Mark Seliger is used to photographing iconic rock stars for publications like Vanity Fair, Time, and Rolling Stone. But with his alt-country outfit Rusty Truck, he flips the tables, and makes a pretty convincing rock star in his own right. Kicker Town, the band’s excellent second album, was released earlier this year. Seliger spoke with us about receiving encouragement from The Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan, the musicians who inspire him, and his unusual path to a music career.
How would you describe Kicker Town?
It’s eleven short little country songs. There’s a nice ebb and flow of everything from honky tonk sounding things to good old melancholy love songs, so there’s a little rise and fall. When we recorded the record at the Village in Los Angeles, we did it we in seven days, which is the shortest period time I could ever imagine recording a record. I took about a year kind of rewriting some of the songs, some of the verses, and then re-singing some of the words, and then mixing. And then we were working on this visual companion piece that we’re doing that’s a chapter per song, that takes you through this visual journey so that you can get the soul behind the body. So it’s a whole kind of theater of music. With this album, it was a real band effort, and there are a lot of different rhythms involved.
When did you start writing songs?
I started writing music and songs in 1999, with a song called “Never Going Back,” which is on the first Rusty Truck record. I played it for Jakob Dylan and Rami Jaffee of The Wallflowers, and then Jakob did a little demo of it with me in his studio, which was really fun. It was kind of the kick-off, I must have laid out the song about 500 times. The funny thing is I don’t really play other people’s songs. With music it’s probably a time issue, I don’t attempt to do too much besides just kind of tackle my own stuff, and push my own understanding of writing. I listen to a lot of different types of music but I don’t try to play other people’s songs.
What was Dylan’s reaction to “Never Going Back?”
He liked it, and it was a very generous offer by him to take it and make it into what he did. It was my first experience with going in to a recording studio and watching somebody turn the knobs a little bit, and make everything sound a little stronger, fresher, a little bit more correct. My next moment of producing was working with Lenny Kravitz. He took one of our songs “Broken Promises,” and that was a whole other experience. He basically played everything in the studio except for one of the lead guitar parts, that was played by Craig Ross. And my dobro player for my band [Andy Gibson] was there and he played a a little sprinkle. It was a very interesting process.
For this record, we worked with a singer-songwriter-producer by the name of Mike Viola, and Andres Levins from Yerba Buena — he’s also a big producer, doing Latin-style music. And then they tag-teamed; Mike did most of the pre-studio production stuff, where we worked on arrangements and talked to the band. When we went to the studio, Andres was focusing us and shaping what the sound would be, adding some different experiences. But the main emphasis was to keep it country — small, and organic, and original, and that was great. We didn’t have a lot of time to deviate from that experience because we just had that short little seven day window to do it and we wanted to kind of walk out with the mix. The luxury for me afterwards is that my mixer, and a collaborator in terms of some working and shaping and writing, is this lovely guy named Nick Brophy. Nick is Nashville, he works a lot with different artists there. He was mixing everything for us and I would spend my time rewriting certain things and re-singing a verse here or a chorus there, and we built a technique to where we could match it to the original recordings. Because the original recordings were so raw and real, and after a couple days we were really getting into a groove, so I didn’t want to disturb the way it sounded. But at the same time there were obvious problems with some of the writing that I had to go back and correct. It’s a little unorthodox, but it worked out nicely.
What’s your usual approach to songwriting?
I don’t really have a formulaic way of doing it. For me, I just kind of go about it from a more intuitive experience where a line will pop up in my head and that line will turn into a little bit of a rhyme or a second line, and then that will sort of play itself into more or less a verse or a chorus. And I’ll make a little note about that or I’ll record it, and keep it in the back of my mind as I’m going on my travels, or through the course of my day job, the song might kind of pop up and I’ll build upon on it. It’s usually more a cappella than with an instrument, with a guitar or piano, and then when I’m settled down, I’ll figure out what the chords are, or kick a couple ideas and put them together. Certainly this record was taken from a lot of material that builds up in the old filing cabinet. And you know, pulled it out as I went along, and remembered certain lines I’d been storing away in my brain and take them out and flush them through.
Which musicians have you photographed that have inspired you musically?
I have so many nice moments with musicians where I get a chance to work with people who are obviously really, really major talents in the world and I can’t even begin to think about what it must be like to make music at that level. I’m humbled by all of them, and knowing you have to go into a room and write a song and then to be able to perform it, you know, so incredibly well. I mean, where do you start? I’ve had the opportunity to work with Neil Young and Willie Nelson and George Jones and Merle Haggard, and then people like Dwight Yoakam, in the more contemporary world. I’ve met Paul McCartney and Kurt Cobain. You meet people like that and you realize this is just a passion and these guys are really the great artists. They create incredible poetry.
If you could co-write with anybody alive or dead, who would it be?
I don’t think I would do it any justice, but I’d bet I’d learn a lot from Hank Williams. That’s probably a pretty common answer. There’s nobody in my opinion who was more clever in terms of getting in and telling their stories and having the double entendre and giving it a little swing.
What do you consider to be the perfect song?
Either “Heart of Gold” or “Cinnamon Girl” by Neil Young. They were so indented in my adolescence and development, in terms of listening to music. Coming out the gate, I thought that those were incredible musical pieces. One of my first musical experiences was when my older brother played me Everyone Knows This is Nowhere. And that was a real eye opener.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
A friend of mine named Kendra Rae Hite. She’s kind of a protégé of Rhett Miller’s. We always sit around and play each other songs. She’s probably the only person I do that with. I’m always appreciative of that back and forth with her, because she really is persistent and a great songwriter and does it for the pure pleasure of making a tune.
The only person I’ve ever had the ability to co-write with is Nick Brophy, and he is responsible for the way our music has sounded, the textures and feelings and the sonic depth of where we’re going with the music. Nick and I co-wrote one song on this record and he is an incredible artist. And he’s impressive in terms of pulling out your voice. I didn’t realize I had a real personality to my singing until Nick showed me how to do it with the right mic, the right staging and the right motion. And that comes from his own experience, artistically.