Sorry for dropping the ball a bit in the blog updating department. Things have been pretty busy over the last little while.
The show at Green Bean was a lot of fun. I somehow found a way to mess up in just about every single song, which is some kind of record even for me, but at least some of the mistakes weren’t too ugly. I find it kind of hilarious that one of the few songs I didn’t mess up on was the one we didn’t really rehearse at all. My most obvious mistakes came in songs I was pretty comfortable with.
It’s odd. I got these impulses to just improvise things in the middle of songs. That usually worked out well, even when I was taking some pretty big risks. It was the more straightforward songs that worked well in rehearsal where I ended up hitting most of the bad notes. But only on piano. When I was playing guitar or banjo, I was fine.
I guess that’s just how I roll.
Kind of wish I performed my one spotlit vocal moment better, but the audience seemed to like it well enough, so maybe it sounded better out there than it did from my vantage point. Travis sure sounded good, at least. In general the response was positive, and I didn’t hear one person talking during any of the songs. It’s a little surreal sometimes having such an attentive audience, but it’s a nice feeling.
Bree took a lot of great pictures. At a few points I looked to my left to find her crouched down a few feet away from me, taking pictures of me mid-banjo solo. Here are a few of the shots she captured.
Maybe I really do have a proper beard after all…
Elsewhere, lots of stuff has been mingling with other stuff and making stuff babies. I should probably keep some of what’s going on a little hush-hush until I check with the other parties involved to see how much information they want to divulge at this stage (how mysterious).
One thing I can tell you: I was hanging out at CJAM the other day, guesting on Murad’s show Productive Confusion. Is it just me, or is that a great name for a radio show?
Murad sometimes does these “album spotlight” things. He’ll devote a show to playing an entire album by a local act, along with a song-by-song interview. I don’t think anyone else is doing that around here right now.
For fun, I asked if he might be interested in doing that with my new CD while it’s still fresh. He said he was game as long as I agreed to be photographed with my Uncle Kanye.
Okay, so that’s a lie. You won’t be seeing me posing with my Uncle Kanye anytime soon, for he is a busy man. There are many more people in the world he needs to interrupt at awards shows before he can start thinking about attending photo shoots with his little nephew Johnny.
Still, I thought it was fun. Hopefully people aren’t tired of the new songs yet. We didn’t have time to get through the whole album, but we did get to some key tracks that haven’t been given much airplay yet.
As a rule I tend to feel pretty inarticulate when I’m talking about my music. It feels like I say a whole lot while saying nothing much at all. But if you wind me up well enough, I can get going pretty good. I gave some pretty long-ass answers and didn’t even touch on half of what I wanted to say. I joked with Murad that we should just take over the station for the rest of the day and keep going until we covered all the relevant bases.
Example: given more time, I would have talked about how “Animal Altruism” was inspired by reading about random acts of animal kindness — apes saving children, dolphins saving people from drowning, and these fascinating impulses animals have to help not just one another but different species as well. I would have mentioned how the dirt-cheap old archtop guitar on “Kings” sounds better than it has any right to, and how that electric guitar solo came out of real anger, which isn’t something I’ve been able to say about any guitar part I’ve played in almost a decade. I might have revealed there isn’t actually any electric guitar on “You Make Me Feel like an Impotent Squadger” at all. It’s just fuzz bass, drums, distorted vocals, and a bit of synth squealing at the end.
I might have touched on how part of the whole point of the upcoming Mackenzie Hall show is to try and shoot some gigantic holes in this image I have as a “reclusive genius” (that ain’t me, babe) and to make it clear I’m just a regular guy who happens to make music. And I might have played a Scott Walker song and talked a bit about how hearing Tilt was maybe the single most important musical moment of my life — something that completely reshaped my ideas about what music could and should be. Maybe someday, in an alternate universe, Mojo magazine will have me do a bit about it for their Last Night a Record Changed My Life feature. I might have played an old Papa Ghostface track from a decade ago to offer a tiny sliver of insight into how much things have changed over the years.
