While many saw an abrupt and aggravating pause in their lives last year, Mark Rechler viewed the consequences of the pandemic as an unexpected opportunity.
Already busy with two musical projects, Rechler transitioned his third band, Circus Mind, from a regional live act that has opened for Toots & The Maytals, The Neville Brothers and The Radiators among others to a studio one that finally recorded its first album since 2006.
Work on the release began in August of 2019 but the COVID-19 live concert stoppage presented a moment to be fully immersed in new material. Rather than venture into livestream performances, Circus Mind aimed to finish what it started. “Suddenly we had a ton of time on our hands and we knew we wanted to come out of this with a full album,” said Rechler. “I was a man possessed and started writing like a madman.”
With a who’s who of musicians off the road, Rechler was able to add special guests on all of the album’s hook-filled 10 tracks. That includes Brandon “Taz” Niederauer on opening number, “Are You Ready?” and its roots in P-Funk, Sly Stone and other ’70s rock and soul, Scott Metzger (JRAD) on the title track as well as Nels Cline, Marc Ribot and Walter Wolfman Washington.
The result, Joy Machine, resonates with lead vocalist, songwriter, keyboardist and bandleader Rechler’s adoration of ‘70s classic rock and New Orleans funky grooves. His five years in New Orleans studying music and architecture influenced his musical direction as well as led to a successful career designing and developing projects in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Besides his three bands, he has played, toured, and recorded with members of The Meters, The Neville Brothers, The Radiators, Soulive, The Brandon “Taz” Niederauer Band, Rebirth Brass Band and Ivan Neville.
Fans received a taste of what the 20 year-old New York-based act were creating with the release last year of their ode to the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. “Jazzfest Time,” which featured Crescent City legends Ivan Neville and Big Sam, displayed that Circus Mind can get the party started even if the members are playing a socially-distanced house party.
Our conversation had been on hold for quite awhile as I dealt with personal loss. Then, shortly before our scheduled date, longtime Circus Mind bassist Chris Crosby passed away. He studied with Oteil Burbridge and among other credits he played with his brother in the Jason Crosby Band.
The acknowledgement of mourning precedes the music’s joyous celebration.
JPG: How are you?
MR: I’m doing all right. I’m hanging in there, still working hard. A lot of crazy stuff going on but pushing through the good and the bad. You know how it is.
JPG: I understand how that is. First off, I wanted to thank you for your patience in getting this done due to me dealing with the situation with my father. At the same time, with a nod towards mourning, there’s you and [Circus Mind bassist] Chris Crosby passing away. My sympathies go out to you and his family.
MR: Thank you. It’s a big blow, and it’s still really new and raw. So, definitely we’re still dealing a little bit here and dealing with emotions and everything. Chris has been a big musical partner for the band for, I want to say 17 years. The band’s 20 years old, coming on to 20, and he got in the third year, and he was only 18. He was young…and amazing. He was always the most talented guy in the band then. So, he’s been an incredible asset and such a sweet, mild-mannered guy, such a great bandmate.
Musicians tend to be sensitive people. A lot of bands, it’s like having a lot of wives, sometimes. But he was the best wife. He was really dedicated to making things work all the time, and communicative, and so talented. We’re going to really miss him. It hurts. And I loved the guy. Music aside, he was just a great guy. (A tribute to Crosby took place on Oct. 9 in Glen Cove, New York featuring members of his various musical projects.)
JPG: On to more positive things, the new Circus Mind album, Joy Machine. First, this is kind of funny. I can’t play the song “Are You Ready?” at home anymore because my dogs hear those words and think that they’re going to go for a walk or a ride.
MR: That’s hilarious.
JPG: My wife was singing along to it. I’m like, “Do you realize what you’re saying?” She looked down and there are the two dogs looking at her, “Where are we going?”
MR: I totally get that. We used to not be able to say the word “ball” in my house. We always had to spell it out. You couldn’t say the word because my dog would get so excited and freak out. And “Are You Ready?” definitely applies to, “Are you ready? We’re going for a walk.” I hear you.
