In the Mood for Doom

In his mind, he's playing a Steinway at Carnegie Hall: The Original Mark Edwards

In his mind, he's playing a Steinway at Carnegie Hall: The Original Mark Edwards

The Original Mark Edwards
The Doom Loop
Princess Records

Measured against most of the world's basements and sound studios, Mark Edwards's underground recording space is spectacularly tidy. Dozens of white cardboard boxes, each painstakingly labeled, line the shelves. Microphones are organized by make, quality, and duty. Drum shells are stacked like Russian dolls and tucked away. And standing upright at one end of the room, supervising the entire 6 x 12-foot operation, is a Velvet Underground box set, something of a totem for the solitary audiophile at work beneath its gaze.

"It's there to remind me what Lou Reed said about hating cymbals," the web designer and former Domo Sound frontman says as he plunks a few notes on a Fisher-Price piano. He recently commandeered the toy from his daughters (ages 4 and 7; at 33, Edwards has been married 12 years) for recording purposes. "Cymbals overpower everything else that's going on in the song," he continues. "But I like them sometimes, too. I like Grandaddy songs with the ride cymbal going the whole time, taking you for a ride."

Edwards would be hard-pressed to name an instrument he doesn't like, as evidenced by The Doom Loop, the album he recently completed in this solitary confinement cell of a studio in his Minneapolis basement. Clearly indebted to the wall-of-sound pop of the 1960s, it's the second album in three years that Edwards has written and recorded under the moniker the Original Mark Edwards. It's also a solo project in the most extreme sense; just check out The Doom Loop's credit line: "OME: guitars, vocals, bass, drums, beat box, Wurlitzer, kitchen pots, violin, electric kazoo, synthesizers, hand claps, tambourine, programming, piano, toys, clarinet, organ." Amazingly, that's about it. The liner notes go on to mention that one Steve Goold, a real brick house of a drummer, performed on half of one song, and that Edwards's wife Heidi sang backup on two others. Mixing duties on a handful of tracks were farmed out. Otherwise, everything the listener hears on The Doom Loop—with its six-part vocal harmonies, unholy warbles of recircuited children's toys, and countless tracks of guitar, synth, and kitchen utensil clamor, all twisted and chunked together like so many Rubik's cube blocks into no solid color but something that much more interesting, nay, original—all of this is the work of one man.

What kind of man? Don't trust your first assumption. Yes, pop music lore is littered with megalomaniacs, the blinkered artists who lock the gates of inspiration against outside intrusion, lest the pristine pools of creativity be peed in. They are the Tony Sopranos of the recording studio; if they want something done right, they throw furniture until you leave the room. They are assholes. But the Original Mark Edwards is not an asshole. "If you talk to anyone I've worked with in the past, I think they'd agree with that," he says brightly. He's sporting a grizzled winter beard and a deliciously nerdy periodic table T-shirt. His eyes are bright and blue and smiling, his laugh quick and easy. If he's guilty of anything, it's getting a little too excited when Electric Light Orchestra's "Sweet Talkin' Woman" comes on the radio.

"Now this, this is an inspiration," he says of the snappy British band, famous for overly glitzy production techniques. Edwards's fascination with studio tricks and gadgetry is in conflict with the art he creates with it. In fact, paranoia about technology destroying humanity is the primary theme of The Doom Loop. The angular synth-pop track "Prehistoric Visions (of Flying Cars)" envisions cavemen dreaming of the future—and upon witnessing the true hoverboard-less 21st century, proclaiming humanity a failure. "The wheel, the internet of prehistoric man," Edwards sings, "pretty good, but fire was just around the bend." When asked how people are supposed to react to a web designer decrying the evils of technology from an ultra-wired, humming techno-bunker in his basement, Edwards gamely admits to harboring—even coveting—the double standard. He isn't about to go all analog. He knowingly races along the loop of doom.

So again, what else can be gleaned of this solitary sonic scientist, tinkering with electric kazoos in his mysterious basement laboratory, shaking his fist at the gods of human progress, but that he simply doesn't work well with others? "It comes down to my spontaneity, and how ADD I am about my music," he says of his reclusive process. "If I had a band, I'd have to wait until we rehearsed to flesh out an idea. Or they'd have to come over whenever I get an idea. Who else can follow that kind of schedule?"

Edwards did have a band, once upon a time. The Domo Sound formed in 1997, and after just a handful of low-profile coffee-shop gigs, a providential fluke landed the band a performance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. "That was our fourth show," Edwards says. "We put a lot of pressure on ourselves after that. We figured we were something more than maybe we were. It's pretty easy to implode at that point." The group only released two albums before succumbing to the weight of their own grandiose expectations.

In the end, the Domo Sound felt like work, and Edwards launched the Original Mark Edwards project as a way to start enjoying music again. While working alone gave him the freedom to experiment in ways he couldn't before, Edwards's one-man labor crew also proved unequal to the scope of his vision. If there was one thing the Domo Sound was good at, he says, it was making a lot of noise. A single musician competing with the racket of four runs the risk of sounding too calculated in his chaos. Edwards compensates on Rewind Tomorrow, O.M.E.'s 2004 release, by working overtime to remove the album's polish. After all, it's hard to sound deliberate when you're bitch-slapping a Casio, as he does to begin the album. (When clerks at Cheapo heard the dizzy noise, they mistakenly assumed the album was defective and returned the entire shipment).

Edwards is foremost a pop songwriter, so his keyboard abuse doesn't exemplify his aesthetic, but it is emblematic of a triumph over his solitary process. He's a pop gestalt unto himself.

The Doom Loop achieves a communal essence to even greater effect. From the "la la la" background singing of the opening track, "Waltz und Paranoia," to the call-and-response chorus of "Danger Danger" ("Watch out!/Bay-rah-coo-dah"), the record sounds—feels, even—like the work of many artists playing off each other's quirks. Overdub technology is fairly simple, but it does nothing to get that kind of energy into the tracks. Among Edwards's arsenal of instruments and flashy recording equipment, this is perhaps his most valuable talent.

Edwards switches off the heater, allowing his studio to return to its average February temperature of about 40 degrees. The record complete, Edwards now puts his gadgets to sleep. "Everything down here is hibernating," he says. It's time for another necessary evil: the live show. Having recruited a rhythm section from the popular Duluth alt-hippie group Cloud Cult, Edwards now faces the difficult work of re-creating The Doom Loop in a live setting. "I like playing live, it's just not the part of the process I enjoy most," he says. Is that because live shows force him to interact with other human beings?

He swears that's not the case.