April 14, 2010
In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).
Steve Almond's latest book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is in stores this week.
Author Steve Almond interviews musician Ike Reilly:
Steve Almond: I hate to blow your cover, but you got a degree in political science and considered going to law school. What in God's name were you thinking?
Ike Reilly: Everything I did then and do now is just a cover until I decide what I really want to do or become. Back then I never wanted to tell anybody the truth about what I wanted to do or be mostly because I didn't know and when I did know I didn't want to anybody to be around to witness the failure of whatever that was. It was like, 'Hey, now I'm an athlete, now I wanna be a law student, I'm joining the Marine Corps, I'm gonna be a gravedigger, I wanna hail cabs.' Even now, as I claim to be a songwriter, performer, a band leader -- whatever it is -- it's really just a temporary trade until I find something that I really feel comfortable with. I guess now I'm not so afraid of having witnesses to the failure but I do occasionally imagine having all those witnesses rubbed out.
SA: Your songs nearly always tell stories, often about characters making bad decisions and bad deals. My sense is this comes from being a native bullshitter yourself, a spinner of yarns. But maybe I'm making dumb assumptions. Are there writers (or other artists) who have influenced your songwriting?
IR: Steve, once again you've made an incredibly dumb assumption. Please don't do it again. Songs about good decisions don't seem that interesting...I can't even think of one. Actually, most all of the people that appear in my songs are based on people that I know or knew or have seen or heard about. I really try not to mythologize much. Within my braintrust of drunks and lay-abouts we have a phrase and it is "magic rat." As in, don't "magic rat" it. "Magic Ratting" in our camp is a flaw in story telling that surely makes for a good story but doesn't really ring true. It's drama in a show biz kind of a way. It sounds nice but it sounds like it comes from a writer not someone who has inhabited the space in the story or song. It comes from the song "Jungleland." I have been guilty of it, I have purposefully done it, but I hate it when I hear it from me or anybody...but especially from me. I've certainly been inspired by writers and artists.
SA: OK, so without getting all magic ratty, can you talk about a book or two that got into the groundwater?
IR: I wish I could tell you that I have read a lot of books. I guess I could tell ya that. There are certain types of books that I like but – I've told ya this before – songs and books are so different. Won't you believe me for fuck sake? Songs don't take that long to write and you have the advantage of sound to enhance and to color the story. Melody, key, rhythm, voice...tons of shit.
But okay, how can you not love anything John Steinbeck wrote? I'm not sure if this stuff got in the groundwater or not but you'd have to be a real asshole not to see that he is on whole different level. Faulkner. Tennessee Williams. I was more influenced by films and characters in those films than books. You know, Brando being from my hometown [Libertyville, IL] and watching his performances in those great films like On the Waterfront, Street Car, The Wild Ones. When I saw that shit as kid I didn't distinguish between those stories and reality. I wanted to be one of those characters, I didn't think about who wrote it. I didn't think anybody wrote it. I wasn't thinking I would write anything ... songs, stories, nothing. Didn't want to. I wanted to DO something, not write something. I wanted to be down on the water front or in a biker gang. I also like to read Elmore Leonard. His daughter and son-in-law are really good friends of mine but even if they weren't I'd read all his shit. I like the way his people talk and I like his locations. I'd like to make a movie out of his book Swag, but not have anybody like fucking Owen Wilson in it. Great music, no stars, beautiful women, and fast cars. I will direct. I will need between seven and ten million dollars. Much of that money will be my fee.
SA: Like a lot of the musicians I dig (Dylan, Springsteen, the Hold Steady) your body of work creates a certain kind of mythology. You talk a lot about the region north of Chicago, where you grew up and still live. But it often feels like you're also creating a kind of persona for yourself, or maybe an alternate version of yourself. Is that how it feels to you, too?
IR: It must feel that way to you because we had the misfortune of spending time together at my home for your book. Had that never happened you would only know the persona of the songs. I shoulda never let your ass into my life. I guess the performers that interest me the most don't just create alternate personas for themselves but make you believe that they inhabit songs or they actually do inhabit songs. Bob Marley did it. Bob Dylan did it. Chuck Berry did it. Johnny Cash did it. Not so sure about Springsteen or the Hold Steady. As good as Springsteen is his persona to me is entertainer/rock star/gazillionaire. I don't think I'd wanna work a 10 hr shift with The Boss hauling luggage and then split tips even with him. However, if we were to open for him at say a little club like Shea Stadium I would be happy to split a pay day with him. I love The Boss, but that kind of a presentation is a bit more theatrical than I could pull off or would want to pull off. The Hold Steady is also very theatrical, fun, but I couldn't do it that way. It may be exactly that reason that has kept my shit from reaching the kind of audiences that other artists have reached. I could be inhibited. Maybe I'll change and jazz up the stories a bit with some nifty nicknames and fake places. Yeah, that's the ticket – and then I'll belt the songs out like there is no tomorrow and flail my arms around a lot.... Oh yeah! When Johnny Cash says he shot a man in Reno, I believe him every time even though I'm sure he didn't shoot anybody in Reno. I have even told people that he did. I felt I had to.
