This interview was conducted on September 23, 1998. I would like to give my deepest appreciation to Mark Avsec for his time and patience. Not too many folks established in the music industry would have given of their time so freely. Also, thanks to Sue Farris for getting back to me promptly and arranging the whole thing. You folks are terrific.
Mark Avsec is probably best known as the keyboardist/producer of the Donnie Iris & the Cruiser albums. Yet, Avsec is so much more. He is the brilliant creative catalyst and force behind the Iris records, a solo artist in his own right (Cellarful of Noise, and his new "Planet Christmas" CD), prolific producer, musician, songwriter, and an attorney. This interview was conducted in his office, on a warm September morning, the wind blowing through the trees, and this dude from bangSheet was looking for an interview....ENJOY!
- Feeway Cummings
BangSheet: Hi Mark. First off, I thought Poletown was a terrific CD, and the band seems to have been more visible lately, what's been going on?
Mark Avsec: Thanks. Well, besides doing this ( a Lawyer at the firm, Benesch, Friedlander, Coplan & Aranoff), we've started this label, Primary Records. We have a web site (visit it now! @ www.donnieiris.com). There's this maverick web site which is pretty cool...Parallel Time. Awesome web site!. (ed. The Parallel Time sit is HIGHLY recommended!)
BS: Yes, I've seen them.
MA : But, what's going on now is, we have a live CD out (LIVE at Nick's Fat City). We are going to be doing a "best of" so to speak.
BS: On the Primary label?
MA: Yes. What
we are doing is, we are going to MCA to license about ten of the older
things. By consensus, probably the quote/unquote "best of".
We're also going to put on some stuff from the other labels, The "No Muss...No
Fuss" record...whatever else, I don't know. It'll be about 16 or
17 older things, a double CD. Five or six brand new things.
A very nice package. Lot's of pictures, liner notes, some cool things.
Just a very nice retrospective. So, I am working on that, the licensing,
In addition, I have a Christmas thing (CD) coming out. It's really kind of weird. It's called "Planet Christmas". I did it totally myself. It's been fun, all instrumental.
BS: Is that toying with traditional type Christmas music?
MA: They're all traditional Christmas carols, but I've done them in an unusual way. I used a lot of Eastern instruments, old instruments, so it's different sounding.
BS: Sounds cool, not your usual...
MA: Yeah, and that should
come out at the end of the month. It will be available through our
mail order web site (www.donnieiris.com-order it now!), or our fan club
mailing list, and at shows. I'm not sure yet if stores will have
Then, in addition to that, next year we're gonna have a Donnie Christmas album.
BS: Cool! Will that be a rock type Christmas album?
MA: I don't know, I don't think so.
BS: More traditional?
MA: Yeah, more traditional kind of. I don't really go for a lot of the rock Christmas stuff. So probably more traditional, with some guest artists. We just didn't have time to do it this year.
BS: And anymore Donnie and the Cruiser albums?
MA: And, eventually, we will probably do another Donnie Iris record.
BS: Great! That's good to hear!
MA: Yeah, Donnie and I just love working together. I mean, we're best of friends still. Obviously, we've each been through a lot of changes over the years, and we are still best friends. We don't talk a whole lot anymore, unfortunately, because our paths don't cross, but we're still the very best of friends and we still love to work together.
BS: You guys still sounded great working together on Poletown, how did that come about?
MA: The Poletown
record was done right after I finished law school, and right before I started
studying for the bar. It was sort of, well not really a last blast,
but I knew I was going to get real busy. I had all these tunes, so we did
Now I'm writing some new things. I've actually spent a lot of time on music this year. That's probably why the band has been doing more.
BS: It does seem you guy's have been more visible and busy.
MA: Yeah, I mean, I'm
pretty much the catalyst. If I get busy with the music, I get Marty
and Donnie involved. But, a lot of the tracks I do myself.
I write them and start them in the studio.
For the first couple years (after law school) I was busy here at the firm. I just did not have much time. And, we had the Poletown thing out there.
