Saturday, November 6, 2010

Going Too the Zoo

Behold, my kindergarten magnum opus, the work that got me selected to attend the North Carolina Young Writers Conference (my elementary school was required to pick 2 kids from each grade). I hadn't yet mastered too vs. to, but hey, I was five.

Also had a little trouble with Z vs. S.

Clearly the beginning of a life-long fascination with language.

The tension builds...

No sugarcoated happy ending for this girl. In my writing I never shy away from the brutal truth: The zoo is scary, you guys! Yiks!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Thursday, July 1, 2010

"Does it bleed? Is there joy?" An interview with Frog Eyes' Carey Mercer

Thought I'd dust off the ol' blog to share a nugget of genuine interest and one of the more fun phone interviews I've ever done. The oh-so-fresh July issue of Origivation holds a shortish feature on Frog Eyes, but the conversation with Carey was so cool and (I thought) so interesting that I wanted to share the whole thing. He's a very cerebral guy, and also very funny and sensitive, I think. I stumbled over my abstract concept-describing words a little, but I'm not too embarrassed by my bits, either. (Not even my corny sign-off; I totally meant it.) Enjoy!

Alexandra Jones: It’s actually kind of been a while since I listened to Frog Eyes, until the new album came out, because for some reason I really, really hated the first Swan Lake album…I didn’t like it so much that I didn’t listen to it all the way through.

Carey Mercer: Interesting. We had a feeling when it came out that people hated it. Then we made the second record – this is our impression – the general consensus seemed that when we did the second record, people would go, ‘Oh, it’s not like the first record. The first record wasn’t logical.’

AJ: [Before] this interview, I was like ‘You know what, do I even still have it on my iTunes? I should go back to it.’ And I was like ‘Why did I dislike this?’ And I think it was because it was really in between the swooping Destroyer style and the super-jagged style that had been on some Frog Eyes records. And for some reason I didn’t know what to make of it and it didn’t compute in my mind.

CM: That’s interesting. I wish more people, myself included, would go and revisit things we had a really strong reaction against. I was just talking to the guy who runs our record label and he was talking about how much he loved Royal Trux major label releases. But when he was 21, he thought that they were the worst records he’s ever heard. So it’s kind of a similar idea, the things that you had a really strong reaction against you might in five years be like ‘What was I thinking?’ The stuff that you have a blasé reaction to, you probably never need to return to. But what you truly despise you might end up liking.

AJ: I’ve found that people, when they talk about Destroyer, a lot of times they hate Dan’s voice, or they’re like ‘What the fuck is this guy singing about,’ where Frog Eyes can be interpreted as being intentionally grating or unpleasant or dissonant to some people.

CM: Frog Eyes has been around for a long time, and that is certainly true of a specific era of Frog Eyes. Which unfortunately was maybe the point when the most people were listening to us. Being forced to listen to us. Because I think that a lot of those things are just not true of our band any more. I think that personally, if I can just speak for myself, my approach to music is a complete about-face from the jarring and grating and piss-in-your-face approach, especially to performance, that we used to have. I had a conception that the only pure performance was one that completely disregarded the audience, that if you just could do that, then the sensitive people in the audience would kind of understand it and enjoy it that much more. Which is not a bad theory, but it kinda gets tiring to throw sonic urine in peoples’ face, night after night. If I’ve had two epiphanies in my life, this would probably be one of them.

I played a show in a small town on Vancouver Island where I live. It’s a very working man’s town. I just felt a real kind of fondness for the audience. The audience was made up of kind of local kids who don’t get to see bands too much, and then drunks at the end of the bar, and people who had spent three weeks in a fish camp who had come in to just party. And the fondness kind of turned into this idea that my singing could actually – we could go somewhere together. And it completely worked. It was so scary at first, like Og my God, I’m gonna get knifed by that guy who’s 300 pounds and just wants to hear a Metallica cover. But buy the end these old guys were doing like hillbilly dancing on the tables, stompin’ and hollerin’, the kids were just in the greatest moods and I kinda felt like the singer’s role, responsibility, was not to piss in peoples’ faces but actually take the audience somewhere to kind of [an] otherworldly space. And I think that was the first moment I understood music. After playing it for eight years or whatever.

