Going to America

Feels strange that I’m flying to the US tomorrow as I sit here glued to live feeds from Hurricane Sandy. I’m due to arrive in Dallas on Wednesday afternoon, then fly straight to Atlanta. But it probably depends how far inland/south the storm comes. I’m a bit worried as I’m due at a conference at the University of West Georgia, in Carrollton, by Thursday evening. I’m also going to in NYC on Saturday, but with the volume of flights they’ve had to cancel, I wouldn’t be surprised if that one gets delayed.

I’ve never been to New York, and I hope when I get there it’s still intact… I’m feeling for all the people on the east coast, particularly those who may be separated from loved ones. Must be pretty damn scary.

The conference I’m going to is called Systems of Control/Modes of Resistance, and I’m giving a paper called: ‘”All can be and will be commodified”: bottom-up resistance and corporate incorporation in Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document‘. Eat the Document is set in two eras—the 1970s and the 1990s—and there is a comparison between the way the characters in each era protest or resist corporate power. I argue that while the actions of the ‘radical’ protesters in the 1970s may have failed, the small, peaceful movements of the 1990s characters often only confirm, or conform to, the systems of power in a market-based society. I think the novel is pretty pessimistic, overall, about our ability to resist a culture that readily incorporates, pre-empts and commodifies resistance, but there is one character who remains hopeful, so she provides a contrast. It’s a great read, by the way, I highly encourage you to pick it up (my 2008 review is not very well written, but gives you more an idea of the story). I’m finally going to read Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, too, on the plane over (see James Bradley’s review of that one here).

And that gives you a bit of an idea of what I’m writing about in my thesis, too, something I’ve rarely talked about on LiteraryMinded. I guess because until now (where I have a complete draft of my novel and a very rough draft of my exegesis) I was very much still in a process of ‘working out’. There is also the case that in the academic world, you have to present original ideas to the examiners, so you can’t go spilling them out willy-nilly. When I’m finished, though, I do hope to write some more accessible-style essays for non-academic publications, on the subjects I’ve been looking at. And I’ll write more about the whole process of doing a DCA, here on the blog, when I’m finished in March.

I’m looking forward to the conference, not just listening to the papers (which all sound fascinating), but the Southern accents! And I look forward to eating some grits and drinking sloe gin. I’m sure I’ll have internet here and there, so I’ll send you a missive. I’m back in Aus on the 13th of November.

Black Postcards: Kent MacCarter interviews Dean Wareham (part two)

Part one of this interview can be found here.

How do you feel about TS Eliot’s (in)famous quip, ‘Good poets borrow, great poets steal’?

I was having a hard time figuring out what TS Eliot meant here – what’s the difference between borrowing and stealing in poetry? So I Googled that phrase (the internet is beautiful) and, apparently, this is one of those famous quotes that is a misquote. Apparently what he actually wrote, in an essay on the playwright Philip Massinger, was this:

‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different’.

And this we can all agree on.

Is it hard to draw or believe the lines between a claimed accident, ‘strong influence’ and outright theft between artists? Wayne Coyne and his Flaming Lips had to turn over publishing royalties to Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) for their song ‘Fight Test’. Recently in Australia, Colin Hay of Men at Work was found by the barristers to have nicked the flute riff from the classic Australia nursery rhyme, ‘Kookaburra’ –  under copyright just like ‘Happy Birthday’ is – for their megahit  song, ‘Down Under’, and now must pay. Luna released a song that skirted awfully close to having a chord sequence from Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ linger a bit longer than it probably should have. Anything to say about Bob Dylan and cover art on this matter?

Well, yes, I took the chord progression for ‘Dizzy’ from Van Halen’s ‘Jump’, but that’s not illegal. Anyway, we were not worth suing because the song didn’t make enough money. ‘Down Under’ or ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ or ‘My Sweet Lord’ – now those are worth suing over. Dylan is careful; he takes from dead people who can’t sue him, which is firmly in the tradition of all folk musicians. But you are referring, of course, to the cover of Dylan’s Modern Times album, a great photograph by Ted Croner that we had already used as the cover for a Luna single. We don’t mind.

