Mark Fredson is an anomaly. Since he and friends Eric Whitman, Ben Eyestone and Johnny Whitman banded together to form rock group The Lonely H, their retro sound and devotion to the mechanics of the classic rock genre has set them apart from the glut of indie bands in the Seattle scene, marking them as the only known band in the area to be performing classic rock. Despite being in a class by themselves, Fredson- to say nothing of his band mates- are by no means lonely. They recently cut an album Concrete Class, which has sparked comparisons to Macon and Georgia’s Allman Brothers, as well as classic rock gods Bob Seeger and even a young Bruce Springsteen, and has hit the road, playing tour dates as far flung as The Red Barn in Willston, North Dakota and The Garage in Winston-Salem (play date: 7/15/09). I caught up with Fredson, discussing the making of Concrete Class, life on the road, and the Seattle scene.
John Winn: Where did the title Concrete Class come from?
Mark Fredson: I actually wrote a song called “Concrete Class Room” about being on the road and how it’s like a school and you learn from it, and we cut the “room” part out much later when we were thinking of an album title and we wanted it to be ambiguous, and also to include the initial idea about life on the road and new experiences, but also have this semi-uncharacteristically pompous air to it, because concrete class is our own version of classy…so, that’s, that’s the origin of the title.
JW: What was it like to work with manager Joe Reineke?
MF: Oh, it’s great. He’s, he’s been amazing for us. Ever since he signed on… We wouldn’t be a band without him. He’s been extraordinary, working hour after hour with us, getting us to shows… He really helps us get down to the studio and get recorded. We really wouldn’t where we are without his help and his guidance.
JW: How would you describe his approach? Is he more of a hands off or hands on kind of a guy?
MF: You know, he lets us for the most part–he’s confident in our musical ability and the songs, so his hands aren’t dug into the musical part of it so much, even though he is a musician himself, and when he recorded the album himself, he took the approach of being a hands-off producer. But as far as approaching his managerial duties, you could say he is also hands on in a way. But he’s not with us on the tour, he’s back in Seattle and he’s talking with promoters and helping us book shows. He’s on top of it either way.
JW: All of you hail from Washington State. How did you become interested in classic rock?
MF: You know, there aren’t too many radio stations in Port Angeles. There is the Canadian station, because we live really close to Canada- it’s right across the water 17 miles away- and then there is a Canadian rock station, which isn’t necessarily [unintelligible] to our views, and then there is a classic rock station and you know, something about [the classic rock format] stuck out to us really. There is more soul to it than the stuff we’ve been listening to at the time, these days. There are some exceptions… There is something about the conglomerate idea behind classic rock, and that sound is timeless. We didn’t sit down and say “We want to be a classic rock band,” but it’s inherent in the music we love, what we like to do with our lives and that lifestyle, you know going out and doing it, one fan at a time, that really attracted it to us. People tend to write songs that sound like what they like. It was really organic. Yes, there are classic rock pictures to all our songs. That’s really our passion.
JW: Was it difficult to get gigs originally?
MF: In the beginning, we’ve had more and more gigs since time went on, because it’s been easier because we have a body of work and we have a tour history that we could show to a promoter across the country. It sort of legitimizes our whole deal, and [the promoter] wants to book us, once he sees that we have albums out and we’re on a label. But in the beginning we were just another young band trying to make it. There are plenty of those out there, but we’ve never made a name for ourselves. We booked small shows regionally and originally, and the word got out around Washington. We played a Battle of the Bands in Seattle and we got second place in that, and that was a big deal, and that kind of opened a lot of doors for us, and after that, step by step… We started to get bigger shows and a bigger fan base. The logical next step is to start touring after the second album, when we got out of high school. We’ve been on five, six national tours now. We’re starting to get fans across the country. It’s still hard, but the shows are coming easier and sometimes people even come to us, to book some pretty big shows across the country. But we’re very lucky to have the opportunity to play for anybody who wants us.
JW: What is the longest distance you’ve had to travel to play a show?
MF: I’d say Tampa Bay, Florida is the furthest away from our home. But whenever we play shows, we go town to town. Usually like a five hour drive. But the one we did from, Memphis, Tennessee to Austin, Massachusetts in twenty four hours in pretty much one sitting, and we played a show once we got there. That was a long haul, I’ll tell you that.
JW: According to a review in The Houston Press, your music is “Mature and honed with finesse.” How much has your time on the road contributed to that?
MF: Could you repeat that last part?
JW: How much did your time touring contribute to that?
MF: It contributed a great amount. I mean, without being able to go out and hone your skills and hone your ability to perform, and really kind of perfect your time on stage and your pitch tempo and rhythm and everything… Without that opportunity we’d never be as good as the band we are now or as inspired a band. Yeah, uh, the road is one of the big aspects of making sure we’re a legitimate band, you know?