I might have said a lot of things I didn’t say. But time flies when you’re Rambly McRambles, which is what they call me in Ireland.
I think we did manage to discuss some meaty stuff in there, in spite of me not having eight hours to talk myself hoarse (you know you want to hear that happen). And I did get to throw in the heretofore undisclosed factoid about how “In My Time of Weakness” has some serious autobiographical truth in it, even if it’s truth that’s wearing somewhat cryptic clothes.
Anyway. It was a fun afternoon. I hope my rambling was somewhat interesting for anyone who was listening. I have to say I felt more comfortable than I usually do when talking about myself. Credit to Murad for asking good questions, letting me take ten years to answer, and being an all-around good guy.
Thanks to him for having me on his show, and thanks again to everyone at CJAM for the continued support. This week LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS is at #2 on the charts, while Travis’s new album is at #3. There we be, side by side.
Here’s the interview, minus most of the music, split into a few different parts:
There’s one specific thing I really wish I remembered to mention on-air — a recent thought I had that I think relates a bit to what I do and why I do it this way.
Caleb Deschanel, renowned cinematographer and father to the luminous Zooey, once worked for a while with John Cassavetes on a brilliant film called A Woman Under the Influence, before he either quit in protest or was fired. This comes from Ray Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes — one of the most absorbing and fascinating books I’ve ever read, and one I need to pull out for another read. It’s one of the few books I’ve been moved to read more than once. Every time I get new things out of it.
Caleb said he felt Cassavetes never had any real interest in the mechanics of making movies — the technical process and all that went along with it — and would have processed the physical film through his brain if he’d been able to. For some reason that bit came back to me, it got stuck in my head, and I realized how much I relate to it. I’ve always been impatient. If I could just transpose the music that’s in my head from brain to CD with no work in-between, I’d do it in a second.
I work fast because I need to. If I get bogged down in over-thinking things, the music suffers. If I take too long to work on something, not enough gets done. There’s too much to get out, and not enough time in my life to get it all out. There’s this feeling of urgency, especially over the last little while, to get as much done while I’m still able.
So I think I understand that drive to just get to the heart of something without getting so caught up in the technical considerations that are, to be fair, a necessary part of the process. My ears have matured and I’ve got some good equipment at this point, but in some ways I’m still the kid with the stopwatch writing song titles on tape jackets, coming up with fake names for imaginary musicians, caught up in the rush of it all.
The same drive to get things from brain to finished album while they’re new and exciting is still there. It’s just that the methods and the medium have changed a bit, and the music has continued to evolve.
Thinking about that book and about all Cassavetes went through to get his movies made also makes me realize how lucky I am. Here was a guy who had to act in mostly shitty Hollywood movies in order to bankroll the films he wrote and directed himself — most of them made without any studio assistance — that went against everything those Hollywood movies were about. These are brutally honest, human, visceral films about how difficult love is to find and give and share and maintain, how we almost never say what we’re really thinking or feeling, and all the different ways we destroy ourselves and the people we love without even knowing it.
People didn’t want to see themselves on the screen, though. They wanted to see idealized versions of themselves. They wanted escapist fluff.
Aside from a few brief brushes with critical and commercial success, Cassavetes was more or less vilified. He fought his whole life against indifference and sometimes outright hatred to make the movies he felt he needed to make. For some of the movies he made with studio backing, whole chunks of the films were excised by simple-minded studio executives who objected to how uncommercial his work was. And his widow Gena Rowlands hasn’t exactly helped the cause, in some cases claiming to prefer the tampered-with, cut versions of his films that don’t reflect his true intentions.
Just because you gave incredible acting performances in some of your husband’s films, does that entitle you to recut one of his movies because you object to certain scenes? Does it give you the right to block the release of important work he did that was discovered posthumously? Does it give you the right to try and rewrite the story of his life, stripping it of anything real and raw, pasting on a phoney happy face no one with a functioning brain is buying?
I don’t think it does. But those films are there, and most of them can be found without too much trouble. They’re not for everyone. Not by a long shot. Some people would find them dull and self-indulgent, or just too raw. For me it’s a bit of a different story.
