|Paul Mahern with the Zero Boys in Seattle 2011. (Cat Rose photo)
Paul Mahern is exactly where he wants to be in his life.
He knew from an early age that he was meant to be involved with recorded music, and here he is at age 49, owner of Mahern Audio, Mahern Archival Preservation and White Arc Studios in Bloomington, Ind. Over the years, he's either engineered or produced music for John Mellencamp and The Fray (gold, platinum, double-platinum and Grammy Award-nominated records), Iggy Pop, Toxic Reasons, Sloppy Seconds and many more.
"I was really obsessed with recording equipment. As early as probably 13 years old, I would go to the news stand and sit (and read) the recording magazines and fantasize about big boards and tape machines and equipment. And that was always more important to me than learning how to really play an instrument or become a virtuoso musician," he said over the phone a few Sundays ago.
He also thrives in the role of singer/songwriter for longtime punk band the Zero Boys, a group that unleashed the blistering, melodic and highly touted "Vicious Circle" album in 1982.
Recently, the band released its first new material in 20 years with the four-song EP "Pro Dirt" on 1-2-3-4 Go! Records. It covers all the Zero Boys bases within the tunes, from the early "Living in the '80s" EP to the "Vicious Circle," "Make it Stop" and "The Heimlich Maneuver" LPs. It's been well worth the wait and I was stoked to receive my yellow vinyl copy in the mail; just as pleased as when Mahern mailed me the "Vicious Circle" and "Master Tape" compilation LPs in '82. Vicious circle -- how about coming full circle?
"I am very, very happy that for the most part, people have been very supportive of the new 7-inch record that we just put out. I feel very protective of the Zero Boys legacy and I wanna make sure that what we're putting out is our best attempt at the same quality, but at the same time keeping it light and kind of humorous," he said.
Mahern also teaches two audio engineering courses at Indiana University (IU), and was also lead engineer on the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded Sound Directions project at the Archives of Traditional Music, an IU and Harvard University co-authored paper on best practices for audio preservation.
Following is a Q and A with Paul-Z, as he's known in his Zero Boys world:
--Tell me a little bit about the (new) songs, where you got the ideas for the songs and what type of things are on your mind nowadays?
Well, that's interesting. We toured together as a band in Europe at the end of last summer and we played for about a month. We had a couple of new band members, and that was also the first time that we had done any kind of real extended playing together in years and years. For the last 5-10 years, Zero Boys have been playing 2-5 shows a year, at the most. We've just been playing old material and we haven't really been writing that much, so I think that there was something about being on tour for an extended period of time that kind of gave us an opportunity to consider writing, spending a little more time on it. (The new band members) kind of brought in a fresh energy.
After the European thing, we decided that we would start getting together in the studio for rehearsals and see if we could write together. After a couple of times, we decided to start setting up the microphones and we just started recording. There (were) no previous songs, there was no previous concept, we all started working together in the studio, and out of that came those four songs. (Editor's note: He added that there's an album's worth of songs in the can, as well.)
I think that those songs a little bit all tie together with this humorous look at the post-apocalyptic concept that people seem to be somewhat obsessed with at this particular point and time, have been for as long as I can remember, but it seems like the whole 2012 thing and all that. So, I think that was just in the air at the time, and so, all four of those songs are kind of a look at where we're at as a group of beings on the planet Earth, I guess.
--The music's got a foot in early Zero Boys and then later Zero Boys with a lot more melody in it, which I like. Do you think it's a pretty good representation of the band as a whole, over the years?
Every time you have a different group of people, you're gonna have a different chemistry and it's gonna result in a different product. The early Zero Boys musically in a lot of ways was directed by Terry Howe, who was our original guitar player. He was the guy who had the concept, he put the band together, he recruited me, he recruited Mark (Edward Cutsinger) the drummer. He was the one who had this vision, and then had a lot of the riffs and some of the melodic ideas very early on. (Editor's note: Howe left the band in '84; he died in 2001.)
Even though it's still me and it's still Mark, we operate enough as a democracy that everybody can write and play their own thing. So, inevitably it's different with each change of band members. But that being said, both Vess (Ruhtenberg), our last guitar player, grew up listening to the Zero Boys, and both Dave Lawson and our new bass player Scott Kellogg, these guys grew up listening to the Zero Boys. They're from the same place that we're from. And so I think that there is some continuity. But it's clearly different because there's no Terry Howe.
|Mahern, Lawson, Kellogg and Cutsinger. (Courtesy photo)
-- So, speaking of the two new guys, how's it been working out with them? Still bring some good power live and in the studio? Are they good guys to be with right now?
Oh yeah, it's great... it's absolutely great. I think that they bring a lot of energy, they're super excited to be in the band, they're super easy to get along with. (Editor's note: He likens the last incarnation of the band as a 'somewhat dysfunctional marriage' and Ruhtenberg and bassist David 'Tufty' Clough opted to leave the band and not tour, so Mahern and Cutsinger brought in some fresh blood.)
--Is the Zero Boys still a great place to be after all these years?
It's super fun to do. I would say that it's afforded me some awesome opportunities. I don't really feel completely like it's the sum total of who I am. I think that when we play live and we play a lot of the old songs (from 'Vicious Circle') -- and if people in the crowd know all the words and they know all the guitar solos-- it really feels like a group event, something that's way bigger than just the people that are on stage.
|Cutsinger, top, and Mahern in Seattle, (Cat Rose photos)
-- With 'Vicious Circle' being your guys' definitive album, listening back to that record, that still has a pretty big impact on a lot of people. Did you ever think that when you were making that, that it was something really special?