I love dogs. I’m a huge dog guy. I have not told anyone this, on any interview, or any promotion. I’m telling you right now, [the title track] “Joy Machine” was about my dog, Stella, who passed away. She was my joy machine. She just brought me joy. Things are shitty. Things are terrible. You just get love. They bring you joy. And anything could be a joy machine, right? A keyboard, your stereo, your wife, your girlfriend but this dog was just nonstop there for me. The first line, “Stella was a joy machine,” Stella was my dog.
Stella was a Bracco Italiano, which is an Italian pointer. Looks like a dog from the Bugs Bunny cartoon; one of those hunting dogs with the droopy faces.
“Are You Ready?” has gotten good reviews from people and people with children seem to really like that, “Are you ready? Are you ready? Are you ready?” Then, I’ve had some inquiries about a few commercial kind of things. “Are you ready? Are you ready?” I would love if one of those things happened. That’d be amazing.
Brandon “Taz” Niederauer really made that track shine like it should. He was really amazing. We’re really psyched about that opening track.
JPG: We’ll go into the special guests in a bit, but that song, and just overall, there’s a very New Orleans vibe to it. You recorded Joy Machine last year, while portions of society was freaking out or depressed or angry yet you went a different way with this album. It has a very upbeat feel to it. Was it conscious?
MR: That’s a good question. I have other projects and they tend to be darker than Circus Mind. With Circus Mind we play a lot of bars and clubs where people are standing up and usually dancing, so it lends itself more to that stuff. My band, Falling Water, is more my depressing go-to.
There are a couple of sadder, darker numbers [on Joy Machine]. There’s the “Longing Song,” which deals with more serious topics and then there’s “Troubled Times.” Even that somehow has an uplifting spirit in a way.
I was collecting a lot of those riffs. I would say 50% of that record was written and finished once COVID hit and the other parts were parts that were almost finished. Once we got into lockdown, I got into this crazy mode of must finish. Got to come out of this with something. That was my goal. It created some tensions within the band of how that was going to get done with us all being in different houses and things like that but I was a man on a mission.
The first thing was completing those songs and putting this together and it happened really fast. Once I applied myself and I had nowhere to go, there was no FOMO, nowhere else be, no gigs to play, so things fell into place. It was really amazing. I loved that about it.
JPG: I interviewed Mike Dillon earlier this year. We spoke about the three albums he recorded last year and how he took all these precautions when he was recording his parts. Also, he sent music files to musician friends and they’d send them back. So, he was trying to be as safe as possible. Were you doing something like that where people went in individually or were the musicians social distancing in the studio?
MR: It totally started out like that. We started tracking roughs remotely through Pro Tools and Zoom; the really basic stuff, sending stuff around. At some point, we figured we were a pod and we trusted each other, and we were all paranoid at the time. So, we were getting together to hash this stuff out. A lot of it was outdoors last summer. That was good.
Then, we trusted each other enough to get into the studio. We had my engineer—who was great—and the studio had very strict protocols. We had gotten tested and stuff like that. It went down like that. As the year went on, people relaxed a little more in a positive way. We were educated and we knew how to do it more carefully.
A lot of these special guests were done remotely because some, of course, were out of town anyway. That was all on Zoom, in some cases. Brandon, who is a neighbor of mine pretty much, we did it in person. So, my horns came in but protocols were strict. There’s no question about it. It was tricky but it worked out.
JPG: You have your other musical projects: Falling Water and Outhouse. So, you’re obviously busy with that as well as your job as an architect. Still, it’s been 15 years between albums for Circus Mind. Was it just a matter that you never felt in the mood to do a new album or were you just so busy?
MR: We were busy playing gigs. A lot of the members play their projects. So, they’re busy. The beautiful thing about being in a band for 20 years is you don’t need much rehearsal. You can have the gig, maybe get together if you needed to get some new stuff in. But we didn’t need to. We were really able to dig deep in our history and do shows like that. Of course, getting in the studio to learn new material is a different thing and to really hone it down.