So this year what I've done, because I really felt this need and I still am a musician, that's how I define myself, so this year I have felt this need to do a lot of music. And I have been. I also have an aggressive publishing company that I started with a partner.
BS: Writing music?
MA: Yeah, I just write tunes and I pitch them to artists who are recording. It's kind of a way to marry this (law) thing that I'm doing now and the music thing. I get to New York City every five or six weeks to pitch things. So, I've been doing a lot of writing.
BS: And you guys find a way to keep the band thing going?
MA: Yeah, we always do about ten shows a year. Mostly in the Pennsylvania area. We did play the A Taste of Cleveland this year, and it was a GREAT show. GREAT!
BS: Yes, a lot of people seem to wonder if you guys will play Cleveland more often. Is that tough to do with Donnie far away, Marty...
MA: No, it's not that. I just wasn't really sure we had a following in Cleveland. I tell you what, at A Taste of Cleveland it was pretty evident (the fan base).
BS: Yeah, well, there is a pretty hard-core contingent of fans in Northeast Ohio.
MA: Yes. I mean it was AWESOME. See, if you listen to the live CD you can hear things that go on. Things that the audience does that seem almost scripted or something, which has sort of evolved. A lot of that was happening at the Cleveland show, which surprised us. They're probably listening to the live CD, which is real cool.
BS: In my opinion, you guys could pack a show or two in Cleveland yearly. Maybe not to the extent of the Pennsylvania shows, but certainly could fill a show or two.
MA: Right, I think your right.
BS: What keeps you/the band motivated?
MA: Well, it's not money I can tell you
that. I mean that, at this point, none of us think..although anything
can happen...none of us has any illusions.
But, we actually just started doing things ourselves a couple of years ago. We have the record company now. The web site. We have a fan mailing list, and there are a lot of fans, a lot of them. And, Donnie and I started this thing a long time ago and we feel a need (to keep going).
We like to hang. We enjoy hanging out together. It's just like being on a bowling team, or softball team. It's just that we like to hang and make music. It gives us a chance to catch up. And, from my standpoint, I do still like to write. It's not so much the co-writing it once was. It could be, like the Poletown record was musically. We just got the original guys together (Avsec, Lee, McClain, Valentine, Iris), and we pretty much went in there just jamming on all the tracks. That's why everyone is listed as a writer. Then, I pretty much wrote the lyrics and made songs out of them.
BS: So the music came before the lyrics?
MA: Yes, it always is for us. How it works, for example, is, I have two songs written that are Donnie songs. I'll call Donnie up and say, "I have some songs. Are you available to sing a tune?" Looking toward the best of CD. I mean I just get inspired sometimes and start writing tunes.
BS: With the writing you do for the publishing company, all the songs, do you write something and know it's a Donnie song? Do you write specifically for Donnie?
MA: Yes, you know, you get motivated to have something out. The "best of" is a really cool idea. We have a lot of people who want the old stuff on CD, and we wanted to do some new stuff. So we have a reason to write and we'll gradually get it done.
BS: When this whole Donnie & the Cruisers thing started, how did it come about? Was it Donnie looking to do a solo project, and you were just brought in?
MA: No, it was, truly the way it was is
it started with me. I was the architect of it. I was in Wild
Cherry and doing a lot with Belkin and Maduri. More soul based stuff.
And, i wanted to do more of a rock'n'roll thing.
I met Donnie in Wild Cherry and really liked him personally. I wanted to write and produce, bust wasn't much of a singer. Donnie had a great voice, and our personalities were perfectly formed to each other. I'm more ambitious, more aggressive. He is more laid back, more street oriented. We were really a nice compliment. Friend wise we were great. I wanted to make a record and I felt comfortable with him, you know, as a vehicle for my songs. he felt comfortable with me a somebody who could help him find his way as a solo artist. He didn't have a style, and on that first record, well, it could have been a band name. It could have been anything. But, I wanted to call it Donnie Iris. I just thought it would be more focused, and I think I was right, When you have a front man you really do create a personality.
