Flat Old World

New York City, 1990–1996

Personnel

Mark Lerner – six-string bass, banjo, melodica, vocals
Nancy Lynn Howell – guitar, vocals
Diane Stockwell – violin, mandolin, melodica, vocals
Mark Donato – drums, harmonica, vocals
Bill Fink – guitar, vocals
G. Doug Pierson – tuba, euphonium, concertina, guitar, vocals
Todd Weeks – trumpet, harmonica (until 1992)
Robin Goldwasser – cello, ukulele, melodica, vocals (1992 on)

This one looms large for me (and large for you, dear reader: this post is LONG). Flat Old World was the first band of my very own. Prior to it, I was a sideman or one of a few writers. I am a pretty bossy guy, really, so even when a band isn’t “mine,” I tend to assert myself a lot as an arranger and general loudmouth. Partly this is due to my musical role. Bass: come on. Four strings. Play the root. Duh. But when a song is well arranged, that simple task—playing a simple, grounding part in a groove—sounds really great. So I’ve always tended to offer lots of arrangement advice in any band I play with.

Attentive readers will recall that in 1989, the band I’d been playing with for 2 years, the Oswalds, split up. I found myself wondering if maybe it was time to stop playing music (I was 26). I had always felt that songwriting was the center of a band, but I wasn’t all that keen on it at the time. I could do it, but I knew (and played with) so many writers who were better than me. I’m also not really a virtuosic bassist, but I have my own quirky strengths, I suppose. I started to think that somehow, by basically subtracting songwriting—subtracting pop and rock, really—and focusing on my personal playing style and arranging, I might have some sort of band of my own to offer. I was also eager to play with my new girlfriend, Nancy, who was a great singer.

So I started writing some instrumentals and digging up some old folk songs to mess with. I pictured a very serious, meditative mix of ultra-slow country music like Souled American, chamber jazz like Red Norvo’s band, and the idiosyncratic guitar techniques of Joseph Spence and John Fahey. It was to be my new project. Luckily, reality intervened, and my theories were soon filtered through the sensibilities of a motley assortment of bandmates into something much more musical and fun than my Grand Plan.

Flat Old World in my kitchen, Brooklyn 1994. From left: Mark Lerner, Robin Goldwasser, Diane Stockwell, Bill Fink, Nancy Lynn Howell, Mark Donato, G. Doug Pierson. I'm washing the dishes. Nancy is very pregnant.

An ad in the Village Voice (!) led to a phone call from Diane Stockwell, a violin player fresh out of college; after a classical background, she was eager to try some more improvisatory music. After a few rehearsals with a concertina player named Thomas who disappeared, I asked Todd Weeks, a college friend of my old GHE bandmate Eric, to join us on harmonica. Todd was eager to play trumpet as well, having just learned to play for a film role as Bix Biederbecke. Mark Donato and Bill Fink joined up on drums and guitar, and a band was born. I played a Fender VI bass, a strange hybrid instrument I’d fallen in love with and on which I’d spent an outrageous amount of money. After a few shows, we started adding Doug Pierson (the guitarist in Nancy’s band Clovis Noches) on tuba, euphonium, and concertina.

Here’s what we sounded like early on:


I’ve always loved the idea of a musical collective, with no central ego, but the best I could do was fake it by asking everybody to sing and play instruments they weren’t comfortable with. Despite this, and even though the band was everybody’s “other” band and played a lot of instrumentals and relentlessly slow music, we caught on. We got great gigs and people liked us.

Here’s a typically goofball maneuever, a gang-vocal version of “Gimme Some Truth” whipped up for a show on John Lennon’s birthday. (Rare and unreleased! Many lyrics messed up!)

The Band Flyers

To make things just a little more difficult, I had begun printing hand-set letterpress postcards and flyers for every show. In the slide show below, you can see, chronologically, every flyer from every show we ever did. After about a year of sad xeroxed clip art and blown-up typewriter letters, the letterpress stuff arrives. Over the next few years’s worth of flyers, you can basically see me turn into a designer (which is what I do for a living now).

You can click on an image to see the slides larger, and click the little balloon doo-dad to hide the captions.

It Grows…

After about a year, Todd left the group, and I recruited Robin Goldwasser to play cello and ukulele and sing; we met at a gig where she was playing banjolele and I liked her so much I wanted her in the band whether she could play the cello or not (it turned out she could, reluctantly).  I had also started amassing a collection of melodicas from various stoop sales, and everybody sooner or later got handed a melodica to play. Diane had taken up mandolin, and I played banjo on some numbers. The pile of instruments on stage at our shows grew as impressive/oppressive as the length of time between songs.

