Mark Duplass Looks Back at the Time He Almost Had a Career as an Indie Rock Star
Before 'Togetherness' and 'The League,' there was the band Volcano, I'm Still Excited!!
In some alternate universe, Mark Duplass would not be a name most people associate with low-budget indie films about coming to terms with adulthood, or a shit-talking fantasy football-obsessed character from The League. In this parallel dimension, Mark Duplass would instead be a name listed among the indie rock acts on Coachella’s lineup and written about on cool music blogs. There was a fork in the road for Duplass back in 2004 that presented him with these two options. He chose the film route and never looked back.
“I haven’t talked about this band for 11 years,” Duplass laughs when I call him to talk about Volcano, I’m Still Excited!!, the power pop trio he played in through his early twenties, just before his career in television and film took off. The band released its only album in 2004 on Polyvinyl Records, a label that was on fire throughout the indie rock boom of the mid-2000s, producing albums in the same year by Mates of State, Of Montreal, and Rainer Maria. The self-titled album was very of its time, capturing the lo-fi, Casio keyboard-heavy style popular among the band’s peers. Polyvinyl founder Matt Lunsford cites it as the most underrated album the label ever put out.
Shortly after the album’s release, though, two short films that Duplass had made started getting attention at Sundance. New doors were opening for Duplass in the film industry. He soon ended the band, opting to pursue a new life path. It paid off, too, as he has done well for himself as a director, producer, and actor. He and his brother, Jay Duplass, have become the go-to creators of shoestring budget films like Cyrus, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and The Do-Deca-Pentathalon. He’s also perhaps most recognizable for his role on the hit FX comedy The League as Pete Eckhart or, as he is known to Rafi, Tall Guy.
The Duplass brothers have also been busy venturing into the TV world lately, producing the HBO series, Togetherness, which Mark also stars in. The show returns for a second season on February 21. Additionally, their new animated series, Animals, launches on February 5 and boasts an insane list of comedic actors lending voices, including Adam Scott, Wanda Sykes, Aziz Ansari, and Danny McBride.
But as Duplass will tell you, it was his stint in music that helped launch his film career, instilling in him the values of how to make good art when you’re dead broke. We talked to Duplass about his time in a band, and the rock star life that could have been.
Noisey: How did Volcano, I’m Still Excited!! come about?
Mark Duplass: I’ve had two careers, I guess. In my former life, I was a musician and that was what I did predominantly. I would work as a film editor to make money, but through my teens and my early twenties, I was a singer-songwriter. I made a couple of self-released solo records—overly earnest singer-songwriter stuff. I decided to put together this band because I had a lot of trouble playing acoustic guitar because I’d developed tendonitis and had all kinds of health issues with that. So I thought I’d build a little band around an instrument that I could play, which was one of my old Casio keyboards. It was me changing gears a bit. I started studying composition at the City College of New York and started experiencing a lot of low-fi, and quite frankly, not-100-percent earnest stuff. And I thought, oh this is interesting, I could mess around with this. We cobbled this band together, me and two of my closest friends, while we were living in Austin.
There seemed like a sense of irony behind the music. When the album came out in 2004, it was such a crazy year for indie rock, where it was at its peak. And this seemed to be playful with that.
Yeah. I think so. Even the name of the band, it was supposed to be like, we’re raising our fists and we’re pumping high in the air. It wasn’t supposed to be ironic about it, necessarily, or cutesy, but it did have a sense of humor about itself.
So you were in New York or Austin at this time?
I was kind of living back and forth between Austin and New York. My band members were in Austin and they eventually moved to New York with me and we made a go of it when we hooked up with Polyvinyl and started touring around and doing the whole shebang.
How did you get hooked up with Polyvinyl?
