Mahogany Rush | The Strange Universe of Frank Marino | Interview
Frank Marino has been making unapologetic psychedelic music for over 50 years now. He was part of the original psychedelic wave of musicians in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s and was certainly one of the youngest members of the movement, recording his first album at 16 years old. I spoke with Frank for over two hours on the phone (accidentally racking up a wicked phone bill) as he laid out the history of the band and helped to separate the truth from the myth surrounding the origin of his legendary guitar playing skills.
Hey there Mr. Marino, this is Justin Jackley from It’s Psychedelic Baby Magazine. How are you doing?
Frank Marino: Hey, call me Frank. I’m okay – thanks.
Okay, Frank it is. So, let’s go ahead and get started with everything. Well, let’s just start off towards the beginning. When did you first make the transition from playing drums to guitar?
13 years old. 13 going on 14. I started playing guitar because I was in a hospital and there was no drums in the hospital. It was a guitar. They weren’t likely to have drums in the children’s ward of hospitals but there was a guitar in the day room so I started playing with that. And that’s what made me get me out of there playing guitar. I had played drums as a kid, you know, and I wanted to be a drummer but not necessarily a drummer in a band. I wanted to be a drummer and I wanted to play like Buddy Rich. Well, that was the guy, right?
Yeah, absolutely. Buddy Rich is awesome!
Buddy Rich was it. That’s all anyone ever wanted to play. Even if you were into the Beatles and rock music. Nobody could play with him. It means you like swing music too. I liked jazz and swing but I didn’t know that it was jazz and swing. I just liked it. Sometimes you don’t even know what something is, it just sounds good and whatever genre it just happens to fall into. I mean, when you were children you watch cartoons, right?
Hell yes. Even now!
Everyone watched the Flintstones. The music of the Flintstones was written and performed by Buddy Rich’s band. That’s all Buddy Rich and that’s why, you know, Fred Flintstone runs in his car and it goes “buh-duh-duh-duh-duh!” It was all Buddy Rich playing. He wrote that music, or at least composed it and his band played it. So, you know, like I say, a lot of kids liked swing and didn’t know that it was necessarily swing or jazz. They just liked it. Because they liked the Flintstones. And the Jetsons were literally the same music If you think about it and then the Simpsons also the same thing. What’s old is new.
Yeah, everything is circular in nature and comes back around.
Yup! I always say that. I say there’s nothing really new. Everything is old news brought to you by new people.
Who were some of your early influences during that time?
Well, like I said, I wasn’t really a guitarist till later but I wasn’t really influenced by anybody. Nobody was really influenced by guitarists, drummers, or singers. It was bands who were influenced by bands. So, the earliest influences were obviously the Beatles. Well, even earlier than that was Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra because my parents had those records but to this day, I love Tony Bennett. But, you know, in those days, the kids were influenced by groups. You’ll see a lot of guys too that say, “Oh, I was influenced by B.B. King or Stevie Ray Vaughan, or whatever. Jimi Hendrix.” But it wasn’t about that. We were influenced by a group or by a band and in most cases, they were the same bands everyone’s influenced by. Except if you were a psychedelic kid, like we were, because they were different groups of kids, right? So, we were kids who smoked weed and stuff and took acid. So, obviously, there was gonna be certain groups you’d be influenced by and then as the Beatles became more psychedelic with ‘Sergeant Pepper”s and all that stuff. Then, of course, all the psychedelic bands started being influenced and you have the Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, Hendrix, and the Doors.
When did you start to develop your own kind of signature style of guitar playing?
Well, it was always my signature style. It’s just that people compared it to Hendrix and I wasn’t trying to make it like Hendrix. I just liked Hendrix. Like I liked everything else. I never thought there was anything wrong with it. With playing that type of music, I mean, when you’re going to do psychedelic style music with a guitar and an amplifier, you can’t help but be in the style of Jimi Hendrix because that’s what happens when you put fuzz on an amp and make feedback. It just turns into that. So, you know, it always was my own style but it was as much my own style as let’s say Hendrix’s style was his own style. If people see Albert King videos playing in 1965, before Hendrix, you’ll think, “Oh my God, he’s playing Jimi Hendrix licks.” But nobody knows that because nobody remembers seeing those TV shows and not just the tone and everything. Not just the loud guitar tone. It’s quite nice. It’s amazing but I didn’t even know that existed back when I first heard Hendrix. I had no idea that Albert King was even existing and the only guitar music I had really heard before Hendrix was Cream. Eric Clapton. Everyone liked ‘Sunshine of Your Love’, you know, but nobody was thinking, “Wow, what a guitar player.” That wasn’t something people thought about at the moment. They were saying, “Wow, what a band.” When Hendrix came out and did all the weird stuff he did with a guitar and then we started thinking, “oh my god, how do you do that with just a guitar and only three guys?” It was weird. So, guitar started to become part of the equation because he took it so far and he put it so much front and center that you couldn’t help but notice. But it really wasn’t all that different from what the other bands with guitars were trying to do. He just did it better. Hendrix did what he did with the guitar solos and the fuzz tones and the Marshals and those crazy clothes and everything. It was so psychedelic and it was the exact moment when everyone was really dropping a lot of acid and that people went, “Oh my gosh, this is like the background music of our acid trip.” He died very soon after his popularity. He only lasted three years. So, as soon as he died, you know, the industry said, “Oh, we can make a lot of money on this.” But people forget that Jimi Hendrix wasn’t that famous when he was alive as much as he became more famous posthumously. Okay, yeah, Woodstock. Woodstock had 250,000 people and he closed the show at five in the morning in 1969 but three quarters of the people had left.
