The Replacements’ former drummer has swapped his sticks for paintbrushes in his critically acclaimed second career.
Swinger Tony Bennett did it. So did Rolling Stone Ron Wood. And they’re not alone. Over the years, plenty of musicians have also worked in the visual arts. But most haven’t given up their recording careers along the way. Minneapolis native Chris Mars has. Mars, 47, was the longtime drummer for 1980s pioneering alt-rock band the Replacements, but these days, he is garnering serious critical respect and commercial successin his flourishing second career as a painter.
Mars’s artistic vision is an intensely personal one. Much of his work is inspired by his childhood experiences with his older brother Joe, who was diagnosed with severe schizophrenia as a teen. That’s partly why Mars specializes in haunting oil-based portraits of societal misfits and the marginalized, for which he draws on everything from the empathic images of photographer Diane Arbus to the meticulous picturesques of Ivan Albright. His work has earned him showings in museums and high-end galleries everywhere from Los Angeles to Miami. A decade’s worth of those striking surrealist works can now be found in Mars’s recently published book, Tolerance: Chris Mars (Last Gasp, $40).
While Mars has essentially retired from the stage, he’s kept a hand in music, composing classical scores for a series of animated shorts he made based on his artwork. But mostly, he paints. Mars spends an average of 12 hours a day working in his studio. “My love for painting is something innate,” he says. “I’ve always done it, and as far as I can see, I will continue to do it. I can’t not do it.”
What was your early exposure to art like? Was art something that you saw or experienced as a child or through your parents? Even before I could talk, I was drawn to visual art. Before I could read, I learned the letter p so I could head straight to paintings in our encyclopedia collection. I’d study it. I already had a sense of what I wanted to do, almost like I had done it before. From grade school and beyond, visual art was the most natural form of expression for me.
When you were with the Replacements and, later, working on your own decade-long solo music career, were you also painting? I was always drawing. I’d doodle; I’d sneak away. I was most happy in between tours, when I would do little else but draw. In the later years, as the band began to morph away from its punk roots and things felt like they were winding down, most nights I couldn’t wait to go back to my hotel room, get away from everyone, and draw. The urge was never absent. I always made some time.
Was there a turning point where you decided, “Okay, I’m a painter now and not a musician”? For a long time, I didn’t feel I was ready to identify myself as a visual artist. looking back now, it seems silly. I pretty much ate and breathed it. I finally started to identify myself as a visual artist after I realized what I wanted to say. It felt important. That, and the accumulation of a sizable body of work.
Yourbrother Joe’s battles with schizophrenia provide the inspiration formuch of your work. Is art a way to deal with his condition? My impulse toward art was present prior to Joe’s issues or to my awareness of them. post-Replacements, I really started to delve into drawing. This expression was very therapeutic. It propelled me towardself-examination. I started to think of why I was perpetually drawn to the figures and themes that would present themselves. I think what makes an artist’s voice or vision is that culmination of each life’s unique experiences. For me, especially, it was those initial environmental ones.
How does the world of visual art compare with the world of music? I’ve noticed that in the music world, it might be harder to age with grace. Often in music, the cycle of a career might be five, 10 years. There’s a hunger for the youngest, latest, next new thing. While this might be true in the art world to some extent, I think a career is generally welcome to start later and to last longer.
In other mediums, too, there is the idea that in these fields, people might even create their best work as seniors, toward life’s end. and while there are exceptions in music, of course -- Johnny Cash comes to mind -- I think about the genius of Paul McCartney, who will always get the loudest cheers for Beatles and Wings songs, no matter how great his recent work might be. The pop-music biz is very youth-oriented. I think the art world overall puts a greater value on life experience.
THE REPLACEMENTS PARTS
FROM THE GARAGE TO COLLEGE TO DISSOLUTION, THE REPLACEMENTS’ MUSIC LIVES ON.
The Replacements are back -- well, sort of. The band’s entire catalog, eight albums in all, is being released in remastered, expanded editions by Rhino Records. The first batch of reissues, containing the group’s four records for Minneapolis indie label Twin/Tone Records, came out this spring, and the second set, chronicling the band’s major-labelyears, is due to come out in the fall. here are some highlights to watch for.
The Debut: Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (1981) It’s a bratty burst of pop-punk genius that signaled an auspicious start for a basement band whose members were barely out of their teens.
The Classic: Let It Be (1984) considered the group’s high watermark, this is college rock at its finest. The band proved music could be brainy, feisty, and heart felt, all while keeping tongue firmly in cheek.
The Swan Song: All Shook Down (1990) a gloomy affair, it found the band falling apart. The album went on to serve as a touchstone for several dark roots-rock bands, including Whiskeytown.