Martha and the Muffins is one of the main reasons that the '80's were a cool decade. And after 20 years, it is such a relief that they are still around to add some coolness to the '90s. Here was a band that merged several different influences (including art school, The Beatles, Roxy Music, Motown, Robert Fripp, and Eno) to create their own distinct sound. And over the years their music grew and expanded, to the point that one never knew what to expect from Martha and the Muffins, or M + M, as they were briefly known. To this day, with their latest material making its way out, Mark Gane and Martha Johnson continue to astound listeners and fans by making their music their way.
According to co-founder Mark Gane, the band started as a hobby. "Nobody ever imagined it was going to turn into anything," recalled Mark during a recent interview. "And nobody even cared. As I recall, it wasn't like we were trying to get a record deal."
Mark Gane formed the band in 1977 with fellow Ontario College of Art (O.C.A.) student, David Miller. David and Mark had known each other since 1975, and shared an interest in art and music. By Halloween 1977, Martha and the Muffins were ready to perform their first gig, at the O.C.A. The line-up was complete with Mark, Martha Johnson (vocals, keyboards), Andy Haas (saxophone), Carl Finkle (bass), Tim Gane (drums), and Martha Ladly (vocals, keyboards, trombone). Their early gigs included covers (such as The Beatles' "Day Tripper") and early Muffins classics such as "Insect Love," "Suburban Dream," and "Echo Beach."
They released an independent single (early versions of "Insect Love" and "Suburban Dream") in 1979, but it was an impressed Interview Magazine writer, Glen O'Brien, who played their demo tape to Virgin Records, which earned them their international deal.
Recorded in England with producer Mike Howlett, Martha and the Muffins debut album, Metro Music was released in 1980, and "Echo Beach" was soon released as a single. The rest is, as they say, history. "Echo Beach" became a worldwide hit, and perhaps their signature tune. No one was more surprised with the immense success of "Echo Beach", than was the band.
"The success of 'Echo Beach' took us completely by surprise, and we were completely unprepared for it," recalls Mark Gane.
As with so many bands, such huge success was not always positive. In fact, both Martha Johnson and Mark Gane point to the success as one of the main reasons the original line-up of Martha And The Muffins lasted for only two years. But Mark was able to take such experiences and turn them into the now-classic album, This Is The Ice Age (1981).
"...Ice Age is really about all of"that...the breakup of the original band, disastrous consequences of fame". Working with then unknown producer Daniel Lanois and with less involvement from Virgin UK, Mark and Martha were able to recruit new members to the band and expand their musical horizons. Mark remembers the experience of recording the album as having "such good feelings about it."
According to Mark, the band could "do anything we wanted to do. I'd come in with all my art school ideas."
"ollowing the release of This Is The Ice Age, and furthe' member c"ange", Mark and Martha decided to pare the band down to a duo, utilizing additional session musicians when needed. They also decided on a name change to reflect such a decision, no more muffins, now they were M + M. It's decision for which Mark Gane takes responsibility.
"I insisted on a change to M + M when we de"ided we didn't want a 'band' an"more. I think it was the stupidest thing I ever did. The name Martha and the Muffins was to make a statement; we didn't want a punk name. We wanted something totally opposite. We weren't going to keep it, because I always wanted something cooler, but the name stuck."
The hits kept coming throughout the'19'0s ("Black Stations, White Stations," which peaked at number 2 on the Billboard Dance Charts) and midway through the decade, Mark and Martha decided to move to Bath, England. There they produced what was to be their last album of the '80's, The World Is A Ball. After their last hit, "Song In My Head," they just seemed to disappear.
A move back to Canada in the ear"y '90's heralded the return of Mark and Martha, and the retu" of the'name Martha and The Muffins. First surfacing on a Joni Mitchell tribute they followed with the the brilliant, but sadly underrated Modern Lullabies. Re-entering the world of music proved to be a difficult task, even though Mark and Martha had an incredible track record. In fact, the trouble surrounding the release of that CD was one of the reasons the band seemed to temporarily dissolve which allowed Martha to build a career in children's music.
According to Martha, she became "...very frustra'ed with wha' happened with Modern Lullabies." It wasn't exposed, nobody really heard it, the record company folded, we put our own money into it and lost our money, and having Much Music (the Canadian version of MTV) not show our videos, for whatever reason, the whole thing! I was just sick of it. I didn't want to do it anymore."
Martha toured and released a wonderful children's CD Martha's Treehouse, that both parents and children enjoyed. "I wanted to write stuff that wouldn't drive parents crazy," Martha stated. For the record she succeeded. The CD won a Juno (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy) in 1996 for Best Children's Album.
Mark kept busy with stuff around the house, looking after their daughter, and worked on various soundtracks (including Defy Gravity, which he did with Martha), and he began to re-evaluate the Muffin career.
Mark noticed that people were asking him about the older Martha and The Muffins albums that, for various reasons, were not available. "Hardly a week would go by when someone didn't walk up and say, "I love that album, why can't I go get it?" It was really driving me nuts."
Mark began the daunting task of working with record labels, and he began to piece together the recently rele"sed compilation, Then Again.