A short while ago, rock band Ruby Topaz released a 14-track monster of an album, entitled Rabbit Hole. Drenched in heady classic rock flavors, Rabbit Hole captures the atmosphere and spirit of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Frontman, guitarist and keyboardist Mark Bram describes Ruby Topaz’s sound: “We have the glam and theatrics of Cooper and Bowie, the sophisticated rock of Queen, the power and urgency of early Zeppelin with the melodic prowess of early Beatles.”
Ruby Topaz also has Bram’s distinctive, high-pitched voice, which conjures up suggestions of both Geddy Lee and Robert Plant, giving the band’s music an unbridled dynamism and bravado.
Impressed by Rabbit Hole’s grand originality and potent charisma, CelebMix spoke with Mark Bram to discover how he got started in music, the inspiration for the album, and his writing process.
What three things can’t you live without?
- Honestly? At this point, my wife…and, being so fiercely independent, I never thought I’d say that, but we have become two halves of the whole
- My sense of self. I have a strong sense of who I am and feel very comfortable in that place. Teaching Taijiquan, I’ve learned to find happiness and center, and that is something that would be devastating to lose.
- My music and the ability to express and create it.
What inspired your new album, Rabbit Hole?
I guess the drive to create music. I look at what I do as ‘painting pictures with sound.’ I’ve been saying that for as long as I can remember. My vintage recording gear (all the tubes, transformer, and circuits, in my microphones, preamps, and compressors) that add warmth and a sense of ‘bigness,’ my guitar rig, my plugins; these are the paints on my pallet. The mixing and production are the brush that puts it all together. I had new songs and songs that were written a long time ago; that were either recorded, but never released, or never recorded. I needed to get them out there so that they would ‘exist.’
How did you get started in music? What’s the backstory there?
The Beatles. I can’t be any more direct. They changed my life. They are part of my DNA, especially Paul McCartney. I love them all, but Paul was my template.
I was 6 years old, sitting on the floor of my living room, on that Sunday night in February. I was hoping that Topo Gigio, the little Italian mouse, would be on. Then, these four guys came out and blew my tiny little mind. I was hypnotized. I knew that this is what I wanted to be. I wanted to be Paul, and I asked for a bass…of course (parents never listen) I got drums. I dabbled. I asked for a bass…I got a guitar. I dabbled.
Being that I was so into The Beatles and other British invasion bands, my father brought me to my first concert in 1967, when I was nine years old. It was Herman’s Hermits. The opening act came on. Really cool clothes, loud music, and, at the end, they destroyed their equipment…colored smoke everywhere. It was The Who. The tour with “My Generation” and other songs from that era. Years later, Ruby Topaz opened for John Entwistle, from The Who, during his solo tour, which was very cool. I am a huge Who fan. I saw them again in 1975 and three or four times after that. ‘Quadrophenia’ was the soundtrack of my teens. Pete Townshend is a huge influence on my songwriting. I would so love to meet him.
When I was 11 years old, I was in a play, playing The Artful Dodger in ‘OLIVER’ (interesting aside…on that same Ed Sullivan Show that The Beatles were on, was a young Davy Jones, of The Monkees, playing The Artful Dodger in ‘OLIVER’), and I met someone, who would become my mentor and bandmate…Mark Smith. He was a few years older than I was. We shared a love of all things Beatles, and I did a VERY convincing Liverpudlian accent (I actually did convincing British accents from many areas of Britain, which is how I got the role of Artful Dodger) and told him how badly I wanted to play bass. He drew out a picture of a bass neck and put the names of all the notes on it. He told me to memorize them. I did. We got together at his house, upstairs, in a room that looked very much like the room where Paul and John used to write songs, and we would play Beatles songs. We would sit on the Ampeg Gemini amps that he had, and he would call out the notes (that I had memorized), and I would play them. That’s how I learned to play bass. We formed a band, and I did all the Paul parts. We also wrote songs together. I learned how to write and craft songs by working with him. We eventually started to rehearse at my grandmother’s house, and when the band left, I would pick up a Beatles chord book, and one of their guitars, and taught myself how to play guitar.
In 1968, my cousin saw a new band, at The Boston Tea Party…a club in Boston…and thought I would like them, so she bought me their album. It was Led Zeppelin’s first album. The guitar sounds blew me away, and so did Robert Plant’s voice. I switched to guitar, started singing high, taught a friend how to play bass, and taught my friend Steve (who would become the drummer for Ruby Topaz) his first drumbeat, on my kit (the opening from ‘Sgt Pepper’s Reprise’). We started a band, and it snowballed from there.
My mother, (with whom I did not live…I lived with my father) bought me ‘Birds of Fire,’ by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and that really expanded my guitar playing from blues-based rock to fusion. Later on, ‘Blow by Blow,’ by Jeff Beck, enhanced that direction.
In 1971, a friend gave me a ticket to see a band. I didn’t know what to expect. Certainly not what I eventually saw. Lights down low, a massive drum set, and a backline of Marshall half stacks seen in the shadows. I notice the band sneak out and get set with their instruments…. lots of sparkling things on their clothes, and very long hair. The music starts. A thin, blue spotlight catches this… ‘thing’…I didn’t know what it was. It fluffed its hair and sprayed beer on everyone in the front row…it was Alice Cooper, starting the ‘Killer’ tour. I was absolutely blown away. The showmanship was unbelievable. I was an actor (done a lot of theater), loved Vampires, and loved sparkle and glitter…I was all in. That was the ‘seed’ of Ruby Topaz. Later, Ziggy Stardust, Mott The Hoople, and T-Rex.
Steve, my drummer, went to see Mott The Hoople (I had seen them twice, and now they had a new guitar player and, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, I didn’t go…big mistake) and was really taken by the opening act and bought their albums. He brought them over. It was Queen. Brian May had the guitar sound that I heard in my head and was striving for. I had been experimenting with two tape recorders, trying to build a guitar orchestra. Brian was doing it. Freddie’s voice was amazing!!! I loved the camp. I became a huge Queen fan. I saw them three or four times with Freddie and once with Paul Rogers. During the ‘Day at the Races,’ or ‘News of the World tour,’ I waited outside, in the back of the venue, playing my guitar through a Pignose (a battery-powered guitar amplifier). The limos pulled up and I was face to face with Brian May. He smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. He was about to get out of the limo to talk to me, but security closed his door and signaled them into the arena…bummer…so close. Years later, during the Innuendo press junket, I met Brian at radio station WHJY (that used to play our first single). I gave him a demo cassette tape, hoping he would produce our second album. Sadly, Freddie died shortly afterward. I never heard from Brian. Funny story…when my wife and I were first dating, she said “why do you have a picture of Brian May’s ass on your kitchen table?” I said, “because…that’s my tape in his back pocket!”
I could fill a book with the music that has influenced me…Golden Earring, Frank Zappa, Edgar Winter, Johnny Winter, King Crimson, Yes, ELO, The Grass Roots, The 5th Dimension, The Monkees, The Mamas and The Papas…on and on and on and on.
The Pop of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Rock of the time, Glitter/Glam Rock, Fusion, Art Rock, and Progressive Rock…all influenced me. Even Movie Soundtracks (I had all the John Barry soundtracks from the Sean Connery James Bond movies…they heavily influence my orchestrations).
Where are you from?
Did your hometown impact your sound?
I don’t know…maybe. Well, it’s a big college town…Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence College, Johnson & Wales, Roger Williams, Bryant, URI…so there’s a lot of diversity and opportunity to grow. I remember that, when I was 14 years old, my mother took me to a building, in downtown Providence, filled with blues musicians, taking turns jamming. I was 14 and they were all 10, 20, 30, and 40 years older than I was. After playing, an older black gentleman approached me, with his ‘50s Fender Telecaster, and said that he wanted to hear me play it. It was such a cool and accepting moment.
Also, a lot of big-name acts play here, and we have opened for quite a few.
If you had to describe your sound to the uninitiated, what would you say?
It has ‘60s and ‘70s pop sensibilities (there is no substitution for a good song). I’ve had people ask me if some of my songs were covers. That is a compliment. It sounded familiar and comfortable. It also has musicianship, pushes boundaries, and mixes genres, so it appeals to musicians too. Because a good deal of my songs were written when I was a teenager, it’s authentically from that era, and, because it’s coming out now, I call it ‘New Music From The Greatest Era Of Rock.’
What inspires your writing? Do you draw inspiration from poems, music, or other media?
I’d say that 98% of my songs are deeply autobiographical and, of course, music that I’ve absorbed influences me.
What can you share about your writing process?
When I feel something, or I’m going through something, I sit down with a recorder and play guitar or piano, and hum…forming word-like sounds.
They usually come out as full songs, with minimal tweaking. Then I listen back. Oddly enough, those sounds that I was ‘humming’ come out as words that express what I was feeling. I just tweak the words to rhyme and be more concise, expressing what actually happened to cause me to feel that way. Then, I arrange the music to make it flow.
Which artists in your opinion are killing it right now?
Actually, I haven’t really been listening to anything new. The last ‘new’ band that I got into (which isn’t new anymore) was The Struts. They were a throwback to the music that I listened to. The lead singer looked like he could have been Freddie Mercury’s kid…I know that he isn’t. He made me miss my Ruby Topaz persona, so I dragged him out again.
What’s your definition of success?
People loving and listening to my music. Feeling that giant energy boost from an audience. And…it would be so cool to meet my musical (and comedic…I LOVE comedy) heroes.
Financial independence would be nice.
Looking back over the last few years, what have you learned?
Write and play music for the joy of it, not for commercial success. Hopefully, people will come along for the ride.
What can your fans look forward to over the next six months? Music videos? Live gigs?
I hope to do both.