March 16, 2012
In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).
Emma Rathbone is an author, her debut novel was The Patterns of Paper Monsters.
Author Emma Rathbone interviews Adam Brock of Borrowed Beams of Light:
Emma Rathbone: As someone who recently married you, the first question I want to ask is one very close to my heart: when is your Steely Dan phase going to end?
Adam Brock: Good Question. Never. My interest in Steely Dan is a 'phase' only about as much as 'breathing air' is a 'phase' or perhaps 'having blood.' How about 'eating delicious food?' Such is my relationship with the Dan. You are warming to it though. I can tell. I've seen the way your eyes glaze over a little during "Kid Charlemagne." And as we all know, grudging acceptance is a great foundation for a healthy relationship. And just a quick follow up question: When is your "let me read you something" phase going to end?
Emma Rathbone: It is important to have someone to bounce ideas off of. For instance, when I corner you in the kitchen with a ten page prose poem, how am I to judge its effectiveness if not by the strange expressions that cross your face when I read it to you? But moving on, something I’ve always admired about musicians and songwriters is the ability to come up with melodies. Especially the ones that are so good that as a listener you almost recognize them. How do you do that? I know that as a writer, when I’ve really hit a vein, it seems that some passages are almost “given” to me. Does it feel like that for you? Is it something that just comes to you, or something you sit there and, block by block, try to construct?
Adam Brock: Bear with me, as I am sort of making this up as I go, but remember playing with LEGOs as a kid? I used to have these big red bins of them and I would sit there doing my thing, and I would have these grand visions of castles and skyscrapers in the clouds, but I could only make them as good as the pieces at my disposal would permit me. And that's sort of where I am at with songwriting, I feel like I'm only ever as good as the tools I possess, like my limited knowledge of the guitar or my Beach Boys understanding of the pop form. But with melody, I think there is something else at play. I think great melody lines sound like you've heard them before, probably because you HAVE heard them before. I feel like when I come up with a melody line, I am just sort of borrowing it from the greater pool of melodies that have been swimming around in my head since I was a child. All the music I've ever heard is in there somewhere--the nursery rhymes, the nintendo scores, Jackson Browne, birdsongs, cell phone ringtones, all of it. But it slowly breaks into pieces as it sits in my brain, and I'm kind of picking from it and restructuring it. It's like reaching in that LEGO bin and pulling out a clump of pieces that are already stuck together. And maybe they used to be part of a wall, or a firetruck or something, and you keep them together because they fit, but in YOUR creation, they become the wing of a spaceship. The pieces that pop musicians are building with are the same and they have been since the Beatles, or Gilbert and Sullivan, or Mozart, or whatever...but if you rearrange them, it’s their new environment that makes them kind of unique. So, it's not as if I feel like a good melody line is ever 'given' to me, or like channeled from heaven into my brain or something. It's more like dipping your hand into some cosmic shoebox full of trailmix.
Emma Rathbone: I like trail mix. Especially the kind that's mostly just a bar of chocolate. But what I was saying about recognizing a melody line that I've never heard before was mostly about the music articulating something, some facet of life or complicated emotion that I had never heard expressed. I think that's the best thing about music, books, and all other kinds of art, when you feel that communion, that truth expressed surprisingly or beautifully and then you're like ZAZOW!!!!! Feelin' less alone!!!! But on another note, something I've always been jealous about when it comes to musicians is that they can get up there on stage and perform and when it comes together it's glorious. With writing, you can give a reading, but something tells me that standing behind a podium in a too cold Barne's and Noble is not the same as power chording to a packed venue. What does it feel like to be up there? Is it as great as it seems?
Adam Brock: Yes. It's magic. Straight up. For real. Magic. It's like actually living up to the feeling I would get at 7 years old, air guitarring the crap out of my Beach Boys cassettes, jumping on my bed. Or like being 13 years old, pumping Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy through my walkman loud enough to drown out the din of the lawnmower I was pushing. It's phenomenal. I actually become the daydream for like forty minutes. It actually feels that good, that cathartic. The bummer comes in when you begin to think about the other 23 hours of nonsense you put up with in order to get to do that every night. Touring gets harder and harder the older I get. And after being at it for years and years, you start to add up the time spent looking out the window of a van, or farting around on a smart phone or buying bullshit to make yourself feel better or eating gas station food or whatever, and you can really feel the weight of that time--like it's a physical presence you carry around. I feel sometimes like I am wearing that extra weight, like a second beer gut or something...It tires me out.
This is something that we've spoken about a little before, and hinted at earlier in this interview, but I think its worth getting into: we both admit that as artists there is a certain amount of self affirmation and ego and confidence that you have to build up for yourself, but there is also an undeniable need for affirmation from one's peers to help push you to keep going. With music, I know that I get this more than you as a writer--there are gigs which are an endless source of it, but also, it just takes less time to crank out a song or EP, or even a full length album than it does to write a novel. How do you survive the long winters of 'nobody telling you what you are doing is worthwhile?’