Nancy and I were married in 1992. Diane, Doug, and Bill played our song “Flat Old Waltz” as we walked down the aisle. Soon after we moved to Williamsburg, and I got my own printing press, which sat in the middle of our large one-room space. Real printing and design work started coming my way.

We made an EP for the Hello Recording Club, run by Robin’s then boyfriend (now husband) John Flansburgh, of They Might Be Giants, which exposed us to people all over the country, many of whom remained fans. We were commissioned to do music for a dance performance, we played radio shows, we got good press and lots of it. It was almost unnerving; this band that was a side project for most of us, and a rather weird one, was really popular.

Hello Recording Club EP, May 1993.

Every chance I got, we’d slip into Al Houghton’s Dubway Studio to record some of our music. When we finished our full-length album, Musicale, Tom Prendergast of Bar/None Records offered to put it out. I turned him down. I had started a label of my own, Rag & Bone Shop Music, and wanted to do it myself. I printed an elaborate letterpress package that I diecut at home on the press. As we assembled the package, the cheap cardboard I’d bought for the package kept cracking when we’d fold it along the scores, so we had to carry the 2000 printed pieces into the bathroom in batches of 100, with the shower running, to steam them and then hurriedly fold them while they were still pliable.

In 1994 my twins, Edith and Lukas, were born. With both Nancy and me in the band, having babies obviously slowed down the group’s pace, but we kept getting great shows (though rehearsals and performances now required a babysitter). The record was a favorite on local tastemaker station WFMU. We got nice reviews, including a lovely one in the Village Voice where Richard Gehr called me “a flat-picking Jean-Luc Godard,” which puzzled me, but not as much as it pleased me.

We started recording a second album. I was getting more comfortable with sounding good. That may sound odd. But on the first record I usually shied away from anything that sounded too normal; I’d throw in something ugly or weird, an unreasonable tempo, traffic noise, a bizarre vocal sound. This time around, I was more content to just let us play. We’d learned how to work together and our sound was a simple equation that didn’t require as much intervention on my part (although I was also adding in elements of dub music, which I was listening to constantly at the time). I felt better about letting Nancy and Robin sing more without feeling like the beauty of their vocals somehow detracted from the seriousness of our purpose, whatever that was.

Here’s Nancy singing a lullaby from those sessions (with guest trumpet by Mel Melon).

… As It Goes

In late 1995, I told my bandmates I was going to end the group.

Here’s what I wrote the night before our final show. I’m not sure what I did with this fragment when it was written. I stumbled across it in some old files:

I don’t know what I’ve done. I broke up my band. I had reasons and I can’t remember them. Somehow I was failing to live up to the band, that had something to do with it. And I’ve always been obsessed with breaking up the band, anyway. I think maybe I put this band together just so I could break it up, so it could be part of the past. The good old used-to-be.

We went into the studio a little while ago to record a few new songs and mixed a dub version of one new song and one old one. Dub always appeals to the necrophiliac, playing with the corpse of a song after the spirit—and the band members!—have departed, amusing himself with a dumb puppet show, lifting the song’s pale cold arm and waving “Hello!”

With the vocal stripped out of this five-year-old song (it was me singing originally), I can hear that the band really has a sound, had it even then, a trademark clunk and wheeze that shows the sweet genius of the best bandmates I ever had. I listen and I can still see us gathered in the dim chill of Al’s studio, everyone paying too much attention to my ridiculous instructions, and then gradually falling in with their own interpretation. That song is called “Angel’s Voice,” and though I was not born with one, for a blessed five years I could fake it pretty well thanks to this band that will play its farewell show tomorrow, January 5, 1996, in New York City.  —M.L.

Which is all very nice, but in retrospect I wasn’t being completely honest with myself. There was a pretty specific reason I broke up the band. I’d been depressed out of my gourd for about a year by then. I owned up to it a few years later and got myself well and have been quite lucky in that regard ever since.

Running a band is stressful. You need a tremendous amount of self-confidence to ask so much of your bandmates: to play shows that might turn out to be lame, to play your songs that might suck, to try out your potentially dumb ideas. You make great demands of their time and talent, with no guarantee you’ll do anything worthwhile with either. I never heard an iota of complaint from the members of Flat Old World. I couldn’t ask for better friends or bandmates. But when eventually I found myself in a fairly dark place, I couldn’t summon or even fake the confidence needed to lead a band.

