Marc Maron talks about Frank Zappa, WTF, and the greatest AC/DC album
Photo by Jennifer Pearl
Photo by Jennifer Pearl

Marc Maron talks about Frank Zappa, WTF, and the greatest AC/DC album

It’s not Back In Black

In Pop Shop, we support the dying art of physical shopping by visiting independent record and bookstores with some of our favorite actors, writers, directors, and musicians. This week, we met Marc Maron at Permanent Records in Highland Park, L.A.

The shopper: As if tempting fate, 2014 was going pretty well for longtime comedian/podcaster and recent writer/director/actor Marc Maron, until his relationship with Moon Unit Zappa ended publicly, with Maron making the announcement on his May 2 podcast (before this interview took place). The breakup was amicable, but Maron, ever resilient, has plenty to keep himself busy. His WTF podcast, which he runs from his garage in Highland Park, California, has continued to grow in audience and guest status, attracting the likes of comedy legends Mel Brooks and critically lauded musicians like Father John Misty and Ty Segall. From his oft-discussed recovery from the depths of addiction, to his turbulent love and family life, Maron has never held anything back, least of all a gregarious, nicotine-lozenge- and coffee-fueled curiosity about the human condition, comedy, and creativity.

With the premiere of season two of Maron on IFC Thursday, May 8th, Maron continues to turn his life stories into meta-fiction, and one of his obsessions, on which he loves to expound, is his deep and passionate affair with music.

The Fall, Grotesque (1980)
Marc Maron: Well, today I got a limited selection. I’ve got a bunch of records at home. Here’s one I can’t expound too much on: The Fall. They’re a band I never knew about or got into, but people like Ty Segall have been telling me to do it, so I’ve got to figure out where to start. Sadly for me, I’m a completest, or a completionist, whatever that word is, so once I start buying records by a band, a lot of times I’ll buy all their records. I used to do that a lot more with CDs. Records it gets a little more pricey.

The A.V. Club: Especially with the real prolific artists.

MM: That is true. And if you’re real prolific, it doesn’t mean it’s all good. I don’t know anything about The Fall, so that’s why I’m getting this.


Spacemen 3, Sound Of Confusion (1986)
MM: This is an album I had in high school. Wait, is that possible? Well, it was a long time ago. I don’t remember where I got it, but I don’t have it any more. I was listening to it the other day on CD, and I forgot what a great record it was, and I never made the connection that this is the same dude in Spiritualized. The song “Walking With Jesus”… is that on here, or did I make that up? I listened to that four times in a row the other day, so I needed to have that on vinyl. The guy who turned me on to Spacemen 3 was named Jay Dobus. Jay Dobus was Jonathan Richman’s best friend in elementary school. How did I meet Jay Dobus? Oh man, this was after high school in Boston. In college, no, after college! Shit, see, not high school. I was with a chick that became my first wife and we got really high at Jay Dobus’ house, and he said he was really into new psychedelic music, and he turned me onto Spacemen 3. His big claim to fame was that he was Jonathan Richman’s boyhood friend. Why the hell can’t I remember where I met Jay Dobus?

AVC: Were you a big Modern Lovers guy?

MM: Well, that one album?! It was a great one album! Yeah, I love Modern Lovers. I’ve got a bootleg of different takes of those songs. I think I have a couple Jonathan Richman records. I always liked Richman. But that Modern Lovers record is great. I just got a reissue of it.

AVC: You should get Jonathan Richman on your show. Has he ever been on?

MM: I don’t know where he’s at. I gotta reach out. It’s not easy to reach out. He’s probably in the Midwest or New England. He’d be interesting. All the people in that band went on to do interesting things. David Robinson became the drummer for The Cars. Jerry Harrison became the keyboard player for the Talking Heads. Jonathan Richman did what he did. John Cale produced that first record. Was there another member of the band? Who was on bass? Goddammit! I saw David Robinson in some weird post-Cars band. It was a trio in Boston. What was the name of that project? I don’t remember what it was, but it was a three piece.

AVC: Was there one seminal moment when you first discovered the power of music?