AJ: This was recent?

CM: This was really recent. About two years ago.

AJ: Because the first thing I noticed about Paul’s Tomb is that not so much your vocal style in particular is different, but the whole album is a lot more contoured, there are still lots of leaps and big transitions, but it’s a lot more…slightly smoother, or flows a bit more easily than a lot of the up and downs. Peaks and crags and stuff.

CM: The idea, the fundamental songwriting process, the idea of Frog Eyes, hasn’t changed that much. Because for me, it’s always interesting, always appealing, to try and stuff as many ideas into a song as you can. I’ve said this before, for me it makes sense to use an accordion analogy where in the past the accordion was kinda closed. And all of those ideas had to fit into a song that was two minutes long. Which was just completely exhausting for the listener, right? To have 20 different things bouncing off your headphones at one particular time. So it’s the same kind of concept, it’s just the accordion is now in its most elongated, extended form. So the two-minute song becomes the nine-minute song. Let’s allow, let’s hear a floor tom for four bars, that kind of thing. There’s more space, I guess, and I think some people like that and appreciate it. It’s made for – the idea is that you would appreciate it. It comes back to this idea of inclusiveness, like I actually want you to sit down with the record and actually get lost in it in a pleasurable way. Not in the I wanna boil your skin alive kinda way, which [it’s] not really like that, but there was a kind of oppressiveness in the more misanthropic approach, I think. I feel a little more hopeful. I don’t know why. Yeah, I watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Picard had a real influence and impact on me. And I’m kinda joking, but I think I’m kinda serious. He really believes in the potential of humans. [That’s] a beautiful thing, unparalleled in a lot of literature. [Laughs] That’ll be a nice big quote.

AJ: That’s really interesting to hear, because one of the questions I wanted to get to is when I’m listening to the new album, it does require a lot of attention. Because there’s constantly stuff happening, and it’s maybe the transitions are happening, or the songs are moving from one to another, or the sections within the song are sort of percolating around in a more subtle or nuanced way, like sometimes in the past, like you were saying. So you expect people to be invested in your work, but at the same time, so much of the listening experience is done while people are driving, or cooking, or working –

CM: Well listen. I don’t listen to music like that. When I listen to music, I put on a record, and I sit there and I listen to it. I don’t listen to music and read. And it’s wonderful. And I think that – I have a good stereo and a record player. I don’t listen to music on headphones, and I don’t listen to music in the car. And I don’t like the iPod. All of our expectations are kinda anecdotal. By that I mean they all come from our own experiences. So my expectation [of] you as listener is to do the same, is to clear even 20 minutes – that’s one thing I love about a record, you only have to listen to one side of it at a time. And it’s kind of nice. It’s only a side of a record, between 12 and 20 minutes? That’s not too long to ask of someone. I know the new media pundits will say that your average attention span is ten seconds. But I don’t care about that. I’m saying no, that leads to a very underdeveloped and boring person, the kind of person who can’t sit still for 20 minutes and just absorb someone else’s art, is essentially someone I’m not interested in. And the opposite holds true too, I feel real genuine tenderness and fondness for someone for just doing that, for clearing away 20 minutes in their day to listen to some music. So that is the ironclad expectation [laughs] that I have of the listener. And that might be Pollyanna, but God, I mean, on the other hand, then music is, at its worst, just the backdrop to a social event or the backdrop to you making your stir-fry. And if that’s the case, why do we take it so seriously? Why do we give it such a vaunted position in our culture?

