Band Booking: Marcellus Hall

Posted by Tobias Carroll

Expansive and dynamic, Marcellus Hall’s body of work covers multiple disciplines with equal parts skill and verve. As a musician, he’s played in acclaimed groups like White Hassle and Railroad Jerk; his illustrations have graced the cover of The New Yorker, and he’s had an eight-page narrative comic appear in Open City. His new album The First Line brings together these aspects of Hall’s work, featuring thirteen songs and a forty-four-page booklet of his illustrations. Both musically and visually, it’s a fine introduction to and overview of Hall’s work to date.

Your website includes information on your work as a musician and as an illustrator. How do you find a balance between the two?
It’s difficult for me to inhabit publicly both roles as illustrator and musician, but privately I shift between them easily. I think people have expectations about what an illustrator is and what a musician is. Those expectations don’t always mesh. I’m told not to bother with that, but sometimes I think it matters. A music fan might find it interesting that I do illustrations, but an art director who is considering me for an illustration assignment cares little about whether I am a musician. In fact, an art director might think twice about hiring an illustrator that he or she perceives as dividing his time. Nevertheless, I aim to just “be myself” for the time being and see where that takes me.

When I first moved to New York I made a list of people who practiced more than one discipline because I was anxious about spreading myself too thin. That list had on it people like John Lennon who wrote two books while still a Beatle. Woody Guthrie wrote books and illustrated them himself. Victor Hugo was a celebrated watercolorist in France as well as the author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. There is a photo of George Grosz holding a guitar. I took comfort in these things.

Being asked to create a 44-page booklet of drawings to accompany my recent album was a chance for me to combine the two seemingly disparate things that I do. A forthcoming music video with my drawings animated is another.

You’ve written prose, comics, and songs — do you find that you’re addressing the same themes in all three, or do you find that certain formats work better for certain themes?
Besides some tour journals and guest blog entries, I’m not sure what prose you’re refering to. But in all of the things I do, I am addressing similar things. Not only are the formal aspects similar (harmony, rhythm, composition, gesture, flow, texture, tone, timbre, melody, and shape), but often the themes overlap. In many of my uncommissioned drawings I am interested in the kaleidoscopic and random aspects of city life. With my lyrics I am interested in the same.

Do you have any new comics (or prose) projects in the works?
For some time I have been tinkering with a graphic novel. I liken it to a visual Leaves of Grass. In other words, “graphic poetry.” It’s more picaresque Raymond Pettibon than it is Adrian Tomine. At first I wrote anecdotal snippets that would carry equal weight with the drawings, but with the birth of several nieces and a nephew of mine, I dispensed with the writing and I became more interested in the idea of communicating across languages and to children. Minimal writing like Japanese haiku appealed to me. I am seeking a publisher for this project at the moment.

What have you been reading lately?
I read a lot of books at the same time. Most of them I borrow from the library. I finally got around to reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and I am reminded of why Steinbeck is so great. His sentences land squarely and vividly. Earlier this year I discovered the brilliant and idiosyncratic writing of Geoff Dyer. His D. H. Lawrence book is genius (Out of Sheer Rage – Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence). Dyer delights in paradoxical ideas and irony, but not glibly like Don DeLillo. Meanwhile, I’m re-reading Cervantes’s Don Quixote. And last year I finally read Sister Carrie, The Sheltering Sky, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

What first prompted you to write? Were you writing music first, or prose?
I began writing lyrics years before I learned to play guitar. In fact, I was so enthralled by eighties rap and Jamaican toasting that I attempted my own versions. Later I was similarly inspired by Woody Guthrie’s talking blues, Chuck Berry’s rhythmic verses, and Mark E. Smith’s rant style lyrics.

Is there one work in particular, whether an album or a book, that you’re the proudest of?
I’m proud of my latest release The First Line on Glacial Pace Recordings. It is my first solo album (with help from my band The Hostages) and it comprises an acoustic sound that focuses more on lyrics than do past albums of mine.

I was, for a long while, most proud of Railroad Jerk’s One Track Mind on Matador Records. That album represented an aligning of the stars for my bandmates and me. The music, the lyrics, and the recording process gelled in an almost supernatural way that made the album’s debut an event. White Hassle’s Your Language (available on French label Fargo Records) from 2005 is equally good. Unfortunately few Americans have heard that album.

(Photo credit: Ali Smith)