"The hope I had in a notebook full of white, dry pages/Was all I tried to save"-Via Chicago (Live, 2.18.08 at The Riv, Chicago)-Wilco
(We pick up the interview where Act II closed. Steven is in another room playing guitar.)
Me: Has there been one writer whose books you collect/always pick up when they put one out?
MJ: Yeah, probably Fitzgerald, Phillip Roth, Don DeLillo, and Alice Munro are ones I like.
Me: And in terms of music?
MJ: I've always followed the career of Eric Bachmann pretty closely….Archers of Loaf, Crooked Fingers, his solo stuff, I think he's this misunderstood musical genius. He's almost a morality tale in terms of why you not only have to be serious about your songwriting, but serious about what it does for your life. He's an extremely talented guy and I've always looked up to him and admired him, my whole life. I've always felt he was a very important songwriter that's been kind of overlooked. But yeah, pretty much anything he does I'll follow. For years and years I followed anything The Cure did, though I lost track of that bit a little while ago.
But I'm more of an archive person, I more discover things and follow their catalog for awhile. I don't read books, I read authors. I find a book that I like and I want to read every book by that author, the same thing with bands. So I have these seminal bands that I've listened to every one of their songs and tried to absorb some of what they were doing I guess.
Me: I ask that because I know some friends who are also writers and really, really into music, but they'll follow a certain band and then say "Oh they put out a shit album and I'm not going to follow them anymore." I just disagree with that.
MJ: I agree with them, you shouldn't put out shit albums, because you can lose the plot as an artist. You stop working as hard, you stop trying as hard, or you start taking shortcuts with what you're doing. And so it's perfectly appropriate for them to say, "Yeah they kind of lost the plot with that record." It's true, it's abso-fuck-alutely true, they did lose the plot, and you know why, it's because they weren't paying that much attention. You gotta pay attention as an artist because that's your job. So I agree with your friends on that. I mean, what, you're supposed to just absorb everything someone does just because they happen to be a musician? Who cares, write a good song, you're a songwriter, that's your job.
Me: But it's not so much that. If a certain person originally reached out and grabbed you in some degree, I think it could still possibly be there…We can agree to disagree I guess. (both laugh)
Now books…some books I've gone back to multiple times even though I have brand new books sitting on a shelf. Name two like that for you.
MJ: Tender is the Night and Lolita.
SC: (from the other room) John Grisham's The Summons.
MJ: (laughs) Steven's making a joke. "Tender is the Night" I've read probably 12 times, and "Lolita" I've read probably 10-15 times.
Me: And yet you're complaining you have only 16 year-olds coming to your shows? (laughs)
MJ: No, I think people misread "Lolita." There's that Vanity Fair quote about "Lolita" that it's the only honest love story of the 20th century. It's not a love story; it's a story about obsession...
Me: (interjects)...and lust
MJ: I don't even know about lust, lust is this other thing; I think it's actually just about obsession. Really what I admire about "Lolita" is the story-telling, watching him literally be conspiratorial with his audience. Half the time you read Nabokov, you're caught up in the story, and half the time, you're just admiring this man who can tell this fucking story so beautifully and so perfectly…..
SC: (from the other room) In his second language.
MJ: In his second language, that's right, it's not even his first language! It's his fucking second language and it's just unbelievable to me. And also, obviously White Noise, I've read quite a few times. So I'd say those three are the books I've read the most. (Starts scanning the walls of the room) I'm looking up at the books taped to my wall...I've got The Trial by Kafka taped to my wall, Notes from the Underground by Dostoevsky, American Pastoral by Philip Roth, Laughter in the Dark by Nabokov and strangely enough, Steinbeck. I actually like Steinbeck quite a bit, I think he's actually a really good writer. He's like a bull with his characters. He has a really repetitive voice, and he's not particularly interested in diction, but his way of telling a story is "Here are these characters, now watch me push these characters through a series of really, really bad things." And so, it's hard to turn away.
Me: But that's a lot of what the songwriting is with you guys, it seems, hard to turn away. A lot of these situations people have endured and yet, they're being spoken of in a way that's very forthright, very vulnerable, very Westerberg-esque if you will...heart on your sleeve sort of stuff.
MJ: (laughs) Well it's not on purpose.
Me: What the best and the worst part about being a writer of songs rather than a writer about songs, and vice versa?
