In Conversation with Mark Kano of Athenaeum

“I like anything with a good melody, and a meaningful lyric. This probably isn’t very hip of me, but I think the Indigo Girls are my favorite group of all time”, says Mark Kano of Athenaeum. Given that Kano and his band released one of the best alternative rock albums of 2001 only for a lack of promotion by Atlantic Records see it effectively consigned to the sidelines, you might think he currently had bigger concerns other than which band influenced his songwriting the most.

However, instead of being full of vitriol, anger and hard-luck stories, the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist of the Greensboro, North Carolina based quartet is remarkably philosophical about the way events have transpired for his band.

Kano elaborates: “It’s easy to blame the industry but we all knew what we were getting into when we signed record deals. Some close friends of ours, Far Too Jones, have recently called it quits because these days there are more bands than ever and it’s harder to break through. Since we started out, I’ve learned a lot, especially that half of everything people in this industry tell you is true, but I just have to keep in mind that I still play music for a living.”

And music is almost all that Kano has ever known since he formed the band whilst still at high school in 1990 with drummer Nic Brown. A succession of players came and went before the settled line up of Mark, Nic, bassist Alex McKinney and lead guitarist Grey Brewster recorded an eight song EP that quickly caused a buzz among national and local A&R reps.

In 1996, Athenaeum signed with Atlantic, but chose to keep roots in North Carolina, because as Kano says, “It felt nice belonging somewhere, and it’s also nice knowing you can get a deal without ever leaving your back yard.” The band did temporarily relocate to L.A. to record their debut full-length album Radiance, a sparkling and vibrant album that showcased a rich, guitar-led melodic sound whilst introducing Kano’s distinctively powerful and unique voice. The single “What I Didn’t Know” charted highly on the modern rock charts, and the band toured relentlessly with bands like the Goo Goo Dolls and Semisonic, experiences that seemingly make the ups and downs the band has known in the music industry seem worthwhile.

“We were still more or less kids at the time, and it was our first major label album”, remembers Kano. “I really enjoyed making that record as there were less people giving us their opinion of our music then! Being a huge fan of Toad the Wet Sprocket, it was great to work with someone like Gavin McKillop too.”

The band had certainly come a long way since singing the national anthem at their school’s eighth grade dance, seven years earlier, and it was hoped that when Athenaeum returned to the studio they would be able to build on the foundations laid by Radiance.

Produced by Peter Collins and Phillip Steir, Athenaeum was certainly a more in depth album than it’s predecessor, expanding the band’s horizons with the use of a wider range of instruments as well as giving them the chance to work with a number of celebrated guest players like Rusty Anderson and Carl Herrgesell. The album definitely has a darker edge to its sound, but Kano’s trademark melodies were still stamped all over songs like “Damage”, “Comfort” and “Suddenly”, and it remains an album the band are extremely pleased with.

Mark continues: “While I’m still a big fan of Radiance, I think we pushed ourselves out of our own mold with the latest record. The performances and songs themselves sound like they came from an older and more experimental band.”

Even though the word “experimental” is enough to frighten record executives and fans alike, Kano doesn’t believe the sophomore album was too much of a departure for a new band whose fans were hoping for Radiance part two.

“I think some of the older fans were a little shocked at songs like “Sweeter Love” and “Plurabelle,” but overall we’ve been pleased with the response by fans. I think we managed to keep what was charming about Radiance whilst exploring new ground.

“We weren’t concerned with repeating ourselves because quite frankly, some of the songs sounded like nothing we had done before. Plus, our A&R person wanted someone new in the producers chair which is why we didn’t work with Gavin [McKillop] again.”

A new element to Athenaeum’s sound was also added just before the release of Athenaeum in September 2001, with the recruitment of Jeremy Vogt and Mike Garrigan on drums and guitar respectively, and the change has given the band a real boost.

“Jeremy is the loudest drummer I’ve shared the stage with,” admits Kano. “It’s been a real challenge trying to sing over him, but he brings a more rock element to our pop songs and has made us a better band. Mike and I have been trying to play together for years, so it’s like a slice of heaven for both of us!”

Splitting with Atlantic has added to the new lease of life Athenaeum now enjoys, and despite being currently without a deal, unsurprisingly, it’s not something that worries Kano too much and he remains optimistic about Athenaeum’s future.

“We are still writing new material as well as touring in the NC area, and we are going to self-release Hourglass, an outtakes record with unreleased material this summer. Mike [Garrigan] is working on a solo record and three-fourths of us are getting married. It should be a full year for everyone!”