Mark Charles Heidinger could be called the modern traveling bard. As the man behind the D.C. collective Vandaveer, Heidinger has been spending much of 2013 on the road headlining shows across the country, playing supporting spots for acts like Matt Costa to They Might Be Giants.
The constant touring has given the group unique opportunities. Heidinger says that while They Might Be Giant’s audience is a little different than who they usually plays to, the experience has been great.
“When you do a support slot, you are playing for an audience that’s largely never heard you before,” Heidinger adds, as he mentions that the response has been positive overall.
Heidinger, with his frequent collaborator Rosie Guerin along with a backing band, has been touring in support of the group’s latest album, Oh, Willie, Please…, which was officially released on April 30th.
Since releasing their first record in 2007, Vandaveer has focused on a defined image and sound for each record. Each recording has a start and finish, which helps to focus the group’s creative energy. For this new record, the band decided to cover a number of murder ballads, macabre and disturbing folk songs that have been an integral part of the nation’s musical canon for centuries.
“There are dozens of versions of these songs that have been done in many ways,” notes Heidinger. “They’re not really any one person’s song. They’ve morphed over centuries, and they transform and become something that collectively belongs to music in general.”
But what is important, Heidinger adds, is not losing the fundamental elements of each song. Take the band’s first single from their new album, “Pretty Polly”, which has over 30 known recorded versions. The band places its own haunting stamp to the song, while keeping its core folk components.
“At some point, they stop becoming covers, and they become versions of larger things,” he adds. “We don’t like to think of them as covers- it’s too small a description.”
For Heidinger, recording the album was freeing and rewarding for him along with the rest of the band. It also didn’t hurt to have a change in scenery, as Vandaveer recorded the album in Kentucky during the spring of 2012.
For this release, the group was insatiably curious to touch on the darker, more sinister topics in their folk offerings.
“I think it’s a part of the human condition to be attracted to some things that are little dark and a little gritty,” he adds. “People like murder mysteries. People like horror and thrillers, and these are essentially the same types of stories – but in song.”
While the band wanted to add a fresh perspective to the new album, Heidinger adds, “We don’t have some type of Dr. Seussian machine that we funnel music through and it comes out sounding like a Vandaveer song.” Instead, for Oh, Willie, Please… the band focused on traditional sonic and visual aesthetics. “When you move on to the next project, you keep in mind what you have done in the past,” which influenced the decision for the band to record an album of murder ballads.
Though the band has sprinkled some of the new material throughout their live shows, Heidinger admits that performing such intense music has its limits.
“Some of those songs are incredibly brutal,” Heidinger says, “We can’t play an hour of songs that all end in murder, death, suicide and infanticide. We are [still] trying to work that into what we think will be a compelling live representation of what we’re trying do.”
With everything aside, Heidinger is proud of his current set of material and is already planning the band’s next album.
“We feel like we’ve achieved what we are trying to do. I hope the record fits into the larger Vandaveer catalogue. When my kid’s a teenager and he listens to it, he’ll tell me if it’s cool.”