Q: What was it like growing up for you in Center Sandwich?
A: It was, I mean, I hate to say this, but it was a little bit idyllic, you know? It was very isolated, we were about two miles out of town. My parents bought fifty acres of, basically, forest, they cleared it. First couple of years we lived in essentially a cabin, the outhouse across the street. We lived there for a few years. It was very, you know, carting in fifty gallon tubs of drinking water from downtown. It seemed a little hostile, the big woods, but it was an experience. Then we moved up the hill, in a big house. It was very, sort of, classic growing up.
Q: So, how do you feel that your style of lyric-writing differs from other artists that you’ve worked with, now that you’re going solo?
A: How my style of lyric-writing differs? Now, I guess from Craig’s [Hold Steady] and Jack Terricloth’s [World/Inferno]? That’s a good question. I haven’t thought deeply about it. I find it a little easier to speak to learning stuff about general demeanor, and how to conduct yourself, and so on. I will say that Jack, and World/Inferno… That was definitely the first thing that I did that anyone really cared about, and he [Jack] has a very strong personality. It developed into kind of a big brother/little brother situation, I don’t mind saying. I think he’s one of the most amazing lyricists that isn’t regularly claimed as an amazing lyricist, outside of the not-small circle of World/Inferno fanatics, but not wider culture. There’s a part of me, every time I write a song, that always thinks “What would Jack think?”
Q: Would you say that that’s [World/Inferno] been your favorite project so far?
A: Yeah, absolutely. That was the turning point in my adult life, to join that band, and be with them for seven years. It had this real family feeling. It really felt like we were doing something important, and something meaningful that changed people’s lives, including ours.
Q: You mentioned Craig earlier, and I know you’ve probably been bombarded with Hold Steady questions—
A: I don’t, actually! It’s a common misconception that I mind talking about that. I have no problem talking about it. People tend to avoid it. It’s fine. Also, very informative, and exciting, and a period of my life that I’m very proud of.
Q: Well, the band talked about Ybor City a lot, and since you’re here, I was wondering what your relationship was to Ybor, and how that came about.
A: No relationship at all. No relationship on Craig’s part. It was, literally, a place that he had never been to, he had just heard the name, and it sounded proliferous, and he thought it rhymed with a bunch of things. The sort of aura of associations that he found congenial to the kind of subject matter he was trying to write about. People always told him that it was a place that would have the kind of characters he was writing about. It wasn’t until, I think it was on the Separation Sunday Tour, that we came here for the first time. But, it’s been great. It’s a little bit of a gimmick, in a way, to write songs with place names in them, because then whenever you run that place people are stoked, and especially a place that gets name-tagged as much as Ybor City was name-tagged.
So every time we came down here, it was like “AHHH!”, and they showed us a good time. I got one of my tattoos over here.
Q: After devoting yourself to so many projects and sounds, do you feel like there’s a constant thread in your work?
A: I’d like to think that they’re all tied together by the idea of… intelligent hedonism. That you can be articulate, and well-read, and also still like to have a really good time. That’s what ties the sort of cabaret-punk of World/Inferno with the literate rock of Hold Steady, with the jazz-inflected, gypsy-punk of Guignol, and the chamber music of Anti-Social Music; this idea of exactly that. Intelligent hedonism.
Q: I know for a while The Hold Steady was working with Chuck Klosterman on Fargo Rock City—
A: It was just great.
Q: Would you say that you at all interested in getting involved in screenwriting? I mean, you’ve done a lot of projects over the years. Is that something you’d consider?
A: It’s nothing that has ever surfaced on my personal agenda. You know, I was writing short stories and writing pieces for this literary magazine InDigest. This is five weeks into a world-wide tour that Marie and I are doing, my wife Marie, part of which is a stretch along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and we just booked one in Mongolia and ending up in Beijing. A travel log of which the central idea is ideas of world-wide DIY. So, depending on how that tour goes, maybe I’ll make that.
