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Practicing tenderness: an interview with Mark Duplass

Mark Duplass is a tender guy. At their core, his movies like "Blue Jay" or "The Puffy Chair" are usually about one relationship, or how two people interact with each other. It's no surprise that his band had that same tenderness, too. In the early 2000s, before starring in "The League" or teaming up with Ray Romano for "Paddleton," or writing "Room 104" with his brother for HBO, he was in an indie rock band. They were Volcano, I'm still Excited!! They shared a tour and a label with Milwaukee's own Decibully and that label, Polyvinyl, just re-released their 2002 EP, "Carbon Copy."

Here Mark talks about growing up in New Orleans, flailing in indie rock, and loving Milwaukee.
Interview with Mark Duplass

So we're going to talk about Volcano, I'm still excited!! Polyvinyl is reissuing the "Carbon Copy" EP from 2002 and it's pretty awesome. So, born in New Orleans, Catholic high school, older brother Jay. We share a lot of the same beats, Catholic, older brother who is similar in age. 

I am wondering what your first experiences with music were like with your brother. Who got into music first and what was the dynamic with you and your brother in terms of music when your first started listening? 

Oh, that's a good question. I've never really talked about that before. Music was all around our house from our parents in terms of just like listening to records and there was some classical music and there was some classic rock and some Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and things like that. But the active part of our listening didn't really happen until Jay, who's like three and a half years older than me, started bringing things home when he was like 13 or 14, and learning from his friends at school all about the cool music. And so we got like "Lifes Rich Pageant" by R.E.M. and he brought home The Cure's "Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me." And he brought home "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust" and that was when I was about 10 years old and I started to realize there's this whole other world out there.

So we started taking drum lessons early on when I was 10, Jay was 14. And then I started picking up guitar pretty soon after that. And Jay and I, we had this little used shitty Tascam four-track and we would just hang out and record cover songs of like Hall & Oates and we never dreamed as we were making that music and simultaneously making little movies and things that there would be a career for us in this. It always felt like, well, we're going to the Jesuit high school where you are built to be a lawyer or a doctor or a hedge fund person. And there was no pathway into the arts. We didn't have any models for that. So it wasn't until Jay went to school in Austin in the early nineties and we got to see the DIY artists revolution there with all the musicians and all the filmmakers that we started to see. Not only is this possible where if you just make it yourself, you can do it, but also that like, it's okay to be middle class and white and you can still have a voice there and still have something to say. Which we didn't really feel that. When you're in New Orleans, the only model of really cool, interesting artists or a lot of the incredible blues musicians around there who are singing about how hard their lives are and all the abject, just poverty and difficulties. And we just felt like our lives are too easy and we're too privileged and our voices are worthless. But by being in Austin, we sort of learned that like that doesn't mean you don't have anything to say, you’ve just got to find the right way to say it. And that's when it really started for us.

What did your parents think?

They were awesome about it, considering that, this is a conservative Southern family and the lore there is usually please don't do the arts stuff, please go for the stable career. So all things considered, they were incredibly supportive and while they couldn't offer any advice and while they couldn't offer certainly any connections, and while they couldn't offer guidance in that realm, they did the most important things. It turned out that a parent can do for people of our personality, which was to say, “I don't understand this, but I'm here and I love you and I'm behind you.” So that ended up being enough and shaped me as a person more than I think anything in my whole life has. It's everything that I do now as a filmmaker. It's why I produce films for younger filmmakers and stuff like that, because I was lucky enough to have someone who looked me in the eye and said, “I think you're great and I believe in you.” And that's like the only reason I'm here today.

I got goosebumps when you were saying that. 

It feels it should be a given and it's weirdly like a privilege of mine that I had a blind spot to, to be perfectly honest with you, for many years. People would always say, how are you so confident walking in a room? How are you so confident just striking out and making art and thinking it's going to be worthwhile? And I just didn't understand that most people don't grow up with someone giving them at least a little bit of support and love and belief. Not to get all corny and stuff, but it's just so critical and has proven to me to be so pivotal that I'm just doing whatever I can right now to try and spread that partially out of survivor skills, honestly. You know? 

