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LaMarca pens quiet, intense album with ‘Petra’

Petra means many things to Anthony LaMarca.

It’s the name of the German shepherd LaMarca and his wife, Megan, have. The Youngstown musician, a 2017 Grammy winner for best rock album as a member of The War on Drugs, also chose it as the name of his latest album, released under the band name The Building.

PETRA also is an acronym meaning “Peace’s Eternal Truth Renews All,” which became the closing song on the album and a unifying closing statement for a collection of quiet, personal songs that illuminate more universal truths.

LaMarca recorded the album, released earlier this month on Concord Records, at Youngstown’s Peppermint Studios, where he talked about the album last week in advance of a national tour that starts Saturday with a hometown show at Westside Bowl.

In the middle of recording “Petra,” LaMarca, 32, had a relapse of multiple myeloma, a cancer that grows in white blood cells. He first was diagnosed with the disease while making the last Building album, “Reconciliation,” but it had been in remission. Work continued on the record while he underwent weekly chemotherapy sessions. That experience is illustrated in the simple, haunting video for “Purifier,” a four-minute single shot of LaMarca sitting in a sterile room with an IV attached to his arm.

“I knew I wanted to put out that song first,” LaMarca said. “It just seemed kind of natural. That’s what that song is about, dealing with that fear of sitting in that chair and dealing with this illness, trying to overcome that fear and make peace with it. I borrowed a friend’s camera, and my wife shot me sitting there.”

LaMarca decided to make the best of a bad situation.

“Now I have to sit there for a couple hours with this thing in my arm. ‘Oh, great.’ But at the same time, it’s what you’ve got to do. What are you going to do about it? For me it was a cool way to have a couple hours to myself. I can’t be anywhere else, so let me work. I’m going to make a record while I’m here. I’m going to design the album cover.”

LaMarca said he was inspired to create an acronym out of the Petra’s name by Megan, who created the acronym LEAD (Love Energy Attention Direction) about the things she needed to focus on before doing anything with the dog.

“It was a musical idea that kind of started to tie everything together,” LaMarca said. “This record is about this idea, amidst all this conflict and chaos in our life, just me and her trying to find peace and some stability, and our dog has been a huge part of that. We got her right before I was originally diagnosed, and she was a big part of keeping me from being too down about stuff.

“OK, things are insane and crazy. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next day, the next month. That’s fine, but she needs to go to the park, she needs to go for a walk, she needs to have her routine, and that forces that routine on me, which has been massively therapeutic. Every morning we walk around Austintown Park for an hour, seeing the seasons change and enjoying some quiet time. It’s a good way to start the day.”

That attitude imbues the songs, which clearly are inspired by LaMarca’s experiences over the last 18 months but also speak to the broader topic of eliminating conflict in one’s life.

“We have a president who is fueled by conflict in everything he does, and that affects everybody. Whether you agree with the president or not, it’s not a good thing to have your main source of communication be conflict. And it’s not just on a political level. Everyone has a family member where everything has to be a fight with this person.

“This is putting something out in the world where you’re encouraging seeking peace rather than seeking conflict or taking conflict and trying to work through it.”

LaMarca played most of the instruments on “Petra” with a nylon-string acoustic guitar as the dominant, unifying sound. The result is an album that pulls the listener in with a whisper and demands attention.

Peppermint Recording Studios owner Gary Rhamy served as engineer on “Petra” and recalled those early sessions.

“These definitely weren’t songs where you snap your fingers and tap your feet,” he said. “These songs definitely were from the heart. There’s something going on here and I can’t wait to see where we’re going with this.”

LaMarca will have have a band with him at Westside Bowl and on the cross-country tour — Dean Anshutz of Red Wanting Blue on drums, Sam Buonavolonta of Sam Goodwill on guitar, Nathan Phillips on keyboards and Andrew Carlson on bass — but the approach to the material will be the same.

“We just kind of go out and do our thing,” LaMarca said. “I don’t try to amp up the songs — ‘We gotta rock. We gotta do a high-energy show.’ The thing I do well with this band is what I do. I think people respond to the fact that it’s intense and quiet. And as much as a high-energy rock show can be exciting, an intense, restrained thing can be just as compelling, just in a different way.”

While The Building is his current focus, LaMarca remains a member of The War on Drugs, led by Adam Granduciel, and said work is underway on the follow-up to the Grammy-winning album “A Deeper Understanding.” He expects it to be released sometime next year.

“Right now I feel I’ve got this perfect little cycle going. I recorded this record while touring the last Drugs record. It’s good the two bands are so different. It’s a very different musical mind space I get to exercise with the Drugs than I do on my own stuff. They sort of energize each other.

“After a year and half of playing Adam’s song, ‘OK, let’s work on my own stuff.’ Then after playing my stuff for awhile, ‘All right, let’s play something with a little bit of pep.'”

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