words: Jack Tractor
pics: Chris Saunders
Mark Stoney is a talented geezer. Great songs and charm to match. The only problem is what happens when you fall into the machinery of the music industry.
God Only Knows is, I think, just about perfect. Those beautiful high harmonies, that sentiment, combine to send the hairs prickling on the back of my neck. It's also a classic; it's got that patina of age and respectability. Which is sort of funny, if you think about it. The Beach Boys, in their day, were an harassed and pressurized pop group with Brian Wilson charged with the Herculean task of firing out two or three albums a year as well as perpetually touring. Even so, in the centre of a commercial maelstrom, Wilson, along with The Beatles, laid a benchmark for commercial pop music which was as life affirming, interesting and as joyous, if not more so than any of the 'higher' art forms.
I can't really be arsed to get into the whole debate of what pop music actually is. Let's just use, for the sake of this article that it is music which appeals to wide section of society and, usually, the younger half. All I'll do is suggest that there is good pop, mediocre pop and piss poor pop (and which category a song falls in is rarely dictated by volume of record sales. Most pop is fed through the industry blender. As are the people who make that pop.
Currently the nape of my neck is getting tickled by the chorus of a song called 'Jailbird', a song written by Mark Stoney. There are others he has written which also have a similar effect.
Not that I'm lumping Stoney (as his band is now known) in with Wilson, but when you catch something that tickles you that well, it doesn't matter whether it's the produce of an accepted old, mad genius from California or a youngish small bloke from Croydon with badly knackered trousers.
I last interviewed Stoney back in March 2003. A brief look at the Sandman from that time reveals some oddly repeating moments of seeming stasis. Richard Hawley had just released an album and we reviewed his homecoming gig, Milburn were showing signs of promise down at The Boardwalk, Ladytron were due in town and Mew had just played the Leadmill.
The musical landscape was different however. Very little was getting released in the way of singles or albums from the City and only Pink Grease, Hoggboy and Hawley were much attracting attention outside of the city.
Stoney had washed up in the city at the beginning of the Millenium and had disappeared into his basement and recorded an entire album, 'Amber,' mostly by himself. As now the songs were full of great chiming harmonies, Stoney's got a great high voice, great lyrics and lots and lots of interlocking layers of sound. Proof that restraints with equipment doesn't mean a home recording has to sound as if it comes from within a cardboard box.
"The way I write is I get a riff or a vocal melody and I build it up until I have this massive backing track already and the possibility to experiment or try silly ideas then there are the lyrics, then I present it to the band. With Amber, because it was very limited, a guitar and bass and one microphone, and I had lots of time to piss about and experiment and do whatever the hell I wanted. It wasn't like I was in a studio and was making a snapshot of the time and playing it safe. It's an unusual way to do it. I know Tom Vek works in the same way and I'd imagine Jody Wildgoose does the same too. I write as I record, the writing process is making the records basically."
The songs on it were great and the buzz was starting within the industry. Everything suddenly happened very fast. He got a band together with his mates and played a couple of packed out gigs at the old Barfly. There was management in place and when we caught up with him the future was looking rosy as it appeared a major deal with Island was very much in the offing.
Then as now he was a chirpy sort of a fella, a good looking lad with a bit of charm and a lot of talent. Things haven't panned out quite as planned however and long periods of frustration have left him a little world wearier although certainly not defeated.
As it stands he has an album of brilliant pop songs ready to go as soon as he's happy with the recordings and, as he's found, when people get to hear those songs they like them. A lot.
So what's happened between then and now?
"In March 2003 it was almost inevitable that we were going to sign with Island. We'd gone down to London to record some demos with [Jonathan] Quarmby and [Kevin] Bacon and the sessions went really well. We agreed rough terms with the label and we started rehearsing."
So far, so good. But….
"It was about to go to the lawyers then they kind of went back on themselves a bit and they gave us a six month period and some money to cover it then the full five album deal would magically appear so I was locked into it."
"I quit my job at Record Collector but it wasn't until October that the money came through so I'd built up a lot of debt. October came, and the first payment, and we became Stoney Lacuna. Since the start of the year a lot of the focus had been on the band stuff and the sound became a lot bigger. One of the problems I've always had with labels and marketing guys is that they don't really know what to do with me. It's very eclectic what I do, which I guess, is the beauty and the bastard of it. So we changed the name so it sounded more like a band."
"Then at the beginning of 2004 it suddenly went very quiet. It was kind of confusing because we felt we'd kind of ticked every box they wanted us to tick. So you've built up a lot of debt and you're feeling exasperated and you get in a position where you feel it's hard not to compromise. I started to write knowing I had the backing of a full band and by this point we had agents and record pluggers on board so, rightly or wrongly, you start to write for this potential audience who might want to listen to what you do. You want something that is true and has integrity to you but also something that people will like."
When the end of the six month’s were up the big deal wasn’t offered.
“I was getting a little bit worried. At that time we lost our house. Our landlord sold up and we didn’t have anywhere new to move into. We put all our stuff in a mate’s basement. I thought I’d done it, all my problems were over but in six month’s we’d gone from sitting in the head of Island’s office being told ‘you’re the greatest songwriter that’s ever lived' and being picked up in tinted windowed landrovers just to drive around the corner to ‘I don’t have anywhere to live, I don’t have any money and I don’t have a record contract!’ FUCK!”
He’s laughing when he recounts this. "In the end it was a relief. Although we'd only been contracted for six months we'd been involved for a year and a half with a label with who we never got anything released. Just going round and round in circles."
Stoney Lacuna fell apart later that year, playing their last gig at Grapesfest leaving Mark as a solo artist again. He got a 6Music session and from passing round demos got new management.
Now he's out the other side and things are looking rosier again.
There’s a new band who Mark seems pretty happy with. He's also formed a production team with Sam Jones from his band (they did the first Bromhead's Jacket single). Earlier in the year he was the iTunes featured download of the week prompting 17,000 people to sample his wares in one week. The songs are still brilliant and he's been in with Alan Smyth in an effort to rough some of them up.
"I feel incredibly constipated. My focus this year has been to get the album finished. All the songs are there. Some of them need to come out of the bedroom a bit, some of them have been a bit overworked and need to go back to ground zero. I need to cut the umbilical cord and say 'Alan, fuck it up a bit, please.'”
“If it’s the last thing I ever do I really want to get this album out."
The last time I saw Mark between the interview and finishing this piece was at a fresher’s gig night at Ranmoor Student's Hall of Residence. He was signing posters for excited newcomers to the city who'd just been blown away by his band's set. He looked slightly bemused but appeared to be enjoying the novel experience. It suited him.