I really hate to think I’d over-sensationalize something or insist that a record, band, or songwriter is better than they actually are. There’s a fear of you being underwhelmed by whatever it may be.
This is not one of those moments.
For some of you who are unfamiliar, this next statement may sound like a tall order, but it’s very plausible. Daniel Markham’s Ruined My Life very well could be the best album recorded by a Lubbock artist this year. And that’s some stiff competition this year (Think William Clark Green, Terry Allen, Amanda Shires for starters).
You can tell that the his last two demo-styled EPs, Demonstrations and Hexagons, were hints at what he was wanting to create with his next album. You would never say this incarnation of Markham is a completely different one from his days as the leader of Lubbock’s One Wolf, but it’s an obviously a different approach.
I’m not sure if this could be said true in most cases, but seems apparent in this one. I’m not sure Ruined My Life would sound anything like it does without Markham experimenting with Demonstrations and Hexagons–especially Hexagons.
Let me put it this way: If Waiting to Derail was West Texas Whiskeytown and One Wolf was West Texas R.E.M.Flyer, then Ruined My Life is West Texas Elliott Nirvana. You see the transition. It comes as no surprise Markham want to make a metal record in the near future. And it’s typically not the arch of an artist. The typical arc is to go from punk to alternative country. It’s to mellow out and get more twangy over time.
With Markham’s Ruined My Life though, he generally goes in both directions at once and gets away with it. There are moments where Markham and company come out with heavy riffs that channel early ’90s rock except a little more spaced and never cluttered. Other times, he pulls back, pulls out an acoustic guitar, adds some pedal steel, and uses an engulfing melody reminiscent of the likes of Elliott Smith or Badly Drawn Boy but without as many layers of sound.
It also feels as though Markham consulted with Cobain and Smith on what they’d do if they were to play MTV Unplugged at some point. Course the record isn’t a lo-fi project by any means. It’s filled with big desert rock guitars and dark ’80s tones. It has this overall feeling of being never being over the top and just giving us a sufficient amount. It’s filling, but still has some space to breath and expand.
We sat down with Markham a few weeks back to discuss the record. It’s directly after our track-by-track breakdown. You can find Ruined My Life on iTunes, your local record store, and at his bandcamp here.
Markham and company really set the tone for the entire record from the get go with “I Came Here to Rock and Roll.” The guitars are fuzzed, yet dark and heavy. And at the same time, it’s a slow burning jam.
2. “New Blood”
“New Blood” is definitely one of the highlights of Ruined My Life. As Markham mentioned in our interview, it’s really the fastest tune he’s written. The drum machine flowing underneath Sandlin’s live drums sets up the song for success. The guitars some of the liveliest we’ve seen from Markham. We also hear some of Markham’s most cleverly worded and pronounced lyrics. He draws out every last word in each line just enough to give them all character. “Write me a letterrrr, Down on the paperrrr. Don’t let your heart get stuck in the muuuuud” is just one of many examples.
3. “Best Of Luck”
This is really where Markham throws us his first curve ball. He leaves the larger, darker guitars for the most part switching them out for acoustic melody. It fits that while Markham sings “Call ahead, pack your bags. Watch for thunder and lightning,” the “thunder and lightning” on the song begin to come in. You get these flashes of beautiful chaos within the song.
4. “Favorite Band”
“Guess we’re almost halfway. Pissing on the highway” is certainly a hell of a way to start a song off. “Favorite Band” is the first of two songs that happen to have sneaky good pedal steel accents from HW Early. The entire vibe from the song makes you feel as though you’re on a never-ending highway in the Southwest. You almost never feel as though you’re going to get to your destination and will just be wondering the desert for the rest of your life.
5. “Going Insane”
This is where Markham feels most Bleach in my opinion. The guitars are this simple, driving force throughout the song. “Going Insane” clocks in as the shortest song (2:23). It’s partly why it feels like the most grunged out punk rock song. It feels as though someone shot down the sun and you’re walking through a downpour. Sandlin’s drums are relentless. It’s a good thing.
This is another moment in which Markham shows he can still write a country song. Along with the aforementioned “Favorite Band,” it’s the only song with the timely pedal steel. It accents the song just enough to give it its’ own personality. If you listen to the version on Demonstrations, you really begin to see and understand the song’s transformation. The first cut certainly has hallowed feeling to it. It’s as if Markham was a ghost. This version is without doubt, much more crisp–but the chilling elements are replaced by the whispering pedal steel.
