Mark Cohen aka The Shining Hour has been writing, recording and creating his own brand of bedroom indie pop as a solo artist and with the band Fragile since the mid 80′s. Mark has an extensive back catalog of material he has recorded on cassette (N/A), CD-R’s, songs on V/A compilations as well as several CD’s on Apricot Records. For those unfamiliar with The Shining Hour, a good place to start is the compilation cd “Wait All Summer” on Apricot.
Worthing is a seaside town in the county of West Sussex about 60 miles south of London on the south coast of England and 15 miles west of Brighton, which is a well known seaside resort.
Where were you born and raised?
Chichester, West Sussex. Chichester is an old Roman city which has a beautiful cathedral built over 700 years ago. It was a nice place to grow up.
Were memories of your childhood fairly happy ones?
I had a good and happy childhood although I don’t think about it too much. Perhaps that’s why my memories often seem vague and incomplete. One of my brothers has to remind me about things!
Any siblings and are you still close to them?
I have two brothers and a sister and we are close.
Is/was anyone else in your family musically inclined?
I thought not but in the last 2 or 3 years I have got to know my Mum’s half sister. I don’t remember her at all growing up but she was a singer and her father was a pianist, so maybe that’s where it comes from.
Do you remember one of the first LP’s or singles you bought?
I think the first single I bought was The Sixteens by The Sweet. I had things bought for me but I’m not willing to admit to those! The first album I bought was on cassette and may well have been 20 Golden Greats by The Beach Boys or The Beatles red album 1962-1966 or possibly even Showaddywaddy’s first album.
At what age did you first take an active interest in music?
I remember liking songs on the radio when I was very young which was in the late 60s/early 70s. I used to play some of my Dad’s singles and LPs. This included various 7” singles like ‘Shakin All Over’ by Jonny Kidd & the Pirates, Searchers singles, an EP from Hard Days Night, Glen Campbell stuff. When I was about 7 we were asked to take a single into school. Most kids took in ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’, ‘Sugar Sugar’ or kids’ stuff. I took in “Over You” by Gary Puckett & The Union Gap which is a very melancholy but dramatic song. I think the teacher was quite surprised. This day and age I’d probably be taken into care! I still love that song though and think it’s his best but I don’t think it was a hit in the UK. Even then I had a liking for sad songs!
Did you know early on that creating and writing music was what you wanted to do with your life or were there other interest(s)?
I remember making up a couple of Beach Boys influenced songs when I was about 8 or 9 but until I started learning the guitar at the late age of 17, I had no other thoughts about writing music. Once I learned some chords, the ideas started to flow.
Was the guitar the first instrument you learned to play?
Apart from a stylophone, it was!
Did you take lessons or are you self-taught?
I took lessons at first as I moved to Horsham in West Sussex and as I didn’t know anyone I thought it might be a good way to meet like minded people. I bought a guitar from a friend some months before we moved but wasn’t motivated enough to learn from a book. It was useful to have lessons but I never learned scales. I never saw the point at the time as my guitar heroes didn’t play long guitar solos. I still can’t play scales now. I suppose I always wanted to come up with song ideas more than playing a million notes a second! After a couple of years of lessons everything else is self taught.
What was the name of your first band and how did you get together?
I met a bass player called Colin Harmer through my guitar teacher and we formed a duo. We called ourselves several names and practiced songs by The Jam and others but soon started to write our own stuff. We eventually settled on the name The Beat Circus.
Where did the name come from?
The name just occurred to Colin when he went to the fridge to get some margarine. It’s not quite as impressive as John Lennon’s dream of a flaming pie telling him to spell Beatles with an ‘a’!
Why did you opt on using a drum machine rather than finding an actual drummer?
I think we practiced for over a year without any backing rhythm and eventually tried out 3 drummers. We never got past one afternoon with one, another was way too flashy for our limited skills and the third was too young and still learning. Drummers were thin on the ground in the area which around that time had a lot of bands. Technology such as drum machines was just about becoming affordable and as we wanted to start playing gigs, I bought a Korg drum machine in March 1985. Six months later with the drum tracks recorded to cassette, we played our first gig. The drum machine was £199. You can almost buy a laptop for that now with loads of music software options.
