Extended Play: Esperanza Spalding on Justin Bieber, Jazz Purism, Drone Strikes and Playing With Prince
Esperanza Spalding plays this Friday, Aug. 24, at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa. I caught up with her on the phone for this week’s music column, but she clearly had much more of interest, and of eloquence, to say than would fit in the paper. Here’s our interview, below:
I read and loved your profile in the New Yorker, and specifically your respect for and appreciation of jazz. But beyond that, I was interested in your comments about playing with McCoy Tyner, and how it reinforced your beliefs that jazz should not be a dusty museum piece, and more a music that needs to be for the present time. I wondered what McCoy Tyner thought of those comments. Did you ever hear from him about it?
Oh, no, I didn’t. But I honestly doubt he’s too concerned about it either way. We talk about it as a conceptual thing, the art form, and that’s good. It’s good to keep the creative juices flowing, the cerebral aspect of it, and thinking about what it means, and where we’re headed with it, and blah blah blah. But the day-to-day reality of making music is just to do it. I mean, that’s the priority, is to sit down every day and explore it. I think there’s a place for every kind of practitioner of the craft. I really have come more and more to believe that, traveling as much as we get to travel—and even living in New York, seeing how much diversity there is of concepts and philosophies about the music, and having those philosophies boil down to the music that’s actually being made.
You have those folks who are total bebop heads, who really see that as the pinnacle of the music. And then there are people who don’t want to have anything to do with that, and say, “Well, that was the language of back then, and now we live in today. We have to keep cultivating the idiom, and forget about that. That was one strand in the stream of what music is, so let’s keep on evolving and not clinging to that.” And the beautiful thing is, there’s really room for everything.
This week’s Bohemian column is on Siren, the band that virtually defined the Sonoma County punk scene for three years before imploding in a collapse of rumors, drugs, and, as you’ll read below, being incurably broke. Before their heavily anticipated reunion show this Saturday, I caught up with them at a smelly practice space in Santa Rosa where they’ve been rehearsing songs like “Die Cast Mottos” and “Buy Our Fall” for the first time since the Clinton era. Brian drank a beer. Adam arrived with a bread-bag tie for a guitar pick. Kevin got stuck in traffic. Joe brought candy.
The idea of a Siren reunion has been brought up before, but it took a good cause to actually make it happen. Nicole McCracken, Kevin’s wife, has been diagnosed with breast cancer. You can follow her story here. There’s an idea to evolve this show into an annual benefit for women with cancer, which is an appropriate endeavor for a band who always embraced direct action.
Even if the Wronglers were the worst band in the universe, I’d still want to go to their show this weekend, worm my way up front and give a standing ovation to every song simply because of the group’s frontman, Warren Hellman. Hellman, as many may know, is the lovable billionaire who’s made the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival a reality in San Francisco for over a decade, at no charge whatsoever to the hundreds of thousands of fans who attend the world-famous event every year.
Luckily, the Wronglers aren’t just decent, they’re downright good. But don’t try to tell that to Hellman.
How did you learn the banjo?
Well, first, don’t assume that I’ve learned it! I’ve always loved banjo music, probably for the worst reasons. I’ve loved listening to Earl Scruggs and those guys, but even worse, I’ve always loved listening to the Kingston Trio. Everybody tells me that I shouldn’t admit that, but I like their music, I like their banjo playing. I’ve always liked this kind of music, and I tried to play it for three or four years. I didn’t play it for about 30 years, and now I play as much as I humanly can for the last 10 years.
I heard a rumor you tried to get Pete Seeger to give you lessons at one point.
What happened was pretty straightforward. I was 28 years old, I thought I was an important investment banker, and it took me a long time to realize that “important investment banker” is an oxymoron. So like most people learning to play this type of banjo—that is, old-time double-thumbing—I thought, “Why don’t I take lessons from Pete Seeger?” I’d bought his book, and what I’d learned so far I’d got from his book. So I started trying to call Pete Seeger, and of course he never returned my call. Finally this guy called me and said, “Mr. Hellman, I am Mr. Seeger’s manager. What do you want?” I said, “I’m Warren Hellman, I’m at Lehman Brothers, and I’d really like to take lessons from Pete Seeger.” And he said, “Well, I’d like to hang up.”
Why did you wait so long to debut your banjo playing at the festival?
First I wanted to have some idea that I could play again. It was three or four years after I started taking lessons again. And we’d formed the band. It just seemed to make sense. By the way, you understand that this is the original pay-to-play. I’m putting on the whole goddamn festival so my band can play for 30 minutes on opening day!
How often do you guys get together to rehearse?
Hourly. Ron Thomason from Dry Branch Fire Squad said, “You guys rehearse more than any band I’ve ever seen or heard anywhere.” I said, “Yeah, but look at how far we have to go!” We rehearse twice a week, sometimes for four or five hours. All the rest of the musicians have gotten really good. All but one. Which is why I don’t even introduce myself when we’re playing.