So, we just did the record. "Leah" just happened to be on it. Donnie just happened to be GREAT live. We just didn't know it at the time. The first live show, Donnie had never done that, never fronted a band. The whole screaming thing, and the things that evolved is just something that happened. Donnie just happened to be AMAZING live, and the way he is on stage is pretty much the way he is as a person. A cool guy, a normal, very unpretentious guy. The kind of guy you could have a beer with. I think people pick up on that. And so, we had a nice run.
BS: Did you have an idea going into this of the sound you wanted to create?
MA: We recorded at a place called Jeree
Studios in New Brighton, Pennsylvania, and we had a deal worked out with
the studio. I really liked Jerry (the proprietor/engineer).
The studio had a homemade board, and I was really into Roy Thomas Baker
(producer, early Cars lp's etc.) records at the time. Into stacking,
Phil Spector some, and this was before MIDI, sampling, and computers.
So I wanted to make my mark as a producer, I will admit. I wanted
to impose a certain style on the stuff, and find a style for Donnie.
The studio wasn't state of the art in terms of making records with a lot
of top and bottom. I always had the philosophy that if life
hands you lemons, you make lemonade. Not that the studio was a lemon.
It was not. It was good at certain things, and lousy at other things.
So, I figured, let's make a different record there. Make just a totally different record. Vocals at Jeree happen to stack up in a very unusual way. I had been doing some stacking, and Donnie's voice was just... WOW! His voice just rubs so nicely. Donnie's got many different voices - that nice soft falsetto, that piercing scream. Many people think he's got a really high voice, but point in fact is his natural voice is not that high. It goes up like maybe an E, F, or G above middle C, and then he can't sing natural above that. Then he's got sort of this middle falsetto. And once you get up higher he goes into his "scream" voice where he can go way up. So, the sound sort of evolved. We did the stacking thing consciously to make a certain sound. People noticed it. Especially on something like "Ah! Leah!" which had, like, sixty tracks of Donnie's voice. And it took us, like, two days just to keep adding on parts. I wanted to do something different that people would listen to.
BS: The sound seems to have really stood up over time. It seemed to hit it's peak on "King Cool".
MA: And then it got to be a fault. I mean, the third record; anything gets to be old. Now it's weird. On "Poletown" there's hardly any backgrounds. And lots of stuff I write now has no backgrounds. I'd gotten sick of it, I guess.
BS: "Poletown", to me, seemed to sound more mature.
MA: That's right, I think you're right.
BS: It's like the characters created in the earlier stuff have grown older. Were those characters- Agnes, Merilee, Louie, etc.- created and recur intentionally?
BS: I thought "Poletown" kind of grew up with the audience.
MA: Yes. Lyrically it's better to the end and that's something that probably, hopefully, will continue. We'll see.
BS: Speaking of the third album ("The High and the Mighty"), only eight songs appear. Why?
MA: That was a tired record. We were working very hard. And I had done a tremendous amount of records in a short period of time. We were on the road a lot. "King Cool" was the previous album and everybody had high hopes for it. All of the sudden, "King Cool" didn't do as well commercially as everybody had hoped. There's a long story about how a single was pulled at the last minute. So after that, it was "get back into the studio to do more." Anyhow, we had gotten a bad batch of tape that the manufacturer had recalled. They sent notices to every studio that received some of the tape to not use it. To send it back. Well, the studio we used never got the notice. So we used the tape. About half way through our sessions, which is when all of our stacking is done, it started shedding. It started coming off the magnetic side. And we would have just big globs of tape on the heads. Our record was literally disintegrating before our eyes. It was a tense time. It was not a fun record. It was a very, very tired record. By the time we transferred everything- we had to make a copy of everything because you could almost see through the tape- we lost a lot of the high end, a lot of the sonics. So, it wasn't a great time or record. With the stacking, I had gone to excess. I was probably losing my mind. And it was sort of the last blast for that period. Then we actually switched studios. A couple guys in the band wanted to maybe try another studio out. I was partial to Jeree, still am. Especially for Donnie records. But, whatever. That sort of happens when you get some success. You always want that magic like that which you had when you first got together. Well, of course, you can't really get that vibe again.
