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March 16, 2011

John Wray Interviews Steve Salett of The Poison Tree

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

Former King of France frontman Steve Salett's solo project The Poison Tree released its self-titled debut album this week, a disc American Songwriter called an "innovative indie rock opus.". Stream it at Spinner.

John Wray is an author, his most recent book is the novel Lowboy.

Author John Wray interviews author Steve Salett of The Poison Tree :

John Wray: It's a pleasure to be interviewing you for the Largehearted Boy cybercomplex. Pawn E2-E4.

Steve Salett: I thought I was interviewing you? Hmm. Either way I'm gonna kick your butt in chess.

It seems like you like to make things difficult for yourself in your writing process--either by trying to write while on a subway car, as you did for Lowboy, or by living in a tent in music rehearsal room for The Right Hand of Sleep. Why do you make it so hard? Pawn E7-E5

JW: I actually thought I was making things easier by doing those things. To be honest, writing for me is difficult enough in and of itself, so what I'm doing when I set myself little hurdles like the ones you mention is distracting myself from the actual problems with the project I'm working on. A bit risky, maybe, but it keeps up morale.

I see what you're up to, by the way. Turning the tables on me, interview-wise, to destabilize my chess strategy. Let's talk about The Poison Tree, my favorite new band. Except that it's not a band, is it? It's you, Steve, who used to practice in the band space I had my tent pitched in. You and a bunch of killer bee musicians, to be accurate. Was the recording process different for this record than with your last outfit, the much-fawned-over King of France? Pawn F2 to F4.

SS: The Poison Tree is very different from my previous bands-- I've always loved collaborating, but this time I guess I wanted to go it alone. That's not to say that the players on this record (and Gary Maurer, who co-produced) didn't contribute creatively--their ideas are all over the place, but it was always with the understanding that they were working to flesh out the existing ideas. But I work very slowly--and that can be frustrating for bandmates. In these songs I could work at my own pace without feeling the pressure of other people waiting for me. Pawn E5xF4.

JW: I love what happens when I first get really into a record, like I have with yours— the process of letting a song, or a bunch of songs, just kind of hijack my mental playlist, somehow becoming relevant to whatever I happen to be doing. There's a flipside to that phenomenon, though: I'm sitting in a coffee shop as I write this, and there's a (My Chemical Romance?) song playing right now, worming its hideous way into my consciousness no matter how desperately I try to keep it out. What do you do when you're subjected to this kind of aesthetic water torture? Aside from putting headphones on, I mean. Bishop F1- C4.

SS: I'm always critiquing music that pops up around me, but generally in a pretty open way-- I try not to judge, and I think sometimes even a badly written song can be effective. But there are times, of course—like when you're stuck in a coffee shop with horrible music blaring at you—when I put my mental defenses. Someone taught me that if you think of the guitar riff to "Down on the Corner" by CCR, you can effectively block out all other songs. Time to get my queen out there. Queen D8-H4.

JW: What's the single best pop song ever, in your expert opinion? I demand a specific answer to this question. Could it be, for example, 'Up The Junction' by Squeeze? I put it to you that it could.

King E1-F1.

SS: Wow. Best pop song. "Viva Las Vegas" by Doc Pomus. Pawn B7-B5

JW: Interesting choice to an impossible question. I was just trying to throw your game off while I put my nefarious plan into action. Bishop C4 takes pawn B5. My favorite Poison Tree song is "Come On, Come On," by the way.

SS: Thanks. Canaan's Tongue, by the way, is an awesome book. What are you working on now? Knight G8-F6.

JW: I think you've successfully mentioned each of my three novels now, for which I salute you and thank you. Instead of telling you about my current book, though, I'm going to ask you about the song I just mentioned, the opening track on the album. Am I right in identifying a line, towards the end, about suicide? "See my body/from the rafters down/I'm no loner, but I'm never coming out"? Should we be worried about you, Steve, or only about your chess pieces? Knight G1-F3.

SS: That song is about death, but not suicide-- it was written in two parts, and in no way intentionally so, but after the death of two friends. The part of the song that you're quoting -- the bridge-- is where I'm changing the narrative voice to those who have passed.

You have a gift for changing voices and perspectives, I've noticed. What's your trick? How are you able to place yourself so completely in characters? Queen H4-H5.

JW: Drat! You've got me on the run now Knight B1-C3.

I don't really approach character in the orthodox, writing-workshop way--I don't try to 'lose myself' in my characters so much as to consider what role they play in the larger story. They have to be plausible and three-dimensional to be effective, of course, but I don't sit around and try to imagine what toppings they'd like on a theoretical pizza, as some writers claim to do. It's mostly subconscious, though. How about you? When you're writing the lyrics to a song, do you think consciously about what you want the song to be about, or do you just feel your way?

SS: I totally feel my way through it. I am picky about what I end up keeping, but I usually have no idea what a song is about until after I finish it. I keep the song in the back of my brain as long as I can. That said, I also write from the other angle as well, in a more song- crafty way. I usually don't keep those songs, but if I'm not working in that way as well, I find I have less range for my non-conscious writing.

Ok, Johnny. Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy? Fox or Hedgehog? Pawn G7 to G5.

