A musician's life is mostly more affliction than avocation. Perhaps there should be a 12-step program. Like the priesthood or reality TV, musicians sacrifice much of their lives for a paltry fiscal payoff, if any at all. It definitely requires a peculiar mentality. That's the best explanation for what drives American Mars, the smart Motor City-area band that, so far, has existed quietly on the fringes, both locally and nationally.
"You'd hope for someone to grab you by the shoulders and go, 'It's time to put this thing to bed,'" says Thomas Trimble, the articulate American Mars frontman. "But the only people I'd trust to tell me that are the others who are in this band, and they're as deluded as I am in their unwillingness to give in or move on to other things. So that's a dilemma."
That dilemma, of course, becomes even more poignant as one gets older. Being in a band is a lot "cuter" on someone in their 20s than in their 30s. But if a person loves music with his heart and soul, it's not really a decision; it's something that has to be done. And that's what has kept the American Mars' heart pumping since '95, through lineup changes and personal hardship, to put out a third release, Western Sides. The band's second album, the stunning No City Fun, came out in 2001. That makes the new disc more unexpected than just long-awaited.
"I think it kinda sounds like a record that was made over a long period of time," Trimble says. "It has a certain weariness to it, though I don't know if I'm just projecting my own experience of what that period was like. Sometimes I think, 'God, it sounds like it was made by people who were tired and unsure of themselves.' Which is OK. That can be compelling in its own way."
In a day when backstory is suddenly more important than actual content (a lesson of the recent memoir trend?), American Mars has a doozy. After spending a couple years supporting No City Fun, they began working on the new album in 2004. But when bassist Garth Girard was diagnosed with cancer, those sessions came to a screeching halt. Over the next couple years, Trimble and bandmate-producer David Feeny would pick away, "trying to take little nibbles out of the record," but unable to put it down.
"We don't want it to sound like a tearjerker movie or anything, but it was a personal thing," Trimble says. "We could've quit when Garth was sick or when it didn't look like we could continue as a band. But at some point, we looked at each other and went, 'There is no way this music is not coming out.' It would be hard to look at each other and look in the mirror knowing we'd just faded away."
When Girard beat his cancer, the band paused momentarily to ponder its next move. The reserved Feeny was already busy playing in Blanche and producing many artists, including Loretta Lynn. Thus, it wasn't a foregone conclusion that American Mars would continue.
"I think that, in everyone's own way, they tried to set up an endgame for the band," Trimble says. "But when Garth got a clean bill of health — and we all got together — we said, 'Well, no, let's do this.' We were never in any tragic mode — everybody's spirits were good. It's just from a practical standpoint, it was like, 'Can this even work?'"Western Sides answers with a resounding "yes!" Shearing the experimental atmospherics from their sound, the album pares the band's rootsy twang and pedal-steel whine to its essential elements. This straightforward approach complements the unsparing lyricism, which sounds bereft of those protective, youthful illusions.
Trimble describes himself as "the last one of my friends to lose his shirt" on the song "Make It Up," noting "gravity's pull like a light down a hole." He questions what gives people the bravery to persevere on the jangle-folk rave up, "Who Here?" And on the slow-burn country-rocker "Fading Away," Trimble feels "the days twist and spin out into space like dust that moves through a sunlight ray." The sense of diffusion is palpable.
The singer places some of the blame at the feet of music journalist and Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick, author of Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians. Guralnick's book traces the lives of numerous roots musicians following their muse through heartache, hardship and financial ruin because they live to create. The book made a big impression on Trimble while he was working on the album.
"I was struggling with what it is for adults to make rock 'n' roll. It's one thing for rock 'n' roll to be the sound of adolescence, that kind of hormone-fueled primal spirit. But how are adults supposed to make rock?" Trimble asks. "Playing in punk rock bands in the '80s and '90s, I didn't get the sense that there were adults out there making music outside of country."
Initially, Trimble sought to portray the "little struggles and little victories people go through on a daily basis," but as the project dragged on, he found it hard to constrain his perspective. What started as a more modest survey of personal politics and everyday life began to splash on a larger canvas. "Over the period of making the record, things like the war or things that were going on in Detroit seeped into the songs," Trimble says.
Trimble's newfound circumspection results in two of the album's best tracks — the chunky, dyspeptic rocker "Democracity," which resembles Damn the Torpedos-era Tom Petty, and the eerie, lonesome "Do Me a Favor," a cryptic yet evocative protest song which describes dying sinners "stretched over dust and stone."
"I had been thinking about the war in Iraq," he reflects on the song. "For many of us, it's not fought by our neighbors, it's fought by working-class folks, because it's a war defined by class. So I thought there was an inherent problem with indie rockers who have bachelor degrees writing songs about a war that no one in their social circle was fighting."
With the album finished and their batteries recharged, Trimble is anxious to take American Mars back on the road. He's exchanged rock-star dreams for talk of regional markets and sustainability. He's older, and a lot more practical, but it really comes down to a certain spirit or mind-set.
"I love being able to meet people and stay in their houses, and play every night, driving, and just the routine of that; I like everything about it. And the people in the band feel the same way, even though our lives make it harder," Trimble says, reflecting on the journey and, perhaps, the lost momentum. "It's such a great thing when bands that are young are able to find each other and be on the same page. Sometimes it takes a while to find each other."
Yet it's that something that keeps them going; that necessity to write, to sing, to play.
"When you ask my thought process, I come back to that word, stubborn," Trimble says. "Sometimes, I just feel like an idiot, and other times, I feel, "Yeah! It was determined perseverance. It's weird. It all depends on the day."
Friday, March 28, at TC's Speakeasy, 207 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti; 734-483-4470, with Todd Deathridge and Dirt Road Logic.Chris Parker writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org