Mark DonatoPosted: December 9, 2012
1989 – present, New York City and Ulster County, NY
Mark Donato – vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica, songwriting, (sometimes drums on records)
Mark Lerner – bass, backing vocals, etc, off and on 1989 – present
Pete Erchick – bass from 1994-ish to 1996?
Stephen Lewis – electric guitar, 1989-1991
Dan Fassett – electric guitar, for a few months in 1991-1992
G. Doug Pierson – electric guitar from 1994-ish to to 2006-ish
Dave Wilkes – drums for a few months of 1990
Allison Horn – drums, 1990-1991
Seth Warnock – drums, 1991 – 2006-ish
Eric Parker – drums, 2008 – present
Diane Stockwell – violin, 1991? to 1994?
Rebecca Weiner Tompkins – violin, 1994
Rob Meador – mandolin from 1996-ish to 2006-ish
John Burdick and Dean Jones – (guitar and piano) working on our new record even as we speak
And various other guests on recordings, including Jim Barbaro (guitar), Al Houghton (guitar and organ), Mike Ralff and Scott McKuen (acoustic bass), Bob Hofnar and Jonathan Gregg (pedal steel), Robin Goldwasser (vocals), and Philippa Thompson (accordion and vocals).
I’ve played music with this Donato fellow for 25 years. There’s a strong temptation when writing these things, to pitch the music to you, dear reader. That is, to select the very best stuff and to order the post so as to take maximum advantage of your understandably short attention span, and leave you thinking, “Whoa, that band was great! Mark is cool!” Nowhere is this temptation stronger than in writing about Mark Donato, whose singular talents as a songwriter and singer have gone, in my opinion, criminally underappreciated, at least insofar as appreciation can be measured by album sales and crowds at gigs. (Though there have been plenty of both at times.)
But my job here (I guess I’m my own boss) is not to promote music. As a musician, I have to spend far too much time doing that anyway; my task here is more narrative in nature. So this will be a typical Every Band story: embarrassing videos, clip-art xeroxed flyers, wobbly demos, and faulty memories. Readers unfamiliar with Mark Donato’s music will of course find some here; I encourage you to seek out more.
Canoeful of Strangers
Mark Donato was the first drummer for the Oswalds, but from the day we met him, he was also playing guitar and singing his own songs. I was a big fan immediately, and throughout 1988 and 1989, Mark would often come over to my apartment and record his songs. The tapes are a testament to Donato’s patience. I was always trying to do something weird with my small home recording setup, so the recordings have all kinds of backwards reverb and phase-shifted dulcimer and whatever other nonsense I could conjure. Watching Donato record his vocals became a sort of spectator sport for my roommate Bill Fink and my neighbor Frank Randall (Donato with headphones on, eyes closed, hands writhing in a gentle spastic dance, Keith Jarrett-like vocalizations emerging unbidden between lines). Mark would also sometimes open Oswalds shows with a set of his own songs, especially after he left the band to work more on his own music.
When the Oswalds broke up in late 1989, Donato inherited most of the band. Stephen Lewis, our guitarist, and I were eager to keep playing. I think Charlie Shaw, our drummer, was already pretty busy playing with Five Chinese Brothers and possibly the Maudlins, so he wasn’t available. We searched for a drummer and ended up with a very young kid named Dave Wilkes, who was dating a friend of mine.
The band needed a name, and Stephen had seen a ludicrous phrase in a pornographic magazine that did the trick: “What really put me over the top was the canoeful of strangers watching us.” Thus, though it did not roll trippingly off the tongue and was often misspelled by clubs, we became Canoeful of Strangers.
We played a show or two with Dave and recorded some material, but he was really not a great fit. He kept wanting to add drum intros or outros to songs and was sort of funky-backbeat-crazy. He was also late to everything, so we booted him.
Nevertheless, here’s a good track we recorded with him. It’s on Mark’s first record:
While the feel of “Life Returns to Normal” isn’t far off from the country-roots thing that the Oswalds often found themselves doing, it isn’t representative of the typical Donato song from this era (or any). Back then, and still now, to an extent, Donato’s songs had subtly maddening structures to them (maddening to those of us who have to play them); lengthy verse sections, bridges that come up twice, but are different the second time, and oh yeah the last time through the verse the second line is twice as long. And on the third chorus there’s an extra thingy. Like that. And all of this with loads of words on top. And Donato’s strumming can sometimes complicate things more than help them. So as a band, our task is usually to simplify and amplify the song: make the structure evident and let the song feel and sound easier than it really is. I’ve often been the bigmouth in the group when it comes to arranging, and I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t by trying to arrange Donato’s songs.
Mark’s songs also often bear a strange relation to his life. He’s far too crafty a songwriter to be called confessional, but if it’s going on in his life, it’s there in his songs. In the months before and after his father passed away from heart disease, those of us in the band were handed a steady stream of songs—almost all beautiful and usually very funny—all about death and fathers and hearts. It’s a burden and a privilege to participate in something that personal.
It’s also worth mentioning that Mark Donato is very prolific. I have tapes of what must easily be 60 unreleased songs, and there are of course more I’ve never heard. It’s all the more surprising, then, that he spends months, sometimes years, on many of his songs. The man makes me feel lazy.