Now, moving on to acting and movies, you’ve played a bartender on Law & Order and had lead roles in indie films Pumpkin Hell and Piggie. Did you agree to do these simply as a lark? Compared to performing music and the writing of a memoir, how did you find the ‘act’ of acting?

Acting is easy. They write the words for you; all you have to do is memorise them. You stand in the right spot and look where they tell you to look and speak the lines. But you do have to get up super early in the morning.

Scoring, composing or being music supervisor on films (ala Ry Cooder or Danny Elfman) like The Squid and The Whale is also in your repertoire. Is that a practical pursuit?

I enjoy it when the film is good. I guess there are two kinds of jobs, those you do for love and those you do for money, and the best ones are really good films that you get paid to work on.

How did you find working with directors Noah Baumbach and Olivier Assayas?

Both brilliant directors with their own distinctive style, so what’s not to like? It is exciting to work on a good film; it’s a privilege. I think that goes for everyone involved, from the actors to the composers to the caterers.

Your music has also appeared in movies like Sideways and Margot at the Wedding. Are you overly choosy about what song might be used where? Such as selling the usage rights of a song to American Express instead of (trendy clothing stores) The Gap?

I’m not too bothered about having a song in a TV commercial. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but it doesn’t upset me, especially if it’s just an instrumental section of a song. And double especially if they pay us. Frankly, it’s one of the few ways to make money from your recorded music now; everyone is focused on trying to place their songs on TV. The Gap ad I didn’t want to do because I would have had to stand there on camera and sing ‘fall into the Gap’ or some other nonsense. I didn’t want to do that. I don’t think I would have done it convincingly. But Aerosmith was good at it.

Okay, so image has its place. The current Dean (Wareham) & Britta (Philips) persona is one similar in vein to Lee (Hazelwood) & Nancy (Sinatra) and Serge (Gainsbourg) & Brigitte (Bardot). And you’re no stranger to slick magazine covers, ads for fancy watches or suits or appearing in the pages of GQ. Is there a point where cultivating a semi-bourgeois, urbane image becomes untenable?

I confess that in an Esquire photo shoot I was wearing a watch that I definitely could not afford. But it’s just a photo shoot. Performers are supposed to dress up for those. I don’t think it much matters if people think I’m semi-bourgeois; I probably am, and I don’t have to pretend that my Dad was a coal miner. Ultimately, I will be judged on the music, not on a spread in a fashion magazine.

There are always legions of fans and critics waiting to label you as a ‘sell-out’ for such activities. It’s not fair, but true.

I remember talking to a certain underground filmmaker/photographer I know, who came up in New York in the ’70s. We discussed this issue of selling out, who had sold out and who hadn’t. ‘It’s not selling out,’ he said, ‘it’s cashing in.’

One thing nobody will ever tag you as a sell-out for is your association with The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. They chose you and Britta, specifically, to score music for a selection of Warhol’s character studies that he filmed over many years. The result, 13 Most Beautiful … Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, is a film, a record and a live show you’ve taken all over the world including a stint at the Sydney Opera House in 2010. How did all of this come together?

This was a commission from the Andy Warhol Museum. Ben Harrison, the museum’s Curator for Performance, approached me with the idea to score thirteen of Warhol’s Screen Tests – the short silent portrait films he made at the Factory between 1964 and 1966. And I alluded to this before perhaps; it’s always good to work with a brilliant director, even if this one was not alive to give us direction.

Has being the representative composer for Any Warhol been at all nerve-wracking?

It was at first. We kept asking ourselves, what would Warhol have wanted? And we were performing outside our comfort zone. Our comfort zone is playing our own songs to our own fans in rock clubs, whereas now we found ourselves playing the songs in museums and churches and arts festivals – to a very mixed audience, from younger fans of our music to older ladies with blue hair who have a membership at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

We haven’t talked about music all that much yet. Your first band started out as three Harvard University students with a borrowed drum kit from fellow student Conan O’Brien. Did you have any idea what you were doing?

None at all, we couldn’t play our instruments. We were trying to be like the Clash or the Cramps or Joy Division but didn’t know how to do it – I didn’t even own a fuzzbox. Our girlfriends would come by rehearsals and just laugh at us. I would say it took me about six years before I started to play something interesting on the guitar, and by that time had hit on the right combination of people – and this was Galaxie 500.