You had access to a portastudio for recording. What’s a portastudio?
A portastudio was a fairly new invention and was a multitrack recording machine that could record 4 tracks to cassette tape. Therefore it allowed musicians with a limited budget to record at home for the first time and layer tracks to record a song. We did our first demos using a hired portastudio machine and drum machine in February 1985. I hired a smaller portastudio in July that year and recorded my first solo songs. I eventually bought my own machine the following year.
Did you release any material as The Beat Circus?
We recorded quite a lot of material (about 60 songs) and put together four cassette based albums. Looking back, some of the songs, performances and recordings are quite primitive but there are still a few gems there. We didn’t really make a lot of the music public apart from playing gigs. Some friends had cassette copies but we didn’t get anything manufactured. We recorded the songs for our own amusement.
Colin’s brother Neale had his own band at the time and liked some of the material you were writing. Was there a mutual admiration?
Neale was in a great Horsham band called ‘Hoods Yeah Right!’ and they made an impact in the town. When they split he was a part of another great band, ‘No Geraniums’. I always liked his songs and recordings and still do. Neale liked some of The Beat Circus songs. In 1988 I finished a 21 track album of guitar songs called Poppy Day which he liked. We always have swapped songs and ideas.
You were then asked to join Neale and Fragile. Your thoughts at the time?
I was happy to join because it was a new band and both our bands had ended. Fragile’s songs came from some of his demos and some of mine and that’s how it remained. We have hardly ever played any covers of other people’s songs.
Talk about Fragile and what you consider to be some of the best material you contributed to the band.
Fragile is the name Neale adopted for his own recordings and we used it also for the band. Our set was a combination of his and my songs. We had a lot of material to draw from. Neither of us is too precious about whose songs are played. Steve, our drummer, was in Neale’s previous two bands is a very good drummer. We started off with a different bass player but eventually found Rob who is a very competent guitar player and wanted to play bass with us. We never played that many gigs but it’s always fun to get together to practice. I think the best material I’ve contributed include ‘Worlds Apart’, ‘I Remain’, ‘Don’t Mention Her Name’ and ‘Miss Me’ which were all recorded as Shining Hour songs before being used in Fragile.
Is Fragile still together? If so, are you still a member?
Of sorts. We have an occasional practice which is always great fun but we have no real desire to gig anymore. However, Neale and I do still have a dream of playing with our friends Brideshead in Germany. We’d come out of retirement for that!
On your website http://www.shininghour.co.uk/ you say that playing with Neale and Fragile inspired you to begin “The Shining Hour”. How so?
After his two previous bands broke up, Neale started to record his own songs and got cassette tapes of albums manufactured which he sold through mail order, fanzines and the Rough Trade shop in London. This inspired me to compile songs I’d previously recorded into two cassette albums which I got manufactured and sold under The Shining Hour name. I didn’t want to use my own name – there was already Marc Cohn of ‘Walking In Memphis’ fame and I wanted to hide behind a band name. I looked through a film guide, liked the name which sounded quite like an indie band. I’ve never seen the film though.
How was it in the beginning recording on your own with the 4-track?
Once I got used to the machine, it was very exciting to be able to record my own songs, to layer track by track and end up with a fully formed song. The early songs were often recorded and mixed from beginning to end including lyric writing in 3-4 hours! They take so much longer now as I try to produce the best quality recording I can and there are so many more options available on the computer.
Did you or rather do you enjoy the creative control and independence working alone?
