Writing Great Songs Without A Spell Checker

New York City is famous for its lack of native New Yorkers. Sometimes it seems that everyone you meet comes from somewhere else, and moves to the Big City to make their mark and see if they really have what it takes. In this, the music business is no different, as New York draws musicians from around the world to its clubs, from tiny dives in the basements of sign-less buildings, to the grand expanse of Madison Square Garden. Getting there is easy, sticking around is another story.

As the band discusses in their interview with Chorus and Verse, Marwood's journey to becoming a regular part of the East Village music scene begins as far away as Tennessee and London, and takes a long detour through Los Angeles. Lead singer and guitarist Benji Rogers and guitarist Rob Overbey put their first band together on the West Coast, and Overbey followed Rogers to New York when he was putting together a solo project. Called the Ben Rogers Band, that group released their debut CD, "Another Day Gone," in November 2000, and subsequently embarked on a tour of the East Coast, which included festival appearances with the Black Crowes and Bob Dylan.

Line-up changes and a rethinking of the band's direction led Rogers and Overbey to morph the band into Marwood, and in 2002 they released the first album under the Marwood moniker, "Regular Fips". Adding bassist Brett Conti to the band's line-up and, most recently, drummer Michael Talbot, has made the band into a cohesive unit that performs regularly in many of Manhattan's most-popular clubs.

Both "Regular Fips" and the band's February 2003 EP, "Radio Personalities," including the group's most popular song, "Souless," which has gotten considerable radio airplay both around their hometown on NYC's Q104.3 FM, as well as other college and commercial stations around the country. Most recently, it was picked up by XM Satellite Radio, giving the band national exposure and a higher profile locally.

"Souless," with its hook-heavy chorus ("Don't it leave you feeling, a little bit souless / A little bit hopeless, and you don't know why"), not only shows the depth of the band's songwriting, but puts their pop sensibilities on display. With an album's worth of complementary tracks, and more on the way, the band clearly has break-out potential.

All four members of Marwood gave their time and insight to Chorus and Verse to talk about "Souless," how the band has evolved to this point, and the challenges of having a career in music and being on the road, while holding down a job to make sure that the bills are getting paid.

Start off with a little background on the band's roots. You're based now in New York City's East Village, but where you do all come from originally and how did you come to be in New York City and put this band together?

Rob: I was born in Tennessee, but left there with my family quite early on. Subsequently, I ended up moving around the country roughly every five years. I feel like [I] have a number of hometowns. I met Benji in '93 in upstate New York. He and a friend of ours had put up flyers looking for guys to play with. Benji and I eventually relocated to Los Angeles and put a band together out there called Jones before forming Marwood in New York City.

Benji: I'm from London, born in Hammersmith, and then lived in Notting Hill. Robbie and I played in bands together all over the place; L.A., London, upstate New York. When I got a free apartment in NYC, I settled here and dragged Robbie down from Massachusetts to form a band.

Brett: Spawned at the Queen City, from the Heartland, through the Music City, and now hail from the City That Never Sleeps, I came here for a change of scenery and with hopes to become a successful musician; read: filthy rich, oversexed rock star. I've known Robbie for a while from my Nashvegas kicks. We bumped into one another in the East Village and I guess I just wound up playing in MW ever since.

Michael: I'm from South Carolina originally. Moved to New York in August 2003 to go to Drummer's Collective and get into the NYC music scene.

Marwood is an evolution from a previous name, Ben Rogers Band, which released an LP and had a pretty active touring schedule. Did the change of name represent a shift in your attitude towards the music or the direction you wanted to take the band, or just a chance for a fresh start? Is there any significance to the name, or is Marwood just the best-sounding name you picked off the list?

Rob: When Jones dissolved, Benji moved to New York City on his own to do a solo record with some musicians as the Ben Rogers Band. I came out from L.A. to visit and ended up playing on most of the record. After it was finished, I moved to New York so we could go out and start performing some of the new songs. Over time, Benji and I started writing new songs and underwent a line-up change or two, and the band began to feel more like a band. There was indeed a new sound and attitude, so we felt we should name it as such. The name Marwood comes from one of our favorite films, an English indie film called "Withnail and I". Good luck trying to pinpoint the reference!