It’s well-documented that Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground are / were influences on your music. Sterling Morrison can be heard on your second Luna record, Bewitched. And VU hand selected Luna as their support band during their European reunion tour in 1993. What is it like to not only meet and collaborate with such legendary names, but to slowly become the heir to presence?

All I can say is it’s kind of amazing to have met so many of my heroes… to actually play with Sterling Morrison and Tom Verlaine, to meet Lee Hazlewood, Jonathan Richman, the Talking Heads, Alan Vega, the Feelies. It’s hard for me to see myself as the heir to those figures; I am too much in awe of them.

You majored in Social Studies at Harvard. Why? What was your original ‘plan’ before Galaxie500 took off?

I did not have a plan. I still do not have a plan beyond the next six months. But certainly a career as a musician was not a plan either; it’s just that I started doing it and then I found that people liked the music and I was actually earning a living that way, and now I don’t know what else I would do.

You recently did an interview with Stephen Malkmus about how you’re both three decades in to the music racket and remain alive, well and flourishing. You seem to be well into the ‘gravy’ of life now; over the hump of exhaustion that bands create, the nadir of touring frustrations (which your tour documentary Tell Me Do You Miss Me is saturated with) and the anxiety of figuring out how to end a critically acclaimed band that never struck the financial jackpot. How did you manage that?

I don’t know. I hope you are correct that these are the gravy days – following the salad days. There must be some luck involved, and I kept at it I suppose, perhaps out of  stubbornness or stupidity. I’ve been making music long enough that I actually have an audience out there, people who will show up when I come to town.

Care to shed any more light on the impromptu wedding band you performed in with Malkmus and David Berman?

It was at the wedding of writer Robert Bingham, who was a good friend of Berman and Malkmus, and who I knew through my wife at the time. Mr Malkmus suggested we do ‘Sweet Child ‘O’ Mine’ and I had just recorded it with Luna. So that was lucky. But the tragic thing is that Robert Bingham died of a drug overdose a few months later, and I was asked to sing the song at his funeral. I just read his novel, Lightning on the Sun, which he did not live to see published.

Your second band, Luna, was an indie supergroup made up of Galaxie 500, the Feelies and the Chills – that’s an incredible pedigree.

Yeah our bassist Justin Harwood hailed from one of the most revered NZ bands, drummer Stanley Demeski played with my own favorite the Feelies (very underrated but I think an important band in rock history in the New York area), and there I was from Galaxie 500. But it doesn’t mean much; it wasn’t till we added guitarist Sean Eden (from no particular band at all) that we started to make really good music.

I want to close with some final ruminations on your memoir. ‘It felt good to be heading north’ is a stupendous line to end a book on. In your memoir, you speak of Matthew Buzzel, director of the tour doco, Tell Me Do You Miss Me, lingering around to capture the very last moments – ever – of Luna as a band after their last show in New York’s Bowery Ballroom. Looking back now, through all the times you thought your bands were heading ‘south’ (and the times that they were or weren’t in actuality), how did you summon the energy to ‘keep on’ during those bleaker times? And with what did you assuage the occasional fears of artistic collapse?

Why thank you, I was happy with that last line too, and I didn’t particularly have to struggle with it; I just had a very natural moment to end my book – the moment I stepped into a taxi cab after my Luna’s final show and knew that my life was going to be different from this moment on.

As for summoning the energy, maybe it’s easier when you’re in a band, you have deadlines, shows to play, songs to finish, and there’s a structure to it, and people to help finish the songs. If there was a bleak time, maybe it was when Luna was let go by Elektra Records, and by our publisher, and by our accountant, but still we would go out on the road and we were playing to more people than ever, so that was energizing. And then Britta replaced Justin on bass and that changed the energy too.

There is always that fear that one day I’ll sit down to write and just won’t be able to do it. Some people would call that writer’s block. I just saw Geoff Dyer (one of my favorite writers) give a reading in Brooklyn.  He said there is no such thing as writer’s block, or rather that the writer only says he is ‘blocked’ because at that moment he has nothing to say. It’s easier to think that you are suffering from this special writer’s affliction, than to admit that you have nothing to say. So perhaps the thing is to wait until you do have something to say.

