It’s been a tough couple of years for Philadelphia-based rockers Marah. In 2000, the band followed their 1998 debut album, Let’s Cut The Crap and Hook Up Later on Tonight, with the critically acclaimed Kids In Philly (released on Steve Earle’s E-Squared label), an infectious mix of folk, country, R&B and rag-tag Replacements-esque rock that quickly put the band on the map and found a place in the hearts of scores of rock critics worldwide. None other than Bruce Springsteen championed the quartet, and High Fidelity author Nick Hornby put “My Heart is the Bums on the Street” at number three on his list of “Songs I Could Not Live Without.” Even hard-to-impress uber-critic Greil Marcus raved about the band. Things were definitely looking up for Marah.

But when the Kids In Philly tour ended, Marah, disillusioned, found themselves in the same state as many other critics’ darlings. “We were broke,” says lead singer and guitarist David Bielanko, speaking from his current home in Brooklyn, NY. “Critics liked us but we didn’t seem to be reaching people–so we got a little bit angry and said, ‘Fuck it, we’re going to do a roller skating rink record,’” he recalls. Frustrated and unable to find inspiration in their beloved Philadelphia, Marah, now down to David and his brother Serge, split town and finished up writing songs in Kilkinney, Ireland.

When it came time to record the follow up to Kids in Philly, the Bielankos put together a shortlist of producers with Owen Morris, the man behind the board for Oasis’ biggest-selling records, near the top. The only snag was that Morris wasn’t particularly keen on working with American artists. Undaunted, the Bielankos sent him a CD of their new songs, along with a handwritten note of introduction. In it, the brothers promised to pour numerous pints of Morris’ favorite draft down his throat upon triumphant completion of their new record. Morris, charmed by the Bielankos’ audacity (he’d originally thought the whole package was an elaborate prank courtesy of the Irish band Ash), agreed to a meeting. A quick two-song demo session proved that the alliance could work; the Bielankos, with current drummer John Kois and bassist Jamie Mahon in tow, headed for Wales to record.

“We got rid of our earthly possessions and took our bags over there with the intention of making a record and seeing where the music would take us,” says Bielanko. The band threw themselves wholeheartedly into recording what would become Float Away With the Friday Night Gods. “We tried to keep the artistic part of ourselves very much intact… we slaved over the songs on that record. Then when it came to producing them we said, ‘Owen, make it sound like a video game.’ That’s what we wanted, and that’s what we did,” he says, laughing.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t what most of Marah’s fans or critics wanted from the band. On first listen, Float Away (released in mid-2002 on Artemis Records) was a little confusing. Gone were just about all of the folk, blues and country elements that made Kids In Philly so endearing, replaced by a massive, very modern-sounding wall of raging guitars, huge drums and lush keyboards. Yet underneath the hi-tech production were a slew of top-notch pop songs–songs that could easily have found a place on commercial radio.

A misunderstood album? “Absolutely,” says Bielanko when asked about the initial reaction to Float Away. “I think we both feel sort of shark-like, in forward motion,” he says, speaking for both Bielankos. “I don’t think too much thought goes into, ‘What are we supposed to do?’ If we keep doing what we’re doing and we’re good at it, then we’ll be cool. I think we’ll make other misunderstood records. We’re just that kind of people.”

Marah, now free agents after parting ways with Artemis, are putting the final touches on a new self-produced album, tentatively titled 20,000 Streets Under the Sky. “It feels like we’re making the record we always wanted to make,” Bielanko says of the band’s decision to not wait for a record deal before entering the studio. “A big, urban, symphonic, Phil Spector-esque rock ‘n’ roll record.”

Without the backing of a record label, the brothers are in the precarious position of being full-time musicians without full-time incomes. “It’s a trade-off between life and art,” says Bielanko. “I’m still extremely passionate about this, and I think as long as we–as players–are fulfilled on some level, I’ll chase it wherever it leads.”

In August, “it” led the Bielankos to New Jersey’s Giants Stadium, where they found themselves onstage playing with their longtime hero and Marah fan Springsteen. “It was crazy cool,” says Bielanko, struggling to find the right words. “Sixty-five thousand people; it’s hard to describe something like that… waiting backstage to go on with the E-Street Band.”

The Bielankos’ relationship with The Boss goes back a few years. Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh had turned him onto the band at the time of Kids In Philly‘s release, and the brothers and Bruce have kept in contact ever since. The Bielankos got Springsteen to play a scorching guitar solo on Float Away’s title track. “It was pretty amazing,” says Bielanko of recording Springsteen. “It seemed pretty surreal, like, ‘Stupid kid wins MTV contest’ or something. I’m hanging out with Bruce, telling him how to play guitar solos.”

They even got Bruce to sing a little. “We cut him playing guitar,” says Bielanko. “And then we went down to the bar and we were drinking a couple beers and we were like, ‘Would you give it a whirl–singing it?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll sing it.’ We went back to the studio, hooked up a mic and we were like, ‘Nah, not like that, sing it like this,’” says Bielanko, laughing.

Not wanting to mount a full-band tour before they’ve completed their new record, the Bielankos have embarked on a low-key, acoustic trek, which will see the brothers augmented by an auxiliary instrumentalist along with former Blue Mountain leader and show opener Cary Hudson (Hudson issued Let’s Cut The Crap… on his label, Black Dog Records).”This will be the most stripped-down thing we’ve ever done, where it’s just you and the song,” says Bielanko.

And in the end, that’s what it all comes down to for Marah. “What’s keeping this band alive is the songs,” Bielanko says.

He’s quick to point out a couple of other things that keep Marah going. “Urgency and desperation,” he says, laughing. “That’s the only shit I know that works for us. There’s something about the struggle that I’m so used to that I don’t know what I would do if it was gone.”