MJ: Whew, you're going for the big guns here, Erica. (pauses) Well...The worst part is feeling like a fraud. What happens is you listen to a lot of music from people that you respect and you feel like they become these demagogues in your mind....Bob Dylan is a god he's not a person, or Robert Smith, David Bowie, John Sebastian, you name it, they're not people. And so as a songwriter when you start to write songs and people listen to them, you start to feel like you're a fraud, like "Who the fuck am I?" I mean, I went to high school, I've got parents who still think I'm 11, I've got friends who roll their eyes at some of my habits...You feel like you're a complete and utter and total fraud, and anyone who would listen to you is just buying into some persona that you're projecting. And it sucks; it's like a really shitty feeling of just being almost embarrassed by all that vulgar emotion that you're showing. So that's the worst part.
And I guess conversely, the worst part of being a writer when you write about music is feeling like you don't matter. And these people who write the songs are the ones who matter and you're just some asshole commenting from the wings. And no one cares what the fuck you think, they just care about these songwriters.
So then there's the best part of being, I guess, a critic which is that you can tell people when other people are full of shit. You can say, "That record sucks because this guy was just reading too much of his own publicity, and it's crap." And it's fun, it's really fun to slag off on bands. There can be a certain sort of...conspiracy you have with your reader.
And then the best part of being a songwriter is connecting with that audience. It's bringing everybody into your room when you wrote that song. It's like you wrote it, and finished it, and you had this feeling at 1 in the morning, on a fucking Wednesday night, and you're broke, and you're not sure how you're going to pay your rent in 2 weeks...And you're sitting there by yourself with writing all over your arms and your legs and your walls and whatever...And now here's 200 people singing it with you. And it's just really, really affirming where you just feel like..."fuck you loneliness!," this happened, and other people felt it too.
And then I guess the median point between all these things is that we're all critics that suck, and were all complete frauds, and we're all conspiratorial with our audiences, and we're all completely with them while they go through our pain with us. At various times, everybody is all these things; the fun part is being one of them. It's realizing that you can be part of it. And it makes you want to tell everyone you know, "Hey man, quit your job, start following bands or reading books or watching movies or looking at art or whatever it is you want to do that actually excites you or interests you." Because wherever your place is, as an artist or a critic, or appreciator, or as a complete and total fuck-up mess that just goes to museums, whatever, go, be part of it. Just don't be part of some soulless, nameless, credit-driven corporation who tells you what your life should be because THAT's bullshit, that's soulless and wrong. And everything else, whether people hate you or think you're a god, everybody's wrong. Anyone who hates you is wrong and anyone who thinks you're a genius is wrong....At least you're not sitting behind a desk, under a florescent light, pushing papers for a profit margin because that sucks.
Me: (ponders, then calls out to Steven still in the other room) Steven do you agree? (laughs)
SC: Yeah he's right.
MJ: (laughs) He's half passed out on my bed because he doesn't handle scotch.
SC: I drank too much Jameson!
MJ: Tell the truth you can't handle scotch!
SC: (coming in from the other room) I'll handle scotch back and forth across this room, I'll handle it all night!
MJ: Just go lie down you're not doing well. (laughs)
MJ: Erica, when are you going to ask me about my five songs I wish I'd written? I spent some time seriously thinking about this.
Me: Great! (Reading over notes) Well I think we're at that point, so ok, name five songs you wish you wrote and why.
MJ: I wish I'd written “Chelsea Hotel #2” by Leonard Cohen just because I like the part where Cohen says, "We're ugly but we have the music." I love that line. It's about him having sex with Janis Joplin...she gets up and straightens her dress and says,"Well never mind, we're ugly but we have the music." That's after that line where he says, "You told me again you prefer handsome men."
Me: She also preferred women so he shouldn't take it personally. (both laugh)
MJ: Yeah he shouldn't take it too hard. You know, I've got autoimmune disorder and I'm losing all the hair on my head and my face and my body, and I'm losing all the pigment on my body...and autoimmune disorder cuts your lifespan down by about 20 years. This is all the stuff that happened to me when I started writing music. And it's funny because my whole life, I've always been, (pauses) I was like the cute boy in high school and college to some extent, and I started a band not until I was 30 something, and then I got diagnosed with this disease, and it changes the way I look. And suddenly everyone is taking pictures of us, shooting videos of us, and I look at them and go,"Wow, you don't have that much hair," (laughs) or "Your skin looks funny," and....it's really nerve-wracking and weird. When it comes to just the art of it, you don't care, you just want people to care about what you write or what you sing or what your band is doing. But then there's this real thing about being in front of people, and other people telling you, "Hey dude, gosh, you kind of look weird." So that line where he says "We're ugly but we have the music," that really speaks to me. I feel like I didn't have the music until I became ugly, and that was my tradeoff with the world. And so I couldn't try to be the cute boy who fronts a band or tries to sleep with groupies…I had to write songs I meant, I had to be with bandmates I truly cared about, I had to do things that I really believed in. I wasn't going to get away with just trying to be cute because I wasn't gonna be cute anymore….I was going to lose all my hair and my skin pigment and look like Moby. (laughs) So he expresses that idea really well. And I feel that way a lot, that I didn't get music until I got so ugly.