Kent MacCarter is a writer and resident in Melbourne, where he lives with his wife, son and two cats. His poetry and a smattering of non-fiction has appeared in anthologies, journals and newspapers internationally in print and online. He is currently involved on the board of SPUNC: The Small Press Network and is also an active member in Melbourne PEN.

Black Postcards: Kent MacCarter interviews Dean Wareham (part one)

By Kent MacCarter

Dean Wareham – musician, author, actor and a co-inventor of the ‘shoegaze’ aesthetic – is coming home to Australia.

Sort of.

This month, he, his partner Britta Phillips, and band will be touring Australia and New Zealand playing entire sets from seminal rock band, Galaxie 500, 19 years after their demise and first-ever shows in Australia with their songs. In 2008, Wareham published a poignant, atypical rock-n-roll memoir. In recent years, he has toured the world as composer to and the face of Andy Warhol’s Superstars. Coerced Lou Reed to play on records and opened for Velvet Underground tours. Along the way, there’s been some acting gigs. Law & Order anybody? Most importantly, his tenacity and persona-polishing sees him sitting pretty in a most well-appointed catbird seat.

Recently, we caught up on all things and more, but I went straight for the inquisitive jugular…

Kent MacCarter: How did a boy from Wellington, NZ – with early teenage years in Sydney – become the heir apparent to Andy Warhol’s Superstars, the Velvet Underground and the epitome of New York ‘cool’?

Dean Wareham: I don’t know if I’m cool or not; that of course is highly subjective, and it’s hard to say why life turns out one way rather than another, but I was fortunate that my parents moved, first to Sydney (in 1970), then to New York City (in 1977). One of my teachers at Sydney Grammar School told my parents they were making a terrible mistake by taking me to New York, but it was a fortuitous time to arrive there. The city was bankrupt of course but culturally there was a lot going on, it’s a great place to go to high school, a great place to see shows by the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Suicide, B-52s, the Specials, Grandmaster Flash, Pere Ubu… I studied art history at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (though I also remember Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New making a big impression on me).

You were born in Wellington, New Zealand, but moved to Sydney for your early teenage years. Is there any Sydney-sider left in you?

I lived in Sydney from age 7 to 14, so in a way it will always feel like a home, though at this point it’s a home I don’t know very well.

How did it feel to come ‘home’ – even in a distant sense – to play at the Sydney Opera House in 2010?

Very strange, for a few reasons. There aren’t any venues more iconic than the Sydney Opera House. I was there in a boat in Sydney Harbour the day it officially opened. But the strangest part of that trip was being picked up at the airport and driven to our hotel, which was located directly across the street from St Andrews Church in downtown Sydney. I attended St Andrews school in 1973 and 1974 (before moving on to Sydney Grammar), so I was surprised to be right back on that street.

I walked around looking for the old school building, but I couldn’t find it; it turns out that building had been torn down and replaced by the Medina Hotel we were staying in. So of course this felt a little surreal, like something that would only happen in a dream… going back to the old school but it’s not there anymore and instead I’m staying in a hotel with my wife and performing at the Opera House.

Considering all the places that you’re ‘from’ and the steady diet of touring over the past 20 years in countries such as Uruguay, Switzerland, Portugal, Japan, a certain worldliness in inevitable. You’re an American citizen who has had the opportunity to ‘see’ America from outside the myopic prism that American news media is… and from within the vantages of many ‘elsewheres’. I often think back to the Bush-Gore Florida recount in 2001. Things could be quite different right now for America – especially attitudes about it – with just a whisper of difference back then.

Maybe you are right. Bush and Cheney took the country down a dark hole, and we are still suffering the consequences. But we have a Democrat in the White House now and we’re still in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. Would it have been so different under a President McCain?

People like to talk about the recent elections as if they ushered in some kind of revolution. When Obama won, people danced in the streets and pundits said the Republicans were finished for the foreseeable future – out of touch with Americans and about to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Two years later, Republicans swept the midterm elections. Again, it was called a seismic shift, a ‘Republican revolution.’

The truth is things change pretty slowly.