Do you think that having the supportive relationships and being supported led you to, like Volcano is kind of an earnest band. It's a tender band and like me who had similar things, with support, I never felt like I had to lash out against anything.

I think you're onto something there. And I think that in terms of the goofy earnestness of Volcano, I'm Still Excited!!, that particular tone, I think that part of the reason is that, that is just my taste and there's a predilection. But you're not wrong that your taste is formed by who you are and your upbringing. And I was afforded the privilege to be able to be hopeful and be earnest and reach out. And concern myself with things like interpersonal dynamics and being a good person as opposed to, "am I safe and am I going to be able to eat?" That's just like this is the nature of who I am and it affected my art in a big way. 

Mark Duplass | Wikimedia Commons

What were some of the bands at that time? Like you're in Austin and you're just starting making music that had like a similar tone that you saw and grabbed on to? 

That's really interesting cause I've noticed this as a filmmaker and as a musician, I was never able to find the tone that I was trying to achieve and a lot of other art. But what I was able to do is look at the pragmatic models of what they were. And when I looked at Spoon at the time, I thought, "okay, this is smart." There's only three guys. So the money only has to go so far in terms of splitting it and if they've kept the amount of people down so that reduces the infighting and the chance that the band will break up, and they’ve got a nice indie label, they're selling 30,000 records, they licensed some of their songs and they're making a living. So that was the zenith of something that I thought, realistically speaking, we could achieve. And I remember Mates of State, who were on Polyvinyl at the time, they even had it down better. It was just the two of them and they were married. So I was like, that's awesome, this really works. So those were the kinds of models I was looking at and again, I really liked with the tone of what they were achieving. And I did love their music by the way, but I was really trying to see like how I could make myself sustainable and that I've always looked at things like that and looked for like ideas that can help me do what I want to do without waiting for somebody to offer me a big break or offer me a big check. I've always just been a person who's like, what's the sword in your hand? Don't go looking for a sword to swing that you can't get. Swing the sword in your hand and just go make your path. 

So how did you guys get signed to Polyvinyl? 

If you ask polyvinyl, I think they'll say it was such an organic, serendipitous, fun thing: "The guys were coming through Champagne and we saw them play a show." But that is not true. We targeted them. I loved their sensibilities. The fact that they're in Champagne, Ill., it says everything about them. They're like, you know, Midwest people who are so sweet and kind of wanted to be artsy but didn't want to go to New York and become like killers. They're just good people. So on our second tour, we specifically booked the show in Champagne with the hopes of impressing them. We worked really hard promoting it. We hit up the college radio station there and everything went right and we showed up and there were about nine people in the audience. So we were like, "oh god, this is awful."

But what ended up happening, which I guess was the serendipitous part of it is, we just played our hearts out as if we were in Madison Square Garden, sold out. We just went all out. And I think that I was actually talking to Matt who runs the label the other day and he's like, "that was it, man, when we saw like all that heart from you guys playing for practically nobody in the room. We were into it." They're just so great the way they do things. They put up a little bit of cash and a little bit of belief in you and then you do the work and then you go in on a 50/50 partnership. We did our self titled album with them in 2004, but the album we're releasing now, the "Carbon Copy" EP was something we put out on our own in 2002. And I say put out loosely, because we maybe pressed 500 of them and gave away about 490 of those. Never really had a proper release in any regard. 

And you can't put it up on the internet at that time. 


I'm in Milwaukee and some old Milwaukee heroes were also on Polyvinyl at the time Decibully, and you went on tour with them, right? 

They are our Polyvinyl brethren more than any other band was, because the funny thing about Decibully and Polyvinyl is that our records came up back to back. We were in the same like freshman year class, I guess, in like 2004. And both of us were so excited to be on Polyvinyl because all we could think was this is incredible, now Rainer Maria or of Montreal or Mates of State are going to take us out on tour and we're going to open up for them and play for hundreds of people. But the truth is those guys were already going out on tour with Death Cab and other bands. So they were busy and so we were there and we had nobody to take us out.

