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June 11, 2010

Dallas Clayton Interviews Casey Dienel of White Hinterland

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Dallas Clayton is an author and artist, his children's book An Awesome Book is going into its 10th pressing.

Casey Dienel is the frontperson forWhite Hinterland. The band's latest album, Kairos, was released in March.

White Hinterland has several upcoming shows:

06/11/10: New York, NY - 92Y Tribeca w/ Sam Buck Rosen
06/16/10: Portland, ME - Space Gallery (buy tickets)
06/18/10: Brooklyn, NY - The Glasslands Gallery w/ Marnie Stern

Author Dallas Clayton and musician Casey Dienel interview each other:

Casey Dienel: In a video I watched online, you mentioned that An Awesome Book! is as much about the dreams you have in your sleep as the ones you have while awake. That's such a rad image that really hits home for me. What role do dreams play in your life?

Dallas Clayton: Well in the basic state of things, dreams as aspirations are pretty much the map of everything I do, meaning every element of my life is pretty fantastical and most of my day to day operations are things that I consider to be a real dream. I have a dream job, I go on dream tours, I have dream friends and a dream family, and basically all I do is try to spend most of my waking moments coming up with bigger and better ideas of how I can make more people happy and spread more joy. I'm a firm believer in trying to come up with the most unrealistic goals possible then doing everything in your power to try and achieve them.

One of the things I've really been feeling in your poems is that the language is so economized. I find magic in how much can be said by saying very little at all. What’s your relationship with language?

I really like the idea of using as few words as possible to make a point. I feel like so many writers have been influenced by the great novels that they grew up reading or their parents grew up reading and all they wanted to do was try and emulate that. But that's not me at all. I'm trying to build something free of too much historical influence, something that is much more of the moment. Don't get me wrong, I love Crime and Punishment but I could never sit down and write for that long, there's just too many pretty things out there to look at. Too much life for me to live. For you too, for everyone. The last thing you need is to be cooped up in your house reading my ideas for 500 pages, if I can't give it to you in 500 words or less, it's probably not going to happen.

You wrote and illustrated your book (which you self-published!! word!), craft poems and drawings, and write for one of my favorite websites about everything from art to music. Is there one area in your creative life where you feel more comfortable than the others? Were you always interested in writing and drawing, or did one talent develop earlier than the other?

Oh I wasn't really a drawer until last year. I mean I drew stuff, doodles and things for fun, but never anything of real substance. An Awesome Book! was the first thing I ever really did, and then when it took off it was like all the sudden I had a whole new bonus career like "hey you're a writer who also draws" probably how a singer feels when they find out they aren't bad at acting. Like not totally shocked, but more just caught off guard like "woah, weird, okay this is cool, I could do this." Honestly the thing I've always been most comfortable with is communicating to people and sharing ideas, the medium to me isn't so much as important as long as I can make it with my hands and at the end of the day use it to talk to people and make friends. Exchanging ideas, that's it for me. If I could do that better selling refrigerators than writing kids books I would... but then I'd have to figure out how to make a refrigerator. When was the first time you realized that you could be a musician? What did that feel like?

I say this at the hazard of sounding like a total idiot, but it wasn't until I was accepted to a music school at 18 that I realized I could be a musician. It really took someone else shoving me through the door for me to believe it was possible.

The only way I can explain it is that growing up I felt like I loved music more than it loved me. I started so young (4 years, I think) that my perception was skewed--I thought everyone played or wrote music, just as they ate and slept. I'd try to do anything else (soccer, swimming, theatre), but eventually I'd be pulled back in by a composition or some melody. Like magnets.

I agreed to go to another college, and a few days before graduation I got the call that I'd been accepted to New England Conservatory. I still remember the rising lump in my throat when I came home from school to find my mother holding the phone out to me. My skin was tingling and hot, like I'd been out in the sun all afternoon. It was as though I'd been pining after my best friend for so long that I'd kind of given up trying to get through to them and suddenly that best friend was saying "Hey, you idiot! I love you too! Now let's stop beating around the bush and do this thing!" Pretty awesome feeling.

When was the first time you can remember really enjoying listening to a record?