Your book, Black Postcards, reflects far more lines and lines of poignancy than it does cocaine, strippers’ g-strings and bent television antennae – the typical fodder of rock memoir excess. There’s no wall of guitar to hide behind in writing, let alone memoir. Was that difficult to come to terms with? Having a book out there, forever to be in the public sphere?

Well yes, there were times I asked myself if I really wanted to reveal so much about myself. But hopefully that’s what makes the book interesting, that I chose to include things that are potentially embarrassing or humiliating, instead of just writing about how clever we all were and what fun we had.

Your memoir was written by you and only you. There is no ‘with’ author noted in the way that Anthony Kiedis’ Scar Tissue or Keith Richard’s Life do. How did you find the process of writing for the page on the topic of yourself versus writing for the ear on the topic of… whatever?

I found writing the memoir much more difficult than writing songs. It gave me a new appreciation for what journalists do – for anyone who writes non-fiction. Because it takes some guts to figure out what you think and put it in writing, to express opinions on real life, as opposed to hiding your feelings behind poetry or cryptic lyrics.

Editing oneself into a second and third draft of a MS is agonising. How much did you leave out?

I left out plenty. But I didn’t find it so difficult. You have to have some concern for the overall pacing, and realise that by removing certain stories you improve the flow of the book. I figure if I told five stories about crazy nights, well, that’s enough to get the picture. I don’t have to confess to every single crime.

I find many musicians are intrigued, beguiled even, by the advent of themselves (or friends) becoming published in book form… almost as if it’s a loftier, more hallowed medium to achieve than say, releasing songs on CD, Mp3 or vinyl. Ridiculous? Or not? You’ve done both.

I don’t know that it’s loftier, but it certainly takes quite an effort – and a lonely effort at that – to complete a book. How many people do you meet who tell you they are working on a book, or would if they had time?

Do you have any desire to write another book that isn’t memoir? I seem to recall, in a long-ago interview you did, reading something along the lines of ‘Why does Nick Cave feel the need to write novels? Who wants to read a novel by Nick Cave?’ As a Melbourne icon, Cave certainly sold quite a few copies of his latest, The Death of Bunny Munro, here in Melbourne. Memoirs are one thing, but why do you think established artists in one medium feel the need to dabble in another? Steve Martin has found some success with his novel. Both Davids Berman and McComb (from The Silver Jews and legendary Australian band, The Triffids, respectively) put out a collection of poems to some acclaim.

I’d rather read a novel by Flaubert or Fitzgerald than one by Nick Cave, maybe that’s just me. Having not read Bunny Munro, I certainly cannot pretend to know if it’s good or not. David Berman is a poet first, and only a reluctant singer and musician. Generally, I think actors make pretty boring music. But there are some who are great singers – Marilyn Monroe, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Harris, Zoe Deschanel, William Shatner. And Vincent Gallo, though his album was savaged by the music press, I thought it was really good. He was a musician before he was a successful actor. Anyway, if I write another book it won’t be a novel nor a collection of poetry. I promise.

In a New York Times article, ‘Frontman’, Liz Phair said of your memoir, ‘Freddie Mercury once said, “I want it all and I want it now.” This appetite might aptly be called the rock ’n’ roll disease, and Dean Wareham seems to have caught it… Part confessional, part unsentimental career diary, Wareham’s Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance reads like good courtroom testimony’. Is that a fair assessment from Phair?

Well yeah I think I discuss the perils of rock and roll for your health and home life. On a long tour it’s as if you have stepped into an alternate reality. But though I had my share of fun, my transgressions were mild. Perhaps I had a mild case. And perhaps the book feels like courtroom testimony because I do lay it out there for people to judge.

There are some publishers here in Australia, and likely elsewhere, that want to charge almost as much for an ebook version of a title as its print version. Do you think the ‘worth’ of a digital download – album or novel – is equal to its tangible counterpart?

The distribution costs for an ebook are negligible, so according to the laws of capitalism it should be cheaper, no? Here in the States, it is the mass-market paperback that is getting squeezed – because if the ebook is only $9.99 and the hardcover is $26.99, then people are asking: do I really want to wait a year for the paperback when I can just buy the Kindle edition so cheap?

Would you object to your publisher giving away an ebook version of your book for free with any sale of the print version?