Up next on drums was Allison Horn, who was a big improvement, if something of an enigma to us. It can’t have been easy for a fourth person to enter a pretty tight group of guys with a lot of shared musical and personal history behind them. She was behind the kit for a good long while, over a year, I think. Unfortunately, when she left, so did Stephen, who was getting weary of juggling two bands (he was playing lap steel with the Maudlins).
Before Stephen left, we recorded a rehearsal just to get down some of the songs he’d done with us. “Building One in the Basement,” as it happens, is the first song I ever heard Mark Donato play.
For some reason, I mostly have band flyers from 1990. Click on the pictures to see them larger.
A lengthy search for a drummer and somebody else ensued, with lots of bad auditions: usually good players who didn’t have the patience for the crazy song structures, or didn’t leave enough room for the vocals. An accordion player, Walter Kuehr, lasted a few rehearsals and maybe a gig, but kept suggesting that the songs needed more accordion solos. Finally we lucked out. I can’t recall exactly how–it was somehow through Mark’s girlfriend (now wife), Janet Steen–but we ended up with a guitarist named Dan Fassett and a drummer that he had been playing with already, Seth Warnock. Actually, Dan moved out of town pretty quickly, but Seth was a keeper (for 15 years! until geography made it no longer feasible). He has a great feel, a wonderful ear for song structure, and is really nice.
When Dan left, we added Diane Stockwell, who had been playing violin with us in Flat Old World. I look back especially fondly on this version of the band (Seth, me, and Diane). Everyone got along well, and with no electric guitar, I felt like interesting arrangements were easier to come by. Here’s what we looked and sounded like back then, May 26, 1992, Sun Mountain Cafe, New York City.
At some point, Diane left. Rebecca Weiner Tompkins from Life in a Blender stepped in on violin for a while, but shortly afterwards I had to tender my resignation, too. Flat Old World was busy and I was also playing with Life in a Blender and the occasional subbing gig. And my wife and I were about to have twins. Something had to give.
I was replaced quite handily on bass by a guy who had been a fan, Pete Erchick. We had shared bills with his band the Wiffengwens and he was an all-around great musician. Doug Pierson joined in on guitar, and at some point Rob Meador joined on mandolin. My memory is hazy here, because 1) I had infant twins and 2) I wasn’t in the band. I did see the band as often as I could, and they were great.
No more Canoeful
In 1996, Mark was ready to put out his debut album; I offered to put it out on my tiny record label, Rag & Bone Shop. About half of it was recorded with me (and co-produced by me) back when I’d been in the band. The rest was with the new lineup and a couple solo numbers. With encouragement from me, among others, Donato decided the album would be under his name and not Canoeful of Strangers. It had been 6 or 7 years of various musicians, after all, and the continuous thread was Mark Donato’s songs and his voice. The record was called Mark Donato sings “I’m Flapping” and other favorites.
In 1996, Pete Erchick left New York to join Olivia Tremor Control as a keyboard player. I rejoined Mark Donato’s band for about half of the recording sessions for the second record, The Old Joy, and gradually dribbled back into the band as a performing unit.
For the next couple of records, I felt a bit frustrated, not really being as involved in the recordings as I’d been in the earlier incarnation of the band. I love the records, but missed having a bigger hand in production and arrangement. On the third record, I Haven’t Wasted All This Time Alone, I’m only on four tracks. By the time that record was finished, both Mark and I had moved to Ulster County. We live about 12 miles from each other (that’s neighbors by upstate New York standards).
For Mark’s fourth record, we started playing with Eric Parker, a drummer who’d been giving my son lessons. Eric’s got a very deep musical resume, including stints with Joe Cocker and Steve Winwood, among many others. He has a huge musical vocabulary and is a real pleasure to play with.
Here’s us as a trio in New York City at the Living Room on January 5, 2011, doing “My Decision to Medicate.”
That said, the record we made, A History of the Boys and Girls, has a few problems, though they may only bother me. Guitar parts were split between the producing engineer, Jim Barbaro, and Al Houghton, who did his work at his studio in New York City. Piano and organ and pedal steel were all done as overdubs by people I’ve never met. A lot of this is just the way it goes; I’m only a sideman and the band as we rehearse it (Mark, Eric, and me) is not full enough. But as a player it’s hard to come up with a part and then have piano and guitar laid on top of it. No matter how good everyone is, you’d all do your job differently if you knew what was coming. I guess I just miss the days of having the whole band rehearsing in a room. Or of being the fascist dictator/producer.
Anyway, I made a lot of these complaints to Mark (probably too often), and I think it sunk in a bit. As I write this, we’re mostly done with a new record, (being produced by Mark and Dean Jones) and it’s sounding really good. We did a lot of preproduction work with a guitarist we adore (John Burdick, from the Sweet Clementines), and the rhythm tracks just felt great.
I’m ending this with a couple favorites and an unreleased one (!) that I’ve always loved.
Lives of Poets (from A History of the Boys and Girls, 2009)
One out of Three (from The Old Joy, 2001. I’m playing 4- and 6-string bass on this.)
Model Couple (unreleased 1991 recording, w/ Stephen Lewis, Allison Horn, and me on bass and mandolin)