SA: Can you talk about the story behind the song "Hip Hop Thighs #17"? Or, if you'd rather, "Put a Little Love in It"? I'm asking about those two because they're so full of dazzling, unexpected, almost dream-like images.
IR: Those two songs in particular are not really stories in the linear sense. The stories behind those songs are several different stories for each song. I take drugs now that allow me to stay focused and when I wrote those songs I was not on the drugs, so the timeline and subjects of those songs are all over the place. Kinda like the film Pulp Fiction, except I really didn't mean for it to happen. In "Hip Hop Thighs" I was inspired by an evening I spent with Joe Strummer and his amazement of the underground cop bars in Chicago. I combined that night with my love of Johnny Cash and Hip Hop music. There is no "magic ratting" going on in that song as stupid as the concept sounds because the characters, the location and the incidents are actually true. They are just put back together wrong.
In "Put a Little Love In It," I just took some advice one friend gave me about the death of another friend and used it as a chorus. See, I worked for years at a cemetery and I had the honor and misfortune of installing the headstone of my best childhood friend, Jimmy Jagger Newell, who died recklessly in a car accident. My other friend John Cummins who worked with me at the cemetery led me through the process with compassion and wisdom. Many years later when John died I combined the memory of John's empathy during Jimmy's death with John's misunderstood life and his horrific death.
SA: The new album, Hard Luck Stories, has a song called "The War on the Terror & the Drugs." It's one of several tunes that addresses the moral torpor of the Bush years. Is this a vestige of your years as a poly sci student?
IR: Are you kidding me? Did I tell you I was a student of political science? I must have been creating a persona. I was actually a theological student. Anyway Steve, at the time I was recording that song I was taking drugs that would allow me not to be so focused and the phrase "let's fight the war on the terror and the drugs" sounded good to me as a chorus to tie some verses of a story together so i tossed them together. Oh no! Now that I think about it I may have been "magic ratting." SHIT! "The War on The Terror and Drugs" is mythological! Fuck. Thank God Shooter [Jennings] is real and agreed to sing the song with me, and although you have pointed out that I have created a mythological persona I am in fact real, so this combats the "Magic Ratting" that goes on in the chorus. Also, I might add that only after I read your book did I know the meaning of that song and what I was trying to do when I wrote it.
SA: You're dad was in the service, if I'm not mistaken, so I find it interesting that a lot of your songs, such as "Hard to Make Love to an American," try to get people to focus on the real and mostly hidden consequences of living in a time of war.
IR: Thank you.
SA: Yeah, you're welcome. But I'm trying to get you to talk a little more about this. I mean, we've been "at war" for nearly eight years now, in two countries, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, and yet not one of your peers (that I know of) has written about a veteran riding in a "skin-graft limousine." Why do you, chumpski?
IR: I was born at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in North Chicago, Illinois. My dad was a Master Chief in the Navy and a WWII vet and I've always been interested in soldiers and sailors and the service. Have you ever been to a VA hospital? Jesus! But fuck all that, I know that some nasty shit has to get done. Policies take on a life of their own and situations get rightly but mostly wrongly created and people gotta fight their way out of it. The Military is on the charge now but mostly advertising their shit on TV to get recruits. You know, kids that get enticed by the slick ads and shiny swords and high tech weapons and then join up and get their heads blown off. There was this young guy I considered a friend. He was the nephew of a good buddy of mine and he was a great kid. After 911, he left his job at bar here and joined the Army. He got killed in Afghanistan. His name was Wesley Wells and I still see his friends around town, and his uncle and I've seen his mother too. It's fucking sad and I don't know what's worth it or not. I rather he was alive, that's for sure. Those are tough fucking jobs and those people go through nasty shit and come back here and try to get back into relationships, try to fit in at work but it's almost impossible. I don't know if I'm trying to get people to focus on the consequences of war, or on anything. I'm too selfish to think about that. Maybe I write about those things because it make me feel better because I'm living the life of a pussy. Riding around, playing the guitar, and hanging out in bars with no defining moment in my life. When I saw the soldiers shipping out from 29 Palms a few years back it had an impact on me that was surprising. That is when worked up that song "Broken Parakeet Blues." "Girls In the Back Room" deals more with the behavior, perception, and treatment of a young war veteran returning home. The awkwardness that is created by a obvious physical wound or a not-so-obvious mental scar.
SA: Economic anxiety is another big theme in your stuff ("Lights Out Anything Goes" etc.). Can we assume this comes from your own lean years?
IR: I'm returning quickly back to my lean years. I never thought I could be in such debt. If I wasn't so fucking healthy and didn't look so good I'd be really shook up right now.
SA: You were well into your thirties, with a wife and a few kids, before your debut record came out. But I'm curious what the songs were like that you were writing in your twenties. Are there any that have survived?
IR: Anything I wrote in my twenties I will say must have sucked. I hope it has all been destroyed. I was just figuring out how to make up songs then and unfortunately some people, not many, had to hear it. The good news is that most of the people that heard it were way to fucked up to remember anything other than that I was fucked up too -- yet there's always somebody in the crowd that will yell out, "Play 'Black People Got Car Trouble'"! I cringe and look for the bottle.
Steve Almond links:
Ike Reilly links and free and legal mp3 downloads:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks)