The quintessentially Philadelphia band Marah put out two records this fall, and the first, If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry, is a typically coltish roots-rock disk that stands up to their best work. In A Christmas Kind of Town, Marah mixes distinctive takes on Yuletide standards—from “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’” as a string-band rave-up to “Silver Bells” as a classic soul number—with a slew of originals written in the same spirit. We reached singer Serge Bielanko on tour in upstate New York.
So why a Christmas record?
We’re fanatical about certain things, and Christmas is one of them. Every year, friends and fans give us mix CDs of the greatest Christmas shit. We thought it would be cool to put our stuff in that canon.
It seems like Christmas records have become a punch line.
Well, if Mariah Carey makes a Christmas record, it’s pretty much going to suck. If Toby Keith makes one, it will really blow. Corporate stuff won’t work, because it’s for the wrong reasons.
Which Christmas albums do you admire?
The Phil Spector Christmas record is one of the greatest rock-’n’-roll records ever made. I’m a huge fan of Burl Ives and other songwriters, and the idea of how they put songs together. They would go into an office and work nine-to-five writing holiday music.
Did you want a different sound than on a normal Marah record?
The only thing I knew we didn’t want to do is quote-unquote “rock-’n’-roll Christmas.” To me, Christmas is sentimental: The Mummers play, or you have big bands, or background music that has to be really thought out.
How did you record it?
We became immersed in Christmas music. We would be walking around New York listening to 1940s Christmas songs on headphones. We would learn a song from the ground up. We started to see there are a lot of chords in Christmas music we didn’t know.
But this was in July?
All Christmas music has to be made in the summer. We decorated the apartment, and for two weeks, we were sweating, wearing Santa garb and playing banjos.
Do you think your fans will treat this as a joke?
It was a joke among us that we wanted to sticker the album if you love marah but hate christmas, this is not for you. It has nothing to do with our other records or what we do with our career, but it’s something that means a fuckload to us.
Any other holiday records planned?
I’m not into Easter music or anything like that.