The first Cassavetes film I ever saw was A Woman Under the Influence. It seemed a little slow at first. Nothing much was happening. Then it sucked me in, and it hit me that everything was happening. I felt like I was eavesdropping on someone else’s life.
It scared the shit out of me. It made me laugh. It made me angry. It moved me. It made me want to walk through the television screen and protect some characters while throttling others. No movie I’d seen had ever made me feel so emotionally involved.
I sat motionless for about a half hour after the end credits were finished crawling across the screen, whispering, “Holy shit,” to myself a few dozen times. Then I tracked down most of the rest of the films.
They don’t all do it for me in the same way. But there isn’t one I don’t get something out of, and there are at least a few Cassavetes films I consider masterpieces. This stuff was the oxygen I’d been looking for without even knowing I needed it until the moment I started breathing it in.
Here was a brilliant, flawed artist who put all his heart and humanity into his work and had to fight against adversity that would cripple lesser, saner artists in order to get his films made, only to sometimes have them taken away from him and butchered by people who didn’t understand them. He was ridiculed and denigrated for daring to ask audiences to think and feel for themselves, not giving easy answers or spelling everything out in conventional, simplistic, brain-dead movie shorthand. Only a few of his films ever turned a profit. He lost millions of dollars of his own money making them.
When he died, he’d mortgaged his house so many times to raise money to pay for his independent films, he owed the same amount of money on it as he did thirty years earlier when he and Gena first bought the place. Only a few of the films had been released on home video, and all of them were out of print.
Today, thanks to The Criterion Collection you can find most of those films on DVD in their intended cuts (when I was getting into Cassavetes this wasn’t so easy, and I had to dig a bit). And now it’s considered kind of hip to be into him. But the belated recognition rings a little hollow to me. A lot of people still resist his kind of filmmaking. He still doesn’t fit.
To be savaged by critics and repeatedly misunderstood if not ignored by the people meant to comprise your audience…there’s no way the indifference, the struggle, and the rejection didn’t hurt. But he found a way to do the work he needed to do. It didn’t matter that almost no one would see it and most of those who did wouldn’t “get” it. What mattered was doing the work.
And I think it’s delicious, the way he took roles in other people’s films — some of which were awful, and he knew it — did what he could with the material, and in a quiet way turned the system in on itself by using the money he made to make movies that really meant something, that were about something.
If I could do something similar and, say, make generic instrumental music for car commercials anonymously, I probably would. It wouldn’t mean a thing to me, it would be easy money, and it would live in a separate universe form the real music I make that’s mine, that has meaning to me, that will never be for sale.
There’s a world of difference between making a product for money with your eyes wide open, knowing you’re going to use that money for something that’s the complete antithesis of what you’re getting paid to do on the one hand, and on the other, compromising your art, dumbing it down, and stripping it of its soul in an effort to turn it into something palatable that will give you a nice little career.
But that’s an argument for another day.
I am not a filmmaker. I make music. I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make an album. I don’t have to mortgage a house. I don’t have to try to get sponsors, or apply for grants, or talk other people into playing on my albums, or book time in a studio, or depend on anyone else for much of anything. I have all the equipment I need right here. I can do everything myself.
The only expenses at this point — aside from new instruments and gear from time to time — are the CD inserts and booklets, which I pay to have printed at a higher quality than I could produce myself, the physical CDs, which I duplicate myself, the jewel cases that hold the CDs, and the ink cartridges for the printer I use to print text and images onto the CDs.
If I paid someone else to master my albums things would get a lot more expensive in a hurry. But I don’t do that.
I’m able to do whatever I want to do, with no thought given to whether or not it will sell (because I don’t sell it) or how it will be received (because I don’t care about that), and put it out there in whatever form I choose. In my case, I give CDs away for free to whoever wants them. No one has the power to take my work away from me and reshape it into what they think it should be. I have “final cut” and complete creative control over every aspect of everything I do. I haven’t been raked across the coals by critics, but then I don’t spread the stuff around enough to be on the radar of any critics who wield any great influence anyway.