I like being able to determine the sound I want. Fragile went into the studio once to record two songs, one of which was previously recorded as a Shining Hour song called ‘Don’t Turn Away’. It was quite expensive and the result was nowhere near as good as my original demo or even our rehearsal recordings. To me, it sounded limp and lacked the original’s bite or our live sound. I don’t think the studio was that great. Neale has had more studio experience and has often been left disappointed with the results. At home I can do as many takes as I like without feeling like the clock is ticking. Also I get nervous when the red recording light goes on! Neale and I worked together on some home made recordings of the Fragile set and I enjoyed that because he has good taste. I also helped another friend of mine to record some of his songs and I acted more like a producer/engineer suggesting ideas and helping him to achieve certain sounds etc. That was very enjoyable too.
What are some of your favorite early Shining Hour tracks?
I started recording my own songs in 1985 and adopted the name in 1991 so there are some very early songs like ‘A Lifetime Away’ from 1987 I still like. ‘Chapter One Ends’ is from 1986 but eventually ended up on Apricot’s Airpop compilation in 1998. ‘All Summer Long’ is from 1987 also and was on the first Apricot CD ‘Wait All Summer’. There are a lot of songs to choose from.
Discuss your writing style. Is the material mostly written through experiences you’ve had? Do you have a melody in your head and then write the lyrics or vice versa?
Most of the time I come up with a melody first either by playing some chords on the guitar or something pops into my head, usually when I haven’t got a tape recorder handy, like when washing up or in the shower! In the past if I was away from home and came up with an idea I have actually resorted to calling my home phone and sung into the answering machine so I don’t forget the idea! The lyrics are usually written last. I often have an idea which may come from a title or a few phrases but it has become harder to write lyrics as time has gone on. You could say some songs are semi-autobiographical but as I nearly always write lyrics in the first person that doesn’t necessarily reflect my personal experiences.
Hanns-Christian Mahler of the German label Apricot became interested in your material. How did The Shining Hour get his attention?
The three guys who formed Apricot Records – Hanns-Christian, Martin Nelte and Johannes Schneider – were on a trip to London in the mid 90s. They visited the Rough Trade shop where they bought Neale’s first Fragile tape, a four song release called ‘Autumn’. HC wrote to Neale and he recommended me as some music they might like also like. HC contacted me and I sent him some tapes. I got a PC in 1996 and HC and I kept in touch via email. We finally met in late 1998 and have remained good friends ever since.
A 7″ EP entitled “5 O’Clock Rise” was released by Apricot in 1998. Your thoughts on being released on a German label rather than a local one.
I was thrilled. It meant more to me to be released on a small dedicated label in a different country. I think it showed they were true fans of the songs and I’d not had that kind of attention in the UK where there is always a lot of choice. They have a like minded attitude to their output and their attention to detail is fantastic. The covers that adorn their releases are superb. Neale and I visited Wiesbaden, Germany for the first time in 1998. When we got to Hanns-Christian’s flat, he opened a box and I saw fifty 7” singles containing four of my songs and a box of ‘Airpop’ CDs which had two Fragile and two Shining Hour songs on it. It was a magic moment!
Why do you think there were so many German indie labels sprouting up at the time like Apricot, Firestation Tower and Little Teddy?
I really have no idea why there were so many labels. I don’t know the situation of the other two labels but Apricot wanted to put out music they loved. They did a fine job too.
The same year, 1998, you flew to German to perform with Brideshead, Fragile and Mondfahre as part of a 2 night show. Relate that whole experience and differences you found between playing in Germany and the UK, the audiences, etc.
It was a fantastic weekend from the moment we arrived. Everybody was very friendly, very interested in us, generous and a good laugh. We felt like pop stars all weekend! We did an interview for radio and had plenty to eat and drink. The bands we played with were really good. The only downside is that Steve and Rob couldn’t come. We would have played a lot better with them as Fragile.
Were the audiences receptive to your music?
Yes they were. I have found this to be the same when I played 2 solo spots. I think the audience was slightly confused because we went on first as The Shining Hour and played 9 songs. After Brideshead we went on again and played 8 Fragile songs. The German audiences are good plus they make clubs from unusual places like an old abattoir or a railway ticket office which make them quite unique. You don’t get that in the UK.