Yeah, you would think he would get a better slot but yeah I see what you’re saying. That he wasn’t as popular then as he became after death.
I mean, he was popular. Like everyone was popular. You know, you liked Jimi Hendrix and you liked the Beatles, and you liked the Stones but he wasn’t the guitar god that he became in the‘70s and later on. And as soon as that happened, then I got a lot of shit for playing that kind of style saying it was some kind of copy-clone or something but I was playing that style while Jimi Hendrix was still alive. I started playing in 1968 and he died in September of ‘70.
Did the Jimi Hendrix comparisons bother you or did you embrace it?
Yeah, it bothered the shit out of me. I never stopped hearing about it all my life. Early on, there was so much of it that I started to write songs about it. Like tongue in cheek songs on my earliest albums about people leaving me alone with this, you know? Just stop. One was called ‘Talkin’ ‘Bout a Feelin” another was called ‘Makin’ My Wave’. I happened to dedicate a song to him on my first album called ‘Buddy’, you know, because he died. You do an album and an artist just died so I’ll dedicate a song to him. You know? People do that all the time but nobody gets shit for it. I did! The rest is history but look, without Jimi Hendrix, I wouldn’t have had the career I had because all the people kept talking about me and that’s probably why they signed me to a record company. But still, you know, I would have done the same kind of music anyway. I might have done it differently but I still would have done it. I still would have done psychedelic music and obviously, it must have been honest because I didn’t really make a lot out of it and all I got was grief and yet I’m still doing it. 50 years later, I haven’t changed. If it was a gimmick, you think I would have changed 40 years ago when it wasn’t working. It’s not like I ever sold millions of records and was a huge success with it. All I did was get grief. I must have must have really believed in what I was doing.
I keep reading these rumors or myths about you and the Jimi Hendrix psychedelic visitation thing and what not…
It’s bullshit! I say this all the time. It’s not reincarnation or the spirit of Jimi Hendrix and all this stuff. Like he died and came back to life and I’m like, “dude, I went to the hospital in September of 1968 and Hendrix died in September of 1970.” I got out of the hospital by January or February 1969. I didn’t go to Woodstock because I couldn’t, I was still sick. But I mean, still another two years before Hendrix died. I was playing guitar. I even had a band called Mahogany Rush before he died.
Do you know how that myth got started and spread around so much?
Yeah, some stupid writer in a newspaper, a local newspaper, invented it and then the national papers picked it up and didn’t bother to call me and say “what’s this all about?” Who could they call anyway? I wasn’t even on a label at the time when he invented that. Who could they call? There was no manager. There was no entity. It was just some kid in Montreal.
So, they just took it and ran with it?
Yeah, just ran with it and started embellishing it and then it became a car accident and then it became I almost died and it became ghosts. All kinds of other stories. I started writing stupid songs about it. Even by my third and fourth album I was still writing songs about that. On my second or third album, a song called ‘Talkin’ ‘Bout a Feelin” is exactly the words that “People always putting me down – They’re screaming that I’m walking on sacred ground – Well people got to try and see – That I’m doing what I want now – So let me be me” That’s what the line says. Let me be me…
Yeah, I could see that being pretty bothersome.
