Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sound and Vision: My Interview with The Airborne Toxic Event (Act II)

(Photo via Modelography)

Act I of IV


"Caught in the crossbow of ideas and journeys/sit here reliving the other self's mournings/Caught in the crossbow of ideas and dawnings/stand I"-Call on Me-Lou Reed

Later that same evening, after the band completes their meeting, we reconvene again. I'm told the Jameson bottle took a beating on our break. Anna goes to yoga, Daren and Noah say g'bye, and Mikel, Steven, and I continue.

Me: Did you have an idea of how the lyrics should "sound" when put to music, or did your bandmates just add what they heard? If it's the latter, that's rather incredible and lucky.
MJ: Most of the songs, for the most part, it feels like solving a puzzle. There's a certain thing I see in my head and I'll start to write a song, and there's a line, and then suddenly, I glimpse the song, the whole thing, for a split second. And then you spend the next days and weeks and months pulling your hair out trying to find what you saw as that song. So they were pretty much written by the time we were working them all out [musically]. And there's a lot of time spent redoing phrases. I feel very flawed in that way, I always spend a lot of time trying to find the right words to say, and I don't know if I always do. It's very difficult for me, it takes a long time, it's not like it just happens in 5 minutes. "Wishing Well" took 8 months for me to write, over and over, until I got the words exactly right. By the time it was done it was like yes, that's it, that is how I meant it, that's what I was feeling, that's what was going through, that's what it looked like. Trying to get that all right, that's a very long and arduous process.
SC: It's like structuring an emotion, something that's going to hit you in the gut. If you can do it well, you don't even see it, you just feel it.
Me: I ask that because "Midnight" is a song that starts and then swells, and the lyrics move to this point where at the end, Mikel, you're screaming. As it goes along, everything gets louder and there's this main crescendo and then it descends, and it's striking....I thought wow, if the lyrics hadn't been planned out with the music ahead of time...
MJ: You go through this thing where you're a writer for awhile and a listener for awhile, and a writer, then a listener....the emotion and what you see if really, really real...but then finding it is arduous. That song, "Sometime Around Midnight," that happened…..
SC: I was with him when it happened.
MJ: (to Steven) Yeah you were the friend, you don't remember that, you'd said "What the fuck happened to you"? (to me) I went home [from the bar mentioned in the song] and locked myself in the house for 3 days. I kind of started to write this riff and spent 3 days alone with the song. I was like ....driven, it was all I did, I didn't answer the phone, I didn't go out....I just sat there for 3 days straight writing this song. It was revising, and the first original thing of the song was very different. But it's like being a stonecutter or something; you chip away at it as you go. You try to craft it so that it matches what you were going through.
SC: I remember distinctly when that song came together. We had been torturing ourselves and arduously going over how this song would come together. The way that the song builds... there were a lot of things that didn't work. We were having trouble with it and in a period of like 3-4 hours, we figured out exactly how it would go, and you felt it happen. We had finished playing what became the final version and everyone just knew that incarnation of everyone's arrangements had actually hit the mark. It ended up resonating well when we finished it.

(Discussion ensues as to whether there needed to be more lighting in their room. Steven goes to fix the blinds and I'm told that Steven is the tallest guy in the band at 6'2, and has talents very similar to MacGyver.)

Me: (to Mikel) Do you feel the adult-like jobs you've held as a writer (NPR commentator and Filter magazine writer/managing editor), where you were in essence telling or relaying a story, contributed to your style of songwriting? I say that because a lot of the songs tend to be who, what, where, when....
MJ: I guess being in a rock band, it's like living your dreamland in front of people. It's like you woke up one morning and wrote down all your dreams, your crazy lust-filled, angst-filled dreams, and then at night, you act them out in front of people….at least that's our band, that's what it's like for me, it's living out the dream life. Once you start playing, you don't think about where you are, what day it is, who's out in the audience, who you are, you're just in it. Where as writing, it's more formal and you can adopt different voices. As a singer I can't really do that. There is like a sense that you've lost your mind a little bit...or maybe I have a sense that I've lost my mind a little bit. I mean, it's not sane to do some of the stuff that we do. But I think it's appropriate.

But if you're on NPR or you're writing, you're telling a story and you're within confined bounds, like you're writing a story for your high school English class, it's a little more formalized. I think as a writer, I was definitely always trying to reach the reader. I was never really interested in being a critic, I was always trying to tell a story about political figures or musicians or ideas that I thought were interesting. But music is a different thing, or at least Airborne is a different thing, it's like being completely unhinged and you're completely naked in front of people. Because it's so loud, and everyone's screaming and you're kind of drunk, it's like the energy is all very appropriate, it all makes sense.

