The Miners’ Keith Marlowe Talks “Megunticook,” Learning Pedal Steel, and Vinyl Love. Photo by Lisa Schaffer Photography
Philadelphia-based alt-country and Americana band The Miners have released an album long in the making, Megunticook, which takes in a span of a number of years of songwriting for band leader Keith Marlowe. Their first release in 2012, the EP Miner’s Rebellion, set the tone for their future work, but Marlowe’s songwriting was only just getting started and Megunticook brings out some very personal storytelling and commentary, tracking universal human experiences, but grounding them in specific experiences drawn from Marlowe’s life.
The Miners’ single “Without You” debuted on Americana Highways and illustrated this trajectory for the album, taking an experience from Marlowe’s life, his wife’s battle with cancer, and expanding on it to encompass feelings of separation, uncertainty, and connection that just about any audience could find relevant. We spoke with Keith Marlowe about the genesis of the new songs, his own journey into learning how to play and write for the pedal steel, and the joys of collecting vinyl.
Americana Highways: I know you have an album release show coming up, but I also know that a lot of the song on the new album go back in time for you. Have you played all of these live at some point yet?
Keith Marlowe: Yes, almost every song that is on the album have been played live. There are a couple where the type of song means that the instrumentation is something that we don’t typically play live. But I used to do solo or duo acoustic shows, and if you count that, every song has been played live. I think the oldest song on this album may go back to 2008. These are really songs that we’ve played but I never recorded and put out.
Then, when we got into the process of deciding to record and put out an album, I wanted to make sure there was a group of songs that we could focus on getting out there before writing new songs. My fear was that I was going to start writing a new batch of songs, and then I’d confuse myself, and wonder if I should put them on the new album. I cut it off! Other than “Day The Drummer Died” and “Cardboard Sign,” those songs are regulars in our sets.
AH: When you’ve written something new, when do you bite bullet and play it live? Does that make you nervous to do, or is it more natural to you?
KM: It’s not a nervous thing. The band doesn’t play live that often, but we also don’t rehearse a lot. Early on, when I’d try to bring in song ideas and develop them, we’d never have enough time to work on them, and they’d never get completed. So I changed things up and wrote songs on my own, recorded demos at my home studio, and then would send that to everyone as something we’d work on. Then we’d rehearse it and debut it live. I was in a band in the late 80s and early 90s, and I’ve never been afraid to put a song out there as quickly as possible. If we like it and it sounds good, we throw it out there to see if it works. We’re looking for a reaction to it. But to be honest, I write for myself more than I write for an audience. If I like it, that’s fine.
AH: I think it can be about energy, too. If you like it, and you bring that energy to it, people are much more likely to respond to that, and be positive also, right?
KM: Yes, definitely. I remember the first time we played “Without You” was pretty rocky, but we winged it, and it developed, and it ended up being the first song we put out as a single.
AH: Did the song change based on all the playing before recording it?
KM: Yes. It’s interesting that you ask that because I went back and listened to the demo before releasing the single. I realized, “This is really different.” It wasn’t different structure, but it’s now an acoustic song that kind of starts slow and builds in, then eventually gets to full instrumentation and drums.
When I recorded it, it was all electric guitar and started full on, going all the way through with the same instrumentation from start to finish. There were a lot more electric licks, so it definitely changed a lot in terms of the feel of it. The other thing is that it was recorded a step below, key-wise. When I started to play it with the band, I realized that it was a little low and didn’t project enough.
AH: Something that I find interesting about the way the album works is that I know it is drawn from your life, and has autobiographical aspects to it, but it seems like it’s been made as universal as possible in terms of the phrasing. Was that something you thought about it or did it just turn out that way?
KM: When I write, I’m a music-first person, generally. The Miners is the first band I’ve ever fronted, and I wasn’t the original front person for the band. In my old band, Tornado 5, which was an alternative rock band, I was the guitar player and I wrote all the music. The vocalist wrote all the lyrics and had a vocal line for the music. So I’ve always been music-first. Usually I think what I’m going to write about as a topic, and then mold the lyrics around that. I try to write lyrics that I think are good and I appreciate great lyrics, but I’ve also heard terrible lyrics.
I’m a big consumer of music, and I always have been. I’ve always tried to find things that most people don’t listen to. So I think those types of people aren’t trying to write hits, they are just trying to write good music.
AH: They write in a less commercially-minded way?
KM: Right, and that’s how I do it. I write something where I can think, “I like this song. I’d listen to it.” If it came up on my Spotify list, I’d check it out. That’s my goal. The hope is that other people might like it after that, but I don’t write lyrics wondering if they’ll be loved. I wrote “Without You” because I was dealing with my wife’s diagnosis, and I needed a way to deal with it, though my wife loves the song.
AH: With that song, I feel like there’s enough ambiguity in there, that it could be about many things. It could be about a bad fight with someone, or it could even be a breakup song. The emotion is the main thing, isn’t it?
KM: Yes, it could be about someone who died and there are a lot of possible interpretations. I didn’t think about that so much, but there’s only one line in there about getting sick. Something I also noted is that this wasn’t written about Covid-19. I’m hoping that people don’t think I came up with this as a Covid song.