No I would not object, in fact I kind of think that if someone pays full price for a physical copy of your book (or a vinyl album), then why not give them the digital version as a bonus?

In your book, you mentioned selling the rights to a song you recorded with Lætitia Sadier of Stereolab, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, to US car manufacturer Cadillac for $120,000. That must’ve been pretty nice?

Yes, except the entire $120k went to a record company (Warner Music Group) and a publishing company (Gainsbourg’s). I had no say in it and received no compensation. There is actually a big legal battle looming here, between artists and labels, over when (if ever) a copyright expires. According to the copyright law passed back in 1976, after 35 years the rights to recorded music should revert to the artists who created to the music. Don Henley of the Eagles is leading the charge and I hope he succeeds.

In 2008, you were the emcee for one of the American National Book Foundation’s marquee events – ‘5 Under 35’ – featuring Vietnamese-Australian author Nam Le. His first collection found success in North America and Europe before it did in Australia. Your former bands Luna and Galaxie 500 found great success in Spain and the UK respectively early on before in, say, Kansas City or San Diego. Thoughts on why that happens?

The UK is small compared with the United States, so it’s easier to break through initially. They have national radio stations and a strong national music press. So, if John Peel played you on the BBC and then, if NME and Melody Maker liked you, you were set. Whereas here in the States, it is a huge country and the radio is fragmented; getting played on the radio in Boston doesn’t mean anything in Los Angeles. Effectively, the only national radio station in 1989 was MTV. Anyway, it’s common for an American band to find success in England before they do at home. That’s still true today. Many of our Brooklyn bands are better known in London than in New York. As for Luna, our biggest audience was here in the USA – San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Minneapolis – but we did spend a lot of time touring Spain too.

Did you find being embraced abroad, early on, assisted in getting recognition at home?

The conventional wisdom is that it is good to get press in England, because radio and press in the rest of Europe (and I’m sure Australia) follow their lead. But, honestly, though Galaxie 500 were indeed modestly popular in England, we still had a devoted following in the States. We did well at university radio (which was important back then). It’s not like the band was ignored in our own time and only discovered later.

The online universe has changed everything with arts – music and writing especially. Your career spans and precedes mass-use of the internet. Now, a musician or writer in Brazil can be heard and read instantly in Fiji. That just wasn’t an option until the mid-1990s. Is this a good thing?

It cuts both ways. It’s great being able to research and access absolutely everything on the internet, to find obscure songs or watch the Australian band, Easybeats, on YouTube. But I hate how we’re all chained to our computers. As a musician, you’re now required to update a host of things like Facebook, MySpace, Ping and whatever else they invent each year. It’s exhausting.

The music business found itself in a digital revolution in the 2000s – a mass shake-out and complete realignment of an entire racket. Print publishing remains deep in the quagmire of adapting to its digital future;  what, how, when, whom and on what platforms. Were record labels forced to eat their own hubris with this change?

Bono complains that there has been a huge transfer of wealth; from the record companies who sold millions of compact discs in the 1990s to the tech companies who now enable people to get the music for free and the companies who make mp3 players and computers. I’m sure there was always an element of this – electronics shops, for example, only sold LPs because they wanted to lure people in and sell them stereo systems. The music was a loss leader. And so it is with iTunes – they don’t need to turn a profit selling the music. Rather, they make money selling the devices that store the music.

I have a friend who was head of Business Affairs at one of the big 4 American labels until just last year. He said he felt like he was the skipper on a slowly-sinking ship. He pointed out that if you travel up to the coast of Massachusetts, you might see waterfront estates built on fortunes made in whaling. Today, there are no more fortunes to be made whaling. And maybe no more fortunes to be made in selling compact discs. Anyway, the music biz is probably closer to the size it was back in the ’70s or ’80s. The 1990s was an aberration, a period of unprecedented super-profits for major record companies. It’s a business built on the spending power of affluent western teenagers. The teenagers are still there but they don’t pay for music.

Elektra Records (who put out your first four records) insisted you include a cover of Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Sweet Child O Mine’ on you’re The Days of Our Nights album.