BS: I'm kind of surprised you mention some disappointment surrounding "King Cool". Were those the band's or the label's disappointments?
MA: No. "King Cool" was pretty cool. I thought it was a pretty good record. Everybody did. I mean, that's probably my favorite Donnie Iris sort of record. It's just, commercially, at the end of the day, the album didn't do that well. It did ok. I think it probably sold at least as much as the first one. But when you work hard on these things, you think, hope, that it might go gold. "Love Is Like A Rock" was the single that started to make some noise over the holidays. It was getting added, with a bullet. All of the sudden, MCA pulled it. Literally pulled it. It was nuts. Our manager went ballistic. It was a label-politics thing. I don't understand. I mean, "That's The Way Love Ought To Be" was the best single on there, and it was never released. Which is weird. Anyhow, it just didn't happen, so you have to go back and try to do it again. Which is hard. You just wonder if it's futile.
BS: "Fortune 410" sounded a bit experimental.
MA: Again, that was me. I get into these "kicks." I was stacking too much at Jeree's. We were going into a new studio - this place in Beachwood which was cool and pristine. I had just gotten into computers, so I got on this kick and started writing all these computer flavored tunes. I just thought we needed to do something a little different. Whatever, you know.
BS: Next, on "No Muss...No Fuss" you guys seemed to strip it down to a "garage-y" sound. Was that the intent?
MA: Yeah, I think you're right. We did kind of go for the garage thing.
BS: That album was on something called HME Records. What was that?
MA: Some weird label. And after that, there was nothing for awhile. There was some litigation (pertaining to Ah! Leah!) and everybody got tired of it. Albritton and Kevin left. We stopped playing live gigs. I was pretty cynical then. I just didn't feel like doing anything. So I went to school. College for four years, law school for two.
BS: And now you're here, a lawyer, and you're working on licensing the MCA songs for your "best of" CD. How does that work?
MA: I gotta tell you, it really kind of rubs me the wrong way. Nobody worked as hard on those songs as I and the other guys in the band did. I lived and died with those things. Traveling the Ohio Turnpike back and forth from Pennsylvania to my house. And no one really gives a shit about them like I do. The only thing is, that MCA does own them. And I have to get permission to use them. Any time you're on a major label, they own the songs. You made that record for them. They pay you royalties, but if you want to use the songs, you have to ask.
BS: As a producer, do you have something you consider your biggest achievement?
MA: I don't know. I still don't think I've
done it yet. I guess probably the first couple of albums, as far
as pop music goes. But, I still feel there's a lot of things, more
serious things, I'd like to do as far as composing. I've been in
pop music because that's sort of what happened. And I like pop music,
but there are other things I would like to do.
BS: Was there a time, when you'd had some success producing, that you thought about pulling up and heading to L.A. or something?
MA: I thought about it, but it was never an option for me and my family. You know, you pursue your dream, and I did not go to college. I wanted to be a session musician and give this my all. And I did. Then I woke up and I'm 29...30...31... and I didn't have a degree. Thinking "how long will this last." I'd live this very creative life and I felt this need to learn too. I'd thought about moving at that point. Just maybe being a session guy in New York, or something. But, as I said, it just wasn't an option. And because we had gone through some litigation that I thought was frivolous, I had thought about becoming a lawyer. If I was going to stay in Cleveland, I had to shift my head around. I needed to just become a new person. So, when I went to school, I really just got out of music for awhile. I loved music, but I was frustrated by it. I just would rather open a book and study. But, now I'm coming back to the music more.
BS: About playing live, I've read where playing live is not your favorite thing.
MA: Yes, right. That's just me.
BS: But you realize, there is a sense of connection your fans have with the band?