I grew up with a lot of music in the house but I never really understood what "albums" were until I was at a friend's house when I was 8. Her older brother had just bought a copy of Janet Jackson's Janet. so we snuck into his bedroom to listen to it. The artwork is so iconic--if i remember correctly, it's got that photo of her with Mike Elizando behind her and her jeans unzipped, which made us snicker. We were totally transfixed and listened to it front-to-back, alternately dancing, jumping on his bed, or just lying on the floor with our eyes closed. It sounded so new to me. I remember thinking "if my parents caught me looking at this album art or listening to this music, they would kill me." Naturally, that just made me want to listen to it again.

When did you first see something (be it a zine, a book, a record, a show you went to), that made you think "I want to be apart of this" or "I could do this?" What was the entry point into the world of shows and zines for you?

I think I just got into everything so young - going to shows, zines, making things yourself - that I never even had a chance to stop and think "this is something I should do." It was almost like "this is something that is done, if you do not do this it will not get done." That's how things always felt to me when I was younger, like in my brain EVERYONE in the world was doing the same things I was doing. It wasn't until years later that I realized it was not everyone, not even close.

I wish I knew more people that made kids stuff honestly, I'd love to have a bunch of people I could work with. As it stands most of the people whose writing stokes me out are dead. That said there are plenty of artists and musicians and people who make magical things that I see every day that make me happy. I feel kindred with anyone who is making anything to make other people happy.

The line between childhood & adulthood seems so fuzzy and indistinct to me. When I was a kid I felt more "adult" than I do now. What were you like as a kid? Were you always a big-dreamer? Did anyone ever give you a hard time about it?

I think I learned at a very early age to use humor and art to my favor. I don't know where the model came from but I realized there was always a successful place for the outsider/fun/class clown/weird kid and around the age where everyone is choosing roles and figuring out sides I just went with that. It made my teenage years a breeze because once you start approaching things from a place of "Check out how funny this is, all this crazy shit I'm into" it makes all the other social stuff that much easier. Like you're immune to all the other politics and you're really able to just be a person and cut through every clique.

What was the differential like between Janet and the first time you felt like you had stepped off on your own and started exploring music that wasn't immediately in front of you? How long did that take and who were you with the first time you bought music that other people thought was weird?

I'm laughing because I found Janet I started saving up money buy cassingles. I taped Selena & Mariah Carey songs off the radio. I went to this arts camp every summer and my friends there liked Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Stereolab, & Pavement. No matter what, I always loved classical music. Classical music was probably the one kind of music that I sought out entirely on my own. Invariably someone would say "you wouldn't like this," and sometimes they were right. But for the most part, my ears were hungry and it turned out I could enjoy listening to Arvo Part just as much as "I'm A Slave 4 U." It was pretty simple to me: some things I liked, some things I didn't. I feel really lucky to have what some of my friends have called "broken ears." The biggest inspiration to me as a kid was Charles Ives, because he had "broken ears," too. He wrote about how we all could benefit to "stretch our ears."

In fifth or sixth grade, I had a science class with these two dudes who were into skateboarding and Dungeons & Dragons. They loved Nirvana, and they asked me what I was into. I told them I'd bring in something the next day. I was so proud when I pulled out a cassette of Stravinsky's "Rite Of Spring" played by the Czech Philharmonic. They were like "Classical music? BO-RING! What a NERD! AND ITS NOT EVEN A CD!"

Do you think it is an artist has any obligation to the people, or the audience? If so what do you feel your obligation is to your audience?

Sometimes audiences are talked down to--how many times do I have to hear about how some band is just too "out there" or "experimental" for a larger audience? And what of the cynical grumbling that something is "beyond" an audience's grasp? That's not the audience I know. The one I've interacted with is often poised for whatever's new and interesting, they're open-minded and intelligent. They don't want to be fucked around with.

