Cleveland native Mark Edwards threw down a startling gauntlet of bare bones words/music in 1986 called …And He’s Not Gonna Take It Anymore. Even more striking was the name the 23-year-old took for his one-man band—My Dad Is Dead—reflecting his own situation (both parents had died by then). The name stuck and several albums followed, strikingly low-fi, with slightly sardonic, often profound meditations on mortality, loss and the crumbling state of the world. My Dad Is Dead left a legacy of unpretentious post-punk. A new reissue of…And He’s Not Gonna Take It Anymore sent PKM’s Jordan N. Mamone on a quest to find Mark Edwards.
Band names don’t get much heavier than My Dad Is Dead. In the ’80s and ’90s, just mentioning that moniker was a massive buzzkill, especially if you lobbed it at blow-dried philistines who resembled extras in a second-tier John Hughes movie. Some dolt, sneering unsuspectingly: “So, um, what kind of music do you listen to?” You, smugly and nonchalantly: “Oh, I dunno. Weird, noisy stuff on college radio. Slint, Dinosaur Jr., My Dad Is Dead …” When those last syllables dropped from your mouth, you might as well have admitted to strangling nuns in your spare time.
Brutal nomenclature aside, My Dad Is Dead isn’t terribly difficult to appreciate. Granted, 1986’s … And He’s Not Gonna Take It Anymore is wound rather tight. The mood of this debut LP reflects the drab Cleveland skies under which singer, multi-instrumentalist, and sole member Mark Edwards shaped his worldview. Still, both his clean, chiming guitars and his bristling, distorted ones ring out with starkly appealing beauty. Reverberant layers of them pile up over pinging programmed beats or only slightly looser acoustic drumming. In a nervous, nasal voice, Edwards intones plainspoken lines such as “He greets the morning with a beer and a cigarette” and “He said, ‘What’s the matter/ You don’t like new people?’/ Well, they put me on edge/ And I could go either way.”
Tense, urgent melodies and classicist songwriting carry these austere character studies—unpretentious Rust Belt revisions of post-punk at its most cerebral and alienated (cf. Joy Division, Wire, Big Black’s Lungs EP, the rawest moments of the Go-Betweens).
Originally released via St. Valentine, a co-op label shared by several Ohio groups, … And He’s Not Gonna Take It Anymore propelled Edwards on a long slog through the indie wilderness. His subsequent solo works rocked harder, though later in the ’90s he would traverse brighter, poppier pastures with the support of a full rhythm section. Having relocated to North Carolina when the century turned, he finally shelved My Dad Is Dead in 2011 to focus on a quartet called Secular Joy.
But Edwards’s first steps merit serious attention; Scat Records has expanded and reissued … And He’s Not Gonna Take It Anymore, tacking on the lo-fi contents of a rare demo tape. In honor of this keen double-album set, the artist did his best to channel the introspective young loner behind all that angst.
PKM: This is sort of an obvious question, but why did you choose such a morbid, matter-of-fact band name?
Mark Edwards: My dad died in June of 1984, after a prolonged battle with rheumatoid arthritis and related heart-and-lung issues. My relationship with him was not the greatest, and there were a lot of unresolved feelings. My mother passed away in 1978 and I, fairly or not, held him somewhat responsible due to his shoddy treatment of her—and me as a kid—and the stress it added to her own health issues. I had become used to brushing off questions about how he was doing from my friends and family. And after he passed, I was uncomfortable with the messages of sympathy and the implication that I should be feeling sad about it. My girlfriend at the time suggested I respond by simply saying, “My dad is dead.” Right around the same time, my band Riot Architecture was breaking up, and I was toying around with the notion of writing my own songs and having my own band. I went though many iterations of dumb names, wanting to find something that expressed some of the reality of what I was going through at 23—having lost both parents—until I realized [the name] My Dad Is Dead was the perfect summation of the state of my life. Obviously, I did this without concern for any longevity of the project or its eventual moderate level of attention.
