The imposing figure of Mark Sinnis is onstage, clad entirely in black and strumming an acoustic guitar with weary, tattooed hands—the same hands that wield a straight razor at Beale Street Barber Shop on Castle Street. Looming above him is a long shadow of a cow’s skull, which hangs from his mic stand. His deep voice rises from all corners of the dimly lit room as he croons, “I’ll be waiting in darkness for the light / unanswered questions, the edge of eternity pulling at my mind / I’ll be waiting until the end of the world.” Suddenly, listeners are spirited away from the sunny beach town of Wilmington and brought to the gates of an unknown netherworld, with Sinnis as their tour guide.
All it takes is a wayward glance away from the stage to be transported back to Wilmington. But why break the illusion? Sinnis, with a long musical history leading him from the goth-punk scene of the ‘80s to traditional country music, infuses his tales of departed love and eternities of sorrow with just as much Joy Division as Johnny Cash. Christening his style “cemetery and western,” he brings his unique sound to Wilmington. encore recently talked to Sinnis about his musical history and what brought him to our coast.
encore (e): How would you define cemetery and western music for someone completely unfamiliar with such a concept?
Mark Sinnis (MS): Cemetery and western is a tag given to me back in 2005 by Doktor John Ambrose. He reviews a lot of gothic and alternative bands in the New York/New Jersey area. I love that tag because back in the day I used to describe my band Ninth House as “Johnny Cash meets The Cure.” After that review I ran with cemetery and Western as my sound. Basically, it’s taking the darker side of gothic alternative music and mixing it with traditional country and western. On a more mainstream level, I think Johnny Cash did a really good job with that in his later work on American recordings with Rick Rubin.
e: Who are your creative influences—musical, stylistic or otherwise?
MS: My influence is very wide ranging, from old-school punk music, like Joe Strummer, to country singer Merle Haggard. As I get older, my music has mellowed out a little bit, but it still retains a lot of punk angst from back in the ‘80s. I like everybody from Elvis as a performer to songwriters like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. I am a self-taught musician, so my music tends to be on the simpler side, and I like that. I tend to gravitate more toward people who write with simplicity than jam bands. I am now playing and writing music for 29 years, and I would say my music is a biography of my life. I try to write about things that matter to me on a personal level without trying to conquer the world’s problems. I try to tell a story but not be very direct in the process. It’s nice to leave a little open to interpretation.
e: You perform solo, as well as with full bands. How does your approach to performing differ in each setting?
MS: Since I write all the songs, it is easy for me to play them in various settings. I can get onstage with an acoustic guitar and play them by myself. Or I can play them with my eight-piece country band, 825, or with my three-piece rock band, Ninth House. While they are the same songs, I would say Ninth House is just a little more energ[etic] and heavier. I love when songs can have two different sounds, kind of when a band plays unplugged. I would say everything pretty much stays the same in both settings, just some arrangements could be a little different.
e: What led you to transition from performing in a punk/goth context to that of country-western?
MS: When I started playing punk in 1988 I had no idea what I was doing. I played trumpet as a child but never had any formal training on bass, guitar or vocals. I was in the Air Force, and I told my friends I was going to start a punk band; they basically laughed at me. But I bought a bass guitar, learned how to play a few simple songs, and before I knew it, I was playing in a four-piece punk band, Apostates, in NYC. They were very short-lived, lasting about two years. I found myself wanting to write in a more darker tone, so I moved the band into a gothic direction. But I always had that Elvis/Roy Orbison/Johnny Cash influence from years before, so I quickly started to incorporate that into gothic music. I would date that sound back to around 1991-’92; I really started to explore the country side when I released my first acoustic album in 2008. I still enjoy keeping it dark. Some of my favorite songwriters write like that. Hank Williams and the Carter Family—country music when it was good as a whole—have been writing songs like that for a long time.
e: How much punk/goth makes its way into your current work?
MS: A lot of my earlier work makes its way into my set today. I still play some songs I played [before]; I just rework them. I think it’s awesome when you can take a song written on an acoustic guitar, have four guys play to it, and it can sound much heavier. Then you go back onstage and play that same song acoustically.
e: What brought you to Wilmington?
MS: I lived in New York City for 14 years and was ready to leave city life behind. I moved up to the mountains in upstate New York for seven years to get away from city life, but a divorce, the high cost of living, and time for a lifestyle change made me want to leave New York altogether. So I started to explore the South that I really loved. I lived down South when I was in the military and really enjoyed it. I explored different areas of North Carolina and everything pointed to Wilmington.
I love that it is on the coast, like where I grew up on Long Island, but it’s more laid-back and affordable. I love that there are exploding brewery, food and music scenes. So here I am!