An Interview with Mark Durante of Durantula
From industrial to country to alternative and all points in between, Mark Durante lets ReGen into his varied musical world.
by Ilker Yücel
Mark Durante has been a fixture of the Chicago music scene as a highly skilled and prolific guitarist for many years. He is perhaps best known for his tenure during the ‘90s as a guitarist for KMFDM, co-writing and performing on the band’s best known albums, as well as a member of Revolting Cocks, touring with both groups around the world. He also contributed to the Excessive Force side project, but many are perhaps not aware of Durante’s excursions before and since in the realms of punk and country music as a member of The Aliens, The Next Big Thing and The Slammin’ Watusis throughout the ‘80s, and becoming a longstanding member of insurgent country act The Waco Brothers in the mid ‘90s.
In 2002, Mark Durante finally released his debut solo album, titled Welcome to Earth, under the Durantula moniker. Featuring a diverse blend of styles that incorporate everything he’s done, from punk to industrial to country to good old fashioned rock & roll, Welcome to Earth presented the man in all of his creative capacity, not just as a guitarist but also a vocalist, producer and multi-instrumentalist. Most recently, Durante appeared performing pedal steel guitar on Slick Idiot’s Sucksess album, reuniting him with his former KMFDM cohorts, Günter Schulz and En Esch. As well, he was part of the performing lineup at the Wax Trax! Retrospectacle event in April, 2011.
Durante now speaks with ReGen about his career as one of the Chicago music scene’s most revered figures, offering some insights into his creative process both as a solo artist and as a member of his various bands. As well, he gives us his opinion on the state of technology in the music industry, his own line of Durantula guitars, and what’s next to come on his path of musical exploration.
Just to start, a lot of people obviously are familiar with your work with KMFDM and RevCo and the old guard of industrial rock, but people who are fans of your old work are probably not aware of what you’re doing right now.
Durante: OK, well the Durantula Welcome to Earth CD I put out was actually put out in 2002 or so. But I don’t wanna sound like I’m blowing my own horn or anything, but it’s kind of an innovative CD where the music just continues from start to finish without any breaks, although I have different songs on it. When people first hear it, they sometimes don’t know what to think, you know? I used recording techniques that give it what I call a hard glistening sound. It’s kind of a brutal-sounding thing, even though a lot of the songs are melodic, or are not so heavy metal, per se. So at any rate, that CD I think is still a very current sounding thing to my ears, and I’m real proud of it.
And then this last year, I got the buck to rerelease my old punk band, The Next Big Thing. We did some recordings in 1982, and it was never released on anything. So, I remastered seven or eight songs. So I put that out on my own label here, and it was kind of a unique band with our own sound. It was mainly just Jeff Lescher’s songwriting. He went on later to form a band called Green. So I got that thing out, and then The Aliens is a project that I did some recordings with an old friend of mine. We were in a band together, one of my first bands back in the late ‘60s. We were a power trio band. So anyway, we got together again and did four songs, you know, with the recordings and all that kind of stuff, so that turned out real good.
And then, The Moai Men is my latest project, which is my own project where I play all the instruments and all that kind of stuff and it’s all instrumental. This stuff is a little more of a Henry Mancini meets surf music kind of sound, a little blues and country thrown in there. So, I put those three CDs out, and I remastered the Durantula Welcome to Earth CD as individual songs for MP3s because I noticed the CD sound quality is a little too much for the MP3 streaming kind of media here nowadays. I kind of remastered it, so that hopefully it sounds a little bit less garbled up when you download it. Those four projects, in addition to everything else I’ve been doing in the last year, kept me pretty busy.
Among all the things you’ve been doing, up until around 2008, you were a member of The Waco Brothers.
