August 9th, 2008 | Interviews

Mary Weiss was the leader of the Shangri-Las and released her Dangerous Game album on Norton last year. She speaks now to Daiana Feuer.

So it’s been a year since your ‘comeback’ album came out.
Actually I was surprised that I even got reviewed. I wasn’t really sure if anyone would remember me. I’m being honest. Then I got a bunch of reviews and they were all really good so that was cool. I liked that. It surprised me. Who walks away for 40 years and walks back in and makes an album?
And you really walked away.
I hid for a long time. It took me twelve years to get lost in the street. And that’s a long time to be playing Joe Blow, private citizen.
Did you feel you had to become someone else?
Well, you have to work at ‘who are you?’ Who are you really? That’s what really matters anyway.
In terms of being defined by the things you do?
Exactly. You see how a lot of artists buy into their own PR, and they don’t know how to act when they’re not on stage. I never wanted that for myself.
And you were so young!
I was a puppy. I used to make demos when I was 14. That’s why most people think, wow, she’s got to be really up there. When I met Bruce Springsteen, that was the first thing he said to me. He goes, ‘My God, you musta been young.’ It made me laugh so hard.
I saw a picture of you two. You’re wearing a tie. Do you like ties?
I love ties. I don’t know why. I’ve always worn ties.
And men’s pants in the ‘60s. Everybody likes to talk about that.
You know what it is? People like to talk about it because it shows you how rigid the environment was back then. I had to go to 8th Street. I don’t have any hips. And I like low-rise pants. They were always comfortable to me. And girls didn’t wear that back then. So I would go to 8th Street and have them made and people would look at me like I was gay. They’re looking at me and I’m looking at them and we’re all laughing. It was so absurd to me. That Ozzy And Harriet thing just doesn’t fit. Or chiffon and high heels. I just couldn’t bear it.
How can you say people wouldn’t remember you? Everybody knows the history and you, whether you meant to or not, made some resounding dents in that narrative.
It’s remarkable to me all the bands I hear from on Myspace. I remember when I was in CBGB’s one night in the ‘70s and Joey Ramone came up to me and told me, you know, how much we influenced his music and what have you. That’s one of the reasons I did that Ramones benefit recently. I hear that periodically. That’s really nice. You know, everybody pulls from something so it’s just nice to hear. We just did a Spain tour that blew me out of my box. We were in Madrid and the audience was like twenty-something. They knew every word to my old songs and every word to my new CD. And they loooove rock and roll. Adore it.
Do they dance around?
It depends what part of Spain you go to. We were in Leon and I was like, ‘What, does this audience hate us?’ And I found out afterwards that it’s a very reserved part where they’re respectful. And then we did Casion. They sat there with their hands folded in their laps. There were two kids jumping up and down and everybody else—it was like they were in a library. I couldn’t tell if they liked us! But that’s the way they act in that town. Then you go to Madrid and they’re pogo-ing all over the room. That was great. I had to speak to people that understood it—club owners that do venues in various cities and that understand the culture. Because the band looked at me and I looked at them and I said, ‘I don’t know—do they hate us?’ It was funny. I loved it.
And you’re coming to L.A. now.
I can’t wait. It’s going to be so much fun. I don’t remember the last time I was in L.A., frankly. And I invited some really cool old friends I haven’t seen in years. Shadow Morton. And Brooks Arthur, who used to be my engineer—believe it or not. And Jeff Barry.
Wow, those names.
It’s funny because people don’t realize—the way they grouped shows back then, I worked with everybody. Like there’d be three or four or five artists on a show. So I worked with every artist of the time. Including Tina Turner, the Beatles, the Stones, you name it, I worked with them. The Zombies—everybody. It’s just the way it was. It was fun when you traveled because you’re always meeting people. The Mamas and the Papas, the Righteous Brothers—all of them.
What do you listen to now?
I listen to old stuff but I listen to a lot of new stuff. I love Amy Winehouse. She’s an incredible artist and I wish her the very best. She writes some amazing songs. You can’t take that away from her. I’m also constantly listening to unknown artists. I find that fascinating. I have a pile inside of twenty CDs to listen to. Whenever someone sends me something I always listen to it. Sometimes when people come to a signing and buy merch, they’ll slide me their CD and you end up with piles of them. So I’ll sit down and leave a block of time and just listen. It’s cool.
What do you want to record next?
We haven’t gotten started yet. I’m still looking for material. I have piles of it to go through. That’s the longest process. Because I’ll listen to anybody’s stuff. When I hear it, I will know—one of those deals.
Is it fun to have this on your brain all the time? Is it a full-time job?
