Hearsay - Spring 1998

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The Accidental Tourist
Publication: Hearsay (#17)
Author: Pete Pawsey
Date: Spring 1998

photo by Jay Blakesberg

Is California a more bearable place to live now that certain herbs are legal for medicinal use? Or, like Bill Hicks, are you waiting for it to slide into the sea?

"I think all drugs should legalised 'cos there are now as many people in prison as there are in university. That's mostly because there's a mandatory sentencing for drugs which is really stupid so I think all drugs should be legal. But I don't think California should slip in to the sea. I think it's great, it's a really beautiful and interesting place. I don't want to live there anymore but I have lived there for fifteen years. I've not moved yet though, my stuff is still there."

Does your increasing output mean you can now record everything you want to?

"I can record everything I want to but they don't release it all the time. I'm doing a lot more work these days than I was before."

Tell us about The Left-Handed Woman.

"I've written twelve songs for this film; a friend of mine wrote an adaption of the Peter Handke book The Left-Handed Woman and it's going to be a black and white art film and a musical: but it's not going to be one of those happy, uplifting musicals but one that's really dark. It's about a woman who leaves her abusive husband and tries to find her own identity. It's a good plot. So in January we're going to record all twelve songs and see how they sound and then try to get money to make the movie."

David Lowery says it's fun to take their (film people's) money..

"Yeah! It is. They're creepy!"

Your songs have a distinctive travelogue quality.

"Yes. I grew up traveling. I grew up in Taiwan, Okinawa, England and California 'til I was about 19. I've always traveled, it's always been about traveling."

Is physical motion refelected in emotional movement?

"No. Except somebody said something about speed or at least actual movement which I thought was really interesting that the faster you get in an airplane or a car, the more sinister evil seems. I was once in a National Park and talking to someone on the phone in New York about business once and was saying 'yeah, well we're gonna do this and we're gonna do that but I'm going off on my hike now so, like, bye' (click!), I hung up the payphone and I turned around and there was a horse there and I just sorta looked at it and was like 'Aaargh!' It was terrifying. Maybe that speed and motion has evil in it or is in some ways villainous. But emotion is something that animals have, and movement is something that everything else has too. It's different."

Where does your experience of both big production (Mitchell Froom, Joe Chiccarelli) and anti-production as evidenced by Caught In A Trap leave you at the moment?

"The last American Music Club record was San Francisco and it was definitely a Big Production. We worked in the A&M studios with the Rolling Stones next door and Joan Armatrading in another studio...it was $2,000 a day and ridiculous large studios - remixing things and having high level people drop in. I've done all that stuff, I've done it all, I know what that is. In the right hands that might be fine but I think it's a waste of money. It does nothing to replace an emotive record or an emotive feeling - if you can capture anything that's emotive, even if it's out of tune..

Once I came into the studio and found the producer guy tuning my vocals and I was like,'What are you doing?' And he said, 'You're out of tune, Mark! You can't sing in tune and I'm sick of trying to work with you to try to make you sound in tune!' I said, 'Well I can't tell it's out of tune - I think it's going to be fine. If I can't tell, then I must like it enough to let it pass.' He said, 'Well this is my life too, so just give me an hour and I'll finish this.' An hour later it was ,'Just give me another hour...' It took eight hours and that's a lot of money. It's bullshit ,total bullshit. Complete and utter crap."

Would you prefer to have your rubbish sorted by an obsessive fan or be wiretapped by the Federal authorities?

"I'd go for the obsessive fan. The authorities are evil."

Does your use of interesting guitar tunings derive from an inspiration like Richard Thompson or Nick Drake?

"Yes! But also Vudi from AMC once said, 'Check out this D tuning,' and I really loved it and I thought I could write a lot of songs with it. I don't know anything about music at all but the G tuning happened 'cos I was staying at this woman's house in Chicago and it turns out her boyfriend was the guitar player from Wilco. He had this open G tuning and it was great! So I stole that."

Stealing from whichever guitar players you can is a good policy in life.

"Oh yeah...I do!"

Who would play you in the TV movie of the AMC story?

"Well, I'm going to have to pick someone who looks a lot like me. So, um...I think it's going to have to be...um....who played the lead in Top Gun?"

Tom Cruise.

"Yes! So Tom Cruise could do it! Same height. Just in terms of visuals, he'd be the closest."

Not Fozzie Bear then?

[polite chuckle]

Is your sad clown persona routine currently buried or thriving?

"The teacher who taught me that kind of stuff on the sad clown persona is very famous and I spent a lot of money learning it. So before a show I bring a mirror with me and some assistants and I stand in front of the mirror and we work out what I'm going to do during the shows with my sad clown routine. Oftentimes I find that because these are really high powered people as I say, they're busy so if I'm in Paris and they're in say Stockholm or somewhere I can't afford to bring them so then I don't do the sad clown routine because I can't do the preparation. I need the full length mirror at least. I mock up the whole show backstage and go through it and plot it out very carefully."

Do the people you write about in your songs recognize themselves? And are their reactions favorable?

"Well, y'know, I've lost friends over songs I've written. For the new album I wrote a song called 'Saint Nicholas', and he loves the song, he's really happy and that's good. Nobody else who's on the record has heard the songs yet. Songs like 'Jenny' and 'Kathleen'...they both love those songs. The guy I wrote 'Ex-Girlfriend' about hates me. Hates me."

