June 5, 2007
In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).
Author Jami Attenberg interviews Ryan Walsh of Hallelujah the Hills:
Last winter I read some sex scenes from my book to a bunch of well-dressed women at a very fine Boston bookstore called Brookline Booksmiths. It went over all right. Sometimes it's hard to be dirty in a bookstore. Afterwards their events director, Brian Foley, asked me to come back to town in the spring and read again. We could do it in a bar with a band. (Sex scenes always play well in bars.) The band in question was Hallelujah the Hills. I had never heard them of before. "They're playing at a Jonathan Lethem reading too," he told me. Well, if they're good enough for Lethem, they're good enough for me!
As it turns out Hallelujah the Hills don't need any fancy-pants, highly celebrated author to prove their worth. Their debut album, Collective Psychosis Begone, out now on Misra Records, is one of the best albums of the year. Half the songs are anthems, and the other half make you want to dance. There are trumpets and moogs and cellos and guitars and bass all over the place, out front, but also in secret corners where you would least expect it. They sound a little bit like Guided by Voices and Matt Pond PA and Arcade Fire and Camper Van Beethoven, but mostly they sound just like themselves. Live they are joyful and bombastic. They are my favorite new band.
Recently I emailed with singer/songwriter Ryan Walsh about the rock and roll lifestyle, the definition of "Abstract Adventures", and yes, Jonathan Lethem.
JA: I am still consuming your new album and thinking of questions and editing them down, and am having trouble coming up with questions that sound put-together. This isn't exactly high journalism here.
RW: The term "High Journalism" sounds like the name of some shit head's blog who goes around making half-assed reports about Phish on the road or something.
JA: OK then! I'm just going to do this. You guys draw a lot of comparisons to Guided By Voices but you seem pretty sober to me in performance. You're giddy, and you're having fun, but I feel like I could get in a car with you guys afterwards and drive somewhere and we wouldn't get into an accident and have a tragic rock star death.
RW: - That'd be fun if, after shows, we just approached random concert goers and said, "Come get in the car with us. We're going somewhere. Do you trust us?"
We have had some un-sober shows. The two times you've seen us were pretty early in the evening. We don't ever really get wrecked outside of the practice space though. Bob & GBV stumbled upon some kind of blissful, fulfilling relationship between alcohol and live performance that has not been replicated since. It looks like a lot of fun but I feel like 99/100 bands who try it come off terribly.
JA: Could you imagine the funeral though? Sometimes I like to do that. Is that weird?
RW: There is no human adult alive who has not imagined their own funerals and, probably, the funerals of many loved ones. Huck Finn & Tom Sawyer got to taste that forbidden "at your own funeral" fruit and I'll always begrudge them for it.
JA: So you don't buy into the rock and roll legacy of your forebears. Do you have any fantasies about what a rock and roll lifestyle is? I feel like you just want to make good music and rock out.
RW: I've started screaming "all of rock and roll is embarrassing" over and over during the noise freakout of the end of our set and that's something I really believe in. It's absolutely embarrassing but I also think there's an irresistible trade off where via the embarrassment all kinds of other joys and revelations are revealed. You have to give something up to get there. I'm ok with that. Ever since I was a kid, music has struck me as the most tangible form of magic available to all of us. Wizards collected spell books. Modern man builds a record collection. It's the same thing.
Yeah I don't really fantasize about possible lifestyles beyond the idea of "imagine if I just got to be creative all day, every day!" Creativity is more fun than lifestyle. Have you ever found anything remotely interesting in the Lifestyle section of the newspaper? That section is straight up litter box lining.
JA: I find if comforting that people like to think about their lifestyles as a thing they can actually control because it gives me hope that I may somehow be able to control my own life. But beyond that, no, I have never learned anything new from the Lifestyle section.
You mentioned Phish before…When I used to live in Seattle all my friends loved Phish and String Cheese Incident and stuff like that and for me (and I know I will get beat up for saying this, not by you necessarily, but by someone) it is the same as techno music which is to say all the songs run together, there doesn't seem to be a beginning, middle, and an end as much as a muddle of noises. I do not like the JAM, is what I am trying to say here. I like storytelling in my music, and I think you guys do an excellent job with that. I find your songs very writerly.
RW: I think all of the songs on this album tell a story but people seem to mostly pick up on the ones going on in the last two songs on the album. And I'll be the first to admit that the rest of the songs aren't as straight forward and fall under into a category I like to call Abstract Adventure. "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Desolation Row" are the king and queen of abstract adventure songs for me. Next in line for the crown is every song The Silver Jews ever put out.
There's a lot going on in Abstract Adventure songs but maybe it's not so linear. The stakes are high but no one's really pulling guns or blowing up cars. You don't get all the story - just images, lines of dialogue, clues, etc. In this way it becomes a true collaboration between the listener and the singer.
JA: I'm wondering also about your creative process and rituals. Like I have to get up and have my tea and eat my apple and do my yoga and look at pictures of Lindsay Lohan's nipple or whatever it is on the Internet that day and then I can start writing. But some people, I know, are always writing all the time, or don't have the luxury of time and have to squeeze it in here and there. So: how and when do you write, and what do you need to make it happen?