At any rate, we went out with a bang. I put our album-in-progress together with an outtake from our first album and made a cassette-only EP, The Abasement Tapes.

And we played a very fun final show.

Set list from our farewell show.

Here’s a song from that final show. (Doug is playing guitar, Nancy is offstage. Typically atypical. Video shot by Al Houghton.)

And here’s the last song from our last show. Even though the song gets tragically cut off, it’s just about my favorite clip ever. Look how much fun we’re having while Mark Donato sings the Coasters’ “Idol With the Golden Head.”

Post Mortem

Everybody in Flat Old World will appear numerous times on this blog, but some followup is in order: Diane evidently got the country and bluegrass bug and has continued play with loads of people. Robin wrote a musical (“People Are Wrong”), sang the Dr. Evil theme song in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and performs with a trio called the Last Car, among many other endeavors, often involving puppets. Bill has been quiet musically, busying himself with raising a daughter. Todd Weeks turned into a jazz scholar and musicians labor advocate. The histories of Doug, Mark D. and Nancy all appear scattered throughout many posts on this site.

If you’ve made it this far…

… here’s your punishment. A few more items bear mentioning.

Lora Downs, a friend who was in film school, wanted to make a music video of Flat Old World. It was a generous offer, but the whole experience was pretty tainted for me. We had to re-record our song to make it faster (shorter) and to incorporate a plot-driven interruption. We also had to wear very silly clothes and endure the fierce improv screaming of a young Gil Bellows (Ally MacBeal, The Shawshank Redemption). This is mortifying:

Also, since sloppy endings were always a Flat Old World trademark, we did play one more show, a month after our official farewell. The show, at Dance Theatre Workshop, was a high-paying one and had been booked far in advance, so we came up with a way to justify our presence. We played “broken up,” appearing in various duet and trio combinations and mostly playing songs we’d never normally done. I was sick as a dog in the dressing room beforehand but recovered sufficiently to make it to the stage (and to play another show later that same night with Life in a Blender!).

Set list from our post-breakup performance, February 9, 1996.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the recorded and live contributions of a few guests: Larry Fessenden, Stephen Lewis, Mel Melon, Don Rauf and Al Houghton.

All of our distributors went out of business, and my record label is basically not in business anymore, but I’ll try to make our album and final EP available for download and sale soon. In the meantime, please contact me if you want a physical copy of either release.


25 Comments on “Flat Old World”

  1. Kt says:

    A good and touching and relatable story, beautiful music and gorgeous graphics, feeling happy and sad now – thanks!

  2. Kt says:

    Oh! Also,…..how come Mark Donato looks exactly the same now?!
    Nancy, of course you yodel!, and beautifully too -

  3. Mark Lerner says:

    Perhaps Mark Donato himself will show up here and explain precisely what sort of deal he struck with the devil to retain his youthful good looks.

  4. Ben says:

    Woof. Sort of makes me cry.

  5. Brian Woodbury told me I would like Flat Old World.
    The music was just exactly the right amount of harmonious clunk to make me very happy and just a teensy-weensie bit sad.
    My FOW CD is still on relatively frequent rotation, which probably means I’m in a music rut, but no one is complaining.
    One of my most favorite bands ever.
    Sigh.

  6. Mark Donato says:

    One of my most favorite bands ever too. I learned more ways to play a waltz than I’d ever imagined in my wildest drumming dreams. Great to read this touching piece and remember some of the nutty (and not so nutty) things that Flat Old World did…

    I don’t know why I look the same now as I did then. I know I smell older.

  7. Mark Donato says:

    It’s been a little while since I’ve heard these FOW recordings. Really beautiful and joyful stuff. Mark, you did an amazing job arranging, imagining, making this happen. So glad I was there for it!

  8. Brian Culver says:

    Listening to Nancy’s lullaby for the first time in 12 years I blubbed like Mr. Sour-Trousers.
    Mel Melon

  9. Eric says:

    I feel obliged, for reasons which I can’t even fathom, to point out that, by the time you recruited Todd for FOW, he was not only my former band mate, but yours, as well. You just hadn’t met him yet. If you’ll recall, Todd played harp on a Portaguys track which I started in Chicago and you completed in New York. Which is, of course, how you first heard him.

    (By curious coincidence, you drafted future FOWer Bill Fink to play a NY solo on another Chicago-originated Portaguys effort.)

    It must also be noted that Todd had been switching between trumpet and harp in the notorious Doctor Bob from 1985-87, several years prior to the Bix shoot.

    Tell me to start my own damn blog, and stop raining on yours.