AH: It just works in a lot of ways. Also, similarly, the song, “Apologize,” has a lot of detail in it, but could be about many things. I actually really like the level of detail in it since I don’t often hear a song that gives a male perspective on struggling with conflict like that. We don’t often hear a voice talking about really trying to struggle against their temper, against the conflict.
KM: That’s one I remember playing and having a friend say, “I love that song.” I wrote it because of an incident that happened. Ultimately, I didn’t realize at the time that my son was having problems with ADHD and it was causing him to have outbreaks. That was causing me to react in ways that I shouldn’t have been reacting. I was dealing with that and wrote the song as a way to say, “I get it. I understand that I’m not doing the right thing here.” That song, in terms of the way it’s written, is nothing like the other songs on the album, though.
AH: Since you are music-first, does the sound of the music ever suggest the subject matter of the lyrics to you? I notice that on “Walnut Lane,” the subject is the 1970s, and the sound also has more of an older feel. The sound and the setting seem to go together.
KM: When I say, “music first,” I tend to come up with musical ideas, whether it’s a lick or a chord-structure. Then I start to think about some words or ideas. Then I adapt the phrasing to whatever I come up with musically. In that case, the idea of “Walnut Lane” was about buying weed in high school. But I often know the vocal melody before the words. Usually I’m writing with too many words, later, and paring them down. I’m doing a lot of editing. Once you’re singing it, too, that may have more impact on editing. You may have to change the diction of a word or how it’s phrased. I wasn’t a singer before, so I learned more about that through taking vocal lessons about what makes sense.
AH: Are there other things that you’ve taught yourself or learned as part of the evolution of the band?
KM: I probably spend some time doing something with music four to five days a week. I play pedal steel guitar, and there’s one track where I play pedal steel on the album. I’m not that good. The reason that I decided to learn pedal steel is that I always kind of wanted to learn. Because I loved the sound of the instrument and was intrigued by it. We had a pedal steel player, and then he left, and I was searching for a new one.
We had someone in who played lap steel, but he owned a pedal steel, and lived kind of far away. So I bought a pedal steel and kept it at my house, hoping he’d play. I kind of wanted to learn, because at minimum, it would help me communicate with my pedal steel player. It turned out that he left, then I was out there searching for a pedal steel player again. I started learning, taking some lessons online and that kind of thing. When I started auditioning pedal steel players again, I could actually hear the difference between a good player and a not-so-good player.
Obviously, I’d like to get to the level where I can play with the band, but I did end up recording one track for the album. On “The Day The Drummer Died,” I played pedal steel on that. I took a stab at it, and I sent it to my pedal steel player and my pedal steel teacher, asking, “What do you think of it?” I wanted them to tell me if it wasn’t any good, but they liked it.
AH: Is this your pedal steel debut on an album?
KM: Yes, it is. I’ve never recorded anything pedal steel on an album. If someone needed a pedal steel player, I might try it, though I’m only a high beginner or low intermediate at this point. The hardest part for me about pedal steel is that I’ve never been a deep musical theory person, and you have to have a decent grasp of theory to play. It’s also a very improvisational instrument, and I’ve never really been a jam person. I’ve always been more of a writer. Even for guitar, I write parts. I’m not an “on the fly” type of person, so that’s been the biggest hurdle for me. I have to learn to improvise rather than going to the safe one or two licks that I know. But there are classical players and there are jazz players and they think very differently.
AH: I noticed that somebody in The Miners likes records and vinyl. Is that you?
KM: Yes, there are a couple of people, but I’m a big vinyl consumer. I will listen in other ways when I’m in my car or out walking, but when I’m home, I listen to vinyl. And I don’t stream, so it’s vinyl 95% of the time. I probably buy vinyl records way more than I should. I’m constantly going to record stores. So putting Megunticook out on vinyl was something that I wanted to do. I think there’s something special about it. I don’t usually get the digital versions of albums. If I want it, I get it on vinyl. Though I probably buy more used vinyl than new vinyl. If we travel somewhere, the first thing I do is see what the best records store in the area are.
AH: With traveling, especially with used vinyl, you never know what you’re going to find. It’ll be different each place you go, I find.
KM: Depending on the store, you can find cheap vinyl. I look for a lot of old country stuff as the first thing I go for, and you can find gems for nothing. A lot of these stores have a little country section. You comb through bins and I’ll see something for a dollar.
AH: That gets me to try stuff and be more educated. If I haven’t heard it before, I’ll try it for a dollar.
KM: Exactly, and both my kids are into vinyl. They are 23 and 20 and they love going to record stores. I actually never got rid of my vinyl. I always held onto it, and I always had a turntable. For awhile, I was mostly buying CDs, but I started to really get into reading about stuff and going onto forums about music. I was surprised that people were saying that vinyl sounded really good, but I bought a decent turntable and then I had to agree, it did sound good.
Back when vinyl wasn’t that popular at all, people would find out that I was into vinyl, and friends would give me boxes full of their old vinyl. I’m sure that wouldn’t happen now, because now that vinyl is popular, and everyone thinks it’s worth a lot!
Find more on the Miners here: https://www.minersmusic.com
The Miners The Miners The Miners The Miners The Miners The Miners