Is Peter Buck the Kevin Bacon of the music industry?

"He could be. He really could be. He turns up in the weirdest conversations, it's funny. I'll say yes. He knows everybody and is liked by everybody. Peter gets round in a way that's really strange. And the experience of making a record with him was really great."

You're adept at conveying the weightlessness of alcohol in song. Do you use alcohol as a spirit medium, a conduit to inspiration?

"Did you write this down? Fuck! Alcohol isn't inspiring, no! I use alcohol because I'm socially retarded.The only way I'd ever really talk to anyone is if I've had a couple of drinks, otherwise I'd just clam up."

But are the songs which are about alcohol composed when outside the influence? Chaos recollected in tranquility and all that...

[Mock horror. Or perhaps just horror.] "Chaos recollected in tranquillity?!! I don't know. Well, I could give you the answer...I hate questions like this...[curls into ball and peeks out at interviewer through cracks between fingers or thereabouts.] Well,I think what we're aiming for in our lives is joy. And when we feel that joy is when we also feel peace. That's when we know everything, we see everything around us and we feel we belong here and we're linked somehow to the world. Those are tranquil moments and they're moments of complete excitement. That's what we all want, the things that really feed our souls. Those are the things that really make us happy and make us feel we are alive. And then there are the times we're working day jobs or are on the treadmill in some way or other, we're poor in spirit cause we don't feel that. I think a lot of my music is about going for those moments that are completely ecstatic. And it only happens for a second -boom!- and then it's gone. But it's not chaos in tranquility, it's more like the second hand."

Do you get a lot of joy out of God's answering service, or does he not return your calls?

"He returns every one of my fucking calls. It makes me feel I'm going out of my fucking mind."

Did the London nuns leave you with any unresolved irrational fetishes for sensible footwear or rosary beads?

[indicates sensible footwear] "Look, pretty sensible! [pulls out Catholic merchandise hanging around neck from depths of shirt] Let's see, who's this? Oh, it's St. John the Baptist! But I don't know any London nuns. I was educated by monks in Southampton. I was only educated by nuns in Taiwan."

Do you think you're predominately a city person?

"Yes, I'm terrified of the country. I'm terrified even if I see a street corner with nobody on it. Which is a lie, but go ahead and print it."

Do you feel doomed to play the perpetual tourist?

"Oh yeah, I don't fit in anywhere I go."

How do you find San Francisco's music scene? Nourishing or saccharine?

"It's funny because it's very oriented towards joke bands. A lot of bands succeed there for a while if they've got a gimmick. That's pretty much true of anywhere, but it really seems to be the thing in San Francisco."

People often identify 'slowcore' as a very SF-based scene with AMC spearheading it...

"Spearheading, yes!"

...and when Mark Kozelek emerged he was cast rightly or wrongly as your protege. Do you feel part of a trend, or partly responsible for one?

"No. The answer is no. I'd liked Kozelek's first record. I liked the first set of demos. I didn't really like him after that. Suddenly all these bands are doing the slowcore thing and doing really well in it when AMC were doing nothing..so I'm jealous of the motherfuckers!! We were always really eclectic. We played country music, we played the Pink Floyd kind of thing on the first album, the psychedelic bullshit, the dumb rock stuff... we never just sat there and sounded like Low. But I really respect Low. I think they're really great and I think Will Oldham is wonderful...But I never liked the kind of people who sat down and did that kind of music. I love Son Volt and Laika, I like Tipsy, I like Belle and Sebastian, and they don't do that kind of music. I don't know where I'm supposed to fit in. But 'spearheaded'? In the eighties we were touring around America with bar-rock like The Replacements and Hüsker Dü and we played slow, quiet music and mostly we did okay. But we never for one moment thought we were spearheading a movement and if we thought that for one second we were, we would've stopped doing it.

[thoughtful pause]

Actually, you know what? That's a lie. You know, all these people totally ripped us off and they only exist because American Music Club were predominantly the most important rock band in the second half of the twentieth century."

What qualities do you most admire in Gena Rowlands?

"Oh man, just 'cause I love women like that. She's just such a chick! She speaks for herself and she wears her personality on her face. She's smart and she's got soul."

You namecheck Messiaen on 60 Watt Silver Lining...

"Because it's true. I walked into this church and they were playing a piece by Messiaen. It was in the Sacre Coeur and I was like, 'Man, this is so cool.'"

He was the organist in the Sacre Coeur for many years.

"Was he really? That's so cool! I didn't know that. It was on Maundy Saturday and it was really beautiful - it was packed, it was really dark and it was gorgeous. In any major city they'll be playing Messiaen. I had to namecheck him. I have a few of his records. It's really old-fashioned sounding now but it's just beautiful. I just have this one which is basically a series of masses; Quartet for the End of Time. I bought it for the title. I didn't know anything about it, but I knew it was Messiaen playing cause I've heard it before."

It was composed in the concentration camps.

"I didn't even know that. That's incredible."

What would you do with your life if Tipper became the First Lady and outlawed music?

"I'd be soooo happy."

Are you still seeking, erm, "the ultimate cum-shot soundtrack"?

"Ooooh, I knew that was going to come back and haunt me. Well, I don't know if you've ever been to any of my live performances but they are very much like a 45-minute to hour-long orgasm.You don't know if you're coming or going. So it happens all the time. I walk into a room and I turn the light on, I turn the light on... - I turn the whole room into an Orgone box!"