It was a little over year ago when I received an innocuous looking CD from an artist calling herself Mary Prankster. The title was Blue Skies Over Dundalk. Not expecting much, I dropped it in the CD player, and my life has not been the same since. Fast forward a year or so and Mary Prankster – and yes, she does take her name from Ken Kesey – has another excellent CD called Roulette Girl, and is feverishly touring the East Coast with an eye on conquering even more of the U.S. Although her raw, explicit lyrics may be the first thing you notice, upon closer examination you’ll find an accomplished songwriter with a terrific knack for turning a phrase and adding a little twist you weren’t expecting. She has found herself in the midst of controversies over her lyrics, even being banned in her hometown of Annapolis. Still, she presses on, playing her songs for anyone who’ll listen. Recently, I was able to get Mary Prankster on the phone after band rehearsal, on laundry night. She talked about the recent split with her band’s management, the Internet, her fans, and playing Six Degrees of Dave Matthews Band.
I want to thank you for dropping my first couple of questions in my lap over the past week or so.
I know, man, there’s been some real heavy drama around the old gal lately.
Sounds like it. You’ve gone from having management and a label to… nothing. What happened?
Um… OK. I don’t want to break bad on anybody, but I totally want to keep this above board and diplomatic and everything. I think that our manager… it became apparent that there was just philosophical differences between the direction our manager was going and the direction that we were going, and so I thought it was time to part ways while everything was still amicable and pleasant, ’cause I could see down the road it getting shitty. It’s not…it wasn’t even like a disagreement it was just he had one vision of the future of the band and we had another. If it wasn’t for me like saying all Backstreet Boys or something. Who’s that guy, Lou Pearlman? The guy who did N’sync? It wasn’t anything like that.
So what are your plans?
We’re kind of doing this one step at a time. This is all really recent like in the past week and a half. We’re probably just going to get a breather from the management thing for awhile. Like we’ve had a bunch of people over the years offer some sort of management or guidance or professional assistance or whatever, so I think before we go in to evaluate that kind of stuff… I mean, we’re working on new stuff now. We’re kind of real musically oriented right now, and we’ve put that business stuff on the back burner.
Is this going to have an effect on the records you’ve already got out on Fowl Records?
Well, we left the label too, because, kind of like the same philosophical differences we thought, since he (former manager Richard James Burgess) is part owner of Fowl. And it was… it’s like… there’s a country song… it’s like there ain’t no good guy there ain’t no bad guy, it’s you and me and we just can’t agree. That’s kind of what it was like. We just thought it’d be best if we just made a clean break of everything, so there wasn’t any kind of conflict of interest. In the meantime, though, it’s funny because of how little it affects our day to day functioning. You know, as a band, like what we do… we’re still out there playing our gigs and doing our thing.
Does it make you wonder why you had him at all if it really doesn’t affect you?
No! I think it’s important for everybody who’s on your team — if it’s in the band or management — to be good at what they do and to really like it and for everyone to be working toward a common goal. So I think it is good to have someone who can be like, at least in our case, to be a representative as far as the industry or anything like that is concerned. It’s good to have someone looking out for your business interests. I mean, the only thing is we’ve kind of created more work for us. It’s not too bad.
What are you going to do about distribution?
I called the distribution company and explained the situation, and they were like, “OK, I guess we can just order from you?” Taken care of. Like, done! We’re working on getting the store up on our Web site (http://www.maryprankster.com). We’ve just had our Web site revamped. Have you seen it?
Yes, I have.
Oh, man! Isn’t it awesome?
Very nice. Easy to get around.
The ass signing! [The site’s index page was featuring photos of Mary autographing a fan’s bare ass with a sharpie] Oh my god! We didn’t really have a lot… we had the Webmaster go with it, creatively, just take it and run with it. Every now and then he’d ask me a question, and I was like, “I dunno.” I don’t know where he found those pictures. It was great. I was so happy with it when we saw it. When we get the store up on that, people can order CDs and T-shirts and stuff directly from us, via the Web site. Eventually we’ll do credit cards, but right now it’s mail order. It’s very D.I.Y. I feel so punk. So Dischord. It’s so cool with the technology explosion. It really has opened things up to the band. It’s wonderful to have the whole world as a potential audience. Being able to get your music out there.
Thomas Dolby, who’s big into Internet music, and I’m paraphrasing here, says he could see in a few years, basically having acts like Britney Spears — that is a big, corporate, mega-act — and people making music in their bedrooms and distributing it on the net. Basically the elimination of middle class music.
Yeah. I think that’s wonderful. That was the way… growing up, all the bands in Annapolis kind of did the same thing. They would have little labels that they ran out of their parents’ basement. The only thing was that was sort of pre-Internet. That was years and years ago, before the Internet was such a force. Otherwise, they could have had a band all over the world.
Exactly. Everything stayed very regional.
It was really nice to be able to have that kind of option. Not to be completely fucked just because we disagreed with our management or our label, you know? I think it’s going to give a lot of artists more self-determination about what they do, what they say and how they say it, which kicks ass!
Unfortunately I haven’t been able to see you play live. So when you play out, who comes to your shows? Who’s your fan base?
That’s so weird because I was just talking with the manager of this club in Baltimore called Fletcher’s. Every time we play there, we do a theme night. [It’s] the only club where we do this. We will deck out the club and dress in costumes, like we did Chinese New Year, [and] the last one we did was “Mary Prankster Sleeps with the Fishes,” we did an underwater theme. We all came out dressed as sailors and had the stage draped in blue with fish netting, with starfish and plastic lobsters and everything. We had two bubble machines duct taped to the light rig, so they would go off and the bubbles would come down on the crowd like they were underwater. Oh! And we threw packets of tartar sauce at the crowd. It was so cool. But the manager at Fletcher’s was talking about our fans, because he sees everybody. He sees like all kinds of people that come through there. Like every band that tours, like a club sized band. And so he’s seen all kinds of fan bases. He says our fans are some of the most pleasant people that he’s ever met. And they are, by and large they are just really nice, easy going, smart people with really good senses of humor and other than that they have absolutely nothing in common. Like it’s every race. Like from fourteen-year old girls to parents… some parents bring their kids, like their teenagers.
That’s a frightening thought.
It’s weird, man! The only thing is like everybody in the crowd seems to be very much an individual and so there isn’t like a lot of unity, even in our audiences. They’re just fierce loners, all of them. A whole club packed full of people who could give a fuck what anyone else thought of them. And they’re neat and we’ve made genuine friendships with people who started out as fans because they’re cool. It’s fun. Like they’re a fun crowd. We don’t get a lot of hipsters. We don’t get a lot of the sophisticates, like the “indie” sort of crowd. Which is weird, but kind of good because they never seem to be really into like jumping around or whatever.
They have to act as if they don’t really like you.
Right, right! And I hate that! That’s like so ungratifying. I mean I want to be as punk as the next person but please, come on! Give me a little something. Is that selfish? I don’t know. Our fans are really cool.
Do you find that people think a certain way about you because of your songs?
This is really kind of strange. I find out more about people by what they tell me, by the impressions they say they have of me through the music. It really seems like the songs are like Rorschach tests. It’s really interesting to get other people’s interpretations, especially of my motives. This one guy, he’s sort of a co-worker, said because of my song “The World is Full of Bastards,” “You’re a man-hater, aren’t you?” Where did you get that from? I mean, I work with the guy, side by side, shoulder to shoulder. Probably one of the most pleasant people you’d ever want to meet. He’s like, “You hate men, is that it?” No, I don’t hate men! They’re half the population, what good would that do? He’s like, “Well you wrote that song.” Yeah, but it’s funny. It’s a funny song. People bring their own baggage to all of their interpretations. Men that I’ve met that find an angry streak or an anti-male streak in it seem to be a little on the insecure side. Like as a personality trait. And the women that come up to me at shows and are like, “Fuck men, men suck, it’s just us girls,” they’re just whacked, too. I don’t know where they’re coming from. It’s funny, people really tell a lot about themselves by what they get out of it. None of that’s on purpose, I’m just writing what I know.
I found with both albums — which have like ten songs on them — that the first eight songs were really funny, it’s a good time and everybody laughs, then the last two songs were real downers. I don’t know if that’s intentional, but it makes me rethink about laughing at the earlier songs, and I start reading a lot of stuff into the songs.
Downers huh? I’ve got to pull out a CD, because I don’t remember the order.
We’re talking about songs like…
“Mercyfuck,” “Valentine,” “Takes His Place”…
Oh yeah! That one did come out kind of intense.
And “New Tricks.” I think that song means more the older you get.
Yeah, totally. I remember the first time I played it for… I have a friend who sings with a band called Jimmie’s Chicken Shack. “Mercyfuck” I wrote for Jimmie as a present. We’re buddies. We’re both from Annapolis, originally. So, I mean, we’ve been friends for years now. There’s a very, very small music scene, so everybody pretty much knows each other. It’s very incestuous. One night he was having girl trouble or something, I was over at his place and we were chatting. Like he went out to go drinking – no, he went to take a phone call, and it just, everything he did and said just inspired me, and I wrote the whole thing. And he came back from the phone call and I said, “Read this, I just wrote a song for you to cheer you up.” Then he went out drinking, and when he came back I had written the music. I was like, “Let me play it for you.”
That’s great. Your songs are really written loose enough to allow people to make their own interpretations and be valid.
Yeah, which is great. I mean, that really excites me when people care enough to interpret a song, or they get something out of it. That’s just so neat when they bring their own experiences to it.
Have you run into trouble over your lyrics?
