I speak to Karen Marks ahead of her show on the 28th of April at the Melbourne Town Hall. The underground, minimal-wave artist most known for her single and EP, Cold Café is playing a one-off live show joined by her long-time collaborator, Ash Wednesday (of Models and Einstürzende Neubauten) and Charlie Owen, Adam Learner, Mal Kilpatrick and Rick Hawkins. It’s a rainy Friday evening, so what better time to discuss punk, old-school journalism, the historic Melbourne music scene, the many lives Marks has lived, and following your heart.
With the Melbourne Grand Prix buzzing in the background, which "is world class but [she’s] not a fan", Marks launches into meaningful conversation on music without having to be prompted, which is fantastic. She explains, “I think music is a bit cyclical in a way. You get that highly, heavily produced music for a while and then everyone gets a bit sick of that (like what happened in the 80s), then you go back to a much more raw kind of sound. It’s like fashion. I’ve seen a few of these cycles come around in my lifetime, the only difference is they just get called something different."
I ask Marks what she thinks she’s seen come around in different guises and she cites punk, but that it was different in Australia, and it “was really more about fashion than anything, it was a bit of fun.”
Marks continues, “I went to London in the early 80s under Thatcher, and I sensed this incredible repressive government. So I got it – I got why these young people were rebelling. Even I felt like putting on some outlandish outfit and walking down the Kings Road ‘cos the English are so repressed in a way, so pseudo-polite. I adore London now, but I could see why the kids were so against this repressive government and up against the status quo. Here in Australia, there was nothing really like that. We just copied them. I know from my time around the Crystal Ballroom with The Boys Next Door playing that it was more about fashion. We didn’t have too much to complain about or to rebel against.”
Whilst Marks thinks that punk was more or less over by 1980, she cites it as the big bang for a scene of musicians that wanted to become serious, and that a lot of great bands came out of the scene, even if it was ‘a fashion thing.’ Punk was more of a stepping stone, as they became more professional and more ambitious and then ‘went onto what we call New Wave, I guess.’ At that moment, we pause for air and Marks says with wry humour, “but anyway, I digress, we haven’t even started the interview yet.”
Marks is known her song Cold Café, but the fascinating journey that lead to her music isn’t as commonly known. When she started getting rock and roll boyfriends and losing interest in her ‘scholastic endeavours’, her father helped her get a job in journalism. Marks explains, “I started as a music journalist. I was working with boys – all of my colleagues at that time were male. The paper that I worked for was one of those Sunday papers, page three style tabloids. It was quite vile really, but full of entertainment magazines.”
Max Newton, who founded The Australian, was a friend of her fathers, but in a world of ‘old school serious journalism’, he was quite different. Marks explains, “It was all a bit of a lark for him really. He was quite anti-establishment, and he gave me the job.” The way in which Marks received her first job is quite sensational. She went in for a job as a reader, so Newton asked her why she wanted the job. Marks explained she’d like to be a journalist one day, “So in this large room of men, Newton pointed to a desk and said, ‘Well there you are, Marks, there’s your desk, now you’re a fucking journalist.’” Marks was then thrown in at the deep end and sent off on assignments to Sydney with Graeme Webber (the photographer behind the Australian Rock Folio) to make 24-page colour magazines on John Paul Young (of Love is in the Air fame) and Sherbert. Doing all the art direction and layouts by hand, Marks learnt on the job.
Despite her music journalism and musical boyfriends, Marks tells me, “Oh and I was always singing, I was always a singer at school, a classical singer, by the way. I was always into music and art.” So whilst she may have been watching ACDC and Ayers Rock in her school uniform under her big sister’s care as Teaser’s café, she was never going to be just a spectator.
Marks really cemented herself and her role in the music scene when she became a music manager. She was living with her best friend – Greg McCainsh of Sky Hooks (who is still one her best friends) – in St Kilda, where Ross Wilson and The Boys Next Door would just turn up. Marks explains that every Friday and Saturday was spent going to live shows, they ‘didn’t even really care who was playing’, but she and her friends would just go and see everything, traversing all of Melbourne and watching everyone from ACDC, to The Dingoes to a young Paul Kelly (who would later go on to gift her a song). “Then all of a sudden, we saw these young boys turning up to gigs in black clothes, young men in black clothes with attitudes. They started forming punk bands, coming to all these rock and roll shows to suss everyone out – still mixing with everybody though. Then Phil Kelvit (the drummer in The Boys Next Door) was clever enough to figure out that I was connected and asked me to manage them. I thought about it for a while, Ross Wilson encouraged me to do it, but it was really Phil’s ambition. Phil was the business guy and was so ambitious for his band, so I agreed to do it.”