PKM: I’ve always loved the name. It certainly makes a statement.
Mark Edwards: If I was the person I am today, I would have likely chosen something different. Youthful alienation doesn’t last forever, and the older I got, the more distance from those feelings I had. But I don’t have regrets about it—not many, anyway.
PKM: How did people react? When I was in high school, I’d tell cute girls that I listened to a band called My Dad Is Dead, and they would usually just stare at me or look disgusted.
Mark Edwards: Some people found it offensive and some found it very relatable, depending on their life status and parental relationships. It definitely cost me several opportunities for tour representation, media, and even major-label attention. But it’s also possible that in the noise of hundreds of indie-rock bands in the ’80s, it may have garnered some attention. The negative responses only boosted my thinking that I was going in the right direction with it. I wanted to make people uncomfortable with the stark, personal nature of the lyrics. That was really the plan all along: to surround deeply personal observation with hummable melodies.
PKM: You’ve mentioned “sketchy folks” hanging around your father’s house after your mother died. They were spending his Social Security checks or something. Sounds like the plot of a grim short story. Do you mind elaborating?
Mark Edwards: My dad was a stubborn guy who liked his independence. I lived with him for three years after my mom died, before I had to get out of there. He refused several offers from my siblings to come live with them, and his roommates were a string of live-in nurses with, let’s just say, variable intentions. At the time, I was keeping my distance from the whole situation but found out later that he had left everything he had—which wasn’t much [because] he never owned a home: [just] a small life insurance policy and some cash—to the last of these. My older brother had to engage in a small-claims court battle to overturn this, to have the money to bury him.
PKM: Jesus. Are any of the songs actually about your father?
Mark Edwards: I only ever wrote three songs that were specifically about my dad: “Black Cloud” [from … And He’s Not Gonna Take It Anymore], “Bittersweet” [first released on an EP for the Hello Recording CD of the Month Club, in 1995], and one of the first songs I ever wrote, which was actually before he died and which I never recorded other than as a very lo-fi cassette demo. The lyrics to that one are a bit too personal, even for me.
PKM: Was that your father’s house on the cover of the first record?
Mark Edwards: Yes, that was the house I grew up in and lived in until I was 21. We rented that from a private owner. I grew up poorer and more of a social outcast, I think, than most in my Cleveland-band peer group. People from my neighborhood didn’t get into punk rock and certainly didn’t play in bands. I always felt like I didn’t quite belong.
PKM: Cleveland, particularly in the ’70s and ’80s, was known for its awful weather and post-industrial decay. But it also had a sense of humor and local pride. How did that atmosphere influence your music?
Mark Edwards: I’ve always thought the people of Cleveland had a remarkable resilience in the face of national jokes, declining industry and job base, dilapidated housing stock, losing sports teams, you get the picture. It definitely contributed to the yeah-but-we’re-still-here mentality, but also a constant background noise of, “What’s the next bad thing that’s going to happen?” I grew up in a poor neighborhood and lived inside the city limits most of my life there, until my thirties. So nighttime automatic-weapons fire, street fights, and break-ins were not uncommon. When I was a kid, I had my bike stolen from our garage. When I was a teenager, my car was stolen from the grocery-store parking lot where I worked. When I was 10, I was bitten severely by a German shepherd on my newspaper route, requiring months of wound care and rehab once it became infected. My mom was sick throughout my early teens and passed away when I was 17. I was hit by a car, walking home from work when I was 16, and nearly had to have my leg amputated; it ended up being an inch shorter than the other one, and I’ve had a limp ever since. So you could say I had a typical Cleveland upbringing.
PKM: And then some. Yet this didn’t stop you from getting up on a stage.
Mark Edwards: My early songs reflect the pessimism, but with a dose of comic absurdity that reflects the abovementioned resilience. When I look back, I feel sad for the young adult I was, but also proud of what I accomplished on my own with little support.