7. “Eyes So Dark”
“Eyes So Dark” has this melancholy tone throughout that’s very reminiscent of Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town.” That’s what makes the additional guitar so piercing when it comes in about a little over a minute in. It’s really the one true love song on the record. And it very well could have the most layers of ’80s despondency. Contemporary comparisons could strangely lead you to Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” from their 2005 album Plans.
8. “Killers Will Creep”
These are really Markham’s fiercest vocals on the record. You almost expect him to give off a frustrated Cobainesque howl. It certainly wouldn’t be out of place. It’s the certainly one of the best candidates for translating over a slasher film. You’re being chased by masked man through the woods–probably John Carpenter’s Michael Myers. It feels as though Josh Homme decided to an ’80s horror film score.
9. “Drag Up Some Dead”
Yes for the best song transition. “Drag Up Some Dead” is almost certainly just a continuation of “Killers Will Creep” when it comes to horror film homage. This time, zombies? Maybe. The guitars still go for Queens of the Stone Age desert rock. The groove on “Drag Up Some Dead” just engulfs you. You don’t care about bothering the neighbors. Strange enough, the beat has a cadence to it that feels like it could have come from cheer from some high school cheerleaders. I could listen to these guitars for eternity.
Here’s what feels like Markham’s mangum opus. It really captures every element he’s ever wanted to put into a song. There’s a reason it’s one of everyone’s favorite Markham tunes. This version has some major guitar flashes that slice through everything in sight. The acoustic guitar lays down the layered melody that seems the dance perfectly in rhythm with the electric. And he’s done it again. He’s made another horror film song. This time, the killer happens to be the all entangling, never-ending, never-dying kudzu. Bonus points go to the accenting toy piano. “I live the busy street. I love the people that I meet. I see the vines that grow making death seem oh so beautiful,” is one of Markham’s best chorus lines as well.
11. “No Mosquitoes”
Markham leaves us on a mellow note with “No Mosquitoes.” The Elliott Smithesque melody has some of the best Markham penned lyrics to date. Just look: There’s a shadow on the wall cast my strangers both with names I can’t recall. Wonder what they’re doing there. Wonder if they’re going out tonight. Cant say i even care under this lonely moon, so bright.” It’s almost certainly written about leaving Lubbock and moving to Denton–of course though, it translates to just about any move.
New Slang: A lot of this record, it feels was sort of written about moving to Denton. Is that true?
Daniel Markham: Yeah. Kind of sorta. I mean, I wrote a lot of it while I was pretty much in Denton. I wrote one of the songs in Athens, Ga. Then a couple of them, I wrote here (Lubbock) and that I had and liked, but had never recorded them. Well, I had recorded them just home demo style, but redid them and like them better. But yeah, it’s kind of about moving on in a lot of ways. There’s some literal lyrics in there I guess.
NS: I remember speaking with you one time in which you said you were much more of a literal writer.
DM: Kind of.
NS: Like you’re typically more straightforward I guess.
DM: Yeah. I have a weird way of writing lyrics. They’ll come to me and I’ll be like “OK, I guess that’s what that songs really about [laughs].”
NS: One of the things I really like about your songwriting is how natural most of the wording and phrasing is. It doesn’t seem like you were trying to write high poetry or something. A lot of times, it feels like you could have actually said the line in a conversation and then decided to use it in a song.
DM: Yeah. I think that’s just my style; it’s just the way I talk and then write.
NS: What ended up being the most fun song to record or write?
DM: Well, you know, they were all fun in different ways. But I wrote that song “New Blood” one night. I wrote it. recorded it, and then sent it to Grady [Sandlin] in one night. And then the next day we recorded it. That was pretty cool to see that happen so quickly. It was the second song we recorded for the album. I had recorded it with like a keyboard, using like an electronic drum kick thing. Basically a drum machine playing a loop. Then Grady played drums right over the top of it. It has this really weird sound with it. Very robotic. I wanted to have kind of a straightforward driving riff through it. I think it’s the fastest song I’ve ever written [laughs]. Like I’m stuck in mid-tempo. So that was kind of cool.
