote, and truer words have never been written, I don’t think. Without hope, you’re nothing in this world. Later on, hope often fades as you get older. I’ve struggled with that. Not the hope of making it as a famous rock star or making a lot of money or whatever you might hope when you’re just starting out down whatever path you end up hitting, but, but the hope of simply finding things that make you excited, that inspire you to keep creating something, anything, just to be contributing art or happiness or whatever it is you are able to put out into the world.
In deep South Philly, in the 1990’s, we were teamed up with a guy we met named Paul Smith He was a sound guy around town, I think we met him at JC Dobbs on South Street. He was our age, 20’s, and he was one of the most important people who ever rode the trails with us. He produced our first two albums with us and his vision, his ability to commit himself to making a record a reality with us was some kind of something I have seen in very few other human beings before or since.
It was a magic time for us. Hot summer days looking at the pigeons out on Bancroft Street, wondering if we were wasting our time as we worked across months and months of time creating our own music the way we wanted to. Entirely on our own. No one else’s money or rules. Just five or six guys above an auto garage in the city. The ice cream truck would ride by and we’d have to wait to record anything until it went past. Then we recorded it as a tribute…as the first recorded sound on any Marah record ever. It was a good idea.
My dad and I talk a lot, sometimes all day if you will and he has told me a few times about you guys getting to work with Harry Kalas (longtime voice of the Phillies) on that first album. I just got done reading a book about Harry (for the 2nd time, it’s great, a bunch of little snippets from over the years). What do you remember about that? Were you nervous asking him to record something for the album?
What a day. I was nervous for sure, but by the time we walked down into the bowels of Vet Stadium, a place I had spent so many days and nights in, way up in the 700 Level mostly, but by the time we got down in there and they let us go in the Phillies’ dugout and we saw the LA Dodgers coming out of a prayer meeting (it was a Sunday afternoon game), that’s when I knew this was going to really happen. Jack Coll was hooking us up with Harry Kalas and it wasn’t just some bs. It was happening.
We had a song called ‘Rain Delay’ that my brother had written. We had this insane idea to get Harry on the intro to the song, but we could never do it! How could we? No one had ever heard of us yet. We had no connections. But then one day we happened to mention that idea when your dad was shooting photos of us. And he was like, “Oh I know Harry. You want me to call him and see if we can work it out?”
We were like: WTF!? Really??!! Uhhh. YEAH.
And he did. Your dad made it happen. The four of us in the band and Paul Smith down in the guts of the Vet with a microphone and a recording machine and our long hair and we smelled like cigarettes and probably beer from the night before and they usher us into this little room and I remember passing Brett Butler from the Dodgers as we were walking in. The door closed behind us, we set up our stuff, I took out the scripts we wanted Harry to read. Our hearts were thumping, man. Lifelong Phillies fans, we were. This was almost too much to handle.
And ten minutes later: boom. The door opens and it’s him. Harry Kalas. Eyes glistening. Serious but willing. He smelled like cigarettes, just like us. I know we both smelled each other and I like that. Haha.
He read the scripts mostly verbatim. There was one or two things he didn’t wanna say. I was like, “Harry, say whatever the F@#! you want, sir!!”
Then he was gone. But they invited us up to see the broadcast booth. Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn. Maybe Chris Wheeler? Maybe Andy Musser? I was spinning. It was all just a dream to me.
Your dad made it all happen.
Now that I’ve asked you about Harry, I have to ask you about another legend, and I mean legend. Bruce Springsteen. I go back to my earliest musical memories on Forrest Street and Bruce always comes to my mind. How did working with Bruce come about? Any cool memories you can share with us?
You know, it’s almost hard for me to talk about Bruce sometimes because I get leery that maybe talking about it will reveal to me the ultimate horror: that it was all a dream. Ha. Truth is, if you grew up in the Philly area in the 70’s/80’s you had this rare opportunity to lean into him and his music in ways that I don’t suspect a lot of other Bruce fans around the world had. I’m not saying Philly/Conshy people are better Bruce fans, but I do think that we are connected to him and his music and, maybe most all, his legacy, than others. And I guess I have just always felt lucky to have that, to have this feeling of a very real and distinct connection with him. Of course, maybe that’s the illusion that he talked about in his Broadway show. Maybe I’m supposed to feel connected even when I’m not?
Either way, his music and his shows mean more to me than I could possibly ever explain. And they have since I was a kid, since it was me and Kevin Duda and John DiPietro listening to Born in the USA cassettes on hot summer afternoons in 1984. We were baseball junkies. We loved the Phillies, we understood and worshipped Gary Maddox and Ozzie Virgil and Ivan de Jesus. We survived on Italian hoagies and cheesesteaks from Jem’s while our moms were at work. We rode our bikes long ways to Movie World so we could try and rent VHS tapes that were never in. And that summer: we bonded over Springsteen. He was everywhere that year and probably more so in the Philadelphia area. We were his people, that’s what we began to recognize, I think. Unconscious as it may have been for zitty kids all hopped up on hoagie carbs.