I’m just saying it shows that I was thinking about it at the time. It’s documented. And yes, I would do gigs and I played Hendrix tunes reasonably well because I believe if you do someone’s material, you should do it reasonably well. Especially someone that great but the point is, I get to some of these cities and people were acting as if I was Jimi Hendrix come back to life. I remember once I was playing Hartford, Connecticut in a big arena and in between two tunes, somebody screamed out “Hendrix lives!” and I just went up to the microphone and said, “No, man. Jimi Hendrix is dead.” Shattered his dream. But don’t get me wrong. I love Jimi Hendrix. Without Jimi Hendrix, nobody would have the careers they have today on electric guitar. That is what he did. He reinvented the style and everybody started using it as the barometer, at least for a while anyway. So, the point being is that Hendrix deserves that kind of credit and, of course, the industry for the longest time did not give him that. They only got on the bandwagon after they started selling all those posthumous Hendrix records and I gotta tell you, 99.9% of those Hendrix records are horrible. They’re horrible. There’s no way he would have wanted those things to come out. Those tapes existed. He wasn’t stupid. He didn’t want those tapes out.
In your own career, you have influenced many musicians and received a lot of kind words about your guitar playing from a variety of musicians ranging from Johnny Winter to Zakk Wylde. When do you feel like you began to get recognition for your work?
I really had no idea anyone even liked me until a few years ago. I’m serious. You know, no one would talk to me. The whole ‘70s and ‘80s everyone was like, “oh god, there’s the Hendrix clone.” I spent all this time in my dressing room just wishing someone would talk to me. In the ‘90s, I started finding out that there were people that liked what I did and I’d say “Really? Come on. You’re kidding me.” People would tell me, “oh, this guy said this about you and this guy said that about you.” And I said, “I didn’t think that guy knew who I was, let alone say something nice about me.” And, you know, I did some tours with Johnny Winter, who was one of my heroes. A superhero to me, you know, like Hendrix. The only other guitar player that affected me like Hendrix was Johnny Winter. So, I managed to get a tour opening for him and I opened every night and I was too scared to even talk to the guy. I didn’t at all. I passed him in the hallway a couple of times and just nodded and said “Hello, sir.” I was just too shy to even say anything to the guy. It was like how you feel when you are in grade seven and there’s that girl you like and you feel like you’re walking funny and she’s looking at you. That’s the way I felt around Johnny and I must have done 20-30-40 gigs with him but I would never talk to the guy because I was too afraid. And then, I find out Johnny Winter said nice things about me and I find that out after he dies. I said to the guy that told me I said, “You knew about this for a while. Why didn’t you tell me when he was still alive? I might have called him.”
What was it like when you were touring with Johnny Winter?
It was the late ‘70s and by then he was totally getting into the blues thing. He wasn’t so much doing the arena rock, you know? He was always just a guy they put in a bunch of arenas and from what I’ve heard, he just wanted to do the straight blues thing in smaller places. I had guys that worked for me that worked for him. I had an agent that was his agent. So, I found out a lot about how his life was. I would hear things about how Johnny’s life was being managed and in my opinion, it was a tragedy. Johnny was one of those generationally different guitar players like Jimi Hendrix. It wasn’t just that he was good. A lot of guys are good. God, 12 year olds on YouTube are good today. Seriously. It wasn’t just that he was good. It was that he was good in his way. He was unique in his way as Jimi Hendrix was. Every guitar player that you know, is faster than Jimi Hendrix. Every single one. You can’t find a fast Jimi Hendrix solo on his records. People don’t know that until they go look. The fastest solo that Jimi Hendrix ever played is a three or four second part of ‘Machine Gun’ on ‘Band of Gypsies’. Every other solo he plays is in eighth notes or sixteenth notes at the most and nobody realizes that. They give him credit as being the best ever, and he is the best ever, and they don’t even know why they’re saying it. They say, “now, watch me do my Jimi Hendrix impression” and they play 100 miles an hour, which isn’t him at all. Right? So, it’s one of those things you think you know until you realize you don’t know. The greatness of Jimi Hendrix was his uniquely being who he was and how he phrased what he did and the same goes for Johnny Winter, although, Johnny Winter could play fast. The greatness of Johnny Winter was the unique way he phrased his lines with his voice and his slide. It was inimitable. You can’t really imitate it. You can try to but everyone will know it’s not him. Those are the generational guys that influenced huge swaths of the next generation. In horn, you had John Coltrane, and you had the Bebop guy, Charlie Parker. And in guitar, you had Jimi Hendrix, the psychedelic electric guy, and Johnny Winter, the blues guy. It all comes from them. But even they had roots like Albert King and guys that nobody knows. Jimi Hendrix must have grown up listening to guitar players. He wanted to be one. He played a broomstick at one point when he was a kid. So, who did he listen to that he wanted to be? And if you go find that out, you’re gonna find the roots of where he learned his licks. It didn’t come to him in a dream. They came from somewhere else, they came from someone else, and there’s nothing wrong with that. For some reason, our industry has such a high premium on originality and that’s ridiculous because prior to the Beatles, there was a lot of great artists that are still considered great artists; Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, you name it. Elvis. None of them wrote tunes and they weren’t expected to and it did not affect the way we thought of them as great. But all of a sudden, the Beatles come along writing their own tunes and the next thing you know, every record company thinks unless you’re writing your own tunes, you’re nobody. The problem is, not everyone really can write tunes like that. Even the Beatles couldn’t write tunes like that if it wasn’t for George Martin. People don’t understand how much George Martin played a part in the Beatles. Take away George Martin and you just don’t have the Beatles. Right? You have a rock and roll band singing ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ or ‘Long Tall Sally.’ They covered tunes too, you know? There was nothing wrong with covering until the Beatles came and made it look like there was something wrong with covering. And then, the next thing you know, all these people who would have been considered great musicians, were being told they weren’t great musicians simply because they weren’t writing their own material. But they weren’t doing anything different than the greats have done for years before them. Do you think all the great blues guys wrote their own blues material? Or all the gospel singers invented the gospel tunes they sang? They interpreted them.
