(Welcome to tbt*'s 2014 Ultimate Local Music Guide! All week we're spotlighting 10 of our favorite local artists of the past year. Today: Singer-songwriter Mark Etherington of RedFeather, Set and Setting and Mountain Holler.)
By his own admission, Mark Etherington is no bluesman. So it's surprising to hear how influential he considers Jack White.
"From Jack White, really, I learned how to play chords, and the beauty of the blues," he said. "I'm not a blues guitar player, but I love Delta blues."
The two singer-songwriters have something else in common. Like the former White Stripe, Raconteur and Dead Weatherman, Etherington has carved out a unique identity in the local music scene, balancing roles in not one, not two but three popular acts.
He is one of two drummers in Set and Setting, a complex, instrumental post-metal group that's received national notice. He sings and plays guitar in his own harmonic indie-folk-rock band, RedFeather. And when all his other bandmates are busy, he performs solo under the moniker Mountain Holler.
Each of these projects merits attention in its own right; the fact that Etherington juggles all three at once — sometimes even at the same event — is proof of his 24/7 commitment to creativity.
"Who I am when I drum is way different from who I am when I play guitar, because it's two different physical and mental channels," Etherington said. "Playing guitar and singing is something that I had to mature into, because I had to get better at playing guitar, I had to get better at songwriting. ... It's just two totally different sides of my brain."
Originally from Connecticut, Etherington picked up the drumsticks at 10, eventually playing jazz, on a drumline and in a '60s blues-rock trio called Strange Brew ("It was pretty rad. All the dads liked us.") After moving to Florida, he met Set and Setting guitarist Shane Handal in middle school, though they didn't play together until college.
"The first time we ever played, three people knocked on our garage door, opened it and were like, 'Hey, just want to let you know, it sounds really good,'" Etherington recalls. "I looked out the window at one point, and there was a cop car out there, and there were two cops on the trunk. I was like, 'Oh, man...' I went out there, they turned around, and were like, 'Why'd you guys stop?' They'd been sitting there for 25 minutes, just listening to us play. So I knew it was something special."
Etherington said Set and Setting has been, and remains, his top musical priority; the group is finishing its second album and plotting a national tour for later this summer. But a few years ago, he began to explore additional outlets.
He had played guitar since age 12, but didn't think he was a good enough singer to go it alone. After playing a few open mics at USF St. Pete, he was asked to perform for the web video series St. Pete Beat, for which he called himself Mountain Holler, a name borrowed from Save-A-Lot's generic twist on Mountain Dew. That went well, so he kept it up, booking solo shows around town.
Eventually, he realized he wanted to hear his songs backed by a full band.
"Every RedFeather song up until the past three months has started out as a Mountain Holler song," Etherington said. "I've definitely written a lot of songs that I think are great Mountain Holler songs, but would never transcend to RedFeather, because no one wants to listen to an eight-minute-long ballad with RedFeather. It's a little more rocking."
RedFeather has a new lineup in 2014, and Etherington said that for the first time, they're all writing and recording music together. "That's all I ever wanted to be a part of as a guitar player and singer, was to be part of a band that we all cohesively work on, for the pure reason of making a good song."
Playing in three musical acts — not to mention holding down a day job at Hooker Tea Company in St. Petersburg — is a massive time commitment. "Monday through Thursday, it's either practice, recording or shows, and then Thursday through Sunday it's usually shows," Etherington said. "I booked myself, one time, five shows in three days. People were like, 'Dude, you're nuts.' I'm like, 'Yeah, but I wanna do it.'"
He gets most excited to play festivals, often in multiple time slots. Various combinations of Set and Setting, RedFeather and Mountain Holler have shared festival bills at some point, with Etherington jiggering his schedule to make it all work.
"Honestly, going to a bar on a Wednesday night to play music doesn't excite me," he said. "Going to play a festival that I've been waiting six months to play, for 20 minutes ... that excites me. And that excitement, I believe, transcends to my set. It's totally worth it."
Etherington will perform as Mountain Holler at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Local 662 in St. Petersburg as part of tbt*'s Ultimate Local Music Showcase. Later that night, he and RedFeather will perform at Green Bench Brewing Company in St. Petersburg. Set and Setting's next show is May 2 at Octave in St. Petersburg.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*