I do know very well what it’s like to be rejected and ignored while trying to share something you believe in with other people, though. I lived through that for a long time.
At some point people started sitting up and paying attention to what I was doing. Now I have an audience. It’s mostly limited to this city, and I’m not going to be the next Windsor artist to break into the mainstream and leave this place behind for fame and glory. I don’t think that could ever happen for me even if I really wanted it, in spite of what a small group of people who believe in what I do have told me. But I don’t want that. The mainstream is a boring, bland, uninspiring place. Dark corners and odd crevices are a lot more interesting to me. I seem to have carved out some sort of niche for myself, while at the same time being free to try different things and rewrite the script as I see fit. I don’t know if anything is expected of me at this point, now that people are actually listening, but I don’t feel the weight of any expectations to do anything in particular.
I do what I feel like doing. The people who hear it seem to enjoy it for some odd reason. I put out an album where I try to push my own envelope a bit, not thinking anyone will like it, and some people tell me it’s one of their favourite things I’ve done.
It’s as if I’m being rewarded for doing what I want to do and not caring what anyone thinks of it. It’s very strange.
Some people have to fight to be heard, and when they finally do gain an audience they’re ridiculed, only recognized for their courage and talent after they’re dead. Some people never get the chance to be heard at all. Some people never have to struggle, and success just falls into their laps through good luck, or good timing, or being able to buy their way into the good graces of the people who have “pull”. The “artists” created by marketing teams and manufactured like living Barbie dolls don’t apply, because they were never real to begin with and they create nothing.
There’s no clearcut path to follow, or to be led down, or to be forced down. We are all like the tears of an angry prostitute with eyes that are forever structurally rearranged. No two tears fall the same.
That wasn’t the point I intended to make at all, but several tangents wrapped up in a dish towel have led me here, so I might as well keep going.
We don’t all do the same things. We don’t all want the same things. There’s amazing art of all kinds being created in basements and bedrooms that will never be seen, heard, or experienced by anyone. In some cases, that’s the whole idea. It isn’t made for public consumption. Elsewhere, it’s not for lack of trying. The art just never finds the audience it deserves. And of course, there’s the soulless plastic drivel that sells millions of copies and serves as the disposable wallpaper of our lives.
Maybe it’s necessary for it all to coexist in a confusing mess that can never be known or understood on more than a very tenuous, incomplete level.
And really, the people who create something because they have a genuine need to create — they’ll find a way to do it no matter how much adversity they’re up against. I’m lucky enough to be in a position where, after spending an ass-load of money on instruments and equipment and learning through doing, I have the ability to follow whatever musical impulses I have, wherever they lead, whenever the feeling is there. Not everyone can do that. A lot of people have to pay for studio time, hoping the engineer/producer is in tune with what they’re doing, and then they have to hope the same thing is true all over again when it comes time to master the album, and again with graphic design, and then they have to pay for manufacturing, and promote the stuff, and try to make back some of the money they put into it.
None of that applies to me. And again, I realize how fortunate I am to be in this situation.
Some folks have a problem with this. Seems a few people feel there’s something wrong with me giving my music away for free, and they have this strange need to know where the money comes from that allows me to keep doing this.
Instead of asking me that question, they try to be coy and snoop around behind my back, nudging people, thinking someone might have some intel. Meanwhile, the people who are really my friends don’t care about any of that stuff and so have nothing to say about it.
Why this is important to anyone is beyond me. If you don’t have the decency to ask me yourself and you’d rather fish for information behind my back, you deserve whatever frustration comes out of that. It’s none of your fucking business. What I do and how I do it has nothing to do with you.
So I’ll do what I do, and you do what you do, and we’ll do what we do. Shooby-doo.
I’ve given up on trying to get across whatever I was trying to reach for here. But there’s the seed of something in there somewhere that makes some amount of sense, believe you me.
Talk about making up for lost time. I haven’t rambled like that in at least a week or two.