For Mark Browning, the driving force behind Canadian roots rock band Ox, the new album KTEL has been a long time in the making, but Nov. 3 finally marked its arrival on all digital platforms.
Work began on KTEL not long after Ox’s fifth album, Tuco, in 2011, but life took over and demos were shelved and forgotten for a decade. By 2010, Mark had been bouncing around the road and studios for 12 years—doing all the promoting, tour booking, radio tracking—essentially the stuff an agent and manager would be doing for a band—by himself. He was dog tired from the workload as well as the road-burn, and feeling a bit like he wasn’t getting anywhere.
That wasn’t true of course. Ox had accomplished a lot by then, enough for Mark to make a down payment on a house in his hometown of Sudbury, ON, along with earning some awards and a whole lot of traveling. But with each record, it all began feeling repetitive for Mark, and all the non-music-making parts of the job were wearing him down. And when you’re just not feeling it anymore, it’s often best to check out and step off the treadmill.
Mark eventually settled down, acquired more real estate in Sudbury, which he turned into a record store, got married to the love of his life with whom he now shares two beautiful kids, and generally experienced a kind of joy he hadn’t before. However, as years went by, Mark’s creativity began stirring again. The demos for what is now KTEL were on a CD that bounced around in the family car. His kids would listen to it sometimes, and eventually he started thinking there was an album that deserved to be finished. Beginning in the spring of 2021, Mark re-did the songs, added new ones, and completed KTEL over the course of a year.
A number of songs—“Cosmic Dave” (named after Mark’s record shop), “Continental” and “Silverstar”—were written in that period of burn out, while others like “Ktel Records” capture the wonder of discovering new music. “Kung Fu” was inspired by Mark’s obsession with late night B-movies, with “STARSHIP” specifically about his addiction to the TV show Ancient Aliens. Mark’s good friend and collaborator on the Ox album Dust Bowl Revival, Nathan Lawr, invigorated Mark’s love of playing hockey, resulting in the song “Stanley Cup Final,” along with a broken big toe that continues to hamper Mark’s soccer game.
Musically, however, Mark is doing just fine, as KTEL proves. He took some time to tell us more about the album–which can be purchased from the Ox Bandcamp page or oxtheband.com–along with future plans for the band.
How does it feel to be making music again after a 12 year layoff?
It wasn’t that long a layoff, but certainly a full six years of literally not even touching an instrument. Strangely, it was the drum kit that pulled me back. Drums were my first instrument, and I started playing when I was around 12. So it feels like a full circle, re-learning the drums after so many years and then hitting the studio with some newer songs. There certainly is muscle memory in here somewhere because once I got in, I buried myself in it like I used to. Having my own studio allows it to be a very solitary process, which I thrive on. The first Ox albums were done in Vancouver with my good friend Chôn producing them, and I don’t think I could have worked with anyone but him because he really left me alone to be creative, only giving me feedback when I asked him. I’m not a super-confident artist, so that’s what I need.
Are there any themes connecting the songs on KTEL?
There are certainly two themes throughout, stemming from the two contrasting sources of the material. The older songs really flow from road life as an independent artist, while the newer material is more personal and reflects life after the band. “Cosmic Dave” is probably the most honest stream-of-consciousness-type lyric I’ve written — it contains a lot of road exhaustion with a sprinkle of stardust. I’d always wanted to be a rock star, but at some point I started questioning whether it really was the life I wanted. I have more anxiety now than I used to, or perhaps I’m less willing to mask it now. When I think back to some of the road life I’ve lived, it makes me very happy to be not living that anymore. Travelling alone for months at a time on Greyhound buses with nothing but a backpack, guitar and a bus pass is just something I can’t believe I actually did. It’s the stuff of nightmares to me now. The newer songs are less serious, like “STARSHIP,” which came from really getting into smoking pot, watching Ancient Aliens and really starting to “believe.” I started dreaming of driving out to California, hoping to get saved and taken into a spaceship. Humanity is in such bad shape, like teenagers left alone in the house for the weekend in need of adult supervision. Half of us are waiting for God, the other half are waiting for E.T. to save us from ourselves.
Musically, what sets KTEL apart from previous Ox albums?
I’ve started to let a few of my guilty pleasures influence what comes out of me. There’s a lot less acoustic guitar than there used to be. I don’t play a lot of acoustic at home, I tend to grab an electric and just shred on the couch. I spent a lot of time doing the electric lead guitar on this album, more than ever before. Thinking back to the first few albums, I really didn’t spend much time on it then — I actually recored American Lo Fi with a broken first finger on my fretting hand and that’s why there are virtually no major solos on that record. Like the last album, Tuco, I engineered and produced KTEL, but I got some more outside help with the mixing. Steve Chaley was really helpful for me, although in the end I used a lot of my own mixes. But without him I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that. He’s a sweet man.
You’ve made a significant contribution to the music scene in Sudbury. What’s it like to be based there?
It was a practical choice to move back east from Vancouver in the mid-2000s and occasionally I regret it. I miss the west coast weather, and the music community was great out there as well. We used to love playing the Railway Club regularly, and it hit me hard when I heard it closed down after so many years. But Sudbury has a vibrant arts community with so many great bands. I feel like it’s most certainly the best music scene in Canada per capita. I don’t know that I had very much to do with that other than just adding my voice to the others that were here. We built a studio here, and the record store and guitar shop I started certainly add elements that are important for a music scene to flourish. I’ve had some pretty great acts play the performance space at the record shop, including Women, Daniel Romano, Library Voices and Shotgun Jimmie, so that certainly is adding to things locally. Sudbury is a great place to start a family so I’m happy to be here. Summers in particular are beautiful here. Sometimes I wonder if we’d have got more traction if Ox was based in a big city like Toronto but the quality of life trade-off is worth it for me.
As you’ve noted, you were known for being a road warrior back in the day. Do you have any touring plans to support KTEL?
The band keeps bringing that up and yeah, I’m up for some dates. I have no interest in doing the kind of gruelling tours we did back in the day though. The U.K. was always very good to us, and I’m keen to return there for a short run of dates sometime in 2024. It’s been a long time since we even did some shows in Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax, so that would be short list. And of course, going back to Vancouver is pretty special to me.