“If one more person describes us as a Folk duo, I’m going to kill,” Messerly & Ewing guitarist/vocalist Mark Messerly (also a member of Cincinnati band Wussy) says over drinks at MOTR Pub. “Whatever your first impression is, that’s it. I could bust into a Woody Guthrie song, but if you look at our influences, they’re all Pop and Rock.”
“I don’t want to say we were pigeonholed and trapped,” guitarist/vocalist Brian Ewing says. “But we were pigeonholed and trapped.”
M&E fit the quacks-like-a-duck Folk description early on, but adding bassist Sean Rhiney and drummer Bill Donabedian — MidPoint creators and highly regarded musicians — made them a certified Rock band.
“We’ve been around forever but, as far as the band goes, we’ve never had an intact lineup,” Messerly says. “It’s the most free I’ve ever felt, because these guys can roll with anything.”
The path from M&E’s last album, 2004’s Darkness Drops Again, to the new lineup and new release, Every Bitter Thing, was long and arduous. It began after Darkness, when Ewing sought professional help for balance problems he was experiencing.
“I was diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease, which is a fluid imbalance in the inner ear that causes hearing loss, nausea, vertigo, all the fun stuff,” Ewing says. “I didn’t know day to day if I was going to be vertical. We couldn’t schedule anything. It took me three or four years to figure out how to deal with this.”
Almost simultaneously, Messerly’s marriage unraveled and he set aside music to concentrate on his relationship. It was a difficult and painful period.
“You can guess what’s on the table — ‘You love music more,’ ” Messerly says. “I quit everything, except Wussy — we were making the first record, but that band was barely together. I told Brian, ‘I gotta do what I gotta do.’ We played MidPoint and we had no idea if we would ever play again.”
“They were kicking on all cylinders when this happened, too,” Rhiney notes. “They (won the 97Xposure competition) in 2002, they put the next album together, they had Randy Cheek and Justin Hackett as their rhythm section and were doing out of town shows. To watch it as a friend, it was like, ‘How cruel can fate be?’ ”
Shortly thereafter, longtime friends Rhiney and Donabedian signed up to create a flying contraption in Cleveland’s edition of Red Bull’s annual Flugtag Festival, inviting Ewing and Messerly to join them (they’d met when Rhiney brought them in on the first album by his band Clabbergirl in 2001).
Flugtag launched a much-needed upswing in Messerly’s life.
“My therapist said, ‘When you got back from Flugtag, I knew you’d be OK,’ ” Messerly recalls. “That weird weekend was the first step toward pulling myself out and it was with these guys, because we’re family.”
Ewing adjusted to his Meniere’s difficulties and assembled the band Catalog Cowboys while Messerly devoted time to Wussy. The pair played out sporadically, stockpiling new songs for a potential recording. In 2009, Messerly and Ewing finally swapped songs and it was revelatory. Their experiences had deepened their songwriting, forcing them into new emotional states and modes of expression.
“I was like ‘Damn, these are my favorite songs that I’ve heard Brian write. I want to be a part of these songs,’ ” Messerly says. “Then there’s the flat out joy of singing with Brian. But we were still a mess.”
“I have a tendency to write about Mark,” Ewing says with a laugh. “When you’re writing, you’re trying to dig into some personal connection. For me it was watching Mark and all the crap he was going through. I wound up writing song after song, several of which made it onto the CD, about that love-and-loss situation. I had one of my most prolific periods in that stretch and I think that helped the strength of this CD.”
The pair invited Rhiney to join them as they worked through the new songs. The multi-instrumentalist had teed up the invitation long before it happened.
“I told Mark if they ever needed a bass player, I wanted to be it,” Rhiney says. “Bill and I were fans of these guys before we walked in.”
Rhiney wanted to include Donabedian in his own project, but it hadn’t materialized, so he asked Messerly and Ewing if they’d be interested in Donabedian’s services. They couldn’t accept fast enough.
“I was surprised and flattered, but I was really excited because of the songwriting,” Donabedian says. “The songs might have been Folk — two guys playing guitars — but as long as there’s a good melody set to the right beat, it’s a Pop song. I love music that transforms like that.”
Given the foursome’s longstanding friendship and musical similarities, the chemistry and comfort was immediate.
“When you get in a band, there’s this long period where you pretend to like each other, but we’ve known each other so freaking long,” Messerly says. “First rehearsal Bill says, ‘We should do this,’ and we’re like, ‘No, that’s a stupid idea,’ and Bill’s like, ‘Fine, whatever.’ We were like an old married couple from the word ‘go’ and it was awesome.”
For Messerly, Every Bitter Thing signifies the perseverance that kept he and Ewing together to create the best album in their impressive catalog.
“Why did we come back after all that time?” Messerly says. “Because we wanted to do these songs. It would be lovely if people came to the shows and if we got good reviews, but in the end, it was a decision we both made.”
“We’re going to do it for us,” Ewing says.
“I’m proud of this record musically, but I’m more proud because it exists,” Messerly says. “No person is ever going to take music away from me. You know how they say, ‘When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you.’ Well, this is us saying ‘Fuck you’ to the abyss. This record is our repudiation of defeat.” ©
MESSERLY & EWING’s Every Bitter Thing is available on iTunes, Bandcamp and at other local-music-friendly retailers. For more info, visit www.messerlyandewing.com.