Meat and two: Porkchop, center, with drummer Doug Bales, left, and bassist Travis Kilgore, right, comprise Mark “Porkchop” Holder and MPH. This shot was taken after a recent gig at the Bayport, Minnesota’s Bayport Barbecue—an underground blues mecca. Photo by Peter Lee
The term “the blues” can mean several things: a style of music, a sense of being downtrodden or neglected, a feeling of melancholy or impending doom. Mark “Porkchop” Holder is intimately familiar with all three of these definitions—perhaps more than he would like to be—but that serves him well on the debut album with his new band MPH, Let It Slide.
In fact, Holder has soldiered through such a mean case of the blues that the very existence of Let It Slide, which is credited only to him on its cover, is something of a miracle. Just a few years ago, Holder, who is open about his struggles with mental illness and addiction, spent roughly a year living in the woods of Northern California in an RV with no electricity or running water, feeling too paranoid to interact with anyone.
But after some months in a psychiatric hospital regaining his bearings, Holder reemerged, revitalized and ready to bring his music to the world again. In April 2016, he began to record Let It Slide, and the results were so powerful that a few months later he signed a deal with Alive Naturalsound Records, a respected independent label that’s been home to a wide range of top-shelf artists, from the Black Keys and T-Model Ford to the Plimsouls and Beachwood Sparks.
Originally from Chattanooga and residing there now, Holder—the son of a 20-year Navy man who became a Baptist preacher—lived all over the South growing up. He started making waves in Nashville in the mid-aughts when he was playing in the punk-blues outfit Black Diamond Heavies. (The band continued as a two-piece after Holder left in 2006, and are currently Holder’s label mates on Alive.) All the while he was immersing himself in the blues canon, studying legends such as Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, John Lee Hooker, and others. For a couple years, Holder spent most of his days busking in Nashville’s Lower Broadway tourist district, perfecting his skills as a solo performer.
Let It Slide marks the first time since his Black Diamond Heavies days that Holder has dedicated himself to the band format, after years of predominantly performing solo. He enlisted Chattanooga-area music scene veterans Travis Kilgore on bass and Doug Bales on drums, both of whom play on the record and have been touring with Holder.
Holder’s recent struggles provided fodder for one of the album’s strongest tracks, “Disappearing,” the lyrics of which Holder wrote on a napkin while he was in the hospital, gravely ill and longing for a visit from the woman he’d been seeing. The lyrics paint a haunting picture of a man at the end of his rope: “They say that all things must pass / Well I hope that it’s my time at last / Come and see me child, I’m fading fast / Disappearing, carry me away.” A propulsive drumbeat creates a sense of urgency, as does Holder’s guitar work, which features a lot of flat-fifths that heighten the sense of doom.
“My Black Name” is a classic blues lyric about dealing with a bad reputation—and not giving a damn what other folks think. It features the nastiest guitar tone on the album, reminiscent of some of Dan Auerbach’s sounds with the Black Keys.
Holder lays down some of his finest guitar work on “Headlights.” He channels a little bit of both Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, and with some cowbell in there to boot, the track sounds like a nod to vintage early-’70s Stones. Holder’s reimagining of the popular folk tale “Stagger Lee,” meanwhile, leans toward classic Zeppelin—particularly the reverb-drenched harmonica parts, which he also plays.
Although Holder used his National Tricone Baritone on Let It Slide, he travels with the less-rarified Fender Squier Bass VI, which he plays on the album’s cover photo, to generate low and ferocious slide tones in concert.
Let It Slide is not only an incendiary debut from a budding blues-rock force, but a moving testament to one man’s triumph over some very formidable personal demons. Holder recently took time while touring the Northwest to speak by phone with Premier Guitar about the new record, his musical evolution, and his internal battles.
Where did you record Let It Slide?
I recorded it at a studio in Chattanooga called Tiny Buzz, owned and operated by a fellow named Mike Pack. He’s an old friend. He was the engineer on the first Black Diamond Heavies duo album—the two-piece album they did when they got signed to Alive. He’s a great producer and engineer. He coproduced.
You’ve played solo for a while. How long has it been since you played with a band?
I’ve been playing by myself for years. I’ve done occasional things with a rhythm section. It’s funny … these two guys—Travis Kilgore and Doug Bales—had not played together, but each one of them had played with me separately prior to doing this album.
How’s the tour been going?
Really well. We’ve really enjoyed the shows. We’ve had a really nice time playing major cities—Los Angeles, Seattle and all that—but at the same time we played a gig the other night on an island that has 2,000 people on it in Puget Sound. Rode the ferry out there and played for those folks.