Maybe it prickles me because I'm in the audience, too. I go to shows and I buy records, so I imagine we're all thinking the same things. What do I want to see at a show? What records do I want to own? What makes me feel like I got my $14 worth? Whatever those answers are, that's what they deserve. They don't deserve an appeal to their lowest-common denominator. They don't have to love it, but it's not about winning people over; it's about putting something out there that you're psyched about in hopes it will make other people feel psyched, too. One of the biggest parts of releasing a book or a record is getting to share it with others. How do you feel about your work once it's “out there?” Is sharing your work with others as important to you as the work itself?

Sharing for me is way more important than making it. Growing up writing zines, going to shows and selling them that was what I lived for. I just love being able to start an interaction with someone by offering them something. Like "Hey, I made this. I don't know you but I want to share it with you, because I think it is important." You can tell a lot about people by how they react to something like that. Moreover you can tell a lot about a crowd of people, or the type of crowd a certain band or artist draws by how they react to something like that. To this day whenever I am at a gathering of more than 50 people all I want to be doing is approaching them one by one and offering them something I made. I guess that has a lot to do with why I started the Awesome World Foundation, and why I tour the way I do, giving away books to kids. I love it.

Have you had any ideas for projects/work over the years that just didn't pan out, or perhaps some that you've yet to realize but would like to in the future?

I guess everyone has but for me that's pretty much the structure for everything good in my life, turning unexpected accidents and unforeseen instances into amazing opportunities to do rad stuff. I've never been a planner, as I get older my life really keeps trying to make me into a planner but all ever want to do is wake up on a new day and think "What kind of awesome adventure can I get into today, and how many people can I convince to come with me?"

So much of the current state of music is about embracing change, changing mediums, changing ideas, changing the way music appreciated and for how long. Is there anything you are trying to change about the way people hear, perceive or distribute your music? For you, what is the ultimate means of experiencing a band?

The biggest change for me has been an internal one, which is production, and that obviously affects how people experience the final product. I was pretty ignorant about engineering when I first started out, and recording can be really expensive. For a band like mine to survive, I think being able to adapt to constraints is essential. Instead of getting bummed out about how minuscule our budget is, I produced it and as a result didn't have to translate my imagination to anyone else. When someone hears Kairos, they're hearing the unadulterated version of how I imagined those songs. That's more important to me than dictating how a person hears it--because once I've released any music it's mine as much as it's theirs. If someone feels like it sounds best on headphones or they can't even approach it unless it's on vinyl, that's totally cool with me. I want them to come at it however it makes them happiest.

I like experiencing a band live probably best of all. I am one of those people that wants to be consumed by sound: bass in my face, the static of distortion in my feet. I want to swim in it. While you can download records online, there's no substitute for the feeling of seeing something incredible in person. It's no wonder that my favorite part of writing music is getting to perform, for some reason a song doesn't feel "real" to me until it's been test-driven in front of an audience. The songs on the record are just the jumping off point, I'm most curious to hear where the songs are at after they've been played 500 times.

How do you feel the music you are making now is going to sound to you in fifteen years?

Whenever I complete a project, I'm already thinking about what's next. Albums are a snapshot of what I loved, how I lived, what frustrated me or turned me on. They're portraits, not manifestos. It's not easy for me to listen to older material, I'm not far enough away yet to feel nostalgic, and besides, there's still so much else I'm dying to explore.

I'm not sure how Kairos will sound to me in 15 years, but I hope I remember it as the record where Shawn and I learned how to work as a team, where I learned how to sing, where we had a totally dreamy summer hanging out, cooking, and making music. I hope I remember how much fun it was.

Where do you imagine you will be when you listen to Kairos in 15 years?

Hopefully, somewhere in France.

Dallas Clayton links:

Dallas Clayton's website
An Awesome Book's website

White Hinterland and Casey Dienel links and free and legal mp3 downloads:

White Hinterland's website
Casey Dienel's Wikipedia entry
Casey Dienel's Largehearted Boy Note Books essay
Casey Dienel's Daytrotter session

White Hinterland: "No Logic" [mp3] from Kairos
White Hinterland: "Icarus" [mp3] from Kairos
White Hinterland: "Dreaming of the Plum Trees" [mp3] from Phylactery Factory
White Hinterland: "Chant de Grillon" [mp3] from Luniculaire

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

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 composers discuss their film's soundtracks)

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