How does it feel being asked to play shows apart from the festival now?
I keep saying that the best moment of my life was when we played in South by Southwest last year, and the day after we played, I was sitting listening to Buddy Miller when a guy comes up and taps me on the shoulder and says, “Hey, aren’t you with the Wronglers?” I said, “Shit, man, for 40 years I was an investment banker, and not one person ever recognized me anyplace.” The guy said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s fine. What’s your name?” I said, “Man, you’ve just made my life!”
You’re such a hero to all the performers at the festival. Are they still heroes to you?
One of my partners was on a television show a couple weeks ago, where it was him and Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Somebody said, “Does that make you jealous?” I said, “No, but if he was on a show with Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, that’d really piss me off.” I know this sounds too gushy or too starry-eyed, but I think the nicest collection of people I’ve met in my life are all these performers. I don’t know. Maybe because it’s such a tough way to make a living or something. I was in the nastiest, most competitive business that you could imagine for a lot of years, where not only did most people dislike their competitors, they even disliked the people they worked with!
You’ve been an investment banker, an athlete—both are pretty demanding. Is playing bluegrass just as intense and challenging?
Oh, yeah. I’m 76. At 86 I might be mediocre. But the deeper answer to that is that I really believe that you should have something you do in your life where you’re capable of improvement. I’m never going to run as fast as I did, I’m never going to ski powder the way I did. Everything else, as you get older, you try to preserve what you did, and you can’t. So having really started playing banjo ten years ago, there are signs—not very many—but there are signs that I can improve. Have I bored you to tears?
No! I look forward to seeing you in Petaluma—anything special worked up?
They said to us, “This is a Christmas show, you oughta do a Christmas song.” Of course what they’re expecting, I suppose, is “Silent Night.” But we’ve written our own song. The opening line is “Sweet baby Jesus, if only you knew / Just what your birth would lead us all to.” Do you think we’ll be in trouble in Petaluma with that?
Warren Hellman and the Wronglers with Arann Harris and the Farm Band play ‘The Big Give Back’ on Sunday, Dec. 12, at the Mystic Theatre. 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 6:30pm. $10 with two cans of food; $15 otherwise. 707.762.3565.
Easily the best thing on the internet today is Beck’s conversation with Tom Waits in a new series on his website he’s calling “irrelevant topics.” It’s not exactly an interview; the two talk loosely but engagingly about homemade submarines, the longevity of songs, the lost works of van Gogh and Euripides, the strength found in poor amplification and of course, Los Angeles, where they both grew up.
Not every town gets their song. Actually, Sinatra tried to do a song about Los Angeles. It was really lame. Really lame. It embarrassed the shit out of me.
For all the love Quincy Jones has been getting in the last week, it’s nice to hear someone point out a complete turkey that he produced: “L.A. Is My Lady.” I’m a huge Sinatra fan, and L.A. Is My Lady is absolute dreck.
Part Two is coming next week, but for the time being, Part One is essential reading and can be found here.
Did you ever in a million years think you’d have a job making fun of TV?
No. I did not make this plan. It’s very strange, because I was always highly opinionated about pretty much about anything. I was one of those guys who was always like, “Your favorite band sucks!” So I would yell back at the TV all the time. The fact that someone would pay me for it? And that I’m not sitting around in my underwear yelling? Its just a hoot. I never would have thought it.
So many people watch TV these days—especially with the glut of reality shows—and say, “I know it’s awful, but I’m addicted to it.” Do you understand where they’re coming from?
Yeah, I think there’s a lot of Schadenfreude. It’s like, “Look at these freaks.” I see the morbid fascination; it’s the Gladiator aspect of wanting to see people fall apart. The shows are becoming so insane, I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in twenty years.
After that girl taking a shit on the stairs on Flavor of Love, where is there really to go?
That was an incredible moment in television. And then her excuse was just tremendous! She’s like, “Well, I had to go, and then I started walking up the stairs, and then that happened.” That doesn’t happen to normal people! Normal people, that does not happen to. Something is wrong with you, ma’am. And what a surprise you got on a reality show with Flavor Flav.
Where do you think television’s gonna be twenty years from now?
I’m gonna say Live Sponsored Executions. It’ll be like Monday Night Football.
Do you think your job on The Soup, then, is important?
Well, it’s definitely important to pay my mortgage, and clothe the children and things like that. I… gosh, I have not really thought about that.
Well, culturally, do you think society needs someone to point out that what they’re addicted to is ridiculous?
