Marc Maron Talks Guitars and His Hit Podcast Series

June 8th, 2016

This is an excerpt from the all-new JULY/AUGUST 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on former Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson and his new career as a solo performer and painter, Matt Bruck’s rare and vintage British amps from the Fifties and Sixties, the life and times of comedian, author, and guitar aficionado Dave Hill, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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STRUNG OUT: While his fictional persona may have hit the skids, in real life Marc Maron is enjoying his greatest success ever.

Story by Joe Bosso | Photography by Travis Shinn

Marc Maron’s funky one-room office is situated on the second floor of a nondescript building in the Highland Park section of Los Angeles. From here, he listens to CDs and vinyl, chills out on the guitar, sorts through mail and gifts from fans, and oversees a jam-packed schedule that includes comedy club appearances, an IFC series now in its fourth season, and, of course, his mega-popular podcast series, WTF with Marc Maron.

Seated behind a cluttered table-top desk, Maron pops a nicotine lozenge and admits that there was no straight-line plan leading to his late-bloomer success. “After my last gig went down, I didn’t know what to do,” he says, referring to Breakroom Live, the last in a series of radio and webcast shows he co-hosted for Air America in New York during 2004 to 2009.

“They kept pulling the plug on me and bringing me back. But when Breakroom got canceled, I started to think, ‘Now what?’ Before radio, my career was mostly in stand-up comedy. So what was I looking at? A long life of being a relatively unknown headliner trying to get by? That was terrifying to me. I knew I had to do something.”

With one month left on his Air America contract, Maron and a co-worker, Brendan McDonald, started recording a secret series of podcasts in the Breakroom Live studio. Their operation was guerilla style all the way, hustling guests past nighttime security guards and into the freight elevator. “We didn’t know we could make money with it,” he says. “I just knew that I liked the medium. I liked those mics, and I needed to talk to people. That’s all there was to it.”

After taping a dozen episodes, Maron returned to the Highland Park house he had purchased in 2004, where he and McDonald converted the garage into a recording studio. In the fall of 2009, Maron officially debuted WTF (internet slang for “What The Fuck?”), and the twice-weekly podcast quickly developed a cult following. The size and scope of the audience grew steadily, and after the airings of two revelatory interviews with Robin Williams and Louis C.K, his ratings soared. By the end of 2013, WTF hit its 100 millionth download. “You just don’t think about that kind of success going into something like this,” Maron says. “At least I didn’t. I was just trying to survive and move forward.”

Guests who have visited Maron’s small, unassuming garage studio (affectionately nicknamed the Cat Ranch for his devotion to feline friends) include an impressive variety of famous names, mostly from the world of pop culture, but in 2015 President Barack Obama dropped by for a candid hour-long chat that made headlines across the globe. “I’m still pinching myself,” Maron says, shaking his head. “The president actually came to my garage. We had Secret Service guys all over the block. It was crazy.” He pauses, then adds, “You can’t plan that. I mean, who could? You just do what you do.”

Music stars of every stripe have made the pilgrimage to the Cat Ranch—everyone from Thom Yorke and Chris Cornell to James Taylor and Keith Richards. For Maron, one of the highlights of such visits is the occasional impromptu performance.

“To see musicians lock into their art is fascinating,” he marvels. “Seeing Lucinda Williams singing and playing in front of me was amazing. Aimee Mann was incredible; J. Mascis on an old Gibson acoustic; Billy Gibbons on an old cigar-box guitar. There’s been so many. Nick Lowe was great. I’m sitting there trying not to cry or be too excited, because I really think that music is magic.”

On rare occasions Maron picks up one of his guitars—he’s partial to his black 1986 Fender Strat and a brand-new Gibson tobacco sunburst ES-335—and jams along with his guests. “That kind of situation doesn’t always present itself,” he stresses. “I kind of walk the line between being a kindred spirit and a fan. Dave Alvin let me jam with him, and I kept up pretty well. That was exciting. I have fun, but I make no claims to being on their level. I’m just an amateur.”

Maron’s house is but a three-minute drive up the hill from his office. He gets out of his car, heads down a short walkway to the detached garage, and opens the door. Amid an explosion of CDs, books, photos, and posters, there’s yet another cluttered tabletop desk, this one with a couple of mics and a six-channel analog mixer plugged into a laptop. Maron keeps a small collection of amps in the garage—a 1965 Fender Champ, a 1963 Vibroverb reissue, and an original mid-Fifties wide panel tweed Deluxe. “What was it somebody once said about the Deluxe?” he asks rhetorically. “‘It’s a one-trick pony, but it’s a good trick.’”

“Oh, and check this out,” he says, pointing to an old Bell & Howell movie projector. He opens its storage compartment door to reveal that most of its projector guts have been torn out and it’s now a guitar amp. “Blake Mills came over and did the podcast, and he turned me on to his amp guy, Austen Hooks. Austen’s a wizard, and he makes these amazing amps out of old movie projectors. He gave me that one, and it’s cool as hell. He uses the projector’s amplifier section and rebuilds it into a guitar amp. You can really dirty it up and get a range of sounds. It’s incredible.”

Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Maron took to the guitar at the age of 11, starting lessons with his younger brother Craig on a hollowbody Harmony that belonged to their father. “Our mom found us this guitar teacher, Brad Bumgarner-Kirby, this heavy-set Christian hippie,” he recalls. “After a while, my brother flaked on the guitar, but I stayed with it. Brad had a lot of blues records, and he turned me on to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Then I became obsessed with ‘Johnny B. Goode’ by Chuck Berry. Brad showed me how to play it. The first lead I learned was the boogie bass line to that song. I thought it was astounding.”

By his early teens, Maron moved up to a Les Paul goldtop copy and a Marshall half-stack (“I was into equipment, but I didn’t know what to pair with that; it was all wasted on me”), but he calls the cream-colored 1978 Telecaster that he got at age 15 his first “really good guitar.” “It had a heavy-ass body, but it was just like Keith Richards’ guitar, so that was cool,” he says. “Then I got a big fucking Fender Twin Reverb that had the pop-up gain knob on it [a push-pull Master Volume control that activated a gain boost circuit found on Seventies silverface models]. I wish I still had that thing.”

An embarrassing vocal performance at camp put Maron off singing, so he enlisted his friend Eric Tittman to be the occasional frontman for a band that he formed with his pals Dave Bishop, Dean Hines, and Damion Hogland. “We didn’t really play out because we weren’t diligent about learning songs,” he says. “We did a version of ‘Rock Steady’ by Bad Company, ‘Takin’ Care of Business,’ Skynyrd’s ‘Needle and the Spoon,’ a bad version of ‘Sweet Emotion,’ and a really bad version of ‘Tush’ by ZZ Top. We lacked the discipline you need to take it seriously.”

A series of guitars came and went during the years that Maron traversed the country developing his comedy chops. There were a couple of Telecasters, along with a Frankenstein model that was built from a Schecter Explorer-style body and Tele neck. “They put in a coil-tapping switch, which I didn’t understand,” he says with a laugh. “Truthfully, it was too good a guitar for me, so I took it apart.” His 1986 Strat, purchased with one of the departed Teles in a two-for-one Fender sale, remains in his collection. “I really appreciated Robert Cray’s tone. The honesty of the Fender sound and that five-position switch on a Strat was very compelling to me….”

This is an excerpt from the all-new JULY/AUGUST 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on former Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson and his new career as a solo performer and painter, Matt Bruck’s rare and vintage British amps from the Fifties and Sixties, the life and times of comedian, author, and guitar aficionado Dave Hill, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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