The Mark Of Cain: ‘We Haven’t Repeated Ourselves’
Singer/guitarist John Scott weighs in on The Mark of Cain’s three-decade career in time for their long-awaited first album since 2001. PATRICK EMERY poses the questions.
Back in 1984, Adelaide was a different place. The Labor Government of John Bannon had given the green light to the state’s first casino (beating neighbouring Victoria by almost a decade), Bernie Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone had agreed to stage the Australian Grand Prix in March 1985 and the State Bank of South Australia was pumped full of confidence as it prepared to compete with privately owned banks.
The Adelaide music scene was also in strong health. ‘Greasy’ Doug Thomas had established Greasy Pop Records in the early ’80s, going on to release a raft of classic independent bands, including The Exploding White Mice, The Screaming Believers, The Lizard Train and The Twenty-Second Sect. Venues such as The Producers Hotel on Grenfell Street, The Old Queen’s Arms on Wright Street and the New Century Hotel on Hindley Street hosted gigs from hardcore to psychedelia, from indie pop to garage punk. Some years later a friend pondered a compilation of Adelaide bands from the era titled Paisley and Smack, but decided against it due to likely offence from protagonists from the era.
By the end of the decade, things were starting to go awry. The State Bank fell over in a screaming heap of poor investment decisions and dubious corporate governance. In 1993 Jeff Kennett stole the Grand Prix from Adelaide, in direct contravention of his government’s public protestations. And, in one of South Australian history’s lesser-known scandalous moments, Cooper’s Brewery released the abhorrent Black Crow light-alcohol bitter, complete with an advertising campaign aimed squarely at the suburban bogan market (“Tell your mates there’s a new bird in town.”)
Despite being pivotal in the 1980s Adelaide music scene, The Mark of Cain always stood apart from the crowd. Singer, guitarist and songwriter John Scott had studied engineering at Adelaide University in the early 1980s, before forming the band with his brother Kim, singer Rod Archer (later to join The Iron Sheiks) and original drummer Roger Crisp. Taking its name from Herman Hesse’s novel Demian, The Mark of Cain played Joy Division through the confrontational lens of early-’80s American hardcore. John Scott’s lyrics explored the concept of the loner in society, often using discourse replete with military imagery.
After releasing Battlesick and The Unclaimed Prize on Dominator Records (both re-released in 2006 through Tim Pittman’s Feel Presents label), The Mark of Cain caught the attention of Henry Rollins, who offered to produce the band’s 1995 album Ill At Ease. A cover of X’s ‘Degenerate Boy’ (featuring in the Australian film Idiot Box) brought national airplay and profile. 2001’s This is This would be The Mark of Cain’s last album for a decade, as the Scott brothers returned to their day jobs (John Scott also married and had a child) and ‘permanent’ drummer John Stanier – who succeeded a long list of short-term occupants, including a drum machine – balanced commitments with Helmet and Battles.
The Mark of Cain returned to the studio in 2008 to commence recording of its long-awaited follow-up. Despite the breakdown of his marriage, Scott found time to continue the writing and recording process, teaming up with Stanier during the drummer’s occasional visits to Australia.
The resulting Songs of the Third and Fifth finds The Mark of Cain returning to the more melodic hardcore aesthetic of Battlesick and The Unclaimed Prize. Intense, confronting and ultimately satisfying, it’s been heralded as their strongest album. Older and marginally more mellow than his 20-something self, John Scott is still grappling with the sociological and psychological perversions of the world around him.
When did you form The Mark of Cain?
It was in about 1984, in my final year of uni. I started uni in 1981, so about the end of 1984 I was in a position where I could actually rehearse, because uni didn’t allow much time for that. I’d been playing in bands for a while, and I’d read Herman Hesse’s short story/novella Demian, and I thought The Mark of Cain sounded like such a fucking great, strong name, and I had an idea for the band, so I got my brother involved, and numerous numbers of drummers, and all these years later, here we are.
Can you remember the first gig you ever played?
Yes I can. I think the first proper gig we played was at the British Hotel in Adelaide. We only got the gig because a band called The Plague couldn’t play. I think it was the first time we made money, because everyone went to see The Plague and they saw us instead.
Back in the day The Mark of Cain played some of the more colourful venues in Adelaide, like the Old Queens Arms and the New Century in Hindley Street. There was always an edge to those places. Do you remember any of those gigs as being particularly threatening?
Hindley Street used to be one of the most dangerous streets in Adelaide, but I could never work that out because I used to think The Cross was really dangerous. Hindley Street, particularly around the Century end, was usually OK because there was a group of us, and the Old Queens Arms was generally pretty good. I think the only times I ever had any hassles was walking from venue to venue on Hindley Street when you were at that age when people would hassle you.
I remember being refused entry to the Black Rose Piano Bar on Hindley Street because I had black jeans on, which I found perversely amusing.
I remember being refused entry somewhere because I had a black V-neck jumper on!
You mentioned the procession of drummers in The Mark of Cain. My estimate is that there have been about 12 drummers, not including the drum machine you had at one stage. Yet you and Kim have been playing together for almost 30 years. Has your relationship with Kim always been strong?
The first bands I was in with were with other people. By the time I started The Mark of Cain, I thought Kim was the closest person to me who liked the same sort of music, who thought the same way about music, although he’s got his own tastes in music that don’t run to mine, nor mine to his. But to an extent he was a ring-in as well. I just knew having my brother, who could play bass – I can remember teaching him some fundamentals – he’d be fine. He’s one of those annoying people who can do anything at almost anything they pick up. He can’t jam, he can’t play a blues, but he can play songs for The Mark of Cain, and that is it – nothing else.
