Paul Mahern: finds an affirmation of his aesthetic

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Paul Mahern's dream, successfully realized, in starting Affirmation Records in 1981 was to chronicle Midwest hardcore punk. Among Mahern's goals in reviving the label earlier this year, after 18 years in cold storage, appears to be putting out the rockingest term papers ever.

Mahern says the only reason he brought the label back was to record his nephew Seth's band, John Wilkes Booze. This band has dedicated itself to a five-CD/EP project, chronicling what it calls the 'Five Pillars of Soul,' five relatively unrecognized radicals, according to the band, 'still lacking the appreciation of a wider audience.' With the assistance of Uncle Paul, the band has released two 15-minute CDs - one dedicated to filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles and the other to Tania, better known as Patty Hearst. The CDs are short enough that you'll finish listening to them before you're done reading the copious, small-type liner notes that come with each release.

Meanwhile, Mahern is leading research into what he hopes will be a grand future release - a possible full-length CD about the 1921 Tulsa, Okla., race riots, in which 300 African-Americans died when whites attacked the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood, dubbed by Booker T. Washington as 'Black Wall Street.' He has a password-protected Web site with about 100 links to research papers, articles and other sites about the Tulsa riots. The project could involve one band, many bands, some music from the time period, found sounds depicting events - there's no script yet. 'Folkways meets Public Enemy,' Mahern observes.

'To me, that's a cool aesthetic,' Mahern remarks. 'It's about something more, more than just the people in the band. I want to have some sort of bizarre kind of politics, kind of arty, but still really primal.'

However, Affirmation itself is more than John Wilkes Booze and musings about history. Affirmation also has released the baroque pop of Bloomington-based Sophia Travis and the mod pop of Indianapolis' Even Homer Nods, and soon will release work by ex-Dancing Cigarette John Terrill. And it also will be the vehicle for Mahern to release and re-release his own work - bands ranging from the 1980s punk of Dandelion Abortion to the power pop of Datura Seeds to his latest project, DNA-12 - about everything but the Zero Boys, which got its own re-release two years ago.

Affirmation 'is still something growing in my mind of what to do with it, beyond the Booze,' Mahern says. 'I'm not approaching this right now that we're going to be focused like a punk label, or an emo label. There's not that much good stuff for one particular taste.

'When I was younger, punk, hardcore, that was all I listened to, and a lot of that was crap.'

From punk to producer

Mahern may be best known, and may always be best known, as the teen-aged lead singer of the Zero Boys, whose 1982 debut Vicious Circle is practically the start of the American punk-pop movement. It wasn't pop because it was as easy to digest as Blink-182 or Green Day; it was considered pop at the time because you could actually understand the lyrics and delineate between Terry Howe's guitar, David 'Tufty' Clough's bass and Mark Cutsinger's drums.

'I know for a fact Green Day owns that record' is all Mahern remarks when asked about a later generation of punk-poppers that made millions off of the Zero Boys' blueprint. Panic Button, the label of Screeching Weasel's Ben Weasel, re-released Vicious Circle late in 2000; the label was later absorbed into Lookout!, the label that birthed, among others, Green Day.

'It's a weird thing - we've sold more of the re-release than when it originally came out,' Mahern says, who didn't offer specific numbers.

In the midst of the original Zero Boys heyday, Mahern started Affirmation Records as a way to promote the Midwest's hardcore scene, as well as record bands and learn how to be an engineer. 'With the Zero Boys, I fell in love with the concept of the studio,' Mahern says. He released two volumes of The Masters Tapes, which included Indianapolis and Bloomington acts such as Zero Boys, Toxic Reasons, the Repellents and the Gynecologists, as well as Chicago's Articles of Faith (who also had a separate singles release) and Milwaukee's Die Kreuzen.

However, the life of an independent label is fraught with peril, and in Mahern's case, a distributor went out of business 'owing me a lot of money.' After putting out a cassette of his band, Dandelion Abortion, Mahern iced the label in favor of working on commercial recordings and family life, getting married and having a daughter. (He later got divorced.)

