Mark Wolven talks to Donovan Wheeler about the dead speaking through him, about learning to play the guitar while tripping on the central ingredient to Robotussin, and how he found his band’s name while riding a scooter through a cemetery.
by Donovan Wheeler
Like most local independent bands throughout the country, Antenna Man doesn’t waste time trying fit a specific niche. Lead singer and front-man Mark Wolven has spent his adult life collecting and writing ideas, and he’s fit them musically with whatever works. The result, the band’s first LP dubbed Elaine, Jr. is a mixed-bag of synth-pop, blues, country, alternative rock, and then some. Each song is its own beast, and each track serves its own purpose. Culled together, Elaine, Jr. is a sort of musical plate-glass window: an assortment of beautiful panes which—when assembled as one record—look more the part of the abstract kaleidoscope than the concrete form of Saint saving sinners.
photo by Blair Hartman
courtesy of Mark Wolven
“[Songwriting is] never really a situation where I set out to write a song, it just happens,” Wolven explains. “There’s a melody and some words, all of which sort of pop into my head. I don’t feel as if I’ve put them there, but I also know that I can’t, not say them. Basically, if it’s there and it won’t go away, then that’s when I decide that it’s something I need to put down.”
Donovan Wheeler: How did you develop your own personal interest in music?
Mark Wolven: “I was always a writer, working on poems and stuff like that when I was young. I had an uncle and grandma who played guitar and harmonica, so I was interested in music as well for just about as long. When I decided that I wanted to start playing music, I didn’t know how to go about it. I wanted to play drums because I thought it would be fun, so in 6th grade I signed onto the school band as a drummer. However, they told me they already had too many drummers…I sort of joined pretty late in the process. By that point, they needed a French horn, so I played that for a year and then decided I’d had all I needed of that. My next move was buying a beaten up drum-set off another kid at school for something like $10. It didn’t have any cymbals, but it was fun beating on that thing.”
MW: “I would also add that when my older brother was in high school—which would have put me in about 8th or 9th grade—he had a band. They set up a practice room in the barn where we lived, which was stocked with really cool beers. I would sneak in there, turn on a CD, and play their drums to them.”
DW: How did you springboard from the drums to the guitar, which you play now with Antenna Man?
MW: “I kept writing songs, and I was stockpiling them in my head, and I wanted to play the guitar so that I could have a melody to go along with it. I kept bugging one of my buddies to teach me, and one night he gave me some DXM [also known as Dextromethorphan, or what we call Robotussin] and a guitar book and sent me off to my bedroom. So went up there, and while I was tripping, I learned 15 different chords and put two of my songs to music. And I haven’t really learned much more on guitar since then because what I learned then has served its purpose. Really I’m a terrible guitar-player, but for me it was a means to make songs happen.”
DW: So, the next logical move was to form a band?
MW: “My buddies and I would hang out at parties or at campfires, and we would play around with my stuff. Then, about two-and-a-half years ago our lead-guitarist Kendall [Ludwig] said we should start a band since I had all these songs. He had already been in different bands for several years, but he was kind of interested in my music. And another buddy, David [Campbell], who plays bass, wanted to be a part of it. Then we added Wes [Hodgson] on drums.”
DW: Your website says that you found your band’s name by walking around a cemetery. That’s really how it happened?
MW: “You would say I was walking, but I was actually on a scooter. You know those 50cc types? I was on one of those, and I went to Crown Hill Cemetery and I told myself I wasn’t leaving until I had name. That was the struggle. We were coming up with band names, but they were all really stupid. Too much time had passed, and we were ready to start playing shows.”
DW: And that’s where you found the Antenna Man?
MW: “It was a metal sculpture. I liked the way it looked to begin with, but I also related to the artists idea of all of us being antenna. So the whole thing worked for me personally.”
This is the thematic lynchpin behind the band’s name. Much like the real-world counterpart our fathers stuck on their rooftop sand wired into their wooden Zeniths, Wolven absorbs what’s happening around him. Those signals in the air serve as his muses.
DW: This approach to songwriting—the method which makes the symbolic band name so fitting: Is this the big reason your record is loaded with such variety in terms of style?
MW: “That’s kind of why I call what we do ‘all over the place.’ We could have sat down and decided that we were going to sit in a specific vein or genre…and then write in a formula…and that would have worked well. But I like the idea of each of us doing our own thing and letting the music happen as it happens. It works well for us as far as making the experience fun and allowing everyone to have their own piece of creativity.”
DW: Now that you’re two years into this, how has the process of starting a band been for you in terms of the management side? Have you found it easy or difficult to work your way into the central Indiana music scene?
MW: “When we first started, we would try to book a show, and that would be very difficult. We would approach venues, and they would say ‘Who are you? We’ve never heard of you. Are you going to be able to fill this place? Do you have a [following]? Do you have anyone else who is touring with you?’ But we know other people in other local bands, and we were able to play as part of their shows. Then from there we would meet more people who were into it. It was interesting to learn how much of this comes down to [networking] and whether or not a venue believes you can fill a place, and so much of that is based on details such as Facebook likes, where you’ve played before…all of that stuff is still weird to me. I had this idea in my head which said, ‘Oh, I have these cool ideas. I’m going to put them to music, and people are going to let us play…’ It certainly tended to not be like that.”
With shout-outs in publications such as Paste and Magnet, Antenna Man can now answer the “Who are you” question without much struggle. But reputable nods in music publications and large Facebook “like” tallies wouldn’t be the reason to watch this band. The music…that grab-bag assortment of clever and catchy tunes…that would be the first reason. And then there’s that personality. Wolven’s best attribute is hands-down his unapologetic eccentricity, such as the moment when he candidly mentioned this:
“I don’t know how it works exactly. I have had a lot of experiences where it feels like dead folks are talking through me to people. I don’t know how long this has gone on, but I think the first time I mentioned it to anyone was about 20 years ago…and when I would tell them, they would all sort of freak out…start crying…then run out of the house. Sometimes I would respond to those voices and sometimes I wouldn’t.”
Yes, you could say that Mark Wolven is unique fellow, perhaps vastly more so that the average, eclectic musician. But he’s not out there sacrificing his art for the sake of his vanity. He is exactly who he is. Comfortable in his own skin, at ease in his own world, and a hell of a lot of fun on stage.