For those who think of Mark Sinnis as one of the most prolific songwriters on the dark side of country music, there’s a lot more to the story. Sinnis chronicles that turbulent and colorful career in a new coffee table book packed with rare, previously unpublished photos along with original handwritten lyrics, show flyers and newspaper concert listings. Limited edition signed copies are available for fifty bucks.
It’s an amazing historical artifact. In so many ways, Sinnis’ personal story mirrors the history of rock music in New York since the late 1980s. At the peak of his popularity here, he fronted Ninth House, who began as a sleek, haunting art-rock group, then took a detour into haphazard jamband territory and eventually reinvented themselves as a tight East Coast counterpart to Social Distortion,
In the meantime, that popularity waned. Sinnis went from headlining Saturday night shows at just about every club in the East Village, to playing sparsely attended off-nights at a Financial District titty bar, before getting brain-drained out of the city in 2008. What happened?
The paper-and-polaroids trail starts in 1988, when Sinnis founded the Apostates, a punk band with a promising lyrical edge, who didn’t stay together long enough to find a distinctive sound. And yet, they were getting decent gigs, playing venues like the World, which booked acts like the Pixies and Jesus & Mary Chain.
Those shots of Sinnis holding a cheap red knockoff Fender bass, sporting long hair and not a single tattoo, are almost comical considering his current rig and look. But a couple of pages later, the tattoos are starting to creep up the arms, and he’s playing a vintage Rickenbacker. And Ninth House are on fire, with a New Years Eve gig at CB’s Gallery.
For Ninth House, it’s a long trail down from from there. As their old stomping ground was erased in a blitzkrieg of gentrification, they held on as long as they could, with a long-running monthly Saturday night residency at the old Hank’s in Brooklyn. Yet as bad as the gigs get for Ninth House, Sinnis is busy honing his craft at a solo artist at acoustic venues all over town, developing the “cemetery and western” sound he’s best known for today.
After an aborted stay in the Hudson River Valley – where he managed to assemble a crackerjack honkytonk band – Sinnis has found a new home and a new band in the coastal college town of Wilmington, North Carolina. And most recently, he’s switched fulltime from rhythm guitar or bass to lead guitar, a welcome development for a brilliantly melodic, economical player.
Many but not all of Sinnis’ supporting cast pop up throughout the book. There’s lead guitarists Bernard SanJuan, with his thousand-yard stare, and Keith Otten flexing his signature sunburst Les Paul. There’s a rare shot of violin goddess Susan Mitchell playing cello, and a playful vocal duet in the studio between Sinnis and Randi Russo (they nailed it on the first take). Longtime keyboardist and then drummer Francis Xavier, guitarist J.D. Fortay, pedal steel player Brian Aspinwall, banjo player/bagpiper Stephen Gara, drummer Michael Lillard, violinist Shirley Lebo and many others are all represented.
Sinnis’ lyrics can be fascinating: his writing has become much more straightforward, in keeping with the Americana tradition, but many of the older songs are absolutely brilliant. There’s an awful lot to sift through here, with rewarding results. Case in point: notice how Sinnis switched the first line of the chorus of Your Past May Come Back to Haunt Me from “You got what you wanted,” to “Realize and confront it.”
These days, Sinnis owns the picturesque, retro music-themed Beale Street Barber Shop in Wilmington, where he and other North Carolina bands play frequently on the stage in the back, when he’s not making records at Sun Studios or videos at Hank Williams’ grave.