Benji: Ben Rogers band was my project, really. I hired everyone in the band and made the record my way. So when we had toured for a while, it began to wear thin for me, that this band was a) paid and b) not really a band in the sense of guys in a van out to play for love and not money. Since Robbie and I were always the foundation of the band, when it came time to do another record we decided to name it Marwood. At that point it became a band in the true sense of the word, and with a few changes in members, Marwood just stuck.

As for the name, it comes primarily from the movie "Withnail and I," about two out-of-work actors, one of whose names is Marwood. It's also John Cleese's middle name.

Where were some of your first gigs when you started out as Marwood in 2002? Did you already have enough contacts around New York that it was easy to get gigs and opportunities to play, or was it a challenge to get those early shots?

Rob: The first Marwood gig was at Arlene's Grocery on the Lower East Side, and then we started to play places like the Mercury Lounge, the Village Underground and the Knitting Factory. We did have a few previous relationships with some clubs, but we began working with a booking agent that helped score us a lot of great shows opening for bands like Rooney and Antigone Rising.

Benji: We were pretty lucky, really. We have a very loyal following who have been there for us from day one. We have played all the main clubs in the city -- The Knitting Factory, The Mercury Lounge, Arlene's Grocery, Pianos, Sin-e, and the Village Underground, [which is] now closed. The most important thing was always the people who came out and spent their hard-earned cash on getting drunk with us. We love them.

Would you say that New York is a good place for musicians to live if they want to have a career in music?

Michael: I think NYC is a great place to go broke! Seriously, I think its one of the best places to be for a career in music. This is where the great musicians and opportunities are. I can go out any night of the week and see amazing musicians playing in small clubs. You can't do that in many places.

Rob: Well, it's a bit of a trade off. Cities like New York and L.A. have great places to play and are great markets to be seen in. However, since every band on the face of the planet relocates to one of these two cities, there is inevitably overpopulation of talented and hilariously untalented stars just waiting to hit it big. Um, just like us for example.

Brett: Yes. No. I don't know. New York is a lot of things, including hard just to survive in lately. Since the new-fangled Internet thingy and the home recording revolution, everyone and their freaking dog is taking a shot at being a rock star or "American Idol". Location probably isn't as important as it used to be to gain success. Nevertheless, the traditional capitals of the U.S. music business are L.A., New York and Nashville. You want to go to the business instead of hoping it will come to you? Then I guess you should pick one of these cities and make yourself shine. In a city of multi-millions of aspiring musicians, it's a lot of noise to deal with on any end of the business before you are really able to find what you're looking for. It would all depend on whether you are happy fighting as a big fish in a little pond or a small fish in an ocean.

Benji: It's harder in some ways as the competition is so great, but if you work really hard and promote well, you can get to a pretty good level. It's not an easy life, though, and I also bartend to make ends meet.

What's the state of the live music scene in New York City? Are there people coming out to see live music, and do you find the venues generally supportive of the band and helping to promote the music? Are there any venues that stand out as being particularly "band friendly" or places where the crowd tends to be more into the music?

Benji: The Knitting Factory has always been great to us, Pianos as well. Clubs want to sell beer and get people the word about which venue we are playing to hopefully get a decent-sized group of people at their place to see us. Basically, if you draw a crowd, they are nice and want you back. Also, that makes us wanna go back to that club. Everybody's happy!

Michael: I like to play Pianos. They seem pretty band friendly. The rock scene seems about the same as any other big city. Just more bands.

Brett: It's so unpredictable that it's hard to say. It's the one fan that speaks up, comes out and buys a CD that keeps you going. I know I get a lot of mileage out of that, I think the rest of the band does, too.