NS: There’s a lot of really great guitar riffs happening on this record. There’s definitely some louder songs on here, but then there’s a few softer acoustic songs. Shouldn’t say softer. More mellow. Regardless, there’s this cool bounce going back and forth.
DM: Yeah. Well I like a lot of music. It kind of comes out in my writing. I love the heaviest rock and metal, but I also like stuff like Mazzy Star. Stuff that’s really chill. Like Angelo Badalamenti scores from like David Lynch movies. Stuff that’s very, very quiet and calm. Lots of things crept in.
NS: One song that I think has this really cool melody and distinct and different way of singing on it is the song “No Mosquitos.” How’d you come up with that melody and decide to sing with that phrasing style?
DM: Yeah. I was just kind of on a streak of writing songs. I had just moved to Denton and was alone. I was by myself sitting in this apartment. Was walking around looking for work and stuff. I’d just come home and play. I just had to write something. Push myself to write new songs. And that just happened. I was just strumming and picking this guitar and it came pretty quickly. It was weird. I don’t know where it came from. A lot of these songs just (snaps finger) and came from nowhere. Just happened rather quickly. Not a lot of thinking to it. Just spilt out of me. It’s like when I know I have a good song, it doesn’t take long for me to get it written. Or I’ll have an idea for a while and then when it’s time, the words will just come. That’s just how it happened for this. I was sitting there alone in my apartment watching Halloween III or something. Some horror film. I watched a lot of horror movies.
NS: Some John Carpenter?
DM: Yeah. Lots of John Carpenter. Some other stupid stuff [laughs].
NS: When you write a melody or the body of the song, do you have a process on what you try playing it out on? Like do you try it out on an electric guitar. Then an acoustic? I guess what makes you decide how it’ll be on the record?
DM: I like to write songs that’ll sound good with either since I do play a lot of solo shows too. It’s fun to play any song on the acoustic. I have trouble with only one song, but I just haven’t really played it yet with an acoustic. Sometimes when I play solo, I’ll still play electric. I love electric. You get to play loud and I think you’re more expressive.
NS: So the the song “New Blood,” I really have no clue why this is so, but it really reminds me of “Jeepster” by T.Rex. I think it may have something to do with the way they start out.
DM: Yeah. I love T. Rex. I was listening to a lot of David Bowie stuff when I was writing this stuff. Some T. Rex. Iggy Pop. Glam.
NS: Another song, “Eyes So Dark,” it was originally on one of the Middle Child Records compilations under the name “Bang-o-Rang.” It has this real 1950s early rock era slow song feel to it. Even like a “Lonesome Town” Ricky Nelson vibe.
DM: Yeah. That’s actually really where that song came from. I’m a real big Rick Nelson fan. It feels like with every record I’ve made, I’ve tried to have at least one song on there that has a ’50s vibe. Like a Roy Orbison style. I had started out with “Eyes So Dark” really just ripping off Hank Williams. The melody is really a straight ripoff of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” but kind of changed it. Made it a little darker. Wrote that song really quick too. I had this idea of writing a love song for someone I didn’t know. It wasn’t about anyone or anything but just about what a love song could me. Even though I wasn’t in love with anyone at the time.
NS: You re-recorded a few songs for the record. What made you decide to re-record those?
DM: I did. I redid “Kudzu,” “Down Hill,” and ‘Best of Luck.” I like those songs. I thought we could really do them well. I had demos for them, but I wanted to rock out to them a little. I felt like I never did justice to those song recording wise. Was making a record and thought people would like them [laughs].
NS: I’ll get you out with this last question. I thought of it a while back and think it’s a pretty interesting one. Don’t want to put you on the spot or anything, but what do you think is the cheesiest, corniest, or just plain horrible line in a song of yours?
DM: Oh man. On this record?
NS: Yeah. On this record–or on anything. Go with on this record.
DM: Man…I don’t know. I do have a lot of corny lines. Some of the songs from the past, I sing them now and just think “Ughhhh. I don’t like that.” But a lot of them I don’t do that. I think I’ve always been careful with writing anything I’d be ashamed of later. Especially on this new record. Like the corniest thing on here is probably “the news is such a bummer” line from “Favorite Band.” Know which one I’m talking about [laughs]? I think that’s kind of corny, but it’s something I would say. I don’t feel weird about saying it. I think that’s just the way I talk. It’s probably the corniest thing on the record. Maybe.