I don’t know. Television is out of control, and a morally bankrupt place. To comment on that is good. I don’t know if it’s important, but it’s not stupid. There’s a lot of things on TV that suck, and they’re very popular, and kids love ‘em. When we make fun of an MTV show and go, “Hey Mom and Dad, it’s on after school!”—I feel like that’s a good comment. Or like a few weeks ago, VH1 was running promos for Black History Month. They’d run this very beautifully done promo with a lot of still photographs of African-Americans, in America, with beautiful music behind it, saying, “This is Black History Month, send in your photos and you could be a part of this campaign!” We just put Rock of Love and Charm School and Surreal Life—we just put a bunch of footage from that behind that very same music, showing how African-Americans are portrayed on VH1 shows. We felt like that was good. We love calling bullshit on things, but we don’t want it to be heavy-handed, or no one would watch. We still want it to be as funny as possible.
How do you deal with celebrities who get mad at The Soup? Is Tyra Banks still constantly pissed off at you?
We ignore it until they try to sue us, which really hasn’t happened. She’s the only one who’s tried to legally stop us, but almost without exception, there’s been very few really upset with us, from what I can tell. I know that David Hasselhoff is not a big fan, but he shouldn’t have gotten totally wasted and started shoving tacos in his mouth! It’s like, what do you expect us to do? We never go after people because we have a vendetta; we try to let their clips hang themselves. Like, we don’t make much fun of Oprah until she talks about her vajayjay. Because for the most part, Oprah’s show is great, and reasonable, and she’s a reasonable person, and she does good topics. But you know, when you have Tyra saying she’s afraid of dolphins, we’re gonna make fun of it!
Were you surprised when the Karsashians agreed to be on the show the other night?
Kind of! We’ve been relentless against them. I did learn that Bruce Jenner hates me, which. . . I don’t blame him. But you know, when someone comes on the show, I’m kind of like, “Hey, that was really cool.” So we probably won’t go after them the way we do. Of course, Kim has that sex tape, which is crazy, and which we have made relentless fun of. But they were all really cool, and I liked them. Hopefully they’ll come back.
How much of The Soup is written by writers, or written by you beforehand, or written by you on the spot, ad-libbed?
The whole script is written out, by the writers. I used to write way more than I do now—my schedule has become so crazy. But I rewrite the script on Wednesday night for how I want it to sound, and then on the floor I let it go and do a lot of improvising. You can’t just walk out and start riffing, because it’s 22 minutes of television, and it has to be very tight. So if something doesn’t work, or goes on too long, we stop and go back and get a new joke. For the most part, we try to tape it without stopping. The writers are so tremendous that there’s no need to improvise a lot of times. I’m not able to watch the amount of TV I used to watch, either. It used to be awful. I used to watch four to six hours a day and it was just killing me. It became a chore. My wife would be like, “Can’t you go do…” I was like, “I’m literally working! I’m literally working, watching this show, this Extreme Makeover: Home Edition two-hour special. Again. I have to do this, hon. Don’t disturb me!” It was really weird.
I assume the show now has people whose job it is to watch TV.
Yeah, we have twelve staff members and a few interns that are watching TV all the time. And we have to cover the things like Idol, and Dancing With the Stars, all those things. You know, the Rock of Loves and the Charm Schools are really easy lay-ups to make fun of. But it’s the shows like Dutch Oven, and I Love Toy Trains, and Korean Drama—literally called Korean Drama—it’s those shows that I really love covering, because they’re so off the regular map. I love it. Like, I Love Toy Trains is a show! I love that!
Part of your charm on The Soup is that fantastic, Conan O’Brien-ish self-deprecation.
Well, he’s a genius.
Does that style—“What am I doing here? Why am I on this show?”—does that come naturally for you? Or in real life are you actually a total egomaniac?
I was raised Catholic, so I grew up with all that guilt. That helped. I think anybody raised Catholic is self-deprecating to a point, where you think basically, if all’s going well, at some point the wheels are going to fall off and everything will be a disaster. And anything you get on top of that is a bonus, so you’re like, hey, this is working out great! But I think you can’t be a jerk, or people will not tune in to watch. I’m not putting on an air, but you just have to approach the show with a light heart, and not take it too seriously.
And not be afraid to dress up like Rainbow Brite.
Right! Anything for comedy!
My gay friends are all in love with you. As a married man, how do you react to that kind of adulation?
I love lesbians! Oh, wait, you’re talking about gay men! Well, I love gay men. Just pull that right out, pull that soundbite out. Having a gay following is great, because they seem to have all the money, they’re definitely the best dressed, and the most in shape. So that makes me very happy. And what’s great is that they’re very loyal fans. Lately we’ve been having Matt the intern come out, and he is always covered in oil, it seems now. He’s been doing interviews with a couple of gay websites, and he was addressed as a “greasy treat.” Which, I think, is really funny. But no one ever talks about my enormous straight following! Or, my enormous hermaphrodite following. That’s so sad.
