Suburbia! It’s one person’s dream, another person’s nightmare. Some folks feel at home in the ‘burbs while others can’t wait to escape it. Multi-award winning singer, songwriter and guitar slinger Mark Lizotte, aka Diesel has a unique view of the suburbs. As a kid who resided in various towns in America and then lived in different parts of Australia, Diesel has developed a strange fascination for the suburbs and their hidden stories. Consequently, Mark has recently placed his thoughts and stories into song and announced the Sunset Suburbia project: a trilogy of EPs, leading to an album in 2020. The first taste of the new collection comes in the form of the single By The Scars, in which Diesel recollects some of the events which helped to shape his character, including the loss of his virginity and having a gun pointed at him by two balaclava-clad crazies.
In celebration of the release of the first EP Sunset Suburbia (Vol. I) out August 2, Diesel is also hitting the road for an extensive tour beginning in October (Dates listed below). And in another exciting prospect for Diesel fans, if you join the Triple M Club online, you can go into a draw to win a personal, one-on-one guitar lesson with Diesel at the Melbourne Guitar Show (Aug 3&4) Caulfield Racecourse … and win a Fender Player Stratocaster guitar (Click here for info)
Australian Musician editor Greg Phillips spoke to Diesel last week about the Sunset Suburbia project.
Live photos from 2018 Melbourne Guitar Show by Jason Rosewarne
Mark, you have a trilogy of EPs coming out under moniker of Sunset Suburbia. What did suburbia mean to you as a kid?
I think coming from where I originated, I guess it was kinda suburbia but with potato fields. I didn’t experience that sort of density until I got to Australia. We were from a very small ‘Norman Rockwell-style painting’ town, that’s what it looked like and was in Rhode Island. It still looks exactly the same. All the usual things like McDonalds and that … this area is completely void of that sort of thing. Little Compton Rhode Island, that’s where mum and dad took the family when mum started pumping kids out. There are seven kids in my family. We lived in this area where there was a lot of farming, a lot of Portuguese families, some that had up to 14 kids. When we migrated out to Australia, it was Albury first and then Perth. Perth was my first taste of the suburbs, street after street of houses very close together and fences. Then we moved back to America and lived outside of Phoenix in Arizona, an area that I describe as .. now that people know the TV series … it looked like where they lived in the show Breaking Bad. Everything is a cul de sac with those adobe brown brick houses built in the 70s. I have had a fascination with the suburbs for a long time, how people are so close to each other and have their little castles. When I am traveling around doing the touring thing, which is almost all the time, I get out and one of things I do to keep my sanity is to run. So I am running through streets that are unfamiliar yet familiar. I’m always looking to see what people are doing with their houses. It’s fascinating to me. A lot of people write it off and say, ew suburbia … it gets this derogatory thing. It’s the same in a lot of places around the world, it might look different in Europe, it might seem more romantic cos the houses are 400 years old but they are still living right next to each other.
Did any particular movies or TV shows have an impact on you growing up?
Of course. Those shows which depicted suburbia like The Brady Bunch, My Three Sons, all those shows. We also had a large period of time without a TV in our house too when I read a lot of books. TV was something I experienced and then I just didn’t for a long time and I am really glad they (parents) did that. I don’t think they did it in a conscious way, they just thought we’d be moving and they started selling everything and then it took forever to sell the house. They sold the car, the TV, a lot of things. So we ended up with a house with not much in it, no car or TV.
I hope your dad didn’t sell his good records though?
No never! That’s one thing that remained. That’s the first thing that we got when we were in a hostel in the western suburbs of Sydney, you know where they hold you and check that you don’t have diseases and things … we had to stay there for six weeks in quarantine. Anyway they went out and bought a hi-fi and a couple of records, it was the first possession we had. We’d literally just arrived with our suitcases. I was talking to someone the other day about how the suitcases were all relevant to the size human you were. My suitcase was like the size of a fricken briefcase. My brother’s was slightly bigger and they went up like Babushka dolls, ending with the adults’ normal size suitcases. It was like what you could carry, that’s what you were allowed to bring.
In the lyrics of the single By The Scars you tell the story of a couple of guys with balaclavas who pulled a gun on you. That must of had a profound effect on you?