AJ: I think part of it is what happens when the work leaves the artist and people are left to experience it however they can or however they choose. But also the fact that there’s music that is art, which I would say your music is definitely on that side of the scale – that’s how you[intend] it, [listeners] get the most out of it when you pay more attention to it, and you experience it more fully. But there’s also the entertainment part of music, and I think that people who listen for both things – people who listen more to the sort of artsy side of the spectrum are now like ‘Oh, it’s okay for me to like Lady Gaga too so all of this stuff is kind of in my collection.’

CM: My retort to that – I cut you off – I just want to say that on a Saturday night, I’ll invite my best friend over and we’ll drink some vodka and we’ll listen to AC/DC the exact same way that I just described listening to my record. It doesn’t have to – my theory of listening to music does not contain those traditional definitions of high and low music. It’s not like we’re only listening to atonal 20th century classical music in that way. Absolutely not. It’s so wonderful to just throw on Creedence and do the same, just like, fuckin’ listen to it. It doesn’t necessarily have to contain that high art, low art binary, I don’t think, personally. So yeah, I know what you’re trying to say. The division between that idea of music as art and music as entertainment is puzzling to me. I don’t really understand it. I just got asked to play at an art gallery in Vancouver, and there’s something kind of appealing to that to me because it’s basically what happens sometimes is – so Frog Eyes has been just pluggin’ away in a capitalist framework, meaning the only money we get comes from record sales or ticket sales. There’s kinda no support there. And sometimes what happens is the art world will pluck singers out [laughs] and say, ‘You know what? You’ve been working really hard. Here, have some grant money,’ you know? It happens occasionally.

AJ: Canada’s good for that, right?

CM: Canada’s pretty good for that but it’s getting worse and worse. And I can tell you why, if you’re interested. But anyways, that kind of thing is appealing to me but then the gallery was like ‘We want you to do something with sound. We want you to approach sound as art and not as music.’ And I know what they mean, but at the same time, I don’t really know what they mean? [Laughs] It’s like, do you just want me to stick a fork in a cello and just make a weird face at someone and run it through a delay pedal and that’s sound as art as opposed to playing a few chords on the guitar and singing a song, and that’s sound as music, and therefore sound as entertainment and therefore not valued as much? I just don’t really get it, you know? I understand it, but I don’t really get it.

AJ: If they asked me to do something like that, I would think that they meant that they would want something put in some big conceptual framework that says more than what the sound actually means, is what I would have guessed. But that’s not fun, because you want the sound to mean something.

CM: Yeah, but a big conceptual framework is its own cliché. It’s the easiest of clichés, right? My God, it couldn’t be easier to come up with some half-baked idea. Put a Council of the Arts grant stamp on it. It’s kind of much harder to work in this cutthroat capitalist framework. So I really don’t know what to do. I don’t know how we got sidetracked on that.

AJ: It’s really interesting though. Since we’ve gotten talking about the different purposes that music can serve or the different ways that people view it as having purpose, when you write songs for different projects, for yourself with Blackout Beach or for Frog Eyes or in collaboration with others, do those songs all come from your same interior artist? Or do you separate them?

CM: Frog Eyes would involve me sitting in a chair playing the guitar. And if I feel the compulsion to stand up, do a little boogie, do a little shuffle, then I’m more than likely to call my wife and say ‘Get down here. I think I’ve got something.’ And then we’ll boogie around together. And if it’s really boogiein’, then we might keep chiseling away until we’ve got something. And the other band members come in and just flesh it out. Whereas my own music is really cerebral, it’s a lot of, a lot of thought goes into it. There’s a lot of, there’s a decision-making process that’s not so immediate. I mean, Frog Eyes is really fucking easy. Just get me up and out of my chair, you know? Do I feel a kind of passion for this melody? Can I picture myself singing this in front of people? Whereas the Blackout Beach stuff is more like, do I feel lost in this? So it’s very different. They work very well together because when I’m tired and my joints ache and I feel old and foolish and ridiculous and vain, I can retire to my den and be cerebral for a while. And after a while, I feel cold and distant and I want to reconnect with that kind of passion. They work really well together in terms of a long-term relationship with music which is one of the most important things for me, is the idea that 20 years from now – I’m obsessed with this idea of continuing. It’s the only important thing, to keep going. To not stop. At the same time, I’ve tried to slow down a little bit too.