RW: I write when I'm alone in a house (or can create some convincing illusion that I'm alone and no one will hear me). I usually just mess around with chords and when I've got a string of good ones together I open my mouth and see if some melody just naturally begins to blanket them. The melody, at first, is always nonsense placeholders (bade boo gee loo la la), not words or sentences. But sometimes these nonsense placeholders sound like certain words or phrases and sometimes that's how a lyric get written.
I went through a real obsessive phase of constant writing and recording a few years ago. I think that was necessary and now makes it easier to only do it when I feel like something good could come out of it. I've got a large overstock of songs, never used or heard by many people, from that time if I ever get writer's block.
JA: People really loved that last band of yours, The Stairs. Does this band feel different than that one?
RW: This feels very different from The Stairs. For one, Evan (Sicuranza) and I split the songwriting 50/50 with occasional songs from Leeore Schnairsohn and Rob Johanson in The Stairs. In Hills I write the songs and then present them to the band for arranging, tightening, and editing. Also, the way The Stairs began, was very, very unusual. I don't know for sure how many bands are born on the front steps of a library holding a giant novelty check but I feel like it's a small number. We had a lot of fun. We learned as we went. Some people hated my songs and loved Evan's. Some people hated Evan's songs and loved mine. So there were people who were half fans of the band. That's very strange! We quietly existed for a couple of years and as we announced our breakup that's when people started paying attention.
JA: Was there a particular concept involved with creating Hallelujah the Hills? Or were you just trying to have a good time?
RW: Nope, no real overall concept for Hills. Just a band that would aspire to be original and carry on some of the traditions that were exhibited in bands we all loved. And fun. Fun for us. Fun for the audience.
JA: So all right, what bands do you admire? Like if I were a band I would want to be The Hold Steady, with about half as much drinking.
RW: I like Talking Heads, Guided By Voices, XTC, Bob Dylan, Gillian Welch, and yeah, like you mentioned, The Hold Steady have just knocked out three amazing albums in a row. I like David Lynch soundtracks and a country singer named Tom T. Hall. Oh! And Marnie Stern is my new favorite. I love how it's so difficult to just sit there and try to imagine what new innovative music might sound like but when you do finally hear it it's always a forehead slapping moment like, "Oh yeah! Of course!" Do you find similar moments in writing/reading? Do you read a lot of contemporary writers? Do you keep up?
JA: I feel like all I do is read contemporary writers. I run a winter reading series here in New York that features debut authors for the coming year so I am always getting galleys of things in advance. Plus I know a lot of writers and we all trade stuff and get excited for each other and want to see what everybody else is doing. I have five forthcoming books sitting on my table right now staring at me and making me feel guilty for not having read them all instantly. I talk sometimes with people how I rarely find that new authors write brilliant books. I think I see stuff that is definitely accomplished, writers who are trying new things in voice and structure and completely succeeding in that way. And I think that definitely is a forehead slapping moment, when people take risks like that. But still a lot of these books fall short in heart or soul or wisdom. That's just because we're all so young though. We need more time to learn how to communicate what's inside of us better. Also we just don't have enough knowledge about life yet.
I look at someone like Jonathan Lethem who has written a ton of books and people really connect with his writing and I just think oh I've got such a long way until I get there. But I bet he looks at Cormac McCarthy, for example, and thinks, Man, I'm never going to get there. Of course I bring up Lethem because you were one of the bands that was invited to perform a song written with some of the lyrics from his book You Don't Love Me Yet. Did you enjoy that process? And of course I have to ask, did you like performing with him better than you did performing with me?
RW: Do you get jealous of other writers? I enjoyed our reading together more because a) we got to play more than one song b) there weren't a bunch of older folks there with their ears covered waiting for us to finish. But I really did enjoy the process of writing a song using lyrics written by someone else. Jonathan seemed very nice during the few moments we spoke. He later indulged a question I had via email regarding The Religious Experience of Philip K Dick (also in comic book form) which was very kind of him (he's a PKD expert). By the way, The Religious Experience Of Philip K Dick is probably the very definition of abstract adventure.
JA:That question about Lethem was just my attempt to get some trash-talking in here! But you won't bite. Bo-oring. Anyway I try not to get jealous. I am pretty good at not getting jealous. I try to turn whatever negative feelings I have into something that drives me to work harder and achieve more and just in general be a better writer. I have a Midwestern work ethic. But, sometimes I am competitive. I will say that. I'm Midwestern, but I ain't no saint.
I think you are now officially asking me more questions than I am asking you. You have to save some questions because I know you are going to interview me when my next book comes out at the end of the year as part of the Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program. So now I'm going to end with one last question: Can Hallelujah the Hills save rock and roll?
RW: There is no need to save it. It has never been sick. All of this bullshit where people declare genres and mediums to be dead is totally pointless. It has more to do with themselves than actual states. People should just shut up and make more art. I should take my own advice here. Did I pass the audition?
Hallelujah the Hills links:
Jami Attenberg links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)