Rob: Most people come out to see the bands that have a big buzz or that their sister's boyfriend plays in. They'll watch that one band and then split, as the next crowd shuffles in to see their boss' kid play in his band. There are a few places, though, that have a reputation for a crowd that comes out to see a whole night of music and stays all night to see each and every act. Sin-e is one club like that which comes to mind. Also, I consider any club that will have us come in and crank up for an hour "band friendly".

Let's talk about the band's writing process. Benji is the band's primary songwriter. Are song ideas generally presented to the band fully-realized, or do they tend to develop and evolve as the band works on them? Do you have regular rehearsals times where you get together and jam on new ideas, or do each of you work on your own parts individually?

Rob: All of the above.

Benji: Its all about me really, no matter what they say! (Laughs.) Hmm... I tend to write at the bar on day shifts or at home. I need to be pretty bored, and then the ideas come quickly. I bring songs to the band in pieces or when they are complete. It depends. I tend to come to Robbie with songs I'm halfway through, and he and I finish them together. He also presents stuff to me and then I will finish them off with melody and words. It's pretty organic, and it's much easier now that the whole band is not paid, as before it was expensive to rehearse for two hours and come out with nothing. We tended to stick to the same songs we knew and just rehearse before shows. So now we rehearse regularly and are coming up with more material. I love to write with other people as well, and so any time there are new ideas floating around that makes me happy. There is also a lot that I write which isn't Marwood related. I'm saving it, for god knows what!

What's the feeling like the first time you play a new song on stage in front of a crowd?

Brett: Oh boy, here we go: Don't f**k this up too badly. Did I shave my legs for this? Is that chick in the front row looking at me? Why do I always get the blown monitor? If my strap breaks, would my bass suspend in mid-air? Are they TRYING to burn my damn retinas out with that par can?

Benji: Aside from worrying about remembering the words, usually pretty good. It's a great way to test the songs out. If they flop live, there's something to be said for that. There are a few shows I have on tape with a few songs that I never want to hear again. So embarrassing!

Michael: It's a good feeling. It's always nice to be doing something new. You don't want to just play the same songs for years.

Rob: Uh ... "I hope I can remember this song seeing as how we've only played it once before!"

It is very easy to tell which ones go over well live and which ones send people to the bar for a beer or to the bathroom to release their last beer. Song placement within a set list can also be very important. You wouldn't want to open a high-energy show with a song like "Every Rose Has Its Thorn." Actually, you would not want to play a song like that at all, anywhere in the set.

"Souless" has become the band's most-popular song, and generally the one you'll close a show with. What's the genesis of that song, and did you find that crowds were reacting positively to it the first time you played it? Did you know right away that it would be "the single," or did you need other people to let you know that it was a great song?

Rob: "Souless" was a song that Benji wrote, without a spell-checker. He originally wrote it with a shuffle-type beat, but as we were working it up for that Ben Rogers Band CD, it wound up with the "good times/bad times" kind of groove it has now.

Benji: Hmmm, it actually started out as a very pop shuffle, and it was dreadful. I played it at a few acoustic shows and almost ditched it from the record as we couldn't get it to feel right. I actually have it on video when we changed the groove and it all just came together. Other people really responded well to it and that sold us on it. It's such a fun song to play as well.

Speaking of "Souless," it's been getting radio airplay, including on New York City's Q104.3 FM. Is it still a cool feeling to hear yourselves on the radio, and do you remember the first you heard your song being broadcast?

Benji: The first time we heard our song on the radio was so cool. It was in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, on the way to do a radio show there. It sounded great! Now we're in rotation at a bunch of college stations as well as commercial stations like XM Satellite Radio, and it's always exciting when you hear yourself on the airwaves.

Rob: I remember the first time they played that song. I knew it was coming so I taped it. Naturally, it's a great feeling to hear your band over the waves and knowing it's going out all over town. Also, I have heard a few people comment that they caught us once or twice on their air. Love that!

Does having a song on the air help bring any new opportunities to the band, and have you found that more people know you through radio airplay?

