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Thursday 21 May 2020

Mick Dillingham Interviews - Shecky

During our Anything Should Happen days, Mick and I used to delight in bringing great lost bands to a (slightly) bigger audience. In the almost four years of I Don't Hear A Single that has become less prevalent as the emphasis is on the new artist and new album. The return of the splendid Shecky And The Pimp Monkeys allows us to do both. A new album is ready for release this year and we can also celebrate the three magnificent offerings that went before. DV

New England based songwriter and musician Mark Yurkovic goes under the name Shecky, who along with his long term loyal and loving backing band, The Pimp Monkeys has put out a trio of fantastic psychedelic pop albums. These will appeal to fans of The Beatles, XTC, Jellyfish and the like.  

Though he is such an original and individual talent that they only a take a couple of plays before all you are hearing is unmistakably Shecky and no one else. At the heart of all this is the naturally gifted top end songwriting of the man, full of memorable melodic invention and smart, left field dwelling lyrics. There’s an abundance of interesting and captivating stuff going on here Each of the three albums so far is a multilayered adventure to be effortlessly enjoyed and easily cherished for the heady beautiful pop sensation it is. 

We currently find Shecky at the front of a creative avalanche with a fourth album nearly ready to go and a fifth and sixth waiting impatiently in the wings.

So how did all this begin?

“I started playing piano at five by myself, because they were giving my older sister piano lessons and I would watch her and then eventually started playing better than her. She was pissed.  I was given a "close & play" 45 record player along with a box of 45's. I was like a rabid cornered dog with this thing, if you tried to take it away from me I would have taken your arm off. I do remember the Elton John singles, but that's about it. In the early 70's. my parents bought a multi LP set of the 50's greatest hits. I listened to that until I wore the grooves out. Eventually Sgt Pepper came along and the Magical Mystery Tour began and it's still going...”

When did you start writing songs?

“I was the luckiest musician in the world. I was a piano/synth player who arrived in Boston in 1983 to attend Berklee College of Music. The first synths we had for class were ARP 2000's. It was also the first class to graduate in '87 with a music product and engineering degree. But remember this was 1983 when synthesizers were exploding on the music scene with MTV, it was heaven. We even had our own music video channel here in Boston called V66.

I have some odd connections to people in bands. I went to school at the time with Will Calhoun, the drummer from Living Colour and still have a few connections to the TV industry where Shecky music is the background for several television shows. I met most of the Pimps, now life long friends, at Berklee.

We had a band, Signs of Life and that was the first real band I was in.  The big joke was that I came in with 200 songs and while this was true, 195 of them were god-awful. Oddly enough Tiny Elvis from a music stand point was one of those songs of yester-years. However, the lyrics weren't the same which really taught me that no song is ever dead, but some limp along for a long time.”

 Shecky And The Pimp Monkeys?  Interesting name.

“So part of the reason the Pimps are called the Pimps is because they all play in other bands, but I feel like I'm pimping them out from mine. It started years ago when we were in Signs of Life. We put out two albums, toured a bit with The Violent Femmes, The Spin Doctors and even Dave Matthews (before Under The Table broke). All New England area and a bit in the mid west.

When that fizzled out drummer, Phil Antoniades and bassist. Jeff St Pierre became a sought after rhythm section, but we had been friends for years, so they always did the live shows with me. Tim Day is the second background singer and he is the Michael McDonald of the group. If it sounds pretty, then that's Tim singing.

We've always played locally and the Boston scene isn't as robust as it used to be in the late 80's. So getting out there and finding an audience live is getting harder and harder these days. We don't play out that often. Typically instead of the club scene we create live "barn" shows. Our drummer Phil, finished a big barn and we have a limited amount of guests fill the audience for live intimate shows. Very similar to Darryl's house.

We actually make more money by selling tickets, food and booze. The club scene has really died down, but our guitar player Jim actually runs the famous Club Passim in the centre of Cambridge, so we'll do acoustic shows there occasionally. We are really on the verge of reinventing the live show and trying to figure out how to make it fun, profitable and a good time for everyone.

With what’s happening right now it might be a live streaming show coming up in the fall, more to come on that. These guys will always pop in the studio when they're not gigging or touring and I'm a bit of mad scientist in that respect.”

So the first album was Yummy, put out on your own label.

“Softbrain is my own label and I own all the publishing, hoping to keep it that way unless someone can convince me otherwise. Reality is, the industry has changed so much that for independents there's no reason not to do it all yourself outside of distribution, exposure and marketing.

The one thing I'm very proud of with Yummy is I really wanted the first record to be recorded very authentic and very well. It was done through a Neve console and the drums were direct through tube amps and even the pianos were recorded on grand pianos from Boston Piano on location. I figured if I never put another album out at least that one would sound amazing.

I was literally recording Itchy in the studio while they were mixing Yummy. To this day, I don't sit on mixing sessions. Sounds crazy, but I give it all to my trusted musical guru/bass player Jeff St Pierre and just let him have at it. I'll hint about the things I have to have in the mix, otherwise it's all his. I'm an over-arranger and he keeps all the music in check.”

And then a few years later came Itchy.

“The large gap between albums is usually just fanatical detail to sonics and recording details. Like all good Beatle, XTC, Jellyfish fans, we're fanatics about guitars, amps, performances, so it just takes a little longer.

I'm sure you realised that Shecky albums are usually a full adventure from the time you put it on until the end and now that weed is legal, well there's a whole generation waiting to test this like the older crowd used to do with Dark Side Of The Moon. Most of the effects in between cuts are designed to segue into the next song.