Another one is “Quicksand” by David Bowie. Hunky Dory, it's just a great record. I remember listening to that song when I was 11 years old with my friend Jake in his garage. My friend Jake was my best friend at the time, and he was this real awkward kid who loved Sigue Sigue Sputnik and the Cure and the Smiths, and I didn't know from that shit except that he introduced me to it. We were both these poor kids, his dad was a coke addict, and we were on welfare and food stamps, and our escape was our garage with our music. And David Bowie sings that line, "You don't believe in yourself," that always spoke to me…It always meant we don't matter, that our ideas matter but we don't. We're just a couple of loser kids and we'll always be loser kids, but we can attach ourselves to ideas or we can have ideas, and that's the important thing.
The third one is “I Found a Reason” by the Velvet Underground, just because Lou Reed once told me, "Rock and roll can go ba ba ba, it can't go la la la." (laughs) I just really liked the song, it's beautiful, and I wish I'd written it because it's one of my favorite songs.
Number four is “3rd Planet” by Modest Mouse. Maybe it's something to throw you off with a more modern thing in there, but if I had to choose one song that was my favorite of all time, I'd have to say “3rd Planet” by Modest Mouse. It's because you're there with him, you're swimming around in all those guitar delays and all that confusion….And you see the planets and you see your own stupid, pitiful, little life, and it just makes sense to you.
And you know, "My only art is fucking people over" is a GREAT line because it just absolves you from your complete and utter inability to relate. I don't think I'm like that, I think I probably relate ok, but it's a great line and it makes you on his team at that point.
My number five was actually a bunch of different songs. I couldn't decide, so I figured instead of trying to explain or choose one, I'm just gonna list them and you can decide for yourself why.
-“Fairytale of NY” (The Pogues)
-“Like Cockatoos” (The Cure)
-“Rapture” (Pedro the Lion)
-“The Calendar that Hung Itself” (Bright Eyes)
-“Hotel Yorba” (White Stripes)
-“We've Been Had” (The Walkman)
-“A Little Bleeding” (Crooked Fingers)
-“Queen of the Surface Streets” (Devotchka)
-“Lion's Mane” (Iron and Wine)
Now if you're a songwriter, the reasons why you would choose any one of these songs seems really obvious to me, like they captured a little bit of what it felt like to be them at that moment. Before recorded music, poetry was really popular. My theory is that poetry isn't popular anymore because we have music now. Before we had a recording of how people felt, they'd try to capture it lyrically in poems. And now, no one gives a FUCK about poetry because we have all these songs, and they're so much better at capturing what it felt like. When Robert Smith wrote "Like Cockatoos," I know that feeling, I know it really well. "Fairytale of NY," I know what that feels like...You want to see all those police officers singing “Galway Bay.” "The Calendar that Hung Itself," have you ever been jealous in your entire life, of anyone? "The Calendar that Hung Itself" is the quintessential jealousy song. So it's a bit of a cock-up naming all these songs as #5. [Overall] what you're trying to do as a songwriter, you're trying to let other people know what it felt like to be going through this exact moment you're going through right now. And it's a series of lyrics, and a bunch of music, and there's a way that you sing it so that you can communicate with these people like, "You know what man, that's how that felt, it sucked, and that's what happened." So I guess I feel like each of these songs captures a bit of that in some way or another.
Me: Your band has become pretty hot pretty fast. You put out an EP, played Europe even, and then just recently got a manager. In fact, I heard from an industry friend in LA that your single had been picked up by "the" rock radio station out there - the first time in something like 10 years that they'd added a single by an unsigned band to their playlist. I'd read that you guys were pretty much doing everything yourselves. Do you feel like your time spent in the world of music reviewing gave you insights on what to avoid or what to do?
MJ: Well maybe some insights...like we have a band rule against doing coke. (laughs) Nobody in our band is allowed to do blow because we know that blow breaks up bands, so I guess there is shit like that.
