Season 3 - Episode 302
Paul Mahern of Zero Boys
Growing up in the midwest is fraught with all sorts of things. Among them are cold winters, hot af summers with crushing humidity, narrow minds, and a peculiar affinity for starch. And depending on one’s perspective, any of them could be good or bad.
Aside from the starch, they were terrible to me, and I left as soon as possible.
However, the one true thing is that you can take the boy/girl out of the Midwest, but you can’t take the Midwest out of the boy/girl.
As a born and cornfed Midwesterner (even though I have lived on the East Coast for 30 years), that’s what made talking with Paul Mahern such a pleasure. There’s a kinship, a silent understanding that they “get it” - but don’t ask me what the “it” is.
As a Grammy-Nominated producer/engineer with multiple platinum albums on his CV, he has a level of success in the soul-crushing music industry that very few achieve, and Mahern has done it without having to move to either coast. In a region known for growing corn, wheat, and middle managers, pursuing a creative path may seem Sysaphean.
Even though it may seem more the norm to go to the east or west to pursue those dreams, more than a few, like David Mamet, Paul Mahern, and his frequent partner John Mellencamp, prove not impossible.
A Hoosier through and through, Mahern calls Bloomington, Indiana home and is as Midwestern as they come, making his journey so interesting. As an autodidact, he’s as punk as punk is… and a punk rocker.
As the only punk in a high school of 5k, the kid with spikey hair and a leather jacket was called “Fonzie.” In the mid-’70s in Indianapolis, Indiana, “The Fonz” was punk, and arguably, he was, but he wasn’t punk rock.
One can be punk, but that may not make them a punk rocker.
And if you ask Mahern:
Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” is pretty fuckin’ punk, but it ain’t punk rock.
The Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” is the definition of punk rock.
But then, so is his band Zero Boys.
The Zero Boys Vicious Circle is punk rock… and is arguably one of the precursors to pop-punk. But breaking a punk band out of Indiana in 1982 is probably most akin to breaking someone out of Alcatraz in the 1920s.
Recording Vicious Circle as a wee lad of 17, Mahern realized his love of making music was usurped by his love of recording music. And thus began the journey that would have him learning his chops with the Gospel choirs of Indianapolis and then a steady crawl up (and across) the music production ladder working with artists like:
El Nino (Spanish for… the Nino - #IYKYK)
But Paul Mahern’s love of recorded music goes beyond the Neve console. Partnering with Indiana University and Harvard University, he worked for two years as the lead engineer on the NEH-funded Sound Directions project at the Archives of Traditional Music.
Hold on. There’s more.
Paul Mahern is also a college professor. He teaches two classes at Indiana University, one on record production and the other called… wait for it… The History of Punk Rock.
Autodidact: a self-taught person.
That’s right, as I mentioned, all that he has learned, created, and accomplished he’s done on his own. But that’s not entirely true. Not if you believe in Brian Eno’s idea of the “scenius.”
Or, if that concept is a bit too dense, take the words of his friend and frequent collaborator, John Mellencamp, in the song “The Great Midwest”:
And there's a future carryin' my name on it
Sayin' hey man, you gonna stick around here
You better get on it
If you're gonna stick around here
You better make yourself some real good friends
But no spoilers here. You’ll have to hear Mahern explain it in greater detail on Abandoned Albums.
I’m not sure I agree with Paul’s exclamation that “the Midwest is the best,” but I agree that it’s “boring as fuck.”
I get it.
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