Latest release: Songs of the Third and Fifth (Feel Presents/Fuse)
The Mark of Cain isn’t a band reknown for humour. Frontman John Scott, his silent, formidable-looking brother Kim and an astounding string of drummers that has, for a long time now, been tied off by Tomahawk’s John Stanier, are instead known for grim and angry songs built around bludgeoning riffs and military precise time-keeping. Even when they stepped out of character to take on a rollicking cover of X’s “Degenerate Boy” for the comedy Idiot Box, Scott still sounded like he was about to spit in your face and then kick your head off. So it may be a little surprising to learn that Songs of the Third and Fifth, the title of the band’s darkest album yet, came about as a joke.
“Well, you see, there isn’t just all that bleakness about it!” John Scott says with a short laugh. “We’re quite aware of the fact that as musicians, Kim and I are just average, adequate musicians whereas John Stanier is Julliard-trained. I was joking that basically everything I write seems to be around the third and fifth frets. I just said, ‘Might as well call it songs of the third and fifth’, and it was like, ‘Hey, that’s not bad’. So it was a bit of a joke for us, but at the same time it has that whole military thing like it’s songs of the Third and Fifth Infantry. So it fits perfectly, and it does tie in with the iconography we like and the whole metaphor of life and combat and all that sort of stuff. So, it worked. And people like it.”
That they do. Songs of the Third and Fifth is getting perhaps the best reviews of the band’s career, and that’s saying a lot when their entire oeuvre has rarely been rated less than excellent. With that sort of reputation, the Adelaide trio’s fans kept holding out for new material across the enormous eleven-year gulf since 2001’s This is This in the knowledge they would not be disappointed. Even the greatest band can be found wanting after such a long period, but when “Barkhammer” dropped last year, fans knew their faith in The Mark of Cain had not been vain.
“It’s actually been overwhelming,” Scott says, humbly. “We just did it the best we could. The fans were always waiting… I know this sounds like a gushing fucking acceptance speech, but anyway! It was good that people waited, and waited. You know, we’ve got our things going on. I had my relationship breakdown, which was partly the reason I was so tardy in getting it finished, so to be getting the reviews we’ve been getting I feel is a bit of a testament to all the crap that I went through trying to get there.”
When asked if the breakdown of his marriage was the catalyst for the new album’s breathtakingly desolate tone, stark even by this band’s standards, John Scott hesitates for only a moment.
“Look, I’ll be quite honest – yeah,” he admits. “Yes. I was probably at the lowest I’ve ever been. It was the whole feel of the relationship breaking down, selling the house – losing the house, losing everything. Starting all over again. I left my job. And a lot of the time I was just on my own, just thinking, ‘What just happened?’ And I at least like to think that there’s some light at the end of the tunnel that isn’t the oncoming train. That there is something to get out of it by people being able to identify with what you write. Maybe it makes them feel not so alone.”
This writer is far from the only person to have found an odd kind of solace in The Mark of Cain’s punishing, regimented riff barrage and austere songs. Much of the band’s appeal must lay in their ability to make people feel better by showing them how much worse a person could suffer. Scott chuckles at the suggestion.
“Well, that’s part of the reason I write, I guess!” he says. “There’s a lot of literary stuff I read as well that’s ‘Oh yeah, that’s exactly how I feel’. I just don’t really want to write music that will just make people feel happy and joyous. In fact, if I was really, really happy, I probably wouldn’t write at all. I’d just be out there enjoying life. So, in a way, it’s cathartic for me to write, but there’s so many other people that say they get something out of it.”
On Songs of the Third and Fifth, Scott draws himself again and again as the isolated outsider, whether it be as the disaffected mercenary of “The Avenger”, the embittered protagonist of “The Argument” or invoking Raskolnikov, Dostoyevski’s conflicted anti-hero from Crime and Punishment, in “Eastern Decline”. The band’s live persona is reflective of their music: unadorned stages, close-cropped hair and the unsmiling Kim Scott’s menacing, wide-legged stance, his bass slung so low he actually straps it around his waist like he’s brandishing a heavy machine gun. When he’s not performing, however, John Scott is just a regular guy who gets nervous before a tour.
“I’m a fairly affable, approachable person – I think! – but that’s not exactly how I seem when I’m on stage,” he says. “But that’s the whole idea of The Mark of Cain. It’s this image that it projects, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how we are 24/7. It’s sincere, and people get that. You’re just delivering a performance of this particular time that I’ve been through.”
The lengthy studio process, exacerbated not only by Scott’s personal issues but John Stanier’s involvement in other bands, probably precluded outside assistance. Henry Rollins, Steve Albini and Andy Gill have all produced earlier works. This time Scott took those reins himself, alongside Tim Pittman from the band’s label, Feel Presents. Rollins did make a small contribution however, laying down some spoken word on the track “Grey 11”, a song about the estrangement of troops returning from a combat zone.
“Whenever he comes to Adelaide he will always take the time out just to meet up,” Scott says of their association, which began when Rollins caught wind of them after the Albini-produced “Incoming” EP and in turn worked on their breakthrough Ill at Ease album. “Whether it’s just after the show or whenever. We’ll have a catch up for half an hour to an hour and we’re always respectful of his time and he’s always been so supportive of us. He just happened to be in town and we said, ‘Here’s what the song is about’ and he liked it and just went for it.”
Now the album is finally out, going for it is what John and Kim Scott will be doing when they get back together with Stanier and tour The Mark of Cain early next year for their first run of dates since 2006. While Scott doesn’t believe it’s necessary for him to psychologically ready himself by living through his darkest moments, there is a need for some preparation.
“Given the songs were written so long ago,” he says, “I’ve actually gone over them again and deconstructed them so I understand exactly what I did, and I’ve rewritten stuff out even for Kim. Because it’s been a while! Right now we’re just rehearsing. Getting limber and being able to get through an hour or so of playing. Get my match fitness up! And when John’s in town we’ll just rehearse for two weeks solid, and then get out on the road.”
For anyone who’s ever seen The Mark of Cain, or even those who’ve just heard about their performances, the prospect of seeing them live once more is almost as exciting as a new album.
The Mark of Cain play live around Australia in March:
8/3: HQ, Adelaide SA
10/3: Golden Plains Festival, Meredith VIC
15/3: HiFi Bar, Melbourne VIC
17/3: Capitol, Perth WA
21/3: HiFi Bar, Brisbane QLD
22/3: Coolangatta Hotel, Gold Coast QLD
23/3: Metro Theatre, Sydney NSW