One day Mark Duplass is going to die.
There will be tributes to his film career that showcase his talents as a writer, producer, director and actor. There will be think pieces about his contribution to cinema via the “mumblecore,” genre that he helped popularize alongside his brother, Jay. Within the aggregated biographies of his life, there will be a brief reference to the life he lived before the movies, the life he lived in Volcano, I’m Still Excited!
Years before his acclaim in film, Duplass got to live out the rock ‘n’ roll dream of generations of restless young men. In the process, he, alongside bandmates Craig Montoro and John Thomas Robinette III, created an exquisite album that could have been the soundtrack of a generation.
After suffering an arm injury that made it tough to play the guitar, the young singer-songwriter realized that he could play a Casio keyboard without any pain.
“I was living in Brooklyn and kind of depressed and studying classical and jazz music at the city college in Harlem,” Duplass tells Rare by phone of the beginnings of Volcano, I’m Still Excited!
The sounds and chord changes that were possible on the keyboard led to a musical development that Duplass feels is more in tune with his personality than anything he could accomplish on a guitar.
“It really opened up new stuff for me and brought out this side of me that I always had conversationally and socially that was really kind of silly, goofy fun but doesn’t fit inside the singer/songwriter conundrum,” Duplass explains. “The nature of Volcano was at once earnest and goofy, and that really has become what I feel like I am really good at doing and what I do most as a filmmaker.”
Silly, goofy and fun are accurate ways to describe the sixteen song, self-titled record that would eventually be released by Polyvinyl Records. Volcano’s songs sound simple, almost immature at first before a harder listen reveals the profound sadness Duplass experienced at the time and the infectious pop hooks that helped cure it.
Some reviewers disagreed with that assessment in 2004, especially a writer from Pitchfork.com.
“There’s not a single moment of genuine un-sentimental or mature emotion (or at least a scenario that hasn’t previously appeared in a John Hughes film), and the glut of sixteen tracks seem to pass by in a glaze-eyed hum of ’80s nostalgia of Casio watches, Delorians and aerobics,”writer Hartley Goldstein wrote in February 2004.
While this may have deflated some artists, Duplass was stoked.
“As far as I was concerned I had made it,” Duplass said, laughing as he remembers the bad review. “It was further than I ever thought I would go. As far as Pitchfork, they just eviscerated our record, but the fact that they had even reviewed the record made me so excited. I literally didn’t care. We were going on tour through the U.S. and Europe and all the wonderful festivals like SXSW and CMJ. I was really more like a puppy dog at that point and happy to be in the club.”
The more shows they played and festival bills they shared, the more people started to pay attention to the group. Duplass recalls a show where they played with Sufjan Stevens as a high-water mark for the band. Had they continued, Duplass thinks that their success would have been akin to a band like Spoon. Popular, able to sell records and tour regularly, with a loyal following, but not exactly Taylor Swift.
“If we had put out a second record we had the potential to be as big as Spoon. I think we could have gone a little further and it was a real bummer for the guys in the band when I decided to go a different way,” Duplass explains.
The decision to dissolve the band, just as they began to gain some steam, was not one that came lightly. According to Duplass, it was on a bus trip back from the filming of his first major film, “The Puffy Chair,” that he knew the music life was not for him. With the help of the book “The Bridges of Madison County,” he was sure.
“I was reading the Bridges of Madison County and feeling very emotional, and I cried for about half of the bus ride somehow envisioning myself as a Meryl Streep character deciding between two men and the two roads before myself,” Duplass explains. “And deep in my gut, I knew right then, and honestly, I have never looked back. Never had a moment of regret, except in those moments when I see a band really connect on stage in a way I don’t connect with anyone in the film business. But I also know, being a musician, the 24 hours and 55 minutes left in the day didn’t work for me as a lifelong decision.”
The five minutes that Duplass wants back is the only thing he misses about life on the road or making music. The moments in which a musician is totally in sync with his band, with his audience, and with his craft. It’s a feeling that Duplass has been chasing and has yet to replicate in any of his other artistic endeavors.
On that final European tour, Duplass found himself staying up late at night to speak to his brother, his girlfriend and other loved ones whom he missed. He knew that life on the road wasn’t sustainable and that it was time to fulfill his other passion.
“I can’t do both. I can’t be out on the road and be engaged with the people I love and lead a more traditional life…I can’t do that and get all the benefits of tour, which involves connecting with new people every night and really enjoying the life of a transient.”
At 40-years-old, Duplass is happy with his decision to end the band. His children recently found Volcano’s album and danced to the songs and teased their father. Duplass found demos of the original Volcano songs, which he says could one day be released to the public. If they are ever released, it will be a rare look back at the band and Duplass’ deviation from his career as a filmmaker.
In film and television, Duplass has found a medium that allows him to evolve and not do the same thing over and over again.
“There is something weird about music when you’re playing in a band where I find that creatively, it’s strange to me that these musicians get up 30 years after they’ve created a song and perform it live like they haven’t evolved as a person,” Duplass says. “It always felt untruthful and strange to have to do that for people. In movies and TV shows, you make them, they are who you were at the time, and then you put them away, and you turn over and make whatever you want the next day. You don’t have to keep performing your old movies live.”