Circus Mind didn’t seem as happening, so I was more focused on the other projects. The nice thing about the Outhouse project is it’s all basically electronic. It’s done on the computer, so I didn’t need that many people, and that’s a great way not to have to get people together for rehearsals. Falling Water, we did two records in that time. I guess my recording focus was on other projects even though my live playing was with Circus Mind. We’ve been playing live and still are. Sadly, we were about to have a gig last Friday, but without Chris, we couldn’t do it.
Circus Mind’s kind of a local band. We’re in New York and New Jersey, and we jump to New Orleans occasionally. We stay within our little markets here for the most part; a little tour if we get lucky or some special show.
JPG: I mentioned earlier how the new album has a very New Orleans vibe. Reading about how you were studying architecture when you were going to Tulane…
MR: Yes. I’m still an architect. I studied down at Tulane and we love that place dearly. Of course, we’re regular Jazz Festers. Over the years I became very friendly with the band The Radiators, and I had played shows with them. They ended up asking me to play in the band Fish Head Stew, which was an offshoot of The Radiators.
Around that time, too, this is probably already 15 or more years ago, Leo Nocentelli had played on the first Circus Mind record and we struck a friendship. So, he asked me to do some shows. Then, I started playing with him a bunch, with the Leo Nocentelli Experience. And I’d done some shows with George Porter and Johnny Sketch and The Dirty Notes and different bands. Just from hanging out long enough, you make friends and you build relationships. It’s been nice. So, New Orleans definitely…Cyril Neville said that I come “trawling through New Orleans.” I like that term.
JPG: As far as your work as an architect, how does your day job affect your creative side? Do you approach songwriting differently or do you approach playing music with a different degree of joy that, maybe, others don’t?
MR: To be 100% honest, I went into architecture because I was a creative person and I’m best when I’m creating. The reality of architecture in the real world is there is creativity but it’s like 6% or 7% of what architecture is. I get to do that. I’m still designing buildings. I work. I do really cool projects around Brooklyn area and there is definitely a lot of creativity there.
However, it’s more the fiscal, how are you going to build it economically and everything else that goes with it. Music, I don’t have to make those critical decisions. I can put my love in it and do what I’m feeling. You don’t have to go by those exact parameters that you have to do in architecture. Yes, there’s definitely a connection. Also, I draw and paint as well. So, I’m just happy. I could be happy probably knitting something. I just like making stuff.
JPG: Also, with the day job working out for you, it pays the bills and frees you so that you approach music with a lot less stress than musician friends who are musicians only 24/7 and constantly looking for the next gig.
MR: Yeah, that’s why even during COVID I decided to record a record when it seemed like most artists I knew were going online and doing livestreams and they needed to do that to supplement income. That almost made me not want to do that. I didn’t really want to compete in that world. I know some guys who did really well with that, which was amazing. It kept them going. People were really generous and they said they were doing better than they would do if they played a bar or a club, which is a beautiful thing. I hope people will continue with that. I felt like I had the day job. I didn’t need to be playing live. I thought it was more important to do what I hadn’t been doing, which was getting back into the studio with this band and making what could be one of our last statements.
JPG: Besides the New Orleans vibe or New Orleans funk on Joy Machine, there’s the ’70s influences. I was trying to come up with bands as I was listening to the album. In order to get that ‘70s feel on the material, was it a matter of the songwriting, the arranging, the engineering or all of the above?
MR: It’s all of the above, and then none of the above at the same time. I know that sounds kind of weird but when I write a song, I’m like, “This is something. What is this?” I’ll show it to the band. I’ll show it to my wife. I’m like, “What does this sound like?” They’re like “I don’t know. It reminds me of something,” but they can’t say. And I’m like, “Alright, well, I guess that’s good. It’s catchy and it sounds like something but yet we can’t pick it out.” That’s the basis of a start.
Then, as the band comes in, things develop a little bit differently and that gives it a different feel. And definitely my producer, Chris Fasulo, is a genius. He’s really great. He gets what I like and what my influences are and he can really hone in on…let’s say, “We want that guitar to sound like George Harrison on this,” and he’s really great with that. That helps, too.