Didn’t you have Rod Archer from The Iron Sheiks in the band early on?
Yes, I’d met Rod at some party. I wanted a three-piece with a vocalist, but it became problematic because I was writing most of the stuff and I found it easier if I sang. A couple of years later Rod joined The Iron Sheiks. We were all in the [Adelaide] music scene, so people were dropping in and dropping out quite regularly. The Iron Sheiks became really huge in Adelaide.
The tracks on the new record have been written over the last five to six years …
Basically what happened was that whenever [John] Stanier had a chance to come over here with Battles or Tomahawk, he’d usually spent a couple of weeks here and during that time we’d tape anything we’d come up with. I’d also keep up with another drummer in Adelaide just to keep things going. The songs were written over a period from 2006 to 2008, and when Stanier was here for the Big Day Out in 2008 we went into the studio and put down all the tracks. And then it was up to me to finish the guitars and vocals. And I was probably the one who made it take so long. [Laughs]
Are you a perfectionist?
I can be, but that wasn’t what made it take so long. It was trying to fit in work, having a young child and then disintegration of a relationship, then selling a house, leaving work and trying to find the mental strength to go into the studio at night to go in and finish it. It was nicely to finally finish it!
What does the title of the album, Songs of the Third and Fifth, refer to?
I think it was in the studio that I suggested it be called Songs of the Third and Fifth. Because of my rudimentary writing style, pretty well everything was written between the third and fifth fret of the guitar or bass. But as soon as I said it, it sounded pretty cool, because it had that militaristic sense – the songs of the third and fifth battalion, which has always been a metaphor I’ve liked to strive for, a battle, a battlefield, whatever you like to call it – love as a battlefield.
Without the Pat Benatar reference, presumably…
Pat Benatar – wow. No influence. [Laughs]
There’s no doubt Songs of the Third and Fifth is a The Mark of Cain record. Were you at all concerned that you were trying to creating a record to outdo yourself?
You get to a point where you’re wondering what you’re trying to do, but the best thing to do is not to overthink it. The other thing is that it’s not a commercial thing, like you’ve got to get out there and release it to earn money. We’ll write the music and express it, so that’s where it comes out if it feels right for me. John Stanier had always said that he really liked Battlesick and The Unclaimed Prize, where I sang [with] more of a melodic style rather than barking out orders. So part of the mindset was, when I wrote the songs based on this conversation I had, was just uncouple links from having to be firm ‘riff-a-rama’ and barking out order. And if there was a melody, I would try and explore it. There are songs that are less melodic, and I tried but I couldn’t find a way to approach them in a way that would work. But I definitely pushed myself a bit, to try and do something a bit different. Luckily for us, because we’ve never released something that we haven’t been proud of, it’s become one of our favourite records, as it straddles the whole history of The Mark of Cain from 1988-89 to This is This. And I also think it’s more. We haven’t repeated ourselves – we’ve stretched ourselves a bit more, pushed ourselves across a line.
You posted an entry on The Mark of Cain site last year in relation to the breakdown of your relationship. To what extent does the new record capture your emotions around that time?
The music was written before then, but the fact is that when I was going in to do vocals and lyrics, that’s when it’s definitely linked with that. I was writing as things were occurring, and then pulling them out at the recording studio, so probably 50 or 60% reflects what I was trying to work out at that time.
Did music provide you with a cathartic outlet, to express how you were feeling?
I think when you play it live, yes, the act of going in each night was very hard – I found that very difficult to get home from work with everything that was going on, and then push myself. That was hard, but it was also a release as well. At the same time, maybe it was the one thing that kept me going. I’d push myself to go into town, work til midnight, then you had work the next day. We were trying to do it cheaply, so it was a case of trying to do it whenever we had time at night. Cathartic maybe in the end product, but maybe not in the making of it.
There’s a reasonable amount of The Mark of Cain catalogue that explores the position of the loner in society, something you’ve been interested in since reading Herman Hesse and Albert Camus many years ago. In these days of social media and rampant narcissism, what does that mean for this idea of the loner?
Yeah, what does it mean? I think there are still people who avoid Facebook and social media. I think if you’re born that way, you tend to stay that way – I don’t think social media is an aid to it in anyway. Communication is so much easier these days, so people can write down how they’re feeling. I think for a lot of people there’s a love-hate relationship with Facebook. I got a Facebook account only so I could abreast of what my friends were doing, so I’d know what gigs were happening. It’s something I can see is helpful, but at the same time I hate it. Some people base their life around it. Fucking Facebook – destroy it! [Laughs] This idea of being connected 24/7? Oh my god! Frightening!
The Mark of Cain has also been charged with having a militaristic, male aesthetic. Are you conscious of those charges, and do you care?
I don’t really care. It usually means that someone’s missed the point, that they’re going through a stage where they’re anti-military or they think we’re misogynist. But I know women who’ve totally agreed with stuff that I’ve written. Even one of our older songs, ‘I Sleep Better When I’m Alone’: most people say it’s great to cuddle, but fuck off! [Laughs] I think it’s something that, if it’s charged at us, it’s usually from people who aren’t particularly well informed about what they’re talking about. I always say that I don’t think I’d be a particularly good candidate for any military role – I can’t handle authority, I don’t like being told what to do. It runs a whole gamut of things – one, I appreciate anyone who, either volunteer or conscripted, had to deal with horrible, horrible shit in order to make our life – I’m talking World War I or World War II especially – better. At the same time I’ve appreciated the discipline involved, and I’ve liked with The Mark of Cain the discipline we got. On stage it’s the militarist act of going in and out – there’s no bullshit, bang, bang, bang, do it, gone.