Collin Marks : Guitar, Vocals – Chicago, IL
Mason Hadley: Bass – Chicago, IL
Dan Beasley: Drums – Batesville, IN
Christian McCann- Piano, Keyboards – Buffalo, NY
2018 saw the release of “All New Kinds of Strange” the debut album from Chicago-based quartet The Prairie Fires. To us, the album captured rock and roll in an extremely pure form. Rhythm, melody, poetic lyrics – it was a complete package, capturing everything from 50’s rockabilly to 90s alt-rock with a splash of Americana. And we know all to well that where there is good music, there is a story. We had the opportunity to talk to frontman Collin Marks on the band’s journey, insight into his own battles and how the Midwest has shaped this exciting new group.
MWG: Take us to the beginning of “The Prairie Fires” – where did this journey begin?
CM: The band kind of existed in spirit before we actually got together and played. I’ve been writing songs and playing in bands since I was about 14 years old. It’s really the only skill I have. After high school I didn’t go to college, I was just kind of floating, gigging around Chicago and playing around the Midwest for about five years with my previous band. We did some very big and cool things, played some amazing shows, but in the end it just kind of fizzled out. My drinking got worse. I wasn’t gigging very often, and what felt even worse, I wasn’t writing. I was really just being a big drunken shithead. It was a new low.
[Sobriety] soon began to feel a bit liberating as well. I was a new person. I had to figure out what my true priorities were, and it all kept coming back to playing music. I wanted to write songs. I wanted to be in a band. Which felt impossible at the time. I had almost nobody to turn to, no one on my side, except my bass player Mason. We had been in the previous band together, and without him, The Prairie Fires would never have gotten off the ground, not even a little. I met Dan Beasley, born and raised in Indiana and a tried and true Hoosier till the end, the first time I saw him play the drums I was in love, and I knew he was exactly what I was looking for. Mason introduced me to Christian McCann, our keyboard player. A native of Buffalo, New York, he made his way to the Midwest when his apartment building caught fire and destroyed everything he had. After going back into the burning building to recover nothing except his big ass Korg Triton keyboard, he stared at the flames and said fuck it, he was moving to Chicago.
I love that story because it encapsulates everything this band is about: starting over new. Burning it all down to the ground to start fresh. That symbolism is everywhere with this group. I was born in, and the band is based out of, a city that is known for burning to the ground. The recording studio where we made the record, one that I have been working out of for years, also burned down about ten years ago. The last track on the record is the first one I wrote, and it is where I got the name for the group The Prairie Fires. Writing this record was about finding out who I am, and as it turns out, I am a Midwest kid from The Prairie State.
What about the Midwest has had the biggest impact on you musically?
Much like yourselves, I’ve always been a champion of the Midwest and felt like it doesn’t get enough credit, especially culturally. It’s definitely a setting, an aesthetic for the music. Illinois is the only place I’ve ever lived, and if the songs are writing about what you know, that’s all I know. Carl Sandburg is one of my favorite poets. As a teenager I was obsessed with Chicago blues, all of the Chess records catalog. I love John Mellencamp. My first bands cut their teeth in the seemingly gigantic Midwestern punk scene, and although I was never really in a “punk” band, it’s an influence I can’t shake no matter how hard I try.
I also think there is a working-class mentality that informs our music, or at the very least our work ethic. When I was younger, I wasn’t around any artists or musicians really. Everyone worked in some sort of trade. Growing up I think I struggled to really admit that I was just an artist, as it would have seemed frivolous, or probably even crazy. As a result, I viewed music as a trade like a pipe fitter or electrician or something. It wasn’t art it was just work, providing a service or utility. Ultimately, I’ve come to accept the creative and artistic side of what I do, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some sort of vestige of this attitude lying around in my head.
What would you say sets the Midwest music scene apart from the rest?
I’m not certain, but I would suspect the working-class mentality is a common theme among other musicians and artists around the Midwest and might be part of what distinguishes them, whether they be country pickers or house music producers or a punk band. I’ve personally never truly felt like I was actually inside a music scene, be it a Midwestern one or otherwise, I’m always just on the periphery of scenes. I’m still trying to work out where I belong, where we belong as a band. I think the answer might be “Wherever we want”
What’s been the highlight of your music career so far?