I don't know if there's much crossover in terms of writing about music because it was real important to me from the jump never to bring it up. Actually, I think Daren was in the band 3-4 months before he even knew that I'd ever written about music. I always felt like it was two separate things and some of the stuff is just kind of embarrassing. You just want to write a song and you want people to think about the song, not think about you as some critic, some ex-whatever…You wonder if people will ever allow you to be multiple things in your life. It was really important to me to never use anything [from his music reviewing life]....I just never brought it up...ever. We've had to turn down press opportunities because it was someone I knew, and we've turned down a lot of promotion because it was someone that I knew....I just wouldn't accept it.
So it's kind of two different worlds. It sounds so fucking stupid and trite, but I just...suddenly, all I wanted to do was play music. And it's all I've done. I literally have intense credit card debt, I've defaulted on my student loans, I haven't paid taxes in 7 years, I'm so fucking broke...and all I want to do is play music. I just don't care, I just don't care. And when I wrote about music I felt that way, when I was writing a novel I felt that way (laughs)...I don't know how else to be in life, I don't know what else to do.
So did it give me a perspective? Yeah it taught me that bands shouldn't do blow, because it makes everyone super egotistical and then you break up. And that sucks, you became a band because everyone in the band was really talented at what they did, and you came together and were really talented as a group. So we don't do blow as a result.
And I guess it taught me that what's important is you write and record good songs, and the rest of it kind of doesn't matter that much. But the rest of it, I dunno if one informs the other, I think they're two totally different functions of reality. I would have been done with music writing either way; I would have been writing novels at this point if I hadn't gotten bit by this music bug.
Me: That's exceptionally forthright, way more forthright than I expected. (laughs)
MJ: Steven is over there riffing right now you should see him...he just lying on my bed right now, riffing.
SC: (from the other room) You liking the mad riffage?
MJ: Yeah you're tapping your foot, it's awesome. Steven Chen, ladies and gentlemen, Steven Chen....My bandmates are my best friends; we've all kind of cast our lot together, and (pauses)….this is all any of us have. There's nothing else we're better at, there's nothing else we're trying to do, this is it for us. And we live and die by it. So we're friends, but partially we're friends because we're tied to the same fate, if that makes any sense.
Me: How would you define success at this point?
MJ: (laughs) I once remember telling a friend about a year and a half ago that I just wanted five people I'd never met to like songs that I'd wrote. Not friends, not friends of friends, but five people that I didn't know to like something that I wrote, and then I'd feel like I was a success. And now I think my feelings are that you multiply that by about...a million. (both laugh)
But it's the same basic idea, if you could reach people you've never met, people who don't know you, or people who don't have some sort of vested stake in your success, and who just get it. The last Spaceland show that we played...Spaceland's a club that holds maybe 400 people, and the last show we played, about 1000 people showed up. And the crowd, it wasn't your sort of local hipsters but all kinds of different sorts of folk. And this guy named Ray came up to me. Ray was like, "Hey man, I don't want to sound gay or nothing like that, but 'Sometime Around Midnight,' that happened to me." And I was like, "Oh, ok Ray, that's cool," and he was like, "No man, no," (makes the Wonder Twins power motion with his fist) and we pounded fists. Then he introduced me to his wife and said, "No no, it wasn't her, it was some other punta," (laughs) "but lemme tell you, I've been there and I know what that feels like, so you know, alright." And stuff like that...we all want to do this for a living for sure, but stuff like that, I look at shit like that and think, "Wow, fuck man, I totally talked to RAY." How the fuck would I know Ray, and Ray was all psyched that I wrote this song about being all bummed out about my ex-girlfriend at this bar one night. So yeah, that's success, that's good enough for us.
It's weird, you start getting ahead of yourself in your head and thinking like "Wow here's how much money I'm gonna make," and "I'm gonna be rich in 2 years and do this and that," whatever… And then other times you think nobody gives a fuck, like nobody cares about my music or my band or anything. And I guess success is if you're a guy who needs 100 dollars and someone gives you 101, where as failure is a guy who needs 101, and someone only gives him 100. So we're always trying to be the band that only has 20 bucks to their name because we're all really broke. (laughs) And we love that fact that people even know who we are because, you know, we're just an unsigned band from Los Feliz.
Me: How did you guys find SX….Did you find it was worth it, how did you guys get there, how did all that happen?
MJ: Well we took a plane (laughs)....We played this place called the Troubadour in LA and we made a bunch of money that night because it sold out. We took that money and we bought plane tickets.
Me: Nice, smart ass….I mean did you get in* [to SXSW proper]?
