Things would seem to be on the upswing for greasy country-soul men (and lady), the Deadstring Brothers. Then again, looks can be deceiving.Two years ago, the Detroit quintet received their first American distribution, signing with Chicago insurgent country label Bloodshot Records (Bobby Bare Jr., Bottle Rockets, etc.) for their sophomore album, Starving Winter Report. A couple months later, while touring England (which became their home away from home during the band's first few years), the Deadstrings enlisted gifted British steel guitarist Spencer Cullum, who they'd met at a gig. Before long, his brother Jeff (bass) and friend Patrick Kenneally (keyboards) were on board.
By the end of 2006, Spencer — or "Spen," as they call him — and singer-guitarist Kurt Marschke (Deadstring's guiding force) were collaborating on their third album, Silver Mountain. Released last October, its vibrant, rootsy twang blends outlaw country rock 'tude with loping Southern-fried Delta blues and woozy, organ-fueled Muscle Shoals soul. It's also a coming-out party for backup singer Masha Marjieh, who graduates to the fiery soul-siren Marschke always knew she could be. Her hungry vocal strut and sweet harmonies give Silver Mountain its crackle, while the newfound Brits give it an undeniable swagger.
So listening to that album, one could be forgiven for believing that things were really coming together for the Deadstring Brothers.
"Coming together or coming apart?" asks Marschke. "You're only talking about one aspect of my life." It's the sole reference the singer makes during our interview regarding the end of his 10-year relationship with Marjieh. The breakup happened somewhere on the road, the casualty of a grueling 2006 tour schedule which saw them cross the United States several times.
What's weird is the couple had been together twice as long as the band has. It's even weirder when considering that the Deadstrings sprung into being almost by accident. Most of the money Marschke made playing guitar for Sponge in the 2000s went to Mike Nehra to purchase recording equipment at Nehra's Vintage King Audio in Ferndale. The first recordings he made were pretty impromptu, as the band was basically a "studio" project in which various friends dropped by to add parts while Marschke explored his new toys. A small British indie picked up the band's 2003 self-titled debut. But despite this Brit support, Marschke was unprepared for the reception they received when they hopped the pond to play some shows.
"We got good press right off," he says. "We were doing BBC radio in the afternoon, and I'm like, 'How the fuck did this happen?' Me and Masha weren't even comfortable singing at that point. I wasn't really a singer. She didn't think she was a singer either. It freaked me out. But when we got home I figured, 'Hey, I could do this,' even though the people in Detroit weren't getting it. How could they when that other scene was blowing up?"
With dodgy distribution in the States, they decide to forgo an American tour. Instead, they made frequent trips to Britain, tapping a small but dedicated roots-music scene that dug '60s and '70s Southern roots artists like the Band, the Allman Brothers, Gram Parsons and Delaney & Bonnie. Recognizing that a strictly British diet could kill most stateside acts, however, they disembarked on their first extended U.S. tour when their second album came out. But not before a couple more quick jaunts across the pond, where they picked up Spencer Cullum and crew.
These days, Marschke can't compliment Spencer enough: "His bottleneck playing is like Duane Allman, and his lead playing is like Mick Taylor. His steel playing is like Al Kooper. All in one dude! You can't beat that. And he's 24 years old. He's an anomaly anywhere except for East London."
Despite the reinforcements, the first U.S. tour was a tough slog. Traveling to places that had never seen nor heard the Deadstrings before — especially after the enthusiastic British crowds — was a little brutal. "All those things you hear about the road and what it does to people's mental state — it's all true," says Masha Marjieh during a separate interview a day later. "It's wicked. If I thought I was unstable before, holy crap, I know it now. No question about it. I was losing it."
But if the cost was high, as Marschke suggests, the rewards were equally grand. According to the singer-guitarist, the eight months they spent on the road are what really honed his former lover's vocals.
"We went in to do [Silver Mountain]," he says. "I was like, 'You're killing it. We've got to figure out how to make this work, whatever we've got to change.' I didn't know how to do it [at first]. I hadn't written for another singer's range before, so it took me awhile to sort it out."
While Marjieh jokes that she's "always terrified doing anything," it wasn't the Silver Mountain session that scared her the most. Those were done in the basement studio Marschke shares with fellow gearhead Dan Curry. And those are two people she feels quite comfortable around. The real fright came after the album's release.
"It was our first show, and I see Kurt setting up a mike and see him put his pedal board on the side of the stage where I normally stand. I said, 'What are you doin' here. buddy?' He goes, 'Oh, you're going to be standing in the middle tonight.' 'No, I'm not!' 'Oh yes you are!'" She laughs loudly. "He sorta just threw me out there. It was a little shaky at first — and it's still a little shaky — but I'm getting the hang of it. I like it."
To hear her belt out the chugging roadhouse blues of "Queen of the Scene," you'd never have guessed this mustang was ever mousy. Appropriately enough, that was the first song Marschke asked her to sing. She seizes it like Bruce Willis' character grabbing his father's gold watch from Christopher Walken's soldier in Pulp Fiction.
"I remember him going, 'Sing it kinda like this.' I asked, 'Are you sure about this?' And he said, 'Have at it.' Again, being timid and not knowing, I just opened up my mouth, and I think I needed to let it out." She chuckles. "And it just came out. I didn't want to stop singing the first time I had it."
The trio of Brits visited Detroit for seven months in '07, helping Marschke write and cut basic tracks for 12 more songs. He hopes to write another 20 when they get back together this year. Only a man who's had to rely on the schedules of others throughout his career would find it functional to have bandmates who spend much of the year in another country. After his past experiences, though, housing three musicians who had little else to do but play music felt like a godsend to Marschke.
"Having a band here available to play 24-7 was big," he says. "It is going to make it harder in the future if I'm ever forced to not work like that. Because you'll just ruin certain songs if you try to do them track by track — drums, bass, guitar. It's all about knowing which tunes work good like that, and I think, after a few records, you start to know."
Having half your band in Britain when you're in Michigan is obviously less than ideal, especially when you lack much of a profile in your native country. Fashioning a terrific album like Silver Mountain is all fine and good. Nevertheless, people still need to hear it and that remains an uphill battle. No one's ready to give up, though, as all the members sense that they're on the verge of something special. But the closer that boulder gets to the summit, the heavier it gets.
"It's a pretty complicated situation," Marjieh concedes. "We're going to keep doing it until ... I guess, we can't. Until something makes us stop."Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org