So, it’s the parts and pieces. You don’t really know what the final thing is going to be. I say, “You aim for one place and you end up somewhere else and that’s totally okay because it’s just your version of that thing, and it’s part the process.”
JPG: Getting back to the special guests on the album. There’s Brandon, Scott Metzger, Nels Cline, Max Newman, Ivan Neville, Big Sam, Marc Ribot, Kevin Griffen, Walter “Wofman” Washington, Bill Titus and even your producer Chris Fasulo. When you were recording, did you have that in mind, like, “Let’s bring somebody in for each track” or once that started you kept going?
MR: I didn’t realize it at first. My guitar player, David Berg, has been a longtime member of the band. He was a little frozen by the COVID world and I couldn’t really get him to produce as much as I would’ve liked. He’s probably on 30%, 40% of the record. While he was moving in super slow-mo, I was in high speed, so I needed to find people. I started making a list, based on the songs, who would be good on this song or that song and it turned out…like when I got Marc Ribot, it was just a crazy score. I was like, “Who would be good on this instrumental track?” and Chris Crosby said it to me and I’m like, “That’s such a good idea. How do we reach out to him?” Turned out I found someone that had a connection,
I threw it out there and everyone was game to check it out if they liked it. Everyone needed the money. It was that kind of moment in time. I didn’t know if that would happen any other time to be perfectly honest. That worked out for me. Taz, obviously, I play with. He’s my friend. Scott Metzger is a friend of mine but he’s a busy guy and he wasn’t busy. You know what I mean? He probably wouldn’t have done it in any other year even though we’re friendly. Max Newman, great guy, he’s also busy. He wasn’t busy. It was a crazy, beautiful gift to me that everyone was available. It was a win-win situation.
JPG: Big Sam is on “Jazzfest Time.” Can you talk about that one? Is it a reworked version of the single that you put out last year?
MR: No, that’s the single. We did that one before there was a record or we knew consciously we were doing a full record. It was pretty early on. Oddly enough, there hasn’t been a Jazz Fest since that song came out, unfortunately. But I really love that song. It came in my head. I felt like there’s an ode for Mardi Gras. New Orleans has so many songs for so many things and I was like, “There’s no real Jazz Fest song.” So, I wrote it and got really great feedback on it. People were like, “I feel like that’s a really old, New Orleans classic.” And I was like, “That’s awesome.”
JPG: Maybe next year, they can use it. It’s ironic that you played that song at an album release party for Joy Machine at NOLA Brewing and then New Orleans Jazz Fest gets canceled.
MR: Exactly. But it got picked up on the Festival Circuit podcast that Tom Marshall did. They have one on Newport and they did a whole thing on Jazz Fest. So, it was the theme song for that, which was really amazing.
JPG: Have you played other gigs over the summer because a lot of bands are scaling back?
MR: I haven’t been taking that much. I did, like you said, down in NOLA for our release party. Then, I did a private release party up here in New York. My gigging was really just about to start and then we just got punched in the face.
I came out thinking I would do a bunch of dates and what happened was I was so focused on the record and promoting the record that the guys in the band had really booked a lot of other gigs. By the time I was ready. “Alright, I’m ready to book shows,” there was not much left. And the clubs, too. Everyone was dying to get out there. I try to look at these things as opportunities. So, I looked at this as an opportunity not to jump back into the melee.
I was also, pre-COVID, a little ragtag. My ears were really shot and I need to be careful with how loud I’m playing, how much I’m playing, things like that. I’m wearing special in-ear monitors now. So, it’s okay if I don’t overplay. I really love the studio and I love creating and writing music and I have another four Circus Mind songs in the hopper that are almost done. I think I’m going to go in the studio, hopefully, with a newer version of the band and do another three and maybe pop out an EP by the end of the year, if I’m lucky.
JPG: I was just about to ask, what’s next?
MR: We had a couple of really good leftovers because I didn’t want to bulk up the record too much. Then, I worked on another two. I don’t know if this will be chock-full of special guests or not. It’s hard to say. But the songs are definitely in line with the Joy Machine songs and the funky ’70s vibe.