Durante: Well, yeah, I actually started playing in The Waco Brothers…I believe it was around 1995 or so, when I was still in KMFDM, as a matter of fact. I had taken a real interest in playing pedal steel guitar at the time. So I got in The Waco Brothers just as kind of a side project to have some fun and to play steel guitar in it. It turned out I was in The Waco Brothers longer than any band I’ve ever been in. It was 12 or 13 years there, I guess. It was kind of a fun thing for me for quite a while there, where KMFDM was pretty serious, a pretty serious project. So The Waco Brothers was kind of a comedy relief kind of thing. We had a lot of fun, and I guess I would say I had a good run with the band. Then a few years ago, it just…eh, you know, musical differences between me and Jon Langford, who was the leader of the band, and we decided it was best if I retired. So that’s what happened there. Consequently, I’ve had more time to do my solo projects. One of the things that I’ve done most of my career is work for other guys’ bands, whether it’s Al Jourgensen or Sascha Konietzko or Jon Langford. They’re all super talented guys, and I really enjoyed playing with them, but I’ve always felt I had an abundance of ideas and musical things that I wanted to do that just didn’t fit with their concept. The Durantula CD and The Moai Men and The Aliens especially are just things that are more ideas that I wanted to pursue and that I could be in total control of for a change. If it turns out good, I’m the guy to blame, and if it doesn’t turn out good, I’m the guy to blame, too. So that was kind of my philosophy here in the last few years of retiring from playing with a band situation.
You do cover quite a different range of styles – you go from industrial to pedal steel, which is more associated with country, and The Waco Brothers sort of being, as you say, a little more tongue-in-cheek and comedic, although most of the labels for it are alternative/country. And obviously being associated with the other bands, like Al Jourgensen’s projects where there are all kinds of crossovers. It’s interesting to see country or country styling being such a prevalent part of your work. What exactly is it about the differing styles that you do work in that appeal to you most, in terms of not just how you play, but what attracts you to a certain style of music at a given time?
Durante: Well, I guess from the very beginning when I first started listening to rock or country music or soul or whatever, I was generally attracted to the sound of the guitars. It used to be, especially in the ‘60s, that country music had some pretty heavy twanging guitars, the Buck Owens kind of thing. Really I was attracted to the heavy duty guitar sound. Even though it wasn’t distorted, it was pretty impressive. When I was growing up in Chicago, there was a TV show called The Barn Dance, which was like a Grand Ole Opry kind of show, on a smaller scale at that point. I used to watch all the country guitar players get up there, Joe Maphis and guys like that, that were really great guitar players. So I was really attracted to that, and then of course, all the great English guitar players of the time, and Jimi Hendrix, and all that kind of thing. I was really into the guitar playing. Well, Jimi Hendrix, for instance…he had a lot of different influences that you can hear in his songs that ran from soul and country and hard rock…
Durante: All over the spectrum, I guess. So consequently, I know what you’re saying. Maybe it’s attention deficit disorder or something. I like a lot of different styles of music and guitar playing, so I tend to want to play them all at the same time sometimes. Sometimes it works out cool, and sometimes it’s kind of hard to fit the stuff in there. At any rate, I guess I just get bored hearing bands and people that play one sound all night long, and every record sounds pretty much the same. I kind of like to hear more variety myself. You know, Ted Nugent’s a perfect example: every single song sounds exactly the same: the same instrumentation, the same thing. It gets pretty goddamned boring after awhile. So at any rate, whether people like it or not, people generally like to hear–if they pick up a CD or whatever by a band–that sound that band makes and they generally don’t want them to stray too far from that. But I guess I’m against that whole philosophy of everything has to sound the same and you have to write one thing and then hate everything else, you know?
On the subject of your past associations, you actually had a guest spot on the most recent Slick Idiot album. Obviously you’ve worked with Günter and En Esch in KMFDM before. Aside from the remix of ‘Brute,’ you didn’t play much pedal steel during your time with KMFDM.
Durante: Yeah. Actually, I started playing…it’s kind of an interesting story. On the Angst tour, I was starting to get into western swing and country music at that point, and I went to see a guy, an old redneck guy down outside of Houston there. He sold me a triple-neck Fender steel guitar. At that point, it was what, 1994 or so, and I was fascinated with the thing. And so for the next couple of albums, which were Nihil and Xtort, I played that probably as much as regular guitar on the KMFDM albums, but I used a real distorted sound on it, so it sounds more like a regular guitar, only…well, ‘sliding,’ I guess. With KMFDM, there are not a whole lot of melodic concepts in there, so I was restricted somewhat in what I was playing, just in that I didn’t want it to come out sounding sappy in the middle of a really heavy duty tune. I just experimented, seeing what fit and what I could fit in there. That one part that I think you’re talking about that’s on the latest Slick Idiot CD was one that I recorded quite a while ago. En Esch and I always had it in the back of our minds to use some of that and do a song, so he finally mixed it in, and it turned out sounding kind of cool, I think.