JW: Dostoevsky is sexier, or at least seedier, more modern—but I'm going to have to go with Tolstoy. I have no idea what your second question refers to.

You're getting a lot of press for The Poison Tree, I'm happy to see--I just read that great write-up in the Wall Street Journal. You put out the record through a collective, as opposed to a traditional label. Can you talk a bit about that? Pawn D2-D4.

SS: Oh crap, my second question referred to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Tolstoy was described as the fox, able to do many things with his tremendous range as a writer, while big D was the Hedgehog, as he was master of the one thing he did. I see you as more Tolstoy-like in your range as a writer-- all of your books have been very different -- but within each of them you maintain a singular vision. A fox in hedgehog clothes, I suppose. I think this game is going badly for me. Bishop C8-B7

JW: Let's cut to the chase: your songs are seductive. Leonard Cohen seductive, that is, not Kei$ha seductive. Have you had many women approach you blushingly after your shows, unable to meet your eye, nervously but charmingly biting their lower lips? Be honest here. No judgments. Pawn H2-H4.

SS: Thanks John. What a great question. Rook H8-G8.

JW: I'm glad you like it. I'm going to interpret your silence the most filthy way possible, you realize. King F1-G1.

SS: God no! Can we go back to Lenny Cohen? I think that he is certainly an influence on my writing, and I know you are a fan, too. He is a writer and musician, and so are you. I don't know if you want people to know or not, but you are a very gifted songwriter, and much of the stuff you've done-- and I'd say your best songs -- very few people have heard. Why not do both, like Lenny? Pawn G5 takes H4

JW: God knows where Mr. Cohen got his juice from; either massive existential angst or a shit-ton of TM, probably. I just don't have the energy. I recorded a record a few years back that I've been meaning to do something with, but I'm the slothful type. Your continuing silence regarding groupies is a pretty strong motivator to get it out there, however.

You've been playing a lot of dates around NYC lately, including a great one I saw last week, with Doveman, Justin Bond and everyone's favorite one-woman adult-contemporary sub-genre, Norah Jones. Any plans to go on tour in the near future? Rook H1 takes pawn H4.

SS: We're setting up a East Coast tour now, and should be out on the road this spring quite a bit. Ooh that was a terrible move I just made. Maybe I'll build a raft and go down the Mississippi to promote the record. Wait, you did that already...

I can see I going to lose the game shortly so I'd better get my questions in. Who are reading now? Queen H5-G6

JW: The book I'm writing has a lot to do with sci-fi, so I'm doing a kind of Sherman's March through the genre--both books I read as a teenager, like Asimov's The Gods Themselves and Clarke's Childhood's End, and books I've always wanted to check out, like Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed. It's incredibly fun, I have to say. Sci Fi authors--the good ones, at least--are intensely conceptually creative, in the same way that, say, theoretical physicists or great detectives are. They make most non-sci fi writers just look tired.

You're a sharp dresser, Steve, from what I've seen. Do you have a favorite pair of pants? Queen D1- E2

SS: This, of course, is an essential question. The pants make the man. I find myself once again in search of a favorite-- my last pair tore just last week. I feel adrift. My grandfather sold suits in Filene's for 30-some years. I lost this game-- you realize this, right? Knight F6 takes pawn E4.

Excited about a sci-fi book! For me sci-fi brings out some of the fear and joy that I imagine used to be occupied by religion in the pre-enlightenment era—the unknown is a central concept in sci-fi. Do you agree?

JW: Absolutely. Then again, I think the unknown is, or should be, a central concept in all fiction. All art, maybe.

My favorite pair of pants, since you ask, are silver houndstooth slacks that I got at UniQlo on Broadway for 45 dollars. Nothing beats a bargain!

Here's a potentially ridiculous question: if you could put together a supergroup to back you on your upcoming tour—assembled, Robotron-style, from other current bands—who would you poach? You're not allowed to say the guys you already play with. We all know that they bring the thunder. Taking your pawn Rook H4 x F4.

SS: I bought my pants at UniQlo too! Do dead people count?

JW: Aha! That's probably why your pants tore. No dead people.

SS: There is a real temptation to think of some very talented friends, but I've played with many of them. I have an appreciation for the session guys of the world. Larry Goldings is a great organ player-- I'd love to have him on tour. Brad Albetta is an amazing bass player and a great guy, and Steve Drozd of the Flaming Lips is awesome-- dunno if he's quite the Poison Tree vibe, but we could work it out.

You win by the way. I resign.

JW: I believe the word you're looking for is 'crumple.' Can I still have a free copy of your record? And would you kindly express my compliments to Miss Jones, on her highly attractive appearance and personality? I need to be maintained in the lifestyle to which I've become accustomed.

SS: Free record, yes. Me talking to Miss Jones on your behalf... I'll require a rematch for that.

John Wray links:

John Wray's website
Wikipedia entry for the author

The Poison Tree links:

The Poison Tree's website
The Poison Tree's MySpace page

The Poison Tree: "Come On Come On" [mp3] at My Old Kentucky Blog
The Poison Tree: "Never Know Me" [mp3] at Spinner
The Poison Tree: "My Only Friend" [mp3] at Stereogum

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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