Sometimes it can be tough to take a moment and reflect on things we’ve accomplished. We’ve played some amazing shows at amazing venues, but at the end of the day, I’m more focused on the current living, breathing organism that is the band, and growing that. This band still feels so new, but this year we reached a new level, musically, playing together. We are on point and on the same page, working hard and are the tightest we’ve ever been, and I’m very proud of that. I’m very proud of us as individuals and as a group, and that is an exciting place to be in as a band. One of the true greatest gifts of being a musician and artist is that you can always be improving, there is no end point, it goes on forever.
How do you recharge? What outside of music gives you balance?
Personally, I got into meditation a few years ago and it has been a game changer for me. I’ve been practicing every morning for about three years now and it’s an amazing and invaluable tool in my life. It’s allowed me to practice perspective and gratitude, helped me guide myself through some trying times, and has opened up a whole world creatively. I even went on my first ten-day silent meditation retreat earlier this year, which was eye-opening. Consistency is key, even two minutes every day is better than an hour once a week.
Do you have a favorite place to perform around the Great Lakes?
Obviously, we love Chicago. I love this city so much I can’t even explain it. However, I do have some love for other great lakes cities as well. Milwaukee is always great, being in Chicago it’s always felt so close to our hearts. Minneapolis is such an amazing music town and so, so beautiful. Detroit also has such a creative vibe that I really appreciate as well. I could go on, but those are my top three. As of this interview. Subject to change.
What can fans expect from you boys in 2019?
Well, I still want to push our last record. I understand this is a common sentiment, but the distance between writing a record and releasing it can seem so vast, it’s important to try and remember why it excited you in the first place, and not get bored with it. It sort of drives me nuts. It’s funny because it’s almost like a snapshot of a time. We aren’t there anymore, and I’m not even sure that’s quite us anymore, but it’s still incredibly important to me and it taught me a lot. I’m working on writing record number 2.
Writing is my favorite part of this process, and I’m just trying to open up creatively and get in that head space these days. I have some solid building blocks and I’m just trying to figure out how they are all connected right now. I think record number 2 will be the first true Prairie Fires record, as we’ve really come into our own as a group. Of course, performing as much as we can, travel as much as we can. We’ve got some music videos in the works that will be out this year, and I’m very excited for that as well. I think video will be a much more important part of the band moving forward. Oh, and a Robert Cray cover as a single.
A big thank you to Collin for taking the time to answer a few questions for us! Be sure to keep an ear out for The Prairie Fires in a town near you. Stay up to date and give them a follow on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. You can find their music on Apple Music and Spotify as well.
Before we let you go, we wanted to ensure we circled back to Collin’s journey of sobriety, and celebrate it. Many musicians can get wrapped up in the lifestyle whether they’re selling out arenas or small town rock clubs. Late night gigs, eager fans ready to buy you a drink, open bar tabs, it can start out innocently enough but it can become real, quickly. Like many musicians, it crept up on Collin but his ability to recalobrate himself between bands was an important step. But we will let Collin tell you about it…
“[The first band] was definitely a band that liked to party. That band ended and for the first time in my life I didn’t have my own project. I tried being a sideman in some other projects. I went around as a hired gun for a while. I learned a lot from those experiences, but it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. For a variety of reasons and seemingly mystical interventions, I realized I had to get it together, and I had to get sober. This process was a lot more complex than I realized, and I’m still learning from sobriety every day. I had to reevaluate my whole lifestyle, what was important to me, who I wanted to be around, how I wanted to spend my time.
On a deeper level, it brought up questions of how I dealt with pressure, how a true introvert like myself deals with social situations, or how I handled my emotions. All of it had been previously informed by boozing. I had to finally take a look at myself for real, and really it was the first time I learned anything about myself at all, because before I had been too shitfaced (and in retrospect, probably too scared) to pay attention. It felt like I was leaving my life behind. I didn’t know where I was going. I felt like I was truly starting over.
I decided to just focus on the work, and start writing songs, and just have patience and faith that I was doing the right thing. Ignore the part of my brain that criticized me, or the part that wanted to give up. A lot of these songs are about getting things off my chest, about looking at some serious moments from a different perspective where I may not have been thinking clearly, and also about how scary it is to start over.”
It is a great lesson and we look forward to the continued journey of Collin and the boys. We will be sure to keep up to speed with what the future holds.