So Decibully and Volcano just joined forces and said, all right, we'll be the dual freshmen. And we went out together and, and played our hearts out to an average of 25 people a night and I mean honestly had an incredible year on and off touring together and those guys, they are full Milwaukee in spirit and at heart. I mean it was so great. Honestly, I have such a deep -- I'm not just saying this, this will sound so cheesy because it's Milwaukee radio -- but I really do have a deep love for Milwaukee. I mean we've come through there for the film festival thing. I was just there six months ago doing an initiative with your entire local film community where we teach classes on how to make things cheaply and sustainability and how to not wait but take $500 and make your movie and you guys are just. It's like that is the city that I think if I hadn't settled in L.A. and have my life here, I'm like, “Oh my God. Like the rents and the houses are really cheap. They have unbelievable beer. You have access to all these incredible cities going around the Lake, like it's, it's incredible.”

It is a dream. I and I have lived here all my life and it's great. Can you give me like a specific Milwaukee memory or Decibully memory that I could like bring back to the guys?

I think one of my favorite memories was, we were coming through there on tour without Decibully this time and they were in the studio and super busy, so we actually didn't want to bother them. Um, and I think we're playing at the Cactus or something like that. I don't even know if that's still around. And like four of the dudes ended up showing up at our show, you know, doubling our audience essentially. And they were making their second record and they had this big track with all of these vocals on it. And then they asked us to come down and record on their album with them. So we got to sing back up on one of the tracks on their second album and it's that it's that classic Decibully thing that's just, the guys are just living and breathing their art and I mean I still text with Nick and BJ and those guys every now and then and it's just great to have had that little bond from when we were just starting out. 

God, I'm grinning from ear to ear hearing that I could listen to that all day.

I mean that first record they put out, it was incredible, too. It's like the first three tracks on there. It's just like hit, hit, hit. I mean it's a good one. And my wife and I still listen to it and just get very nostalgic because it's the record that we were really kind of falling in love to. We had met like a year before all that all this stuff happened, so it's kind of connected to so many things for me. 

Wow. That is so incredible. For Volcano then, after you broke up, what was your relationship with music? How did it change after you guys broke up? 

That's a big conversation and you could have a lot of fun listening to me and my therapists talk about that, too, cause there's a whole bunch going on there. But you know, the long and the short of it is that it was sort of like a really hard decision I had to make. But I think the right one for me, where I'm extremely close with my brother, I'm extremely close with my girlfriend at the time who's now my wife, Katie. We were all starting to make movies together. And you know, as beautiful as this whole journey with Volcano was you, I was 26, 27 at the time. Maybe it's because of my traditional values. Like I was raised as a person who really knew I wanted to have a family, I wanted to be home with my family. I want to be doing homework with my kids at night. Being on the road did not feel sustainable to me. And as I found myself out in these wonderful road shows, rather than go out at night after, I was on the phone with Jay and Katie and I was trying to build my life at home and filmmaking offered me an opportunity to do that and still be just like kind of a dad.

So that's what I ended up doing and I have no regrets about that and left music behind, but there's no doubt that like a little part of me kind of died there and was really sad about it. And so,I kind of had a dormant relationship with music for a while, no pun intended. Then it kind of started like coming back up again with my kids and I started playing with my kids. And then recently I found myself in my film career bringing music back in. I wrote a couple of musical episodes for my anthology show "Room 104" that I do for HBO. In fact, our new season starts in July and there's one that I wrote that I was hoping that Mark Kozelek would play the lead role, but ultimately he wasn't going to do it, so I ended up playing it, but I wrote five original kind of Sun Kill Moon, songs for it. And so it's coming back to me now weirdly kind of 18 years later. So after having left it behind and I don't really know what form it's going to take, but it's been nice to kind of revisit. 

What are you listening to? 