PKM: English post-punk was obviously an influence. How did you get into that? At the same time, something about your first record sounds really Midwestern and American, a lot less stylized or pretentious. What other music was speaking to you back then?
Mark Edwards: My earliest musical exposure was the Top 40 of the late ’60s, heard on AM stations like [Cleveland’s] WIXY and CKLW from Windsor, Canada, which came in clearly across the lake, especially at nighttime. I’ve always been a fan of ’60s-style guitar melodicism and also its [early-’80s] reboot from folks like the Feelies and the Dream Syndicate. I took a detour into glam, heavy metal, and prog rock in the ’70s, with Bowie, Genesis, Yes, Scorpions, Mott the Hoople, Aerosmith, Zeppelin, Utopia, and some of the more obscure bands like Gentle Giant and Budgie. The constant was always great melodies. When I went to college at Cleveland State, I started to work at the radio station, WCSB, and it was there I met my friend Tim [Gilbride], who introduced me to Tubeway Army, Joy Division, Magazine, Gang of Four, and other Brit post-punk. It was so drastically different from songs about babes and wizards and love and drugs. Tim also played some guitar and was influential in encouraging me. We ended up in several bands together in which I played drums mostly. Tim’s early background was more American folk style, like the Byrds and Neil Young. He’s been in all my bands except Secular Joy, although he’s had a few of his own that I haven’t been in. The local early-’80s bands that were relevant to me after I started at WCSB were the Easter Monkeys, Terrible Parade, Ragged Bags. Saw those all multiple times, although I never felt truly a part of those folks’ scene.
PKM: My Dad Is Dead formed in 1984. You’d drummed in Thermos of Happiness and Riot Architecture, both of which broke up before releasing anything. So you decided to go it alone and play everything yourself. It didn’t take long for you to start writing these incredible songs, like “Black Cloud,” “My Head,” and “It’s Easier than You Think.” How did you learn guitar and bass, and where did this talent for songwriting come from? It’s kind of amazing how quickly it developed.
Mark Edwards: Well, thanks. I learned by doing, mostly. Again, Tim was a great initial person for me because he also was untrained, and although more skilled, he encouraged me to just play whatever, in whatever tuning. So I wasn’t encumbered by having to learn the right way to play guitar or write a song. I was doing a lot of drop-D tunings before that became popular with the indie crowd, mostly because it made barre chords easier to play. Because I didn’t own a tuner for the first few records, I often wrote in whatever [tuning] sounded good to me and retuned the strings randomly, on a succession of cheap guitars. It also made some of my best songs impossible to play live. I’d need 10 guitars!
PKM: I only saw you backed by a full rhythm section, but a lot of the early shows were just you, playing guitar and singing, with a drum machine. The solo thing was not such a common sight at punk shows in the mid-1980s. There’s a lot of risk and vulnerability in such a setup. What was it like executing those performances?
Mark Edwards: The first tour I did, in 1986, was an exercise in developing a thick skin for hecklers, especially in the South. “Get a fuckin’ drummer” was a common complaint, as was “you suck!” But it was super challenging and exciting and totally out of my comfort zone to get in a car, drive to another city, and play onstage all by myself. I’m sure I got more out of those early shows in terms of confidence than my audiences got in terms of musical enjoyment! Being the one-guy-with-a-drum-machine act further isolated me from the hardcore and punk fans, and the indie rock at the time. Outside of Big Black—and live, even they had three guys—and later, Bastro—who still had two—there really wasn’t anyone else doing what I was doing at the time, although it’s pretty common these days.
PKM: What are some particularly funny, odd, or horrible memories from the one-man-band shows?
Mark Edwards: Many of the early shows were pretty sparsely attended. One, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, turned into a toga party, when about 30 guys from a local fraternity showed up. Once in Miami Beach, after the owner saw my soundcheck, I was paid not to play. In Pittsburgh, at the Electric Banana, the owner pulled a gun out of his desk when I went looking to get paid, which I guess was a pretty common occurrence at that club. Just before [my third album, 1988’s] Let’s Skip the Details, came out, I opened a show for the Butthole Surfers, who at the time were drawing pretty big crowds. It was the first time I played in a large arena, and I remember my legs shaking uncontrollably as I tried to hit the drum machine’s stop/start pedal. I had a cassette recording of the show, which I heard later, and all the songs were played at about double speed.