MM: I discovered the power of music, for real, when I was probably 6 or 7 years old. I had a Bobby Sherman record with the song “Hey Little Woman” on it. I don’t what the hell that means, but I remember playing that on one of them little suitcase turntables. I knew pop music, but I think the thing that really blew my mind at some point was The Beatles’ version of “Roll Over Beethoven.” I got into Chuck Berry through that, and there were a bunch of cassettes that were laying around in an old box that my parents had, and I had an old cassette player down in the basement. That was about 1971 or ’72, so I was about 8 or 9, but in that box was Johnny Cash At San Quentin, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Cosmo’s Factory, Bobbie Gentry’s Greatest Hits. Cosmo’s Factory—the opening lick of “Up Around The Bend” is pretty piercing. “A Boy Named Sue” resonated. That kind of started everything. The records that my parents had that I remember were Pearl by Janis Joplin, Let It Be by The Beatles. They had a Chuck Berry [live album].

AVC: How do you generally use music? As a calming influence, or a “fire it up” motivator?

MM: Yeah, I have all that. What did I do today man? I bought a Frank Zappa record, Boat Approaching Drowning Witch, I think it was called. [It’s Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch, which came out in 1982. —ed.] Then I bought some old Fleetwood Mac, post-Peter Green but pre- the girls. I also bought a Peter Green collection. What else did I buy today? 

AVC: Wait, so you’ve already been record shopping today?

MM: Yeah. I traded in a bunch of records. I also got that McPhee album, the guitar player for The Groundhogs. The Groundhogs is some of the trippiest shit I’ve ever heard. I interviewed Denny Tedesco about his documentary The Wrecking Crew. His father was Tommy Tedesco, who was one of the great studio guitar players here in L.A. for about 40 or 50 years. He played on all the stuff, all the stuff you’ve heard. Beach Boys’ records, and he just sent me one of his dad’s records, a Tommy Tedesco solo album, and it’s pretty goddamn good. I was listening to that today.

AVC: On WTF, you seem to get a little nervous around musicians. Is that accurate?

MM: Yeah, because I’m approaching that not as a kindred spirit. I’m an amateur musician, but I always have tremendous respect for the music and the musicians. Sometimes it’s like, “How do you approach it?” How do you really talk about music? You can’t go album by album, so where do you go with a musician? It all depends on how much you like their music, and where they’ve been, and how long they’ve been around.

AVC: It’s really different with a young guy like Ty Segall.

MM: Yeah, I just interviewed him. He’s a great musician, but there’s not a lot of history there. I interviewed John Cale, and then you’re dealing with like 40 or 50 years of history.

AVC: With a guy like that, you have to pick your battles.

MM: It’s like, “What’s he willing to talk about, or what does he want to talk about?” He’ll talk about The Velvet Underground and pre-Velvet Underground noise music and his solo career in a general way. I do ok with guys like that. I’ve got to interview Wayne Kramer next week and I’m a little nervous about that. But he seems pretty wide open. The MC5 is a pretty fucking important band, and he’s been around, man. He did jail time, got sober, and has a new jazz record out with the dude who produced the horns on MC5’s High Time! He went back to Detroit. He was scoring the documentary, I believe, on the drug program that he was involved with when he was incarcerated. He was working with this dude and decided to make a jazz record. Whenever there’s a lot of history, it’s just wrapping your brain around it. I interviewed Keenan from Tool, that’s his name right?

AVC: Maynard James Keenan.

MM: Right. I’m not a Tool guy, so I had to go through all the Tool stuff. Ultimately you’re going to end up just talking about stuff. I don’t dislike Tool, but he’s a heavy dude and he had a lot to say.

AVC: I don’t want to give away secrets, but do you make pre-interview notes?

MM: Not really. I make notes during the interview.

AVC: Like plot points you want to come back to?

MM: Yeah, but I don’t do many notes before. I get a place where I want to start, sometimes I don’t always know where I’m going to start, and I just kind of let it go. Let it roll. If something comes up and they blow by it, I’ll try and come back to it. So yeah, those are the kind of notes I’m making during the interview.