You mentioned earlier about remastering your album for MP3. It’s interesting, because that seems to just be the new paradigm. Obviously, there are people who still say, ‘Oh, MP3s are inferior to CDs,’ and it’s a debate that’s still open. Everyone’s using their iPods these days. What are your thoughts on how the state of the technology has been affecting the quality of music, not just in terms of how people market it, but in terms of how they actually create it?
Durante: Well, you know, many people won’t agree with me, but I really think MP3s suck. I don’t have much good to say about them, except that you can load a bunch of songs on a little iPod. I mean, that’s cool, but as far as the sound quality goes, I think people nowadays are missing out on a lot of quality. For me, to make music like I want to make, it sounds great on a CD, and then like I said earlier, you start streaming it and MP3-ing it and the whole thing through the Internet and everything else, and it turns into kind of a garbled mess sometimes. Now, if you’re recording various parts, instruments, and really quiet kind of tunes, it doesn’t have as much of a negative effect. But especially for what I do, when I want to get a lot of gain out of everything and I want to compress it a lot, MP3s are definitely inferior, and people don’t really know it, you know? They hear what they hear on their little computer speaker and they think that’s what it sounds like. It’s not supposed to sound like that.
You have actually been at this for quite a number of years, but John Q. Public probably doesn’t notice. A lot of artists who’ve been around for a longer amount of time, not just people like Sascha and Al, but even older people like Pink Floyd have a similar opinion of MP3s and the sound quality. Do you ever consider that it might be a view of nostalgia on your part? Not to say that it is, but does that ever factor into your opinion, thinking, ‘You know, maybe I’m just nostalgic, and maybe it’s all in my head?’
Durante: No, I don’t really feel that way at all. Because when we went from vinyl LPs to CDs, although CDs are not necessarily better quality than vinyl, I’ve always been a champion of the digital CDs over vinyl for a number of reasons. So I think if it was a nostalgic thing, I’d probably still want to be doing everything on vinyl or on tape, rather than digital. I think the digital thing is great if it is done correctly and if you’re able to reproduce it the way it should be reproduced in full quality, rather than cutting out half the quality, which is what MP3s do.
Also on the subject of MP3s, how do you feel that their presence has affected the state of recording technology? Do you find that the more music technology that is coming out, because MP3s are so part of the standard now, that that has changed the way that technology is progressing, and if so, how is that affecting the sound?
Durante: Well, I think MP3s just came about as a matter of convenience, because even today the computer chips and the equipment that everyone can afford is not capable of handling all the information that a good digital recording has. It’s kind of a necessary evil at this point. I’m just looking forward to the day when the computers get more powerful and they can reproduce the full quality and still put hundreds of songs on an iPod or whatever without having to resort to MP3. I think most people seem to be fairly happy with MP3s and satisfied. I think once the technology gets better, then it’ll be a better thing for everybody.
For the Durantula album, did you do the vocals on it as well?
Durante: Oh yeah, actually Welcome to Earth is me doing everything, so it was kind of a reaction to being in bands with leaders for so long and having a lot of my ideas be discarded or whatever. As a matter of fact the song, ‘Welcome to Earth’ was a song that I had submitted to KMFDM back in the day, just the rough background parts. They didn’t really want to pursue it, so I always had that recording and I fleshed it out. I did all the singing and the lyric writing, and the recording and producing, everything on Welcome to Earth. Like I say, whatever it is, I’m to blame on there.
On the topic of lyrics, as you said, a lot of your working with other bands where you were in the support capacity, your ideas probably got pushed aside or discarded or whatnot. How much of what is featured on the album is a response to that? How much of it was older ideas that you never got to explore, and how much of it was a reaction to not having been able to explore them before?