AJ: I think that’s healthy, the way you’re describing it is almost like the project serve very different purposes for you, psychologically and emotionally. And they’re very much tied to who you are and to your life on an everyday basis.

CM: Yeah. Well, who I am, too. And I have a critical impulse. I read criticism of lots of various forms of art, and… [sigh] But at the same time, you know, [it’s] a kind of beast, right? [Laughs] A kind of bellowing beast. So the two extremes work well with that, I think. I’m not very critical when it comes to Frog Eyes. Just, does it have heart? Does it bleed? Is there joy? Is there pain? Something like that.

AJ: So Melanie is kind of your first collaborator with Frog Eyes tunes?

CM: Yeah. Melanie and I have always – without Mel there would be no Frog Eyes for sure. I don’t understand when people say ‘She’s my muse.’ I think that’s a lie. But it’s a poetic lie. Comfortable for people to say. But I think that I write songs…I write songs for us.

AJ: For the partnership?

CM: Yeah, so we can play them together. We really love that. It’s wonderful. It’s never not wonderful.

AJ: I’ve noticed that I’ve never met another woman who likes Frog Eyes. I’m sure they exist. I’m sure you’ve met them and you’ve seen them.

CM: It’s a weird thing, eh? The energy – it’s funny because I myself am not very masculine. There are women who like Frog Eyes [laughs]. There’s more men in the audience than there are women.

AJ: I heard about [Frog Eyes] – initially, five or six years ago – when I was the only woman on my college newspaper’s music staff. So it was cool, because I listened to a lot of stuff, got exposed to a lot of stuff I wouldn’t have found, necessarily. But at the same time, [I thought] ‘I like this, but this is obviously bro-nerd music in some way to them.’

CM: Yeah.

AJ: […] And now you have another woman in the band. So technically you’re 50 percent female –

CM: And yet still the audience is packed full of Vidi Medieval nerds.

AJ: So is that the kind of crowd you guys see at shows and who you meet?

CM: It depends. You know, it’s hard to say. In Los Angeles, we played and it was almost all guys. And then Santa Cruz we just played and the audience was split. So it’s really hard to say, I don’t know. It’s quite odd. But is it a generalization to say that there’s an obsessive quality to being really invested in music? And it’s almost akin to collecting hockey cards?

AJ: That’s something I’ve understood about people in general. But that is a generalization that is applied to men.

CM: That’s kind of what I was hinting at. I talk to more men than I do women when doing interviews. So it might just be that we live on the more extreme side of music fandom? And for whatever reason, maybe [on] that side there’s more men than women? I dunno, I don’t want to make gender generalizations.

AJ: I don’t really know what to make of it either. But it’s a thing I’ve observed.

CM: Yeah. Interesting though, isn’t it? I never really thought about it that way. ’Cause I’d always kind of thought maybe it had something to – we’re not like that. And I don’t mean this to be insulting to women, but we’re not like a hunky band. [Laughs] Frog Eyes has opened up for hunky bands, and there’s a gang of young girls at the front sitting through Frog Eyes, making puking sounds, waiting for the hunky band to come out. And then when the hunky band comes out, they start screaming. So there’s that side of music, too, right? The kind of sexual side or whatever. The Freudian, sexual side. That’s not part of what we do. Jeez, I can’t get an answer why there are more men than women. But it’s not always the case! I think that in university towns the gender divide is more equal.

AJ: That’s standard, I would hope.

CM: But what does that mean, too? I don’t know.

AJ: Maybe people are being exposed to more ideas? Maybe people are looking for more stuff to do?

CM: And maybe women, through art, feel more emboldened to launch themselves into more extreme sides of appreciating things?

AJ: Yeah, it is weird to talk about these things in generalizations.

CM: Well it’s tough because I don’t want to fucking represent women [laughs].

