Music Reviews,  Pow Magazine

The Raging Marys Interview About Their Lost Grunge Classic Titled Birthday

The Raging Marys Birthday originally released in 1989, is an underground classic that was has a youthful energized sound with hidden scars exposed to the light. The music is a part of alternative music history when a new heavy sound labeled, “The Seattle Sound”.

Birthday is an underground album with musicians who are ahead of their time. The music is inspired with talented artists putting everything they have into their music. Drive, determination and inspiration shines through on Birthday giving strength and energy to the album.

The Raging Marys are from San Jose, California and they played along side Mudhoney, The Young Fresh Fellows, Loop and The Tragically Hip. Their music is known for witty lyricism, catchy melodies, vocal harmonies and great musicianship. The songs are alternative with melodies that predicted sounds that went mainstream in the 90s.

The band has a dual guitar approach with steady bass and drums and memorable choruses. The guitars played by Steve Hartsoe and Gerry Henne use a variety of tones through driven amps. The two guitars work together with rich creative arrangements. Steve Hartsoe’s vocals are intentionally grungy with attitude and catchy melodies.

The Raging Marys debut album Birthday was originally released on vinyl and cassette November of 1989 from a small record label Whet Reign Records. The album, produced by Oakland punk legend Kevin Army who produced Operation Ivy and has worked with Green Day. Birthday is now being reissued for the first time on streaming and digital formats from London Down Music, a label run by the band.

This remastered version by Justin Perkins who mastered albums byThe Replacements sounds excellent. Competed in fall 2020 at Mystery Room Mastering in Milwaukee. Perkins commented on the project:

“One thing I love about remastering old albums is remembering how tight bands had to be before computers. Great band, great songs, and great production by Kevin Army.”  

In a recent interview conducted by Pow Magazine (full transcript below) bassist Chris Carbone commented on the meaning of the album.

“What is the album about? It’s a calling card for who we were and how we felt. There is a basic thread of loneliness and a certain angst for being on the outside looking in…not really accepted and being left out, and in some ways turning that into a very powerful thing. It fueled us. Our interpretation of “Heartbreak Hotel” summarizes that feeling so well…raw power then the plaintive Elvis loneliness soliloquy fade out. I thought the vibe we had was ahead of its time, a precursor to the really melodic and super heavy sound to come in the ’90s. The band always represented radical extremes — thundering sound one moment then quietly reflective the next.”

The Raging Marys foreshadowed the future alternative sound that would rise to the top of the charts. They are a lost gem in the early phases of grunge music and are due for a re-release. Despite their non-stop touring and opening slot with Mudhoney and The Tragically Hip the band was unable to be signed to a major label. The Raging Marys produced inspired forward looking music that has withstood the test of time. They have become the quintessential underrated band from the West Coast alternative rock scene. Steve Hartsoe and Chris Cabone continue to make music today after a long hiatus under the name London Down and have a new EP coming later in 2021.

The music on Birthday is highly inspired, fresh and edgy and fits perfectly into the revolutionary alternative music that took the mainstream in the 90s. The world was in a state of major change and revolution political, economically and technologically.

During the late 1980s the American youth questioned a system that was conservative and hawkish. Rousing political considerations weighed heavy in the hearts of people world-wide and produced a new sense of disappointment and grave concern that led to revolutions, and a hard questioning of the status quo. Major events of the time include the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Drug War, Velvet Revolution, The Revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe, Tiananmen Square massacre in China to name a few.

The West Coast of the USA became a hot bed for political and environmental activism. The television was transmitting images of revolutions and the violent responses from governments. The world was at a turning point and the American youth were questioning the conservative direction of the country and building creative, intellectual and political movements which included the emergence of alternative rock and grunge.

Musically, 1989 was a transitional time that saw the emergence of alternative radio stations, alternative rock, grunge, and new forms of heavy rock. Sub Pop dominated the alternative movement and was releasing albums and singles from Nirvana, Mudhoney, Sound Garden, Sonic Youth and more. The scene was in its early phase in 1989 with The Tragically Hip, The Pixies, and Dinosaur Jr setting the stage. This music was not on the mainstream radio and music heads would trades cassettes, mix tapes and go to live concerts to find new music. The new so-called, ‘Seattle Sound’ would later enter the mainstream most notably in 1991 with Nirvana’s legendary album Nevermind.

In the 80’s and 90s the radio defined the musical taste of the time along with MTV, the first music video television station. College and independent alternative radio stations were introducing the world to underground heavy metal, desert rock, punk, alternative rock and grunge. The large stations saturated the airwaves with 1989 hits like Maddona’s “Like A Prayer”, Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its ThornPrince, Paula Abdul, Phil Collins, Bon Jovi and New Kids On The Block.