MA: Yes! And sometimes I really get into
it, enjoy it. Not to say that I hate it, but when we were on tour
endlessly, as a whole I felt it was a waste of my time. I'd rather
have been writing and recording stuff. But, I was in the band, so
I was out there. It was sort of an experience to travel, but it's
really not very productive. You're just there doing it every night.
Donnie, of course, would feel much more that connection with the audience. And I can't even imagine what he feels like. A lot of times, people, unless you're a real fan, don't know my contribution to the band. So I would get asked stupid questions like, "How long have YOU been with the band?". Or that kind of thing. I didn't know what to say. I didn't feel very important and would rather just do my own thing and write. And not be out there. But I always was. And now, with the shows we play, I enjoy it more because it's now a chance to catch up with Donnie and the guys. Drink, have fun. It's almost like I'm just going out to a club but I happen to be playing. That's all.
BS: The fans at shows now tend to know you guys well. They are big fans and are pulling for you.
MA: Right. And when I played full time it was playing live which was the source of frustration. I wanted to get something happening for us. But now I've got the lawyer thing, and some other things going so playing live is just a bonus in my life. It's old enough now that it's not so much a "has been" thing. I mean, hey, if you've seen us lately you know Donnie is great live. He is great.
BS: And he's still having fun?
MA: Oh, yeah. He loves it. Donnie's very good live still. And the band is good. Tommy Rich has really turned out to be the perfect drummer for us. He's very different from Kevin, but I think Tommy and Marty (Lee) kicked ass on the live album. The live record is something I'm very proud of. I didn't really do much for it. I just played like everyone else. Rick Witkowski did a tremendous job on it.
BS: Yeah, the live album sounds great. And Marty always seems to sound terrific on guitar. Did you get it all in one shot?
MA: Oh yeah, Marty's great. We recorded two nights. And took the best version of each night. I think that the CD is representative of the band right now. I mean if you listen to that you really get an idea of what we are like.
BS: Did you ever feel you were labeled a "Midwest" band?
MA: People seem to say that. We did not consciously try to be midwest. You do notice the styles of the records and that may be something.
BS: Seems to me to be more of a media label.
MA: Yeah, I think because someone says it, then someone else says it... But, maybe there is a sound. I don't know. Our philosophy was always about a melody. I'm going to write melodies that are singable. That's just me. I craft compositions that way. Donnie has a very musical voice so we're going to have that melodic thing going. I realize that I can be melodic to a fault. Almost schmaltzy. So I liked a band to bring up the energy behind a melody. Kind of a "Beauty and the Beast" thing.
BS: Did you ever fall into thinking, "maybe we are just a midwest band."?
MA: No. I mean, look, there was talk. There is in everything. You start out unconscious. I was always aware that we had a magic, some kind of magic happening on that first record. We literally just met each other and started cutting tracks. I didn't know Albritton. Albritton didn't know Kevin. I didn't even know Marty. Marty didn't know Albritton or Kevin. It was funny. We just all got together and cut tracks. We never rehearsed. At some point we discussed direction. So I can't say we were always unconscious. Hey, we wanted to be a happening band. But the "midwest" thing. I don't know. I think you may be right about it being a media creation.
BS: Did the "midwest" perception affect how the label viewed the band?
MA: No, I don't think so. Look, with a major label, you only get so many shots.
BS: Now with the "best of" thing coming out, has there been any talk of doing a complete retrospective live set? Throw in a few more songs?
MA: Yeah. Well. We don't rehearse. Almost to a fault. But, you know, it's funny sometimes we'll change a set - very rarely - but the people don't seem to like it. It's weird. It's like the live shows have turned into something akin to the "Rocky Horror Picture Show". It's like a festival, part ritual, where the people come and know your set list, and they get bummed out if you veer from it. The audience knows their part and they like to say with Donnie, what he says. They just wait for that stuff. You know, we could be more creative and do more things. Eventually we might. But, for now, this is who we are.