Well... nah...unh-uh (laughter). It's interesting that we're still basically in a lot of ways touring that record, cuz we're still playing on a regular basis to a lot of people that are hearing that record or have heard that record not that long ago and they've never seen the band live. So I feel like we're still kind of promoting this record that we made so long ago. And I feel fine with that.
As a record collector and as a recorded music fan, a lot of records that I have fallen in love with have been similar to 'Vicious Circle' in that they're of a style of music that I really like, be it '60s psychedelic or whatever ...and then I'll discover some record that I never knew existed. You try to get into a particular style of music and you digest all of the big names and then there's always that second-tier, third-tier band and you keep digging and you find these gems that are every bit as good as The Kinks or The Beatles or whatever, but you're hearing about it for the first time in 1985 or whatever. And I feel like that's what 'Vicious Circle' is. So I feel happy to participate in any way.
--What are a couple examples of those hidden gems?
I feel like there's almost always something coming along. One of the biggest 'a-ha' moments in my life was discovering The 13th Floor Elevators. This happened probably in 1983 or '84, and I was already a pretty big psychedelic music fan, it was stuff like early Pink Floyd... but when I found that record -- in particular 'Easter Everywhere' -- I felt like I was listening to the very best record that had ever been made.
And then six years ago when I discovered the 'Cold Fact' album by Rodriguez, which was at a moment in time when nobody knew about it, or even a couple of years ago when that Death stuff came out of Detroit. There's always something that's being uncovered and brought to my attention. That's one of the reasons why I'm such a big fan of recorded music, eventually the cream will rise to the top-- sometimes it happens right away, sometimes it takes 30-40 years for it to filter into existence. But if people are still having that experience with 'Vicious Circle,' then I'm all for it.
--Yeah, it sounds as if it could have been recorded recently, it's got that timeless feel to it.
Well, I think that the advantage that that record has... on the surface it kind of appeared like an Adolescents record or maybe even a Germs record-- those were the bands that we were really into when we made that record. Kind of snotty young kids singing. But the difference is that the guys in the band were all in their mid-20s in the Zero Boys when we made that record... so I was 16, but Mark was probably 25, Terry was 23-24. Terry made his first record when he was a teenager, he put out a 7-inch record with a band from Ohio called the Insects. Mark had already been to New York and he was involved in the New York scene and hanging out with the New York Dolls and made a record with Jack Douglas as the producer. And Tufty the bass player was deep into the Indianapolis funk scene. These were guys who were great musicians... Tufty was just one of the best bass players still I've ever seen.
When you listen to 'Vicious Circle,' it's a little bit of a trick, where the lyrics (are from a younger point of view), the voice is kind of high and sounds kind of immature, but the playing on the record is just spot-on, super tight.
--I had talked to Tufty probably in about '88 or '89 when he was in Toxic Reasons. I had asked him about recording ('Vicious Circle'), and they had just put out that album 'Anything for Money,' and he had said that those were albums that he had gotten goose bumps playing on. He just knew that there was some good stuff going on there. So that had always stuck with me as far as some insight into recording that.
We rehearsed every day for probably two months before we made that record. I've been a recording engineer for the last 34 years, and I would say that there's probably only been a couple of other times in my career where I've witnessed anyone come into the studio nearly as prepared as the Zero Boys were to make that record. We recorded the record in a day. And you can tell that-- there's a certain immediacy to it that you don't get on a lot of records anymore.
|Cat Rose photo
--What have you been working on lately?
I'm always doing something and it's always a bit different. Over the years, I've recorded just about every kind of music and have been involved in just about every kind of recording project. When I first started out, I was very much completely only into punk rock--- for a couple of years that's all I did was make punk rock records. Then my son was born in '84 and that kind of changed everything, and then I became a professional recording engineer who records country, gospel, funk, whatever anybody needed to have recorded.
Recently, I've just had a pretty big project (as special effects engineer), a collaboration between Stephen King and John Mellencamp that's like a radio play version of this musical that they wrote. It was produced by T-Bone Burnett, it's called 'Ghost Brothers of Darkland County'-- it's a pretty interesting project that involves a lot of Foley sounds.
I just completed a new album by these young ladies from Indianapolis called Lily and Madeleine, and it's the farthest thing sonically from the Zero Boys that you could imagine--- two young sisters, basically kind of acoustic folk music... their harmonies are just out of this world, absolutely amazing stuff. And it's super organic, and in that way I think it's very much like the Zero Boys.
And then I just finished a heavy metal/rock record by a band called Machine Guns & Motorcycles (featuring Cutsinger and Lawson)...it's kind of a punkier Cheap Trick.
-- How has being involved with yoga affected your life? (In 2002, he trained to be a Kundalini Yoga teacher under Yogi Bhajan.)
It's great. I got into it as stress reduction mostly. My whole life I've been very much into spiritual concepts. I got my transcendental meditation mantra when I was 9. I feel like yoga and meditation are simple scientific tools that connect more with the entire aspect of ourselves. I feel 'why wouldn't I be into that?' I get the same thing from music. It's a pretty serious practice and it's good for my body and it's good for everything else. It seems to all completely make sense and is intertwined.
|Cat Rose photo