Mark Pickerel is not a maker of rash decisions. He's got an unimpeachable resume as a sideman -- probably best known as the drummer for the Pacific Northwest grunge outfit the Screaming Trees, he also recorded with members of Nirvana, backed Neko Case, and played with Mark Lanegan over the years, staying on the sidelines and letting the frontman lead (and make the mistakes). After almost twenty years in the background, though, the soft-spoken, thoughtful Washington State native is stepping into the limelight and learning that some things are impossible to prepare for. The attention, for one, is something that this very polite and understated guy is getting used to. The frontman personality and its attendant obligations don't come naturally to Pickerel, who comes across as the kind of guy who, at a party, would be tucked away in a corner talking intently about something elevated for hours, not standing on the table with the beer funnel.
"Being behind the drums for so long, I had so many ideas of what bandleaders were doing wrong," he says. "You know, I'll never do this, I'll never do that. And I've already done a lot of those things." The attention is a little hard to get used to.
"Once you move from being the drummer to the frontman, there's social pressure. People want to entertain you, they start handing you drinks ... I played a festival in England recently and stayed out too late, and wound up missing a radio interview because I mismanaged my time. If someone else had done that, I'd have been so disgusted. But I'm learning a lot about myself, how to prepare myself for all of these different situations."
The finished album, Snake in the Radio (Bloodshot), is a carefully constructed result of a great deal of preparation. It has a spooky, minor-key Americana sound driven by Pickerel's haunting voice, which has been compared to the lush, otherworldly baritone of Lee Hazlewood and the wistful, laconic sound of the Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt. Lyrically, each song is a discrete narrative -- Snake in the Radio is a collection of incredibly evocative stories and images that, he thinks, are the result of years of watching and absorbing -- it is, after all, his first foray into songwriting.
"All through my twenties, I knew that I wanted to write, but I hadn't figured out what was unique about me yet. I was trying to absorb as much film and fiction and music as possible, in this kind of feeding frenzy, but I didn't have my own take on romance, or religion, or politics yet." Now, he thinks, he's in a place where he's figured out not only which stories he wants to tell, but the way to tell them.
"I know I like narratives where listeners really feel like they're inside the character," he says. "I don't like feeling as if the main character is reflecting on the past. I like being put right into the experience."
One of the best tracks on the album is the slow, chugging "Graffiti Girl." It's a love story, from the point of view of a young man who, having seen a name written inside a boxcar, is driven to strike out into the world to pursue the writer -- who he imagines as a beautiful young girl -- and, by association, the realization of the passion that the whole fantasy has stirred in him. It's a tale that brings to mind what it's like to be a teenager, being exposed to music and film and fantasizing about the lives of the art's creators, until you're finally driven to step out into their world of possibility and action.
"Just from this beautiful image on a boxcar, that image alone is his impetus to leave the desert for the city and try to experience passion," Pickerel says about the song. "Now, I look back and romanticize the days I did all my imagining. There was something comforting and beautiful about going out and imagining a better world."
Pickerel remembers discussing that idea with his father, who drew the album's cover art: a picture of the famous His Master's Voice dog looking into a snake instead of a Victrola. His relationship with his parents, who are deeply religious, informed a lot of the album and perhaps his choice to wait so long to assemble his first solo effort.
"They're very loving people, but they're also concerned for my soul," he explains. "I'm still figuring out how to relate to them. And I have a strong inner dialogue that comes from having a religious background and also having worldly feelings, a lustful side. I can listen to AC/DC and relate to a man trying to celebrate his sinful side, but if I'm writing about sex or romance or religion, I'd like people to know how conflicted I feel about almost all of it."