Marks says it’s hard to remember all the details of what it was like managing Nick Cave’s first band, but remembers Tracy Pew was delightful and she adores Mick Harvey. "It was hard to tell if Nick was ambitious because he was so pretentious and such a brat." That said, Marks has a lot of respect for him, believes he has turned into the artist he was 'pretending' to be. “Nick fired me from the band, I think there were some blokes interested – it was funny, whenever I was interested in something, all the male heads of whatever in the industry suddenly started paying attention – so, they must have had some guys whispering in their ear. I remember Nick and his then-girlfriend Anita Lane coming into my kitchen in St Kilda and just saying 'We don’t want you to manage the band anymore'. Nick, munching on a bag of Twisties with that attitude and Anita just there, being so sullen and cool and drop-dead gorgeous.”
However, Marks makes it very clear how much she loves and respects Nick Cave as an artist and a person now, she looks back on that moment in her life with humour and fondness. “I adore Mick Harvey. He’s really talented and has never tried to fight for limelight. I really believe, in the same way that Patti Smith wouldn’t exist without Lenny Kaye, Nick Cave wouldn’t have existed without Mick Harvey. I knew Rowland [S. Howard] from around, but he wasn’t in the band yet. He was just gorgeous – quiet though.”
Getting fired with a mouthful of Twisties might be one of the greatest genesis' for music, as this was the start of her relationship with Ash Wednesday and Models, “To this day, he’s the reason I do what I do. I wouldn’t do it without him.” Marks seems to be happy to be working on ‘the other side of the stage’ as it were. She’s relieved that the interviews she’s been conducting so far have been intelligent, and glad she isn’t doing a world tour having to say the same thing over and over – she feels she wouldn’t have the patience.
We speak about the writing of Cold Café, a song which seems to have garnered more emotional weight and poignance over time. I ask Marks about its origins and if she knew there was a timeless song happening. She explains, “I think like most artists, you always think nothing is good enough, so I didn’t know at the time. It came out quite organically. When I started writing, Ash and I had both left Models, and he had a warehouse in Brunswick Street and we would just go up there and play around. Ash would do this really avant-garde stuff, and then he and I would play with synthesisers and it really just came about like that. We were just recording things, writing down some words, putting them together. Some things worked and some things didn’t. I wrote the words, put it to music, and it just came about like that.”
Frustratingly for fans, Marks reveals there are loads more demos somewhere of them just playing around, but with regards to Cold Café, “I like it more and more now when I hear it. I didn’t not like it at the time, but I really didn’t think it was that amazing. Now I’m incredibly grateful I’m having the chance to re-live it, and maybe it does have more resonance now than it did then.” Marks explains that the alternative market at the time of her release was small, and that perhaps she should have gone to make music overseas, “because I knew at the time I didn’t fit into the Australian landscape – and I wasn’t going to beat my head up against the wall trying to fit in.” Essentially she ‘followed her heart’ and the song “did what it did at the time”, becoming number one on Triple R and Triple J radio.
So, for years Cold Café didn’t do anything until someone approached Ash Wednesday and asked to put the song on this French-Australian compilation, Sky Girl. With self-deprecatory humour, Marks explains that when she got sent the CD and listened to it for the first time in her car, she thought “oh this will be interesting if I’m on it, but what Michael, Julien Dechery and DJ Sunday compiled, how fabulous to be part of this, it is just amazing!” After the French team approached Ash Wednesday for the song, Marks had long-time friend Greg McCainsh look at the contract, who moved on from Sky Hooks to become a lawyer. He let them know it was all kosher, so they went ahead.
This then lead to the release of the EP, prompted by Michael Kucyk, (without his enthusiasm, the songs would just be sitting in a drawer apparently), to the support of Miles Brown leading to the upcoming Melbourne Town Hall show. Marks is effusive and grateful, this recent success seems to have validated her reason for leaving the song be at the time, as it now has such great purpose and support. “It just maybe wasn’t the right time…everything just seems to be flowing so wonderfully. Ash and I have never performed this with a band, so we went into the studio to see if it worked, and it was so fantastic and so much fun. So, this is where we are at!”
For those that want to see Marks play or hear mor music, the future is uncertain, “I’m just following this amazing journey, and I will follow it for as long as it goes. I’m not interested in doing small shows, it’s not where I am in my life. I’m not trying to be a star or create a career for myself. As I said, I’m just following the journey and so thrilled people are enjoying the song.”