Oh yeah. When I was starting out, I was banned from every place in Annapolis that featured live music, back when I was just a one woman solo acoustic act. That was a real drag, because it was my hometown, and I couldn’t play any places there. The only places where I could get booked were way outside of there, where they really didn’t know me. So I’d drive like six hours out to West Virginia, through the mountains and shit and play at like Roscoe’s Roadside Roadhouse, get my fifty bucks and drive six hours back. That sucked! Annapolis was like fifteen minutes from my door, and I couldn’t play anywhere there. But at the same time, it was really cool, because there was no familiarity about it. Like I think it really sharpened me as a performer, having to win people over that totally didn’t know me from anything, total strangers, and trying to draw them in. I think it really helped. So ultimately, the bad thing turned out to be a good thing.
Has most of that gone by the board?
It’s kind of funny how malleable the morality and outrage of venue owners is, the people who initially wouldn’t book me ’cause they were sure their customers would be driven away, that I would really offend people. As soon as I started to get just a little bit of airplay, it really seemed to change their minds. It was like I was shit, “Oh, we can get more people in here to buy beer? Oh, you’re fine, come on in!” It was so mercenary. I was like, “Oh, money does make the world go around.”
Do you think club owners would have had the same concerns if you had been a guy?
I think probably wouldn’t have shocked them as much. Like they might not have even thought about it. I know some of the places that I played, guys in rock bands would get up there and say stuff that was comparable, but it wasn’t such a big deal. I mean, I’m not so naïve to think it isn’t more shocking when a chick swears a blue streak, especially if there is no a band and there’s just an acoustic guitar, ’cause you can’t really get away from it. Then at the same time, I think their reactions are just a little bit overboard, especially for this day and age. Sure it’s a little bit shocking, but it’s kind of titillating too, so just go with it.
Your second album, with a band, Roulette Girl, seems a bit toned down, at least as far as some of the explicitness. Is that intentional, or just the way the writing evolved?
Some of the songs on Roulette Girl predated some of the songs on Blue Skies. It wasn’t like brand new material written after I had matured. Seriously. Like for the first album, I didn’t know if there was ever going to be a second album, you know, when I did [it,] it was sort of like a go for broke. All right, fuck it! I’m just going to do this. No more procrastinating. Take my life savings and make a record, get a full band. I’m going to go into a good studio and I’m just going to do it. So I decided if I was going to only make one album, it was going to be the most balls out, over the top rock and roll album ever. That I would just go for it and not hold anything back and not try to appear particularly artful or mature or whatever, just go for it! And then for the second album, luckily, I did have some material that was written in a more mature mood.
Actually, some of the songs on Roulette Girl are more shocking in their subject matter than just saying fuck every other word.
I definitely cornered the market on that. Once you write a song like “Mercyfuck,” where do you go from there? I mean, is it possible to be any more obscene? Maybe… if I rap. That was pretty much the last word on the subject. I’m not going to try to top that. Then it would get into like Doctor Demento kind of stuff.
Who are some of the people you find funny?
Chris Rock is drop dead funny. He is so funny and so intelligent. I really like Chris Rock. I like Dave Chappelle a lot. I love the movie Half Baked; I laughed my ass off. That was such a great stoner movie. That was one of the greatest stoner movies of all time. I don’t think enough people saw it, it should have been a blockbuster. And Harlan Williams, who is in it too, I like him because he’s really weird. I like the whole new generation of like [people that] you can’t tell if they’re trying to be funny or they’re just really fucked up, like Tom Green. Did you see the episode where he went on the Canadian talk show with the raccoon that had been dead for three weeks?
It was really messed up. I like stuff that’s right on the line like that. Oh, and Steven Wright. I saw Steven Wright in concert and Chris Rock opened for him.
That’s a contrast in styles, isn’t it?
Yep. It was at the Naval Academy. Like five years ago, maybe. It was really good.
One last question. What the hell happened to the DC area music scene?
I take no responsibility for the DC music scene; I’m from Annapolis, it’s not the same thing.
A few years ago, everything was coming out of there, and I haven’t heard anything coming out of that area in forever.
They still have their scene there. I don’t know what happened. It’s one of those scenes where a band will get big for a while, then they’ll break up and everyone will go and form a different band. You need like a batting scorecard to keep up with who’s in what band and where they came from. That’s how you get your scenester crowd. It’s just too much effort. I think that’s probably what it was. Too much effort.
So those eight bands are now like seventeen, twenty bands.
Right. Totally. “He used to be in this, with this, and that,” and it’s all like six degrees to Ian MacKaye. Who needs it? Like in Charlottesville, Virginia, the only famous person ever to come out of there is Dave Matthews. So everyone in the music scene asserts their self worth to Dave Matthews, or someone who’s played with him. In Annapolis it’s Jimmie from Jimmie’s Chicken Shack, but not as bad, not nearly as bad. Annapolis is not a hip enough town to care if a rock star came out of it. Like no one would even think to assert their dominance like that. But Charlottesville’s got a big music scene, and everyone’s like, “That guy was in math class with Dave Matthews Band’s drummer’s cousin.” It’s crazy.