You grew up in Seattle in the ’90s. How did you weather the grunge storm?
“Weather the grunge storm?!” I think grunge is the greatest music of all time!
Yeah! I really disliked big hair metal, I just never got into it. I spent most of my time listening to the Beatles, Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M.—a lot of alternative stuff. I just could not stand all those big hair bands. Then grunge came in when I was in college, and it was the greatest four years in Seattle. Nirvana is, I think, one of the best all-time bands ever. I actually saw their last show in Seattle, and it was tremendous, it was for the In Utero tour. I’ve seen Pearl Jam almost every time they come through here, and Soundgarden. Mother Love Bone, way back when. I loved that time, and I knew no different growing up in Seattle. Bands were just playing everywhere all the time, because Seattle was not a stop for any of the big acts; they would go up to Vancouver because it was a bigger and, at that time, more metropolitan city. Seattle had to make their own music. I mean, to think that a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt became popular is nutty. It’s ridiculous! But it did what it did—it shut down the entire hair-band industry, and Sebastian Bach was left without a job for a while. And now he’s on a reality show.
Did you ever hop in your car and drive down Broadway on Capitol Hill listening to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “My Posse’s on Broadway”?
“My Posse’s on Broadway!” I have done it! I did it in high school, I admit it! That was the great thing—obviously Sir Mix-a-Lot’s music wasn’t grunge, but it was so Seattle. He made all these local references, so you kinda felt like, this guy! He’s ours! The same thing with Sleater-Kinney, which is an actual place outside of Seattle. “Baby Got Back” is still one of the biggest hits of all time. And going to Dick’s Drive-In on Broadway is still the best burger in the world.
So, your standup show in Santa Rosa coming up. Is it like The Soup at all?
It is. I don’t bring a monitor out and make fun of things, but I talk a lot about pop culture, I talk a lot about behind the scenes at E!, and I can go into a little more depth than I do in The Soup. That’s half the show, and the other half I’m talking about my life, and my family, which is a nutty, nutty place. So it’s half-and-half, there’s something for everyone. And then I take my pants off.
Joel McHale comes to the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa on Saturday, April 11 for two shows, at 8pm and 10pm. Tickets, $39.50 each, can be bought here.
Last night, between dates at Thrillhouse Records and Gilman, Thorns of Life played a stellar show with Santiago and the Semi-Evolved Simians in the basement of Adam’s house in Santa Rosa. It’s more like an interrogation chamber than a basement down there, but in spite of our repeated warnings to the band in the last few weeks that the downstairs is a tiny, 10-foot-by-15-foot concrete cell, they kept shouting back their approval. It’s small? Sure! It’s cramped? We’re there! It’s going to be a total disaster? Great!
So the basement it was, as Thorns of Life—Blake Schwarzenbach, Aaron Cometbus, and Daniela Sea—came to Santa Rosa for another hush-hush house show last night on their West Coast tour. There were some hidden flyers around town, but unless you looked inside dumpsters, sewer tunnels and library book-return slots, you had to rely on the word-of-mouth secret show game, with all of its social awkwardness and selective dispensing. But in the end? A night, as they say, for the books.
Looming over the house at the onset was a freak nervousness, aided by the cops parked a couple houses down. Then: the slow dissipation. The opening bands, the opening beers, the opening hearts. Sweat doesn’t just break through the lining of the skin; it opens up invisible barriers. By the time Thorns of Life played, there was no option but the personal. I sat essentially on top of Blake’s shoes with a sea of people at my back; Blake fit squarely beneath a heating duct; Daniela played between the water heater and exposed fiberglass insulation; and Aaron crammed more people in the basement by directing them behind the drums, atop the workbench.
The show was a brilliant blur; smeared further, a bit, with disbelief and volume. For 11 songs, everything gelled inside the ridiculously populated basement on the corner of Spencer and King, and afterwards, it was beers in the backyard, “On The Way to Frisco” in the kitchen, Nancy Ling Perry obituaries in the hallway, and for me, catching up with Blake Schwarzenbach.
At some point during the party—between discussing the house’s cats, the possibility of playing Jets to Brazil songs at acoustic shows in the future, Creature Feature host Bob Wilkins, accidentally ripping off “Ingrid Bergman,” the challenge of playing harmonica, the memory of losing one’s virginity, and sending postcards to Verona—Blake and I managed to slow down and escape to the sidewalk outside, next to the station wagon they’ve been touring in, to conduct an official interview. I first interviewed him in 1991, 18 years ago. He’s just as open now as he was then.
Do you look at the past as a hindrance or an asset?
I used to look at it as a hindrance, but I think I broke through in the last couple years. I don’t really know when it happened. I did a lot of work on myself, getting me to enjoy my past. I found out I could actually use it a little bit to help me out.
What about regret? Is regret useless?