Q: In an old interview, I heard you talking about your facial hair, and you saw it as kind of like a staple. Now that you’ve shaved, do you feel like you’re in kind of a transition period?
A: I don’t think that I would have used the word “staple”, I think that the idea was that if I got up on stage with a suit, with a handlebar moustache, and a microphone, that before I played a note, people had a night. It was a scene setter, an idea of the kind of show that I was trying to project. But I had done that for ten years, the moustache thing. I don’t ever like to do one thing for too long, and it kind of overstayed its welcome, for me anyways. And if people are disappointed that I don’t have a handlebar moustache, then they’re doing so for the wrong reason.
Q: So what’s been your favorite part of performing Luck & Courage so far on this tour?
A: You know, on this tour, I’ve been almost totally performing songs on the upcoming record, which is going to be called Do the Struggle, and it’s going to be out in July. I know it’s an annoying thing to be going around playing all the new songs, but Luck & Courage has been out for a year and a half, so I’m ready to move it forward. If it were up to me, I would put out a new record every nine months, just… things don’t move that fast.
Q: Well, what was your concept for Do the Struggle?
A: So there’s a couple things about Do the Struggle: One is that it’s a record with more opinions than any other records that I’ve had before, for whatever reason that is. I’m not offering them as advice, because I’m not saying my advice is advice to be followed, necessarily. So that’s what the songs are. They’re very wordy. I wrote more songs for this album than I did for any album before. Major General was just stuff I had lying around, basically. Luck & Courage was written as a piece, but it was only eleven songs, one of which didn’t make the record. This [Do the Struggle] was… I wrote sixteen songs, recorded them all, cut six of them, use them for something later.
We recorded it as an Americana record, basically, me playing whatever instrument I’m going to play, with an upright bass, tuba, and a drummer, and then we did all the overdubs. What we wanted to do was… we didn’t want it to sound like an Americana record. We recorded it like an Americana record, but mixed it like an electronica record. Mixed it like J Dilla would mix an acoustic record. The title track, “Do the Struggle”, sounds like, you know, just these sort of conceptual ideas. I think it’s a really unique record aside, like I don’t know any record that sounds like it sounds. The closest thing I can come to is some of the later Scott Walker records.
The songs, I’d been touring them for six months already, so I knew the songs were strong as classic-form songs, and they could stand throwing some crazy stuff at them, production-wise, and they would still sort of push them through the murk. If that means anything.
Q: Exactly, everything you do comes out really unique and distinct.
A: The thing is, the way people listen to records, I think, is, as long as the vocals are distinctive, that it’ll be identifiable. It’s not like… If I make a record, I understand that my voice is like a particular thing. It’s not for everybody. It is what it is, and people recognize it. But the benefit of that, and this is something I’ve always said about Craig, too… his vocals are so distinct, you can put, literally, any musical backdrop, or sonic backdrop behind that, and it’ll still be of a piece with the rest of the work.
Now, there are two schools to that. There are two schools of thought about making a record. One is the idea of making the album be literally a record, a record of what it sounds like when you see that person, or that group, perform live. Make it as sort of “authentic” as possible, to what extent artistically is possible is another question. Now, the other way of thinking is that your time in the studio is an opportunity to do something with these songs that you’re never ever going to get to do again.
That tends to be the side that I fall on, especially in my case, because I’m going to play these songs by myself, probably, a thousand times. Everyone will have tons of chances to hear them that way. I’ll have tons of chances to play them that way. They’ll live forever on YouTube that way. I have these six weeks in the studio to create the “-er” version of that song; Create the version of the song the way it lives in my head, with the string section, or the choir, or whatever it is to create a work of stand-alone art, that may or may not have anything to do with the way I perform them on tour, because of the financial constraints, and this is the only way it works, to tour by myself.
So, that can cut both ways. Some people see the show and they want to get something that sounds like the recorded song, but in terms of the idea of creating a piece of art, as opposed to a piece of something you can sell, something people can buy that’s a record of what they just saw so they can take that experience home, those are two very different things.