Interview: Sex In Public Guitarist Mark August

After splitting from hard-rock band Johnny Crash which also featured a couple of guys by the name of Matt Sorum and Dizzy Reed in the early '90s, guitarist Mark August needed a break from rock 'n' roll.

August spent some time as an electronica DJ, founded a highly successful tattoo artist supply company called Skincandy, before finally -- in 2009 -- strapping a guitar back on and recording his first solo album, Mindfuck.

Make no mistake, Mark August is back ... and he's not alone. August has assembled a new band, Sex In Public, to be the vehicle for his rock 'n' roll vision.

From the high-octane rock of "Dude" to their soulful cover of the Glenn Campbell classic, "Wichita Lineman," Sex In Public's self-titled debut EP only serves to whet the appetite for a full-length album that unlocks the full potential that can be heard in these four songs. Fortunately for us, the band are hard at work on their first LP, which will hopefully see the light of day sooner rather than later.

So why after nearly 20 years out of the business is August back and hungry for more? We caught up with him to find out.

GUITAR WORLD: You had been out of the music world for a while before you released your solo album, Mindfuck, in 2009. What made you want to get a band together?

I felt really uncomfortable just being a garden-variety business man, doing regular work; I felt like a regular old craftsman just going to work, you know? It wasn't anything that was challenging for me.

I had some moderate success with Johnny Crash when I was a kid, and I kind of missed playing for people. I really missed it. I would go to work and think, "Well, I've got these six or seven employees, but it's not the same as playing for 20,000 kids."

It was an uphill battle and it remains an uphill battle. To my surprise, being out of the business for so long I didn't realize that there's not a whole lot of people coming to rock shows anymore. You've got to do a lot of your own self-promotion these days. It's a little disheartening, but I view it as kind of a hobby, so I'm not getting my hopes up.

Being out of the industry for so many years, what's been the biggest change you've experienced since being back?

The most jarring thing is that I think there are just a lot of people who are apathetic about rock 'n' roll, and I think there are a lot of reasons why that is.

I think there are so many kids doing it that it's like a big sewage plant of regurgitated rock bands. There's just so much gear out there and it's so easy to be able to access the guitar sounds that we -- as musicians coming out of the '70s -- crafted. The gear companies take advantage of that and have to keep producing newer, easier to use pieces of gear so the kids don't have to work for it anymore.

There are pieces of software now that allow you to pull up an entire library of classic sounds...

And it's not even that, it's that it's not sacred anymore. It's not special. I bought this iMac laptop about three years ago, and for some reason it had amp modeling software on it. And I'm like, "I just bought this computer to check my emails, why is there Vox amp modeling on my laptop?"

When I was a kid I had a [Fender] Twin Reverb because I couldn't afford a Marshall yet, and I had to turn it up to 10 with a distortion pedal to try and get that sound. You had to work for your image too. You walked down the street with long hair and Spandex or leather pants on, you got your ass kicked! Now you can just go down to Hot Topic and buy the "rock star in a box" kit. It's all done for you.

So how did you go about putting the lineup together for Sex In Public?

It started out as being the MindfuckLetterman band.

It was kinda this crazy experimental jam band. And we kept doing it and it kept sounding better, so we decided to lay some tracks down, which became the Mindfuck record. Those guys left after that, and I had an old friend who I found on Facebook named Kato. We were best friends 25 years ago. His big brother is Al McKay from Earth, Wind and Fire, the original guitar player. I got this drummer Ryan Gio off Craigslist, and that's the current lineup.

We didn't really have a name for a while. I was listening to KCRW and they were talking about some band called Kissing In Public. And I remember going, "That's not a very good name, it should be Sex In Public!"

So I hear you have a pretty impressive guitar collection. How did that get started, and which of those guitars made it onto the record?

It's funny, when I was building my company Skin Candy I didn't even have any guitars -- I was DJing. When I was living in San Francisco I had become a drum 'n' bass and electronica DJ.

This collection didn't really start until 2007 or 2008, when I was just starting to make money with my company and could really start affording the gear. Unfortunately I started buying it at the peak of the pricing on vintage instruments, so they're worth about half of what they were when I originally bought them. [laughs]

A lot of them were guitars I wanted as a kid. When I was 12 I got my first Les Paul Standard, so I thought it'd be cool to start this collection of guitars I wanted as a kid.

The first one I got was a '71 Telecaster, which is on part of the song "Angel." And then I started in with the Les Pauls and got a couple of 1973 Standards that are really beat up and nice looking. After that, I got the Les Paul bug, but that kind of faded for me because of the weight and because you can't make it up to the higher frets as easy.

I do have one Les Paul that's really interesting, a black 1968 Custom. In '68 they only made 400 of them. The guitar is really light; it only weighs about 8.75 pounds, and I think that's because they had some of the wood left over from the late '50s.