Yeah. If you can’t convert it into art, then it’s gonna destroy you.
What about nostalgia? Where does nostalgia lead?
I think it’s pretty good if you don’t live in it. It’s always nice when you think of somebody fondly, or go to a place and remember something or somebody. That’s part of travel, and being alive. I’m usually grateful for it, I don’t get it that often.
Really—you’re not a nostalgic person?
No, I’m sad. I’m sad. What I used to think of as nostalgia was my recognizing degraded human environments , and it was a response to poverty, I think—poverty of spirit, a lot of times, but also social poverty, aesthetic poverty in our country, the way living spaces look awful and our civilization is really ugly physically. So, yeah. There’s a big difference between sadness and nostalgia.
One of the things noticeable in this band is the apparently conscious decision to play house parties and DIY places. Can you talk a little about that?
Well, it’s how we started, when Aaron came to me. We’ve had this courtship for a decade, but really in the last few years when I started having songs, he coaxed me into going to a house show. And it was really fun. And then I felt like in order to justify going to house shows I needed to have a band; after a while, I felt like I was freeloading, like the old punk guy who goes to shows. Like, ‘I’d better have a band, to go here and hang out.’ So it was a pretty natural progression, and I think I have some indie damage from the Jets where I just never want to be in a rock club with someone from the local free weekly being disinterested and asking questions.
You know that I’m technically from the local free weekly, right?
Yeah, but you know what I’m talking about, that whole apparatus, like the person who goes to interview the Matador band that week, or whatever. So having survived that machine, I was kind of happy not to… it was really boring, honestly.
Yeah. And we’ll play clubs. I mean, I’d like to. But you have to have less stages, I think. We don’t have a P.A. in our rehearsal space that’s very good—it’s just a guitar amp, it’s very sketchy. It just ended up being the sound of the band, that there should be a little bit of struggle in it. The first show of this tour we played at a club in San Diego, and I have to say it was really disorienting to have a monitor. I spent years learning how to use a monitor, but I’ve completely unlearned it, and now I don’t want too much of me. I’d rather push, and hear it out in the room.
Some of your more ardent followers take issue with this whole approach, where you do shows that are word of mouth and therefore only for the in-the-know; it’s frustrating for them, and can seem kind of elitist. How would you respond to people’s concerns like that?
I can’t help them.
Well, you could play larger places.
That’s true, and I’d like to. But last time, for me, in my band, it was the other thing. The punks thought that that was elitist, and that we didn’t give a shit because we played big clubs: ‘I’m not paying eight bucks to see you, fuck that.’ So I kind of feel like it’s hard to win.
And if you’re gonna err, you might as well err on the side of…
Right. Free shows, or four-dollar pass-the-hat shows, where we have fun. I’d rather have fun first and then worry about other people’s fun. I’m pretty selfish that way.
One of your infamous positions has been leaving the punk scene behind—and now, between playing house parties and embracing a political stance, it seems like you’re rediscovering your inner punk.
Well, I became politically articulate in New York through graduate school and through the last three wars. I used to write about it, I mean, I felt it was intrinsically in me, because my parents were radicals and I grew up suspicious—I grew up in Berkeley in the late- late-’60s, I watched the Watergate hearings with my dad. It was in me, I didn’t know how to express it, and I always found it a little corny when people would do it on the nose. I had to find a voice where I felt I could be helpful. When I can put it in a song, I really like it. I just have to earn it in a way, to take on other people’s pain. I don’t want to write any kind of sloganeering song, or jingoistic song or anything. So if I can use my own subterfuge of poetic language, and do it, that’s actually where I feel like I should be writing. I’m a little tired of me. I haven’t had a relationship in a long time, so there’s no stories there. I’ve been living the Palestinian struggle for the past five years. That’s more interesting to me right now.
You have a song about Al-Qaeda in Washington.
Yeah, and it was a really quick song to write. It was just about surviving the primaries and seeing Hilary Clinton in the ascendant, which to me was a dark harbinger of more bad policy. It’s a cautionary song about not putting all your money in Obama curing the guilt of white people and saving the world. I don’t wanna say no to that, I wanna give him his shot, and I voted for him, and I would work with anyone to change anything.
Would you call yourself cautiously optimistic about his presidency?
Yeah, yeah. I think it’s only responsible to wait and give him 100 days, or four years, whatever it is. The title—the idea, to me, studying Iraq for the past few years, studying Afghanistan, studying the Western attitude toward the Arab world—“We Build Al-Qaeda in Washington,” that’s the title. The core of Al-Qaeda is in Washington. Sure, it grows in Yemen, and it grows in the Saudi oligarchy and everything, but I think we’ve done so much to foster militias around the world that the idea is you should go there and fight, you don’t need to go across the world. That’s the title, that’s the idea.
Has the punk scene changed, or have you changed?