Me: Writing as a process. As a writer myself, I seem to be more productive in certain surroundings, with certain music, etc. Can you speak to the specifics of yours?
MJ: Yeah, I'll go like 3 days, 5 days, 8 days, without seeing anyone. I'll lock myself in this apartment, I'll write on the walls, I'll write on myself,...
Me: Yeah I saw that at the Cedar show, you had written on your arm some line like "Life is a ghost?" I was like, what are you Eddie Vedder? (all laugh)
SC: Yeah, "Pro choice ‘92!"
MJ: I guess I get into a mode. You're a writer you may understand this… I'm a very social person. I really like interacting with other people, tend to enjoy being around other people, always a lot of ideas running through my head. I think for writing, I'll deprive myself of that, and I guess I'm so....I dunno, angst-ridden by it, that I have to write it down. The writing or the song writing becomes the only way I can express myself. Where I would naturally communicate to a friend at a cocktail party or whatever, I can only do through a song. And you get into a mode where you haven't seen anyone in 2-3 days and you're just sitting there by yourself...it's usually in the middle of the night, sitting with a guitar, and everyone else is asleep…and you're awake, trying to write about something you feel pretty strongly… Sometimes it's for an audience, it's because you want this girl to hear how you felt and just be moved by it because you want...
SC: (interjects) Or not...
MJ: Yeah in your case (laughs), and you just spent all this time working on it because you want her to have heard it and been moved by it and be like, fuck he was awake at 3 in the morning writing that music, feeling that about me. And other times, it feels like there's just no one, like no one in the world that's awake but you, and you're sitting there in your hovel of an apartment, and your books on the wall, and no one's around, and you're like fuck it, I'm gonna talk to the void.
SC: Well, if I can ask a follow-up question, do you feel like when you go back to it later, that moment of purity, do you feel like it was worth getting there or was it like what the fuck was I thinking, I was so out of sorts...
MJ: (interjects) Always worth it. My best moments are always those moments where you come back and this thing was written...and….really, truly it's not like you wrote it, it's like you wrote it down. You're just this desperate, pathetic, fucking, mongroling little thing who just wanted this one moment to be right. And you don't care what you're accused of, you don't care how you look the next morning, you don't care what sort of person you come off being, you don't care what judgments other people are gonna make about you…you just put yourself out there because you believe that people are gonna get it
Me: Well yeah but that's if you put it forward [and others hear or read it].

(Mikel gets called away for a phone call. Steven continues…)

SC: You're not really writing as much as it is channeling. It's like it's something in your mind that already exists, and you're just trying as smart and as fast as possible to get it down. I feel that a lot of those really memorable hit songs, the writers describe them as writing them that way. It comes down in a flash and you know this part has to happen, and that part has to happen, and when you're done, you almost don't believe you put it together. I've talked to Mikel about this, I feel like songwriters feel that way when they put together a really, really good tight song that people can relate to...You stand back and go "Did I just write that? That has to have existed before"….But it didn't and you feel like you're channeling at some point.
Me: I read about that, where Keith Richards wrote the riff to “Satisfaction”--he'd woken up in the middle of the night and happened to put this thing down, then woke up the next morning going "Where the hell did this thing come from?"
SC: Yeah right? And then, I feel at least, you almost feel like you don't deserve credit for it...like that couldn't have come just from me, I probably stole it from somewhere. (laughs)
Me: So you're a writer too?
SC: Yeah, I was working on a novel, I still sort of am. Mikel and I, we had sort of bonded in San Francisco because I'm a little bit younger than him and I was trying to find people to help me out in my writing career. So a friend introduced us and we sort of bonded late night over bands and whatever. And it's strange to me that playing music never came up. I was surprised when I found out that he played as much guitar as I did. So before, the basis of our relationship was so literary that we hadn't had to talk about that other element. I dunno...I guess neither of us wanted to be boastful about the fact that we could play music, because who are we, we're just some writers... But that's how Mikel and I became friends. But we didn't become really, really great friends until we started this band together, and saw each other at our best and our worst.

