“Why aren’t you guys huge?” Dave Bielanko of the Philadelphia-based rock band Marah gets that a lot. He never knows quite how to answer, and I don’t blame him.
In the etiolated climate of the rock press and music-buff bloggers, explanations for why so-and-so-who’s-way-better-than-what’s-on-the-radio isn’t a rock star range from “The music industry is run by philistines” to “People don’t know good music from their elbow.”
Oh, but when those attitudes prove false — hey, is that Modest Mouse in regular MTV rotation? — the hipsters are just as quick to cry “sellout” or “showbiz whore.” They like their Liz Phair poor, indie and hungry, thank you very much.
Who’d want to navigate that minefield?
Mr. Bielanko, the band’s singer-guitarist, doesn’t play coy about how highly he thinks of Marah, which headlines tonight at Arlington’s Iota Club & Cafe. “I honestly think we’re one of the best American rock ‘n’ roll bands right now,” he says on the phone from his Brooklyn home.
But he also says, believably, that he’s wary of fame and overexposure. “I fear genuinely for a lot of the bands that are doing well,” he says. “If things happen fast for you, there’s no connection between the artist and fans.”
Four albums and hundreds of gigs into a six-year professional career, there’s no need to worry about the pitfalls of overnight success. Things haven’t happened fast for the Bielankos, who grew up in Conshohocken, Pa., a suburb connected by the Schuylkill River (pronounced SKOO-kill) to downtown Philadelphia, the band’s creative and business nucleus, if no longer its home.
Mr. Bielanko, 30, and older brother Serge Bielanko, 32, also a singer-guitarist in the band, lived primarily with their mother but developed an early taste for pop music from their father, a native Frenchman who played drums in a psychedelic rock band called the Troglodytes.
They heard Bruce Springsteen a lot on Philly radio stations such as WMMR and thought classic rock was OK, but they were more into pure punk bands such as the Ramones and the Replacements. Later, Dave Bielanko says, he “re-inspected Bruce and found him to be very punk rock and very street.”
By now, Marah’s sound warehouses just about every corner of American popular music, including doo-wop, Brill Building girl groups, country and soul. “We’re an unusual case scenario,” Mr. Bielanko says. “God knows what’s going to happen to us.”
Stop right there if you’re thinking Marah is one of those self-satisfied, relentlessly eclectic bands that doesn’t sell records, isn’t truly interested in selling records and rationalizes its plight by saying it’s better off not being rich and famous.
“I’m not a music elitist at all, and I hate it when rock journalists get like that,” Mr. Bielanko says. Frankly, he’d love it if Marah’s songs were heard on the radio. But radio stations aren’t calling, and Marah still plays small clubs and struggles financially.
Marah is the perfect example of the wide gulf that’s separating rock critics and their readers from casual music consumers — and why that gulf is bad for rock music.
Unlike the movie industry, where there’s a decent amount of overlap in art and commerce — major studios have embraced independent movies to the point that they’re producing indie-style movies of their own through boutique subsidiaries — there’s outright hostility between the increasingly insular word of indie rock and the wider mainstream.
I see a damaging, self-fulfilling symbiosis there. (Check out the down-and-out portrayal of the band Brian Jonestown Massacre in the forthcoming documentary “DIG!” to see what I mean.) Others blame radio-industry consolidation and the supposedly monopolistic Clear Channel.
You may disagree, but I think all the moaning about the doldrums of radio — at a time when exposure of new music on the Internet and in specialty magazines is almost bewilderingly profuse — is ridiculous: It usually comes from folks who jealously guard CDs they outwardly wish were more popular but inwardly congratulate themselves for discovering.
Where does this all leave Marah, a band that’s neither hostile to nor particularly solicitous of the mainstream?
First, the band thrives in the one area that used to be critical for mainstream success — media attention. The band has gotten more press in the past year than some acts get their entire careers. The novelist Nick Hornby wrote a loving tribute to Marah from no less a perch than the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. (“I can hear everything that I ever loved about rock music in their recordings and in their live shows,” he said.)
Marah also has influential fans in the music business. Nashville roots rocker Steve Earle brought the band into his Artemis Records stable, from which Marah released 2000’s “Kids in Philly” and 2002’s “Float Away With the Friday Night Gods.” (The band released its latest, the superb “20,000 Streets Under the Sky,” independently.) And Mr. Springsteen invited the Bielanko brothers to sing the old Eddie Floyd hit “Raise Your Hand” along with the E Street Band in front of 55,000 fans at Giants Stadium last summer.
The band also has garnered a reputation as a stellar live act. “Our job is to rock the club, and you can never lose touch with that, in a primal blues kind of way,” Mr. Bielanko says. “It’s about having a hootenanny.”
In the end, though, it’s left to us, the fans, to elevate a band from obscurity. But we need an attitude check. Instead of the kind of the snobbery and accusations of commercial betrayal that greeted Marah’s “Friday Night Gods” album, we need to give artists space to, well, make a living — at the very least, to pitch beyond the horizons of niche-driven indie rock.
Mr. Hornby, in his New York Times column in May, was onto something when he observed that OutKast’s gigantic hit “Hey Ya!” last year “united races and critics and teenagers and nostalgic geezers.” What “Hey Ya!” had, and what’s missing amid all the smirks and poses of serious new rock music, Mr. Hornby wrote, is “ambition and exuberance.”
Marah’s got plenty of that, and tonight might be the last chance to see it for a while. Mr. Bielanko says Marah is writing a new album planned for springtime release. “We need to make something called a masterpiece,” he says, “and then disappear for a while.”