Ambulance LTD's Marcus Congleton with Grant Moser
To call NYC-based Ambulance LTD unstable would be an understatement. Guitarist/lead singer Marcus Congleton has watched a procession of bandmates come and go, with everyone but Congleton himself eventually packing it in. Somehow, in the midst of all this, the band and its first album (2004’s LP) have remained popular, but after four years, people have started wondering when (or if) they could expect more.
Grant Moser (The Brooklyn Rail): What happened to Ambulance?
Marcus Congleton:What happened was that we didn’t start the band together. I started doing this with two guys [Michael Di Liberto and Dave Longstreth] years and years ago, and we went through a bunch of lineup changes as I was signing to TVT. We basically hired some guys to help finish recording the album and go on tour with the prospect of maybe working on the next album and writing together. It just didn’t work out that way. It wasn’t really made to last from the beginning.
I didn’t know how or if I wanted to keep doing the band. I didn’t know how I wanted the new songs to sound. So I went to L.A., and I got the chance to work with a number of producers out there, including [original Velvet Underground member] John Cale. Some good songs came out of it, but I was hoping that just by doing that, by going out there and meeting some people and getting some studio time, that I would get direction and inspiration. But it didn’t really happen that way. I basically came back to New York last spring with a bunch of songs but not quite ready to go yet.
So I started playing with these guys who were mostly my old friends. They used to be in this band called the Nook. A couple of them even played briefly in Ambulance a few years ago. So it was just getting together with my friends and trying to find a common point of reference, something we were excited about to start doing. That took a few months. More than a few months.
Rail: Sounds like the old line-up shifted around a lot.
Congleton: From the beginning there was probably like ten to twelve people in the band. With me being the only constant.
Rail: You wrote the songs for Ambulance?
Congleton: I wrote all the songs.
Rail: Your former bandmates left to form a band called the Red Romance. Have you heard any of their music?
Rail: Is this a sore subject?
Congleton: No, no. They’re doing what they’re doing.
Rail:How is it with your new bandmates?
Congleton: There’s more collaboration now. The guys from the Nook have a lot of input, and one of them [Xander McMahon] sings with me a lot.
Rail: Will fans hear something familiar?
Congleton: If people liked the last album, they’ll like this one. Maybe even love it. But the familiarity, I don’t know. If you love My Bloody Valentine, there’s less of that. It’s less shoegazing. Whatever the points of reference were on the old record, it’s changed here. I got into a lot of different stuff in L.A. I started listening to bands like Neu! and Kraftwerk—that sparse, angular kind of thing. And also like Sly and the Family Stone and the Beta Band. I got obsessed with all these different things. The essential writing, the way I’m singing, is similar, but the music behind rocks, it’s funky.
Rail: Why didn’t you go solo? Why did you keep Ambulance?
Congleton: Ambulance gets guarantees at clubs. It’s money. I wish there was a more poetic reason, but I put all the work into making the name into something. And we’re playing old Ambulance songs. They’re all my songs.
Rail: You’ve written new songs. You’re going on tour. Is there an expectation for a release?
Congleton: I can only do what I’m told. I can’t dictate how the music is released because a lot of different people want a lot of different things. I’ve got this contractual obligation that they [TVT] may or may not be able to fulfill.
Rail: But since you’ve written songs in the meantime that they don’t own, couldn’t you release an album through somebody else?
Rail: Because you’re still under contract with TVT?
Congleton: Yeah. They might try and sell the company, who knows what they’re doing to do. But they still own my contract.
Rail:So even though you’re writing new stuff you can’t release it anywhere else.
Congleton: Maybe I can put it up on MySpace or something. But I can’t put out a record. It’s frustrating. I never thought signing a deal would actually hamstring me.
Rail: How long is the deal for?
Congleton: My natural life, pretty much. Lots of records. 6. 5. More than I’ll probably make.
Rail: There’s a lot of influences in the songs you write. What did you grow up with?
Congleton: My favorite band is the Doors. But obviously I could never sing like Jim Morrison. In high school, I started playing in my own band and writing songs. I was doing ska, punk rock, and some rockabilly. More of that “fringe” stuff. I had this ska band when I was a sophomore in high school and we were playing bars at night, opening for Pietasters and Let’s Go Bowling. I can’t tell you how cool that was.
Rail: Tell me about working with John Cale.
Congleton: I’d been listening to his solo albums and been getting into how he uses strings. He’s a great arranger, sort of classical kind of arrangements. I thought it might be some direction I could go in. We ended up doing fifteen or sixteen songs together. That went over a couple months.
He’s a weird guy. He’s eccentric. He’s fucking funny. I had all kind of ideas on how he would be, and I showed up to meet him at Starbucks and he’s wearing pink board shorts with his hair dyed calico: black, white, orange, blond, little bits of pink. We hit it off over rap music. He’s really into it. So we started talking about if we could get any sound elements of it into Ambulance’s music. He’s really interested in [rap] for the production value of it. He hears new shit in there because it’s not as stagnant as rock music. I mean, rap albums have new sounds and new production things going on all the time. It’s a faster-changing thing.
Rail: How was L.A?
Congleton: I felt like it was some sort of rehab. It was nice weather. I loved it there, but I love it here. I’d much rather live here. I kind of like how New York time doesn’t go by as quickly, it’s a little more tense. L.A. seemed like I could spend ten years there and not even realize it. I was so lazy there. Drive and get groceries, take a nap in the afternoon, go swimming. It’s too easy.
Rail: Where did the name Ambulance come from and why is there an LTD on it?
Congleton: Those two dudes from Ohio [Michael and Dave]—the guys I lived with in Spanish Harlem—they moved here from Cleveland with the idea for the name. And then I met them and they sort of recruited me to play bass for them. And then I started gradually playing guitar and writing the songs. We were gigging around a little bit, and when we started to get a little bit of attention, some other band contacted us saying they owned the name. We already had been noticed as Ambulance, so we didn’t want to change it. And we didn’t really have any great ideas for other names. So we thought, Like Charlatans UK? For whatever reason, the LTD stuff was what we went with. I never liked it, I hate how it sounds, but now people know it and some people even call us LTD.
Rail: What do you do during the days?
Congleton: Most days me and Xander get together and tinker around on GarageBand [the free music composition and recording program for Apple computers], sing songs. And then we get the full band together as often as possible. But that’s not more than a couple of times during the week at most. So we brainstorm during the day. You know, I get up around noon, watch some Mets preseason baseball.
Rail: So the life of a rock star still pays all right?
Congleton: Diminishing returns. But I own the publishing for the last record, so I’ve been fortunate enough to get a few commercial placements and stuff like that.
Rail: Like DKNY.
Congleton: Yeah, they gave me this watch. It’s broken, but I’m wearing it
Grant Moser is an art writer and frequent contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.