AJ: I don’t either! Let’s talk about the new album a bit more. As far as I know, is this the first time you’ve used a female voice, or a voice other than yours?

CM: No, actually. The band that was before Frog Eyes was called Blue Pine, and there’s lots of singing by a woman named Carolyn Mark who’s a famous country singer in Canada. I think she’s much more famous in Canada than she is in America, so I introduce her to you if you don’t know who she is. She’s a beautiful singer, so funny. She should be famous in America, too, and I have every belief that someday she will be. Lots of female singing, and I really love that counterpoint. Kind of towards the last third of the [new] record, Megan Boddy joined the band.

AJ: So it was a time-period thing?

CM: Yeah. And I met her making Skin of Evil. [She] and Carolyn are the two female singers on that record. And I think they add so much to Skin of Evil and I think Megan adds so much to Frog Eyes, too. So that’s something that’s very exciting, the idea of making that a record and employing that foil to my own beastly, boarlike voice.

AJ: Were those songs already written, or were you able to change direction with them once you had this second vocal element?

CM: So ‘A Flower in a Glove,’ ‘A Debtor’s War,’ and ‘Year in Love’ were songs that were written once Megan had joined the band, so we would just kind of go in the studio with three songs. We did like three different sessions of three songs and just go in the studio for a day and record them. So by the time that she joined the band, the record was two-thirds done. So in order to have some kind of continuity, I think we went back to some other songs and got her to do the singing. Which is a bit of trickery [laughs] but you don’t need to know that. Paul’s Tomb – the thing I’m really proud about Paul’s Tomb is that it was even made. We didn’t have a stable lineup since 2005, really. To me it really is the sound of just holding on. Holding on to the idea that Frog Eyes needs to make another record. And we did. And we’ll make another one, too. It was a very hard record to make, though, because we were always having new people come in and come out.

AJ: What was the time period that you were actually working on the new record seriously?

CM: It’s kinda weird, because like I said, the record was made in three days in the studio. There were three days spread out between 2000* and 2009. It’s kinda funny, eh? It seems like ‘They spent three years on the record,’ but it’s not as if we were working every day on it by any means. And the songs were not written in one batch. They were written in three batches. It’s kind of an interesting way to make a record. You put it together piece by piece. It’s almost like the way that people build cathedrals. You work on the cathedral, and then you die, and you never see the cathedral in its finished state. So the band would wor on three songs, and then the band would die because someone would leave. And they would never see or hear the final product until the record was actually done. We’d send it to our buddy who was playing with us at the time. That can be good and that can be bad, but it’s kind of an act of faith that in the end there will be a record. Whereas if you go in a studio with 20 songs, there’s no leap of faith. You know in the end you’re going to come out with 40 minutes of material and ten songs. But you don’t get to lavish the same amount of attention on the songs if there’s ten of them. They kinda loom over you. Whereas three is a very manageable number to really think critically about every little second.

AJ: So the break involved snatching these pieces of the next Frog Eyes record but you were also working on your other projects.

CM: I was working on Skin of Evil and Swan Lake, and it all works sequentially. So at the time that I was writing Skin of Evil, I was just writing Skin of Evil. And I wouldn’t have written a Frog Eyes song during [that], nor would I have even listened to a Frog Eyes song that we were working on. When I work on something, I just want to work on that, and the same with Swan Lake. I remember, about a month before it was time to get together, [I thought] oh my God, I have to write three songs. And so my wife and I – I got some royalty money, and we went to Hawaii. [Laughs] Sat in the cabin and wrote songs. [It was] wonderful. And then I came back. ‘I’ve got three songs!’ [Laughs] Absolutely wonderful. That’s one thing I know that I can do. If I need to write three songs in a month, I can do that. I don’t have to worry about that. The same is true of Dan [Bejar]. That’s one worry we don’t have. There will always be songs.

AJ: That’s a really good tool to have in your toolkit, just for life, I think. What is it like working with Spencer in a different project after he stopped working with Frog Eyes?