It wasn’t a big deal. We liked the G N’ R cover (which we had recorded as a B-side), and figured if the label was excited about it then it wouldn’t hurt to include the song on the album. It was only slightly comical because after much discussion, the label decided not to release the record at all, dropping the band instead.

It’s my guess that tactic was not exactly in your original plan for the release? As A. E. Knopf editor, Gordon Lish, was, controversially, to Raymond Carver and his collections of short stories in the early 1980s, can the same affect be applied to a major label insisting (and getting its way with) bands’ final records? As in, tailored to the label’s marketing brass aesthetic, not the musicians?

We didn’t have much trouble that way. Our A&R people rarely interfered, and you have to expect to get at least a little bit of input when someone is giving you a pile of money to make a record. The biggest question was usually ‘who will produce your record?’ And they never forced anyone on us.

Creating art by committee, art by democracy – namely members in a band – must be excruciating. I cannot imagine writing a poem with five people involved or the results of a Jeffry Smart painting with four more pairs of hands dabbling in at will to result anything other than something completely compromised.

Yes, all that voting can be difficult. I’m sure it would be difficult to live on a commune too. But making music is a collaborative art form, and that can be wondrous, so that is something you have to accept. I accepted it until it became unacceptable to organise my life that way, at which point I left the band. And I guess I did this twice. But that’s part of the deal, that’s what happens to every band. You work together until you can’t work together any more. Does that sound like Yogi Berra?

Yes it does! But you’re calling your own shots now and own your music. I imagine that keeps the blood pressure at a healthier level?

It’s certainly easier to pick a photo for the back of the album. Or pick an album title. Or a sequence for the songs on your new album.

Part two of this interview, where Wareham talks about acting, scoring films, and Andy Warhol, can be found here.

South-west. A poem by Geoff Lemon

South-west

By Geoff Lemon

I’m driving south. Or roughly south
I’m sure of that. The car’s a Mustang, 60s build
rich with that old leather smell. Adam West
is in the passenger seat, window halfway down.
It’s night and warm outside. The air rolls in like oil.
Adam West is smoking – Chesterfields.
Somehow this car is right-hand drive, although
the whole scenario distinctly seems American.
Just me and Adam West, cradling his smoke
by the slipstream.

The inside light is on, but
so orange-dim through the ancient plastic
the whole car feels like sleep.
Adam West won’t look at me.
He’s picking at the seams in the upholstery.
There’s a mayonnaise stain on his left knee
from an errant chicken burger.
Seems like days ago. I think it was.

Look. I don’t wanna have a go, I say at last.
But…I believed in you. I really thought
you were the coolest. Then I grow up
and find out you were just taking the piss.

Yeah, well you were twelve, he says
or eight, or ten. You didn’t know the difference.

Come on! I say. The end of season three?
You walk into that showdown
with your gut hanging over your utility belt.
How does Batman have a gut?

Like I said, you didn’t know the difference.
Still wouldn’t, if you hadn’t watched it since.

It’s definitely America. We’re driving on the right.
Flickers through our dusty headlight cones:
fences; grass; dishevelled heaps of fur.
There’s a crumpled kind of music
every time he moves his feet
among the cans and bottles on the floor.
I’m driving south with Adam West.
Three hundred miles gone today
and still no place to stop for gas or food.

This poem appears in Geoff Lemon’s collection Sunblind (Picaro Press, 2008). Geoff is one of Melbourne’s most well-known and best poets, poetry editors and one of the founders of the Wordplay spoken word collective. He has won a barrage of performance poetry awards and his work has been published all over the joint, including in Best Australian Stories, HEAT, Blue Dog, Island, Etchings, Herding Kites, Going Down Swinging, Wet Ink, Cutwater, and One Trick Pony.

Sunblind acts as a ‘best of’ of Geoff’s work so far, from the small, quiet and moving pieces, to the intertextual, the intelligent, the satirical, the humorous, and the bold rhythmic pieces written for performance. Some are narratival and transportive, such as the wonderful ‘Nevada’ suite, told from a female point-of-view. Many are playful of both language and culture such as ‘Albatross’ and ‘Da Vinci’. Sunblind is in parts clever, amusing, imaginative, entertaining, and moving. Best read bit by bit rather than all in one go due to the variety of material and mood.