I didn’t want to make it too sensational. I recollect that it was one year in my life where all the things that happened sort of shaped me I suppose. I realised that the world isn’t this fairy tale thing, it’s not a Disneyland kind of place and can be quite dangerous. I probably should have had counseling after that incident but my friend and I kind of kept it to ourselves. It was one of those things that you couldn’t just go around telling people about because it was just so wild. We did go back and tell his stepfather at the time and he literally just laughed. He was like … if I go up the road I’ll see two piles of shit on the pavement will I? We just looked at each other and thought he just doesn’t get it. There was no point in trying to tell him about it if he wasn’t going to get it. The more I thought about it in the years after that, and to be honest I had forgotten about it … my life had started to go at a blistering pace by the time I was nineteen … but I shudder sometimes when I do recollect the feeling of being told to do something by someone with a gun. If we had got into the car, where might have we ended up? That’s the thing that makes me shudder. There were some really freaky things going on and still are unfortunately. But around that time there were murders and rapes going on in these pine forests just outside Perth, so we could have ended up like that. Who knows? Anyone who does that in the middle of the day, you’re not doing it for shits and giggles. If you put a balaclava on your head and point a gun out of a car, you’re sort of committing to something. It’s not like, oh we’re only joking. Crazy stuff does happen and thank god we just froze and they didn’t have a plan B. They didn’t want to get out of the car because they’d be totally seen. So we didn’t get in the car and they didn’t have a plan B so they shouted at us twice and that was it. Our life was suddenly given back to us, the universe decided it wasn’t our day.
You have three EPs coming out before an album. Are the songs on each EP grouped together for a reason?
There’s definitely a loose story with each EP. Some are a little more obvious than others but I have written these songs in groups, like group thoughts or related but different. I didn’t want to just write four songs on one subject. In the back of my mind I have kind of corralled them together.
Triple M are promoting a competition via their Triple M Club whereby the winner gets to have a one-on-one guitar lesson with you at the Melbourne Guitar Show. Who were your mentors with the guitar when you were young? Did you have lessons?
I’d actually played cello from the age of eight. It was a random thing because when we lived in Arizona there was a brand new public school and it had all this money sunk into it by a guy who owned all the farming in that area. He had all these illegal immigrants working on his farms and … for the government, you know, to right his wrongs he would build all these schools and hospitals and he built this amazing school down the road. It was brand new and had all the facilities, had a full strings department, which is unusual for a public school. Usually there’d be bit of brass and that’s it. They had loaner instruments and everything. My sister was going to the Victorian College of the Arts by that point and sharing a room with a cellist and she sent me this cassette of a cello being played by her roommate and I fell in love with the sound. This school had cellos, so I started playing that and it got me going onto strings but I wanted a guitar all along but I wasn’t in a position to go hey mum and dad buy me a guitar. My brother and sister, who are older than me had part time jobs and put some pocket money together and they bought me a cheap electric guitar for Christmas when I was 14. That’s when I started falling off the cello and my mum and dad were devastated and weren’t going to support this idea but then my dad softened and got me some lessons with this amazing jazz guitar player. He was a friend of the family. My dad was a jazz sax player and in the end he just thought, he wants to play guitar, let him play guitar and it became the accepted thing. So this guy was a total George Benson head, he had the Benson guitar. His name was Lenny Parker, a Sri Lankan guy, beautiful man and an incredible player. He came around and gave me maybe half a dozen lessons and I still have a few chords and lines I remember from those lessons. It was evident I wasn’t going to be a total jazzer. I mean I love jazz and do my own version of jazz I guess (laughs) but I wanted to rock. I’d heard AC/DC and I’d wag school to go and listen to the 7 inch version of Dirty Deeds at this girl’s house and that was it! I was still fresh off the plane from Arizona and I was learning what Australian music was. I heard AC/DC and it resonated, it made me feel something. Then my little brother left an amp, he was off to Europe. It was a nice 50 watt Vox amp because he was playing bass through it, so he left me a bass and an amp and I had this electric guitar. Suddenly I had all this gear in my bedroom and started annoying the hell out of the neighbours and I wasn’t even 15 yet, so that was how I started. Then I just had to find a band that would take me, which wasn’t easy, going through the papers every Saturday night finding people in their 20s that would accept a 15 year old guitar player with no car.