CM: Well, it’s not that he stopped working with Frog Eyes. There was never like, ‘Okay, let’s shake hands and sign this contract that says you won’t sue us.’ [laughs] He just kind of…I think the practicality of playing in eight bands – and also, we don’t make as much money as his other bands and blah blah blah, and that’s time away from his home and I dunno. I’m kinda painfully aware of that, the stress that being in a band puts on the bandmates. It’s tough, and I always feel kinda guilty about taking someone away from their loved ones. But then I remember that the act of playing of music is so wonderful that it’s worth it in the end. And then I don’t feel so bad. So it’s not as if he’s in or out of the band, or anything like that. […] To get back to your question, I guess it’s a little different. In Frog Eyes, he was always very reverential to the songs, kinda like ‘Is this okay? Am I playing too much?’ He’d sit down and come up with such a jaw-dropping arrangement in like five seconds. Spencer really is a musical genius. He’s one of the few people that I’ve ever met that I would say that about. Swan Lake is very different, because they’re his songs, and I kind of feel that reverential approach to his songs. And yet I stop all over ’em. [Laughs] I trash them to shit. It’s hard to explain. It’s very complex, having all of this history, and then having to sweep away the history and approach Swan Lake as if there is no history. It’s odd, for sure. But it’s quite fun when you’re doing it. It’s just having beers, sitting around and laughing, it’s quite fun.

AJ: But having so many projects – like you said, it can add an element of uncertainty that requires you to have a leap of faith and maybe recommit to a project with different circumstances. But it gets more people involved who you might not have brought into that kind of working relationship before. So it can be stressful but it’s also – you wouldn’t have it any other way, right? Because that’s what you do.

CM: It’s kinda what you do, as a songwriter, unless you do it all yourself, which is a different thing. It’s much more difficult to do everything yourself and it’s really draining. You need to know how to work with people. Which I think I’m not very good at [laughs] but people tolerate me because sometimes I’m funny.

AJ: Well I’m sure the first part of that isn’t true. But the second part definitely is.

*I didn’t notice this until transcribing, but I wonder if Carey misspoke when he said “2000.” Still, that’s what I hear on the recording.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Stuff I've been writing: Reading Rainbow feature, Origivation, 3/1

Hey look, it's the article I wrote about frenetic, fuzz-fueled duo Reading Rainbow! Rob and Sarah are super sweethearts who make great music that everyone should buy and go see. They're playing the Elbo room (50th and Cedar in west Philly) Saturday night with my friends Junkers, and they'll be at SXSW this year. Do read the story (on the lovely new Origivation website!) and listen to their sounds if you haven't yet.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stuff I've been writing: Ape School profile, Origivation Magazine 2/10

The primary interview for this joint took place at sunset in a grass patch behind the North Star Bar in Fairmount last July, but due to technical difficulties (publications folding, my procrastination), it wasn't published till now. It's by far one of the chillest, friendliest interviews I've ever done (another candidate for that, my chat with Reading Rainbow, will appear in the March issue), and I still think Ape School is criminally underrated in Philly and elsewhere.

In other exciting news, Origivation has a new editor with a lot of new ideas, so expect something more than long-ass profiles (not that there's anything wrong with that; I've written enough of them) in the future.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The return of Mad Men news-blogging!

But it might be bad news: Bryan Batt, who plays Salvatore Romano (closeted gay former Sterling Cooper art director and one of the most compelling characters on the show), hasn't been notified as to whether or not he'll be returning for the new season.

The fourth season begins filming in March, and there's already a Facebook group dedicated to making sure Batt and his character are back in the show. As Mad Men fans know,

[spoiler alert if you haven't seen the third season]

SCDP took SC's biggest client -- Lucky Strike -- when they broke off to create their own firm. And the reason Sal was fired in the first place is because of Lucky Strike bigwig Lee Garner Jr.'s drunken, unsuccessful pass at our dear Sal.