Today I’m really pleased to feature an interview with Mark Penington of neo-rockabilly, psychobilly band, The Caravans. They’ve been one of my favourite bands since The Klub Foot days and remain so to this day. Their albums No Excuses and No Mercy are definitely amongst my most played albums of all time.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Mark recently to chat about his longstanding musical career and The Caravans. However, publishing this interview is bittersweet as I have some really sad news about the band, but first, let’s go right back to the beginning.
When were you first aware of music? What was being played at home or amongst your friends?
My parents were involved in music as long as I remember. My dad was always in bands so from an early age I was exposed. They were listening to anything from jazz to bluegrass, rock n roll, folk, some rhythm n blues and a lot of country. Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Jim Reeves Willie Nelson, Cab Calloway Flatt n Scruggs, Bill Monroe Elvis, Chuck Berry Eddie.
My friends were listening to mostly pop music at the time but my interest was mainly underground stuff I was picking up on late night radio. I heard The Cramps one night and the Dead Kennedys. This piqued my interest. Similarly, another show was playing stuff like early Elvis, Vincent and some Eddie Cochran. This was blowing me away. I thought I’d discovered something!
At school, a friend of mine who was a mod, slipped me a cassette one day in social studies and told me that if I liked Eddie, Gene and Elvis, then this would shake me up a bit. It was Crazy Cavan Live at the Rainbow. I loved it and went on the search for more. I discovered Gina and the Rockin Rebels, Jonny and the Jail Birds, Flying Saucers, The Riot Rockers. They were all predominantly ted bands but playing some rockabilly tunes as well.
Who was the first band you saw?
The mod guy, can’t remember his name, introduced me to a girl called Marion who was a couple of years older than me. She seemed to know everything about the rock ‘n’ roll scene as it was back then. I was fascinated and when she invited me to a gig in Northampton one Saturday night, I jumped at it. I was only 15 at the time so it wasn’t a given that I’d get in. I’m glad I did.
On the bill that night were The Polecats, Blue Cat Trio, The Jets and The Rambling Kats, who later became Coast To Coast, all using upright bass. I was totally blown away by what I saw and heard. I knew I had to have and learn to play one.
A year later I’d saved every penny from as many paper rounds as I could and bought one and started my first band The Cradle Rockers with guys I knew from school.
When did you start playing? Do you prefer bass or guitar?
I first started playing guitar at the age of 5 or 6, irritating my parents trying to emulate Chuck Berry riffs. I started on the double bass at 16. I loved both equally and still do.
How did you start the Caravans?
Cradle Rockers was my first band. I was in a band called The Jesters with Rough Diamonds legend Paul Owen Dawkins. We wanted different things so amicably we split. He started the Kingbeats and I started The Caravans.
I was just playing bass to start with and we had a guitarist/singer called Andy Brown. Two weeks before our first gig he quit. We were so excited about our first gig. Pete Crawley suggested that I sang and played bass as I’d written most of the stuff and chosen what covers we did. He knew a guitarist who was pretty good, 14 year old Bob Cat Taylor. The gig went well so they talked me into staying with the vocals and bass. I’d seen Ray Cotton and Dave Phillips do this so I was in good company.
You played a handful of times at The Klub Foot, and appear on the live CDs and DVD, do you have any special memories from there?
It seemed at one point we were at the Klub Foot every other show, with Restless, Batmobile, the Batz.
All memories from those days were special, we were playing to a lot of people every time and most of the bands were top notch. I didn’t really think about it at the time but looking back you know most bands would have given anything to do what we and all the other Klub foot bands were creating back then. Proud to be part of that movement that spring boarded a scene that is still alive today.
Is it right that your first album, Easy Money, didn’t come out until 1988?
You know I found a fan letter when I was clearing out my studio the other day dated 1987 saying they had bought the album some time ago and were we planning any more releases. I don’t know but I thought it was released around ‘86.
The More Whiskey EP and the Gypsy Girl comp came out round about that time too. Looking back it all seemed to happen around the same time. It was a long time ago though!
Since then you’ve had a prolific single and album output, can you tell us what inspires you to write, and what the songwriting and recording process is for The Caravans?
Life, I guess is the inspiration for the most part, books I’ve read, people I’ve met, my overactive vivid imagination. I normally don’t have a particular process of writing, some just come and I’ll pick up the guitar and start piecing it together Some just appear, like No Mercy – it took 5 minutes to write (the song not the album!).
The recording process is pretty much the same as most bands. We do a live take of the song, keep what works and tweak the rest. We normally keep the drums and bass, then drop the guitars and vocals on afterwards, trying to keep it as live as possible.
Your first release was on the Nervous label. You have had releases on other labels over the years, and your last album, Gasoline & Gunfire (A True Story) was with Western Star. Apart from Alan’s reputation and experience, what made you go with Western Star this time rather than releasing it from your own studio?
I’ve worked with Alan on and off over the years and always enjoyed the experience. We normally spend more time chatting and having a laugh, but we always got the job done with good results. Alan’s studio is pro level and I wanted to see what the results would be with two heads rather that one and get a different perspective. We were more than happy with the results.
