North Carolina native (and current L.A. resident) Mark Lennon is the unassuming, easygoing guy next door. That’s what I enjoyed about his debut EP, Down the Mountain (2009, Vagabonds Tune) — it was like sitting on a wide and comfortable front porch, drinking ice cold beer and listening to a friend play some solid, honest guitar tunes. Lennon’s current release, Home of the Wheel (Vagabonds Tune), has a raw, stripped down sound, due in part to producer Marvin Etzioni. A former member of Lone Justice, Etizoni (Steve Earle, Counting Crows and Lucinda Williams) helped Lennon create an album centering on well-crafted songs of lost love, reﬂection and longing for the South.
“We just took the reigns off without much of a plan on Down the Mountain, which led to more of a jam style record. With Home of the Wheel, we shaved it to the bone,” Lennon says joking about the record. “Marvin had me so far out of my comfort zone, I didn’t know which way we were coming or going.”
His first video off the new album is “California Calling,” and the song is heavy on pedal steel, close harmonies, and that unmistakable high lonesome sound. Mark was nice enough to chat with me for a peek beyond the music.
Is that a Greenpeace bumper sticker on the truck?
Yes. The truck, a 1987 Ford F250, belongs to a friend of mine, the great improvisational guru, Gary Austin who founded The Groundlings [the famed L.A. comedy improv company established in 1974]. He is also a very good country singer-songwriter. He’s from Texas, lives in Los Angeles but for some reason the truck has Arizona plates.
It sure does — I noticed the little cactus graphic. So where was this filmed?
The video was filmed in and around Los Angeles. We ventured up to Vasquez Rocks where all kinds of old TV shows like Star Trek and Bonanza were filmed.
The dive bar looks sufficiently gritty. Where was that scene filmed?
The bar is actually two different places. The outside is this little outpost we found in the winding mountains north of Los Angeles, and the inside is a bar in West L.A.
I like the sly ambiguity of this song’s title: California as a place, a feeling, a destination achieved; and the act of physically trying to reach someone, calling out from the Golden State itself. What is it about California that drove you to write this song?
Whenever I call my parents in North Carolina, they see it’s me on their caller ID and answer the phone “California Calling!” That got my wheels turning about a long distance love story and growing apart.
Who’s behind the camera?
We shot it on my iPhone! No film crew — no budget. Courtney Sudbrink, who is a very talented writer, was the brains behind the operation; she filmed, directed and edited it.
There’s this delightfully anachronistic operator’s voice saying “California calling” throughout the song. Are you a big nostalgia freak?
An idea for another song, Marvin Etzioni (producer) brought in this old-timey mic contraption that sounded like an old radio announcer, it had a speaker horn you sang into. The song was recorded live without much pre-planning and Marvin, on the spot, started saying “California Calling” into the mic like an operator connecting lines and it stuck.
The nostalgia aspect played a part in it too; history was a big part of my family. I think our culture is in fast-forward, so it is nice to pause every once and a while and recognize a moment.