Initially, my friend Josef Robey had connections with them somehow. He was friends with the band Mates of State and we became friends with them and we just saw what an amazing force Polyvinyl was. They’re just like a family running a record label. There was so much fucking “cool” going on in indie rock and this was just sweet, normal, Midwestern people, and we just fell in love with them. We wanted to do a record with them, but they didn’t know who the hell we were, really. So we self-released an EP and booked our own tour and randomly got some pretty good CMJ radio charting on our own. Then we turned to Polyvinyl and said, “Look, we’ll work our asses off. Will you put out our record?” And they said yes.
How long did you tour after that album? I remember seeing you at—well, it was Northsix, it’s Music Hall of Williamsburg now…
Yes, yes, Northsix, man. That was right down the street from my apartment. The record came out in February of ‘04, I want to say. This was a very interesting time because my first short film as a filmmaker had gotten into Sundance in 2003, This Is John. And then in 2004, our second short film had gotten in. Just as the Volcano record had come out and we were set to start touring, my film career was starting to hit. We were touring to promote the release of the record, went down to SXSW. I was there for the music and the film festival, kind of feeling torn in all directions. While we were on tour, I would literally drive the van and hold this little cassette recorder in my hand and I was writing the script for The Puffy Chair by speaking the script into this little dictaphone. As soon as we got off the road on that major promotion, Jay and Katie [Aselton], my girlfriend at the time, we’re now married—put our crew together and we went and shot The Puffy Chair that summer. We felt like like it was going well. I was scheduled to, as soon as I got out of The Puffy Chair shoot, get on a plane, and fly to Europe for a seven-week Volcano, I’m Still Excited!! tour.
I was very much at a crossroads where I realized, I don’t think I’ll be able to do both of those things. Something is gonna have to take the bullet. It was really hard and stressful, but at the end of the day, I’m kind of a homebody. As crazy as it sounds, I think I was 26 or 27 at the time, I almost felt aged out of how difficult touring was a job. And I was very close with my girlfriend and with Jay and I would miss them when I would go on tour. When you go on tour, it’s either like, you’re staying up until four in the morning, smoking weed with all the fun people you met at the show, or you’re on the phone talking to your family at home. I was the guy on the phone the whole time.
So we did our last hoo-rah European tour and then when we got home, we played CMJ at Northsix. I think that was our final show at the end of 2004. Then a week later I found out that The Puffy Chair had gotten into Sundance and I haven’t really looked back since. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it.
In Togetherness, and in a lot of your roles, you play a guy dealing with the minutia of life as a thirty-something. Is this where you see that character back in 2004? A guy in a cool Brooklyn indie rock band and now he’s settled down?
I think The Puffy Chair was an interesting transition, and I think that’s what I was going through when I wrote that—taking off the skinny jeans and the Dickies and becoming something else. I worked a lot of that stuff out through The Puffy Chair. Obviously, a guy like Brett in Togetherness was never an indie rock dude, he was always a sound nerd. He’d be more of the dude who was doing weird alt-noise shows in the Eastern European circuit.
It seems like the purpose of Togetherness is to explore that question of which is ultimately the better life track—holding on to your artistic career or settling down and starting a family?
Yes. That’s based much more upon what I’m seeing now as I approach 40 and see people be inherently jealous of what everyone else has. Single people are jealous of the comfort of the married people and the married people are jealous of the comfort of the single people. But it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t admit that some of that has to do with the two kinds of lives that I have lived. There was definitely a little bit of a Sliding Doors moment for me in 2004. I think it’s possible that if my film career took off a bit more slowly and the music career happened maybe a year earlier, that I would be living more of the lifestyle of what Of Montreal or Spoon does now. I certainly don’t have any regrets. My lifestyle is really comfortable. I can have kids and I don’t have to worry about leaving them at home when I’m on tour and all that crazy shit that I don’t know how people do.
When you look back at your time in the band, what would you say was your favorite memory?