Outside of music, I do a lot of writing and editing as well.
Me: Now did you do this [writing] in undergrad?
SC: Yeah, I did it in undergrad and grad. I write a lot of articles and used to write about music as well. I write a lot about film now. You get to a point where you don't know how to write about music anymore. It's weird because once you start playing music you can't write [about it], it's a tradeoff. So I started writing more about film and at some point, I had some really, really good ideas about fiction, I was always more comfortable with non-fiction. Fiction always seemed to be very indulgent and I wasn't sure if I could pull it off. But after awhile I just started wanting to write really, really fun stuff. Mikel and I differ in that, Mikel's writing is more heart wrenching and very serious, and it's very depressing a lot of the time. I tend to gravitate more to the Seinfeld school of thought where you can poke fun at anything. So that's kind of where I came from.

I guess also in the practice space when we're working on music, a lot of that may come into play. I'm always pushing trendier stuff maybe, and Mikel's like, "I dunno..." But it's a good tradeoff between the two of us. And Noah's a huge force in the band in terms of that too because he's such the quintessential songwriter who's trained in what kind of constitutes a 'proper song'. So I think a lot of us come at it from different angles. And I guess what comes out is, hopefully, well structured and concise and really, really soulful.
Me: Who do you like for writers? Or because you've written about film, whose films do you like?
SC: I was an early fan of Tom Perrotta, he wrote "Little Children" and a really funny book called "Wishbones." I do like a lot of the Cameron Crowe type writing. I tend to shy away from films about really, really quirky people, like 'Look how crazy these people are" or "Look how crazy this family is." I feel that's the richest material, when it's just bland, because ordinary people can sometimes be the strangest, weirdest people you've ever met. I really like Alexander Payne, he did "Election" and "About Schmidt." They're about the most ordinary people in the Midwest and I feel like those are really interesting stories. Movies about drugs and alcohol, that's so typical and predictable that these people are gonna wreck their lives because it's in the cards....How does an ordinary person wreck his life, what does he use?

(Mikel comes back. The situation with the shade resumes and Steven" MacGyver" makes another attempt to fix them.)

MJ: Sorry about that, I had to take that, it was a really important call. We're in the middle of a ton of things right now….
Me: (interjects laughing) Name two...
MJ: Uhh...(calls to Steven in the other room) Steven what are two things we're in the middle of?
SC: Like books?
MJ: No, as a band from a business standpoint...(to me) Well, we're trying to figure out how to put out our record, which label, if any, we want to rep us...you know just stuff like that.
SC: (from the other room) We're trying to figure out how to take over the west coast. (all laugh)
MJ: Please don't quote him on that. (laughs)

Me: So we were talking about writing as a process... I mean do you find you work better at certain times of day, or….for example, I find I work better late at night, listening to classical or jazz…I dunno, things just sort of come then. Are you the same for that or do you find that it just varies?
MJ: I think I work better when I'm just completely deprived of people. Like I'll just completely lock myself in here...I don't have a television, I've never had a television, I don't have a radio...I have books and I have cds. I think when I lock myself indoors, I have time, then I tend to write a lot. Sometimes that's in the morning--I honestly don't get a ton of work done between noon and 5 pm. The evenings or early mornings, I tend to work the best. When I haven't really been around people for awhile I can kind of get into my own thing...these things have a way of piggybacking in your own head.