Emma Rathbone: It would be great if there were more pit-stops along the way for writing a novel where you could get affirmation for what you’ve already accomplished. I’m the kind of person that likes to get credit for every sentence I write, so it’s really scary to think that if the novel doesn’t work as a whole, all those zingers I wrote aren’t going to see the light of day. That’s why it’s always so amazing to me when a book is good all the way until the end. You can show people your work, of course, but I’m always hesitant to do that, for fear that a reader won’t be able to see what I’m going for, and cast doubt on the whole project.
So I think you just have to be entranced by what you’re writing, you really have to believe in it, almost delusionally. I have to feel really romanced by an idea to get up the gumption to work on it for the amount of time it takes, I have to believe in it to the extent that I don’t need to get affirmation. Although, as you well, know, that’s not an attitude I can always sustain, and then I show someone a few pages and sift their feedback for compliments.
But I want to talk about your album, Stellar Hoax. It’s gorgeous, and one of my favorite aspects is the lyrics. I especially like the line “I did the twist with willing sisters in the harbor, now countless urchins all keep calling me their father, their needy eyes all make mosaics of the sun, their moms are something but they’ll never be the one.” I know you’ve written some fiction, how is it different to write lyrics for a song than it is to just write a great sentence? And what about the idea for the album. Did you (ahem) get that from anywhere?
Adam Brock: As far as lyrics go, I feel like it’s got to be easier than what you do...or what a poet does. I mean for poetry or fiction the words are just gonna lie there on the cold white page. All the life that comes from their coupling, from their existence has to pull itself up from nothing. Music is like a great big wind that takes lyrics and shakes them up and gives them life. Not only are the words sung which colors their very meaning, but they are on a bed of whatever else is going on in the song. If you take most of what I've written, or a lot of musicians for that matter, and just had to take the lyrics at face value, on a page they wouldn't be nearly as impressive I assure you. I mean I hope they still stand up, but still, my words get to be all dressed up by the music.
The other side of why I enjoy writing lyrics is that the music is an important part of the process itself. I never go into a the process of writing a song knowing what it’s going to be about. I will often be most of the way through the recording process before I begin writing the words. And that’s because I really need the music itself to sort of begin to tell me what it’s about. Sometimes I will just sing nonsense, like syllables and sounds until those start to form the semblance of little bits and phrases. Then I can sort of go gold panning in that and pull out what feels right, and I'm on my way. I would feel totally lost staring at a blank page and just writing what I'm feeling. Or trying to pen a narrative. Sounds like a nightmare. And I envy songwriters who can do that. But it’s always been more of my style, and my taste really to go with more of the free association, surrealist approach. I like lyrics that serve up images and leave their interpretation more open. Dan Bejar (Destroyer) is the best contemporary example of someone who really shines at this. I also have always admired Jeff Tweedy's lyrics or John Darnielle's who also tend to take this approach but temper it with more of a narrative sensibility.
As far as Stellar Hoax goes, the idea, as you, ahem, won't let me forget, came from a particularly fruitful time in our courtship when we would look up conspiracy theory shit on the internet. You actually drew my attention to an ancient text called the Voynich Manuscript. It's a 500 year old vellum manuscript with origins and intent unknown. It's to this day indecipherable. I won't go into too much detail here, as any reader of this is only a wiki away...But basically it's this beautifully illuminated manuscript that appears to be revolving around some basic categories such as astronomy, biology, botany, etc, but the author is unknown, the words aren't any known language and it's basically just pretty wild. And for this record, I just used these categories as jumping off points in order to explore some imagined purposes, intentions, content, etc of the manuscript. So it's not quite a concept record in the sense of narrative, it’s more of an aesthetic exploration of this one thing, throughout the course of ten songs.
So, speaking of new projects, what are you working on now? And furthermore, how does it compare with last year's Patterns of Paper Monsters?
Emma Rathbone: I’m working on a few top secret projects. As you know, I like to shroud what I’m doing in complete secrecy, on the off chance that someone will ask me about it. I will say that the book I’m working on now is, at the same time, very different and very similar to my first book.
After Patterns came out, I wanted to write something more ambitious in terms of length and scope. I don’t think that was a bad instinct, but I ended up strong-arming myself into writing something that, without knowing a better way to put, just isn’t quite "me." Working really hard on something for a year and a half that might not end up going anywhere is not an awesome feeling, but it helped me realize the importance of playing to my strengths. Writing is hard for many reasons, so why force yourself away from the way you want to write, away from your natural brain voice?
I feel like I’m always doing that—trying to compose some Alice Munroe-esque study in restraint. It never works out. So for better of worse, that’s what I’m working on now. Embracing...myself.
Adam Brock: Sounds hot.
Emma Rathbone: Thanks.
Emma Rathbone links:
Borrowed Beams of Light links and free & legal mp3s:
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 composers discuss their film's soundtracks)