I think I’ve changed. I mean, yeah. I went back.
Could you imagine yourself doing a tour of house shows in, say, ’96?
No, but I longed for it many a night. I was just like, ‘This is so boring!’ Like God, these fucking places. The shows could be great, and musically it was fun to have that huge apparatus. But it’s a limited thing: you get 40 minutes of feeling powerful, and a lot of drudgery. As I said, being politically articulate helped me miss punk. I realized that those are my people. At least they’re asking those questions. Indie rock isn’t asking those questions. It’s so inward-looking and ambitious, in New York especially. It helps to be in New York, because they’re just shameless about wanting to fuck you over to get ahead.
Brooklyn, in particular?
Now, yeah. I guess now Brooklyn is this kind of Seattle. I never thought of it that way, but it’s… I just found those people not very interested in the world. Interested in their own local phone code, their own space. I was heading out into the world at the time that it seemed like that music scene was heading into itself. So punk was the only place where people were going out and marching, doing actions. They just gave a shit about the world! It seemed to be about the most important thing anyone could do in the last eight years.
You took part in some of that. I think you gave a speech in New York at some point.
I did, yeah. I have a great friend who’s a historian, a professor, and she insisted that I speak at a student walk out. She goosed me into awareness; I met a lot of great people there. It was terrifying, but I was embraced, which was nice. I just tried to do my own thing; I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I wrote a poetic essay, I guess, and I was surprised that it seemed to register with a few people there. I was speaking with bona fide refugees and people I felt really outclassed by. All I had was band experience. But I think the people, they see you out there, they appreciate it.
Are you worried that people may be forgetting how to live in the moment?
I worry that they are forgetting how to live in the world. I don’t mean even the big world, but just in terms of going outside, or not being online. That new technology, it’s just not… I don’t quite get it yet. I know you have to give youth a shot, and some kids have really happy, connected lives that way, but I don’t feel it. I miss the bricks-and-mortar stuff.
What about the hundreds of cameras at shows? It’s reasonable to expect people to appreciate what’s happening in front of them, to experience it, but instead there’s this need to record it.
Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, we thought about… I don’t want to tell people not to do that. I just don’t have enough time in my life, I’d much rather work on making our show sound good, and playing well, and seeing the people we like.
Are you happier when people don’t take pictures all the time, film you all the time?
Yeah, of course. But I have to admit, there is this strange little vain part, if the show’s really kickass, that I think it’d be fun if I could tell my dad he could watch it, or my sister, to tell them, ‘Hey, we just played in this big closet!’
Were you nervous about tonight when you saw that tiny basement?
We had questions about how we were going to fit in there, but once we set up, once we started, it was great.
What do you think is more important, to be smart or to be honest?
That’s a tough one. Oh, I would say to be honest. And I think to be really honest, you have to be pretty intelligent. If it means being honest with yourself, or being really clear with your friends and loved ones, to communicate, you have to be smart. You can be clever, and that’s bad. Clever is like being surreptitious, and figuring out how not to be truthful. I think smart and intelligent means an ability to be honest. I’ve done a lot of work getting past clever to what I think is a broader kind of intelligence, which involves honesty.
Are you going to record an album?
I couldn’t help but notice Fat Mike hop on stage the other night and talk to you guys. Was that about recording at all?
I think he’d like to do something. He’s been a really supportive guy. But I don’t… we don’t have a label. We don’t have a ‘dream label’ or anything, other than one we make. It seems we’re about at that point, with technology, that you can just have your own label.
You have a reference to a Smith-Corona, and you own a Smith-Corona. Do you use it to write lyrics?
No, I don’t. That’s about Mishima, that song. It’s about writers, the verse is about Mishima committing ritual suicide. So the line is: “Hari-kari with a Smith-Corona, what the fuck? The left arm of the right wing.”
You mentioned the other night at the Hemlock that all of your songs are about suicide and unrelenting misery. Is that actually true?
Kind of! It’s surprising, yeah. I mean, they’re pretty joyous tunes, but they’re pretty dark lyrically.
Do you feel a discussion on suicide is something that’s ignored in society?
Yeah. It’s either glamorized or it’s shunned, and it’s only the most important question that everybody asks themselves, especially in their young life. It’s something you reckon with as a youth. Our song is ‘O Deadly Death,’ it’s kind of a valentine to suicidal feelings, and how important that is in your development to go to the wall, and then step back. That’s just part of identity, is finding your way to the utmost point and then reveling in the beauty of being alive.
What song do you hope you’re listening to when you die?
“Girl From the North Country,” maybe, with Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, the duet version. That’s always a sweet, off-into-the-wilderness song.
More Photos Below.
Today, on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I feel compelled to share an interview with one of New Orleans’ native sons.