That's a really good question cause I  go all over the place. I am really listening to a lot of jazz lately and Bill Evans and going through the whole catalog of Bill Evans has been really beautiful for me because he had so many different stages in his life. He had his more traditional jazz trio times and then he got himself where he started weirding out a little bit on his piano by himself and crossing over into classical. Then he gets into some more orchestral symphonic stuff a little bit later. And I just loved how Bill allowed himself to change and be whatever he needed to be in that moment without shoehorning himself. And that's something that I've often felt  worried that if you do that you won't be successful. But I have just tried to do it. I was once a musician and now I'm a filmmaker and now I'm becoming half and half again. And I think that I'm just trying to be okay with that. And Bill Evans is the guy who really embodied that for me for sure. 

I love bands that have big movements like that too. I feel like there is always a favorite one that you have, like a favorite period of what he was doing. What's your favorite for Bill?

Oh my God. It's so hard. I mean it was current for 40 years or something like that, you know? But I think for whatever reason right now, some of those later years, stuff was kind of really interesting. There's a record, I'm going to try and remember the name of it... Yes, the Symbiosis record of ‘74. 

What does it sound like and what do you like about it? 

It sounds like he's moving out of jazz. He's been influenced by these sort of weird meandering piano and synth guys like Harold Budd, and the ambient stuff is starting to get to him and he's allowing it to sprawl. I feel like with this record he's asking like, “is it okay if I'm not jazzy anymore? Would you guys still love me?” And it's cool to kind of hear, it's still got that stuff, but he's stretching. Let me give you the one that I love the most out of it. It's the “2nd Movement: Largo.”

You sent two songs that I listened to before connecting here and they're so good. It's like the recordings that you had just sent over are so great because those songs are, like we were saying before, tender songs, but then you also have a little, like you whistled in it and it still has that kind of whimsy, right? Like I'm tender and emotional, but like still having fun. Could you explain “2nd Gun”? 

Absolutely. So a “2nd Gun” was one of the early Volcano songs that I wrote and I love it for a number of reasons. One is that I had just been dating my girlfriend, now wife, Katie for two months and we were dating long distance and I was so torn. The fire of our hearts and it was in so much pain and what the hell did I know? I was 25 years old. I didn't really realize what real life pain was, but I listened to it now and I have this feeling of, Oh my God. If we had not stuck through it with a maturity that honestly was beyond our years at the time, like I would have missed all of this, my eight year old and my 12 year old daughters who are in my life right now. And it's that feeling of, we almost got hit by a bus. Thank God we survived. Because if we had broken up, which is what I was feeling in that song, I don't know if I can do this. So I loved ultimately what we did with that song was take something very earnest and put it inside of a crappy Casio instrument and a broken kick drum and fuzzy guitar. But I thought it was really interesting to play it on acoustic guitar for you because that used to be my number one instrument. I used to be a singer songwriter. And so it was kind of combining the old way I did things on acoustic and slowing it down.
"2nd Gun" recorded for 88Nine

We wrote "Durham" together while we were recording the first "Carbon Copy" EP and this was really emblematic of the confusion as to what the sound of this band should be. And I often love listening to first records, watching directors first movies, reading novelists first books because, they very rarely are the definitive piece of work, but they almost always are the search. And you can see them trying to figure out who they are. In this song you can really feel the old singer-songwriter nature of me versus what will this sound like inside of Volcano, I'm still excited!! On the record there's an acoustic version that's sort of broken down, similar to what I'm going to play for you here. But there's also this giant stadium rock guided by voices type version and it's very indicative of us trying to figure out, what does Volcano sound like?
"Durham" recorded for 88Nine

Just the "Carbon Copy" EP, kind of released for the first time essentially. Polyvinyl has a 25th anniversary coming up and I know that there will be bands looking to play or they’ll be looking for bands to play. Is there any possibility of a Volcano reunion? 

The truth is I have nightmares about showing up on stage for a Colcano reunion and not remembering how to play the songs, like continuous nightmares. So that is one truth. But the other truth is that if Matt Lunsford says, “Mark, I want you to do this to honor this label,” he was one of the first people who looked at me and believed in me as an artist and took a chance on me and I will do anything for him. So if he asks, I'm definitely going to do it.