In 2000 you recorded “Appetence” on a Roland VS-840 digital workstation. Describe this recording technology. Were you pleased with the results? How was it working with Hanns-Christian?
After a few years with a 4 track portastudio, I upgraded to an 8 track machine which still recorded to cassette. It allowed more possibilities to separate sounds and I ended up with pretty good results. I then moved on to the VS-840 which was an 8 track digital machine and it recorded sound to Iomega zip disks rather than analogue tape. It enabled better editing and mixing capabilities as well as providing on-board guitar effects. I had an idea for a song which I think I’d only recorded the drum machine and an acoustic guitar. HC recorded his two guitar parts at my flat in Worthing with no idea what the final outcome would be. He didn’t hear the final song until about a year later! As I recall, he recorded his parts a few hours before he had to leave for Germany and we were both suffering from a hangover! He made a very good job. I like his guitar playing and his band Brideshead is fantastic.
Which of your CD-R’s are you most proud of?
There are a lot of songs on ‘Appetence’ I really like. All but three of those songs made it to Apricot’s ‘Postcards From Home’. ‘Full Circle’ was originally a tape but later became a CD-R. I always thought that had quite a well recorded, cohesive sound. I still like ‘Long Lost’ a lot. I think that Cd-R is my most polished set of recordings so far and it was good to finally complete that CD. I recorded those songs on a Korg 16 track hard disc recorder but I mixed the songs on the computer which was a new step for me in technology. There are always songs or elements of songs I think I could have done better but at the time of recording it’s difficult to always be objective.
Your first solo gig was again in Germany in 2002. I bet you were a tad bit nervous eh? All things said, how did it go?
I had very little notice. Hanns-Christian sprang the idea on me about three hours beforehand and after agreeing to it, I hastily practiced five songs. I was very nervous at first but there wasn’t a large audience watching me and once I got through a few bars of the first song, I was ok and actually enjoyed it.
Mark, you’ve had several songs included on various artists compilations. Do you feel this has helped you gain more exposure for your material?
I am sure it has especially through the Apricot compilations. I think the internet has also helped a lot. It’s far easier now to reach audiences in USA, Australia, Europe, Japan etc through the Apricot and Shining Hour websites as well as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook. It’s also nice when people write and tell me a song was played on their local radio station. Sometime last year a song of mine was apparently played on a Mexican pirate radio station! How strange to think it started off in a bedroom in a small town southern England!
In 2006 you recorded a single “From England With Love” as part of a contest to choose the World Cup anthem for England. Very interesting and intriguing. First off, are you a big football fan? Secondly. how did you fare in the contest?
Not strictly correct with the competition thing. For a long time, I had an idea for tune entitled ‘From England With Love’. It was originally going to be about friendships in different countries. Then I got to thinking about adapting it to a football song for England’s campaign in the 2006 World Cup but also to try and sell it to raise some money for Breast Cancer Care. I did a quick demo which I gave to Neale. He wrote some lyrics and suggested some backing vocals and I changed some words and recorded the whole thing in two weeks. Neale, my friend Kevin, my brother Gary and my Dad all sang one line along in the chorus which I was able to copy to other parts of the song using the computer. I sold 125 copies and raised £250 which I was very pleased with. The song was dusted off again for the 2010 World Cup and I made a video which was uploaded to YouTube as part of a competition. There were a huge number of entries some of which were terrible. Neither I nor the England team fared very well but I still think the song is very good whereas the England team are still crap! Perhaps next time I should translate the lyrics into German for the German team! They always do well in football competitions. I do like to watch football but I’m not a fanatic.
Also the same year you released “Long Lost”. Talk about this recording.
I started recording in 2001 after I upgraded the Roland VS-840 to a Korg 16 track hard disc recorder. I recorded quite a lot of backing tracks but didn’t finish anything for a long time mainly down to troubles writing the lyrics and having time. After completing ‘From England With Love’ in a two week period in May 2006, it inspired me complete some of the backing tracks with vocals and also record some newer ideas. Neale played guitars on one song and my friend Kevin recorded some backing vocals on another song. I mixed all the songs on a PC which was new for me. About 4 or 5 of the backing tracks I recorded still haven’t been finished as they didn’t fit in, but they should be finished this year. I was really pleased with the results. I also did a remix/alternate version mini CD of 5 of the songs which is fun.