Neil Young, Neil Young (1968)
MM: I think this is his first record. This one has “Emperor Of Wyoming,” “The Loner,” “If I Could Have Her Tonight.” He’s interesting because his music is relatively timeless. There’s only a few guys that can do that—where their music is not hinged to a time period, production-wise or stylistically. Neil Young sort of has his own place, and it transcends time.


Mothers Of Invention, Cruising With Ruben And The Jets (1968)
MM: I’ve sort of been amassing Zappa records. I went through this Beefheart thing, and that led me to Zappa. I never could wrap my brain around Zappa. Coincidently, as I’m just getting into Zappa, I’m dating his daughter. Which is weird. Me and Moon are hanging out, and I’m amassing her dad’s records. It’s hard to talk about, because I’m not like a Zappa fanatic or anything, but I’m trying to wrap my brain around it. Now it has personal implications, because she doesn’t have daddy issues, she has Frank Zappa issues. It’s an interesting thing to get both sides of that. All chicks have daddy things usually, but she’s got a very specific daddy, and he’s got a very large catalog of work. So wrapping my brain around him and getting to know her has been pretty interesting. The old Zappa is pretty interesting, because he was doing something that nobody ever did before. For all practical purposes, he was a sound artist and not a pop music guy. He had big ideas about experimentation and orchestration, yet he wanted to be relevant, so the way he did it was through humor and cult of personality. Almost everybody knows, or has an image of Frank Zappa in their head, but I bet you most people could name maybe one song out of the 70 records that guy put out.

AVC: “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow.”

MM: Of course, because that’s the one that only really got airplay. Or “Valley Girl,” the one that Moon was on. But everyone knows Zappa. You know the name Zappa.

AVC: I think everyone pictures psych-outs and weird parties, but he wasn’t a drug guy, right?

MM: No, not at all. He was a compulsive worker. That’s not to say that there wasn’t a scene around him. Some of his records involved, like, 30 musicians. Whatever was going on up at the house… there were a lot of people coming and going. But I don’t think it was, in that way, a party scene. I think it was an art scene. It was a music scene. It was a hub, and he’s got two studios up there at the house.

AVC: Does Moon vividly remember all that stuff?

MM: Sure. She grew up in the bulk of it. She was born—I’ve got like 4 years on her—and he passed when she was in high school, so she has really old memories and fairly recent memories. I think it was a lot of daddy-making-music-downstairs memories. [Laughs.]

AVC: WTF rekindled your spirit for joy and active engagement with people. Do you fear losing that, or your love of music?

MM: No, it’s just a matter of being interested and being open. I don’t think I ever really lost my interest in people, but I think I had gotten cynical, so I was closed off a bit and a little belligerent, hostile, and defensive. What’s happened more and more is that I’ve just opened up, so as long as I can remain interested, I don’t have any fear of that stuff going to the wayside. I’ve got to watch that I don’t close up for one reason or another, but that’s really the trick.


The Gun Club, Fire Of Love (1981)
MM: This is one of the great records, man.

AVC: Rollins just spun a Gun Club tune on his radio show over the weekend.

MM: This record is the shit! Rollins loves Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Rollins downloaded a bunch of stuff for me. Me, him, and Garofalo did some shows back in 2006, and he gave me so much stuff man. He gave me The Stooges’ Fun House sessions. He gave me the Jack Johnson and Miles Davis sessions. He gave me a shitload of The Misfits. The Gun Club put out a few records, but this thing is raw as hell man. Their big hit song, if there is a big hit song, is “She’s Like Heroin To Me.” That’s a great song. He does a cover of “Preaching The Blues,” the Robert Johnson tune. “Sex Beat” is good. It’s not quite punk, but it was around that time, and it has sort of a different groove to it, a little twang to it. Jeffrey Lee I think saw himself as sort of a Morrison-y kinda cat.

AVC: Do you have a perfect music memory, where the stars aligned and the perfect song came on?