Benji: We've definitely had opportunities come our way as a result of airplay. DJs have offered us shows or put us in touch with other people that are interested in booking the band. Doing on-air appearances has been another great thing to come out of radio play. We get to reach out to our fans and hopefully make some new ones too. We recently did a radio show for several weeks at Boston University to promote a gig we had at the Paradise Rock Club and had a blast doing it. We try to do as many of those shows as we can, and it's great when people call in to give us their support and say hi. Every little bit helps.

What's the biggest challenge in building a career in music while holding down full-time jobs? Do you ever feel that your ultimate success as a band will be limited by working day jobs, or does the fact that you have that security allow you to do more things as a group without having to worry as much about paying the bills? Do you foresee a time when Marwood would become your full-time pursuit?

Brett: Paying rent and staying sane. With the average career span of an successful artist being far less than 10 years, you're a complete freaking idiot to think that you're not going to need more money than the music business is going to provide in your lifetime. You've got [to] sit back and realize what you're after, akin to wanting to be a NBA star, lottery winner or William Hung, and what success actually means to you. Turning what you love into a job isn't always the best path, especially for musicians. You could end up hating music and yourself even more than the day job. Having something else as a bread getter is almost mandatory nowadays. Most people that tell you they make a living solely off of their music are either extremely poor, liars or both. There are plenty of really talented artists out there that don't have a pot to piss in. Being supercalifrag talented isn't really good enough any more in this business to be a star. You also have to survive at the top of your game long enough to be discovered and exploited. And then there is the luck part of it too. There is no security in most things I pursue. That's why, if at age 35, I haven't succeeded at music beyond my wildest dreams, I'm becoming an astronaut.

Benji: I've always wanted to be in a band and make music my living. Working in a bar is the best job you can have as the hours are flexible and it's a great way to promote. Oh, and did I mention that I get free drinks! The hours can be killer, though, especially on out-of-town shows. I would love to ditch the day job and tour full time.

Michael: It can be hard working full-time and playing. We haven't been playing that much right now, so it's not really a problem. I would love to drop the full-time job and do Marwood full-time. I think it's possible. The songs are there. And, I didn't move one thousand miles to work retail!

Rob: Marwood being our fill-time work is obviously the goal. With no choice but to work our jobs while doing the band at the same time for now, we just have to do the best we can. Gotta pay our cell phone and digital cable bills, right?

Do you see the band doing an extended tour outside of the New York City area again, as you did back when you were the Ben Rogers Band? Are you working to promote the band on a more national scale? Would you accept a booking, say, in California?

Rob: We will play anywhere that will have us. We play out-of-town in other markets as much as we can, like Boston, Philly and D.C. But, it is tough to go out and do extended runs with everyone's schedule outside of playing.

Benji: It's safe to say that we'd play pretty much anywhere. We just love to play. If it weren't for the day jobs we'd be playing all the time. Rob and I used to play out in L.A. in our band Jones, so sure we'd go.

You've released an LP and EP so far. What are the band's recording plans moving forward? Do you have material ready for a new album, and do you think you'll be heading back into the studio anytime soon? If so, when do you hope to have a new album that fans will be able to get their hands on?

Benji: We've got one more EP to put out, which is kind of the part two to the first one. There's a lot more writing I want to do, and I want to get the band more involved in the writing process. I think when the time is right we'll get the new record out. Hopefully the new EP will tide everyone over 'till something new is finished.

Rob: We have tons of songs, all of which we want to work into our shows and get down on tape. All I can say is this, and it's a promise: fans will be able to get their hands on our new recordings as soon as we do them. Any fans, also, that would like to pay for said recordings are more than welcome to. Maybe we'll start a "Marwood Studio Fund" for those people who want to hear some new songs laid down. You know, "for the price of a cup of coffee a day, you could be financially responsible for Brett Conti's background vocal track on Marwood's latest new tune."

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Matt Mrowicki

Matt Mrowicki founded Chorus and Verse in 2001. He is a rock star designer and technologist, Internet professional, content creator, and entrepreneur specializing in web development, IT consulting, branding, social media and online marketing.