Cloudberry Records out of Miami, Florida. Why did you switch to a US label for release of “Thinking About Her” in 2007?
It wasn’t really a switch as such. Apricot Records were not releasing as many CDs at that time and Cloudberry asked if I could contribute some songs for a 3” CD-R single. I sent them 5 or 6 songs from Long Lost and they chose 3. Around the same time one of the songs, ‘Before You Know It’ was also contributed to an Australian compilation and Series Two Records in the US took ‘For Always Forever’. If Apricot ever asked me to provide any songs again, I would happily do so as it is a great label and they are friends.
Recently, last June, you visited Hamburg to see Brideshead play live and were asked to play a few songs live. Talk about your return to Germany and how the audience responded? Do you feel you have somewhat of a following there?
The venue was a small railway station office near Hamburg docks. It was a fairly low key affair and Hanns-Christian asked if I wanted to play a few songs. I practiced some songs at home before I left just in case! On the evening I played three songs just before the support band, The Sleeping Policemen. I thought I might be nervous but actually felt very relaxed. It went well and the German audience again was really nice. The Sleeping Policemen are a very good band as well as being great people too. It was a fantastic night and both the bands and I went out for drinks and food afterwards. We stayed out into the early hours! I can’t say I have a following but the people at the gig seemed to appreciate my efforts.
Have you ever considered relocating to Germany?
No. I’m not a professional musician so I have a normal job in England. I like Germany having visited it a number of times because the people and family I’ve met have been lovely, kind, generous and welcoming. I look forward to going back there soon for a visit. I can speak a little German but you can’t spend all your time saying, ‘Can you tell me the way to the Bahnhof!’
Mark, what are you currently working on?
I’m slowly recording new songs and finishing off some very old ones. I hope to have a CD-R finished by June. After that I’m going to start recording a bunch of entirely guitar based songs. I’ve still got loads of ideas to do. I’ve changed my recording platform again recently. I played around with a PC laptop for a while but it didn’t really cut the mustard so eventually I chose an iMac. The learning curve is quite steep as I’m using a professional program called Logic. However, it can do some amazing things that I couldn’t have dreamed about in 1985 when I was recording to a four track cassette.
Where do you see yourself headed in the near future?
No big plans really. I hope to keep on putting out songs although as I get older the gaps between completed projects is widening! It would be good to keep rehearsing with Fragile just for fun. I expect more stuff will appear on Bandcamp for people to download for free and I will probably upload more songs to YouTube. I really don’t have a clue who the audience is but some people out there seem to like the tunes. I doubt it will make me a millionaire but that’s okay.
Any other artists/bands you’re listening to?
I love a US band called The Innocence Mission. Their songs are exceptionally beautiful especially their most recent album. I like a Dutch band called Moss who write melodic guitar pop and another Dutch band called El Pino & The Volunteers. They are both on Excelsior Records which was the home to one of my all time favourites Daryll-Ann. I’ve been a fan of The Posies for a long time and enjoyed their last CD. Elbow are great and I am looking forward to hearing their new album as well as REM’s new one. I’ve heard some of the songs already and have been impressed.
What other hobbies/interests do you have on the side?
It’s mostly music, listening to it, playing it but I like watching films. As the weather gets better I will try and go cycling a bit more. Seeing family and friends. I like to visit my friend in Florida as often as possible.
Lastly, any regrets? Anything you would do differently if you had a second go?
I had the chance to learn the guitar at 12 but didn’t take it up at the time but I haven’t any big regrets… at least any I’m willing to share!
For more info and reading on Mark Cohen, The Shining Hour and Fragile see above link or his MySpace site here http://www.myspace.com/theshininghour