I’ve never strayed from Bruce Srpingsteen and I never will, man. He has been the one constant throughout my life. And he has never ever f*****g let me down. So you can imagine how nervous and scared and even hesitant I was to meet him. The story of how it all came about is long and probably boring and I’m already rambling, I know, but I will say this much.
The night I met him was the night he wrapped up his E Street Band reunion tour in New York City. It was the summer of 2000. Our second record, Kids in Philly, had come out not long before. It was a record we made all on our own in a garage in South Philly and it was getting some good attention in the national press. Every interview me or my brother did, it was just natural for us to mention Bruce and how he was someone we looked up to. And I guess he got wind of that. He has since experienced a lovely renaissance of much-deserved attention from younger bands, but back then, there was no one talking about him. We started that s**t!
In the middle of a long and grinding US tour for Kids in Philly, I get a message from Bruce’s camp that I should come to the last show of the tour at the Garden. I was in Illinois, in a crappy motel room, I still remember it. My manager and buddy, Paul Dickman, called me to tell me this. At first I thought he was lying. But he wasn’t. Anyways, weeks later, me and my friend, Ed McLaughlin- who is also a massive Bruce fan- we go to that show at the Garden. Obviously. I would have shown up at that even if both of my legs had been attacked and chewed off by a mountain lion or whatever. I would have crawled up to the Garden on a couple bloody stumps with a frickin’ smile on my face, dude.
Me and Ed go backstage before the show. We see Clarence Clemons standing in a bathrobe holding court in a hallway. We see Nils Lofgren drinking a Coke in an overly lit room by a small fridge. Our hearts are exploding and I am out of my mind for all the same reasons that falling in love makes us high. Or slugging whiskey makes us drunk. I’m sober as a judge but I am spinning, literally spinning inside my head.
We don’t meet Bruce though. There’s a lot of people and it’s tight and smaller than you’d think. Hallowed American entrainment ground, The Garden backstage. Sinatra. The Stones. Elvis. Everyone stood right there. We watch the show and halfway through it, Dave Marsh, who was a fan of our band and an early supporter and a good guy to us always, he comes barreling down our aisle up in the nosebleeds and he starts hollering in my ear as Bruce is playing a song.
“There’s an afterparty after the show and you should come!,” he shouts. It rifled into my brain.
I probably just stared at him. I probably said nothing. But somehow me and Ed get the details and we race down the back fire steps after the last notes of this last show and we thunder out a metal door into the Manhattan summer night, both of us unsure if we are dreaming or if we are dead or what the hell is happening. We hop in a cab, tell the driver the name of this joint Marsh told us about, and we’re off.
Hours later, I’m feeling good. Free wine and all. And Dave Marsh comes ups and says straightaway, “C’mon. I want to introduce you to Bruce” Like it was nothing. Like he wants to introduce me to the guy behind the counter at Taco Bell.
He leads us upstairs. This small room is dark, Christmas lights, smoky people could still smoke, and he pushes us through the packed crowd dancing, and I see Matt Damon.
Then the crowd parts like the Red Sea and I see Bruce. On a stool, smiling and drinking a beer. Marsh introduces us and the Motown music is so loud that I know Bruce can’t hear what he says, but whatever. He smiles at me, reaches out his hand. I smile back, shake his hand tight, feel an electric shock that I still feel to this day, and mumble things right into his ear that he does not hear.
I want to hang on, hang out, but that’s not how this works and me and Ed are being sucked back into the crowd; the tides are moving; the Godfather has other people to attend to. But just as we’re passing Matt Damon again…no lie…a hand grabs my shoulder and spins me around gently. It’s Bruce. And he leans in hard and says, real loud so I can’t miss it, “Hey man, I really like your band a lot! Let’s get together when you’re in Jersey.”
And then I died, Butch. Or I was reborn, I can’t tell which. But for a kid from Conshy, who used to play Wiffleball out on Forrest Street, who wrote songs with his brother, songs that got me there, backstage at the Garden, upstairs at that party, struggling to hear the best there ever was tell me he liked my band over the Temptations blasting out the speakers, I mean, Jesus…c’mon, you know?
You know what I’m saying? I hope you do. Conshy people know. I just think they will understand.
Serge…I think we just have to stop right there. Nothing either one of us could possibly say next will come close to the legend of a couple of kids from Conshy hanging out and getting to play with Bruce Springsteen. Thank you, see you at the show Friday night.