MM: [Laughs.] Yeah. I’ve got a few of those. One of the great ones is weird, because I’m not a Grateful Dead guy. I did my time with the Dead, and one of my favorite Dead songs was “Wharf Rat,” which is an old-ass Dead song. I think there’s only one version, on Skull And Roses. I went to maybe three or four Dead shows in my life, and one Dead show was in Worcester 1984. I was on mushrooms, and out of the hundreds of songs the Dead could have played, they played “Wharf Rat” and I was tripping balls. It was just great, because they did a lighting thing, and that was pretty elevating. I have that moment almost every time “American Girl” by Tom Petty comes on anywhere. It’s really about the music that takes you places more so than the event necessarily.

AVC: Did sobriety change your appreciation for music?

MM: I’ve been sober over 14 years, and music becomes a reasonable replacement. I think you can get in deeper, but if you’re talking about a bar, where you were used to drink to watch music, it probably sounded shitty in the first place. Of course you’re going to be anxious, sitting there not doing what you usually do. Quite honestly, live music sounds terrible. It’s a rare thing that a live situation sounds good.


AC/DC, Powerage (1978)
MM: I pulled this one, because it’s one of the greatest rock and roll records ever. Ever. I just pulled it out, because I think everyone should know that. This is the best AC/DC record. Why would you even bother with Back In Black? That was the end of AC/DC. The six or seven Bon Scott records are the best. There’s nothing wrong with Brian Johnson. I got no beef with him. Back In Black is definitely a rock ’n’ roll masterpiece, but it’s really a requiem for Bon. He was such a character, and the idea that they were able to kind of transcend his death with Back In Black is pretty amazing. But Powerage, this is 1978, has “Gone Shootin,’” “Gimme A Bullet,” “Down Payment Blues.” I love this record.

AVC: With season two of Maron, were there any changes, in terms of production, writing or directing?

MM: Oh yeah, there’s something different. Season one—I had never really acted. I had never written for television, and I’d certainly never produced television. I knew that I was ready. I wasn’t afraid to do those things, but I knew that I was coming into it pretty green, but it was my show. I had the confidence in myself, but I really had to learn how to collaborate and do all those things pretty hands-on; act, write, and everything else, given that they were all my stories and I was sort of the de facto head writer. It was all pretty immediate. Showing up and doing the shit. But this season, I got a little more confidence. I felt like I had a handle on the writing, and I wanted to make better and more conscious decisions around the acting. I was a little nervous about getting 13 more stories done, and I needed them to be written by the time we started shooting. In three to four months we broke 13 stories, and delivered all the scripts before we started shooting. When you’re shooting with the budget we’re shooting at, and I’m in every scene, there’s no time to be doing punch-ups or re-writes to scripts. I think some of the stories are pretty great. I think they’re better this time around, and I think I did a better job acting. I directed my first episode, and that was a pretty important, emotionally charged episode. In the first season, we didn’t deal too much with me as a stand-up comic, because I just felt like that had been done to death, and I was trying to separate myself from Louie, knowing that the two shows are going to be compared anyway, I don’t feel like the shows are similar at all, other than we both use a similar shooting style of single camera. So I integrated a little bit more of my stand-up life into it. The episode I directed was directly revolving around the issue of joke stealing and how that happens.

AVC: Jay Mohr?

MM: No, it was about me and about an accident. It’s something that every comic can relate to, and we took it to the limit.

AVC: That’s the cardinal sin in the comedy world, right?

MM: Yeah, sure, it absolutely is. Does it happen? Yeah. Does it happen on purpose? Yes. Does it happen by accident? Absolutely. It’s really tricky. When you work in the community and the world of comics, you know that if there’s 10,000 of us out there in the world, and we’re all looking at the same world, there’s going be a little crossover. Those are issues you have to deal with, and it doesn’t get any easier. But a perfect day is one where I’m not panicking about anything, and I don’t have to do anything. But there’s not many.   


Drew Fortune is a Los Angeles freelance writer. In addition to The A.V. Club, he’s a regular contributor to Salon and Interview Magazine. Tweet him @drewster187.

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