Me: I've always been interested in what makes someone go from listener/appreciator of music, or in your case, writer/commentator, to the person who needs to make music. Can you speak to how and when this change took place for you, first, how you knew you wanted to write about music as a profession, and then second, that you wanted to be a musician/singer/songwriter?
MJ: Well, I should point out, to be accurate, that I was never a professional writer about music. I was really, really broke during all that time. I wanted to be a novelist and I liked music a lot. I wrote under a lot of pen names and I made very little money, like less than 20 grand a year.
Me: But I thought you were Managing Editor of Filter?
MJ: Yeah, I worked from home and I never met the people I talked to. Mostly I was a writer and I got a title because I would write under different names. I think it sounds really important but literally, I was here, the same place I am now. I was just trying to find a way I could meet Robert Smith and ask him questions I wanted to ask him.
Me: (laughs)
MJ: It's true! I was trying to find a way to meet David Bowie and ask him questions. I think those David Fricke's of the world or those people who are real critics, I don't think like that.
Me: You don't write like that either
MJ: I just don't know enough about music, I don't know enough about the history of music. I don't own enough of the big albums, like by Big Star or Television, I don't know that much about Josef K….I'm not pedantic like that. I knew I liked music and I knew I wanted to meet David Bowie and Robert Smith. So it was a way of doing that. I was really, really broke the entire time. I remember reading this book called How Soon is Never by Marc Spitz, who is a writer for SPIN. A couple friends of mine and I were reading it and we were all writing about music at the same time. The opener was all about this character, this music journalist who was so over his life because all he ever did was do blow and hook up with Strokes groupies. We were laughing as we read it out loud because we were all thinking "This guy needs to lose a foot" or something, "This guy needs polio," this guy needs something fucking real to happen to him in his life. We were sacrificing so much just so we could write our dumb little pieces about The Cure or David Bowie or Lou Reed. And it was because we were writers and we liked music and wanted to write about music. We weren't critics, we weren't paid anything. We literally made it up as we went.
Me: Yeah, I read your review of Devotchka and I was wowed by it. I hate to be all fangirl but that was really well done. The ending was like something exactly that I would have written [about a band I loved].
MJ: Well, you know you have to thank Devotchka for that. Their goal, which was much harder than mine, was to make me feel that way. It wasn't by accident, and I just happened upon it. I saw that movie Ratatouille and it brought a tear to my eye a little bit. It's stupid, it's a movie about food, but there was this moment at the end where this critic goes something like "As much as I consider myself important, I know my absolute best work is worth about as much as these people's off days, because they're actually contributing something and I'm just remarking about it." And that type of thing wouldn't have hit me that hard a few years ago, but now I think it's totally true. I mean, it took me 8 months to write that song “Wishing Well,” 8 months of effort and work, of absolutely trying to create this impression in people's heads. I think if you're a really good songwriter, it's not that hard, what you're trying to get across is this thing that happened. And that idea which you feel very strongly, people have felt. The gift of music is that you're able to make other people feel exactly like you did at that moment--it's really, really hard. And maybe other people are better at it, but it took me 8 months of rewriting that song to get that exactly right, to get to "that's exactly how I felt." I felt like killing myself, and I felt like running in one direction and not looking back, and I felt like writing her letters, and I felt like getting drunk and fighting... I felt like nothing fucking mattered. And to get that across in a song that's got like guitar and bass and drums and violas and keyboards and all this shit, it took a long fucking time.

Being a critic of it or being someone who writes about it...you know, it's good, some are better than others and you can find your own art in it. But in the case of that Devotchka review, the credit there goes to Devotchka for writing those songs that make you feel that way.
Me: How did you know, in the case of the song that took 8 months, how did you know it was done? How did you know that it was exactly what you wanted?
MJ: Because you hit the last chord and you go.....that's what that was, that was exactly how that felt. And it wasn't until 2 years later, after having tried to record it 20 times and getting it exactly right in the recording, that you finally go.... THAT was it.
SC: It probably didn't help that you started off trying to make it a reggae song and that's why it took 8 months. That was a bad joke... (laughs)

Me: Talk to me about muse and inspiration. I know I've written some of my most inspired pieces if something was on my mind and I'd had a few drinks. But obviously, one could turn into Lester Bangs doing that every time and dying at age 32. When you're stuck creatively now, is there anything you do to kick your mind into gear?
MJ: No, not really. I go through phases where I write a lot then I won't for awhile. I don't have a lot of control over the process, and I don't try to control it. I'll write 10 songs in 5 days and then I won't write anything for a month, and then sometimes I'll write a song a day for 3 weeks and then I won't...It just kind of comes and goes and I always have faith that it's gonna come back, so I don't really worry about it that much or try too hard. I tend to just have a lot of songs in me. And again, I can't take credit for them. I don't really want to act like they're my ideas because they're not, I just sort of write them down. I'm hunting for them, but I didn't create them.
Me: So if you didn't create them who does?
MJ: In the book This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald talks about this. He's talking to his mentor and there's a point at which his mentor is talking to him about the difference between a scholastic life and a non-scholastic life. And he's using the word scholastic, I think, to mean a person who deals with and writes down ideas, whether as a sculptor, artist, musician, writer, whatever...And he says there's really no difference between a scholastic life and a non-scholastic life, the only difference is that if you live a scholastic life, you leave a record….and I guess I feel like that. I mean, I don't think I go through anything that other people don't go through, I just try really hard to try to leave a record of it.

So as far as inspiration, where do the ideas come from….I dunno, where do the ideas come from that you feel when you and your boyfriend or husband break up? Or where do the ideas come from that you feel when you walk out of your 10th year high school reunion, saw your ex-boyfriend, and you feel a sudden sense of longing for youth or whatever? What is it you feel in the grocery store aisle? These things are very human and very real to everyone on a day-to-day basis, and you can't take credit for them, they're just part of what makes you human. So my goal, as a writer, is just to write them down.

Sometime Around Midnight (acoustic)-Airborne Toxic Event.mp3
Sometime Around Midnight (2007 EP version)-Airborne Toxic Event (Purchase)

Act III coming up...

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