Durante: Well, there were a few; one or two older songs on it that I had written in the past, like ‘Welcome to Earth’ was an idea that I had kicking around for awhile. But most of the stuff was written at the time I recorded it, toward the end of the ‘90s and into the 2000s there. So it’s all mostly fresh stuff, but I threw in a few older bits. One song that I wrote, kind of a novelty item I wrote in the ‘60s, was a reaction to when I wasn’t allowed to get out in the past. Like I said, I felt like I had all these great ideas that I had no outlet for, so I finally decided I’ll do it myself. The technology was happening around then that I could get a digital studio, that I could afford it, which I couldn’t before that. So I just decided that I’m going do everything myself. Then I don’t have anybody I’d have to argue with or negotiate with or any of that kind of stuff. So that was the whole idea behind Welcome to Earth, that I could do anything I wanted. I wasn’t trying to cater to anybody or any audience or anyone at all except myself. That’s probably why it’s been so unsuccessful. [Laughs.]
Once again, I don’t want to toot my own horn, but it’s been out for almost 10 years now, and I think it still sounds fresh and current. I’m a real tough critic of my own work, but I’m pretty proud of that.
Are there any plans or any recordings in the works for a new Durantula album?
Durante: It’s probably coming up, seeing as how I just finished these other projects this last year, and it’s been a while since I’ve really been recording. I finished up…well, two or three songs on The Moai Men this last year, but I’m kind of getting the itch to start recording some new songs again. At this point, I’m not really sure whether it would be more instrumental stuff like The Moai Men or whether I want to do another Durantula album. I think maybe another Durantula CD would be in the works; I don’t know. I have to see. Once again, you know I don’t have anybody I have to answer to.
Has it ever come up for you to return to KMFDM or The Waco Brothers or any of your old projects, just for old time’s sake? Has that ever popped up?
Durante: Well, the only thing like that that’s happened recently was this Retropectacle event that happened in April here in Chicago, the Wax Trax! Show. A lot of the RevCo and most of the original KMFDM people, except without Al or Sascha, so that was kind of like a reunion with all my old buddies like Chris Connelly, En Esch, Günter, and Raymond Watts and Paul Barker. It was really a fun event, but of course, not having Sascha and Al there was kind of strange. But then again, there wasn’t anybody telling everybody what to do, either.
What’s next on your personal agenda as far as touring or shows, music, whatnot?
Durante: Right at this point, I just had my 60th birthday party. I figured the Retropectacle was kind of like my birthday party, but I just turned 60, so it is kind of a time of reassessment here. I never really thought I’d get this old to begin with. The other thing I’m doing is I’ve been making my own guitars. I’ve been a guitar repairman and builder for a number of years, and I’ve started making my own Durantula guitars. They have some features that I’ve come up with, such as a whole new pickup system and things like that. I’m thinking about possibly marketing in some way, shape, or form. And I want to continue expanding my website and trying to get more people to know about me, even though it’s been a long time that a lot of people have known about me. I guess my main problem is aside from my monotonous kind of tone of voice… [Laughs.]
Everybody makes fun of me for that. But I’m not the greatest guy as far as business or marketing goes. I can come up with all the ideas and the music and make the guitars and the artwork and the whole spiel, but when it comes to selling it all, I’m not really that good. That’s not my strong point. I need to somehow concentrate a little more on marketing. But then again, you know, I’d like to make some money off of it, but I’m really doing it just because I want to do it. Obviously, if I’m not making money, or the CD’s not selling that well or whatever, I’m still going to do what I do because it’s what I do. It would be nice to have a little more success as far as sales and that type of stuff. If there are any marketing geniuses out there…
You’re based in Chicago, which many people traditionally refer to it as the home of American industrial, although it’s got a much stronger music scene than simply that. What have you noticed just in the local scene as far as the changes in music as a whole? Not just industrial, country or rock, but just the changes in music as you’ve seen them happen over the years?
Durante: Well, you know I hate to be pessimistic, but it seems that the downturn in the economy has negatively affected a lot of things, and music is one of the first things to get affected when economies go down, because people don’t go out as much and all that kind of thing. But it’s a pity that Wax Trax! isn’t still around, because of course that was the label that really put Chicago on the industrial scene at the forefront. Bloodshot Records that The Waco Brothers are on has been going pretty strong for the last 15 years or so, and they’re still doing well and they’ve got a lot of things going on. Other than that, I don’t get out as much as I used to and I’m not really hanging out like I used to anymore, so I’m probably not the biggest expert on the scene in Chicago at this point.
Do you have any closing thoughts?
Durante: I just like to at this point do things my own way, and hopefully, it’ll appeal to people that are nonconformists and like to hear music that isn’t necessarily like everything else, you know?