“I’m making music called Mahogany Rush because it’s talking about my acid trip”
Well, Frank, if we can backtrack a little bit, were you in any bands prior to Mahogany Rush?
No, and I’ve never been in anyone since either.
Really? That’s interesting… Well, how did the formation of the original Mahogany Rush go down?
It was Frank, the crazy kid from the hospital, running around asking people to play with him and when they’d say, “Yeah, okay. We’ll play with you.” And I’d say, “I’m making music called Mahogany Rush because it’s talking about my acid trip.” And they’d say, “what’s Mahogany Rush?” And I would go into my acid trip. It’s what I turned into. It was about the type of music I was doing. It wasn’t the name of a band and whoever played with me was playing Mahogany Rush Music. It was like saying jazz. Yeah, it was a thing I think I invented in my brain to describe what I was going through from the hospital. It’s hard to understand if you haven’t dropped acid. The trip was, you know, all those album covers I have, ‘Child of Novelty’ and ‘Strange Universe’ and all that those are not just, “let’s make a cool cover.” Those are my descriptions to an artist of where I lived in my brain. I lived there. And it was not nice living there once you’ve blown your mind.
Yeah, I was gonna ask you about that. I read you were describing your trip to the artist, Ivan Schwartz.
I would talk to Ivan all the time and I’d say, “no, the moon was crying. Draw it like this. No, this happened. There was gargoyles and this was like this.” And I’d be describing it to him and he’d be drawing it with a felt pen.
Those two are definitely my favorite of the album covers.
I’m telling you right now, I was in those places. It wasn’t my idea. It wasn’t like “hey, let’s make a cool castle and a dragon. Wow!” No, I was there and I wasn’t liking it. I wasn’t like, “oh, wow. This is cool. I love it!” It was, “please, let me come home. I want to go back home.” It was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. It was, “let me go home. I’ll do anything to go home.” That’s why I started getting into religion. I haven’t done a drug or had a drink since I was 13 years old and I’m 66! I went through my entire career without taking anything because I never came down.
What was the process like recording your first album, ‘Maxoom’?
I didn’t even want to do it. They came and said, “we want to put you on a record and blah, blah.” I said, “No, no, no, you’re the establishment. You’re the evil enemy. No way.” And they said, “Look, we’ll put you in this place and just do whatever you like and we won’t even be there. We’ll leave and we’ll give you a key and we’ll give you the equipment.” Really? Equipment? Poor kid like me? Sure, I’ll take the equipment and record. Got in there didn’t know what to do. Okay, well, let’s just do this song. I would just invent songs. But from that point forward, because they let me be my own producer and ended up being my own producer for every album ever made and I was only 16. From that point forward, I never wrote a tune that I recorded that I didn’t write the day I recorded it. Every album we ever did, we would walk in and there was no album. I guess we gotta come up with some stuff here and I’d write a tune. Then the guys would come in the room and I’d say, “here’s how the tune goes.” And they would play it and we’d record it and then we would work on it for a while and then do another one until I ran out of tunes which was usually was eight or nine per album.
“All the parts were spontaneous”
That’s amazing! I had no idea that you had such a spontaneous method of working.
Oh, yeah. All the time. All the parts were spontaneous. The words were never written until all the tunes were finished. They were totally finished and mixed and then the vocals were done. They weren’t considered to be vocal tunes. They were considered to be pieces that ended up having to have vocals on them.
What record label was it that you were working with back then?
