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Defining Marmoset, a band out of time


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Joyful Noise's Marmoset box set
  • Joyful Noise's Marmoset box
In their straining attempts to classify local rock band Marmoset, critics (myself included) seem unanimous in locating its analog well before the contemporary era. It’s as if the band's work were the record of some fraught, paradisiacal moment in the late-‘60s when Mersey-beat was brimming over the edges of its pop structures and spilling into psychedelia. If only meaningful or accurate in a very limited way, the most precise summation of Marmoset’s idiosyncratic style that I’ve been able to find (in The Decibel Tolls) speaks of “the deadpan, sarcastic haunting vocals of Jorma Whittaker, their trademark utilization of sonic space, and the concise Syd Barrett meets Robert Pollard song structures (with a touch of Skip Spence's creepiness).”

Marmoset will play Radio Radio Saturday, Sept. 10, to promote the release of a new boxed set on Joyful Noise. Containing their four LPs — Today It’s You, Record in Red, Florist Fired and Tea Tornado — the set contains the core of sixteen years of releases, manifold projects, blood, sweat, tears, etc.

While new songs from their upcoming Sour Notebook are as exciting as anything that they’ve ever released — if anything, darker and more muscular than the songs on Tea Tornado — there’s a sense in which the set can be seen as a retrospective on their career.

There are rumors that the band may play Record in Red in its entirety Saturday. The album seems
hardly to have aged at all, though perhaps this has to do with the fact that it never sounded very timely in the first place. It was, upon its release in 2001, rather droopily compared to the Velvet Underground; Pitchfork described it a few years later as a “13-song, 33-minute exercise in Anglophilic indie." That's an unsatisfying description, but there is something of a Proustian paradox — that is, that the intensity of nostalgia can exceed the intensity of feeling actually experienced in the moment recalled — embedded in the dislocated and timelessly ‘Anglophilic’ quality of Marmoset’s sound. Surely some of this archaism comes from lead-singer Jorma Whittaker’s abiding obsession with the Beatles.

In my first interview with Whittaker, conducted this spring, he disclosed to me that he was reading Mark Lewison’s The Beatles Recording Sessions for the third time in 15 years. “It’s very precise,” he said. “It’s a detailed account of their entire recording career at EMI/Abbey Road.”

One of my personal favorite Marmoset songs is their cover (on the Mishawaka EP) of an early Lennon and McCartney song, ‘I’m In Love,’ written to be performed by The Fourmost.

“The Beatles are the only band where I can get behind every song they ever made. Even ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,’” Whittaker said. “If you listen to the early recordings of that song before they ruined it when they put it on the album, you’ll be like: ‘Hey. That’s a pretty catchy tune.’”

Whittaker’s appreciation of obscure Beatles outtakes is co-extensive with the part of his personality that has motivated him to be Marmoset’s archivalist. Marmoset drummer Jason Cavan told me that the ten songs that appeared on Marmoset’s first EP, HiddenForbidden, were harvested from “250 or 300 songs [recorded] on four track,“ that they’d written in their first year playing together. Whittaker corroborated this, and insinuated that it might have been more than three hundred. He’s in a position to know, having detailed archives of the band’s practices and shows dating back over the past decade and change.

This archival compulsion has come in handy before. Most of the songs on 2007’s Florist Fired, for example, actually date back to 2003.

“[When I was in New York in 2003] I missed my band, and I missed the kind of easier life,” Whittaker told me.“There were days when I went without food. I moved four times in my first year. Carrying all my shit across town on the subway on Halloween or something…By the time I got back to Indy, the three of us started working, and recorded about thirty songs in a week. Some of them on the spot. Some of them were Dave’s. Jason wrote ‘Das Boot.’ That’s the last time we recorded so much in so little time.”

Whittaker explained that some of the songs that they recorded that week made it on to Tea Tornado seven years later.

The first two records coalesced out of a pool of hundreds of songs. Record in Red was originally been part of a massive, 25-song cycle. Florist Fired came from an eruption of thirty songs recorded in a week and then pared down and sequenced and re-sequenced over the course of the following three years.

“A lot of times they were really more in love with the process of making a record and they just wanted to continue it,” music archivist and Marmoset collaborator Jeb Banner told me. “I think just as much time may have been spent selecting songs and sequencing songs as was spent recording and mixing them. I mean, I can almost guarantee that.”


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