Amidst all this The Raging Marys found their own sound that combined the 60s garage rock, heavy rock and folk with melodies suitable for radio play. The band began its journey in 1988 when Gerry Henne joined the band. Steve Hartsoe described the start of the band in a recent interview:

“We started as London Down in fall 1985, pretty much everyone’s first band, and put out one album, “Strange Places Unknown,” on vinyl in ’87. When our original guitarist left in early 1988, we added a pretty green young guitarist, Gerry Henne, who was full of outside-the-box ideas. We decided to switch gears a bit and pursue a harder sound influenced a lot by ’60s garage-pychedlic-folk bands. Sadly, Gerry died of cancer in January 2021… Gerry was one of the funniest people and most dedicated musicians I’ve ever known. The guy essentially lived off beef jerky sticks and sodas so every dollar could go back into his equipment and the band. We are dedicating this re-release to him.”

Follow the release of Birthday in 1989 the band toured extensively on the west coast and shared the stage with Mudhoney, The Tragically Hip, Loop and many other bands. They had a talent agent from Sony scheduled to be at one of their gigs in San Francisco in 1991 but the agent never arrived. At that time major labels were the gatekeepers for success and they were focused on bands in Seattle. Shortly after that The Raging Marys decided to shift priorities and disband. When speaking with Steve and Chris they are very fond of the years in the band and both agree that the Mudhoney show was one of their best memories.

Steve Hartsoe:
A highlight was opening for Mudhoney at the legendary Satyricon club in Portland on our Northwest tour in May 1990. Packed house, intense vibe. I pulled a muscle in my neck from thrashing around! My amp was set twice as loud as usual and we avoided playing any folky songs so we didn’t get pelted with beer bottles. I remember we had to exit through the crowd, escorted by bouncers. It was surreal… We have a new song partially about that experience called ‘Budokan’ that we plan to release this summer on a London Down EP.”

Chris Carbone:

“Yeah, Mudhoney at the Satyricon was totally insane…I think that was within a few months of the legendary Courtney (Love) /Kurt (Cobain) wrestling match…kismet…haha. They announced we were from San Francisco, which we proudly corrected to San Jose. The standard house volume up there was twice as loud as anywhere we ever played, the side fill monitors on both sides of the stage were crazy big, just washing everything in a glorious massive stage volume. Needless to say we played like our lives depended on it… such a cathartic out-of-body experience.”

The Raging Marys Birthday is rock album that touches on political issues and embodies the ethos of the early grunge movement. The fact that they were never signed to a major label was a missed opportunity for the genre. The music has great musicianship, creative and forward looking songs. It is an album that that has many singles that repeat in the listeners memory. The sound quality is very good, the songs are catchy, melodic, edgy and innovative. The songs are clearly from the early grunge scene yet they feel fresh and unusually inspired to this day. When the reissue of Birthday hits streaming a new generation of people will discover their music and be inspired by it. It is not an album to overlook and needs to be heard by the masses.

Full Transcript of the Pow Magazine Interview from April 2021:

Steve Hartsoe: lead vocals, guitar
Chris Carbone: bass

-Hello Steve Hartsoe and Chris Carbone thank you so much for doing the interview and making great music. I am interested in how the band formed and how you developed the songs with The Raging Marys.

Steve: We started as London Down in fall 1985, pretty much everyone’s first band, and put out one album, “Strange Places Unknown,” on vinyl in ’87. When our original guitarist left in early 1988, we added a pretty green young guitarist, Gerry Henne, who was full of outside-the-box ideas. We decided to switch gears a bit and pursue a harder sound influenced a lot by ’60s garage-pychedlic-folk bands. Sadly, Gerry died of cancer in January 2021. The last time I texted with him was to share the remastered “Birthday” album around Thanksgiving 2020. He said he’d check it out and was excited that he just got his old Mesa Boogie amp fixed. He was on his deathbed two months later. Gerry was one of the funniest people and most dedicated musicians I’ve ever known. The guy essentially lived off beef jerky sticks and sodas so every dollar could go back into his equipment and the band. We are dedicating this re-release to him.

As for songwriting, Chris and I to this day write songs separately but usually share our ideas with each other for input before we share with the rest of the band. I hope this isn’t too complicated, but we reformed as London Down in 2018 with our original guitarist, Phil Benjamin,  and have put out several singles and two albums.

Chris: Steve and I write songs and bring them into band rehearsal. That’s where they really come to life. Really the most exhilarating feeling is the first 2-3 times running through a new song. We’re all sorting through it adding parts, changing our individual parts. Then it crystalizes  in a moment and makes the hair on your arms stand up. My friend calls it Mr. X … the most beautiful part of being in a band.

What are your favorite memories and stories The Raging Marys? What is something that has stuck with you over the years?

Steve: A highlight, and I’m sure Chris will agree, was opening for Mudhoney at the legendary Satyricon club in Portland on our Northwest tour in May 1990. Packed house, intense vibe. I pulled a muscle in my neck from thrashing around! My amp was set twice as loud as usual and we avoided playing any folky songs so we didn’t get pelted with beer bottles. I remember we had to exit through the crowd, escorted by bouncers. It was surreal. We were used to driving three hours to play to 12 drunks in Fresno on a Wednesday, then hearing the inevitable, “Dude, you gotta play on a Thursday when people are here!” Unfortunately, Fotomat ruined our photos from that Northwest tour so we have nothing to show for it but a little mention on a Mudhoney tour history website. We have a new song partially about that experience called “Budokan” that we plan to release this summer on a London Down EP.