(*Ed. note: Often, bands, if they don't get into SXSW, will just come down anyway and try to get into venues and play.)
MJ: There's an application process and we applied. It wasn't clear when we applied that we would even get in. But then we got accepted and we got offered a number of, much to our surprise, a number of showcases. And we didn't even have plane tickets because none of us have enough money to just buy plane tickets. Then we played this show at the Troubadour which sold out. We took the money we made that night and bought plane tickets. Now we're even again and we're back to zero. (laughs)
It's funny because while we were at SX the biggest question we got asked was, "What is it like to be so successful?" And we were all like, "I wouldn't know!" (laughs) We don't have a label, we don't have any of that stuff. It's just us, it's just the five of us, we don't know what's gonna come of it. Everyone keeps telling us that that's what's gonna happen, but we don't know if that's true or not....none of it has really happened yet.
Me: But have you gotten good info from people from SX?
MJ: Well even before SX, we've definitely been wined and dined by labels. Like a lot of big name labels, like the presidents of labels are inviting us to their house at this point. We definitely feel courted, if for no other reason than they want us to feel courted, and maybe somehow loyal to them. We don't know what we're going to do yet. We don't really trust labels, we don't really trust anyone but the five of us. We trust each other but that's about it because you know, people say a lot of shit.
Me: Well that was actually a question that I had. If you go the Radiohead route and you go completely independent, it's difficult because there's the distribution issue. My friends and I are pretty big music nerds, but we first heard of you, being on the east coast, via SX stuff. Had we not gone to SX, we might not have heard about you guys, but then you're huge in LA. So I guess the question is what do you think about that? I mean, you have this EP, you have enough stuff "mastered" for a full length record, but I guess it's what do you want to do? What would you settle for?
MJ: Well, we're not in the mood to settle. We're very much in a mood to find people who believe in what we're doing and wanna support it. We're not terribly concerned about the numbers. We've already been offered enormous numbers, and also smaller numbers, and we've sort of scoffed at both because we're not signing away our futures. But we're also not interested in only being a band from Los Feliz that never goes anywhere. So I guess there's a line to be walked there somewhere. You can never predict how big your audience is gonna be or how many people are gonna like what you're doing...it's like there's a weird calculation that goes on where you have to figure out what you're worth, and what other people think you're worth, and we don't know. Honestly Erica, sometimes I feel like we're not worth anything. Some days I wake up and I feel like nobody gives a fuck, I feel like the biggest loser on the planet and no one cares...that's the honest truth. And then other days after shows, and there's like, 500 people running up to talk to me or talk to the band, I feel like the fucking king of the labyrinth. And I'm confused by both of those things. It's a very confusing and sort of overwhelming position to be in. It's like sometimes you think you're gonna be the biggest band in the world, and other times you think no one's ever gonna care, you fucking oversaturated fuck.
And I don't know, maybe some people don't go through things like that but those are the kinds of things that I go through. I know this is what I wanna do, I know I believe in what we're doing. I know I'm a participant in our shows, and I've looked at our shows and they look different than other shows that I see. And you kind of have to remain humble about those other things, you can't control them. You've just kind of got to do your thing and hope somebody gets it. And if they don't, you know, you're an asshole if you don't keep doing it anyway.
(After almost 3.5 hours of talking, much Jameson and wine had been consumed by all parties at this point, and we were losing Steven to massive hunger. So we called last question.)
Me: Ok so…have you had previous training as a singer, and are you looking forward to playing new stuff?
MJ: No and no. C'mon, you got a better question in you than that…I've no training as a singer, I spent the last year and half locked alone in my apartment singing 6 hours a day, and that's the only reason I can even carry a tune.
Me: How is that possible, that's nonsense!
MJ: It's true, it's true, I couldn't even carry a tune 3 years ago. I have the mp3s to prove it. It's only because...I'm telling you, my mom got sick, and my dad was sick, and I was sick, and suddenly everything just didn't matter, and I started singing all the time. Before that, I couldn't really sing, it was only after months and months and months and months of trying. C'mon Erica, I know you have another question.
Me: I know you have to go eat.
MJ: Is that it then, are we done, is that the whole thing? (calls to Steven) Steven, we're done, Erica's out of questions.
SC: (from the other room) Oh ok, you want me to ask you questions?
MJ: No I think we're good.
Wishing Well (2006 version)-Airborne Toxic Event (MP3)
Wishing Well (2007 EP)-Airborne Toxic Event (Purchase)
Act IV coming up...