Mark Sundermeier was driving home late one night in September 2011 from the Toad Tavern, where he was serving as talent buyer, when a semi ran his car off the highway. He can’t remember the accident at all — nor can he remember the two days before it. He slipped into a coma and woke up a month and a half later in the hospital. But his ordeal was far from over. The right side of his rib cage was destroyed, and doctors wanted him to heal before waking up. He was placed into an induced coma. In total, he was in the hospital for four and a half months recovering from multiple injuries.
“The whole right side of my upper body is fake,” Sundermeier says today. “All my right-side ribs, shoulder and scapula are metal.”
The road to recovery was a painful one. The right side of his body was useless. He couldn’t use his arm, and had to learn how to talk again. His long-term memory was okay, but his short-term memory was nonexistent.
“I would space shit out from day to day,” he says. “I had this whole program at home that was color-based.”
Part of Sundermeier’s healing process involved going to physical therapy five days a week for two years, but he also began working through the aftermath of the accident by writing songs. Just over a year after the crash, Sundermeier reached out to Kirk Schneider, the lead guitarist for Sad Star Cafe, the rock band that Sundermeier had started in 1999 and fronted until 2003, when he left to form the Trampolines. He told his former bandmate that he had a batch of songs he wanted to use for a solo album, and he wanted Schneider to play on them.
While they were working on some pre-demos for the songs, Schneider said he thought that some of the material would work well with Sad Star Cafe. They talked about it for a week, Sundermeier recalls, and at one point, Schneider suggested that they look up the rest of the band to see if they were into the idea of playing together again. Schneider and brothers Todd and Scott Renick, who played guitar and bass in the band, respectively, had gone on to form the Tex-Mex act Däs Borrachos after Sad Star Cafe folded.
Schneider invited everyone, including drummer Grant Bolinger, to his house to listen to Sundermeier’s new songs.
“It was hard for me to be patient,” Sundermeier says, “because at one point, I was really going to pursue making this album as a solo album. But Kirk really stepped it up and got the band guys back around, and we had one or two or three practices, and it just felt like no time had ever gone by.”
While that got the ball rolling for what would be Sad Star Cafe’s first album since 2001’s Happy, the band also played two reunion shows in 2013 and one last year, all of them sold-out performances.
“It was wonderful,” Sundermeier says of the reunion shows. “I didn’t have to push it too much. I was really blown away at how the people who liked that band in the first place — all of them came out of the woodwork; they never really went anywhere. It felt really nice to not have to treat this as some brand-new thing — ‘Hey, I know all these people like the Trampolines, or maybe some of you remember this band.’ That’s how I was looking at it, but everyone was like, ‘Are you kidding? We totally remember this band.’”
The bandmembers have spent the past three years working on the album, titled Sad Star Cafe; they’ll celebrate its release on Friday, July 17, at the Oriental Theater, where Sundermeier recently took a position as national talent buyer after nearly two decades of booking shows at the Soiled Dove, the Walnut Room and the Toad Tavern.
Sundermeier says the project took so long because everyone in the band is older now, and three of the guys are rocket scientists whose jobs require them to travel a lot. Sundermeier wrote most of the songs on the record; three were co-written with Schneider.
“The material was all stuff that I’d written within the year after being in that car wreck,” Sundermeier says. “I’m just really excited, because this album, for me, was a lot of shit I needed to get off my chest from that nasty wreck and all of the garbage and bullshit that I went through with it; that’s really what this album is all about. It’s admittedly a step or two heavier than the last Sad Star disc, but I’m very proud of it.”
He says Sad Star Cafe feels a lot more personal than the band’s previous two recordings — 1999’s Memoirs From, which he says was all over the map stylistically (“it moves from Steely Dan to Dream Theater to fucking Lit”), and Happy, which was very successful and pressed many times over.
“This album feels a lot more personal to me because of the things that have happened in my life over the last few years,” he says. “I think some of the anger and some of the things that I felt pent up with it certainly reflects in this material.”
Two of the songs — “The District of Me” and “Déjà Vu” — are both clearly about the accident. “I would say a lot of lyrical content throughout the album is somewhat loosely based around that whole time frame,” Sundermeier continues. “Those two songs in particular are most clearly about it. ‘Déjà Vu’ is about me getting my memory back and things coming back to me. ‘The District of Me’ is about all the things that I’ve done in my life leading up to being in that car wreck and barely making it out of that situation, and how my life has changed from it.”
He says the accident physically put about fifteen years on him and has changed everything for him. “I really had to clean up my act and get away from partying, like, altogether,” he says. “I don’t do that now. I go on hikes. Every single day, I go hike up a mountain somewhere.”
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And if he needed a soundtrack for those hikes, Sad Star’s high-octane new disc could get him pumped up.
“There are some songs on this album — not that they’re metal, but there are some tunes on this album that are three steps heavier than anything I’ve ever written and recorded,” he says. “I think that the album is certainly more of a hard-rock record, but I also feel more connected to it than some things I’ve done in the past.”
Sonically, it’s a muscular album, thanks in part to Dave Otero, who’s known internationally by metal bands and who mastered it, and Kyle Zender, who mixed it. The disc also features Chris Speasmaker, keyboard player with the Congress, and Erica Brown, who sings on the Black Crowes-like cut “Down to the Water.”
It’s been a traumatic couple of years for Sundermeier, but, he says, “I’m really excited to be able to come out with a new record, and hopefully do this thing and do it as well as we did it before.”