Well, they started a label just for me called Nine Records, and then it became called Kot’Ai, and then Nine, and then they sold that to 20th Century Fox, and they sold me to Columbia a couple of albums later. So, it wasn’t like I got signed and then left and then got signed again. My contract was literally sold like a commodity, which is why the new record company couldn’t stop me from being my own producer because they went with the original contract and they were making so much money without me knowing it, that they weren’t gonna rock the boat. So, they said, “Sure, let him just continue doing what he’s doing.” Which I did.
It looks like by the ‘80s you were recording and playing billed as Frank Marino rather than Mahogany Rush.
I walked away from Columbia Records in 1982-83 and said, “I’m never going to a major again. Ever!” And I didn’t. No matter how many offers I had. Nope. I’ll make albums when I want, on my own, and sell them myself. I never went back to a major label again.
Did they try to take or own the name Mahogany Rush from you?
No, but they certainly took my songs. Or lots of them. But the point is, I just I left. I was fine. So what? They said, “Well, now you’re not making albums every year.” Darn right, I’m not. What if you don’t want to say anything? Do you gotta do it even if you don’t feel like it? I mean, how honest is that? That’s like saying, you know, I just got a job as a food eater and I’m full but I have to eat anyway to pretend just to keep my job. You know? It didn’t make any sense to me. So, I said I’m going to make albums when I feel like making albums. One or three years apart. Then, I didn’t do another one for five more years. You know, I’m fine. “Well, you know, you’re not going to tour and you’re never going to do this and you’re never going to do that.” Okay, I’m okay with that. What do I care? I don’t need money. I lived without money all my life. Why would I need it? I need only enough to live. So, I was okay walking away from the industry. Everyone thought I was kidding. When I walked away, I was playing huge stadiums and I was on the largest record company in the world. I still had another record to do for them. They thought I was kidding. I wasn’t kidding. When the guys who were in my band and in my crew realized that I wasn’t kidding, they all ran away from me. “This guy’s crazy!” So, I walked away from that.
At what point did you did you change it to Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush?
Oh, they kept changing it back and forth. I never did that. They did that on my fifth album and I was like, “What are you doing? It’s supposed to be Mahogany Rush.” It was like “Okay, now it’s Frank Marino. Now it’s supposed to be Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush and now it’s back to Frank Marino.” It became so confusing. I go on the road and I’d be playing in a town two nights. One night, they would say Frank Marino and the next, Frank Marino – Mahogany Rush on the same marquee. That’s how confusing it was. So, when the DVD came out, my recent DVD, the last thing I ever did, I said, “fuck it. Just put my name on it. Frank Marino. I’m done trying to figure it out.” The only time I’ll ever do a DVD and that’s it. It’s doing pretty okay.
Yeah, I wanted to ask you about this big new DVD box set, ‘Frank Marino – Live at the Agora Theatre.’ Was this made of multiple performances combined or one specific show?
It was one long day of 12 hours playing with two breaks. And it was the night before for five hours and that hasn’t even been included yet. So, the DVD is 57 songs, six hours of music broken down, and a book of 180 pages on both blu-ray and DVD in the package.
Where can people go to purchase this awesome DVD set?
MahoganyRush.net – So far, nobody that has seen it or heard it has had anything to say about it except that it’s very good and I’m being conservative. It’s the only one I’ll ever do. There’s never gonna be another one. If someone came tomorrow and said to me, “I’m gonna give you $10 million to do another DVD.” I would say, “no.” I wasn’t even gonna do that one but they talked me into it. We did it and then it was broken and I had to fix it and it took me years to fix it but I did finish my job and fix it. It was recorded in 2010, took me seven years to fix it and another three years to get the right to put it out.
According to your website, you have been actively touring even up until last year which, of course, got canceled.
Yeah, it got folded because of this covid stuff.
Yeah, that’s a real shame. I mean, as of right now, are you guys starting to reschedule for the future?
As of right now, that tour is re-scheduled for September. Will we do it? As of right now, we’re supposed to. Barring any unforeseen circumstances. I have a bit of a health problem at the moment. If it gets better, no problem. If it doesn’t, I may start rethinking things. You know, I’m getting old.
In the meantime, have you been recording any new stuff or do you have any plans for new albums?
Well, like I say, I don’t plan anything really. I don’t. Things come to me, I do them. If they don’t, I don’t. It could be 10 years and I won’t. I live for today. I think I have to because, basically, that’s the only day you ever live. So, that’s sort of how I do it. In other words, I can read my schedule as much as anybody.
Sounds good, Frank. Well, I really hope the tour goes through later this year. I would very much like to catch your performance in Austin. Thanks a lot for taking time out of your day to talk to me for this long.
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Frank Marino Official Website