February 26, 2013
In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).
Joshua Mohr is a writer, his latest novel is Fight Song.
Musician Dan Kirschner Interviews author Joshua Mohr (and vice versa):
Kirschen: I believe you've mentioned a previous life in which you were the front man in a rock band. How does Josh Mohr qua front man affect/inform/contribute to Josh Mohr qua novelist?
Mohr: I played in shitty rock bands for years, starting at about 15 and stopping in my late 20s. Writing songs definitely affects my prose now. I'm always thinking about sentence rhythm, creating different "time signatures" for various characters, so they sound unique from one another. The calluses I built up playing guitar translate to ear calluses for book reviews, if that makes any sense. I don't take criticism personally, do my best to shrug it off. And yes, I recognize that ear-calluses is a pretty shitty metaphor. But the most profound affect that music has had on me as an author is that I'm used to people being disinterested in my art--and continuing to do it anyway. I'm used to hocking demos to ambivalent bar patrons. I'm used to hustling to spread the word. Those "skills" have come in handy with publicizing books. You can't be afraid to be your own advocate, In fact, as the marketplace stands right now, this is the time to shake as many trees as possible on your own behalf. You're not only a drummer, but you're a literary agent--my literary agent. Do you see music informing your job?
Kirschen: For one thing, the balance between an essentially collective, loud art form and an essentially solitary, quiet one is something I've really come to value. At most hours of the day you can find me engaged in either high decibel activity or utter silence. There does seem to be overlap in the elements I appreciate most in writing and music, and I think the way I listen to music informs what kind of reader I am. Certainly I'm listening for rhythms in both a song and a sentence, but these are secondary to the lyrics themselves, what's actually being said, and whether words combine in interesting, memorable ways. That is, for a drummer, I listen to quite a bit of drumless music, or I'm not listening for the drums at all. I think that's the literary persona popping into the realm of the musical. But then of course there's Zeppelin, which, yeah, go ahead and throw all of the above theory out the window. Bonham rules!
Bob Coffen, the suburban hero of your new novel Fight Song, is a character I've gotten to know well over the last few years. What's on good old Bob's favorite playlist?
Mohr: I'll get to Bob's embarrassing playlist in a minute, but first, I LOVE what you're saying about lyrics. In a novel, the lyrics are not just the words themselves on the page, but the character's diction and syntax, their preoccupations and biases. It's what makes them them--just like we recognize Tom Waits singing, Ella Fitzgerald singing, Jack White singing. Every performer has her own personality in a song, much like each narrator or main character will have her own sovereign personality. I've never thought about it like that before, but I think the analogy works. In terms of what Bob Coffen might listen to, I bet he's the sort of guy who got stuck, fastened listening to what he liked in high school and stopped experiencing new music. He came of age in the early 90s, so he's a grunge boy. Nirvana, certainly, but maybe also things much less cooler than that. I'm thinking Spin Doctors. Yeah, I bet Bob has all their albums. In the book, he crosses paths with a Kiss cover band, so maybe they turned him on to some other things. Do you write lyrics, as well? Or are you focused mostly on the drums?
Kirschen: I'm strictly a drummer, though I suffer a bit from Dave Grohl Syndrome (i.e. the unrelenting desire to leap from behind the drum kit and become the lead singer). That's right: I've got a little front man envy, but who doesn't? I think more to the point is that I admire great, sing- or scream-a-long lyrics and I want to be the guy belting them. It's funny, I play in a band called The Henry Millers, and while I have nothing to do with writing the lyrics, it's what I like most about the band. There's a very nursery rhyme-like quality to the songs, an appeal to youth and innocence, something puddlewonderful.
I know you're a big Tom Waits fan, and more than a few people have noted how well you fit with the Beat generation. Which writers and musicians inspire your work? Are YOU stuck in your high school reading/music tastes? I know I am.
Mohr: I do love Tom Waits and the Flaming Lips. They usually dominate my iPod. But I try to keep on top of what the kids are listening to. I'm a professor and sometimes undergrads turn me on to some new group or singer I never would have heard of. One of my greatest fears of aging is that I'll stop learning, stop experiencing new things. That's one of the motifs in Fight Song: this idea that we have to keep struggling to evolve. I'm very conscious of that. Do I still pine for my high school music? Sure, I've been known to indulge in old East Bay punk rock: Op Ivy, Fang, Tilt, Mr. T Experience. Those bands remind me that I used to be pretty angry. I wonder if the Dave Grohl Syndrome happens in books, too. Sometimes I see secondary characters vying for more page time, more space in the limelight. Were there supporting characters in "Fight Song" that spoke to you?
Kirschen: That's an interesting question because the secondary characters in Fight Song tend to be of the larger-than-life variety. Tilda, the driver-thru attendant who moonlights as a phone sex call girl, naturally jumps off the page with her lascivious ways, as does Schumann, Bob's macho, ex-jock neighbor for whom life is but a football game in the 4th quarter, with time expiring. The character I really dig, though, is Ace: A pretty simple guy with a blue collar job, just trying to be a good dad and husband without sweating the small stuff. Plus he finds time to keep the rock alive, even in his dotage. Ace is a tamer character, but he speaks loudest, at least for me, and definitely for Bob—and for that reason, he's the real triumph of this supporting cast.
I don't mean to get too metaphysical on you here, but have you ever learned something from one of your characters? Can that happen?!
Mohr: I learn things from my characters all the time. In fact, I think that's the most profound element of literature: it can teach us empathy. It forces us to occupy a consciousness, a point of view that is not ours. Reading makes us peer through another person's eyeballs, peek inside their figurative heart. And maybe if we're forced inside someone with whom we don't agree--morally, ethically, whatever--then perhaps we learn a bit about that particular vantage point. Maybe our own worldview grows. Music can do that, too. I don't think it's ever too late to learn. So let's push ourselves to keep growing. Let's use the arts as a conduit for evolution.
Dan Kirschen and The Henry Millers links:
Joshua Mohr links:
Joshua Mohr's website
Joshua Mohr's Wikipedia entry
Largehearted Boy Book Notes piece by Joshua Mohr for Damascus
Largehearted Boy Book Notes piece by Joshua Mohr for Fight Song
Largehearted Boy Book Notes piece by Joshua Mohr for Some Things That Meant the Workd to Me
Largehearted Boy Book Notes piece by Joshua Mohr for Termite Parade
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)