PKM: Probably sounded pretty cool.
Mark Edwards: That was probably the most nervous I ever was on stage, except for perhaps the first show in Canada opening for the Pixies, at another multi-thousand capacity venue. This was with the full band, but the audience was super impatient, and several Molson bottles whizzed by my head—close enough that I could read the label. Lots more [stories], but I don’t have 24 hours and you don’t have a hundred pages.
PKM: In that photo on the back of the first album, you’re wearing a tie and a vest. Did you always dress like that? Bands like the Feelies or Talking Heads had preppy senses of style, but this was different. You looked like a tax attorney!
Mark Edwards: I went to college for accounting, both my brothers were accountants, so the tax-attorney comment is not far off! I’ve always worn button-down shirts but got out of the tie-and-vest habit early. But yes, I did sometimes play shows in a suit and tie. Plus, when I was skinny, I looked good in them. It just cemented the fact that I felt so out of place, even among the music crowd I was a part of. Little-known nugget: [Scat Records boss and Prisonshake guitarist] Robert [Griffin] had the phrase “CPA ROK” inscribed in the runout groove of My Dad Is Dead’s Shine double seven-inch [EP from 1990].
PKM: Were early songs like “Anti-Socialist” and “The Quiet Man” more character studies or were they a reflection of your mindset at the time? Feel free to discuss their subjects.
Mark Edwards: “Anti-Socialist” is obviously a play on words, with the economic system of socialism versus the inability to successfully make human contact. I’ve always struggled with making and keeping friends; it’s something age hasn’t fixed. “The Quiet Man” was one of a few songs about the secret lives so many people live: the stereotypical ax murderer whose neighbors always thought he was “kinda quiet” and “stayed to himself,” the elderly woman who dies alone in her house and is eaten by her cats. These kinds of stories do break through into the mainstream occasionally, but it’s always been fascinating to think about how people get to where they end up, and how many opportunities to have a different outcome are lost to those people.
PKM: Your first record seems very personal. I’m getting the impression that you were a solitary or anxious sort of guy, a loner. But in a sense, you also must have been extremely confident in order to perform that music in public, completely unaccompanied.
Mark Edwards: All of those. Growing up, my house was prone to abrupt chaos when my dad would fly into a rage. So I was scared of a lot of things, and kind of desperate to find a kinder environment. I wasted a ridiculous amount of time trying to be what someone else wanted me to be. So performing, at least initially, was a way to seek confirmation that I had value and, later, it did become more about coming out of my shell.
PKM: By the early ’90s, you were already mentioning that you couldn’t write any more songs like “Anti-Socialist.” Obviously, people grow up. But it seems like you became a good deal happier after those early records. Do you think you changed? How?
Mark Edwards: Just learning more about life and how you didn’t need to be bound by your upbringing. Travel certainly helps.
PKM: Amen to that.
Mark Edwards: But my life, like everyone’s, doesn’t follow a straight line. There’s been lots of ups and downs. Three marriages and two divorces will produce a lot of happy and sad moments. So I think my worldview just began to accept that not everything is black and white.
PKM: The debut album has this appealingly rigid feel to it, which lends it a certain edge and intensity. It’s darker than what came later. Care to speak to that?
Mark Edwards: I think some of my earlier answers have spoken to the angst of my earlier life: picked on at school, so few friends, no dates in high school, bad acne, it’s almost a cliché. It’s embarrassing to remember how narrow my world was then, how deeply cynical and unhappy I was while trying to be nonchalant and emotionally distant. It’s definitely an accurate picture of who I was at 24, 25, but also sad to look back on when I realize how much I got in my own way.