Chris: Yeah, Mudhoney at the Satyricon was totally insane…I think that was within a few months of the legendary Courtney/Kurt wrestling match…kismet…haha. They announced we were from San Francisco, which we proudly corrected to San Jose. The standard house volume up there was twice as loud as anywhere we ever played, the side fill monitors on both sides of the stage were crazy big, just washing everything in a glorious massive stage volume. Needless to say we played like our lives depended on it… such a cathartic out-of-body experience.

What would you say the album is about? Was there a central feeling or theme that really inspired the lyrics and creation of the album?

Steve: We had only been writing songs for two years when we started on this album in late 1988. I listen now and I have to say I am really impressed with our songs and performance on the album. For me, a key theme was entering adulthood and witnessing and/or experiencing life’s hard knocks. “BellaRose” is about the lingering effects of being scared by older neighborhood kids when I was around 4. “Happy Now” was influenced by death, divorce and a tragic car wreck suffered by my extended family. The chorus, “We’re so happy now,” is pure sarcasm, the Mayberry bubble had burst. “Veggies” is about a troubled teen who made salads where I worked.

Chris: What is the album about? It’s a calling card for who we were and how we felt. There is a basic thread of loneliness and a certain angst for being on the outside looking in…not really accepted and being left out, and in some ways turning that into a very powerful thing. It fueled us. Our interpretation of “Heartbreak Hotel” summarizes that feeling so well…raw power then the plaintive Elvis loneliness soliloquy fade out. I thought the vibe we had was ahead of its time, a precursor to the really melodic and super heavy sound to come in the ’90s. The band always represented radical extremes — thundering sound one moment then quietly reflective the next. If you could take the vibe of the movie “Bless the Beasts and Children” and run it through a wall of Marshalls, that was The Raging Marys. The cover of the album reflects the highs and lows, the extremes of emotion in the music. John John is on the cover in the famous saluting photo. He’s holding a book he got for his birthday, which was the same day as his father’s funeral procession. It was always about the extremes with us, but we all tempered it with a collective dark, off-kilter, gut-laughing sense of humor. I guess we had to.

Is if there anything else that you would like the world to know about The Raging Marys or the West Coast music scene during that time.

Steve: I look back on that experience with nothing but fondness. To play your own music with your brother and best friends, hear your band on the radio, tour the West Coast a few times and open for major artists like Mudhoney, The Tragically Hip, Loop, and The Young Fresh Fellows, and now re-release an album we are still proud of, that is very cool. But I will always wonder what might have happened if the Sony A&R guy was not a no-show at Hotel Utah in San Francisco on Mother’s Day night, 1991. That disappointment was the last straw for some in the band, and it ended our run.

Chris: I was just reading about Grohl’s documentary “What Drives Us” (shameless plug because I think it will be a stellar series)…and it brought me back to the time after a frenetic freebie gig at the UC Berkeley pub, of all places, we were heading to play gigs in Oregon and stopped to sleep by the Klamath River…with a couple cases of “borrowed” or shall we say “donated” beer by the Berkeley pub staff. We all fell asleep in the van on top of our speaker cabs just listening to the Klamath…a beautiful feeling and a memory I still cherish to this day.

I loved every minute of it and I’m so stoked we can crank up the Deathmobile again and continue our sonic journey. There are still more tales to tell and memories to be made.There is nothing better than the hang time creating music with your brothers and blasting it out when we have the opportunity. And I might add we can still blast it out with the best of them. 

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I am a part of the emerging psychedelic musical revolution and the wizard behind the curtain at ThePsychRock.com. I am lucky enough to be in contact with performers and labels around the world and discuss music that is weird, transcendent, creative and psychedelic. It’s no surprise that I live in San Francisco, California where the psychedelic revolution was born. I am a multi-instrumentalist musician, songwriter, digital and visual artist in the bands Temple Rose and Black Satori. I have written about music for the ThePsychRock.com, GigSoup Music, Sic Magazine and professional corporate copy writing. Discovering new music from artists large and small gives me a special thrill and I feel compelled to share the excitement. My journey began when I started attending coffeehouse concerts at 14 years old, seeing acoustic and hardcore metal bands. I soon started making music of my own. A pivotal moment was when I picked up my first record player and started collecting vinyl records from the 1960s and early 1970s in acid folk, garage rock, psychedelic and krautrock genres. The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, and Black Sabbath laid a firm foundation. Then I discovered CAN, Ash Ra Tempel, Tangerine Dream, and Pink Floyd which blew convention out of the water and my musical horizon extended into the experimental and abstract. Today there are thousands of bands which have taken the legacy of psychedelic music and created something new. I seek out these bands and performers, spreading their latest revelations to the world. Some of my favorite contemporary artists are The Black Angels, Oh Sees, Woods, Acid Mothers Temple, Kikagaku Moyo and L.A. Witch.