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20 years: Paul Mahern, then and now

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20 years: Paul Mahern, then and now


20 years ago: NUVO's first music writer (myself) wrote a NUVO overview about Indiana bands that were receiving national attention. Paul Mahern's band, Datura Seeds, was significant in the piece.

Mahern, one of the defining figures in Indiana music, surfaced in 1979 as the 17 year-old vocalist in the seminal hardcore band, The Zero Boys. Paul's pioneering impact on generations of area musicians, as a musician himself, and as a producer/engineer, would be hard to overstate.

After hundreds of recording sessions, Paul's sonic architecture and D.I.Y. ethos have a strong sense of place, of being rooted in Indiana. By choice, Mahern has done almost all of his recording work over the years at studios in-state.

In 1985, I was an intern at Hit City Recording where Paul was a producer/engineer. Paul and I began a professional association there that continued through several recording studios and the indie label, Egg Records. Subsequently, Paul moved to Bloomington and I began to spend less and less time in Indiana. Many years have passed since we were last in touch.

After the move to Bloomington, Paul made the jump from indie producer/engineer to producing records for major labels with The Judybats, Mysteries of Life, Kim Fox, and Thin Lizard Dawn. I was curious about his transition from the indie world to the more results-oriented world of major label production.

"All the love, all the fun, sucked right out of it" was his description of the process, one that he found completely at odds with his sensibility. "I make small records and they're not intended for instant appeal. I'm not sure I had ever spent more than $30,000 making a record."

This made me remember a Broad Ripple Music Festival back in the day where a number of music business folks were having dinner at St. Elmo's, competing with each other in ordering lavishly to run up the tab for the meal. When the bill topped out around a couple of grand, Paul said, almost to himself, "Why can't we use this money to make better recordings?"

Mahern's dislike of making major label records by committee gave him with the impetus to work with John Mellencamp, a process that he described as being simultaneously very hard and very easy. "John is making John's records, he knows exactly what he wants, he totally operates on intuition."

Paul talked about a common musical language he shares with Mellencamp, not so much of alternative music but of the larger vocabulary of rock and the high talent level of everyone involved in each project. In that spirit, Mellencamp, producer T-Bone Burnette, and Mahern made recordings at locations that are singular in American music/history. Sun Studios in Memphis, where Sam Phillips changed the course of American music with Elvis, Howlin' Wolf and Johnny Cash, the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio where Robert Johnson did a session that defined the Delta blues, and the First African Baptist Church, the first African American church in America, founded 1773. These sessions will be released in 2010 as No Better Than This and includes members of the Mellencamp band and other selected musicians.

These recordings are a long journey coming full circle in American music. Done live, in mono, with recording equipment so vintage as to be antique, they represent Mellencamp pared down to his musical essence, moments in time reinvented in historic spaces. Mahern said, with perhaps a note of pride in his voice, "We were using equipment way more primitive than anything Sam Phillips had."

From 17 year-old punk to working with Mellencamp at Sun Studios, Paul Mahern's musical path through time and space has been a defining journey in Hoosier music.

Mahern's concern has always been with the essential in his sonic work, capturing a true moment that can be shared and that endures. For more on Paul, see his Web site:

Now, of course, with the ubiquity of cyberspace, it's possible to trace the transition from alternative rocker to transactional attorney with a few mouse clicks, see the new hair style, add a few lines on the face or see the once chanteuse of your memory become a wedding photographer in LA. But, before all information was everywhere, all at the same time, alternative presses like NUVO were the only recurring record of regional and local cultures that were otherwise overlooked. NUVO continues to function as an important lens, focusing attention on vital currents that might be taken for granted or lost in the informational clutter.

Local musician Frank Dean was also mentioned in the 1990 article. He is currently a member of the Snakehandlers Blues Band. The Vulgar Boatmen's Rolling Stone review was part of the original article, and they recently played a reunion show at Radio Radio. Arson Gardens, with its sibling pair of April and James Combs, were identified in the original review as "stretching the envelope of the popular song the furtherest." They remain quite active musically, with a new disc "The Honneycombs", produced by John Would (Fiona Apple, Lucinda Williams) and James Combs. James' solo material has been featured in major TV shows like True Blood, Six Feet Under, Entourage, Men in Trees, Gossip Girl, Dexter, 90210, and many others.

So, as an outsider cyberthumbing a current NUVO in preparation for this article, I expected to be comprehensively unfamiliar with the current scene. Instead, Emily Wells, Carrie Newcomer, Mab Lab, Johnny Socko, and Tim Brickley/Hit City Recording were all there, revealing the paradoxical nature of the past, never quite done, not even past, just coming around full circle.