  10. Mark Lerner says:

    Eric: Please continue to rain on my blog. I need folks to correct my inaccuracies. I really don’t have much of a memory, and less with each passing day. Clearly I need to do some research before embarking on the Portaguys entry, which is eagerly anticipated by at least two people.

    Mel and everyone else: Thanks for the kind words; it is my pleasure to make you all sad and happy.

    • Dan Eilenberg says:

      I need folks to correct my inaccuracies.

      Well, then, if you insist. The John Lennon tribute show would have been on the 51st anniversary of his birth—not the 11th of his death, as caption reads. (Just giving some truth … heh.)

      Who took that splendid b&w photo of the band around the kitchen table? That’s a classic, obviously.

      • Mark Lerner says:

        Oops. Fixing. I should have remembered, because I made a dorky joke from the stage (which I heard when I dug up the tape recently): “It’s the defining event of our generation. We all remember exactly where we were when John Lennon was born.”

        (The photo was either by Megan Cash or Brian Dewan, both of whom were present at the shoot.)

  11. Dan Eilenberg says:

    You did “Ram On” and never told me about it? shame on you….

    Sweet bass doodles going into 2nd verse of *live* “Likes Liquor Better Than Me” video. Vintage Mark L. Asymmetrical and nonsensical, but the quirky licks fit and serve the song nicely.

    Was it a coincidence that you chose to present Flat Old World (“Live Is A Carnival”) as your first post since Levon’s passing? Not to mention, cassette-only release, “The Abasement Tapes.”

  12. Mark Lerner says:

    It is indeed coincidence that this post came so close on the heels of Levon’s floating off the edge of the world, the flat old world.

  13. Tom A says:

    My FOW story is this: I was temp-ing in LA late 1990 when I sent a pretty co-worker flowers to show her my appreciation. The co-worker complained to her boss. The temp agency told me I could no longer work there, though they still liked me. In fact, the head of the temp agency next fixed me up on a date with her best friend. So… we went out for Mexican food. Then I invited her to my tiny apt to do EXACTLY what you’d think–to color ping-pong balls with blue and brown Sharpies so as to resemble little planet Earths, and then to stomp on them. We colored/stomped about eight or so of these and then I sent her home and sent the flat worlds to Mark L to hand out whenever. (Mark had not requested these, of course.) As for the date, whose name I can’t recall, she telephoned me the next day (probably to say she’d made it home safe, there was always a lot of drinking & driving with me in those days)… During our call, I remember apologizing for the previous night’s unusual activity and her reply: “Are you kidding? It was a BLAST! How many dates do you think I’ve ever been on where we drew the planet on a ping-pong ball and stepped on it?” (The answer, I guess, was not very many.) I never saw her again… but I did love every note FOW ever played.

    • Mark Lerner says:

      Thank you, earth-stomping pal. Readers should also note that Flat Old World performed a number of Tom A’s compositions and they were among our most beloved numbers.

  14. Hi, Mark. Flat Old World was an astonishing dose of humanity, vulnerability, and beauty in Giulianiland.

  15. ssteve17 says:

    Last night I randomly pulled up the Flat Old World Hello Recording Club CD on iTunes and played it while my wife and I were making dinner. When it got into the third song she finally asked who it was. She said “I really like this. It sounds like where we live.” (We live in western Nevada County, CA which has a wonderfully diverse musical community.)

    So this morning I bought a used copy of Musicale and found your blog. I’m looking forward to the CD showing up. The description said the sleeve is in excellent condition which, after reading this post, I now realize is significant.

    Back in the mid-90s I worked for an ex-hippie named Joe West at a store called Computers & Music just outside San Francisco. He had a pink paisley Fender VI that he bought new in the late ’60s. It was gorgeous. He let me borrow it for a couple years but I never got good at it (too many strings and too close together) and wound up giving it back.

    • Mark Lerner says:

      I’m so glad you dug up the blog and a copy of Musicale. Let me know how you like it. Also: PINK PAISLEY! Wow.

      • SSteve says:

        My wife and I both love Musicale. That Fender VI really lends a unique sound.

      • Mark Lerner says:

        Thank you so much! I just pulled out the Fender VI for an overdub on a session last weekend. That’s sort of how it works lately, it gets used for the occasional extra sound. I miss basing a whole band around it. But I am actually also working on something (alone) that will feature a lot more Fender VI.

  16. jim sylvester says:

    absolutely stunning to read about your musical odyssey–
    I wish I could have seen you play–
    Best Wishes


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