PKM: Why did you decide to include the demo on the reissue? What do you think of it, in retrospect?
Mark Edwards: To me, it just emphasizes the DIY nature of the early days. Most of the demo thing is live, with maybe a guitar part or two added in on a four-track [recorder]. Of course, a couple of parts make me wince, but I wasn’t afraid to release something back then that didn’t live up to the technical standards of the day. Or maybe I was just unaware? This was before lo-fi was a thing.
PKM: How did the original … And He’s Not Gonna Take It Anymore end up getting released? St. Valentine was a cooperative label, right?
Mark Edwards: It was cooperative in the sense that the person who started it, Chris Andrews, owned a record store and had a lot of contacts for sales and distribution. But really, St. Valentine was all about marketing an idea that there was some kind of cool scene bubbling up, linked to a label. We’d all seen how a label like Factory, 4AD, SST, or Homestead could become even more familiar than the bands on the label, and some folks would buy anything on those labels. That was the goal, at least, but since there was no real money behind it, each band had to put up the funds—or not—for the manufacturing, marketing, and promotion. I don’t think the label ever really achieved the status and recognition we were hoping for.
PKM: What was the initial response like to the LP? Were you pleased?
Mark Edwards: Funny story here: I played a show, opening for Modern English in Cleveland, right after the record was released. I took a box of records up on the stage, with the hope of selling a few during the break between bands. But I left it just a bit too close to the edge of the stage and someone—an impatient Modern English fan, I would guess—grabbed the box off the stage and began flinging them around the crowd. Of the box of 25, I think I picked up at least 20 from the floor after the show. I think I still have one with a boot print on the cover, which I saved for posterity.
PKM: Put that thing on eBay.
Mark Edwards: As for the record itself, it sold out of its only pressing of 1,000, so nothing to be sad about there. But a couple of the distributors who sold 100-plus of them went belly-up, and we didn’t get paid—another common occurrence in the early days of indie rock and maybe the later days, too. So it set the stage for a long string of economically unproductive records.
PKM: It’s a broad question, but what do you remember about the indie-band network in the late ’80s? You garnered much acclaim and attention through this underground support system of small labels, fanzines, and DIY touring, totally outside the mainstream.
Mark Edwards: It felt more like a competition than a community, with a scramble for attention from the latest hot zine, writer, or booking agent. Bands you met on tour were always friendly on the surface, but I didn’t make long-standing relationships like some others did, aside from with the local folks I played with or some I dealt with closely on the business side. Sure, I have some acquaintances, but not a lot of folks I could ring up and have a catch-up call with. That could say more about me than everyone else, I guess.
PKM: In the late ’80s and early ’90s, you turned My Dad Is Dead into full band. Why?
Mark Edwards: It was mainly for the touring aspect. The records had a full-band sound, whether it was all me or not, so it felt like a bit of cheat for the audience to show up and hear just a guitar and a drum machine. The response to full-band shows was honestly much more enthusiastic, and I felt more comfortable in the protection of having other noisemakers on stage. I’d like to [publish] a thank-you list of all the people who made the My Dad Is Dead experience possible.
PKM: Knock yourself out.
Mark Edwards: First, all the band members, in chronological order: Jeff Curtis: bass; Chris Burgess: bass and recording producer and engineer; Scott Pickering: drums; Tim Gilbride: guitar; Doug Gillard: guitar; John McEntire: drums; Robert Griffin: guitar; Matt Swanson: bass; Shayne Ivy: drums; and Billy Buckley: bass. Second, all the labels that supported me: Chris Andrews from St. Valentine; Fran Miller from Birth; Gerard Cosloy from Homestead; Robert Griffin from Scat; Craig Stewart from Emperor Jones and Trance Syndicate; and Steve Stone from Vital Cog.
PKM: [laughing] Man, this is like the Grammy-acceptance speech you’ll never get to give. There are some heavy hitters in there: McEntire went on to Bastro and Tortoise. Gillard was in Death of Samantha and then played with Cobra Verde and Guided by Voices. Griffin and Pickering had been in Spike in Vain and then formed Prisonshake, which Burgess soon joined.