I never played a [Gibson ES] 335 in my early days, and I had bought a '64 335 from a guy named Jay Rosen in San Francisco. I started plugging it in to these old Marshall 50 watts I had and playing it and it was just so much more of a resonant guitar. I thought, "If I can get this old piece of shit to stay in tune, I might have something!" [laughs]

  • I really kind of got the 335 bug after that and everything else kind of went to the side. I'd say most of the record was recorded with 335's. On "Dude," I've got a 1951 ES-5 on that song. It was the guitar Scotty Moore [Elvis Presley] played. It was a jumbo with three P90 pickups, so if you can imagine how that sounded through a Marshall stack!

I understand you also have a guitar that came in the same shipment as Eric Clapton's "Crossroads" guitars...

That's the red one from the "Friends" video. That was the first 335 I bought. The story there is when I got it, the guitar had no frets left on it, so I went to go have it re-fretted -- which I know a lot of collectors don't like to hear, but the difference between me and most collectors is that I actually play them and use them. So I got it re-fretted but I wans't very happy with it, it wasn't staying in great tune. I put it up for sale, and a couple of guys told me I should check the numbers on it because it was only 20 numbers away from Clapton's. And after I heard that I was like, "This guitar's going nowhere!" [laughs]

Talk a little bit about the recording process for the EP. Was it mostly analog or were you running Pro Tools?

Two of the songs were recorded in Pro Tools and then when we mixed it, we mixed it analog. We exported everything into a big Neve board.

The other two songs were actually from the Mindfuck record because my PR firm wanted me to put out an EP really fast. But they're all live performances; there was no drum programming going on. None of that funny business. Everything was done right there, two or three takes.

I come from the old-school ethics where if I can't have 2-inch tape I'm at least gonna do it in the first five takes or I'm not going to do it at all.

So you guys are working on a full-length. Any idea when that might surface?

Well, we have to start recording it first. [laughs]

I just picked out the songs I wanted. What happened was we had all the songs for the full-length -- there's two more to come, and I'm listening to the roughs right now and I don't like 'em, so I'm gonna junk 'em. We're going to do a couple of covers instead. We're going to do a remake of "Sarah's Smile" by Hall & Oates and "Strawberry Letter 23," originally by Shuggie Otis, but made famous by the Brothers Johnson.

How did the idea to do a Hall & Oates cover come about?

Yeah, how did that happen? [laughs] I like to take weird old songs I liked when I was a kid... I like melodic soul music, that's kind of my soft spot. I didn't always play hard rock. I just always liked the song song "Sarah's Smile." I was experimenting with some triads and I started wondering how the song would work if I added some classical nuances to it . Eventually I put a delay on it and did the choruses real heavy, and I thought, "Wow, that's interesting, I think I might do actually do it."

My attitude with cover songs is that if I can't do as good or better than the original, I don't even want to deal with it at all. When I approach them, I don't even listen to the song, I try to remember how the song sounded to me as a kid and then I play it how I remembered it. I'll do that for a few days then go back and listen to the original.

You show a pretty broad range of influences in your cover choices. Who are some of your biggest guitar influences?

I've got a list [laughs.] When I first started listening to music when I was a kid, I was very influenced by the early Elton John stuff, so I'd be remiss if I didn't put Davey Johnstone in there; Davey Johnston and Brian May for sure. Prince was a huge guitar influence on my funk playing. Another underrated played is Roger [Troutman] from Zapp. He played all of the instruments on his record.

Johnny Greenwood from Radiohead is a huge influence on me, for my modern playing. Elliott Smith. James Burton, Elvis' guitar player. Bootsy Collins, Duane Allman, Andy Scott from Sweet and George Benson.

Oh yeah, and Peter Frampton!

So coming full circle, you took a good deal of time off from rock 'n' roll. How did all that time off prepare you to do this band now?

Well, I never prepared to go back at all. [laughs] I got so caught up in the electronica world, doing breaks and house music; it's such a different scene. Spinning records -- when I first thought about it, I thought, "That's not music, that's just beats." And then when I started to do it, I realized the turntable is an instrument and it takes a lot of skills to do it. There's really no limit to what you can do with that.

As I was DJing, I had my guitar plugged in, and when I would do these big raves I would have a Marshall half stack and a guitar strapped around my back and I'd be soloing over certain parts that I felt were really heavy. And it was then that I started to think about maybe doing a band again, so maybe that kind of prepared me to go back into it a little bit.

The self-titled EP from Sex In Public is out now. Check out more from the band at their official website.

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Josh Hart

Josh Hart is a former web producer and staff writer for Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado magazines (2010–2012). He has since pursued writing fiction under various pseudonyms while exploring the technical underpinnings of journalism, now serving as a senior software engineer for The Seattle Times.