In April of last year, Harry Connick, Jr. called my house to talk, I imagine, about his upcoming appearance in Sonoma. All we could manage to talk about instead was the disaster in New Orleans. Throughout our conversation, he came off as incredibly authentic, speaking about the catastrophic situation with a compelling combination of depression and hope.
Below, you’ll find Connick, who regularly performs at Republican functions, casting shame on President Bush for not visiting New Orleans sooner. You’ll also read about how he was down there the next day, and how he wasted no time helping out to raise money to rebuild his city. And of course, I couldn’t help asking just one music-related question at the end.
Interview with Harry Connick, Jr. – April 14, 2007
Q: Where were you when Hurricane Katrina hit?
A: I was in Cape Cod, visiting some friends, and I immediately went back home to New York to try and figure out a way to get down there.
Q: Was it easy to get on a plane?
A: No, it was impossible, ‘cause no flights were going down there. So I had to – my friend Bob Wright, who at the time was the president of NBC, was kind enough to let me use the NBC plane to get down there.
Q: And you flew into the regular airport?
A: We flew into Baton Rouge.
Q; In those first hours, after the news started coming in about how bad it was, about the levees and everything, what sort of thoughts were going through your head?
A: Well, I was just helpless, you know. When they said 80% of the city was flooded, it’s just hard to imagine. So I was in shock, man, I was just really concerned about my family and seeing what I could do to help them out.
Q: You had family and friends all over the city.
Q: So, it was what, a couple days before you were able to get down there?
A: No, I was down there the day after the flood. So I got down there on Tuesday – it flooded on Monday, I got down there on Tuesday.
Q: In the liner notes to your new record, you describe meeting someone on the street – Darryl is his name, this guy who showed you around. Was he really just a stranger that you met on the street when you were walking around?
Q: Well yeah, he was on the corner, and he recognized me and asked me if I had been to the convention center, and I told him I hadn’t. And he brought me over there and showed me, there were probably 15,000 people just waiting around to be helped. And they had been there for three or four days.
Q: One of the first things you saw when you got the convention center was two dead bodies covered in sheets. How does an experience like that – how did that change you?
A: I don’t know how it changed me, to be honest with you. It just… it’s like if somebody hit you in the head with a baseball bat and you happen to survive it, you know. You, you… I mean, I don’t know how that changes you, it’s just a painful experience that you go through and eventually get over. It was rough to see.
Q: In your song, “All These People,” you kinda make reference to this guy Darryl, how ordinarily he might just be a crazy person and you might be scared, but because of the circumstances you were brought together in, like you said, “he wasn’t crazy and I wasn’t scared” – did you see a lot of that common, human brotherhood going on?
A: Oh yeah, definitely, man. I mean, I’m always… I feel like I’m like that all the time anyway, and most people are – especially down there, there’s such a great sense of community down there – but it was a heightened sense of fraternity down there, everybody just tryin’ to make it, man, tryin’ to figure out what to do. I mean it was profound, it felt like the end of the world. I mean it really did. It was a similar feeling to after 9/11, how people just kinda came together and tried to help each other out.
Q: Also, in your official press release from Columbia, it states that you have a focus on solutions rather than casting blame. But don’t you think that just a little bit of blame could be cast?
A: Oh, I cast plenty of blame, I just don’t do it in public. I don’t think there’s any reason to. ‘Cause it doesn’t change anything. There’s no reason to do that. Plus, I’m ignorant to most of the information that transpires between people that do that for a living – I’m not privy to all that stuff. So it would be easy for me to say “oh, this person didn’t do this, this person didn’t do that,” but nobody – I mean, I’m not in those meetings, I don’t know the reasons for that stuff, know what I mean? So it’s just pointless to cast blame, it’s not my business.
Q: Do you think… I mean, it really did take a long time for people to get down there. If you were able to get down there on an NBC plane, then Bush probably could have gotten down there a little quicker than he did.
A: Yeah. I think he should have been down there. I don’t know why he wasn’t. He’s our president, I think it’s nice to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I think he absolutely should have been down there and had his sleeves rolled up. If you look back 40 years ago, there was another president from Texas [Lyndon B. Johnson] after a hurricane in New Orleans who was trudging through the sludge tryin’ to help people. And I think President Bush probably should have been down there. But he wasn’t, and it’s over, and that’s what it is.
Q: What one displaced musician’s story affected you the most, where you really just said, “This enormously gifted person has no home now, and that is a shame?”
A: Oh, I’ll leave him nameless, but one of my good friends, a great trumpet player. I was actually trying to help sponsor him for a house out of town, with his three children and his wife, and the person, when they found out he was black, they said “we don’t want those people here.” I mean, it’s 2007. You just don’t… I don’t understand that, it doesn’t make any sense. It just makes no sense at all.
Q: At what point did you know that you had to do something major to help?