Mahern's recording would extend well beyond punk, into pop, straight-ahead rock, even Christian contemporary. And of course there's a John Mellencamp connection. Since 1998, Mahern has worked as an engineer or producer on the former Cougar's albums John Mellencamp, the all-acoustic Rough Harvest and Cuttin' Heads. Mahern currently is on staff at Echo Park Studios, owned by Mellencamp guitarist Mike Wanchic.

'Mellencamp has had a profound effect on how I view the music business,' Mahern says. 'His method of working, his work ethic Ö he's got a good aesthetic. He's a loose rock and roll guy. He wants a lot of magic in his performance.'

Mahern, now 38 years old, brings up that word often: aesthetic. It's an elusive term, a subjective term, trying to figure out what moves him musically. Like the late Supreme Court Justice Lewis Potter said about pornography, he knows it when it sees it. And he saw it with John Wilkes Booze.

Boozing up to the label

'When I saw them live the first couple of times, I couldn't tell if they had songs,' Mahern says. That was meant as a compliment.

Seeing that his nephew Seth and his band were 'dirt poor,' Mahern decided to lend a hand. (Seth is the son of state Rep. Ed Mahern, a Democrat from the Eastside who led the Indiana House's redrawing of the state and federal legislative districts.) He came to Seth with the idea of putting out a series of CD-EPs, and at a certain point the band would have enough songs to put out an album.

Together, Mahern and the band - Seth on vocals, Eric Weddle on guitar, with members of the Impossible Shapes filling out the lineup - developed the idea of 'Five Pillars of Soul,' CD themes inspired by radical political thinkers and artists. They would be priced at $5 each and released about two months apart. They would come in batches of 300. They would be stuffed by hand into paper cases also filled with extensive liner notes about the Pillar of Soul in question. The music itself is indie-rock and punk mixed with R&B and '70s soul.

Musically, it's a concept that's either incredibly audacious, or incredibly preposterous, depending on your point of view. Melvin Van Peebles, noted most for his 1971 film Sweet Sweetback's Badassss Song, spoke at Indiana University a day after the first volume dedicated to him was released, and he seemed flattered when the band presented the CD to him, Mahern says. There's no word yet whether Patty Hearst has heard the second volume dedicated to her, in which the band opens up the question of whether Hearst was a Stockholm Syndrome-type victim, or a willing participant, when she changed her name to Tania and helped the 1970s radical group Symbionese Liberation Army in a bank robbery.

'The Booze fits into my aesthetic,' Mahern says. Their CDs 'are well-researched, they're about something and they're short. And the liner notes are really long. Where else is a young person going to learn about Tania Hearst?'

By that measure, a performer like Sophia Travis, an early music and harpsichord major at IU, wouldn't seem to fit. Her CD is nearly 40 minutes long (short by most standards), and it's filled with songs that are about more personal issues. Travis' lyrics are introspective, but not to the Alanis-like point of self-obsession. And her keyboards lead the parade; if Jerry Lee Lewis is the Killer because of how he played the piano, then that might make Travis the Fortekiller for how she plays the fortepiano, a hammer-string instrument much like a harpsichord. Certainly, Travis is one of the few pop acts to thank her harpsichord maker in her liner notes.

'She's a good friend of mine, she had a record done and had no structure to get it done and into stores,' says Mahern of Travis, who has played keyboards for the Vulgar Boatmen and Lola. 'There are certain people who'll respond. They're not your average rock music fans.'

Then again, the gulf between the frenzied politics of John Wilkes Booze and the quieter musings of Travis may not be quite so wide. At a recent Hoosier Hills Food Bank benefit in Bloomington, the band did a multimedia rather than a live show, so Travis stepped in on keyboards (and with a bass player) to play her own take on 'Sweetback's Gonna Makes It' and 'Watch Out' from the band's Melvin Van Peebles release.

'I'm hoping that the aesthetic of the label will become more apparent,' Mahern says. 'There are some similarities, even though they're not using the same instruments or singing about the same stuff.'

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