And what’s the true story mentioned in the title?
Exactly that. Gasoline and Gunfire is a true story. There’s a snippet in the inside cover, have a read!
As I said my favourite albums are No Excuses and No Mercy. The style is very different on each, but both still have a classic Caravans feel to them. Has your sound evolved naturally or did you consciously decide to move in a different direction? Do you have a favourite?
Yeah, I think our sound has evolved naturally. Less Smoke and No Mercy were a representation of what was going on with the band at the time. I had Craig Boyd on guitar and he bought a different approach with him. I like the songs from that time, but I didn’t record them at my place and the engineers were from a different background. It is what it was back then. We’re back to a three-piece now so I guess the sound will reflect that.
The Caravans line-up has changed over the years with it being a 3, 4 and 5 piece band but it’s been you, Lee and Choppy since when?
Both twenty years or so, long time anyway.
You’ve been labelled neo-rockabilly and psychobilly. Do you feel you fit more into one than the other? Have the gigs differed much between scenes?
No, we are privileged to have been able to play both. Technically, I guess in literal terms, we would be labelled neo-rockabilly, but to me were a rock n roll band influenced by rockabilly, psychobilly and some punk.
You’ve played and travelled all over the world, any favourites, memorable ones or any places you wish you’d been able to play at? Do you know how many shows you’ve played in total?
No idea in total, thousands.
I would have liked to go to Australia to play.
Favourite show? So many – Knitting Factory in LA; small club in Belgium one Friday night before a festival in Brussels, can’t remember the name; Pineda/Calella always great fun to play; the last time we played the Satanic Stomp was epic.
I will never forget the show we did at The Hemsby Rock n Roll Weekender. Someone who shall remain nameless, rang me before we went, to say you must play your early stuff and not your more progressive stuff. Anyway, we’d planned to keep it that way until later when I asked the audience what they wanted to hear. Several shouts for Dinosaurs and No Mercy. So we did, and the place went up. Willy Jeffries stood backstage white as a sheet. When we came off, he politely asked What the fuck was that? “The Caravans” I answered.
I believe you got offered a part in the London stage show, Million Dollar Quartet, but turned it down because you wouldn’t be able to play your own music?
Yeah, I got to the point where the agent had me go to meet the producer. I sat on the end of my bed on the morning of the appointment, and just thought nope! The show was scheduled to run for two years. I was busy with The Racketeers and The Caravans, plus a few other side projects that would all have had to stop so I text them to say I wasn’t coming.
You’ve been in other bands though. You played upright bass for Guana Batz for a couple of years and appeared on the 1994 Get Around album. I know you wrote several of the songs and I feel that the whole album has a strong “Caravans” feel to it. How did your part in the band come about and anything you can tell us about your time in the Batz?
I was in the Batz for a few years can’t remember exactly. The album Get Around – We were due to tour Japan and they wanted an album to promote while we were there. Stuart rang me and asked if I had any songs. All I had was stuff that was destined for the album Straightside, so that’s what happened. We didn’t have time to start from scratch. I really wish we’d had time, that album would have been so different, it’s a shame.
You’ve been in other bands too – 56 Killers, Racketeers, any others?
Full Metal Racket
Depped with a few too.
And now on to the sad bit. The “Why Don’t You Just Rock” gig at The Irish Centre, Birmingham on 8th June 2019 was your last ever gig as The Caravans. Can you tell us a bit about why you have to stop?
Yeah, I’m really sad about it and even now I’m wondering if I made the right decision. I know I have from where I was before the show.
I have a severed nerve in my neck that is not repairable. This nerve is trapped between c5 and c6 vertebrae and controls the muscle that operates the right arm. It’s really hard work to play and sometimes it gives up completely, like in the middle of a tune. Barcelona recently with the Batz was particularly bad, and one recently at a show in Belgium. We were headlining, and I just couldn’t play for 5-10 minutes, not good for the audience, not good for us.
I think it’s best we go out with good memories of good gigs, rather than to gradually grind to a halt.
I don’t want to end on a sad note, I know you have your own studio and have produced other bands, will you do more of that, or do you have any other musical plans? What’s next for Mark Penington?
Yeah, my studio is my main priority now and I will continue to write and record. I’m still playing with The 56 Killers occasionally. Hopefully now I’ll have a bit more time to get out and about to some gigs, so I’ll see some of you out on the road in the future.
Anything else you want to add, Mark?
just to say thanks to all the people who have supported us at the gigs, festivals, tours and shows over the years, to those who have bought the records and continue to keep the faith, we salute you. We’ve had a great time doing it meeting the people, the promoters, and record labels.
As a fan, I am gutted, but I totally understand and am grateful that The Caravans have been able to continue to play as long as they have. I feel so privileged to have seen them many, many times from right back to the Klub Foot days to parties and gigs more recently. They’ve certainly done themselves proud with their recordings, live shows, and for their contribution to the scene for over 4 decades. Quite an achievement.
Huge thanks to Mark for this interview, and to all the Vans past and present for the fun times and the music.
Mark’s son, Sam Penington has played in The Caravans many times and is now giving drum lessons, including Skype options. Give him a shout if you’re interested.