JW: Do you sometimes regret spending all that time touring?
MF: Well, not at all. Well, sometimes we get a little homesick and a little tired, but that comes with the territory. And uh, at the end of the day we’re doing what we love, and if weren’t tired or a little bit angry or frustrated sometimes, that would make the times when we’re content and happy, that’d make the good shows less sweet, because you got to have a balance. But, no regrets at all. This is pretty much our passion and what we’re meant to do for the time being. So no regrets.
JW: You’ve played Seattle many times over the years. How has the music scene changed? How is it the same?
MF: You know, we’ve played Seattle numerous times. It’s our musical home base, definitely. It’s always been indie focused, but the indie sound has sort of expanded, along with this country, roots-y sound to it. Bands like the Fleet Foxes and [unintelligible], that’s really kind of the focus of everyone’s attention…There’s another band called the K Singers, with their trick harmonies and reverbs- some very warm sounds going on. The Sub Pop label pretty much puts their seal of approval on all that stuff, pretty much. They have a pretty good ear for what’s popular and what will sell and what’s going to be “hip” at the time. We don’t fit in that scene, pretty much. But we still do well in our own corner of things. As far as the whole scene in Seattle goes, it’s a whole country Americana indie rock layer of things. It’s totally cool. We have nothing against that. It seems to have done well.
JW: Has it [the Seattle scene] become more commercialized in recent years?
MF: Can you repeat that?
JW: Has it become more commercialized—has the music in Seattle become more commercialized versus fifteen years ago?
MF: Well, if you’re talking commercialization in the Seattle scene, back fifteen years ago, with Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Mud Honey, that was all major label stuff towards the end there. That’s what defines the Seattle sound. That was the main thing to do nationwide. But these days, in the past ten years Seattle has always been proud of the indie cred of the scene there and the non-commercial status of things there. So I guess you could say the commercialization has gone down.
JW: What lessons have you learned as a result of touring and making records?
MF: Let’s see… You learn how to identify with people and different personalities and how to shoot the breeze with people, and how to be very tactic in our scoring of places to stay. We always have a passive-aggressive way of going about it, but we always got a place to stay. And we learn to just be a better band and if you want to make you have to be on top of it every night, because consistency is key.
JW: If you had to do it all over again are there some things you would do differently?
MF: [Sigh]. That’s a good question. I haven’t thought about that, but I can say… I think we all agree that we’re pretty content around here. The album we’ve made, we’re really proud of. We’ve been growing every step of the way. The new record…there’s not a song on it that we’re not proud of or that didn’t receive the attention it deserved. And now we’re out here playing shows to whoever wants to hear it and growing a fan base, and that’s the only way we know how to go about it. And I can’t imagine doing it another way, and if I had an opportunity to do it another way, I’d choose to do it the way we’re doing it now.
JW: Where do you see yourself in five years?
MF: Five years… Let’s see, we’re releasing our sixth record, and pretty much hitting the road again. Hopefully some international dates in Europe and somewhere other than the US… But the United States has been good to us… Hopefully we’ll continue to develop as a band musically and pretty much doing the same thing we’re doing now.
JW: Do you see the band becoming commercial during that time?
MF: You know we’ve liked the indie label on the last three albums and there isn’t a classic rock revival scene in the major labels. It’s not a big thing going on now; there aren’t very many bands on TV that are selling that kind of sound. I’m not saying major labels are the devil or anything. I think of right now… There isn’t that big of a market. It’s not set in stone. Something’s got to sell. We’ll always get these things the way we want done. That’s the only way we know how to do it, having our creativity, and, having what we want musically, ourselves. I mean doing that, the way we want done. So even if we signed on a major label, it would hopefully be under a contract in which we weren’t told what to write and how to dress. If someone wants to mess with us, we don’t want to mess with them.
JW: Final question: What are your plans now that you have completed the album?
MF: Just tour, get as many dates behind us as we can, hope on a package tour and get a bigger draw. And pretty much, show, show, show. That’s pretty much the only way we know how to go about it, just tour, tour, tour. And hit the road again.
JW: Do you have any plans to be a headliner at some point?
JW: A headliner?
MF: Oh, not anytime soon. We’re really content with a fifteen passenger van. It treats us—well, I don’t want to leave that behind. With a jet liner, there’s always the risk of it crashing.
JW: [laughs]: Yeah, yeah.
MF: And with the dates we’re doing, you know, a jet liner is… There’s five hours between every city, which is more than easy to get to with a van.
JW: Thanks for talking with us, Mark.
MF: Thanks for having me.
–Interview by John Winn