Speaking of guitars, what’s that acoustic guitar you play on the new single By The Scars?
There are a couple I have on there. One I bought in London in ’92 on the Hepfidelity tour. We were playing at a gig called The Borderline and it is in an area where there are a bunch of music shops. Soundcheck was getting delayed a bit and I just walked out and went to this tiny little music shop. I was in the market to buy a really nice vintage Gibson acoustic. The one that I used on Tip of My Tongue was one that the producer Don Gaiman had lent to me and made me realised how much inspiration you can get from a beautiful sounding acoustic guitar. Of course I had to give that one back to him, so I was in the market for something with that level of inspo. I walked into this shop and looked at this thing on the wall and I grabbed it and played about two chords on it … the strings were totally cruddy and horrible and I just took my credit card out. The guy thought I was nuts … he was like … really, you’re buying this? I walked back into the gig and the guys and girls from the band were like, what did you just do? I said I just bought a guitar and they were like what, are you crazy? You were only gone for five minutes! Then everyone had a play on it and all went oh my god it is like the magic flute. That guitar has been on so many of my records and then a few years later I found a guitar made in the same factory, probably within a year of the other one… I think a ’66 and the other one is a ’65 Country & Western. This one is a ’66 Epiphone. Epiphone and Gibson were made out of the same factory in Nashville. They both just go together so well like when two people sing, they’re good together. I usually just split them left and right. So that’s what you are hearing on the single and the mandolin sits on top.
Is there anything new in your pedalboard?
I am really digging my drive pedals that I’ve got. I have kind of gone from the Tonelab which was a total workhorse for me for a long long time. The power supply died at a festival recently and we stumbled upon a Line 6 HX FX. The last thing I wanted to do was re-program everything but I thought … it’s probably time. They are all getting a bit tired and I have a few of them spread around the country. The editing, doing it with a laptop is beautiful and the sounds are great. It’s a Swiss army knife for me. I still like the sound of some drive pedals as well and I use my delay which is a Flight Time by Free The Tone. It’s a beautiful digital delay … it’s got a great clock, a serious piece of digital delay and it just sounds creamy. Delays are weird. I love delays and use a lot of delay in my sound live and I split it to a separate amp, it means a lot to me. It’s not like … I’ll just throw a bit of delay in. Sometimes you find one and think it’s going to work and then you take it to the gig and find that the tails have no presence, no definition and it gets lost. This delay sits really nicely. All delays are not the same! So that gets the royal treatment and goes to a separate amp, totally wet, no dry. So I have the HX FX. Then the shimmer gets sent out separate too, it’s the Blue Sky Strymon, the little one not the big one. I’ve just got that set to the shimmer and it’s 100% wet and that goes behind to a wedge that I use for my acoustics, which is a Yamaha DBR wedge. Actually that’s another thing, there are many expensive acoustic amps out there in the market and I don’t want to detract from people going out and trying them but a lot of people don’t realise that you can just get a Yamaha powered wedge and they are a lot more affordable and they sound better, they really do. Tweak it to the right settings on the back and you’ve got a really functional, great sounding, powerful acoustic monitor with lots of headroom. This has got 1200 D class watts and doesn’t get squishy like some of the acoustic amps. It’s got a 12” speaker and a proper horn, just what you want … it works … well it’s what I want. So that’s my rig and most of the time I am using an AC15 Heritage Vox amp because I do a lot of solo shows and even with the band shows on smaller stages, it’s plenty. It’s such a great sounding box. Fifteen watts is only fifteen watts … two EL84s but because of the baffle, it is nice and big, has a Celestion Blue Bulldog in it and it actually sounds more like a 30 watt amp. When you are about 20 feet away from it, it doesn’t still want to kill you and take your head off. So that does me fine and when we are on bigger stages I just use two AC30s in stereo and that’s huge for me. But the drive pedals I’m digging at the moment are the Vemuram Jam Ray, I just love that and also The Hoof by Earthquaker Devices, which Yamaha are now bringing in and is really handy for me. That’s like the best big muff for me because I love a big muff but I couldn’t find one that was how I remember my 1993 Russian one. It fell to pieces and Pete Cornish rebuilt it into another box for me but I lost that somewhere. I don’t know where that is but I remember the sound. I want the big fat swarm of bees in a pedal and The Hoof does a really good version of that.