I'm always a few albums ahead of recording and Itchy as a sophomore album was really supposed to be a quick one. More singer songwriter based and I was writing a lot on guitar at that time. Maybe I was really just trying to do that as an excuse to beef up my guitar collection. Itchy is my wife and kids favourite album. maybe because it used to be in the car all the time when they were little. Have to laugh because it's my least favourite of everything I've put out, but it's much more introspective and personal.

For example, my wife's name is Trish, but the second song on the album is Linda, which is mostly a true story of a girl I went to grade school with. So if you like a more acoustic singer songwriter approach, the songs off of this album lend themselves more to those type of live shows. 

Itchy also saw the birth of my twin sons, Nate & Eli and any form of procreation puts you into clampdown mode. Although if you listen to the song Procreation, that is real. We had them through IVF and the song captures it all. So clearly once you have kids, things get Wiggy."

Tell us about Wiggy.

“The album was delayed for a while because I discovered a younger female artist named Charlotte Sands and poured my heart into her album, with the Pimps as the back up band. It's really an amazing sounding album, she has a stunning voice.

I was hoping to record several more albums with her, but she's down in Nashville now and doing quite well as a songwriter and doesn't even call herself Charlotte Sands anymore. I complete know how it feels to be a surrogate mother, give birth, then give the child away.

By the time Wiggy came around, the Pimps could tell where I was going with each song. Actually most of the songs on the album were gigged out live extensively, before kid clampdown mode, so it was just finishing up the details.

Wiggy really was the start of the newer recording techniques out there. I moved to a digital system and there was such a broad palate for sonics. I laugh because I’m old school and I still like a good performance, but will insist the musicians play in time. Little known fact, but on every Shecky album, like on Sgt Pepper, the drums are recorded last. Sounds crazy, but a good drummer will musically find the vibe of the tune and it literally forces them to breathe with the music.

Andy Schulz was the original guitar player along with Jim on Yummy & Itchy. He moved out west, so Jim and I had to go it alone on Wiggy. Jim Wooster has been with me from the beginning as the brilliant guitar offset to my keys. I cycled back to writing more piano based songs on Wiggy and the two of us split the duties for that album.

Then Chris Leadbetter stepped in the picture for the new material moving forward. Chris is listed on Wiggy for his contributions to the live show and to induct him as a Pimp.  Most of the songs on the album are technically challenging from a piano stand point. For example, Vampire Babes comes from my early fascination with Scott Joplin and stride piano.

I can remember reading an article with Randy Newman talking about having to practice his own songs before he went into the recording studio for the Land of Dreams album and I wanted the same challenge for Wiggy.  So even playing something like She Smokes Out Of Her Neck is tricky. Of course that song is about my fear of one of my sons coming home one day to tell me he's fallen in love with a chain smoking hooker, so the subject matter is clearly expanding."

"As time progressed, I drank myself into oblivion. I always have a sub title for each album. For Itchy it was Food For The Masses, and for Wiggy it was How Low Can You Go. Oddly enough, I didn't know how low I was going and eventually hit some form of rock bottom. So I've been sober for about five years and now the fourth album, Pinchy is on the doorstep (subtitled: "Back on Dry Land"). At this point though, four albums in, we've got it down to a formula.

Being super neurotic and having more time to write music, less time spent on liver destruction, in walks Chris Leadbetter. Jim couldn't make a paying gig and Chris was the sub. I threw the albums at him and they sat untouched in his car for weeks. When he finally listened to them, he flipped out and basically told me he was in the band.

My co-writing experience on Charlotte's album really gave me the ability to open up and start fusing with Chris. To date, I think we have about fifty new songs for some upcoming albums. I've finally decided to join the music industry's new model and start releasing material electronically first, then eventually on CD.

I guess the CD's are really for me and the band and the ability to have merchandise, but only a few of the kids out there these days even know what a CD is. So, we'll be winding out singles I guess with videos to match in hopes of having Pinchy completely out by the fall.

The first official video to make it to YouTube will be My Email to Steven Hawking. The thrill of the new album is we now have a new voice with Chris who is a very strong vocalist and with that addition, much more interesting combinations.

During the pandemic, I've been unable to meet with The Pimps, so I wrote Sexy Cereal Killer as an excuse to educate myself on video editing software and put it on Facebook just to test the reaction. That's inspiring the continual videos that will follow. It's a one off and will make it to YouTube eventually, once the pandemic dies down and I can get the Pimps in to update vocals and guitars.

One of the major changes with Pinchy is the introduction of trying to use modular synths. I'm in the process of building and expanding quite an elaborate Eurorack modular system. I'm terrible at it, but somehow I manage to squeeze music out of it and keep trying to expand the musical horizons.

The next album behind Pinchy is already ready to go. With the addition to Chris's input on writing, we have all the songs done and it's a question of just finishing up and mixing. I guess this is the point where most bands start to consider a double album, but we're going to release them back to back. The follow up to Pinchy is going to be titled Cranky, which of course fits the general vibe of most Americans right now, so we're hoping that one catches on.

 If I ever do put a double album out, it will be a double live album and a rock opera. That way I can get all of that out of my system in one shot. I think one of the highlights on Cranky will be Hitler In Art School. Otherwise, I'm a singular title concept writer, always have been.

Pop songs are a tight format so you have to say a lot in a little space, with a few words. I can typically build an entire theme off of one singular idea. At this point, if it doesn't just roll out of me or fit, I don't have the energy to force it. So writing these days is pure pleasure. They seem to be flowing in buckets, so we're riding the writing wave right now.”

You can listen to Yummy here, Itchy here and Wiggy here. The albums are also available on the streaming sites. You can follow Shecky And The Pimp Monkeys adventures on Facebook here. You can watch the new Sexy Cereal Killer video here.


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