When I did commercial interiors, I was working like 80 hours a week and it wasn’t my company so what was I doing? Those are the hours of a brain surgeon. It’s insane. I’d turn around on Christmas or New Years Eve and I’d be the only one in the office. Now it’s time to have some fun.
How are your hours now?
My hours are great!
What’s a work week like?
We’ve been having a lot of rehearsals. Sometimes when we’re going to hit the road, the Smithereens are playing somewhere and that will take out my drummer. So you constantly need subs. And every time you get a sub you need a rehearsal. We’re using a sub drummer in L.A. But I’m using Cracker’s drummer so that’s perfect. I have a really good band and I really enjoy them as musicians and people so we have a great time.
They’re all from different bands?
Dennis, my drummer, is from the Smithereens. My bass player, Sal, is originally from Roxy Music—now he’s in Cracker. I have Gary Thomas on guitar—he’s from London. He used to be in a band called the Stepford Husbands. I love that name! It’s a great name! And then I have Dave on keyboards, who’s also my music director and also a member of Reigning Sound and a gazillion other bands. So it’s a cool group of musicians. We’re all crazy and we’re all perfectionists. It’s wonderful working with people you really like too. No egos and no nonsense.
Do you feel any pressure or is it about having fun?
It’s about having fun. The only thing I feel pressure with is finding the right material. That’s it for me. That says it all. And you always want the next CD to be better. But I don’t feel the pressure like I used to have on me. I mean, my God. ‘Where’s the next? Where’s the next?’ And I’m not twenty years old climbing that ladder anymore. So when you take all that away it really does turn into fun. Most of my litigations are done. I have a good music business attorney so they can’t do any of that stuff they used to do. I was in litigation for 30 years. It’s crazy. I have another one next year.
What do you look for in a song?
The first time out a lot of people submitted death records, which was kind of funny, but why somebody would think I’d want to do that is totally beyond me at this point. I just want to do straight up rock ‘n’ roll.
Because ‘Leader of the Pack’ is on every karaoke machine I’ve ever seen. People are like, ‘Can you make another one so I can sing along to it when I’m drunk?’
Music is for me. It always was. And I went running so hard away from it. Now it’s time to reclaim and have some fun. I’m a firm believer that life is cyclical. Like every seven years you’re a different human being. And I’ve had so many offers over the years to do things and none of them seemed right and I wasn’t about to do something I didn’t want to do, even if I knew it was a huge moneymaker, and I knew it was. I guess I’ll never be rich. But you have to do what’s right for you. When this came up, it was the right timing in my life and it was what I wanted to do. We’ll see how we do with the next one.
This seven-year theory is intriguing.
If you think about it, it’s kind of true. 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42…I mean, it’s all about that. You are totally renewed. Your thoughts are different. You process things differently. You keep growing. Some people stagnate and never get past 19 or whatever. If you keep going, you do change and you do grow. How old are you?
In a few years the things you think about will just go right out the window and you’ll laugh at yourself. It’s just the way it is. It’s a growing process. I just think in youth—well, some people never get over it—but in youth we create our own drama and most of the time our own disasters and people are their own worst enemies in that—oh, this is getting too philosophical! But I don’t know—if you learn, along the way, you kind of dismiss things. I used to talk about my baggage like it was a steamer trunk. Over the years, I like to think that it’s a weekender. Like when you grow up you dump all your garbage on your first relationships, and then hopefully you learn. Because we all carry baggage from the way we were raised and from the way we grew up and stuff. And we don’t even know, but that explodes into your grown-up relationships until it’s already there in your face. And then you learn and then you stop repeating certain behaviors and you grow. With any luck and maybe a little guidance. It’s just my observation of life, that’s all.
But that’s why anyone would want to talk to anybody else—to pass one thing from one to the other. Music jumps that process and spreads some general thing…
I find it amazing how much all of the kids—in Williamsburg, there are so many vinyl stores. The kids are buying vinyl. They’re hip and they understand what got lost in the reprocessing. The homogenizing versions of what’s spit out today. Half of the people you can’t even tell if they know how to sing when it goes through ProTools and gets cleaned up and what have you. But the kids are so in tune and they’re so much more open-minded. I come from a generation of don’t trust anyone over thirty. And that was the M.O. of everybody back then. But the kids are just reaching from every decade and putting all that stuff down and just listening to what they think is good and I really admire that.
That’s really cool. We, the kids, are hip.
You’re smart. You wanna learn and you’re all becoming little historians—it’s fascinating. When I can sit down and have a conversation about music with a twenty-something-year-old person and we’re both into the same thing, I love it.
And for us, it’s like talking to a jukebox.
[laughs] I feel fortunate to be in that period, in that point in my life. We’re going to have a good time in L.A.