A: Immediately. Immediately. I called my dad, asked him, “What do I do?” I said, “Can we form some kind of committee to help rebuild New Orleans?” He said, “Well, it doesn’t work like that, you can’t just rebuild a city.” Then my manager suggested that we help the musicians, and so that’s how the idea of the Musician’s Village was born. It’s going great now. It’s been a big success.
Q: How many houses have been built in the village so far?
A: I think 40 or 50, probably.
Q: And you’ve got room for about 300 or so?
A: I don’t know how it works – it’s gonna be 70 houses and 10 duplex apartments. I’m not sure how many people that works out to be.
Q: I hear that during the jazz festival you were there, helping paint houses.
A: Yeah, I mean I can’t take any credit for any manual labor down there, but I do certainly go down to keep the awareness level up about it. I think I have a moral and ethical responsibility to stay on that, because those types of situations have a tendency to get on the back burner and fall apart over the years, and we’re just not gonna let that happen.
Q: Speaking of programs falling apart and everything, I know there’s a lot of charity donations for Katrina relief that get tied up in bureaucracies, there’s the Road Home program and the money for that is still in waiting – how does it feel to directly, in person, rebuild houses in a hands-on fashion?
Q: It’s great. It’s not rocket science, man, you just need to get a bunch of people. Well, that’s not fair, because Habitat For Humanity has been around for a long time and they’ve developed the system of doing this and they’ve got it down to a science. So I walked in at the tail end of that and in a sense we made it look easy – so in fact, it is kind of more like rocket science. But I think there doesn’t have to be a bunch of red tape. You just raise the money, put your mind to it, and get the work done, and that’s pretty much what we did. It just goes to show you that it’s possible.
Q: You took the Neville Brothers’ place and closed out the jazz festival this year. How was that?
A: Oh, it was great. I like playing JazzFest in any capacity. It’s sad that the Neville Brothers couldn’t do it, but I was happy to do it and I had a great time. The crowd was great and people were real cool, so we had fun.
Q: I know that… the vibrant mood of the jazz festival might not be the best barometer, but can you describe the mood of New Orleans, the city, right now – what would you say is its spirit right now?
A: Depressed. I’d say depressed, in a word.
A: Yeah, man, they can’t live in their houses, most of the people. The majority of the population can’t come home. No, it’s bad. It’s really bad.
Q: There’s probably a lot of people around America that… the state of the city is sort of out of sight, out of mind at this point – it doesn’t get told on the news that much anymore. And at the same time I hear about official tour buses that you can sign up for when you go to New Orleans that’ll take you around the 9th ward to see the houses, and the buses are packed. People want to see this for some reason.
Q: Well, everybody has a job, and my job it to keep people aware of it. So I try to tell ‘em during the show, and I don’t want to make it a forum for politics or social issues, but most of the time I get up and just say a few words about New Orleans, and people are very responsive. Shoot, we’ve had 25-30 thousand volunteers come from all over the world come and help, and those tour buses, the last stop on their tour is the Musician’s Village. So, you know, we’re doin’ all right. It’s just gonna take a long time. If you look back in history at catastrophes, natural disasters in other places – I mean, we ain’t even reached two years yet. Those things take sometimes decades to repair themselves, so I think we’re on track. It’s just frustrating for the inhabitants now because they’re in the middle of it.
Q: One of the songs you recorded on your album, it’s a great song, “Yes We Can Can” by Allen Toussaint.
A: I love that song.
Q: You said that if you could choose the official song for the City of New Orleans, you would make it that song.
A: Yeah, I mean especially right now. It’s so simple in its sentiment. It basically says, “I know we can do this.” As cliché as it sounds, that’s kind of what we need to be saying.
Q: “Make this land a better land.”
A: Exactly, I mean it couldn’t be more prophetic.
Q: I just have one more question for you, Harry, and then I’ll let you go. James Carroll Booker III: Was he or was he not the baddest motherfucker you ever played with?
A: The baddest, bro. The baddest. There was nobody who could come close to him. I’ve played with some serious people, you know… nobody could come close to him. He was the baddest.
Q: Alright, hey, thank you so much for giving me a call and taking the time to do this.
A: Yeah, bro, after the show, man, come say hey. I appreciate the work you did for this interview, man, you know what you’re talking about.
More than any other band right now, Deerhoof represents the refined embodiment of music’s endless possibilities. They’re playing at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma this Saturday, and I swear you won’t ever see another band like them. At all.
For my Bohemian article, I spoke with Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier about John Cage, the creative process, Harry Smith, childrens’ music, touring with Radiohead, and shutting down haters. There was no way to fit it all into just 700 words—he’s not one to speak in prefabricated soundbites, that’s for sure. City Sound Inertia to the rescue: read the extended 3,000-word interview here, and don’t say I didn’t warn you. Our conversation starts after the jump.