MMS Interview: Six Questions with Mark Charles Heidinger of Vandaveer

I had the pleasure of talking with Vandaveer frontman-cum-alter ego Mark Charles Heidinger about his past and future work, his upcoming gig with The Deadmen at the 9:30 Club, and his thoughts on embracing the modern music industry and its opportunities. Heidinger, a veteran of Kentucky and DC-area bands including The Apparitions and These United States, has been a fixture on the local scene since his 2007 solo debut Grace & Speed. Without further ado, here are the highlights of the conversation.

Can you tell us a little about the new album (or at least as much as you can reveal)…where you recorded it, who recorded it, how you wrote the songs this time around?

We make all of our records,  for the most part, in Kentucky, where I'm from originally. I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, and I have a dear friend/producer/mentor of sorts who I've been working with since I was in college. His name is Duane Lundy, and he has a wonderful warehouse studio space in downtown Lexington. We usually decamp to Kentucky whenever it's time to make a record. We have a steady core unit we work with, Duane being at the helm as producer, Rose (Guerin) and myself, and an inner circle of creative confidantes.

I read in an earlier interview that your first Vandaveer album was recorded as a reaction to how the process of recording was proceeding with The Apparitions?

The Apparitions was the band I had prior to Vandaveer taking up most of my time. That entire band was based in Kentucky, and I was living here in DC. It took a long time for us to get stuff done, because when you're a band it's very much a democratic operation. It also slows the process down when you're not all in the room together. I just went in with a dozen tunes, and made that first Vandaveer record in a week. It was very cathartic to knock it out quickly, and not spend too much time hemming and hawing over the details. But I'm right back in that boat now, because we spent a year making this last Vandaveer record. Now it's all about the minutiae again. We've come full circle!

I have fond feelings about that record (Ed note: the aforementioned Grace & Speed). It's a little unpolished, a little rough around the edges, but that was by design. I don't know what we were gunning for, but at the end of that week we felt like we had achieved it, whatever it was. We recorded it, and eventually it did find its way into a formal release. We were very fortunate to befriend some people who ran Gypsy Eyes records. Kalani Tifford is in a band in town called Sunwolf. Josh Read, who was one of the other partners, is in The Deadmen, whom we're playing with next month. I wish that label was still around. It was a wonderful group of people. 

We still pal around with that same circle of people, but we're all older and there are children in the mix now. Palling around now involves more toys, more plastic, and more sunlight, because we're not gathering at such nocturnal hours. More birthday parties and brunches, things like that.

You mentioned Josh Read, who was also your bandmate in These United States. Are you simply sharing a bill with The Deadmen, or is this a sign of a collaboration to come?

Josh and I are good friends, with a friendship that goes beyond music. He's helped me with arrangements and engineering in the past. This is not the preface to some larger creative endeavor. They're my favorite rock and roll band in town. There are three songwriters in that band, and they're all incredibly talented. Really surly, cantankerous men, with wonderful songs to go along with all that. If there's not a fistfight by the end of the night, I'd be disappointed.

How has the character of Vandaveer evolved over the life of this project? Are Vandaveer and Mark growing closer together, or evolving into their own separate entities?

Probably a bit of both. Vandaveer feels more like a band now than it was seven or eight years ago. Rose has been in the mix now for seven years, and the entity has sprouted a new head and an extra set of opinions. It vacillates. Some of what I write feels very autobiographical, memoir-driven, and some of it feels like a character. I think that's the prerogative of the artist, to swing from side-to-side without any sort of blueprint. I enjoy that freedom; I enjoy writing from both perspectives.

Rose is often listed in interviews as your sister. Is that a bit of musical fiction?

I don't know if that's musical fiction. She's not fictional. I wasn't blessed to be born with a sister. I have brothers, wonderful brothers, but she's as close to a sister as its gets for me. We don't share blood, but we are family. There's the family you're born with, and there's the family you forge.

Are you embracing alternative business models and streams of income?

That's such an interesting shift, I would say a quantum leap, in how that's talked about in the industry. Ten or fifteen years ago, people were quick to toss out the term "selling out" if an artist entertained alternative streams of income - commercial licensing, commission work. That is a foregone conclusion now, that as an artist you have to hack into whatever revenue stream you can, if your goal is to devote yourself full-time to your craft. There are certain choices you have to make, and I'm not ashamed of licensing songs. There are limits to what I'm comfortable doing when it comes to that sort of thing, but I'm not opposed to that concept. 

There are wonderful tools out there to discover music, like Spotify and Pandora, but they do not come close to helping an artist pay the bills. It's not a sustainable rate yet, but I'm of the opinion that the concept can work if enough people buy into it. I don't think it's a settled debate, and I don't think the royalty rate is necessarily chiseled in stone. I think all of that can be tweaked to be more equitable to the artists. I think there are some very troubling aspects to the way they calculate those rates. Major labels have inked secretive, cigar-smoke laden deals with Spotify, and there are voodoo economics involved in how certain artists get paid and others don't. The royalty rate never made sense with the traditional labels in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and it doesn't make sense now. 

Arguing whether or not services like streaming music or music as a utility service is futile. Fighting that is like fighting globalization. Being against it is like putting your head in the sand. The argument isn't whether you should be pro- or anti-Spotify, but how do we improve the service. I love Spotify as a music discovery tool. I have a premium account. That's how I find new music. If I read about something, I'll go on Spotify and stream it. If I really like it, I'll go and buy it. It can't replace traditional record sales for an artist, but I don't think it's supposed to. Last I checked, money can trickle in from twelve or thirteen different streams. You have to figure out how to make all of those streams work for you.

Although I couldn't wrest any juicy details of the new album from Mark, rest assured that it's being prepped for a release later this year or early in 2015. In the meantime, enjoy the video for the instant classic "Dig Down Deep", the title track from the 2011 album, and catch Vandaveer and The Deadmen at the 9:30 Club on Saturday, August 9th.

Photo courtesy of The Hornblow Group and Shervin Lainez