What the folk? Marc Maron, podcast king, has taken on a new role: record curator. For Record Store Day on April 13, he’s putting out “In The Garage: Live Music from WTF with Marc Maron — Vol. 1,” a limited edition LP that includes performances by Jason Isbell, Aimee Mann, Nick Lowe, Margo Price, Eels, Melissa Etheridge, Karen Kilgariff, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, Dave Alvin and J Mascis, all rendering solo acoustic versions of what is literally garage-rock.
“We knew we were amassing an amazing bunch of recordings with these artists,” Maron told Variety in an interview, “and we always wondered if there was something we could do with it, and how would that happen?” Navigating the rights for an all-music podcast or album seemed difficult, until the idea of a philanthropic LP came up, with Newbury Comics in his native Boston partnering with a charity, Musicians on Call, and Record Store Day itself (which is putting out the 2000-copy “Live Music from WTF” on its own in-house label). “We were like, this is perfect. It goes to a great charity, and if they can navigate the publishing rights in getting these songs released, it would be easy for us. It was a good opportunity to finally do something with we had thought about for a long time.” (A track list and other information on the album can be found here.)
There’s one track on the album that isn’t strictly “solo” acoustic — that’s ex-Blaster Dave Alvin’s “Help You Dream,” on which Maron strums along. “He initially wanted me to sing, but I’m not that confident a singer, so he just let me play, and I think we did all right,” said Maron. “It’s a nice piece on the record because there’s a conversation leading into it about me not wanting to sing, and then he forgot the lyrics to the last verse, so I had to pull ‘em up on the computer while we’re both still playing so I could cue him. That one sort of encapsulates everything we do on the podcast, in a musical piece.”
All of the songs were recorded for the podcast in Maron’s garage, as advertised, with one exception. “The Jason Isbell one is different because that was done at 1 in the morning in a hotel room in Minnesota,” with the host holding up a mic to his guitar for the entire performance of “Elephant.” One thing that and all the other songs on the album do have in common is that the artists and Maron were the only ones in the room. “Generally I am literally three to four feet away from them across the table, and I try not to look at them while they’re performing, just because I don’t want them to get distracted or feel like it’s too intimate. Not that they would; maybe I’m doing it more out of my own nervousness.”
He was “nervous” that the album wouldn’t hold together. “I imagine if you took all the artists on that record and put their produced songs on there together, it would not fit as well. But these are weird, singular performances by a very eclectic group of artists that for some reason, when you listen to the record, it all sort of seamlessly fits together. One basic reason for that is that they took place in the same place, and I’m a very limited engineer.” He’ll even go so far as to say, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I record voice mostly, and when I started recording these musicians, I really didn’t know what I was doing. So I used the same mic that I use to record people talking, and I had another mic that I would set up and stick it in front of the guitar that they were playing, and then I would sit there as they perform their music and just sort of ride the fader, just sort of trying to match the levels on one track on Garage Band and make sure they don’t peak out. So the recordings are very clean, raw, immediate and unique — and the thing that they all share is my limited ability to record music.”
Is he a vinyl junkie? “I always think I’m not as into it as I am, but somebody asked me if I had bought any records recently, and I just flipped through 12 records I bought in the last week, so it’s pretty clear that I’m still in it,” said Maron. “So, yeah, I’m definitely in a vinyl vortex at this point in my life.” As for Record Store Day, he’s interested, but definitely not a line-joiner. “A lot of times I go to get the Record Store Day records a couple days after just because I don’t want to deal with it. And that means that I miss out on some stuff. ButI still don’t see myself as a collector; I’m not going to have a bunch of sealed records as collectors’ items. I need stuff that I can play and enjoy and not worry about, and also, I like to, if I can, get the original version.”
His “WTF” podcast has become a remarkable library of conversation with some of music’s all-time greats as well as those with cult followings. For somebody who’s had Paul McCartney, Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen into his garage — reflecting his ability to also get sitting presidents to stop by — he doesn’t have a lot of major wants left. “You know, after a thousand episodes almost, you kind of run out of ‘Who’s your wish list?’,” he admits. Many artists perform, but there’s no obligation. “Some people don’t want to maybe take the risk that they’re gonna play in a guy’s garage and it might not sound great,” he says, although in the future, he might use this new LP as evidence that it does.
Go into hardcore music fan forums, and you’ll see a lot of comments on the interviews Maron does that include variations on two comments: (1) “I can’t believe he’s never heard of [fill in the blank with a certain song or album]!” (2) “That’s the most revealing interview I’ve ever heard with [fill in the fan’s hero].”
“I’m glad they like it,” Maron laughs, “and I’m glad that I can, even if it may be begrudging on their part, make the superfans feel like, ‘You know, I never heard him talk like that before.’ Sometimes what the megafans really want is to listen to an interview and be able to say, ‘Yeah, I knew all that’ — and if they get one new thing that they didn’t know, then they’re excited. But my angle is, if I can, to stay away from the music, and the pitfalls of just conveying information, to have a genuine conversation. So even if I don’t know a record or don’t have the proper context or respect that the megafan thinks that I should, they’re going to come out with a sense of that artist that they didn’t have before, because we weren’t just sharing information.”
A high point isn’t hard to pick out for him. “For my entire conscious life, my relationship with the Stones’ music and my idea of Keith Richards has guided me in a lot of ways — for better or for worse. That experience of meeting him and being able to talk to him was just overwhelming, and you can certainly hear that in that interview. And also just certain icons, like Springsteen — I love Springsteen, but I’m not a crazy fan. I tell you one thing, it does help the conversation, honestly, to not be a crazy fan, but to have crazy respect for somebody. There’s been a lot. Lucinda Williams was mind blowing to me. Roger Waters — I listened to Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’ so many times at different points in my life, so maybe even if that interview was a little kind of intense… These people become human very quickly. And I’m not afraid to talk about myself with them in order to get them to the same place. Sometimes superfans or people in general think that I talk about myself too much or interrupt too much, but really that’s what conversation is.”
As a comic, Maron may have a better recognition than most interviewers of musicians with innate wit. Has anyone surprised him?
“Listen to that Paul McCartney interview, dude. There’s a beat in there that I thought was like the best. I really thought I had a good question. I say, ‘Look, I talk to a lot of musicians of your generation, and many of them really think that they’re doing their best work now. What about you?’ And he said, ‘I was in the Beatles!’” Maron cracks up at the memory. “I thought that was f—ing genius. The self-awareness of it was beautiful.”