There’s a moment every night on stage during your one or two favorite songs, and it’s usually one or two favorite parts of one of those songs—for me, it’s the second chorus in our song “In Green”—where you have three people singing harmonies at the top of their vocal registers, playing their instruments as loudly and with a tempo that’s at the top of their physical acumen, and when you’ve been on tour for a few months and you spend all day driving in a van full of beer farts, eating shitty food, getting grumpy with each other, loading in, dealing with grumpy bouncers and sound guys, and you’re always thinking, “What the fuck am I doing with my life? This is crazy.” And then you have that moment in that song where everyone is jiving, and as much as I love my film career, I’ve never had a moment like that, creatively. Unfortunately, it’s only about a minute per night. And the other 24 hours are very difficult. But god, it’s fucking amazing!
Have you ever thought of reviving the project, even as a one-off thing?
I have a nightmare probably once a month that I’m on stage at a Volcano, I’m Still Excited!! reunion, and I cannot remember how to play any of the songs, and everyone is waiting for it. It’s so consistent and easily diagnosable. [Laughs] We’ve talked about it occasionally because I’m still friends with the guys who were in the band. Nothing has ever materialized. I wouldn’t be closed to it. Music around my house now is… I have an eight year old daughter and she’s kind of a little bit of a whiz. We make up songs on piano, she plays drums, and I rock out with her, and that’s the best version of it.
Do you stay up on the indie music scene these days?
It’s really hard for me to know what’s going on because of the time that’s required and the volume of material. It’s almost impossible to keep up. I very luckily have a few key people in my life who know me and know what I like. My music supervisor Maggie Phillips who helps me get all the music for my movies and TV shows, she’s constantly on the watch and funneling things to me. The interesting thing is that just in the last year, I’ve started to go see live shows again. And I loved them. I fucking hated live music when I was playing out because it’s like, why would you want to go to where you work to have fun? It took me almost ten years to get through that. I just went the other night to see Mark Kozelek do his Sun Kil Moon permutation that’s this little jazz combo that he’s doing. And I just saw this weird, slightly overweight 50-year-old dude with a flattop stomping around stage pouring his heart out awkwardly, and I was like, man, this is something special. I kinda miss this stuff.
I’m sure you were playing music for very cheap or nothing, and then you started making movies with low budgets. Did the music career help inform how you wanted to make movies?
My experience in the music industry 100 percent shaped, not only my creative process, but it shaped the producing models that I’ve built inside the film industry. No joke, I go to speak at these conferences and they’re like, “How did you figure out how to make movies this cheaply and how did you figure out how to model this stuff?” And I was like, basically I just stole this from the indie rock model, where there was no money and it was all sweat equity. If you look at all of my contracts that the film industry feels are “utterly revolutionary,” they look a lot like indie rock record contracts. [Laughs]
I bet Fugazi could make the most perfectly budgeted indie flick.
Absolutely. They know how to do it. They have that German engineering that’s efficient. This is not meant to be as sweeping as it sounds, but I came out of the music industry in 2004 when it was no secret that you could record a record for cheap on your computer. That had been happening for ten years. So I came out in the glut and it was really hard for us to make noise and cut through because there was just so much music. But in 2004 in the film scene, they were behind. The technology just happened in 2004. So I got to be the person who rode the wave. I got to be Elliott Smith in the film industry. I was making this low-fi stuff. The timing of that has made such a huge difference in my life. If you’re coming up in 2016 as a young indie filmmaker, you’re fighting the battle of everybody making cheap movies. As unlucky as I was as a musician, I was that lucky as a filmmaker.
Is TV still behind film in that regard?
Yes. If you look at our show Animals, that’s a show that I made independently and I took it to Sundance and I sold it just like an independent film. There’s a nice space now to make television shows cheaply and sell them back to HBO or other channels. All of these sensibilities came from me being in Austin with my eight-track, realizing I could self-press records and take it on tour and we could do OK.
I read somewhere a long time ago that you were secretive about where the band name came from. Will you reveal it now or will you just die with that one?
I’m gonna die with that one. I love my weird band name. But you know what? Come get me in ten years, I’m sure I’ll tell you and disappoint everyone with the utter simplicity of it.
Dan Ozzi is still excited!! Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi