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Coffee With: Mark Mercier of Max Creek

By Carl Wiser

Mark Mercier plays with Max Creek at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, New York. Submitted Photo

In 1973, the keyboard player for Max Creek had to bow out with appendicitis. Mark Mercier stepped in, and he's been there ever since.

Peak Creek was in the '80s when they were playing up to 260 dates a year, but they're still going strong - you can catch them at The Broad Brook Opera House in April and at the Dead Of Summer Festival in July. The band was formed in 1971 at the University of Hartford, where Mark was studying Liturgical Music at the Hartt School. When Max Creek scaled back in the '90s, he put that degree to use, becoming the organist and choir director at various churches. For the last 21 years, he's worked for the First Church of Christ Simsbury.

Mark's musical journey started in fourth grade when he took piano lessons while growing up in South Portland, Maine. "I discovered in the seventh and eighth grade that when you played piano, people paid attention to you," he says. "You could go into music class and play something, and everyone would clap."

His father taught him how to play music by ear, a talent that came in handy when he joined the highly improvisational Max Creek. "When you're a musician, your ear is your best friend. If you can play by ear it's incredibly helpful."

"You're married to your music theory," he adds. "There's a fine line between being able to do what other people think is right and doing what you think is right. So if you have a 1-4-5 chord, 1 goes to 4, 4 goes to 5, 5 always goes back to one. In your head, that's the way it's supposed to be, and to get out of there is like climbing out of a pit. You have to really open your mind to other possibilities."

Such open-mindedness is key to the music of Max Creek. "We climb on stage and anything goes," he says. "Sometimes we use classical forms, sometimes we use sonics and different textures."

Their fans, The Creekers, feel a sense of community at the shows. "A Max Creek concert is unique because at first you're with a bunch of people you don't know and by the end of the show you feel like you know everyone," says Andrew Decker of Downright Music in Collinsville. "The more you go, you start to recognize faces, they recognize you and then you realize it's one big family of fans. It's an amazing achievement for a band to create that family vibe. They are great songwriters, masters of improvisation, and they get people dancing - all the things a band should strive for!"

Mark started at the Hartt School in 1968, but it took him a while to graduate. "I was on the seven-year plan because it was during the Vietnam War, and since I flunked music history a couple of times I had to go back and take a music history course to get my degree. So it took me seven years to get out of a four-year program."

The student deferment kept Mark out of Vietnam. "A lot of people went to college just to stay out of Vietnam," he says. "I would never say anything demeaning about anyone who did wind up going into the service. The bravery that those people had. My brother was a soldier."

Mercier's first job out of college was teaching high school music at Laurelton Hall in Milford. He started in 1976 when Max Creek was playing locally only on weekends (The Rocking Horse in Hartford was a regular gig). Over the next few years, the band got bigger, better, and more original. After five years at Laurelton Hall, Mark left to go all-in with Max Creek.

"In 1981, we were booking shows all up and down the East Coast. We went as far west as Cleveland. We'd pile into cars - the band owned two or three cars. We had a truck, we had a full-time road crew. We brought our own PA and we went as far south as South Carolina."

This is the point in the story when an A&R guy is supposed to spot them and offer a record deal, but that never happened.

"We were always turned down for some reason or another. We even hired a lawyer. We hired an agent from New York City. We hired a manager. It never happened, so basically we were on our own out there.

Mark Mercier at First Church of Christ Simsbury, where he is Director of Music Ministries. Submitted Photo

It was grueling, and what we found out was, we were working to support the band's payroll, and it ceased to become fun. We were getting a salary of 30 grand a year, not bad in 1981, but it was like a treadmill. You just keep touring and touring and touring, and it was tiring.

"When you tour and you don't go any further than you are, it's tough. When you go into Virginia and you play a place and there are 75 people there, it's like, 'What are we doing here?'"

There were some memorable moments along the way. Circa 1989, they landed a gig opening for Leon Russell in Washington, D.C., so they rented a tour bus to make the drive.

"A wheel almost fell off in New Jersey, so we had to get off the highway and have the wheel put back on," Mercier remembers. "The bus was owned by one of the first tour bus company builders in America, a company in Red Hook, New York, called the Rocket Bus Company. The bus kept stalling on the way down. It stalled in downtown Washington, DC on a hill, and the only way the driver could jumpstart it was in reverse, so he jumpstarted the bus in reverse and backed into a van. We made it to the theater too late to play."

In 1991, they reached their limit. Max Creek called it quits and got sensible jobs with good health insurance. Mercier, though, pulled them back together.

"I was working for a sound company in New Britain, and I saw how other bands tour, and I knew we could do something, so in the latter part of 1991 I convinced the rest of the band to go out and play a show here and a show there. We gradually added shows, and by 1993 we were back at it, just not full time."

This era was liberating creatively. Max Creek was influenced by the Grateful Dead and played a lot of Dead covers in their sets, but now they felt free to do more originals. It also meant the band members could pursue their other passions, which for Mark meant choirs and pipe organs.

"The pipe organ is a keyboard instrument, but instead of one you have two, three even all the way up to five keyboards, and each keyboard attaches itself to a different division of the organ. They all have different sounds and textures, and you can couple them together, which is the very first MIDI. Now you can MIDI keyboards one to another while you couple keyboards on a pipe organ.

"The pipe organ works on harmonics. You have concert pitch and you have other pipes that are an octave above concert pitch, and pipes that are two octaves above that, and it works on textures. You have pipes that sound like trumpets, pipes that sound like flutes, pipes that sound like strings. You put them all together and you get this great big sound."

There are pipe organs in theaters and churches all over the state. Mark talks about them like a classic car enthusiast talks about old Camaros. He says the West Hartford Episcopal Church and Asylum Hill Church have nice ones, as does the Bushnell (An Austin built in Hartford, according to Mark). In the days of silent movies, a live organist would soundtrack the films at theaters. Today they're used for organ concertos or to accompany chorale concerts.

"Anyone could sit down and learn how to play a pipe organ," Mark says. "If you can play a keyboard you can play a pipe organ. But to learn the particulars takes a certain amount of time. Every organ is different, so you have to understand the basic principles. I can go into any church and each organ will be totally different, but there are some aspects of it that are universal."

His interest in the instrument dates back to when he was growing up in Maine. The minister at his church, knowing Mark could play the piano, put him on the organ and said, "Play some hymns."

"I took some organ lessons and became interested in the pipe organ. It's a spectacular instrument. So I came down to Hartt to major in it. It was either that or I was going to be a Math major at University of Maine. I decided to get out of Dodge and left Maine."

Mark has seen church music change over the years.

"Back in 1968 it was a little different - it was very classically oriented. Then with the folk revolution you started to have guitars in churches. Nowadays there are major churches with pipe organs and choirs, which we have over here (First Church of Christ Simsbury), but we also have rock music. We also have jazz. We have folk music. I have a women's group, a men's group. Bells. But your main focus of church music is to help illuminate and back up a Sunday morning worship service. It's like watching a movie with no sound in the background, and then the minute you add an orchestra, it makes the movie something entirely different. It's to enhance the service."

A collision of musical and visual artists. From left: Mark Mercier, John Squier and Rob Jockel sit outside of Squier’s Jon Art Gallery in Collinsville in the 1990s. Squier ran the gallery from 1992 to 2000. Photo by John Fitts

In the '90s Mark lived in Collinsville, and in 1994 he played the organ at the very first Collinsville Halloween Parade, which he helped organize. He arranged for sound and lighting equipment to make it an event, give it production value.

He's now living in Winsted with his wife Lori. His stepson Matthew is 29, son Jonathon is 24, and daughter Emma, who works at Antonio's Restaurant in Simsbury, is 19.

In addition to Max Creek, Mark also makes music with Mark Paradis (a "spectacular guitarist") in a duo called The Marks Brothers, and he's played some shows with Andrew Decker in the Decker Bandits.

"He gave me arguably the best compliment of my entire life as a musician," Mark says. "I'm kind of self-deprecating as a keyboard player because I know my limitations. I know what I'm good at, I know what I'm not good at, and I know there's a million keyboard players who are better at what they do. But Andrew said, 'When you come to play with the band, you sit down and you sprinkle this magic dust over everybody and the music becomes better.' I love that compliment because it doesn't define me as a great keyboard player, because I know I'm not. It defines me as someone that can really project musicality and inspire other people."

"Mark was one of our musical heroes and legendary among us growing up in Canton," Decker says. "He's a master so it's quite exciting for all of us. Mark's contribution to music and the music scene is monumental! We thank him for continually entertaining and inspiring musicians and fans on a regular basis."

Mark Mercier enjoys a regular coffee with cream and sugar at Kaps Café in Simsbury. Photo by Carl Wiser

We met with Mark at Kaps Cafe in Simsbury, right near his church, just nine days after they took over the Lions Den Coffee Shop (Mark's order: regular coffee with cream and sugar). We got to know Mark a little better with these "Coffee With" questions.

What do you like to do when you're not working?

My wife and I, we go out to see music. We work on the house, work on the garden.

I like to be with people. Not necessarily party with people but just be with people and converse like we're doing now.

What's something you'd like to learn?

I'd like to learn how to play jazz better than I do. My parents always said, "You should learn how to play jazz," and I'm like, "No. I'm a rock and roll player!" I would be so much better if I knew how to play jazz.

Is there a defining moment in your life that you can pin down?

Yes. It was October or November 1969. I was playing at Hartt and we had this class called Early Music Workshop, and it was run by this wacky dude named Joe Iadone, who was a spectacular musician. Joe was a jazz upright bass player who was one of the only non-matriculated students at Yale in the music program. He was taking a class with Paul Hindemith, who was a composer down there, and Hindemith said, "Iadone, you're going to play the lute." He fell in love with the lute.

So he had this thing at Hartt College called Early Music Workshop where you brought in your trombone, your piano, your saxophone, whatever it is you played, and you played 16th century music. So, he assigned me a little passage to play. I played it, and he said, "No, you're got to make it sing."

He pushes me off the bench. He sits down and he plays it, and you want to talk about fairy dust! It was like this door opened up. He played in such a way that it was a living, breathing entity.

In that one hour I started to understand Bach and early music in general.

What are some of your favorite places you've played?

...Antonio's Hoops... It's a very friendly place.

In Providence, Rhode Island, Lupo's. We played there once a week every Tuesday for five years. Then we went to The Living Room (also in Providence) every Wednesday for five years, got 1,200 people every Wednesday.

What do you do for entertainment?

Listen to music. I go down rabbit holes on YouTube - I've discovered great musicians that way. I troll various choirs, like St. Olaf in Minnesota. There's another choir in Lincoln, Nebraska called First-Plymouth Church. They do fantastic music. I've discovered various folk singers as well.

What is something that people don't always appreciate like they should?

In general, people don't appreciate music like they should. They don't realize how huge a part it plays in their lives.

Music is huge. Without art, humanity has no soul.

What would you like to be remembered for?

Showing people the heart and the love that exists in life that you can experience through music or art or poetry. I'd like to be remembered as someone who brought people to that place where they could see.

Mark's Playlist

Here are some songs Mark recommends for adventurous listening.

"Requiem" by Fauré

"When I Go" by Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer

"Vincent Black Lightning 1952" by Richard Thompson

"White Freightliner Blues" by Molly Tuttle

"Terrapin Station" by Grateful Dead

"His Light In Us" by St. Olaf Choir

"Wildflowers" by The Wailin' Jennys

"Rockin' Chair" by The Band

"French Suite #5 Gigue for Piano" by Bach

"Toccata from Symphony #5 for Organ" by Widor

"Pastorale from Symphony #6" by Beethoven

"Magnificat" by Bach

Anything by Earl Hines, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum or Bill Evans

As for Max Creek, Mark suggests "Blood Red Roses," "Windows," and "Big Boat," a Peter, Paul and Mary song written by Willie Dixon that Mark adapted.

About the author: Carl Wiser, who lives in Collinsville, runs, launched in 1999 to tell the stories behind the songs. His work, including interviews with Bill Withers, Todd Rundgren and Rickie Lee Jones, also appears on Rock's Backpages.


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