We lost a great man in Chris Wilson this year. You did an album with him called Short Cool Ones. When you think about Chris, what are the memories that come to mind?
A sense of humour that I will never forget, so dry and just a playfulness. Easily misinterpreted I think. Our first meeting I thought, wow this guy is really intense but it didn’t take long to realise that he is actually ready for a laugh at any time. He was a school teacher, you know, had great command. I really loved how we would be in a rehearsal room and he would just take command but in a really gentle, pastoral sort of way and he never tried to flex anything in any situation. He had this command but very nurturing and open about sharing information about anything. He was the most unguarded person and I share that same kind of thing, especially when it comes to people asking how do you make music and what you use? There are no secrets, I mean what’s the point. Some people get so weird about that sort of stuff, you know. I’ll tell you how to do that, you want to sound like that? Good luck, you have my blessing. Chris was very much the same. He was the most humble person but wow! I’ll never forget when we ripped into the first song (On Short Cool Ones) it was like, oh my god, what came out of his mouth. We all rose to the occasion. There was definitely the talent in the room when we made that record, Short Cool Ones but we were all kids. Chris was 11 or 12 years older than me. I was in my mid-twenties and he seemed a lot more experienced and worldly. He toured the world with Paul Kelly and just had a lot more stories. We rose to the occasion and he was really nurturing and it’s something I will never forget. We did some great gigs and had a lot of fun. Luckily I got to play with him just a couple of years ago at a charity thing with him and his son Fenn. There’s a great video of us doing Nutbush City Limits. He’s playing guitar and I’m playing slide and it’s just feral, feral blues.
You’ve had some great concepts for albums in the past. Do you have a long list of things you want to get to? Do you have a bucket list of albums?
Yeah I have a lot of concepts. Like I’d love to do an album of just Sam Cooke songs. The more I listen to Sam Cooke, I just think … was there a greater singer that ever walked this planet? There are so many songs that I really love that, yeah maybe I could … if I could find a way to get the guitar involved in it as well, that would be really cool. I could call it the Sam Cooke Diesel Cook Book or something like that!
Thanks for the chat Mark, we look forward to catching up at the guitar show when you give the Triple M winner a lesson.
Yeah looking forward to it although they might be a better player than me. I’m a bit scared!
DIESEL SUNSET SUBURBIA TOUR DATES
Thursday 10 October
20 Years At The Brass Monkey
Brass Monkey | Cronulla, NSW Tickets on sale Monday 2nd September
* Solo show
Friday 11 October
Central Hotel | Shellharbour, NSW
Saturday 12 October
Manly Leagues Club | Manly, NSW
Friday 18 October
Entrance Leagues | Bateau Bay, NSW
Saturday 19 October
Wingham Akoostic Festival | Wingham Showground | Wingham, NSW
Friday 25 October
Gateway Hotel | Geelong, VIC
Saturday 26 October
York On Lilydale | Lilydale, VIC
Friday 1 November
The Juniors | Kingsford, NSW
Saturday 2 November
Hornsby RSL | Hornsby, NSW
Saturday 9 November
Bridgetown Blues Festival | Bridgetown, WA
Sunday 10 November
96FM Kickstart Summer Concert w/ Jimmy Barnes
Ascot Racetrack | Perth, WA
Friday 15 November
The Triffid | Brisbane, QLD
Saturday 16 November
Southport RSL | Gold Coast, QLD
Friday 22 November
The Gov | Adelaide, SA
Saturday 23 November
Get Your Blues On | Renmark Riverfront | Renmark, SA
Friday 29 November
Lizottes | Newcastle, NSW
Saturday 30 November
Lizottes | Newcastle, NSW
Friday 6 December
The Basement | Canberra, ACT
Saturday 7 December
Paddington RSL | Paddington, NSW
Friday 13 December
Lizottes | Newcastle, NSW
Saturday 14 December
Lizottes | Newcastle, NSW
• Sunset Suburbia (Vol. I) EP Out August 2 through Bloodlines
AND DON’T FORGET TO SIGN UP TO THE TRIPLE M CLUB FOR A CHANCE TO WIN A FENDER PLAYER STRAT AND A ONE ON ONE GUITAR LESSON WITH DIESEL