Mark Edwards: Sometimes people weren’t as committed and had other projects, so the personnel changed a lot over the years. I’d like to think it had nothing to do with my personality as a bandleader, but I may be kidding myself there.
PKM: Later in the ’90s, you started emphasizing pop hooks. The sound was much less dour. Did your tastes change? Or was it simply that you had become a more skilled musician and were now capable of playing catchier stuff?
Mark Edwards: Have you heard [1997’s] Everyone Wants the Honey but Not the Sting? I see that record as pretty dark, lyrically at least.
Anyway, I think all my songs make an attempt at a catchy melody. Sometimes I succeed at that more than others. I met my first wife in 1990 and got married in ’91, and for three years, was very happy in that marriage. Most of the songs for [1995’s] For Richer, for Poorer were written during that time, which I guess is what reflects a more optimistic, commercial sound. It was also a weird period in which so many bands were being courted by major labels for a grunge sound, and this was a kind of reaction against that. The recording of For Richer was really the best time I ever had doing a record. It was done in Nashville, at the Castle [Recording Studios], and we stayed in a house attached to the property, in what was whispered to be an old hideout of Al Capone’s. I didn’t see any ghosts, but there were some odd nighttime noises in the house—probably just a boiler. I think my guitar playing was probably at a peak from lots of touring and rehearsing those songs. Most were based on things I wrote on acoustic, so that’s probably also why it had a gentler sound.
PKM: You stopped using the name My Dad Is Dead in 2011. Why did you finally put it to bed?
Mark Edwards: It just felt like the right thing to do. I had turned 50, and among people my age, saying “my dad is dead” was no longer the shocking outlier it once was. Further, the angst over my upbringing had long since faded and become more like an old home movie: You can appreciate the good parts that were there without seeing all the flaws in between scenes.
PKM: After that, you had a band in North Carolina called Secular Joy. Briefly contrast that to My Dad Is Dead.
Mark Edwards: Secular Joy was a lot of fun while it lasted. Our lead guitar player moved to New York City, and our bass player quit to pay attention to his two young kids. I’m very happy we were able to document the songs before the split, as I think they are some of the best I ever wrote. It may not sound exactly like My Dad Is Dead and probably reflects more of my prog roots, although lyrically it’s still in the ballpark. But I think it’s the direction I would have gone in anyway. There are so many shifts in every song that it takes a few listens to get used to. A lot of folks probably didn’t have the patience for it.
PKM: What have you been doing since the Secular Joy album from 2012?
Mark Edwards: After the Sec Joy split came a second divorce, some severe health problems, and a period of contraction, really from everything. A few years later, I was married a third time—to a lovely woman with a disabled son—and my life has become more focused on family. The guitars and other instruments have been packed up for several years. I still pull one or two out occasionally but haven’t seriously written anything for the last few years.
PKM: Join the club. You’ve got this excellent body of work behind you. And despite not being a household name, you were much more successful than many of your peers. What advice, in terms of music or just life in general, would you give that formally dressed, downcast young man who recorded … And He’s Not Gonna Take It Anymore?
Mark Edwards: The biggest lesson I could impart is not to care about what other people think of you, and don’t think you have to be with someone or fit in with some community—or even be happy all the time—to have a good life. There’s so much pressure in this society to achieve and obtain things, to be happy and successful and productive, rather than just being and living for today. There is no normal when it comes to human behavior. In the end, there is only you and how you feel about yourself, the choices you’ve made, and how you’ve lived. Hopefully, for everyone else, the choices you make can end up making life a bit better, but it’s not a requirement. Relationships should be about enhancing each other’s lives, not filling holes left by historical baggage. Tell people you love that you love them—often. Say “thank you” to people who are kind to you. These seem like pretty basic life tenets, but I struggled with them for so long.